The Virunga National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site and founded on April 1925. It is arguably the best national park to visit for those who wish to experience Africa’s true natural beauty. It is a testament to the great beauty and biodiversity in this park that even with the sometimes volatile security situation in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, many tourists still desire to pay a visit. Virunga National Park is the oldest in Africa and lies on 7800 Square Kilometers of land. The game park sits along the Great Albertine Rift to the East of DR Congo and bordering Uganda to the West.
The park has three sectors -The northern, southern and central sectors. The northern sector covers parts of Semiliki River basin and is dominated by Savannah vegetation and sections of montane forests. Because of the high altitude and presence of Mount Stanley, Alpine vegetation can be found in this sector and it is the largest glacial region in Africa. The southern Sector of the Park contains seven volcanoes hence the name “Virunga Massif”. These volcanoes where brought about by tectonic movements in the earth’s crust leading to great volcanic activities. The two most prominent of the seven volcanoes are Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamulagira.
The climate in the park and the general Albertine Rift is greatly influenced by Inter tropical Convergence Zone movements and southern El Nino oscillation. The park experiences both rainy and dry seasons. The rainy season occurs between March and mid-May and between September and November. Because of the abundant vegetation and climate, the Virunga National Park is blessed with great variety of fauna. There are 196 species of mammal, 67 of amphibians, 708 bird species and 108 of reptiles top of which are the Nile crocodiles. Regarding mammals, the park has the Aardvark, African Buffalos, African Bush Elephants, African Leopards, Bay Duikers, the Blue Duiker, Boehm’s Bush Squirrel, Bongo, Bushbuck, Checkered Elephant, Crested Porcupine, Emin’s Pouched Rat, Giant Forest Hog, Giant Pangolin, Lord Derby’s Scaly tailed Squirrel, Marsh Mongoose, Okapi, Red River Hog, Tree Pangolin, Water Chevrotain, Western Tree Hyrax, Yellow Backed Duiker. The Virunga National Park is recognized as a lion Conservation area and despite poaching from nearby communities, a sizeable number still remains.
The primate species found in the park is second to none in Africa and include Mountain Gorillas,Chimpanzees, Blue Monkeys, Central African Red Colobus, De Brazza’s Monkey, Dent’s Mona Monkeys, Golden Monkeys, Grey Cheeked Mangabey, Hamlyn’s Monkeys, Mantled Guereza and Olive Baboon among others. Apart from the mammals, reptiles and birds, Virunga National Park local tribes like the Batwa, Mbuti, Hutu and the Tutsi live in sections of the park. These tribes benefit from the tourism activities in the park by earning a living as porters and local tours guides. Some of them showcase their rich cultures and heritage to tourists through songs, traditional dances, languages, traditional homes and food among others.
The responsibility of managing the park has been assigned to the Congolese institute of National Conservation (ICCN). The ICCN has faced several challenges in managing the park given the volatile situation in Eastern DR Congo, often leading to the closure of the park. About 175 park staff has been killed by rebel elements and poachers in the last decade. The most recent closure of the park resulted after the May 2018 incident were three tourists were kidnapped and later released unharmed. The management of the park had no alternative other than to close the park until such a time when they felt that the park was safe enough for tourists.
Attractions and activities within Virunga National Park
Despite the volatile nature of Eastern DR Congo and the park closures, the great biodiversity in the Virunga National park makes it irresistible to tourists. There are so many activities to do while in the park that we will not be able to discuss them all in detail. Some of the prominent activities include:
Mountain Gorilla trekking: A safari in the Virunga national park is incomplete without visiting the endangered mountain gorillas. There are eight habituated Gorilla families in Virunga National Park with the most common and largest family being the Kabirizi family with 32 members. Regardless of which gorilla group you track, gorilla trekking usually starts with briefing early in the morning. After the briefing, trekkers are led by Park Rangers to search for the gorilla family. Finding the group takes between one to four hours. You are allowed only one hour to watch and take photos of the group members feed, groom and take care of the young. Gorilla permits in Congo cost only $450 which is much lower than Uganda’s $600 and Rwanda at $1500. It is important to book your gorilla permits early enough before showing up for the safari.
