5 Exciting Things to Do in the Virunga Region

The Virunga region is defined by its eight chain volcanoes that expand across the borders between three countries; in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) together with three national parks. The region forms one of the most stunning areas for travelers to pay a visit while in Africa especially for its remarkable and rare flora and fauna species. Undoubtedly, the region is renowned for its most outstanding adventure like activities and the loveliest mountain gorilla experiences as well as other rewarding experiences of a life time.

In terms of mountain gorillas, more than half of the world’s rare mountain gorillas are found within the Virunga volcanoes of Central Africa. The Volcanoes are covered with thick tropical rain forests that ensure protection of these incredible primates. These forests are represented by countries and their national parks respectively and they include Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the DRC. Gorilla tourism began way back in 1968 by a famous American zoologist known as Dian Fossey who devoted herself in saving the lives of these endangered species in the wild. This quantifies the mountain gorillas as the main attraction. However, the Virunga region is also popular for its diverse mammal species, birds and reptiles. With many habituated gorilla families in various in national parks respectively, gorilla trekking/tracking forms one of the main reasons why thousands of visitors flock into the region every year.

  1. Mountain Gorilla Trekking:
    The Virunga Region is home to more than half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas. The region has 3 gazetted national parks where gorilla watching is carried out.

Gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park (VNP)

The Volcanoes National Park is situated in Northern Rwanda, just 2-3 hour drive from Kigali International Airport which makes it the most famous and accessible destination for gorilla safaris in East Africa. The park is acknowledged for its 10 habituated gorilla groups that are set forth for tourists to track the mountain gorillas. Gorilla permits in Rwanda are obtainable at $1500 per visitor to track a single habituated gorilla group per day. Just after the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, the Volcanoes National Park kept and still attracting thousands of travelers for gorilla safari adventures in the region. It inhabits more than a third of all the mountain gorillas that live within the Virunga region.

Gorilla tracking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Despite its size, the park is a home to Ugandan side of the Virunga region in East Africa with only one habituated gorilla family known as the Nyakagezi where gorilla tracking takes place. Previously, the mountain gorillas in this group were frequently crossing to DRC and Rwanda but today, they can easily be tracked in the Mgahinga gorilla national park. The park offers a refuge to about 80 mountain gorillas and trekking permits cost $600 in Uganda. Besides Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda also has another option for you to choose and achieve your long term dreams with these creatures. If you fail to make it at the Virunga’s National Park never miss to visit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The park is acknowledged for its 400 mountain gorillas and 11 habituated gorilla groups for visitors to track.

Gorilla trekking in the Virunga National Park

Despite the political unrest and insecurities around the DRC and its neighborhoods, the Virunga National Park was opened for tourism just a few years ago and thousands of the visitors have visited the park specifically for gorilla trekking. The Virunga National Park is Africa’s most ancient park and the first place to initiate gorilla trekking. Note that the Democratic Republic of Congo is still healing from insecurity and you are advised to first check out more from government security bulletins before taking your safari. The Virunga National Park is a home to eight habituated gorilla groups that are set for tourism and the gorilla permits are purchased at $450 per visitor.

2. Golden monkey tracking

Golden monkeys are endemic species that are found in the Virunga area. These rare species are only found in the jungles of the Virunga Mountains. For those interested in tracking them, there are habituated families that tourists can pay visit in only two national parks.

Golden Monkeys in Rwanda

If you are in Rwanda, it is the Volcanoes National Park that offers you a great opportunity to track the golden monkeys in the wild while in Uganda you can visit Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Besides tracking the golden monkeys, you can still, enhance your travel experiences with Golden Monkey Habituation Experience; the only activity that occurs in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. There will be a tour guide to assist you during your nature walk as he or she explains to you more about their daily behavior. Golden monkey trekking permits are obtainable at $75 in Uganda and $100 in Rwanda. The experience with these spectacular wild Apes, all remains yours for a life time!

