Volcanoes National Park Rwanda / Parc National Des Volcans (PNV)
“In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat,” wrote the eminent primatologist Dian Fossey, “are great, old volcanoes towering almost 15,000 feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest – the Virungas.”
Situated in the far northwest of Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park protects the steep slopes of this magnificent mountain range – home of the endangered mountain gorilla and a rich mosaic of montane ecosystems, which embrace evergreen and bamboo forest, open grassland, swamp and heath.
Volcanoes National Park is named after the chain of dormant volcanoes making up the Virunga Massif: Karisimbi – the highest at 4,507m, Bisoke with its verdant crater lake, Sabinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura.
Tracking endangered mountain gorillas through the mysterious intimacy of the rain forest, alive with the calls of 200 species of colorful birds and chattering of the rare golden monkey, is only one of the truly unique experiences in the area.
Within the boundaries of Volcanoes National Park are Buhanga Eco-Park, an ancient forest holding Rwanda’s most intriguing folklore and Musanze Caves, formed 62 million years ago after the last estimated volcanic eruption
The unique opportunity to see gorillas in their natural habitat is unforgettable, some even say life changing. Encounters with gorillas as they go about their daily lives are carefully managed, with expert trackers and guides leading small groups of tourists up bamboo-covered slopes to spend a precious and awe-inspiring hour just a few feet away from the gentle creatures.
The largest living primate, gorillas are spread across much of the equatorial African rainforest. Broadly speaking, the species is split into lowland gorillas and mountain gorillas.
The volcanic range which spans Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to the critically-endangered mountain gorilla. Tracking gorillas in Rwanda is safe and relatively accessible.
At the latest count, there are approximately 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild, with 604 in the Virunga Massif. The population is slowly increasing, thanks to concerted efforts between our governments, communities and NGOs.
There are twelve gorilla families living in the Volcanoes National Park, which are fully habituated, with a few others habituated solely for scientific research. The groups, or troops, consist of at least one silverback along with several females and youngsters.
The troops are somewhat fluid in composition, but tend to stick to a preferred area. They are constantly monitored and protected by park rangers, with each group coming into contact with tourists for a strict maximum of one hour per day.
Eight tracking permits are issued per troop per day, meaning the encounter is as intimate and as unobtrusive as possible. With only 96 permits available each day in Rwanda, it is highly recommended to book in advance, either online or via a reputable tour operator.
Visitors gather at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters in Kinigi at 7am, and are allocated a family group on the day according to fitness levels, as well as being briefed on protocols and rules for visiting the gorillas.
The families are known as Susa, Igisha, Karisimbi, Sabyinyo, Amahoro, Agashya, Kwitonda, Umubano, Hirwa, Bwenge, Ugyenda and Muhoza.
Hikes up to their various locations can last anything from 30 minutes to four or more hours, reaching an altitude of between 2,500m and 4,000m. Porters are available to carry backpacks and cameras, as well as to offer a helping hand along the route.
10% of the revenue from the permits is channelled towards local communities, to build schools and health centres, as well as roads. There is a compensation fund for local farmers should any gorillas damage their crops, which helps to ensure peaceful co-existence.
Gorilla tracking also provides employment for many locals, from rangers and trackers to porters, drivers and staff at tourist lodges.
For those interested in tracing the footsteps of Dian Fossey, her tomb is a 30-minute drive from the park headquarters and then two or three hours hike through the forest, to above 3,000m altitude.
The annual Kwita Izina gorilla-naming ceremony is a special time to visit the Volcanoes National Park, with guided tours leading up the main event providing an opportunity to meet park staff and conservationists, attend cultural evenings and a celebration in Musanze.
At the naming ceremony itself, there’s music, dancing, and discussion about Rwanda’s great strides in gorilla conservation, and the great challenges that remain.
Conservation organisations currently working in Rwanda include: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, The Gorilla Organisation, International Gorilla Conservation Organisation, Gorilla Doctors and Wildlife Conservation Society.
How to get there
Volcanoes National Park is located in a small village called Musanze previously well-known as Ruhengeri, which is very accessible by public transport from Gisenyi or Kigali or from the airport. The drive to Volcanoes national park is 2 hrs and hence one can do gorilla tracking on the same day and drive back to Kigali after the trek. You will be required to arrive at the park headquarters in Kinigi, by 7:00 am, therefore, if you hope to trek gorillas for one day, you have to wake up very early for your journey so that you are on time. However, there isn’t any public transport from Musanze to the headquarters of the park at Kinigi.
