With Encompass Africa offering its first Signature Safari to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kilimanjaro later this year, we asked Encompass Africa founder Jonathon Wilson to tell us a little bit about this truly epic adventure.
First things first – Jono, what’s on the itinerary?
“This is an intense 13-night adventure during which a small group of hardcore travellers will trek to see the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, sleep on the rim of one of the world’s most active and dangerous volcanoes, and finally summit Kilimanjaro.”
Why is this trip for hardcore travellers only?
“This is not your usual safari-and-sundowners African holiday! Some of the things we’ll be doing are seriously tough and require a really good level of fitness – not to mention a good sense of humour. Plus, two of the three things we’ll be doing take place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has a reputation as one of the most supposedly hostile ‘no-go’ places on earth. This is the place Joseph Conrad was talking about when he wrote Heart of Darkness. Make no bones about it, this is a real expedition – a ‘sign-your-life-away’ type of trip. But for me, the Congo is one of the most incredible and inspirational places in all of Africa.”
What can people expect when they get to the DRC?
“On this trip, we fly into Kigali in English-speaking Rwanda, and then go by road across the border into French-speaking Congo. And that’s where the adventure really starts. To give you an idea, the last time I went, there was a woman at security checking everyone’s yellow fever documents, and if your doctor’s signature happened to go even a millimetre outside the box, she’d hit you up for a $70 ‘fee’! This is old-school travel in Africa – it’s a lot of fun if you know what to expect and how to handle things, but if not you really need a ‘fixer’ to help you navigate all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Which is exactly the role that we’ll be playing on this trip.”
What’s so special about Virunga National Park?
“Anyone who’s seen the documentary Virunga, which was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and has won more than 50 international film awards, will already know the answer to this question! It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Africa’s oldest and most biologically diverse protected area. It’s just mind-blowing. The whole reason for this Signature Safari trip is because I believe so completely in the Virunga National Park. It represents everything that Africa is about: the conflict between wildlife and man; the conservation of endangered species; the fight over resources; the poverty; the wars. And, above all else, it’s just sensationally beautiful. (By the way, if you haven’t see the film Virunga, it’s on Netflix and I recommend you watch it now!)”
Is it dangerous?
“For tourists, the southern part of this enormous park – where the gorillas are – has always been relatively stable. But if you’re a park ranger, it’s a different story. This is a place where, in the past decade, more than 175 rangers have been killed in the line of duty. These men and women are quite literally risking their lives to safeguard the Park so that future generations can enjoy its incredible wildlife – they’re the bravest people in Africa right now. Virunga boasts one of the most positive and innovative conservation programmes in the world, and that’s where we come in – tourism can contribute so much to helping fulfil the goals of this programme. It’s such an incredible, important project and we want to support it in any way we can.”
What’s the gorilla trekking like here?
“There are three countries where you can see the last of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas: Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. The Congo, for me, is the greatest of them all. Firstly, you’re only assigned four people per group (in other places it’s up to eight). It’s not a strenuous trek, and the vegetation isn’t thick and dark, which means you can get really good photos of these majestic primates. We spent time with a family with four silverbacks, which is something you don’t get to see very often – it’s usually one silverback per gorilla family, so to see four was amazing. And the trekking is not only great, it’s also affordable – the permits here are around USD 400, whereas across the border it’s more like USD 600 Uganda, and USD 1,500 in Rwanda. The money you save here you can spend on trekking gear – it’s hilarious, we Western tourists deck ourselves out in all the special gear, whereas the porters who travel with us and carry everything just wear t-shirts and shorts, crocs on their feet, and carry their stuff in a plastic bag! It’s so great to share the experience with them, and to know that we’re helping by providing employment for all these guys.”
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And after you see the gorillas, you climb a volcano?
“Correct. Spending a night on an active volcano is the standout feature that really sets this trip apart. Read just about anyone’s account of this trek and they’ll tell you how hard it is – but also how it’s the most amazing thing they’ve ever done. It’s one of Africa’s most exciting and rewarding hiking experiences, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it: climbing Mount Nyiragongo is tough. It’s hard work, it’s exhausting – but the scenery is unsurpassed. Where else can you look out across high mountains, valleys and a number of volcanoes, all in one view? And when you get to the top and see the world’s largest lava lake, it’s truly incredible. It’s like you’re staring into the soul of the earth – there’s nothing on this planet that can compare to it.”
How long does it take to climb the volcano?