Chimpanzee habituation Experience: For just USD100, you get involved in one of the best activities within the Virunga National Park. Chimpanzee habituation in Virunga National Park was started way back in 1987 by Frankfurt, a zoologist. However it was only in 2014 that gorilla habituation was opened to visitors in the park. This has been possible through funding from the Frankfurt Zoological Society. The chimpanzee habituation experience is activity under the guidance of researchers and rangers. Chimpanzees are unique and interesting primates because they share about 98% of our DNA. The chimpanzee habituation experience starts as early as 5:30 am when the primates start their exciting day. Visitors follow the chimps as they move in search of food on the ground and on top of trees. Chimpanzees are very mobile in movement and unlike gorillas, rarely stay in one place for long during the day. This makes the experience of searching and following them thrilling and more adventurous. By the end of the activity, visitors get to understand everything about chimpanzee way of living and the group dynamics.
Hiking Mount Nyiragongo: If you are not yet decided on the best place to visit in DR Congo, then this is probably it. Mount Nyiragongo is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The Mountain has erupted 34 times in recent centuries with the latest being in 2002. Thousands where rendered homeless as liquid lava and ash gushed out of the summit and spread quickly to nearby areas up to the shores of Lake Kivu. The damage was great but it hasn’t diminished the charm of the mountain. Thousands of visitors have been visiting the volcano each year with the sole purpose of baring witness to one of nature’s true wonders – watching boiling red lava up-close. The journey to the top of the volcano rewards hikers with breathtaking scenery of the Virunga ranges, the beautiful forests and other volcanoes in the area. Climbing Mount Nyiragongo requires even greater mental and physical preparedness than gorilla trekking. Do not forget to carry enough drinking water and snack to help regain lost energy during the hike. Porters are available for hire at the foot of the mountain to help with heavy luggage but one still needs to be reasonably fit to complete the hike comfortably.
Nature walks: As already noted earlier, the Virunga National Park has great diversity in plant and animal life. Taking a guided nature walk through secure sections of the park rewards visitors with magnificent scenery and landscape including wonderful sights of volcanoes like Nyiragongo. While taking a walk through the park, one can spot all kinds of wildlife ranging from primates, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. While at the Virunga National Park, one can also take walks to view the eroded valleys of Sinda and Ishango or marvel at the snow filled Rwenzori Mountains across the border in Uganda.
The Batwa Community visit and Cultural Trail: The Batwa pygmy communities have lived for thousands of years in the forests Virunga, Volcanoes, Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks. Unfortunately civilization has caught up with them too with negative results. They have been evicted from their forest homes in Uganda and Rwanda and now live in settlements outside the parks. In the Virunga national park, they have been relegated to living in the edges of forest like Buniga. The community walks in the Virunga national park. The Batwa cultural trail is led by the Batwa themselves and offers visitors a chance to learn how they make their huts, eat some of their locally prepared foods, dance to songs/tunes from local music instruments and learn their hunting skills. Other activities during the Batwa community visit include learning how to harvest honey and their ancient farming methods/ tools.
The Best time to visit the Virunga National Park
The Virunga National Park is open to tourism all year round if not closed due to the volatile situation in Eastern Congo. However like in most countries in sub Saharan Africa, the park has two dry and wet seasons. The drier months between July and September and December to February make conditions in the park more favorable for most tourism activities. Should one decide to go in the wet seasons, they should prepare for difficult conditions that are brought about by the heavy rains. They need to come with proper shoes and stockings that are easy to dry. The rainy months of October and November and between March and June receive fewer visitors hence lowering the cost of accommodation in some lodges and hotels.
Note: Those planning to hike mount Nyiragongo should know that the temperatures at the summit can reduce to freezing points especially during the wet season. During the dry season, the day time temperatures are cool and reach an average of 250C.
Getting to Virunga National Park
Rwanda- Congo route: This is the favorite route used by most tourists. The best travel plan is to book flights in such a way that one reaches Kigali in the late afternoon or evening. Because this would be too late to start the journey to the Congo Border (closed at night), it is advisable to book a room for the night and prepare for the journey to Congo the next day. The journey from Kigali to Gisenyi (the nearest town to the Congo border) takes four hours by road. You can use private or a public means of transport to reach the border. A private taxi costs $100 while public transport is very cheap. Once you reach Gisenyi, you can hire a taxi to the Rwanda-Congo border. You need to have three key documents to cross the border –a yellow fever vaccination card, a valid passport and Visa. After presenting these documents, travelers are issued a stamp from the Rwandan side before crossing to the Congo side for another seal. Once released from the Congo side, the journey continues to Goma town which is very close to Virunga National Park takes only 30 minutes.