What to Expect the day you trek gorillas in Rwanda
Carry your gorilla permit with you as you leave your hotel that morning and ensure you have packed all the necessary gears like gloves, trekking boots, long sleeved wear, rain jackets, snacks and packed lunch, walking stick (very necessary).
Carry your passport with you as you head to the park headquarters for an early morning pre-tracking briefing by park officials. Your gorilla permits will be crosschecked with your passports to verify that you are the right owner of the permit. At this moment, you are expected to be ready with your packed lunch since no one is certain about the time you will take to see these gorillas.
A cup of tea/ coffee is served as you are being entertained by the local traditional Kinyarwanda dancers to give you a good start of a strenuous yet exciting day, before the ranger guide gives you tips on how to conduct yourself on this safari trek.
After a quick briefing on safety measures and what to expect during the day, you will be divided in groups of 8 people maximum and each group is assigned one gorilla family to trek. Rwanda has 15 gorilla families, with currently being used for tourism with 8 people allowed to track per group per day.
Assigning the groups highly depends on the fitness and age of the guests. For example, those above 45 years and the ones with less fitness are assigned the ‘easy to find’ gorilla families which do not wander far away from the trail heads. However, even those with special interests about specific groups may inform their guides to help them negotiate with rangers before assigning the groups such that they may be assigned those specific groups too.
Being wild animals in their natural habitat, what may be regarded as easy to find may not necessarily be, as the animals may wander far as they search for food and therefore, it is not a guarantee that they must be near or easy to find. Even those which are allocated to the physically fit and energetic tourists, that are always regarded as strenuous to track, may be easily tracked on a particular day which makes the total experience interesting and un predictable.
Each gorilla tracking group consists of a main guide and two scouts who carry AK-47 guns, one walking in front and another behind the group. The reason for armed scouts is for protection in the forest against wild elephants or angry, wild gorillas. The scouts are trained to fire shots into the air first in order to scare away the animals but this is only done on rarest occasions when all other options like hiding away from such dangerous animals have been done. We’ve never heard of any case where such animals attacked the tourists and the scouts had to fire bullets though on many occasions, they advise to hide or remain still until the animals go away. However the policy of the National Park is to be safe rather than sorry.
Your group will also have a pair of trackers who will have been sent out in the early morning (prior to your arrival in the park) to find the location of your specific gorilla family and to assess where they may be headed. Trackers communicate the gorilla’s movements to the guide so that he can decide on the best approach to meet the gorilla family.
If you do not trust your fitness, please endeavor to let your guide know such that he may help you to hire a porter at the park gate. A porter is hired between $15 to $20 depending on what he is going to carry.
Trekking to Find the Gorillas
The overall length of your hike to the mountain gorillas is unpredictable depending on how far the gorillas have moved being wild animals. It may take as little as 30 minutes to find your gorilla family and as long as five to seven hours.
The forest is verdant, humid and somehow light and there are no discernible trekking paths. The terrain is full of hills and steep volcano slopes where you will be required to pull yourself up steep grades by grasping onto branches, plant roots, bushes and more. Follow the lead of the guide as to the best path and form to take. If you need a break, let your guide know.
It is also advisable that you carry with you some energy giving snacks and bottled mineral water to quench your thirst and give you more energy.
Golden Monkeys Tracking
Golden monkeys trekking takes place in Volcanoes national park and at the same time 7:00 just like gorillas. These rare species are also listed as endangered – and Volcanoes national park currently has two habituated golden monkeys’ troops that are available for visiting by tourists in the park, both of which make about 80 members.
Golden monkeys in Rwanda live in the bamboo vegetation towards the base of the volcanoes and habituation has helped them to overcome their initial shyness to accept their daily visit by researchers and tourists. Trekking golden monkeys and gorillas is a similar experience – in a small group of no more than eight people, and you can spend one hour with the monkeys once you find them. The endangered species are very active creatures, and jump from tree to tree which is really interesting and a little difficult to photograph!
The golden monkey trek is worth going for while in Volcanoes National Park and if you’re interested in wildlife, this is a rare and delightful experience not to be missed!. Besides Volcanoes national park, the other population of golden monkeys reside in Mgahinga gorilla national park in Kisoro district, south western Uganda.
How much is a golden monkey permit?
Just like in mountain gorillas, visitors interested in seeing golden monkeys are required to buy permits which allow them to access and spend an hour with these amazing creatures. Fortunately, golden monkey permits are quite cheap costing $100 per permit in both Uganda and Rwanda.