Virunga National Park was the first national park to be established in Africa in 1925 and was gazetted to conserve and protect the endangered mountain gorillas. It is Congo’s largest National Park. Virunga national park is located in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo in the centre of the Albertine rift between Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga national park covers a total land area of 7800 square kilometres and is comprised of three sectors namely the northern sector which stretches from Virunga massif in the south to the Rwenzori mountain that borders with Uganda in the north, the central sector which is around lake Edward, Ishasha River valley and Rwindi plains, then the southern sector which is also known as the montane tropical forests which harbour active volcanoes and mountain gorillas which live on the slopes of the dormant Mikeno Volcano.
Virunga national park is one of the four national parks that are famously known because of the endangered mountain gorillas, for example, Bwindi Impenetrable national park which harbours the largest number of the gorilla families, Mgahinga national park in Uganda and Volcanoes national park in Rwanda. Virunga national park is a home of wildlife species such as elephants, hippos, lions, okapis among others, primate species like the endangered mountain gorillas, over 2000 plant species which the animals in the park feed on, bird species, Reptiles, Amphibians among others. Virunga national park is a safe park for visiting any time because its guided by a big number of trained local game rangers both men and women.
How to get to Virunga National Park in Congo
Virunga National Park can be accessed from Uganda and Rwanda. You can fly to Kigali international airport and then connect by road to Virunga national park through Gisenyi town and cross Goma border in Democratic Republic of Congo which takes about 2 hours’ drive from Gisenyi town to Bukima, park headquarters. From Uganda, you fly to Entebbe airport and then use chartered or scheduled flights to Kisoro airstrip or drive from Kampala via Mbarara and Kabale to Kisoro which is a long-distance taking about 8 to 9 hours’ drive, then cross Bunagana border to Bukima headquarters which takes about one hour drive.
Attractions in Virunga National Park
- Mountain gorillas, Virunga national park is a home 22 primate species such as mountain gorillas which attract most of the visitors to Congo for gorilla trekking and other primate species in like Red tailed monkeys, Blue monkeys, Red colobus monkeys, Black and White monkeys, Chimpanzees, Olive baboons among others.
- Wildlife, Virunga National Park inhabits 218 mammal species such as Elephants, Buffaloes, Lions, Antelopes, Hippos, Topi, Warthogs, Waterbucks, Bushbucks, Duikers, Giant Forest Hog among others. Reptiles like the Nile Crocodiles, Monitor lizards which are seen along the shores of Lake Edward, Albert and Semliki River in the central sector of the park.
- Birds, Virunga national park is a home of over 706 bird species including Yellow toothed barbet, Yellow-billed Barbet, Madagascar bee- eater among others which can be viewed during the bird watching the activity.
- Virunga Volcanic mountains, Virunga national park inhabits the volcanic mountains some of which are shared with other countries like Uganda and Rwanda including Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamuragira which are active volcanoes and dormant volcanoes such as Mount Mikeno, Mount Karisimbi, Mount Bisoke, and Mount Sabyinyo which is shared by all the three countries namely Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.
- Vegetation, Virunga national park is comprised of forest vegetation, savannah, lava plains, erosion valleys, wetland and swamp vegetation with shrubs, plants and grasses, montane forests, open grasslands, woodlands, rainforests, heath and alpine vegetation in the highlands.
Activities in Virunga National Park
Virunga national park offers various activities to visitors on a safari in the Democratic Republic of Congo to engage in hence making their tour exciting, the activities include
Gorilla trekking, this is the biggest attraction and most popular activity in Virunga national park. Gorilla trekking in Virunga national park is carried out in the morning after breakfast where you go for a briefing about the expectations and rules to follow while trekking gorillas in the jungle. Gorilla trekking in Virunga national park begins at Bukima patrol post which is the park’s headquarters with a game ranger into the forest in search of the mountain gorillas in their natural environment. Virunga national park is a home of 8 habituated gorilla families which are available for trekking on a daily basis and allows a maximum of 8 people to visit each gorilla family and spend a maximum of one hour in the presence of the gorilla family. Gorilla families in Virunga national park include Rugendo family which is comprised of 9 members, Humba family which is comprised of 10 members, Nyakamwe family which is comprised of 11 members, Lulengo family which is comprised of 9 members, Munyanga family comprised of 9 members, Kabirizi family which is comprised of 19 members, Mapuwa family which is comprised of 22 members and Bageni family which is comprised of 26 members and is the largest group in Virunga national park.
Gorilla trekking in Virunga national park takes about 1 to 3 hours hiking to different destinations since the gorillas live in different areas and the gorilla trekking permit in Virunga national park costs $400 for Foreign Non Residents which is the cheapest permit compared to Uganda and Rwanda gorilla permits and is valid for one day. However, Virunga national park offers discounted gorilla trekking permits during the low season at $200 for Foreign Non Residents so as to encourage visitors to travel to the park during the low season. Virunga national park is the only park in Africa that offers discounted gorilla trekking permits.
