Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park is one of the oldest national parks in Africa located in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the eastern region in the Albertine Rift Valley, this park is a famous habitat to the endangered mountain gorillas and is part of the Virunga conservation area consisting of Virunga national park, Volcanoes national park in Rwanda and Mgahinga national park in Uganda. Virunga covers an area of 7,768 square kilometers and stretches from 680 meters in the Semuliki River Valley to 5,109 meters in the Rwenzori Mountains in altitude, this national park protects a diverse ecosystem including about 196 mammal species, over 708 bird species, volcanoes of which two active (Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamuragira), open grasslands, swamps and wetland vegetation, craters and crater lakes and Albertine rift. 

Because of the diverse biodiversity, Virunga was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Mountain gorillas in Virunga national park are of 8 habituated families, these families underwent through training and research so as to make them comfortable with human presence as a way of preparing them for mountain gorilla trekking experience, mountain gorilla families include Mapuwa, Lulengo, Kabirizi, Munyanga, Rugendo, Humba, Nyakamwe and Bageni. Mammals found in Virunga include buffaloes, crested porcupines, giant forest hogs, mongoose, duikers, forest elephants, squirrels, giant pangolin and many more. Apart from mountain gorilla there are also other primates including chimpanzees, De brazza monkey, red colobus monkey, grey checked mangabey and olive baboons.

The heavily forested mountainous landscape of Virunga is a home to over 708 bird species which include Rwenzori Turaco, Francolinus nobilis, the forest ground thrush, Musaphaga, skimmers, shoebills storks, egrets, grey herons, ibises are easy to spot,  grey-throated barbet, white-headed woophoopoes, Angolan swallow, Rwenzori batis, alpine swift, African olive pigeon, tropical boubou, papyrus yellow warbler, Rockefeller’s sunbird, Nectarinia Rockefeller, the Grauer’s swamp warbler and many more.

History of Virunga national park 

Virunga was first established as Albert national park in early 1925 becoming the first national park in Africa, this idea was championed by the European Conservation movement which needed to create a protected area in the then Northeastern Belgian Congo. By the time of its formation, Albert national park encompassed an area of 500 square kilometers stretching around Mount Karisimbi and Mount Mikeno, in 1929 the area of the park was extended to encompass volcanoes of Virunga, parts of Rutshuru territory and south plains of Lake Edward. In 1979 Virunga national park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the ecological importance of park.

Tourist activities in Virunga national park 

Mountain gorilla trekking 

Mountain gorilla trekking is among the highlight activities offered in Virunga national park, the park habits 8 habituated mountain gorilla groups that are Mapuwa, Lulengo, Kabirizi, Munyanga, Rugendo, Humba, Nyakamwe and Bageni which are visited on mountain gorilla trekking experience. Mountain gorilla trekking requires a trekker to be in possession of a gorilla trekking permit which is presented at the park’s headquarters before the start of the trekking, before you trek into forests of Virunga in search for mountain gorillas you are undergo a briefing session in which rules and regulations to follow are read to you. 

The exercise of looking for mountain gorillas takes about 1 – 6 hours depending on the location, movement of the gorilla family you are trekking and the terrain, as per rules and regulation you are allowed to stay only one hour in the presence of mountain while taking pictures, videos and observing the lifestyle on mountain gorillas. You are allowed to take pictures as memory piece for your trekking safari but make sure your flight is off, a mountain gorilla trekking permit in Virunga costs US$ 400 and a group of 8 people are allowed to engage in the trekking.

Chimpanzee habituation experience 

Virunga is another interesting and adventurous safari activity offering ample time to learn and observe the lifestyle of chimpanzees on chimpanzee habituation experience, this experience was initiated by Frankfurt a zoologist in 1987. Chimpanzee habituation experience starts as 6:00 am with briefing in which a head guide will read you the rules and regulations to follow while in presence of the gorillas, a maximum of 4 people is allowed in every group and offers 4 hours with the chimpanzees. In the 4 hours are free to participate in feeding the chimpanzees, taking pictures and videos as long as your flashlight is off.

