Some people call me a daredevil. Others just think I'm crazy.
But I'm no thrill seeker. Far from it.
I don't even dare to do bungee jumping; or skydiving for that matter. (The Girl did it though).
Why then, am I vacationing in The Democratic Republic of Congo? Supposedly one of the most "troubled" countries in Africa, if not the world?
"Congo is sliding back to bloodshed"
- The Economist, Febuary 15th 2018 (3 weeks before my trip)
"Gorilla sanctuary workers in eastern DRC kidnapped by militia"
- The Guardian, 7th March 2018 (just two days before, in the exact part I was going to be visiting)
My mum sent me the above articles just before my trip to the DR Congo. "Change your destination", she said. "Better to lose a little money re-booking than lose your life".
I'll admit it was pretty unnerving news to read, just two days before I was due to fly.
I closed my eyes, and gave it some thought.
Then I smiled.
I was going for sure. The wanderlust bug had just bitten me, again.
Mozambique, South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Morocco, Tanzania, Malawi, Swaziland, and Lesotho.
Vacationing in Africa wasn't new to me. The DR Congo I suppose was kind of different from anywhere else I'd been previously; a new ball game all together, but I think I was ready. And this time, I had persuaded 3 other friends to be my travel buddies.
Finally, I would be visiting the DRC.
Why should you visit the DRC?
Image Credit: Official Site of Virunga National Park, https://virunga.org
The Democratic Republic of Congo has three major attractions/experiences.
1. To sail along the Congo river (the 2nd largest river in the world after the Amazon),
2. It's the cheapest of only 3 places in the world to see gorillas up close (the other 2 are Rwanda and Uganda, way more expensive),
3. To hike the Nyiragongo Volcano (picture below), home the the worlds largest lava lake (more details on the actual hike and information about the volcano in a separate post)
6:55pm at the crater rim of the Nyiragongo Volcano
Additionally, we wanted to talk to the locals, walk around the villages, and have an experience (even if only a little) of what life was like in a country plagued by natural disasters (the volcano is active and has erupted at least 34 times in the past century, the largest one was back in 2002)and constant conflict; basically a war-zone for most of the past couple of decades.
It would be a very different kind of vacation, the sort only a handful of Singaporeans would ever get to experience (not that most of them would want to).
The best way to enter the DRC is overland from Rwanda (and you get to spend time in another amazing country).
From Singapore, you have 2 options.
Both cost around $1.3-1.5k depending on when you book your tickets.
1. Ethiopian Airlines
The Pros. Timing is great. Ethiopian leaves Singapore at 02:15, and arrives the same day in the afternoon around lunch; no wastage of days. If you're on a tight schedule, Ethiopian's timings are really good for us Singaporeans with our limited leave.
The Cons? Expect delays, and well, lets just say the airport at Addis Ababa (transit at Ethiopia) is probably one of the worst airports I've ever been to; absolute chaos.
2. Singapore Airlines or Emirates + Rwandair
The Pros. You don't have to transit in Addis Ababa.
The Cons? Flight timings are horrendous and conflict with Rwandair's timings. You'll most likely end up wasting an unnecessary day in Dubai. If you haven't already been to the U.A.E, I guess that's not much a con, Dubai is worth a couple of days. However, if your main objective is Rwanda and the DRC and you want to make the most of every day of leave you have, I'd still suggest tolerating Ethiopian.
Visa & Insurance
Our Singapore passport might be powerful, but you'll still need a visa for the DRC. Just drop any tour operator in the DRC an email and send them your particulars, they'll arrange it. The cheapest way to get it done is to apply via the official Virunga National Park website itself.
Many insurance companies exclude the DRC; so if you've bought an annual travel insurance, you might want to double check with your insurer on this.
It's a beautiful country, but most will never enjoy it
1/3 of the way up the Mount Nyiragongo, i'm drenched in perspiration
Very few tourists bother visiting the DRC. Ask Singaporeans what their impression of the DR Congo is and most will probably reply; Tarzan? Or isn't that a war-zone? (well, it sort of still is, at times)
While traveling isn't a competition on "who's been where first", the more untouched a destination is, the better the "value" that could be had, and the more rewarding the "experience" there is to be gotten out of it.
