Covering a whopping 160 square kilometers Volcanoes National Park (or Parc National des Volcans) is best known as being the home of Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda and the setting for the 1988 movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. It’s not exactly your traditional safari; particularly as you’ll be on foot and up close and personal with primates, but it’s a once in a lifetime wildlife experience that shouldn’t be missed.
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Wildlife – 5*
Usually I base my wildlife ratings on the diversity and likelihood of sightings, but with an on-foot ‘safari’ in Volcanoes National Park it’s a whole different experience. For starters, you’re typically only visiting for one reason; mountain gorillas – and you have a near 100% chance of spending an hour with an entire troop (after a potentially grueling 7 hour hike…..or as little as 20 minutes depending on where the family of gorillas happens to be at the time). You’ll be assigned a team of one guide, two guards and two advance trackers all dedicated to ensuring that you get the most out of the experience. So whilst you’ll only typically see one species – that species is the entire aim of your visit! The way you get to spend time with them (up close and personal on foot) is potentially life changing. I can say with certainty that it’s the best wildlife experience I’ve ever had! If you want to read more about the overall experience then make sure to check out my post on gorilla trekking HERE.
The park is home to a variety of animals, even though the likelihood of spotting them is extremely small if you’re on a gorilla trek. Our guide informed us that one of the reasons you travel with two armed guards (other than the slim chance that you might get charged by a Silverback Gorilla) is because the park is still thought to be home to a small number of elephants. Other wildlife includes Golden Monkeys (tracking golden monkeys can be arranged in the same way as gorillas can), Spotted Hyena, Black Fronted Duiker (cute little deer), buffalo, Bush Pigs, hogs and Bushbuck (less cute, bigger deer).
Scenery – 4*
Volcanoes National Park sits within the Virunga Volcano Conservation Region which extends to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. As its name would suggest, the area is best characterized by the elevation created by the volcanoes within the park (it incorporates five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo). The volcanoes provide a pretty impressive backdrop that’s visible as you walk towards the park boundaries across undulating farmers’ fields (although in honesty, once you’re inside the park boundary you can’t see anything other than dense foliage, which your guide will hack his way through with a machete at times). Once you’re inside the park, the lower elevations are a sweat-inducing jungle experience. However, as you continue to climb the slopes, the flora changes to cooler bamboo forest (which conjures images of Asia) before transitioning to grassland. For those of you have watched ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ then you’ll also find that the park often lives up to that name. The mist that descends on the mountains provides a mysterious, photogenic, atmosphere that only heightens the feelings of anticipation as you track down the gorillas. Note to the wise, when you do spot your gorilla family encampment, you’ll very likely have to walk through bushes of stinging nettles first – so dress appropriately!
Accommodation – 3.5*
The good news is that Volcanoes National Park is well connected. This means you can base yourself in Kinigi which is the home of the park’s HQ. You could also base yourself in Ruhengeri (apparently been renamed Musanze) which is the closest larger, well-serviced town to the Park, or stay in Gisenyi or even Kigali (although the latter means an eye-watering 4am start). The first time I went gorilla trekking, I based myself in Ruhengeri and at the time there was very little in terms of accommodation beyond really basic guest houses. It hasn’t exactly caught up with the accommodation options and standards of other East African countries, but these days there do at least seem to be a wider variety of accommodation options springing up in and around the town – even including some five-star lodges within a 30-minute drive of the park. This somewhat curtails the need to base yourself in Kigali (which involves an expensive taxi ride on winding , potholed, mountain roads in the pitch black) and provides a much more relaxed way to enjoy the park and surrounding area both before and after the trek. So basically, no matter which of these you choose, you’ll be somewhere between 20 minutes to 2 ½ hours from the park gate. If you’re looking for some ideas, then take a look at the Volcanoes National Park Website Accommodation Page here.
Access – 3.5*
When it comes to access to Volcanoes National Park, there are two primary points to consider. The good news first – ease of access from major centers and the airport. As I mentioned above, the Park is well connected to four centers of accommodation and can easily be reached from the international airport in about 2 hours on half-decent tarred roads. Note, there aren’t really any public transport options that can get you all the way to the park’s Kinigi HQ, but you can get to Ruhengeri/Musanze and then get a taxi or 4×4 from there. There are plenty of companies in Kigali who can arrange transportation all the way to the park and the second time I visited the park, we booked our visit through the Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali.
Now for the not so great news – gorilla trekking permits are necessary and expensive. Fortunately, the government has realized the importance of preserving the mountain gorilla population and has taken the important step of limiting the numbers of visitors that can track the gorillas. This is very closely monitored, and permits have more than tripled in price since the first time I went (the price at the time of writing is US$ 1,500 per permit). There are two ways to get a permit: the first is directly through The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) by telephone or email. You can get the latest details on the RDB Website. The second, and easier option, is to get a permit by arranging your visit through a local (or international) tour operator. Either way, you’ll want to try and book it as far in advance as possible as there are a limited number of permits. That said, on our last visit, we managed to get a permit with just 24 hours’ notice through a local tour operator our hotel in Kigali recommended.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 5*
Seeing mountain gorillas in the wild is a truly unique experience, and I’ve heard many people, including people I went with, describe it as a life-changing experience. In fact, one woman in our group burst into tears when she saw the gorillas for the first time (I think the loud sobbing worried the trackers who thought the gorillas might not take too kindly to it). It is, by far, the best wildlife experience I’ve had in my life.
More than Wildlife: Once you’ve finished your gorilla tracking experience, there’s still plenty to see and do in the surrounding area to keep you occupied for a couple of days. If you fancy getting up at the crack of dawn again, then you could do a similar trek to track golden monkeys (which also sets off at 7am). Other activities in the surrounding area include visiting Dian Fossey’s tomb, trekking to Burera and Ruhondo lakes, hiking Karisimbi or Bisoke volcanoes, taking a tour of Musanze Cave or visiting the cultural village at Iby’Iwacu. We opted for the latter which meant that, after much convincing on their part, I donned the traditional costume of a tribal leader. You can also learn about traditional food preparation methods, hunting, artistry and watch a traditional warrior’s dance. As you can imagine, the cultural exchange experience is obviously contrived but is also interesting, fun and entertaining (if taken in the spirit of cultural exchange in which I think it’s intended).
Dian Fossey: My knowledge of Dian Fossey is entirely gleaned from the 1988 movie, ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ which starred Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey. For those of you who aren’t aware of the story, then perhaps read Fossey’s book (same title as movie) or watch the movie before you go. You’ll hear her name referenced all the time by the guides. If even watching the movie sounds like a lot of effort to go to, then check out the quick synopsis on the IMDB website here.