Virunga national park is the oldest national park in Africa and is a very biodiverse park with a lot of flora and fauna. Virunga national park is a commonly visited national park in the Democratic republic of Congo and this is majorly because it is the home of the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world. The mountain gorillas are estimated to be about 1000 individuals left in the world and these can only be found in the Virunga national park on a DR Congo safari.
Virunga National Park is a national park in the Albertine Rift Valley in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was created in 1925 and is among the first protected areas in Africa. In elevation, it ranges from 680 m (2,230 ft.) in the Semuliki River valley to 5,109 m (16,762 ft.) in the Rwenzori Mountains. From north to south it extends about 300 km (190 mi), largely along the international borders with Uganda and Rwanda in the east. It covers an area of 8,090 km2 (3,120 sq mi).
Two active volcanoes are located in the park, Mount Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. They have significantly shaped the national park’s diverse habitats and wildlife. More than 3,000 faunal and floral species have been recorded, of which more than 300 are endemic to the Albertine Rift including eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) and golden monkey (Cercopithecus kandti).
In 1979, the National Park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its rich diversity of habitats, exceptional biodiversity and endemism, and its protection of rare mountain gorilla habitat. It has been listed in the List of World Heritage in Danger since 1994 because of civil unrest and the increase of human presence in the region. There have been several deadly attacks in the park by rebel groups, and several park rangers have been killed.
Things to Do in Virunga National Park
- Gorilla trekking
Gorilla trekking is the prime activity in Virunga national park. This is the only place you find mountain gorillas in Congo. Just like in Uganda and Rwanda, one must have a valid gorilla trekking permit issued by the organization in charge. You will then be informed of the location from where you will begin your gorilla trek. Virunga national park has seven gorilla groups habituated for tourism
In the morning of the gorilla trek, you will be transferred to the park offices where you will receive a briefing from the park ranger in charge about the expectations in the forest. After this you and the people in your group will start the trek in the forest to search for the mountain gorillas.
- Chimpanzee trekking
Chimpanzee trekking in Virunga national park was started much later than the gorilla trekking. Most of what happens currently has to do with chimpanzee habituation as they get the chimps to get used to humans so that they are able to stay in the presence of people and not run off and hide when they get detect presence of people. Just gorilla trekking, you will receive a briefing before you start your hike into the forest.
The chimpanzee habituation for tourism still ongoing but currently there is a group available for chimpanzee trekking at the Mahura forest in Virunga national park. Only 6 people are allowed per groups to trek the Chimps. Unlike the gorillas, chimp trekking start much earlier in the morning to have better chances of sighting them as they start the day before they scatter in search of food especially fruits which they enjoy immensely.
The chimpanzees are more swift in their movements as they feed covering large ground compared to gorillas that tend to eat in the same area for a while. You will need to start early to get the most of this experience before you start the journey out of the forest back to your lodge or another activity. Just like gorillas, you are not allowed to go for a chimpanzee trek if you have a communicable disease – you are advised to cancel or postpone your trip. Just like in gorilla trekking, you are expected to be 15 years and above to be allowed on a chimp trek.
- Volcano Hiking
Virunga national park is home to some of the Virunga volcanoes as others are located in Uganda and Rwanda and or shared amongst 2 countries or all the three. Some of the volcanoes are active and others are dormant. The most common volcanoes for hiking are Mt Mikeno, Mt Nyamuragira and Mt Nyiragongo. Depending on your interests, you can choose to do an overnight stay where you hike to the top or just a short hike to part of the volcano.
- Nature walks
The nature walks happen in the forest for those interested in learning more about the flora of the forest and enjoy the butterflies in a very unrushed way. The walking trails are dependent on the length of trail and approximate time it takes on the trail plus the unique features. The most common is the trail to waterfalls and or one with many primates outside of the common 2 of mountain gorillas and chimpanzees.
Virunga national park is home to about 706 bird species which include several Congolese and Albertine Rift endemics making it a preferred bird haven for a mazing bird watch trips. Most of the birding happens in the forested part of the park with an armed ranger guide on the trip. The birds to look out for include; Northern pintail, Red-billed Teal, Red-necked Spur fowl, Mourning Collared Dove, Mozambique Nightjar, Alpine Swift, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Red-knobbed Coot, Black-bellied Bustard, Black-billed Turaco, Black-winged Stilt, White-fronted Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Redshank, Temminck’s Courser, Montagu’s Harrier, White-thighed Hornbill, Green Wood-hoopoe, Wahlberg’s Honeybird, Cardinal Woodpecker, Spot-flanked Barbet, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Striped Kingfisher, Lanner Falcon, Petit’s Cuckoo shrike, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Albertine, Yellow-crested Helmet-shrike, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Red-backed Shrike, African Paradise-flycatcher, Blue-headed Sunbird, Spectacled Weaver, Fawn-breasted Waxbill, Purple Indigobird, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Mountain wagtail, Thick-billed Canary, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Blue Crested-flycatcher, Flappet Lark, Moustached Grass Warbler, Stout Cisticola, Bracken Warbler, Mosque Swallow, Eastern Mountain Greenbul, Willow Warbler, Brown Thrush Babbler, Narrow-tailed Starling, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat.
Best Time to Visit Virunga National Park
The best time to visit Democratic republic of Congo shifts from south to east to north, depending on rainfall and wildlife, safari activities. You can find somewhere for a beach holiday year-round, but most people go for the Congo gorilla trekking & Nyiragongo volcano hike. In Virunga National Park, the winter dry season falls between May and October when game viewing is at its best, but to gorilla trekking, you’ll need to travel between June and early September. Gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda is year-round, but Jan-Feb and June-Sept are much cooler months.
Nyiragongo volcanoes can be visited all year round but keep in mind there is unpredictable weather changes such as regular rains during certain months of the year because Nyiragongo is in the middle of equatorial rain forests. Like from March to May and as well as November tends to be a rainy season.
The dry season begins in June to October and also December. So during the dry seasons the forest are always clear giving you a chance to enjoy and take photographs of the stunning landscape views of the greater Virunga mountains national park.
Nyiragongo Hike & Gorilla trekking in Congo is a year-round activity but Nyiragongo hike will be appreciative during the drier and cooler months of January and February and again from June to September.
How to Get to Virunga National Park
Travelers to Virunga national park Congo can easily access the park by flying to Kigali international airport and from there you connect by road to Gisenyi Rwanda – Congo border and cross to Congo driving past Goma town heading to the park headquarters which can take about 3 hours. From the border to the park where you are received by the park officials including the rangers who are able to make your Congo tour the most memorable one and a safe tour is guaranteed.
However travelers from Uganda can still travel to Virunga through Bunagana Uganda – Congo border, but this is one of the rarely used routes to Congo Virunga national park; most travelers from Uganda to Congo prefer crossing to Rwanda first through Katuna Uganda – Rwanda border and then connect to Gisenyi town and cross to Congo. But this is a full day travel journey from Uganda to Virunga past Rwanda.
Accommodation in Virunga National Park
- Mikeno Lodge
- Bukima Tented Camp
- Lulimbi Tented Camp
- Tchegera Tented Island
- Kibumba Tented Camp
- Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters