Life Changing Experience, by Richard Carlin
The Virunga Mountains are a chain of eight volcanoes in East Africa that form a border between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These dramatic peaks were pushed up millions of years ago as the East African Rift began to split the continent, a process that continues today even though all but one of the volcanoes is now considered extinct. The name ‘Virunga’ is derived from the local Kinyarwanda word ‘ibirunga’, which means ‘volcano’.
The impressive Virungas are mighty cones that rise above the treeline – the tallest being Mount Karisimbi, a massive 4507 metres above sea level. But it is the mountain gorillas that the Virungas are best known for today. These huge, shy, gentle creatures live in the trees that fringe the base of the volcanoes and were brought to the world’s attention in the film Gorillas in the Mist, which was filmed in the Virunga Mountains.
Thrown up when the Albertine Rift split the crust of East Africa, releasing billions of tons of magma, the Virunga Mountains have always been too steep for human settlement. These days farmers in all three countries that share the Virunga Mountains cultivate the land as high as they are allowed, but the creation of national parks in the twentieth century – Mgahinga in Uganda, Parc National Des Volcans in Rwanda and Virunga in DRC – has limited human intrusion, leaving a landscape that at times looks as if it predates homo sapiens.
Many species live among the trees that fringe the base of the (mostly-dormant) volcanoes, including water buffalo, golden monkey, duiker and elephant. However it was the huge mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) that attracted the American zoologist Dian Fossey. She observed this endangered species for eighteen years from a Rwandan camp that she created between two of the volcanoes, Karisimbi and Visoke.
These were troubled times, with the Congo Crisis raging (in 1967 President Mobutu’s soldiers arrested Dian Fossey), Idi Amin’s military dictatorship in neighbouring Uganda in the 1970s, and the Rwandan Genocide brewing.
The dwindling population of mountain gorillas was also under threat from poachers who operated with impunity across all three countries.
But when peace came at last to this troubled region the people of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC found they had a natural asset in the gorillas, whose presence attracted wealthy tourists. Today gorilla-trekking is a significant source of foreign income for all three countries.
The experience begins early each morning in the car park by the Kinigi entrance to the Parc National Des Volcans. Landcruisers arrive, each bearing the logo of a hotel or safari company. Dressed in safari gear and wrapped up against the chilly morning mist the visitors assemble for coffee, browse a few handicraft stalls and watch the display of traditional Intore dancing on the lawns. At the end of the dance the different tour groups assemble around a guide, who describes gorilla life in the Virunga Mountains and gives some background about the particular family that will be visited. Trackers follow the gorillas on a daily basis and know where each group is located. With a sizable per person trekking fee to visit the park, guests want guaranteed ‘face time’.
Vehicles are loaded up and disperse across the park. There are many rough roads up towards the treeline and guides will get you as close as possible.
Porters and trackers are waiting where the road ends. Blue-clad porters carry your bags for a tip and will also help you over walls and through undergrowth. Trackers are there to help the guide, but they also carry guns in case there are any threats from the wildlife.
Climbing steadily through a steep and intensively farmed landscape, the convoy of trackers and tourists comes eventually to a 74km stone wall that has been built along the full length of the national park in Rwanda. Beyond it no one is allowed to farm, and over the wall there is a deep ditch to make sure that neither the gorillas, elephants nor water buffalo can get out and damage crops.
Once over the wall, the incline is steep and the vegetation dense except where elephants have demolished a few trees overnight. It can take up to an hour to locate your particular gorilla family.
Once the guides have smelled gorilla, they tell everyone to leave their bags with the porters. If humans can smell gorillas, gorillas can certainly smell visitors. Walking sticks are also left behind – mountain gorillas may be habituated to human visitors, but they also harbour bad memories of spear-wielding aggressors.
Cameras at the ready, the group moves forward quietly. Who knows when you’ll round a clump of bamboo and see the first primate swings – literally – into view, a dropping nonchalantly from branch to branch.
Cameras will go into a frenzy, but no flashguns. Gorillas have no fear of the noise modern cameras make, but they do not like the flash. As your group moves in, ducking, stretching and weaving your way through the undergrowth until you find the silverback whose family this is: a huge 220-kilogramme male, who – unlike his wives – looks every kilo. He sits with his back to you, being groomed by two much smaller males.
People squat to be photographed with the silverback. You’re supposed to keep a seven-metre distance but that’s not always possible, especially when the younger gorillas come over to investigate. If they get within touching distance, one of the trackers will grunt in a very convincing impersonation of the gorilla sound for ‘back off’.