Do you think a vacation in say Iceland costs more at present than it did say 10 years ago? (now that it's been tainted by hordes of tourists?) Now that Iran and Morocco have already gained traction among tourists, surely the experience & expenditure today would be different from that of a traveler who visited these countries 10 years back?
Our lakeside hotel in the DRC, individual rooms from USD $40
The view of Lake Kivu from our hotel balcony
Vacationing in the DRC now is still a pretty "raw experience" (for lack of a better word), and if you choose to keep it as "free and easy" as we did, things can be really affordable.
Our trip lasted around 10 days and was in no way a "budget trip".
We stayed in hotels, ate the best food for every meal, had as many beers as we wanted, whenever we wanted; and everything in (yes, even air tickets) I spent around $2,800 SGD!
The locals could really use the "tourist dollar"
Our porters and rangers at one of the rest stops at Mount Nyiragongo
Everyday, locals gather by the ranger station at the base of Mount Nyiragongo hoping to be selected as the "porter" for that day. It's really tough work. Carrying up to 15kg of weight, two days of trekking, and with nothing but a loaf of bread for lunch and dinner.
For their effort? USD 24.
Don't get selected as for that hike? Well, that's zero USD, better luck next time.
Local children at one of the villages in Goma, the largest city in the Eastern DRC
Life in the DRC is in sharp contrast with life in neighboring Rwanda. There, locals actually can sit down an enjoy a beer, or even laze along the beach. In the DRC, survival is the name of the game. Souvenir shops are almost non existent, and hotels are pretty much vacant.
These people are generally good hardworking folk (yes I'd know, I've interacted with more African's than most) in need of a boost of tourism. Visit the DRC, spend some your dollars there, and let these people have a chance to experience living, instead of simply trying to survive.
Volcanoes & Gorillas not your thing? The DRC is interesting regardless
The local market of Goma, Eastern DRC.
Traveling doesn't simply have to be about "visiting attractions, or signing up for as many activities as possible".
I've always been fond of just hanging around local markets or chilling in a local bar, taking in the typical way of life. The world today doesn't get much more backward than the Congo. It's pretty interesting to see how different life is on the other side of the world (from Singapore).
This invention here (above) is the pride of the DRC. A wooden bike (with no gears) used for the transportation of goods.
You ride it like a "manual scooter", with one knee up and the other leg pushing the ground. It cost USD 50, and is one of the main vehicles used in the Congo.
Is it safe?
One of 3 "rangers" accompanying us on our hike
I'd like to say it's really safe (just to encourage travel to this part of the world), but the truth is, it probably isn't. Our group got shouted at by street thugs who demanded money because I took out my phone to snap a photo (not of them) of the street in general.
Fortunately, we had thought to arrange our own local guy to show us around. He defused the situation while the rest of us bundled into our SUV, and off we went. Alternatively, you could hire an armed detail to escort you around town.
If you do either the Nyiragongo or gorilla trek, rangers are compulsory, all you have to do is tip them. The forests in the DRC are home to groups of armed militants, poachers and the like. You'd be insane to attempt any trek without an armed detail by your side.
Our group of 4 Singaporeans. Determined to try every brand of beer in Africa
Looking back at my adventure in the DR Congo, I must admit I was pretty lucky.
I almost didn't make it up the Volcano (halfway through, I had cramps in both legs and couldn't walk for a while), got harassed by local thugs (yeah, tattoos don't deter anyone here), and I survived to tell the tale.
The very month I was there, tourists just got kidnapped (and are still hostage as I type this). You could very well have read about 4 Singaporeans held hostage in the DR Congo on today's edition of the Straits Times instead of my blog post.
There are countries where solo travel is great fun, but the DR Congo probably isn't one of them. Your day ends early, there are no other travellers in hostels to chat with (because you won't be hanging about outside at night), and I'm glad I had a few travel buddies for company this time to have beers and to play cards with in the hotel. Without good company, it wouldn't have been as fun a trip.
Should Singaporeans visit?
But to adhere to the high standards most of us (Singaporeans) have come to expect on a vacation, a luxurious + safe tour here won't come cheap. Be prepared to fork out good money (perhaps $6-$8k), but trust me, it'll all be worth it.
The DR Congo; you'll want this in your bucket list.
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