How to visit DR Congo
In planning my visit to Rwanda, I at one point started wondering how difficult it would be to visit Goma and the DR Congo (DRC). And would it be dangerous? There were tour agencies, and some of them, when asked, would laugh when I told them my budget. So I started doing the planning myself, and had many questions, of which several were not answered until I was there. My visit was in December 2014.
Is always my first questions when researching Africa travel – will I have to travel to European embassies many weeks before my travel, and what to do? Well, lucky for us, the Virunga National Park does all this for you:
1. You need to book either a Gorilla visit or a stay at the Mikeno lodge – and after I wrote them – it is also possible to qualify for a visa, when booking a Nyiragongo trip. You do this on visitvirunga.org webpage. On the visitvirunga.org webpage, you then buy the visa – which is a 14 days single entry visa. You need a booking number to apply for this. The cost is $105.
2. It takes about 7 working days – after which you receive a scanned file of a fax copy from Kinshasa. Really. No kidding. Print this, and bring it to the Grand Barriere border post (near the lake) in Gisenyi/Rubavu. If you don't get the visa in time - do keep in contact with the Virunga people - and they will meet you at the border and help with the formalities.
A nice Congo-visa – after receiving an even nicer scanned copy of a fax.
Getting from Kigali to Goma
It is straight forward to take the bus to Gisenyi/Rubavu from Kigali and will not take you more time than with a driver - several bus companies leave every half hour from the bus station in Kigali. Busses are orderly, and only sell tickets for available seats. If you arrive in the airport, take a taxi to the bus station in Kigali ('Nyabugogo') (15$/1000RWF as I recall), say where you want to go, and you are on your way within minute.
In Gisenyi, it is a short taxi ride to the Grand Barriere border post.
Otherwise, you will have no trouble having a taxi directly from the airport. They will go down to 100US$ if you ask - but compare this to 25$ for the bus tickets and taxis between the stations.
Border crossing (Goma DRC <-> Gisenyi/Rubavu Rwanda)
1. Change a little money before crossing the border – otherwise there is a man under an umbrella changing money on the DRC side. There is a bureau de change just north of the immigration post on the Rwanda side. Dollars are used also, so change just a little.
2. Clear Rwanda immigration; get your ebola-fever scan (both directions) and at the DRC office, hand over your visa-print out and passport. 15 minutes after, you have your visa in your passport, and you only need to have your yellow fever papers checked and registered at the window on the right hand side. Everything takes about 30 minutes. The border is quiet and not much fuss.
3. Returning to Rwanda: Nothing special to note, other than you would need to apply for a visa before (online) – and that all your plastic bags will be confiscated. But this you already know. Note that you can make two applications even before you travel to Rwanda – one for the initial entry and one for the re-entry after visiting DRC. The single entry visa is 30US$. https://www.migration.gov.rw/index.php?id=28 You select ‘La Corniche’, which corresponds to Grand Barriere in DRC. I thought it would be one of the other options you could select (Poids Lourds), but they did not questions that. You go to the immigration, hand over your password. Get some papers, go to the building to the east, pay your visa, return and get your passport.
Places to stay
There are a couple of hotels just across the border, which I’ve heard are fine. We stayed at Lac Kivu Lodge, also along the lake, but further out, and we have just good things to say about this place. Secure with good food and good lake views. We arranged pick-up at the border with them. You can book online, prices from around 70US$. Females walking around alone will be harassed, even on short distances and I would not recommend solo female travel here.
Security situation (December 2014)
We spoke with UN personnel with the latest information, and we could also read about this in the papers afterwards. The rebels, M24, or what remains of them (about 200 from what I’ve heard) are near the town of Beni, about 400 KM to the north of Goma. There are 12.000 soldiers from DRC and UN (not officially) there, but the M24 do hit-and-run terror there. The LRA (Lord’s resistance Army) are also out in the jungle, further north in DRC, and have now been avoiding the final battle for a long time. They also have very few soldiers left – but the jungle of DRC is big… We talked to American soldiers (‘advisors’) who are also only un-officially there, searching for Kony – denying it of course. In Goma, there are so many NGO’s and UN vehicles and personnel, that it seems like daily life for them. Children shout Mzungi and Morning! (All day – well, sadly, they say ‘money, money’ – who on earth started that?)
Things to do
Well, you might find a couple of things in your guide book, but enjoy the daily life of the Goma people and the lava that are everywhere in the streets and around the houses. You will see colorful painted beauty shops and sun flowers in the lava around some of the houses.
This was what I came for. There are 4 permanent lava lakes in the world, one on Antarctica, Erta Ale in Etiopia’s Danakil depression (which I visited a couple of years ago – I was ready for more!) and the one on Hawaii. But Nyiragongo is the largest. I will not go into details about our experience, other than it was the highlight of all my travels in 2014. You book on the visitvirunga.org webpage, and you can choose if you want transport included (from Goma or Mikeno lodge) – or as some others had suggested, you can take a motor bike from Goma – it is not far. Just some tips:
· Remember to bring: Rain gear (trousers, rain jacket), head lamp, sleeping bag and plenty of warm clothes.
· A porter costs 24US$ and can carry 15 Kg. You probably want to buy a bag of coal at the station (5$, 5 kg) which the guide and porters will light for you at the rim huts, and you can cook whatever food you brought. I brought a can of tomato soup and some coffee, which was easy to warm up that way.
· Bring walking poles. You can buy a Nyiragongo stick, but I would prefer my own poles.
· You need to bring all your food and water. 5 litres.
· You leave Goma around 8:30 am. The transport is ‘door-to-door’ and you are picked up at your hotel.
· Tips? Always difficult. We gave each guide (2 guides for 2 people) each 10$, and the porters 5$ (though the Virunga people said that it was not necessary to tip porters).
· The rangers speak very little English – just so you know.
· Go on weekdays – Monday to Thursday. We were only two people going (with two rangers and two porters). On weekends, NGO’s from Goma and Kigali have time to do volcano climbing, and all 14 spaces are booked.
Gorillas in the mist...
Why visit the gorillas here in DRC when you can also do it in Uganda and Rwanda? Because you will be almost alone with the gorillas. At least for the moment. Don’t do it because of the price – it is a little bit cheaper than the other countries, but with transport and visa, it will be the same. But the experience is great, and worth the money. Do see the Virunga movie from 2014 about the park rangers and the gorillas during the M24 period – available on Netflix.
· You need to bring a lunch bag – a little bit strange when you take into account the price you are paying for the tour. Your hotel can help you.
· You leave Goma around 6:30 am. The transport is ‘door-to-door’ and you are picked up at your hotel.
· You need rain gear. The underground is very wet, so rain trousers and rain jacket is a must. Also because of the many thistles.
· Bring walking poles. You are jungle trekking, up and down, mud, vegetation.
· Tips? Difficult. There are many people involved – the trackers, rangers and helpers. We were 3 people going, and we paid 20$ each in tip, and asked the main ranger to split it out. They seemed ok with this. A tip is expected, the driver did not want to take us back, until we had paid tips.
Goma to Bukavu on the lake
You can take motor boats travelling from Goma to Bukavu on the lake and crossing back into Rwanda from here.
This is explained very nicely ‘how-to’ in this Lonely Planet Thorntree post
Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Here you can see eastern lowland gorillas. I did not visit this park, but it seems like a good alternative to the mountain gorillas.
Last, enjoy my video – time lapsed from Goma, Nyiragongo and Virunga: