Although hearing of Congo's forests may evoke images from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with adventurers facing the perils of the river and the forest and all that come with it, our trip to Congo's Virunga National Park was a far cry from roughing it.
Virunga offered us the very best in terms of comfort during our stay, giving us an incredible couple of days away from the demands of life. We were picked up in Goma when our conference ended and driven a couple of hours through Congo's lush, green, rolling fields and mountains. After a bumpy ride to seemingly the middle-of-nowhere, we stopped at the top of a mountain, just outside Virunga's forests - home of the mountain gorillas. Here, we found friendly staff and a warm meal waiting for us at the Bukima tented camp.
We were led to our personal tent, one complete with toilet, sink, hot shower, and queen-size bed, not to mention a stunning view of Mikeno Volcano in the distance.
Bukima tented camp opened only 2 months ago, after being closed for a while due to rebel activity in the area. They bought all new tents and supplies for the re-opening, anxiously awaiting to pour out their hospitality for visitors. However, we were Bukima's only residents and, we were told, its first since re-opening. We were treated with great attention and care by the staff, and served warm, delicious meals before waking up the next morning to trek the gorillas.
Although we were quite comfortable at Bukima, we wanted to try out Virunga's most lauded lodge, one we had heard rave reviews about, for our second night. After seeing the gorillas, we drove back down the mountain and eventually found Mikeno lodge.
The main lodge was intriguing upon arrival, with Congolese kuba cloths and masks adorning the walls as well as simple, but elegant wood furniture throughout the lounge and dining area. It wasn't long before we were escorted to our personal bungalow, built from lava rocks and a thatched roof, a bit reminiscent of an English cob house. The interior was a spacious and cozy room inviting us to shut ourselves in. With a fireplace all to ourselves and even a bath tub to enjoy, I worried I wouldn't have enough time to enjoy all my options for relaxation!
The view from our porch, overlooking the forests of Virunga, inspired such a sense of adventure and wonder; I just wish I had the time to truly explore those forests! But I had plenty to explore just around our bungalow - there were plenty of colobus monkeys and blue monkeys in the trees surrounding us, along with lots of birds and insects to marvel at.
The next morning, we had more time and energy to explore our surroundings. After breakfast, we promptly made our way to Mikeno's most exciting feature - the home for orphaned mountain gorillas, the only one in the world.
We watched from above as Patrick, one of the staff members, played and interacted with the 4 gorillas. They cuddled with him and they laughed as he tickled them and all the while, I was jealous that I could not be besties with a gorilla! They assured me that it's best I don't play with them, as the gorillas are often unaware of their own strength. Indeed, sometimes it took Patrick all he had to stand upright while one of the gorillas climbed on his back!
It was so clear how much the staff at Mikeno and Virunga care for the mountain gorillas, as well as all the animals and other forms of life in the park. Virunga truly is their pride and many of them have sacrificed much to see the park live on. I felt honored to support their work, even in such a small way.
Please learn more about Virunga's great work in Eastern Congo and consider staying at either Bukima or Mikeno to support all they're doing. You'll be getting the better end of the deal!
Here's a great video from Virunga's website showcasing the highlights of the park, the work it takes to keep it alive and how you can help!
Virunga's official site: http://virunga.org/
Virunga movie trailer: http://virungamovie.com/
Visit Virunga: http://visitvirunga.org/