We have found paradise! Welcome to Virunga National Park, widely known as one of the last undiscovered by tourists national parks in the world.
There is a beautiful lodge called Mikeno Lodge that we are staying at named after one of the nearby volcanos. I can hardly believe a place like this exists here. It’s stunning! Vijaya had come only once before last year and surprised me with a stopover here for the weekend after doing the assessments for Resolve Network in Rutshuru and before heading back to Goma. She barely ever takes the weekend off, such is NGO and startup life, so I’m happy that my visit can be a mix of work and also downtime for her.
What is so amazing about this place is that for this weekend we’re the only guests. It’s a paradise that is just not that easy to get to. First, because in order to come to the Congo you need a visa. And in order to receive a visa you need an invitation letter from an NGO or MONUSCO. It’s not easy to just roll into the country. Second, you would have to fly into Kigali which means staying overnight in Kigali and then traveling here the next day or traveling to Goma and then coming here. It could be done in one day but probably not because you can’t travel after 6pm because of a curfew in the region since there is still rebel activity in the mountains.
There are nice places to stay in Goma (if I put my travelers hat on) where a lot of the expats or visitors stay. Two right on Lake Kivu are Chalet and Kivu Lodge. Both are right on the lake so there might be lake activities. But if the goal is to stay at Virunga National Park, this might be just a stopover, a chance to get a good night’s sleep and then arrange for a driver to come the rest of the way to Mikeno Lodge the next morning. The drive is about 2 hours from Goma.
The roads are in heavy disrepair, and I do believe that would really throw a lot of people off. Not everyone and not adventure travelers but it’s very real that the roads are horrible. On the way you will be driving past MONUSCO camps for IDPs (Internally Displaced People) and driving through extremely impoverished villages. This is the reality of the Congo.
The lodge has 24-hour electricity and running water and real showers with hot water. This is a big deal! There are high ceiling and tons of natural light from the big windows plus a fireplace in my bungalow to help warm up the place at night. The bungalows are spread throughout the property so there is no noise from neighbors, all I hear are nature sounds and all I can see is green and lush landscape for as far as they eye can see.
Wildlife abounds! There are 3 kinds of monkeys flying around the trees acting like, well, monkeys. There are baboons too, less active than monkeys but sitting in the trees and in the open spaces meandering around looking for food. We took a trek to visit the world’s only baby gorilla orphanage. Yes really! I nearly died from the cuteness. There are four gorillas there that have been saved from poachers and have a huge open space to be in and you can climb to a small tower to look in and see them.
Millipedes and other little creatures are around. Depending on the time of day, the sky might have a heavy romantic mist or it might be clear for hundreds of miles.
The Virunga National Park ranger staff are well trained. So in fact are their bloodhounds that we met. The bloodhounds are trained for two things - to find people and to find weapons. This is one of the best ways the rangers fight against poachers. Poachers are a really big problem in this area and there is actually a memorial to honor park rangers that have died while on duty protecting the park and the animals.
Visitors can take a number of hikes - like to see gorillas or chimpanzees in the wild. You can also trek to a few of the nearby active volcanos. Or you can sit on the patio of your bungalow and watch the afternoon go by with a nice cup of tea and a book. That was what I did Saturday afternoon and it was so lovely.
Back back to Mikeno Lodge. It’s a really interesting sustainable model they are building. At least 30% of profits go back into the surrounding villages and to help local people and also support the park land and the native animals and species. There is an entire social impact assessment plan I read through with three phases spread over 7 years which that was very thorough and impressive.
I went on a short hike with a guide, Patience, yesterday and we talked for a long time about how Congo would like to grow their tourism like in neighboring countries like Uganda and Rwanda. Given the current visa restrictions and the fact that this is still considered an unsafe state with rebel activity not that far away, I talked with him about how it is certainly possible to grow tourism, but it will take some time.
If you ever find yourself in the Congo, I highly recommend making it a priority to come and stay at Mikeno Lodge. And for those adventure travelers out there looking for something to make all of your other adventure traveler friends jealous, this is just the spot.
Please see my disclosure for all Congo-related posts.