Perhaps best known as the home of the rare mountain gorilla, the Virungas 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 rainforest can hear the calls of birds and monkeys, and through the forest see the peaks of the ancient volcanoes. In addition to the rainforest, the park offers evergreen and bamboo forest, grassland, swamp and heath.
Rwanda also known as the land of “Gorillas in the Mist” has its star tourist attraction in the Mountain Gorillas. The giant but gentle primates were the subject of the late Dian Fossey who dedicated her life to their protection and conservation. Her detailed work is best seen in the international acclaimed film “Gorillas in the Mist”, which was shot in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
The Parc National des Volcans (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 Nyamulagira 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+).
The mountain gorillas spend most of their time in the hagenia woodlands and bamboo forests. During the raing season when new bamboo shoots are growing, the gorillas spend more time foraging in the bamboo forests (base altitude). The climb to the natural habitat of bamboo forest and Hagenia woodlands offers fantastic views.
The PNV was Dian Fossey’s base a long time ago (She died on the 26th of December 1985), and it is at the Karisoke Research Center that during 18 years she carried out her study on mountain gorillas.
The park was closed for tourism in 1991 when the war broke out and was reopened again in July 1999. The numbers of visitors are increasing every day and the PNV regains its former reputation as the best organized and most popular mountain gorilla sanctuary.
There are 4 gorilla groups habituated for tourism, the Sabinyo group has been divided up in two:
- Susa group has 35 individuals
- Amahoro group has 11 individuals
- Sabyinyo A – group has 13 individuals
- Sabyinyo B – group has 4 individuals (break away group)
- Group 13 has 7 individuals
The lake circuit to the lakes Bulera and Ruhondo offers breath taking sceneries. Unfortunately the dirt road needs to be repared and its actual state is quite dangerous due to the incredible steep hills.
Gorilla viewing, a day excursion up to the top of the Mt Sabinyo or a visit to the grave of Dian Fossey on the edges of Mt Sabinyo. The Rwanda Tourism Office (ORTPN) is thinking to reopen the Mt Karisimbi again to hikers and mountaineers.
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.
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.
Due to the altitude it is generally quite cold, especially during the evenings. Gorilla viewing is possible all the year round.
The area is well protected and there is no need for concern about personal security. The rangers are very kind and motivated, and they will do everything possible to make it a pleasant trip. It is still a wonderful place to see the mountain gorilla, and it normally offers excellent opportunities for photos. The gorilla trekking is less strenuous than in Bwindi Impenetrable NP however the altitude may cause difficulties for some visitors and gorillas tend to climb higher during dry season. A good physical condition is also here recommended.