Volcanoes National Park is Unarguably the most rewarding African Safari destination, Volcanoes national park in Rwanda sits on a 160sqkm area in the northern part of the small nation of Africa. It has become synonymous with mountain gorilla tracking safaris and missing it out on your visit in the country is quiet a shame.
Volcanoes national park is part of a great volcanic massif known as the Virunga Mountain that covers the borders of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. The rich mosaic of montane ecosystems, embrace the ever green and open grass land, bamboo forest, heath and swamps. Originally, it was situated in a small area around Karisimbi, Visoke and Mikeno and is one of the oldest parks in Africa. It was initially gazetted to protect these gorillas that were on the verge of extinction which was a result of poaching and this has seen it to become a major tourist destination for the country over years.
Dian Fossey a primatologist spearheaded and started the ground breaking work as she was doing research on the mountain gorillas which has given the park a historic connection with gorilla conservation and it was impressively portrayed in the film and book Gorillas in the mist. She mobilized resources to fight against poaching in this area until she was murdered in 1985. She was later buried next to the grave of her favorite gorilla called Digit at the research center.
Though conservation efforts were also under way, the park continued to suffer at the mercies of poachers. Rwanda’s civil war in the early 1990s saw the park become a battle field thereby paralyzing tourism activities till 1999. In a bid to boost gorilla tours and conservation in the volcanoes national park, the annual baby naming ceremony was introduced in Rwanda in 2005 and this famous event is called ‘Kwita Iziina’. This has seen tremendous results as far as the gorilla population and tourism is concerned.
Home to mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringeri beringeri), spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), golden monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis kandti ), black fronted duiker (cephalophus niger), elephants, buffaloes(Syncerus caffer) and bushbucks (Tragelaphus scriptus), the park also harbors 178 species of birds, including 29 endemics of Rwenzori mountains and the Virungas. The cultivated foothills of the Virugas present thrilling views in all directions giving you an exciting trek. The trail abruptly enters the national park and plunges trekkers in the inexplicable intimacy of the rainforest, alive with the calls of colorful birds and rare golden monkeys that babble and littered with fresh spoor of the mountains elusive populations of elephants and buffalos. Magnificent peaks are glimpsed and easily accessible through the gaps in the forest canopy and are among the highest in Africa indicating an ascent.
At the base of the Viringas is a full of life market town of Musanze which has a memorable setting. A fascinating relic of the volcanic activity is the natural bridge, a solidified lava flow that shaped this scenic area. Seldom visited lakes Karago, Ruhondo and Burera are also within easy day tripping distance of Musanze. Musanze town also offers a splendid selection of upper and mid range hotels as well as reasonably priced small hotels as well as guest houses.
How to get there
Located in a small village called Musanze popularly known as Ruhengeri is the Volcanoes national park. It is very accessible by air from the airport or by public transport from Kigali or Gisenyi. Gorilla tracking is possible to be done on the same day of the arrival and drive back to Kigali after the trek since it is only a 2 hour drive. Public transport however is not available from Musanze to the headquarters of the park at Kinigi.
Activities on the Volcanoes national park
You will assemble at the park’s offices early in the morning after a warm breakfast for briefing before you can set off for the forest. It should be noted that this morning briefing is very essential, you don’t want to be surprised once out there in the wild.
Moving though the base of the Virungas, you will enter the national park under the guidance of a tour guide. Trees dancing to the tune of the wind as they cast dark shadows along the trails welcome you to such an incredible journey in the wilderness. Colourful birds which keep humming as well as the rare golden monkeys that keep swinging from one tree to another will entertain you on your way up the slopes of the mountain. Buffalos and elephants will also be seen through the vents in the thick forest canopy which is a bonus to this gorgeous scenery and gorilla trek.
Once you reach your destination, you will see strong, young, playful gorillas that will welcome you in a language best understood by them and probably the game rangers who have spent enough time with them. Your guide will often let you know the meaning of some of the gestures of these creatures which are more less like humans. It is common to see these gorillas do things we can do like feed their young ones, brush their fur or even put the young ones to sleep.
You will be given time to rest and bond with them though you will not be allowed to get very close to them or even touch them. This is mainly aimed at preventing the spread of zoonotic diseases and to avoid irritating the animals which may think are under attack.
Other than gorilla trekking, one can visit the popular tomb of Dian Fossey and the Karisoke research center which was established by her. There are other primates found on Volcanoes national park that can be tracked as well for example 2 troops of habituated golden monkeys which is totally different prenence from gorilla tracking. These gorgeous creatures tend to inhabit the bamboo forests on the lower slopes making it relatively easy to reach them. Constantly swinging through the bamboo as they chase each other in circles all around you are very entertaining and fast moving little creatures. They faultlessly blend in with the golden bamboo with their shinny reddish gold but gorgeous backs.
Art and culture
A visit to one of the cultural centers in the area cannot be left out as people are as much a part of the park as its primates.
Music dance and drama
Music dance and drama is a very important part on the Rwandan culture and while here you will see performances ranging from demonstrations of excellence and bravery to hilarious dance lyrics and styles. The songs are accompanied a harp like instrument locally known as lulunga having eight strings. A drum orchestra often accompanies the dances and this usually has seven to nine energetic men who effortless produce an explosion of exicting and hypnotic set of rythms which will get you on your feet before you know it.
Ranging from basketry and ceramics to contemporary paintings and traditional wood carvings, there is a wide range of locally made crafts in Rwanda. Their local baskets called ‘Agaseke’ have become popular world over and you will get the opportunity to carry one of them back home.
You will also get the opportunity to gain an insight into the local life and traditions which is not only interesting but also benefits the local communities and also discourages them from adopting negative activities like poaching. Popular for the traditional ‘Intore” dancing are the ‘Iwacu cultural village ad SACOLA cultural center both located near Kingi.
Ranging from high end, mid range as well as budget hotel options, here are some of the hotels where you can stay in Volcanoes national park when going for your gorilla trek.
Sabyinyo silverback lodge
Situated at the edge of the Virunga ranges the lodge offers a spectacular view of the unfolding hills. It is open all year round with 2 suites, 5 cottages and 1 family cottage all fitted with private verandas, sitting rooms that have got fireplaces in them and bathrooms.
Mountain Gorrilas’ nest lodge
This is a superb luxury lodge found in the northern part of Musanze district nuzzled up in a forest of Eucalyptus trees. Offering a family sized splendid accommodation at the Jack Hannah’s cottages enabling you to catch a sight of the beautiful hills and slopes of Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park. Here you will have a private chef and personal butler to spoil you and it is ideal for small families or couples.
Situated in Kingi district, the guest house is only 11km from Ruhengeri city and was constructed at the bottom of Sabyinyo volcanic mountain. It can accommodate over 40 people and each of the rooms is fitted with electricity and hot water offering you a comfortable stay while at volcanoes national park.
Gorilla Mountain View lodge
This is located at the base of the mount Sabinyo which is a volcanic mountain part of the vast Virunga ranges. It comprises 30 cottages which are comfortable and simple yet radiates with an expensive outlook. The lodge has a basic bar as well as a restaurant where mouth watering food is served.