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Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park
Located in north western Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park covers a total area of 160 square kilometers within the proximity of the Virunga ranges. Moreover, there are five, of the eight Virunga volcanoes found in the park that is; Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabinyo. The park is spread on a vast Rwandan province in a small town of Musanze, formerly Ruhengeri.

It lies to the border of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda at an altitude ranging from 2400 meters to 4507 meters above sea level. Volcanoes National Park is dominated by rainforest vegetation highlighted with patches of savannah, lush bamboo forests and huge alpine and lobelia plants.

Volcanoes National Park was the first park to be created in Africa. It was gazetted in 1925 under the Belgian colonial authorities with a major intention of preserving and protecting mountain gorillas from poachers. The park’s borders were highlighted by the Karisimbi, Bisoke and Mikeno volcanoes although the borders were later expanded to include the Belgian Congo covering a whopping area of 8,090 square kilometers.

There are plenty of mammals to enjoy watching in the park. Some animals are rarer than others while some animals are nocturnal. Some animals that you might see in Volcanoes National Park include; mountain gorillas, buffaloes, black front duikers, giant forest hogs, colobus monkeys, bush pigs, golden monkeys, spotted hyenas, vervet monkeys and bushbucks. On rare occasions, Elephants can be spotted in the park.

Volcanoes National Park has about 200 bird species recorded in the park with 12 species main species and 15 sub species endemic to the Virunga Conservation Area and the Rwenzori ranges. Some of the birds that you might see in the park include; Rwenzori batis, Handsome francolin, Grauer’s rush warbler, Rwenzori turaco, Archer’s ground robin, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, collared Apalis, Red faced woodland warbler.

Plenty of fun activities can be incorporated into your wild life safari at Volcanoes National Park to avail you an unforgettable experience. These activities can range from Birding, mountain gorilla trekking, hiking and nature walks, visiting Dian Fossey’s tomb and participating in a cultural encounter with the Ibyacu community where you get to learn about the way of living of the locals around the park and their impressive history.

Location and how to get there:
Volcanoes National Park is located in north western Rwanda with Uganda on the northern border and the Democratic republic of Congo on the western border. The park can be accessed by road from Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda on a 2 hour drive through the Rwanda countryside on a good smooth road. There is a huge opportunity to enjoy breathtaking scenery of the rugged terrain against the Virunga volcanoes in the background.

Alternatively, you could opt for the 20 minutes’ drive from Musanze, the nearest town to the park, through the urban setting of Rwanda. This route is shorter and offers great views of the urban life of the Rwandese and some of their impressive architecture. If you are coming from Uganda, you can go through the Cyanika international border post with Uganda. By air, you can book a flight with Akagera Aviation to Kinigi from where you can connect to Volcanoes National Park by road.

Attractions in Volcanoes National Park.
 Birding:
Volcanoes National Park is located on the edge where the West African rainforests intertwine with the East African savannah grasslands. It is uniquely positioned in the Albertine rift at the lips of the great East African rift valley. The famous Lake Kivu lies just a few kilometers from this spot. This automatically makes the park a birding paradise with numerous bird species endemic to the best areas in East Africa.

There are about 200 bird species in Volcanoes national park, most of these endemic to the albertine rift while others are attracted from the forests to the park. Some of the birds available in the park include; Rwenzori batis, Handsome francolin, Grauer’s rush warbler, Archer’s ground robin, Rwenzori double collared Apalis, Red faced woodland warbler and the Rwenzori turaco among others.

 Golden monkey tracking:
Volcanoes national park is home to the intriguing golden monkeys. These primates were listed among the endangered species by the World Conservation Union making them very precious in the Rwanda tourism industry. These golden monkeys, however, are endemic to the Albertine rift which means you can track them within the park.

Volcanoes national park has an impressive habituated population of golden monkeys recorded to be about 80 golden monkeys. This makes it easier to track the primates in this park than anywhere else in Rwanda. In previous years, the monkeys were much harder to find since they are small, did not make nests and hid from eagles and other predators.

