Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park, which is situated in the East of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is the oldest national park in the African continent that was gazetted as a national park in 1925. Virunga National Park is located south of the shores of Lake Kivu bordering Rwanda. The park covers a total area of 7800 square kilometers along the Great Albertine Rift valley. Virunga National Park is regarded by many as the gem of Africa for its immense beauty and great biodiversity. Though the park has been in existence for so many decades, it still has that wilderness bit about it. It is no wonder that it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 for its great ecological importance. Virunga National Park was also declared a World Heritage in Danger in 1994 and a Ramsar site in 1996.
Virunga National Park is managed by the Congolese Institute of National Conservation which though faced with a number of challenges has persevered in the protection and conservation of the mountain gorillas of the Virunga which had been on a great decline but slowly increasing in number thanks to the great efforts of the park staff and rangers who go great lengths to protect these animals. It is these park rangers that have made it possible that mountain gorillas and a number of other wildlife and the park itself is still in existence. More than 150 park rangers have lost their lives in service. The volatile situation in the East of Congo has seen the Virunga being closed for a number of times with the recent having been in May 2018 which was uplifted and saw the reopening of the park in 2019 as the country is more stable than before.
The park prides in a variety of flora and fauna, with 196 mammal species, 67 amphibians, 708 bird species and 108 reptile species not forgetting the variety of primate species that is second to none. It is in the Virunga National Park that so many primates live together, say the famous and endangered mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, golden monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabey, Hamlyn’s monkeys among so many others.
Attractions in Virunga National Park
Mountain gorillas and other primates: Virunga National Park has the highest number of primate species that share a habitat. There are about 200 mountain gorillas in the park with 8 habituated gorilla groups that travelers can track. Other primates include the chimpanzees, olive baboons, golden monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys and so many others.
Mount Nyiragongo: This is an active steep-sided stratovolcano that has an elevation of 3,470 meters with a lava lake that boils all throughout. The Nyiragongo Mount has erupted up to 34 times with the most recent having taken place in 2002. It is for the lava lake and spectacular views that a number of travelers come to the park.
Mammals: Virunga National Park has about 196 mammal species that are quite amazing to look at. Some of these mammals include the African bush elephants, buffaloes, African leopards, forest hogs, bush squirrels, antelopes among so many others. These can be seen during nature walks and gorilla trekking.
Birds: Virunga National Park has about 708 bird species that is considered a birders’ paradise with a number of the Albertine Rift endemics. Some of the bird’s travelers are guaranteed of seeing are the strange weaver, blue-headed sunbird, throated barbet among so many others.
Virunga’s vegetation cover: the park has a variety of vegetation cover ranging from the savannah woodland, grassland, alpine and swamps which harbor a number of wildlife species and are a source of food to them. The park is a rainforest that is a strong ecological pillar for East and Central Africa.
The culture and life of the Batwa: this is another attraction that visitors can opt to take part in while in the Virunga. They are people that had previously lived in the tropical rainforests and co-existed with the animals and highly depended on the forest for everything. They were hunters and gatherers that fed on shoots and fruits from the park and indeed still lived in the stone age era.
Activities in Virunga National Park
Mountain gorilla trekking: Mountain gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park is possible with the availability of mountain gorillas that have been habituated to accommodate human presence. The park has 8 habituated gorilla groups that can be tracked in groups of 8 per group per day. Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park starts very early in the morning with a brief at 7 am where rules and guidelines are shared and then divided into groups of 8 and allocated gorilla groups to track, say Kabirizi, Rugendo, Lulengo, Humba, Mapuwa, Bageni, Munyaga, and Nyakamwe. Gorilla group allocation is based on the physical fitness of a person. The trek takes from 30 minutes to 5 hours or more depending on the location of the mountain gorillas. Only one hour is given to travelers to spend with the mountain gorillas in which time they can take pictures, videos and just enjoy the gentle creatures as they feed and play and groom each other. You might even chance to see them making temporary nests from where they are to take their afternoon naps from. One needs to have a gorilla permit to be able to track mountain gorillas which cost only $400.
Mount Nyiragongo hiking: Hiking Mount Nyiragongo is the second most sought after tourist activity after gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park. Travelers seek to have a glimpse of the lava lake at the top of the volcano that has erupted up to 34 times. Hiking the Nyiragongo requires one to be physically fit as the summit reaches an altitude of 3470 meters above sea level. The hike is rewarding as travelers get to have wonderful views of the other Virunga ranges and forest cover with a bubbling lava lake in the night. The hike starts very early in the morning and there are shelters at the top that can be used for a sleepover but need pre-booking. The summit can be quite cold, carry warm clothing.
Chimpanzee Tracking and Habituation: Chimpanzees in Virunga National Park are quite many that tourists can take part in tracking them and also have an opportunity to spend more time with them with a habituation experience. Park guides lead the gorilla trekking expedition and given that chimps are mobile creatures, be ready to be always on the move as they jump around from one tree to another as they play and eat. A bit of physical fitness might be required to succeed. Chimp trekking allows travelers to spend only one hour with them while chimpanzee habituation allows 4 hours with the chimps during which time travelers get to learn of their mannerisms.
Nature walking/hiking: This activity involves travelers moving on foot on clearly set trails. These nature walks are a perfect way to unwind and enjoy exploring Virunga National Park. The nature walk will give travelers a chance to see a variety of scenic views of beautiful landscapes, a number of wild animals and a variety of bird species.
Bird watching: With over 708 bird species in Virunga National Park, birders are sure to have a number of spots if they keen and good at what they do. Along with a birding guide, be guaranteed of seeing a variety of birds including those that are endemic to the Albertine Rift. Birding in Virunga National Park is done either in the morning or in the evening through bamboo forests, swamps to see birds like the Madagascar bee-eater, yellow-billed barbet, double toothed barbet, the Rwenzori turaco, handsome francolin among others. Remember to carry your binoculars for wonderful sightings.
Best time to visit Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park can be visited throughout the year but it is best recommended during the dry season that runs through June-September and mid-December-February. The roads to the park during this season are more passable and with not so thick vegetation cover as compared to when it is the wet season. It should, however, be noted that Virunga National Park is a rainforest and for this reason, it rains just about any time, even if it is a dry season. Small drizzles can fall throughout the day or have a very hot morning with rain showers in the afternoon. Whatever the weather decides to be like, just be prepared for it with the right wear. 4WD vehicles are the best option irrespective of when you are visiting the park.
Important documents to carry when heading to Virunga National Park include a valid passport, valid VISA which should have been applied online sometime before the start of the Congo safari tour, yellow fever vaccination card, and a gorilla tracking permit if you plan on doing the activity.
Accommodation in Virunga National Park
There are a variety of accommodation options available in Virunga National Park. From luxury to very basic, be sure to have the best. Travelers are however advised to book accommodation options that are easily accessed and near the starting point for the trek.
How to get to Virunga National Park
Virunga can be accessed in various ways, say by air one can land directly in Congo at Goma Airport and be transferred to the park, or land in Kigali International Airport in Rwanda and be transferred through Gisenyi to Goma and to Bukima in a 2 hours’ drive. Travelers can also transfer from Uganda through the Bunagana border post in Kisoro on a drive of one hour to Bukima the park headquarters where gorilla trekking starts from.