This was not only on my Congo Bucket List, but my Life Bucket List as well. Visiting eastern lowland gorillas, the most endangered of the gorilla family, in their natural habitat? Yes please! So while going to Bukavu on a mission, my colleague and I realized we’ll be there over the weekend and immediately started planning a visit. We went to Coco Lodge, a boutique hotel near MONUSCO headquarters where a Swiss man who’s been in the Congo some 20-odd years tells you if there is space to go (there is around a 12-person limit per day to visit the gorillas), helps you schedule and organize, and off you go!
We got to the base station of the Kahuzi Biega National Park, where I was told I was too fat to comfortably hike (ummm…), but was given rain boots all the same and headed up the mountain. We were exceptionally lucky because after 15 minutes of the guides hacking at the dense plants to create a path on top of meters of jungle growth, we bumped into Chimanuka’s family. A large silverback with an even larger family, we got to hang out with him and his family. It was amazing.
What really impressed me about the whole experience was how well-informed the guides were (I threw every single question imaginable at them and all were answered!) and how much they cared about the gorillas. We had to wear masks the entire time, but we were able to get really close to the gorillas who just ignored us and went about their days, which from what we could tell consisted of sleeping, eating, and for the little ones, playing (preferably on their napping mothers).
We stayed for about three hours, waiting for the silverback to wake up so we could see him (he was fast asleep on top of a tree for most of the time), but in the meantime his family kept crossing right in front of us, and we took about a gazillion pictures.
I was on a gorilla high for about 17 days longer. And got to cross off a bucket item off of TWO lists. Happy.
What to Bring: Long sleeved shirts and pants, and good hiking boots. You’ll be trekking through very dense forest, so there will be bugs and high grass to watch out for. If you don’t have appropriate shoes, however, they rent out wellingtons/gumbos.
When to Go: The gorillas have three seasons. During the dry season around June to September, they forage for fruits so the trek is a bit long. During April and May, they don’t have to travel far to get their leaves, and during October and November, they eat bamboo shoots. Both of these locations are quite close to the Visitor Center of the park, so the treks are usually about an hour, though can go up to two or more.
How to Get There: the Kahuzi Biega National Park is about 30 km west of Bukavu. While driving from Bukavu to the airport, take a left at Miti, where there is a big fork in the road. Keep going straight until you get to the visitor center. Permits cost between $200-$400, depending on whether you are a resident (working for an international organization/embassy or business where you have a resident visa) or just visiting as a tourist. For Congolese nationals, it’s around $20.
Risk Assessment: These are gorillas. A silverback is around 250kg and not shy to show his power. So, be responsible and respectful of the gorilla families, and there will be no risk.
Contact Information: Most hotels in Bukavu have someone specializing in visiting the gorillas. I did mine at the Coco Lodge near the MONUSCO headquarters. We just showed up and asked about seeing the gorillas, and they pointed us to the guy who arranges the visits.