“The trek takes around five hours – and then once you reach the top you’ll enjoy dinner and then spend the entire night on the volcano. You will literally sleep on the side of one of the most active volcanoes in the world – assuming, of course, you actually sleep! I think I stayed up for the entire night. I was totally shattered, but when you’re at the top, peering out over the rim of the volcano, only about 500 metres from a fiery lake of lava, it’s totally hypnotic. I just sat there all night, just listening to it bubbling away, smelling the sulphur, feeling the heat and enjoying that extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime view. At 3,500 metres it was freezing, and I’m sure I regretted the no-sleep thing the next day, but it was totally worth it. Magic.”
Why is the volcano so dangerous?
“Mount Nyiragongo is one of the most dangerous and active volcanoes in the world. It’s erupted about 34 times since 1882, the last time in 2002. Its lava lake also contains the fastest-flowing lava on Earth. While lava flow generally travels at around 1-10 kilometres/hour, here it’s super-fluid and able to move at speeds of up to 97 km/hr. So if it erupts, you’re done. You’re spending the night at the edge of a crater where there’s no health and safety – no barriers or signs or anything. If you slip, you’re gone – and there’s no ambulance coming to fetch you! But it’s still the greatest thing you’ll probably ever experience.”
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So after trekking to see gorillas and risking life and limb on a volcano, then you climb Kilimanjaro?
“Exactly. The final challenge is a seven-day summit of the continent’s highest mountain. After an extraordinary night on the volcano we’ll descend, cross the border from the DRC to Rwanda, spend a brilliant, well-deserved night on the town in Kigali and then head to Tanzania the next day. The good thing is, because we will have already climbed the 3,500m-high volcano, we’ll already be acclimatised. We’ll be on Kilimanjaro for six nights – five nights to get to the top, and then one night to get back down again. The memory of summiting at Uhuru Peak as dawn breaks and looking out across the most spectacular vista, is one you’ll cherish forever.”
What will living conditions be like on Kilimanjaro?
“We’ll be sleeping in tents with 7.5cm-thick foam mattresses; there are no showers; and you’ll have to get used to using a toilet tent – but you will get three hot meals a day! We’ll have a team of around 20 porters who will look after everything – the tents, the water, the food, the backpacks – so all you’ll have to carry is your daypack. The porters not only carry everything, they also prepare the meals, so you can just sit down at a lovely table in the mess tent and enjoy a lovely cooked meal after a hard day’s climbing. You won’t even have to do the dishes afterwards!”
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What are the main things people need to know if they’re considering this trip?
“That this is a really active trip – it’s an expedition rather than a ‘holiday’ – so a decent level of fitness is required. For people who love this sort of travel, this trip is destined to be the greatest adventure they’ll ever have. But it’s definitely not for anyone who’s afraid of getting dirty or tired! The fact that you need to go to the Congo might put people off travelling on their own, but on this trip you’ll be with me and my fellow Encompass Africa comrade, Aymar Heyns, 3-7 other travellers, a team of porters and a security detail. We’ve got all the connections and we know what to expect, so you can just get on with enjoying the adventure! Another great factor is that we’ve been able to do this at a really affordable price. It covers absolutely everything, including all of the tips that need to be paid to porters etc (which total almost $3,000 per person). You’ll just never get this type of value doing this trip on your own. In a nutshell, this will be a real ‘go hard and go fast’ experience that will be intense, challenging and a total rush. The exhilaration and camaraderie that you’ll experience on this journey will be like nothing else. It’s just the most rewarding trip you’ll ever take. But do be aware: if you want to do this trip, you’ll need to sign an indemnity form that you’re aware of the security situation in the Congo.”
Why is this little-known country so compelling?
“The Democratic Republic of Congo is a mystery to most people – literally all they’ve ever heard about it is that they shouldn’t go there! We’re just going to a tiny corner of the Congo, but the country is actually enormous – around two-thirds the size of Western Europe. The part we’re going to is home to the Congo Basin, which is the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world, after the Amazon. You might never have heard of it, but it’s vitally important to everyone on the planet. The Albertine Rift is also in this part of the Congo. It’s one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and hugely rich in things like cobalt, gold, diamonds and oil… that’s why there’s so much conflict here; everyone wants a piece of the action, so every couple of years another war breaks out. But things are slowly changing: we’ve had new elections; there hasn’t been a war for three years; and people like Warren Buffett and the Virunga Alliance are helping to bring jobs and stability by bankrolling huge projects, such as a hydro-electric plant. Their thinking is that improving the livelihoods of the Congo’s people by creating an alternative economy, is the best way to protect Africa’s wildlife. And it is so worth protecting – it’s utterly magnificent. Visiting the Congo is one of the most life-fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had – if I could go back here every year, I would.”Click here to talk about this trip of a lifetime