In January, I shared some serious excitement for our upcoming month in Africa and our six-week countdown officially begins today! Since we made our initial decision to embark on this journey to East and South Africa, we’ve expanded our itinerary a bit. It started with a few innocent days on the front end and then a few more innocent days on the back-end until we wound up with a 27-day journey that takes us from Kigali to Cape Town and other awe-inspiring destinations in between. With the help of the team at Inspired Journeys, we were able to craft an itinerary that includes the lesser-visited DRC for our gorilla trekking, and includes some great experiences in Rwanda and Uganda before we melt into a more relaxing time in South Africa. Here’s a glance at our itinerary, plus some tips based on our experiences planning thus far.
Layover in Doha, Qatar
Thanks to some steadily accrued points, we’re flying Qatar Airways (First Class – eeee!) to Kigali which gives us an overnight layover in Doha for our first-ever brush withe Middle Eastern city. With only an evening in the Qatari capital, we’ve prioritized our sightseeing and chosen to overnight at Saraya Corniche Hotel, a well-located hotel near the main attractions as our home base. On our agenda: the Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif for dinner and shopping.
TIP: For anyone flying Qatar Airways, look into their Transit Accommodation program, which can allow for accommodations assistance if your layover is more than 8 hours long. The airline also offers complimentary Doha city tours four times per day which takes visitors to the city’s major highlights in around three hours.
Kigali + Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda
From Doha, we begin our African adventure in Kigali before venturing to Nyungwe Forest National Park. Our total time in Rwanda is relatively brief, about four total days, with the bulk of the time at Nyungwe where we’ll be spending time at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge (the property that intrigues me most during our time in East Africa). In Rwanda, we’ll be doing a chimpanzee trek and hiking through the park. If we have time – one thing we’re actually a bit short on here! – there’s a tea plantation nearby which other visitors have raved about.
Tip: If you’re like us and you’re visiting multiple East African nations (including Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya), you can apply for an East Africa Tourist Visa ($100) which allows multiple entry into any of the participating nations within a 90 day period. If you apply online in advance, you’ll be sent a PDF giving you the thumbs up and will just need to pay at your point of entry. Note that you should submit your application to whichever country will be your point of entry (e.g. if you’re entering into Rwanda first you should apply through the Government of Rwanda).
Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo was our anchor for this trip and everything else was shaped around the precious time that we’ll be able to spend in the DRC. Scott and I both grew up daydreaming about visiting the heart of Africa, a place that seemed so real, so raw and so exotic that it couldn’t possibly truly exist on this earth. I actually remember as a child being absolutely fascinated with the idea of the Congo, in my mind the place that captured the essence and the heartbeat of the continent. Now I realize that Africa is actually far more diverse and can’t possibly be captured by a single visual, but as a kid it didn’t get any more real than visiting ‘the Congo’, wherever that was exactly and whatever that meant.
For us now, it means spending around a week in Virunga National Park and taking in the experiences that the area has to offer. We’ll be entering the DRC via Lake Kivu from Rwanda and will begin our adventure there. Our focus was gorilla trekking in the DRC to scope out the rare mountain gorilla populations that are concentrated in the area. Since no two treks are the same, we’ll be going on two treks to see how the experience differs from one day to the next. Gorilla trekking permits are costly and have to be applied for way in advance but the expense is something we factored in from the get-go; for us it wasn’t only non-negotiable, it was the entire reason we decided on this trip in the first place.
In addition to our two days of gorilla trekking, we’ll be spending a couple of days on a hike to Nyiragongo Crater, the largest active lava lake in the world. The hike is fairly intense and the elevation change is pretty intimidating but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we’re physically fit enough (we hope!) to do it. The trek requires about a day and a half, with an overnight at the top of the volcano overlooking the lava lake.
NOTE: To visit the DRC you’ll need a visa. There are actually two different types of visas: one for Virunga NP and one for the DRC broadly. Our visa will be for Virunga and is valid for 14 days upon entry. Visas need to be applied for in advance of your arrival. Yellow fever vaccines are required to enter the country, and you’ll need to show proof of vaccination to cross the border.