An hour later, your very exhilarated trekking group is back down at the wall. You may have seen ten or more gorillas, magnificent creatures, relaxed and playful, with facial expressions that so closely resemble humans’ that you believe you know exactly what they’re thinking. It’s good to see wild creatures who seem to have no fear of us.
Other activities in the Virunga Mountains include visiting Dian Fossey’s grave at Karisoke, where she is buried alongside Digit, her favourite silverback.
Golden monkey tracking also takes place in the park. These are amongst the most endangered primates in Africa and no more than eight guests are allowed to visit at any one time. The golden monkey, a teddy bear-sized primate, is a delight to see, munching away in the bamboo trees.
Some village schools welcome visitors and many of the safari companies contribute to the upkeep of the schools.
Bird watching walks are often run from safari lodges, and Volcano National Park has recently unveiled cave-walking tours. Birdlife in the high altitude forest is also unique, with many species of birds found only in the Virunga massif.
More ambitious activities in the Virunga Mountains include actually climbing the volcanoes. Climbing Karisimbi Volcano takes two days with an overnight in a tent.
Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes that lies between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, is part of the Great Rift Valley and a popular excursion. Visitors can tour the coffee plantations by boat or just enjoy watching the bustling lakeside lifestyle.
Experiencing the life of the pygmies – the Batwa, who were the original inhabitants of the forest but were displaced when the land became national parks – is a very humbling experience.
Visitors are often surprised at the incredibly positive outlook and warm hospitality of Rwandans. There are about eight Genocide Memorial sites in Rwanda. One of the genocide memorials is included on every Kigali city tour and is a must-see to understand Rwanda’s painful past, which has labeled the country for years; however, their impressive turnaround story has turned them in an inspiration among African countries.
The Genocide Memorial in Gisozi acts as a humbling reminder to those present and honors those lost. It’s been over 20 years since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and the nation with its vibrant cultural heritage has moved to become a safe, world-class tourism destination known for its authentic, natural and cultural attributes.
Music and dance plays an important role in the traditions of Rwandan people. Performances range from demonstrations of bravery and excellence, to humorous dance styles and lyrics, to artistry and traditional agricultural roots.
Besides finding handcrafted treasures while on countrywide travels, an extensive selection of painted and handcrafted artifacts can be viewed in craft villages, shops and numerous art galleries in Kigali.
Other helpful information:
IF YOU GO: Kigali International Airport is only 10 km from Kigali city centre and is served by many international carriers and Rawandair. Transfers to the national parks from Kigali take at least three hours, and although the drives are very scenic, 20 or 30 minutes in a helicopter is an exciting alternative.
Contact Christine Boecker to get you there!
DID YOU KNOW?
- The best times to visit are from December to February and June to September. March, April and May can be rainy and so make trekking conditions more difficult.
- Check visa requirements with the embassies of Uganda and Rwanda as they vary according to nationality.
- Some inoculation may be advisable. Yellow fever certification may be required.
- For travellers it is possible to pay for most items, in Rwanda and Uganda, in American dollars or Euros.
- Time with the gorillas is strictly limited to one hour.
- To safeguard the health of Virunga’s gorillas, visitors will be required to wear surgical masks (provided) when in the presence of gorillas. If you don’t feel well, have a fever, diarrhea, or persistent sore throat – please do not go on the trek. Mountain gorillas are extremely susceptible to human illnesses. Gorillas have died after being exposed to human respiratory viruses and other common ailments.
Those keen for the thrill of adventure can try cave diving in the spectacular Musanze Caves. Over two million years old and formed during major volcanic eruptions, these 2 km-long caves are home to a large colony of bats as well as incredible plant growth and rock formations.
Christine Boecker CTC (Certified Travel Counsellor, Canada) was born in South Africa, lived and worked in Africa as well as Europe and now calls Vancouver, British Columbia home, where TRΛVELBOECKER ΛDVENTURES was established in 1996 and has been active in the business of arranging wonderous journeys for almost 40 years now.
Tailor-making authentic travel experiences for discerning travellers with a sense of adventure is Christine’s forté, and her first-hand travel knowledge will serve you well when planning your African safari.
Working with the best, hand-picked travel partners in Africa, choosing camps and lodges according to your preferred style of travel, and always keeping your comfort and safety front of mind is top priority. Her local insight, creativity, attention to detail and service with a truly personal touch make Christine Boecker the expert Safari travel planner. Learn more…