Travel Expert Jessica Pociask Observes Current Conditions and Levels of Safety in Africa’s Oldest National Park
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.— In November, 2014, travel expert Jessica Pociask, owner of WANT Expeditions – the world leader in highly personalized, conservation-oriented small group travel – visited Virunga National Park to observe the current conditions and levels of safety in the Democratic Republic of Congo for tourism purposes. Here, Pociask breaks down her firsthand knowledge to deliver prospective travelers detailed information regarding all things Congo-related.
Why visit Virunga now?
- No Competition from Other Tourists: Whether you’re a country collector, nature photographer or intrepid traveler, Virunga remains a frontier destination with very little infrastructure and access. This, combined with safety concerns, continues to keep the general tourist population low, for now. However, with the notoriety of the recent Netflix release of the film Virunga, along with peace holding in the region, the influx of tourism is likely, as is the possibility of the uniquely rough character that contributes to this special place eventually becoming altered.
- Unique Natural Features:
- Mountain Gorillas: Virunga has three main draws for the visitor. First, there are only three places in the world where you can see endangered Mountain Gorillas: Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. The population of Gorillas in Congo is not only the least visited, but also the least expensive. Permits for a one-hour visit in Uganda and Rwanda run $750, whereas Congo permits are only $400.
- Mount Nyiragongo: There are only five active lava lakes in the world: Erta Ale in Ethiopia, Mount Erebus in Antarctica, Kilauea in Hawaii, Ambrym in Vanuatu and Nyiragongo in Congo – the world’s largest lava lake. Nyiragongo is a beautiful site from afar, as its lava lake emits a pink hue against the night sky. It’s roughly a six to seven hour steep climb up to the rim of the volcano, but once night settles and the gases that normally obstruct the lake are blown to one side, you can observe its bubbling lava lake and the mesmerizing effect it has on everyone, including park rangers who observe it night after night.
- Chimpanzee Population: Chimpanzees are extremely difficult to observe in the wild. They move quickly, travel silently and blend perfectly into their surrounding environment. Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda are considered to have the most accessible group of chimpanzees, but the staff at Virunga is working hard to habituate the resident chimpanzees that often times come within viewing distance of Mikeno Lodge. On the morning of Pociask’s chimpanzee trek in Virunga, her group spotted over nine individuals, two of which were young chimps, eager to play and observe in relatively unobstructed conditions.
- Excellent Photographic Opportunity: Photography and travel are intrinsically linked, and for those trying to get work published, win a photo contest or increase their number of social media followers, Virunga is the place to be. Simply search ‘Virunga images’ and it’s clear the majority of photos published from this area are from journalists with little competition and documentation, though they currently have much publicity. In large part due to the movie Virunga, the spoils are there for the taking.
- Accommodation: One of the challenges of traveling through undeveloped countries is that decent accommodations with internet, hot water and 24/7 electricity can be tough to find. Lack of these amenities is often associated with the romance and experience of visiting such locations. It gives one the distinction of being a traveler, rather than a tourist. After all, if it were easy, everyone would do it, right? However, once you climb seven hours to the rim of Nyiragongo and camp overnight on the freezing summit, the following day, both your body and companions will thank you after you soak your knotted muscles and salt your encrusted body in a hot shower, then relax in front of a roaring fire with a cold beer at the beautiful and well equipped Mikeno Lodge. Pociask is confident visitors will rejoice in Tweeting about their experiences…that is as long as the generator stays running!
What are some of the challenges associated with visiting Congo and Virunga National Park?
- Costs: In a country where the GDP is $694/person, it’s easy to assume that costs for traveling here would be low. However, it is the exact opposite. There are basically two places to stay in Virunga, and both are expensive. Bukima Lodge – a tented camp where the Gorilla trekking starts – and Mikeno Lodge. Visitors can also stay in Goma, but accommodations remain expensive and lackluster. Most importantly, precious time will be lost traveling down bumpy roads into the park to the starting point for several activities. Once a visitor gets to Virunga, a single person can expect to pay a minimum of $3000 for a four day/three night visit to Virunga. This includes three nights’ accommodation and transportation within the park, all meals and drinking water, a permit for gorillas, chimpanzees and Nyiragongo, Congo Visa and tips. This does not include international or domestic flights, bar tab, etc.