Following the success of recent habituation efforts, you can now easily track the golden monkeys in Volcanoes national park. The primates are now used to human presence and you can watch as they go about their daily tasks, finding food, taking care of their young and escaping potential danger.

Golden monkey tracking starts at Kanigi tourism office very early in the morning followed by a short briefing about the rules and regulations of the activity. Tourists then head out into the jungle with a trained guide over soggy wetlands and into the valleys to the thick bamboo forest where the monkeys usually go to feed. The monkeys rarely go beyond these bamboo zones.

Once you find the monkeys, you can spend an hour with them observing as they go about their day to day activities. Trackers are expected to be 12 years and older and must have a golden monkey tracking permit. The activity takes about three hours since the monkeys are easier to find compared to Mountain gorillas since they live in lower altitudes.

Golden Monkey trackers are advised to carry waterproof hiking boots, long sleeved shirts and trousers to protect from scratches from plants and a backpack for food and personal belongings. You should also carry enough drinking water and snacks, a trekking permit and have a hiking support stick. Porters can be hired to carry your luggage while you hike.

 Hiking:
Volcanoes National Park is quite the hiking destination to reckon with. This is owing to the fact that five of the eight Virunga volcanoes are found in the park. You can easily enjoy the cool breeze and unique vegetation while on your hiking trail. Additionally, the views of the surrounding areas from the summit of the volcanoes are breathtakingly ecstatic.

Standing at a total height of 4,507 meters above sea level, Mt. Karismbi is the tallest of the eight Virunga volcanoes. Moreover, it is the eleventh highest ground on the African continent. The Mt Karisimbi hiking trail takes a total of two days through a lush Alpine forest to the snow-capped summit of Mt. Karisimbi. On this trail, expect to see plenty of forest birds, some monkeys and gorillas and beautiful scenery of valleys and horizons.

The Mt Bisoke trail starts at the Karisoke Research Centre at the foot hills of the mountain and lasts one day on a round trip. Mt. Bisoke stands at a height of 3,771 meters above sea level and it is the base of Gorilla habituation. When gorilla habituation was first introduced, it was carried out at the base of Mt. Bisoke and it is also the home to various gorilla families. Hiking on this mountain provides you with the means to see some wildlife as well as some magnificent scenery.

 Mountain Gorilla trekking:
Mountain gorillas are some of the animals found in Volcanoes national park. They live on high altitudes in the afro montane and bamboo forests on the slopes of Mt Karisimbi, Mt Sabinyo , Mt Muhavura and other Virunga volcanoes. These giants are highly sought after and you would need to hike to elevations of up to 8,000 – 13,000 feet to find them.

Volcanoes national park is one of the only four national parks where the endangered mountain gorillas can be found in the entire world. The other parks are Bwindi impenetrable forest national park and Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda and the Virunga National Park in DRC. This means that the mountain gorillas can be found only in these three countries in the world.

Mountain gorillas are settled in families comprising of several individuals which are led by the strongest male; the silverback. The head male is in charge of protecting its family, setting daily schedules and leading them to areas of the jungle which are safer and have enough resources for them to live on.

There are about eleven habituated gorilla families in Volcanoes national park with the most famous family being the Susa (A) gorilla family. This family goes way back as it was the family the famous Dian Fossey based on for her studies. It was also the first gorilla group to be habituated. It initially comprised of 42 members and was the biggest family before some members broke off due to internal conflicts. The family currently has 28 members, two silverbacks and a set of twins.

The sabinyo group is led by the largest silverback in the park, Guhonda, and it is made up of 7 members. It is the easiest family to access during hiking and it can take you about 2 hours to find it. The Amahoro gorilla group on the other hand has about 17 gorillas under a peaceful silverback, Ubumwe, who keeps losing members because he refuses to fight. This family lives on the slopes of Mt. Bisoke although it often moves to higher ground making it harder to trek them.

