Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is synonymous with mountain gorilla trekking, however, there are many other exotic activities one can take on. This park is part of the Virunga volcanoes which are shared between Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo. This park is an evergreen bamboo forest with grassland areas, swamp, and heath in other areas.
The mountain gorillas are the prime attraction in volcanoes national park with gorilla trekking happening all year round. Because of the high altitude, it is generally cold, especially early morning and the evenings, you are advised to carry a light sweater for these times. The park is located only 2 hours from Kigali in the north of Rwanda.
Talk of Mountain gorillas, the mighty apes! and there is; Dian Fossey. She dedicated the most productive years of her life to their protection, research and conservation. In 1967, Fossey established the Karisoke Research Foundation in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to facilitate the study of mountain gorillas. “Little did I know then that by setting up two small tents in the wilderness of the Virunga’s I had launched the beginnings of what was to become an internationally renowned research station eventually to be utilized by students and scientists from many countries,” Fossey wrote in her book “Gorillas in the Mist,” about the founding of “Karisoke,” a name she created from the nearby Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Bisoke. Considered the world’s leading authority on the physiology and behaviour of mountain gorillas, Dian Fossey fought hard to protect these “gentle giants” from both environmental and human hazards. Her study on mountain gorillas lasted for 18 years and as a result of that study, we are able to have gorilla tourism which contributes directly to gorilla conservation. Much of her work is portrayed in the internationally acclaimed film “Gorillas in the Mist,” which was shot in Volcanoes National Park.
Gorilla Families in Volcanoes National Park | Groups of Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes national park has various gorilla families; some have been habituated for gorilla tracking and others for research, whereas others are not habituated. To track gorillas during your safari in Rwanda, you need to purchase a gorilla permit through your tour operator with specific dates before embarking on this fulfilling adventurous experience. Each gorilla group is given a name depending on different reasons and circumstances and is led by a silverback. When a young silverback challenges the dominant silverback, he must ‘steal’ some females from the family in order to form his own family.
- Susa (A) gorilla group; is the largest gorilla group in volcanos national park with 41 gorillas and is the group which was studied by Dian Fossey. The group is known for having the rare twins named Byishimo and Impano. This family ranges in the high mountains making it difficult to trek, but rewards you with its size on sighting it.
- Amahoro gorilla group; Amahoro means “peace”, this family is led by the calm Ubumwe and the group mainly resides uphill which requires you to endure a steep climb to eventually get into its territory but as always, the climb is worth it.
- Hirwa gorilla group; emerged from different existing gorilla families including Group 13, Susa and Sabyinyo. Munyinya the silverback after leaving Susa with 2 females got others along the way and eventually formed this group.
- Sabyinyo gorilla group; led by Guhonda, is named after one of the volcanoes – Mt Sabyinyo. The members within this family are generally fewer but is an impressive family. This group is closest to the park headquarters, in case you are wary of tracking long distances; when available, this is the group to request.
- Kwitonda gorilla group; led by Kwitonda “humble one”. This gorilla group migrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo and settled ‘permanently’ in Rwanda. It is moderately difficult to trek because it ranges far in the upper slopes of Mt Muhabura.
- Umubano gorilla group; led by silverback Charles who broke off from Amahoro gorilla group with some females to form Umubano. The name Umubano is translated as ‘living together’.
- Uganda gorilla group; was named after its unique behaviour of roaming from place to place around the Karisimbi area, come ready to hike this volcano as you follow this gorilla group.
- Karisimbi / Susa – B gorilla group; split from the original Susa (A) group and has 2 silverbacks. This group is one of the hardest to trek, residing on the upper slopes of Mt Karisimbi. It is best for seasoned hikers who enjoy the hiking experience as much as sighting the gorillas.
- Titus gorilla group; named after silverback Titus which was born during the days of Dian Fossey’s research at Karisoke.
