Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is Congo’s mountain gorilla destination located in the Eastern region of the country. Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa that was gazetted in 1925. Just south of the shores of Lake Kivu that is shared by both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, Virunga covers 7800 square kilometres along the Great Albertine Rift Valley. The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 for its great ecological importance, biodiversity as well as conservation of the mountain gorillas therein. In 1994, the park was declared a World Heritage in Danger and a Ramsar site in 1999. Virunga National Park is an African gem that depicts true African wilderness. Travellers after a feel of wilderness should definitely plan to visit Virunga, though in existence as a national park for almost a century, the park is still row and greatly unexploited.
Virunga National Park is part of the Virunga Massif that spreads through three countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, making three nationals parks of Virunga National Park, Volcanoes National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, respectively.
The Congolese Institute of National Conservation is the body that is responsible for the protection and conservation of the Congo’s protected areas including Virunga National Park. Virunga National Park has over 700 rangers who protect the park along with its inhabitants as well as the tourists that visit it. Over the years, there have been a number of political unrests that has had rebel groups taking refuge in the vast jungles and mountainous areas of Virunga National Park. The park has been closed on grounds of security a number of times with the last having been in 2018. Since 2019, however, the park has been open to tourists and many travelers are flocking in to take part in not only gorilla trekking but other park activities as well since it has been very safe. Travelers’ safety and security is very paramount in Virunga Park and for this reason, all travellers are duly escorted by armed personnel right from when heading to the park, in the park or when departing. Virunga Park is deemed safe.
Virunga National Park has a variety of attractions ranging from great giant apes to a boiling lava lake. The park has 196 mammal species, 67 amphibians, 708 species of birds, 108 reptiles, a variety of flora as well as primates that include chimpanzees, golden monkeys, Hamlyn’s monkeys, and endangered mountain gorillas among so many others. Virunga National Park is home to the world’s largest boiling lava lake at the summit of Mount Nyiragongo which has an elevation of 3,470 meters above sea level.
Activities in Virunga National Park
Gorilla trekking: Gorilla trekking in Virunga is the most sought after tourist activity in the park. The park is one of the four mountain gorilla destinations in the world that travellers flock to see the gentle giants. Gorilla trekking involves travellers hiking deep into the verdant jungles of Virunga National Park in search of the endangered mountain gorillas. Once travellers encounter the gorillas, they are given only one hour to spend with them. Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park requires travellers to have gorilla trekking permits to be able to take part in this thrilling adventure. A single entry gorilla permit in Virunga National Park costs $400 only, way cheaper than Uganda and Rwanda which have their gorilla permits at $700 and $1,500 respectively.
Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park is for persons that are 15 years and above. There are rules and regulations to be followed during the trek to see the gorillas, travellers are encouraged to follow them at all times.
Mount Nyiragongo volcano hiking: Mountain Nyiragongo volcano hiking is another tourist activity in Virunga National Park that has millions of travellers from far and wide to visit the park. Mount Nyiragongo is an active volcano that has erupted up to 34 times over the years. The hike is very rewarding with scenic views of even the nearby countries far off. At the summit, travellers can spot a boiling lava lake, the largest in the whole world. The ascent of mount Nyiragongo can take up to 6 hours or more depending on the speed, while the descend is only 4 hours. Travellers can spend a night at the summit, packing warm clothes should be remembered though.
Chimpanzee tracking: Chimpanzee tracking is another amazing activity in Virunga National Park. it is in Virunga National Park that both chimpanzees and gorillas can be visited. There are habituated chimpanzee families that travellers can visit. Spending time with these very playful and active chimpanzees is very thrilling.
Chimpanzee habituation: Chimpanzee habituation is an activity that involves travellers spending longer times with the chimpanzees; more than one hour. During this time, travellers get to learn of the chimpanzee behaviour and way of life with the help of chimpanzee experts and researchers who everyday spend time to study and habituate them to human presence.
Nature walk/hiking: Virunga National Park is a hotspot for a nature walk. Given all the attractions therein in the park, a nature walk through well-developed routes and paths is a great way for travellers to explore the park. along with a professional guide, be sure to spot the best features and attractions of Virunga National Park on a nature walk.
Bird watching: Bird watching in Virunga National Park is another activity that travellers visiting the park can take in. With about 708 bird species available in Virunga National Park and a number of endemics, bird watching in the guidance of a bird guide will have travellers spotting a number of birds and if one is keen, 100 or more birds could be spotted. Make sure to carry binoculars.
Virunga National Park can be visited throughout the year. During the dry season which falls in the months of June-September and December-February, travellers are most encouraged to visit then as the roads are more accessible and paths in the park less muddy. Travellers should, however, know that even in the dry season, rains can fall. Packing correctly, therefore, is very important. The rest of the months fall in the wet season which has roads somewhat inaccessible, having a 4WD vehicle in perfect condition is advised.
Accommodation in Virunga Park varies according to travellers tastes and preferences and budget. The park has a variety of accommodation ranging from luxury, mid-range to basic, fitting all travellers’ needs. Mikeno lodge and Bukima tented camp are some of the most booked and preferred lodging options in Virunga National Park.
Virunga Park can be reached by both road and air. By air, travellers can fly directly into Goma Airport and then be transferred by road to the park. Alternatively, travellers could fly into Kigali International Airport in Rwanda and then be transferred to Goma through Gisenyi in a 2 hours ride. From Uganda, travellers can get into the park through the Bunagana border point in Kisoro to Bukima, the park headquarters in a one hour only.
Virunga Park is an amazingly fascinating and wild national park that travellers shouldn’t miss to visit at least once in their lifetime. Take time to reach out to reputable tour operators who will have not only your enjoyment and pleasure at heart but also safety.