Living on the slopes of Mt Sabinyo not far off from Sabinyo gorilla group, is the Agashya family initially known as group 13 because of the number of members that started the group. Currently there are 25 members in this group under the silverback, Agashya who overthrew Nyakairima. Charles, a young silverback who broke off from the Amahoro family currently leads the Umubano group. It is formed by 13 members, two of which are females that Charles made off with under Ubumwe’s reserved watch.

The Kwitonda family is made up of 23 mountain gorillas and it has 4 silverbacks. The group once lived in DRC but later migrated to Volcanoes National Park. It was named after Kwitonda, a legendary silverback famous for his humility. The Hirwa group was formed by memebers of the sabinyo group 13 although more members later joined in. It is made up of 16 members constantly roaming between the slopes of Mt. Gahinga and Mt Sabinyo.

The Karisimbi group, also known as the Susa B group, resides on the upper slopes of Mt. Karisimbi with 16 members and 1 silverback. This group is one of the hardest to trek since it lives on such high altitudes. Named basing on its mobility capabilities, the Ugenda family is the most mobile gorilla group. It is made up off 11 members living on the slopes of Mt Bisoke.

Roaming the slopes of mount Bisoke, the Bwenge group is one of the most famous mountain gorilla groups in the park. It is made up of 11 members under 1 silverback, Bwenge. Some of its members featured on the popular blockbuster, “gorillas in the mist”. Although the family went through some dark times when 6 of its infants were killed, it has since recovered and more upbeat than ever.

The final mountain gorilla group is the Titus family, named after an iconic silverback, Titus, who was born during the time Dian Fossey was carrying out her research in Volcanoes National Park. Titus faced hart times when his family was killed by poachers consequently leaving him as the only survivor. This brave silverback, however, beat the odds, recovered from this tragedy and found new members to join his family.

Mountain gorilla trekking starts at the park headquarters in the morning followed by a short briefing about the do’s and don’ts of trekking. Tourists are then placed in groups and led by a guide into the jungle. The whole process can last from 2 hours to an entire day since the gorillas are harder to find compared to golden monkeys.

Once you have found the mountain gorillas, you can spend strictly one hour in a one on one encounter. Tourists can observe from a safe distance of about 7 meters as the mountain gorillas go about their daily activities like feeding, finding food, taking care of their young and sometimes even mating.

Trekkers are encouraged follow strict guidelines like being 18 years of age and older, being healthy so as not to pass on any diseases to the gorillas and turning off the flash on the Camera so as not to upset the Gorillas. The trekking team must not exceed 8 people and they must carry personal essentials like enough drinking water, snacks, trousers and long sleeved shirts.

After a fun filled gorilla trekking experience, tourists are then led back from the jungle to the park headquarters where they are issued certificates of participation. The hike back to the park is usually easier than hiking up since its downhill. Gorilla permits are available for booking with the park regulation authority.

 Nature walks:
The first nature walk trail passes through a lush rainforest to the ancient Musanze caves. These historic underground caves were formed as a result of volcanic eruptions. The caves are over two kilometers long and have stairs and a walkway. Tourists venture into the mesmerizing caves to enjoy the geographic display within the caves and also beautiful forest on the way to the caves.

The Dian Fossey trail explores the base of gorilla habituation and scientific study into the lives of mountain gorillas. Dian Fossey was a conservation primatologist who sought after the conservation, protection and habituation of mountain gorillas to promote tourism in Rwanda through Mt. Gorilla tracking. Although she was later killed, her memory has lived on in the park.

On this trail you will learn more about her gorilla conservation efforts in Rwanda based at Karisoke Research Center. The trail is carried out in her honor to remind tourists about the importance of wildlife conservation. There are endless views of forest birds, lush vegetation and historic markings.

 Cultural encounter:
Iby’lwacu cultural village:
This center is also known as the gorilla guardian’s village which focuses on conservation and protection of mountain gorillas. While on your cultural encounter safari at Volcanoes national park, you will take a tour to this center to meet the natives in the community, share their life experiences and also learn more about gorilla life in at the center.