- Agashya gorilla group; “Group 13” had only 13 members during habituation hence its name. Currently, it has a membership of approximately 25 members and is led by silverback Agashya which explains the name change.
- Bwenge gorilla group; was formed by silverback Bwenge after breaking away with females from other groups. Bwenge is translated ‘Wisdom’. The group occupies mainly the slopes between Karisimbi and Bisoke mountains.
Guidelines of gorilla trekking
- Visitors are asked to maintain a distance of 7 m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. If you are sick with a cold, flu or other contagious illness, please do not visit the gorillas. Should you need to cough, cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas.
- Viewing time is limited to one hour.
- Maximum 8 visitors per day per group.
- Do not litter.
- Spitting in the park is strictly prohibited
- When with the gorillas, keep your voice low.
- Try not to make rapid movements that may frighten the gorillas.
- If a gorilla should charge or vocalize at you, do not be alarmed, stand still, look away from the gorilla, and follow your guide’s directions.
- Do not eat, drink or smoke in the presence of gorillas
What to carry on a gorilla trekking safari
- Wear trousers and long-sleeved shirts
- Sun hut
- Insect repellent
- Waterproof hiking boots
Wildlife in Volcanoes national park|Animals in Volcanoes National Park
Mountain gorillas are the most famous inhabitants of volcanoes national park. They have successfully placed volcanoes national park on the world map, thanks to the work of Dian Fossey and the movie “Gorilla in the Mist”. Volcanoes national park also hosts the beautiful, rare and endangered golden monkeys only found in the Virunga region. Other animals found in the forest include Forest elephants, buffaloes, bush pigs, giant forest hogs, duikers, spotted hyenas, bush-bucks and several primates.
Birds of Volcanoes National Park
For the kin bird watchers, Volcanoes national park is home to over 200 bird species with a number of Albertine rift endemics for bird watching enthusiasts to enjoy. Birding is the next best thing to do in this park after mountain gorilla tracking and golden monkey trekking. Some of the species to look out for include, Grauer’s rush warbler, Rwenzori batis, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori double –collared Sunbird, handsome francolin, strange weaver, dusky crimson-wing, collared Apalis, red-faced woodland warbler and Archer’s round-robin.
Gorilla safaris and activities in Volcanoes National Park |Gorilla trekking safaris in Volcanoes National Park
Gorilla tracking is the number one tourist activity in Volcanoes national park – Rwanda. The tracking happens once daily with 8 individuals visiting a gorilla group per day. The visitors are expected to arrive at the Rwanda development board (RDB) offices at 7 am where they are briefed about expectations when tracking gorillas and later distributed among the different gorilla groups. Once the briefing is concluded and you are allocated a gorilla group, you will follow your armed ranger guide to start your trek in search of these gentle giants. Your trek can take anything from a few minutes to 6 hours depending on the location of the group that you are tracking. Once the insight into the group, you will be able to stay in their presence for only one hour. Remember the details shared in the briefing and endeavour to follow them for not only your own safety but that of the gorillas.
Bird watching safaris in Volcanoes national park
Volcanoes national park is one of the 3 Important Birding Areas (IBA) in Rwanda with the rare Albertine rift endemics. Together with your bird guide, you will start your birding day ready with your binoculars and camera to capture some of the spectacular birds in the Virunga. Your main search for the day will be the Albertine rift endemics, enjoy the great scenery even as your bird.
Golden monkey tracking in Volcanoes national park
Golden monkey trekking takes place in Volcanoes national park once a day in the early morning, very much like gorilla trekking. You are expected to arrive for the activity briefing at the park headquarters as early as 7 am about how to behave and relate with these wild creatures. You will then be divided into two groups if you are many and start your trek led by experienced armed ranger guides.
Volcanoes national park currently has two habituated troops that are open for visiting. The total number of individuals from both is 80 habituated for tourism. Golden monkeys live mostly in the bamboo vegetation because of their love for feeding on bamboo shoots and unlike the mountain gorillas, they are active, which makes the trekking very engaging and interesting but can also be difficult. You will be following after them as they hope from one area to another looking for food and therefore you need a good degree of fitness.
