Volcanoes national park runs along the border with the DRC and Uganda, it’s home to the Rwandan section of the Virungas. Comprising five volcanoes, the virungas are utterly spellbinding and few would argue that this is not one of the most exciting national parks in Africa. Of all the extraordinary sights and attractions around the virungas, the one that mostly draws people here is the mountain gorillas.
While almost all travelers are understandably captured by the desire to have a face to face encounter with these notorious apes (gorillas) in the mist, the rare golden monkeys, a troop of which have been habituated to human contact, can also be visited. There is a variety of rewarding options for climbing and trekking in the park too. To get value from the virungas, give yourself enough time as you can because this is a park that reveals to those who linger. The long dry season from June to September is the best time to go there to track mountain gorillas as it’s, well… drier.
An up-close encounter with the mountain gorillas while gorilla tracking is the highlight of a trip to Africa for many visitors. A close-quarter encounter with a silverback (male gorilla) can be a hair-raising experience, especially if you’ve only ever seen large wild animals from cages, zoos, or from the safety of a vehicle. Yet despite their intimidating size, mountain gorillas aren’t aggressive animals, entirely vegetarian, and quite safe to be around.
You will be given a safety briefing by the park rangers before departing for the trekking of the habituated Gorilla groups.
Climbing and Trekking the Volcanoes
Dian Fossey was fascinated by the virungas, and justifiably so. These stunning volcanoes serve as an evocative backdrop for a guided climb or trek. As you make your way along with the ascents, you will pass through some remarkable changes of vegetation, ranging from thick bamboo forests and giant lobelia or hagenia to alpine meadows. And there are further rewards in store: if the weather is favorable, you can enjoy spectacular views over the mountain chain.
There are several possibilities for climbing up to the summits of one or more of the volcanoes in the park, with treks ranging in length from several hours to two days. A guide is compulsory and is included in your trekking fee; additional porters are optional. Note that cutting of trees or damaging vegetation anyway in the park is forbidden, and you are allowed to make fires in designated areas only.
One of the best parts of climbing and trekking the volcanoes is that you will be awarded ample opportunities to view wildlife (that’s gorillas and golden monkeys, of course). Mostly the common herbivores in the park are the bushbucks and the black-fronted duikers, buffaloes, bush pigs, and giant forest hogs are infrequently spotted. Also, make sure to inspect the tree hollows for genets, dormice, hyraxes, squirrels, and forest pouched rats. The best birdwatching zone is in the hagenia forests, rich with turaco, francolins, sunbirds, waxbills, crimson-wings, and various hawks and buzzards.
Bisoke Crater Lake
The most popular hike is the return trip up Bisoke crater lake, it takes six to seven hours from the car park at Bisoke. The well-defined track takes you up the steep southwestern flanks of the volcano to the rim (3680m), where you can see the crater lake. From the park headquarters, it’s about a 30-minute drive to the trailhead.
Dian Fossey’s Grave
Another popular trek is this one, to the former Karisoke Research Centre site, where Dian Fossey is buried alongside many of her primate subjects, including the famous Digit. It’s also a 30-minute drive from the park headquarters to the trailhead, and a two- to three-hour hike to the camp ruins.
Gahinga and Muhabura
Climbing Gahinga (3474m; in Uganda) And Muhabura (4127m) is a two-day trip from Gasiza. The summit of the first volcano is reached after a climb of about four hours along a track that passes through a swampy saddle between the two mountains. The trip to the summit of Muhabura takes about four hours from the saddle. It is also possible to climb these volcanoes separately. For Gahinga, it’s a seven to eight hours return hike and a minimum of nine hours for Muhabura. You’ll need to be physically fit to climb Muhabura as there’s an altitude gain of more than 2000m.
You might have heard mixed reports about these modest red-painted brick cottages that are within walking distance to the park headquarters. Some of the 11 rooms are rather dark and uninspiring, but the four-bed dorm is a good bet for shoestrings. It’s set in a lovely garden with views of the towering Virungas.
Now here’s something really special-one of the most atmospheric places to stay in Rwanda. The location is among the best in the country, with incredible volcano views from the terrace; the architect-designed look, best described as “ethnic chic”, is stunning. Rooms are supremely comfortable with massive windows and lovely furnishings made of local materials.
Sabinyo Silverback Lodge
If you want to splurge on your visit to the gorillas, then this is with no doubt the place to do it. Intimate and immaculate accommodation is in Venetian plaster cottages with Rwandese-style terracotta-tiled roofs, spacious sitting areas, stylish en suite bathrooms, and phenomenal volcano views. One quibble, though the access to the 10 units has steep stairs.
Gorilla Guardians Village
This recreation of a traditional village is one of the most original places to stay in the area. Although it is mainly used to provide day-trippers with a cultural experience, you can also stay the night, and that’s when things get interesting. Guests sleep in one of the cozy mud houses and are entertained long into the evening by local villagers.
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge
These 38 rock cottages set in lush, grassy grounds and with impressive views down the volcano range are very large, functional and comfortable, and very well spaced. The attached bar and restaurant occupies an atmospheric thatched building with stone floors. Wi-fi is available at the restaurant only.