The rough Virunga Mountains are on the border of three countries: Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Each have national parks that are supposed to protect the habitat of the mountain gorillas. The rain forest on the volcanoes is home to most animal species in Africa.

It is the place where the famous Dian Fossey brought attention to the precarious situation of the mountain gorillas and also the place where she was murdered. Meanwhile, the original inhabitants, the Banta pygmies, still have to fight for their rights.

The American Dian Fossey was the first to draw attention to the poachers that were hunting the mountain gorillas in the Virunga region. In 1967, she made the mountain slopes of the Visoke volcano her home, to study the animals more closely.

She does so for no less than 18 years and with unending patience. She gains the trust of the animals as she copies their behavior, the way they eat plants, the way they scratch themselves and she also pounds her chest and burps just like the gorillas. After three years she stuck out her hand to a gorilla and the animal touched her fingers with his.

Placing her own life at risk, Fossey publicly addressed the problems of continuous poaching and thanks to her work, an international project to benefit the mountain gorilla was set up. Its goal was to gain more insight into the gorillas and to stimulate tourism. This is supposed to create jobs and reduce poaching.

Fossey does not agree with this. She believes in more patrols that have the authority to shoot at poachers. It means she’s not very well-liked, particularly among these poachers. Her murder on 26 December 1985 remains a mystery and there are several theories about her death.

One is that former governor Protais Zigiranyirazo ordered to have her killed; another idea is that poachers were behind her murder. The greater public discovered her unique work through the motion picture ‘Gorillas in the Mist’.

Berggorillas Rwanda
Mountain gorillas in Virunga. Corno van den Berg

Virunga is Swahili for volcano. A fitting name for these volcanic mountains with the highest point at 5,100 meters. It lies on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Virunga lies next to the Albert Rift Valley and Lake Edward. The territory has a range of biotopes, like a primal forest, grasslands, lakes, volcanoes and snowy mountain tops.

The lifeline of this mountain is formed by eight volcanoes. They are spread across a distance of 60 km and have beautiful names like Karisimbi (4,507 m), Visoke (3,711 m), Lake Ngezi (3,000 m), Sabyinyo (3,634 m), Gahinga (3,474 m), Muhabura (4,127 m), Nyiragongo (3,465 m) and Nyamulagira (3,053 m). Only the latter two are active and particularly the last one is among the most active volcanoes in the world. So there is always smoke visible here. The other volcanoes have been quiet for a prolonged period of time.

Part of the local inhabitants, the Batwa pygmies, used to live in the northern section of the area. They were forcefully removed when Virunga was set up. These pygmies now live on the edge of the forest, under not very favorable living conditions. They are forbidden to indulge in traditional hunting, they’re not even allowed to enter the park. Currently, there are plans to allow them access to their former living environment again.

Tourism is an important motive to protect the mountain gorillas. In both Rwanda as well as in Congo and Uganda it is possible to visit them. All the parks will allow just a limited number of tourists and against a hefty price. On the other hand, the price is reasonable if you consider that an important part of the money goes towards the protection of the animals.

Other animals also profit from the protection. For example, in 2006 the okapi (related to the giraffe) was rediscovered in this area. In fact, they only found hoof prints and droppings. The animal was last seen in 1959, but because of the density of the forest, they can hide themselves easily. According to scientists, this area is inhabited by elephants (including the rare forest elephants), chimpanzees, giraffes and buffalo. Further research is required to map out the fauna of this region.

Up to now, 218 species of mammals were counted here, along with 706 species of birds, 109 species of reptiles and 78 species of amphibians. Scientists have counted a staggering 22 species of apes. A visit here is guaranteed for some spectacular sightings.

Must-do! tips:
Do mountain gorilla tracking in style
Standing eye to eye with mountain gorillas after an climb through Africa’s dense rain forest. That is an absolute must when you visit the Virunga Mountains. The animals are fairly familiar with people so they usually display natural behaviour. The number of travelers that is allowed to go per day is very small. In this way the impact on nature is limited. Consider that it is a tough hike. First you will go to the place where the animals were spotted the day before.

Then the trackers will follow their trail of trampled grass, broken branches and twigs. If you watch closely you learn how they do it. You can track mountain gorillas in both Rwanda and Congo. According to biologists, Volcanoes NP is the best place to spot them, but you also stand a good chance in Virunga National Park. This is because of the various groups that live in the region. Mgahinga Gorilla NP also has mountain gorillas but these animals regularly cross the border into Volcanoes NP.

Work as a volunteer for the Dian Fossey Fund
If you want to help to protect the mountain gorillas, you can volunteer at the Dian Fossey Fund. You will follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey and assist with mapping out the behaviour of the animals and help to inform the local population about the situation on the gorillas. You will need to be available for at least a couple of months and must speak both English and French. It is a remarkable opportunity.

Look for chimpanzees in the jungle
Besides gorillas, the Virunga Mountains are also home to various families of chimpanzees. With a guide you can go look for these animals in the dense forest. They can be rather loud, so the chance of an encounter is very real. Especially when you take a couple of days. Inquire locally about the possibilities.