Chimpanzee habituation experience permit costs US$ 100 per person 

Hiking mount Nyirangongo 

For hikers, Virunga national perfect destination as it doesn’t only offer hiking experience but also views of boiling lava on top of Mountain Nyiragongo. Mount Nyiragongo standing at the altitude of 3470 meters is an active volcano said to have erupted over 32 times and last erupted in 2002 as the lava lake on its summit drained and lava flowed to the communities situated on foothills of the volcano. Hiking Mount Nyiragongo starts with briefing done at Kibati ranger post the starting point of the hike, at exactly 10:00 am in company of armed park ranger guides you which start your hike heading to the summit of the volcano. When you reach the summit you will be rewarded with view of boiling lava in Lava Lake, you are to spend the night at camping site and next morning you will descend the volcano.

Hiking mount Nyirangongo 
Hiking mount Nyirangongo

Bird watching 

 Virunga national park is a home to over 708 bird species making it a perfect birding site in Democratic republic of Congo, the park hosts 24 bird species endemic to Virunga. As you engage in bird watching experience expect to enjoy sights of amazing bird species such as Rwenzori Turaco, Francolinus nobilis, the forest ground thrush, Musaphaga, skimmers, shoebills storks, egrets, grey herons, ibises are easy to spot,  grey-throated barbet, white-headed woophoopoes, Angolan swallow, Rwenzori batis, alpine swift, African olive pigeon, tropical boubou, papyrus yellow warbler, Rockefeller’s sunbird, Nectarinia Rockefeller, the Grauer’s swamp warbler and many more.

Guided nature walks 

Virunga national park a great destination for memorable guided nature walks, the park is dominated by tropical rainforests and guided nature walks are done various trails running through the forests. As you walk  on these trees look out for sights of animals like warthogs, forest elephants, antelopes, various species of plants and many bird species such as Rwenzori Turaco, Francolinus nobilis, the forest ground thrush, Musaphaga among others.

Where to stay in Virunga national park 

In Virunga national park, accommodation is offered in various accommodation establishments of various statuses that are luxury, midrange and budget. These accommodation establishments ensure that you have a comfortable through their perfectly tailored facilities and services such as clean and en-suite bathrooms, restaurants and many more. Lodges and camps in Virunga include Mikeno lodge, Lulimbi tented camp, Tchegera Island camp, Nyirangongo Volcano summit shelters and many more.

How to get to Virunga national park 

For tourists on a safari there is a couple of ways to get to Virunga national park that are road, air and boat transport. By road, Rwanda-Congo route is the mostly used route to reach Virunga. While using this route you have to fly in Rwanda using Kigali international airport located in Kigali city, from Kigali city you will connect to Goma town via Gisenyi in Democratic republic of Congo. From Kigali you cross over to Democratic republic of Congo using Grande Barrier border where you are mandated to present your travel and personal documents such as yellow fever vaccination certificate, passport and tourist Visa. From Grande Barrier border and the tourism offices you will proceed to Virunga national park. 

By air transport, daily flights to Goma international airport by Ethiopian airline. From Goma international airport you will connect to Virunga national park. 

By water transport, Virunga national park is using a boat ride from Bukavu port on Lake Kivu to Goma on a 3 hours ride. For security reasons, visitors of Virunga are advised to use public boats, the boat ride is an adventurous retreat offering sights of Virunga volcanoes and rolling hills

Best time to visit Virunga national park 

To get value for money every tourist maximizes on the best to go on a safari in Virunga, Virunga national park is open for tourism throughout the year. As a tourist expert the best time to visit Virunga national park for a safari is in the dry season which is experienced in the period of June to September and December to February, the dry season is also the peak season because in this period the park almost dry making the trials passable and tourists get clear views of animals due to short grass.

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