You will take a detailed tour around the village, participate in the economic activities of the locals including, selling of traditional artifacts and herbs. The tour also gives you an opportunity to learn about the history of the locals through music, storytelling, art and traditional dance. The proceedings from this experience are dedicated to improving on the lives of the locals through providing employment as dancers, musicians and also providing social services.

Kwita-Izina Ceremony:
The Kwita-Izina ceremony is also known as the Gorilla naming ceremony where baby gorillas are appointed new names. It is an occasional ceremony aimed at celebrating new arrivals in the Gorilla families. During the ceremony, there is plenty of food, music, dance, drama and storytelling sessions. Often, celebrities affiliated to tourism and wildlife conservation are invited and they participate in picking out names to the gorillas.

Keeping track of new members of the gorilla families is very essential in tracking the numbers and overall growth of the mountain gorilla population in the country. Each mountain gorilla has a personal file with details of its age, sex, name, family, biological parents, health status and deformities. For new babies in the families, such details are taken and put down for future reference and for proper monitoring.

Where to stay at Volcanoes national park:
 Bisate Lodge:
Bisate lodge is located just outside volcanoes national park overlooking Bisoke and Karisimbi peaks and an eroded volcanic crater. The lodge provides 6 en-suite rooms fitted with modern and comfortable furnishings. There is a well-stocked bar and restaurant, a massage parlor and wifi services on the premises. Bisate lodge offers additional fun activities like visiting the Iby’wacu cultural village at an extra cost.

 Virunga lodge:
This is a luxury facility providing accommodations just an hour’s drive from Kanigi, the park’s headquarters. It is uniquely located on a ridge overlooking twin lakes Burera and Ruhondo and four of the Virunga volcanoes. There are 8 spacious stone rooms fitted with private bathrooms, solar heated showers and private verandas with comfortable seats. Meals are served at one big public table while a local indoor dance troupe entertains guests if that is what they prefer.

 Sabyinyo silverback lodge:
This is a luxury 5 star accommodation located at the foothills of the Virunga ranges in Musanze near the headquarters of Volcanoes national park. The lodge has 8 single, twin and family cottages with private balconies. The rooms have a sitting room area, a bedroom, dressing room, a fire place and bathrooms fitted with a bath and shower running both cold and hot water. The main lodge has a library and games room plus a fully stocked bar and restaurant.

 Gorillas volcanoes hotel:
This hotel is located in Musanze with 31 spacious comfortable rooms. Each of the rooms is fitted with a private bath and shower to suit the needs of the guest. There is a fully stocked restaurant, a bar, swimming pool, events room, a fitness room plus free wifi on the premises. Gorillas volcanoes hotel has a magnificent outdoor terrace where you can sit, relax and kick back or have a drink while you relax from your safari.

 La Palme Hotel:
La Palme Hotel is a three star accommodation facility offering mid-range accommodations in Musanze. The rooms are private, spacious, comfortable and fully furnished to suit your taste. There is a mini bar exquisitely selected for you to relax and also have a good drink after your adventurous day. Enjoy a selection between delicious African, French and oriental cuisines from the restaurant on the premises.

When to visit Volcanoes National Park:
Volcanoes National Park experiences rainy seasons during the months of that is; March – May and October – November. In the wet season, many roads usually get slippery and this hinders transport. However, during this time, the views are clear and the weather is cool and the vegetation is green so animals come out often to graze. Also birding might be at its best since they are attracted by the green vegetation and flowers.
During the dry months of June – mid September and December – February, Gorilla trekking is more undertaken since the slopes of the mountain are not slippery and the hiking trails are dry. July is the driest month of the year and during this time; animals are more concentrated around water sources trying to quench their thirst. It is advisable to book gorilla permits 4 months before your safari since they are always on high demand. Park fees are usually cheaper during low seasons as compared to peak seasons.