Mountain hiking in Volcanoes national park
Hiking Mt Bisoke
Mount Bisoke has a remarkable crater lake at its top which makes hiking this volcano a rewarding adventure. The hike takes approximately 6 hours which includes the 2 hours spent descending to the starting point. However, some experienced hikers have hit a record of either 3 or less and an hour descending. Just like all activities, hikers meet at 7 am at the RDB offices where they listen to a briefing and start the hike with the assigned ranger guide. Your ranger guide will be knowledgeable and ready to share the mountain adventures with you. We highly encourage you to hire porters that are readily available at the starting point, they help with your luggage at a minimal fee which will not only give you freedom in enjoying the hike but also provide employment to the porters who are locals.
Hike Mt Karisimbi
Mt Karisimbi is the highest of the Virunga volcanoes, standing at 4507m above sea level; it’s the fifth-highest in Africa and is located along the Rwanda and DR Congo border on the western rift valley. The name Karisimbi is derived from ‘amasimbi’ which means “white shell” in the Kinyarwanda language because of the white-capped summits a result of hail and sleet accumulating. Hiking Karisimbi is a strenuous but rewarding two days journey that starts through Bisoke where you have chances of sighting birds, several primates including gorillas on rare occasions and remarkable scenery.
Musanze caves are as a result of volcanic eruption, which formed an underground space large enough for human entry. They are two Kilometers long with walkways and stairs that take you to the dark interior of the caves. This activity is mainly recommended after your morning gorilla tracking.
Dian Fossey tomb tour at Volcanoes national park
Trekking to the Dian Fossey tomb gives you an insight into the life of Dian Fossey and gorilla conservation in the Virunga region in general. You will learn more about her interest in the gorillas and how over the years gorilla conservation picked on which later led to gorilla tourism. Part of the distance, you travel in the car until you reach the start of the trailhead where you trek for about 1 – 2 hours where you will have chances of sighting some forest animals like the forest elephants, buffaloes, forest hogs, and several bird species.
You arrive at Dian Fossey house where she was mysteriously murdered in 1985 and later buried next to Digit, her favourite gorilla friend. The gorilla graveyard has about 20 gorillas buried here which were either killed by poachers or natural causes.
Cultural tours near Volcanoes national park
Iby’Iwacu cultural village tour
This is an initiative for local people that were formerly involved in poaching of mountain gorillas and are now on the conservation road. Edwin Sabuhoro started the village when he worked as a warden at Volcanoes national park with a desire to transform the then notorious poachers into conservationists. Your visit to this village will continue to expound on conservation efforts and provide a livelihood for many of the community members.
Enjoy an experience of the village by taking part in the activities like being crowned a king, or queen for the day in African royalty, learn about the local peoples’ traditional lifestyles and enjoy the music and dance.
Access to Volcanoes National Park |How to get to Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes national park is 2 hours’ drive from Kigali and is 30 minutes from Uganda’s cyanika border at Kisoro town. In case you can’t stand travel by road, you can also contract the services of Akagera Aviation to fly by helicopter.
Safari lodges and camps around Volcanoes national park
The places to stay near volcanoes national park range from luxury, upmarket, mid-range to basic establishments. Depending on your interests, most establishments are found in Kiningi, Musanze and some as far as an hour from the park headquarters. Listed below are some of the accommodations
- Virunga lodge
- Sabyinyo silverback lodge
- Gorilla volcanoes lodge
- Le bambou gorilla lodge
- Mountain gorilla view lodge
- Le Palme hotel
- Kinigi guesthouse
- Muhabura hotel
- Grace place hotel
Sample Safaris to Volcanoes national park
1. 2 Days Rwanda Gorilla Safari
2. 3 Days Rwanda Gorilla Safari