3. Volcano/hiking at the Virunga Mountains

The Virunga Mountains is not just for wildlife safaris but also a place for you to enjoy tremendous hiking or volcano experiences. The Virunga Region is renowned for its 8 chain volcano mountains of which the two “Nyiragongo” and “Nyamuragira” are the most active volcanoes that lie at the centre of the Virunga National Park, DRC. This quantifies the region as one of the volatile areas with frequent volcanic eruptions in Africa. These volcanoes are renowned for 40% of Africa’s total eruptions and they have been recorded Mount Nyiragongo stretches about 3462 metres while Mount Nyamuragira is about 3063 metres. The other 6 non active volcanoes include; the Muhabura (4127), Gahinga (3474), Karisimbi (4507 metres), Bisoke (3711), Sabyinyo (3634) and Mikeno (4437). Hiking on top of their summits is another dramatic adventure experiences that you shouldn’t miss out in life! The Virunga volcanoes meet their limit at Rwenzori Mountains. Hiking through the Nyiragongo volcano is one of the fascinating things that fill travelers with incredible scenic view at Africa’s largest and most fluid lava lake in the world.

The Virunga region is also composed of extraordinary habitats including lakes at their distinct altitudes, marshy deltas and peat bogs, savannahs and lava plains, low altitude equatorial forest and high altitude tropical forests whereas the high altitude glaciers and snowfields of the Rwenzori Mountains come alive at the eastern border. The vegetation zone at the Virunga massif also ranges from alpine or subalpine to hagenia-hypericum mixed forest, bamboo, disturbed woodland, open grassland and swamp.

The Virunga national park in this case is mainly covered by the mixed forest type while in Parc national de volcanoes (the Volcanoes National Park); bamboo is the most lush vegetation category, followed by hagenia-hypericum woodland whereas Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is dominantly covered by mixed forest and bamboo. The area around the Sabyinyo contains all the seven habitat types represented in it and it is the most abundant spot in terms of wildlife species in the Virunga massif. The least population of habitat types takes place in the region south of Karisimbi volcano with only 3 categories and it’s the least diverse area with species.

4. The Batwa pygmies

Besides wildlife, the Virunga region is also popular for its only unique pygmies. The Batwa people were the ancient forest dwellers before the national parks were gazetted. When tourism was established in the place, the Batwa were forced out of the place to pave way for conservation of rare mountain gorillas and their habitat.

The Batwa of Rwanda

Visiting the Batwa forms one of incredible experiences especially as they explain to you their ancient forest life styles in form of poems, dances and songs, stories, making fires, hunting and gathering fruits. The once hunters and gatherers have been restricted from the traditional practice and still trying to adapt the social life with the rest of the community members. To share this remarkable experience, you can include the Batwa Cultural Experience/Batwa Cultural Trail and the Buniga Forest Walk and have a life time experiences. While at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park for your gorilla trekking, don’t miss to visit the Batwa community. The Batwa Cultural Experience is guided by the Batwa themselves who narrate and demonstrate to you their ancient practices. The Batwa pygmies have been employed as local guides in the place purposely to help them improve on their livelihoods.

5. The Dian Fossey’s Grave:

Dian Fossey was a devoted primatologist and zoologist who spent much of her time studying the mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park for a period of at least 18 years. In 1967, Dian Fossey made a home for herself at the mountain slopes of the Visoke volcano as she carried out her research more closely. She worked hard to save the lives of the mountain gorillas but unfortunately she was killed by poachers in a cold blood. You can visit Dian Fossey’s grave at Volcanoes National Park and understand more about this great primatologist who initiated the gorilla tourism in the Virunga Conservation Area by mere preaching.

In conclusion, the Virunga region is an area for most strenuous and rewarding adventures that range from the gorilla trekking, golden monkey tracking, to hiking or volcano climbing. Experiences of a life time a wait for you at the Virunga region!

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