Uganda- Congo route: Once a visitor arrives at Entebbe international airport, there are two ways to reach the border between Uganda and Congo. One is by road and the other by plane. The road journey from Entebbe to the border is takes not less than 8 hours. If you plan to use public means, then you can book the services of various bus operators like the Horizon buses, the Jaguar buses, the Bismarkan bus or the Post buses. These bus companies charge between $15 and $20 up to Kisoro the closest town the Congo border at Bunagana.
Those who are not comfortable with the eight hours drive from Entebbe to Kisoro can book a chartered flight to Kisoro from Kajjansi flying school located between Kampala and Entebbe. It takes only 30 minutes to reach the Virunga National Park from Bunangana border.
Water transport: For travelers who love adventure and nature, a 3 hour boat cruise along Lake Kivu would be just perfect. The boat cruise allows one enjoy the great views of Rwanda’s rolling hills that are covered with green terraced plantations and distant views of the volcanoes in the Virunga region. We recommend hiring public boats for security reasons.
N.B: International visitors may find booking and organizing a trip to the Virunga National Park on their own complicated and time consuming. To solve this dilemma, the service of a good tour operator comes into play. Mission Africa Safaris can help put together your entire Virunga National Park safari by arranging accommodation, transport and permits on your behalf. With the help of a standby Guide/ Driver, you are assured of a comfortable and safe safari.
Packing list for Virunga National Park.
Travel documents: As already noted earlier, anyone planning on a safari to Virunga National park needs to have valid passport, Visa and Yellow Fever vaccination card. These documents are required while crossing the borders and failure to move with any of them may prolong ones time at the border offices. A good practice is to make both hard and soft copies of the documents. Apart from those three essentials, you should travel with your medical insurance documents, an updated local map and your travel itinerary/plan where possible.
Clothes: Weather conditions can be unpredictable in an area covered with tropical rain forests. A typical African safari requires a rain jacket, sweater, long sleeve shirt and trousers. You might also need to travel with good hiking shoes that are simple, strong, fitting and comfortable. Do not forget good stockings and indoor shoes for relaxation while in your hotel.
Emergency telephone numbers: It is important to acquire a shim-card as soon as you enter the Democratic Republic of Congo. A local phone number is important in case of an emergency like an accident or if you wander and get lost during your safari. There are several telecommunication networks in Congo and with masts even in the remotest of areas.
Pocket change: Although dollars and other major world currencies can be easily accepted, you need to change some of it into local currency once you reach Congo. This is because during your safari, you will at some point need to make simple transactions, give tip, pay for transport, hotel rooms and porters in the local notes.
A camera and binoculars: Virunga National Park is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth. You can’t afford to miss keeping records the beautiful forests, landscape, people and animals. A good camera to capture all the memorable events is therefore a must during your safari. Other electronic gadgets to carry along include a phone, ipad and laptop to use in your room. These gadgets should be kept safely in a waterproof backpack in case of rain.
Other essentials: The following items are considered optional but may easily become essential during your safari in Virunga National Park. They include allergy medicines, antibiotics, electric adapters, flashlights, hair shampoo, hand sanitizers, insect repellents, lip balm, pain killers and vitamins.
Accommodations in Virunga National Park
Accommodation is readily available within and around the Virunga National Park depending on your budget. The hotels and lodges are divided into three categories – Budget, Mid-range and Luxury. All categories offer good quality services but some extra services may not be available in budget rooms. To get the best rooms and hotels, you need to book in advance by yourself or through the services of your tour operator. There are several hotels but we will discuss these few:-
Mikeno Lodge: Mikeno Lodge is a Luxurious Lodge located outside Goma town. The lodge has 12 Luxurious grass covered rooms that are built out of lava rocks and mahogany. The rooms are spacious with en-suit bathrooms, curved baths and stone showers. The lounge area has a fireplace, bar, dining hall among many other services. The Mikeno lodge is located in a strategic area that allows for the easy spotting of Blue Monkeys, Chimpanzees, Colbus Monkeys, Golden Monkeys and birds that sing sweet melodies next to your room windows.
Kibumba Tented Camp and Lodge: This is a recently introduced lodge that is located within the Virunga Park. These offer all the three accommodation types(budget. Mid-range and luxury) and are either tented or built with permanent structures. The rooms are self-contained with lounge and dining services. Other services include linen bedding, an on-site bar and restaurant among many others.
Lac Kivu Lodge: Lac Kivu is located within the park with20 rooms built in African style and surrounded by beautiful manicured gardens. The Lodge overlooks Lake Kivu with rooms that are spacious and offering services like Italian showers, Nespresso coffee machines, a beauty/fitness center, conference rooms, a swimming pool, WiFi and constant power.