- Infrastructure and Amenities: Paved roads are few and far between, so driving even short distances is extremely challenging and time consuming. 4x4 vehicles are critically essential while exploring Congo. The power supply for the town of Goma breaks constantly; it is non-existent at Bukima in Virunga, and is supplied by a generator, and therefore intermittent, at Mikeno Lodge. Furthermore, water is not safe to drink and must be purchased. Because the main water supply comes and goes in Goma, hot showers are not guaranteed (one must wait for water to be boiled then transferred into a tank at Bukima, for a somewhat luxurious version of a bucket shower), as Mikeno seems to have the only constant and wonderful supply of HOT water. Unless travelers bring their own food, equipment and chefs along with them, despite the high price tag, meals remain basic (spaghetti, rice and chicken, etc.) regardless of where they stay.
- Safety and Corruption: Time for the cold hard facts. The region in and around Virunga might currently be at peace, but it doesn’t mean it is safe. Human trafficking, theft, corruption, rape and the constant threat of war breaking out at any time remain an everyday concern. Although there is no strict curfew in Goma and VNP, one should only travel by day, and if a foreigner finds himself on the roads at night, it is not safe to stop, even outside a UN compound. Border crossings and mandatory check points always lead to negotiations (request for bribes) over documentation, or lack thereof, and no amount of literature from guidebooks or the internet is a substitute for these very real challenges of visiting Congo. Virunga National Park allows individuals to book their visas, permits and transportation through the website, but the system is still in the stages of infancy. Any visitor needs a solid escort, like WANT Expeditions, with experienced guides and drivers in the region, as well as an intrepid spirit, and not minding the fact that almost everyone has a gun – rangers, rebels and workers alike. For the curious traveler, a trip to Virunga is like an adventure story coming straight from the hand of David Livingston.
What additional information should prospective travelers be aware of before travelling to Congo?
- Language: French, Lingala and Swahili are the three main languages spoken in and around Goma, which is just one more critical reason to ensure you have an experienced guide, such as WANT Expeditions, especially if you are a native English speaker.
- Best Time to Visit: August-February is the height of the rainy season, and while this means cooler temperatures and soggy hiking conditions, it doesn’t tend to rain at night, which seems to have a drastic impact on clearing the smoke and vapors from the rim of Nyiragongo Volcano for excellent photographic conditions.
- Documents, Visas and Medications: All visitors need a visa to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo, and regardless of who, when, where it is issued, you must be prepared to have your passport and visa inspected frequently. Additionally, all visitors need a valid Yellow Fever certificate. Malaria is also present in the region. In the case of an emergency, proper medical treatment or prescriptions are difficult, if not impossible, to come by. Medical insurance with evacuation is necessary, but still will not guarantee air transport.
***Current Ebola Status: The first documented case of Ebola occurred in 1976 in South Sudan, and was soon after documented and named in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2014, the world responded to an Ebola outbreak that put travelers on high alert. While Ebola was again present in the Northwestern portion of Congo, only 69 cases were confirmed and, more recently, the last Ebola case tested negative twice, declaring Congo officially Ebola-free by the World Health Organization. Congo authorities continue to keep strict tabs on Ebola, Yellow Fever and other infectious diseases by inspecting Yellow Fever certificates, conducting mandatory temperature readings and requiring the registration of all people entering and exiting Congo’s borders.
To book a trip with expert tour operator WANT Expeditions, visit www.wantexpeditions.com. For further detailed information on the Democratic Republic of Congo or to get all your travel questions answered, contact Julie Peirano at email@example.com so she may put you in touch directly with expert Jessica Pociask.
About WANT Expeditions
WANT Expeditions is the world leader in highly personalized, conservation-oriented small group travel, connecting travelers, adventurers, photographers and conservationists from all over the world through expeditions to see the most amazing natural phenomena that exist on our planet. The company only uses local (and often family owned) business partners, practices strong conservation measures, supports protection of cultures and traditions, discourages hand-outs and encourages letting go of western ideals to experience true cultural immersion.