Chimpanzee trekking and habituation experience, chimpanzee trekking is another interesting activity done in Virunga national park where visitors move in the forests in search of the chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Chimpanzee habituation is a process where chimpanzees are trained by researchers, guides and rangers to get used to human presence for trekking. During chimpanzee trekking activity you are allowed to spend one hour in the presence of the chimpanzees while during chimpanzee habituation process you will be able to spend more time of about four hours with the chimpanzees learning about their behaviours, habits, watching them hunting, playing in the trees, de-nesting at 6 am and making new nests in the evening among others which give you unforgettable memories during your safari in Virunga national park.
Nature walks, this is an activity which offers visitors an opportunity to explore the park on foot with a trained game ranger for protection, direction of the trails among others. Nature walks in Virunga national park starts in the morning and visitors follow different trails to the tropical rainforests, open grasslands, visit the Senkwekwe orphanage which inhabits orphaned mountain gorillas in Congo, track habituated chimpanzees in the forests of Tongo among others. Visitors on a nature walk in Virunga national park will be able to view beautiful landscapes, animal species such as Elephants, Buffaloes, Monkeys, Hippos, Nile Crocodiles on the bank shores of Lake Edward, bird species, enjoy the cool climate which makes your mind to relax among others.
Bird watching, Virunga national park is one of the birding destinations in the world with a number of over 706 bird species which inhabit in the thick forest vegetation’s. Bird watching in Virunga national park starts in the morning with a birder and they are mostly viewed during the wet season when there is plenty of food to eat. Bird species in Virunga national park include Narrow-tailed starling, Madagascar bee-eater, Grey-throated Barbet, Double-toothed Barbet, Yellow-billed Barbet, Rwenzori turaco, Black bishop, Rwenzori batis, Red-throated alethe, Stripe breasted tit, African goshawk, Olive Sunbird, White-headed wood hoopoe, Black billed turaco, Black saw-wing, Thick-billed seedeater, Collared apalis, Strange Weaver, Black thirsted wattle-eye among others which make bird lovers to get great experience on their safari in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Nyiragongo volcano hiking, Nyirangongo is an active volcanic mountain in Virunga national park that is 3470m high above sea level. Mount Nyiragongo is a beautiful volcano that is covered with vegetation and sometimes with snow that features the world’s largest lava lake. Hiking to Nyiragongo volcano takes about 6 to 7 hours to reach the top with some breaks; climbing Nyiragongo doesn’t require you to be physically fit because you don’t need to be in a hurry, trekking is timed to favour all types of trekkers. You need to carry necessary equipment such as a walking stick, comfortable shoes, enough drinking water, packed lunch from the lodge, warm clothes and gloves, rain jacket, sleeping bag and a porter to carry your backpack and offer you help where necessary. On top of the volcano, there is only a sleeping tent with a mattress hence you need to carry sleeping items because it can be so cold. When you reach on top of the volcano you will find a chef who will cook dinner, make coffee and breakfast for the next morning, there will also be a campfire to provide warmth, have great scenic views of the landscapes, vegetation among others. While climbing Nyiragongo Volcano you will be able to view animal species such as chimpanzees, monkeys, bush babies among others hence making Nyiragongo hiking a lifetime experience.
Senkwekwe orphanage centre, this is a shelter home for the orphaned gorillas from Goma and those that were rescued from poachers in Congo that was established in 2010. Senkwenkwe orphanage is located in Rumangabo near the park headquarters and is the only facility in Africa that caters for the orphaned mountain gorillas. Senkwekwe orphanage started with 2 mountain gorillas and now inhabits about five gorillas that were rescued from being killed namely Maisha, Ndezi, Matabishi, Yalala and Ndakasi which was the first gorilla to be rescued and the number is expected to grow. Senkwekwe orphanage was named after the silverback Senkwekwe which was killed during the national park massacre and it gets its funds from world heritage organization, communities, well-wishers among others which help in the smooth running of the facility.
Where to stay during your visit in Virunga national park
Democratic Republic of Congo has a number of luxury, mid-range and budget accommodation facilities where visitors on a safari can stay including Mikeno Lodge which is located within the forest, Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters, Lulimbi Tented Camp located in Virunga national park, Bukima Tented Camp, Kibumba Tented Camp, Tchegera Island tented camp among others. These lodges provide comfortable shelter, prepare delicious meals, offer great views of Virunga national park and wildlife species among others.
Virunga national park is the best destination for gorilla trekking activity in Africa in that it offers great and exciting experiences to visitors on a safari who engage in gorilla trekking, climbing Nyiragongo volcano, visiting Senkwekwe orphanage among others.