Climb one of the many volcanoes
Het Virunga-gebergte in het vroege ochtendlicht.dmitri_66 After gorilla-tracking, volcano-climbing is the most popular activity to do here. Hiring a park guide is mandatory if you want to hit the trail. Bearers are optional, but can be very useful for those who set out on a longer journey. There are various trails at Volcano National Park to either the crater, or in case of extinguished volcanoes, to the top. Inquire locally about the condition of the trails. The views from the mountains are spectacular.

From Volcano NP:
– Karisimbi (4,507 m) sometimes has a snow-covered top. You need two days from Visoke departure point. You can spend the night in a metal hut at 3,660 meters. Attention: it can be very cold here at night.
– Visoke (3,711 m) has a huge crater lake. The crater can be reached from the Visoke departure point in 4 hours, by way of a steep path. The walk around the crater is highly recommended, the total hike will take 7 to 8 hours.
– Lake Ngezi (3,000 m) is a small shallow crater lake. The hike is the easiest of the entire area. From the Visoke departure point it will take 3 to 4 hours to walk there and back.
– Sabyinyo (3,634 m) is a difficult climb of 5 to 6 hours up to the edge of the crater. The departure is from the main office of the park at Kinigi. You can spend the night in a metal hut near the lava fields.

Mgahinga Gorilla NP:
– Gahinga (3,474 m) and Muhabura (4,127 m) can both be reached from Gasiza. The path leads to a run-down cabin between the two mountains. The Gahinga top can be reached in 4 hours, but the hike to Muhabura will take two days.

Virunga NP:
– The Nyiragongo volcano (3,465 m) is extraordinary; in the 250 meter deep crater, you can see lava churning continuously. This volcano erupted in 2002 and destroyed the village of Goma. It is recommended to climb this volcano with certified guides only. As this is still a very active volcano, it is sensible to check its status in advance.

Visit the grave of Dian Fossey
The Karisoke Research Center in Volcanoes NP is the place where Dian Fossey operated from. It is also where she was killed. Her grave is next to ‘Digit’, her favorite mountain gorilla. Digit was killed by poachers, just like all the other mountain gorillas buried here.

It is an impressive site. It will give you food for thought. A guide will take you to the site in the morning. It is quite a hike from the foot of Mount Bisoke. The research center is in between Bisoke and Karisimbi.

Walk to the Garama cave
The Garama cave in Mgahinga NP is one of the places where the Batwa Pygmies once lived. The inside of the 342 meter long cave will give you an impression of their life, before they were chased away. The cave is about three kilometers from the headquarters of the park. The walk to go there and come back will take about 4 hours. Nowadays, the cave is inhabited only by bats.

Search for the golden meerkat
Alright, it is not a mountain gorilla, but seeing a golden meerkat is quite special. The golden meerkat is an endemic species, it only lives in the forests of Virunga Mountains. A guide will accompany you and tell you all about them.

See the hard life of the Batwa Pygmies
It is a harsh reality. You could say that the Batwa Pygmies have become victim of the gorillas. If you want to see how the original inhabitants of the jungle have to survive nowadays, go visit the borders of the parks. The Batwa live in camps or small villages. But also in a city like Goma, south of Virunga NP. This is not a joyful story and draws a clear picture of the problems between humans and animals.

Swim in Lake Kivu
On the border of Rwanda and Congo, you can find Lake Kivu. It’s on the southern part of Virunga National Park. Lake Kivu is the sixth largest lake in Africa. Because of its volcanic origin, the water is not ideal for hippos or crocodiles, which means it’s good to go for a swim and wash off the dust from the trails in this region. Fishermen catch tilapia here, and you will also be able to taste some of it.

Best time:
The national parks in the Virunga Mountains can be visited all through the year. The dry season is from June to September, when the roads have better access. This is ideal for gorilla-tracking. It is also the time when the chances of sustaining malaria are the lowest.

However if you wish to photograph the animals, it is better to come here in winter (December and January), as the trees will be greener and the air less foggy. It will ensure livelier pictures.

If you enjoy birdwatching, it is best to roam the area from November to March, when migratory birds are here in big numbers, especially around the water sources.

Be aware:
You need to book your permit for the gorillas way in advance. Because only a handful of people are allowed access every day, this is necessary in all territories. A permit is expensive: at least 500 dollars. Remember that an important portion of this money is used to protect the animals.

This part of Africa is still remote, so come well prepared. It is in any case sensible to arrange your whole trip in advance, to prevent any problems.

How do I get there?
Most trips to Rwanda, Congo and Uganda are arranged in advance, so local transportation will have been settled beforehand and you will be awaited at the airport.

Rwanda:
Most tourists arrive at the airport of the capital Kigali.

Congo:
There are flights directly to the capital Kinshasa. It is also possible to go by bus, for example to cities like Goma at the foot of the Virunga National Park.

Uganda:
There are direct flights to Kampala and from there you can fly to Mgahinga Gorilla NP (or just outside of it).