ALSO: For those wondering what to budget, know that the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda all charge different amounts for trekking permits. Rwanda is the most expensive at around $750 per person per day, Uganda is slightly less at $600 per person per day, and the DRC is the least expensive at $400 per person per day. My instinct is that the costing has less to do with the quality of the experience (i.e. you won’t have a ‘better’ experience in Rwanda), and more to do with the level of tourism in each country, perceived safety, and how the funds from permit fees work in the community and on conservation initiatives.
Queen Elizabeth National Park + Lake Bunyoni, Uganda
From the DRC, we’ll make our way to Uganda for the final leg of our trip. We’ll be starting by spending a few days at Kasenyi Safari Camp in Queen Elizabeth National Park. This will be a more traditional safari experience with morning and afternoon game drives to scope out tree-climbing lions, leopards, elephants, etc. With the time that we have in Africa, we couldn’t miss a more traditional safari experience after our first taste of a safari in Kenya. One of the days we’ll be opting for a boat safari on the Kazinga Channel for a water-based journey. We’ll also be chimp trekking in the area as a follow-up to our trek in Rwanda.
Following our time in Queen Elizabeth NP, we’ll head to Lake Bunyoni for a couple of days to wind down our time in East Africa. We had debated on how to spend the final couple of days in a way that provided a different experience but also made sense logistically for departure from the area. The lake is a stunner, large with a number of little islands throughout, and is most famous for being a major birding destination but is also home to a Pygmy tribe and provides lots of opportunities for kayaking and canoeing to the islands. From there, we’ll make our way back to Kigali to depart to Johannesburg.
NOTE: Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC are all affected by malaria. Malaria prophylactics aren’t required (unlike the yellow fever shot) but you should be taking pills while in the region. There are a range of pills available but in the three times we’ve needed to take antimalarials, we’ve been prescribed Malarone. Malarone can be very costly at $6+ per pill. You’ll need to take pills during your time of exposure, before and after you leave the area for about a week. Since we’ll need around 25 pills each, we’ve opted for the generic version this time around (ask your doctor or pharmacist about generics if the name brands are too much to stomach), which cost us about half as much.
Blue Train from Johannesburg to Cape Town
After 2 1/2 weeks of exploring East Africa with daily early wake-up calls, we’re making South Africa our more plush encounter with a heap of cool experiences that won’t generally require sports bras and raincoats. We start our adventure in Johannesburg where we’ll have a night before boarding South Africa’s Blue Train, an old world train experience that takes 27 hours to cut west across the country to our final destination in Cape Town. There’s a single stop in Kimberley to visit the diamond mines, but the rest of the time we’re on board, along for the ride of our lives. From a scotch and cigar bar to live music, gourmet meals and high tea, plush barely begins to describe the experience. Our time on the Hiram Bingham train in Peru not only reinforced my love of rail travel (it really is one of my favorite ways to travel) but also made me really appreciate the old world glam of grand train journeys.
Tip: The Blue Train must be booked in advance and if it’s something that really piques your interest, look at their timetable. The train goes on select days each month so you’ll want to craft your itinerary using the schedule as your guide.
Cape Town, the Winelands + Hermanus, South Africa
We’re breaking most of our time in South Africa into three main segments: a couple of days in Hermanus, four days in Cape Town, and three days in the Cape Winelands. We’re starting in Hermanus mostly due to our fascination with the Birkenhead House, a boutique hotel on the coast which came highly recommended by guests at our hotel. They spoke about it so highly that we had to experience it for ourselves. We’ll be in Hermanus around the time of their Whale Watching Festival which is a good sign for us in terms of whale spotting!
After Hermanus, we’ll spend four or so days in Cape Town taking in the sights of the city including a drive down to the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Town is a city that I’m insanely excited to explore, one of the highest – if not the highest – cities on my bucket list. The beach towns, the city buzz, the history, the architecture, the landscape; everything about it seems almost too perfect to exist in a single city. From there, we’ll head to the Winelands where we’ll spend our final three days sippin’ South Africa’s finest. We’ll be spending three nights in Franschhoek but will spend one of those days tasting in Stellenbosch so we can compare and contrast experiences.
It’ll be an on-the-go month with lots of varied experiences but I’m excited to officially begin the countdown and begin preliminary packing for our adventure of the year!
Have you been to any of those areas in Africa? What was your experience like?