Perhaps best known as the home of the rare mountain gorilla, the Virunga are that and so much more. Trekking through the park in far northwest Rwanda, one will find a tapestry of sensory delights. The visitor in the rain forest can hear the calls of birds and monkeys, and through the forest see the peaks of the ancient volcanoes. In addition to the rain forest, the park offers evergreen and bamboo forest, grassland, swamp and heath.
The Parc National des Volcanos (PNV) is part of the Virunga Conservation Area and covers more than 125 km². PNV is home of five Virunga volcanoes: Sabyinyo (3.674 m), Gahinga (3.474 m), Bisoke (3711 m), Muhabura (4.127 m), and the Karisimbi, the highest volcano with an altitude of 4.507 m. All five volcanoes are extinct; the active ones are located in Congo. Two of them erupted recently; the Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002 and Nyamuragira in July 2002.
The Virunga ecosystem is composed of 4 major vegetation zones: bamboo (base altitude), Hagenia and Hypericum forest (2600-3300m), Sub-alpine (3300-4000m), and Afro-alpine (4000m+).
Ruhengeri, which can easily be reached by public transport from the Rwandan capital of Kigali or the northwestern city of Gisenyi, is the normal base for a visit to the gorillas. There is no public transport from Ruhengeri to the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas are located, so visitors who aren’t on a tour should plan to hire a car with four-wheel drive (and driver). This will cost about $60 a day from Ruhengeri, $150 per day from Kigali, about a 90-minute drive. Travelers should check for information on suggested inoculations and health precautions.
Where to stay:
The hotels closest to the park entrance are Mountain Gorillas Nest Lodge — an attractive resort with individual huts around a central garden of fountains and flowering trees — and The Kinigi guesthouse (Asoferwa) is situated only 200 meters from the park headquarters and provides comfortable and clean accommodation with breathtaking scenery at the foot of Mt Sabyinyo. . The latter is run by ASOFERWA, a charity established to help women and children struggling to recover from the traumas of the genocide; all profits go toward the group’s work. The hotel has a Swiss-chalet feel, comfortable public areas and good food.
From these hotels you may be able to hitch a ride to the park, but you’d still have to get to the gorilla starting point and back to your room later.
The lake circuit to the lakes Bulera and Ruhondo offers breathe taking sceneries.
Gorilla viewing, a day excursion up to the top of the Mt Sabyinyo or a visit to the grave of Dian Fossey on the edges of Mt Sabyinyo.
Distance (travelling time): Access to the area starts with Ruhengeri a town about 1h30 drive from Kigali and afterwards to Kinigi (14 km from Ruhengeri) where the park headquarters are located.
Due to the altitude it is generally quite cold, especially during the evenings. Gorilla viewing is possible all the year round.
There are 8 gorilla families available for tourists with 8 tourists allowed per group:
- Susa—the largest group with 41 gorillas. This family is the hardest to trek as it tends to range high into the mountains but RDB Tourism & Conservation trackers will know well in advance where the group is located. The group is also well known for having rare 5 year old twins named Byishimo and Impano.
- Sabyinyo—Sabyinyo is an easily accessible group led by the powerful silverback Guhonda. There are fewer members within this family than in the other groups however they are equally impressive as a family.
- Amahoro—led by the calm and easy going Ubumwe, Amahoro is made up of 17 members and means “peaceful”. To reach Amahoro one must endure a fairly steep climb however the climb is well worth it once in contact with this tranquil group.
- Group 13—when first habituated this group had only 13 members hence its name. Now the group has approximately 25 members, a very positive sign for conservation and the efforts put forward by RDB Tourism & Conservation to protect the gorillas’ habitat.
- Kwitonda—this 18-member group is led by Kwitonda which means “humble one” and has two silverbacks and one black back. Having migrated from DRC, this group tends to range far making it a moderately difficult trek.
- Umubano—a family of 11, Umubano were originally Amahoro members but broke off after the dominant silverback was challenged by Charles, now the leader of Umubano. When a young silverback challenges the dominant silverback he must steal some females from the existing group in order to form his own family; thus Umubano was formed.
- Hirwa—this group emerged recently and was formed from different existing families, namely from Group 13 and Sabyinyo. Eventually more gorillas joined. Come witness this family continue to grow.
- Karisimbi– a family of 15, a new group.
- To minimize possible transmission of human diseases, visitors are asked to maintain a distance of 7m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. If you are sick with a cold, flu or other contagious illness, please do not visit the gorillas.
- Viewing time is limited to one hour.
- Maximum 8 visitors per group.
- Spitting in the park is strictly prohibited.
- Should you need to cough, cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas.
- When with the gorillas, keep your voice low.
- Try not to make rapid movements that may frighten the gorillas.
- If a gorilla should charge or vocalize at you, do not be alarmed, stand still, look away from the gorilla and follow your guide’s directions.
- Do not litter.
To enhance your enjoyment:
- The security of our visitors is our highest priorities. There is no need for concern about personal security.
- The climate in Musanze is changeable and you can generally expect both sun and rainfall during the day.
- Musanze, at 1,700m above sea level, is generally quite cold, particularly in the evening, so warm clothing is advised.
- Recommended clothing is long trousers and shirts when in the forest to avoid nettle stings.
- Study walking shoes or hiking boots are essential. You may find raingear useful.
- Bring a water bottle and a small snack although eating, drinking and smoking near the gorillas is forbidden.
- Photography is permitted, although you may not use flash.
- Porters are available to help you carry your daypack for a small charge.
- Mountain gorillas live at high altitude and this may cause difficulties for some visitors. You should pace yourself, walk slowly and drink plenty of water. No one should feel deterred from making this trip.