Volcanoes National Park lies along the Virunga Mountains with 8 ancient volcanoes which are shared by Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. The park was first gazetted in 1925, as a small area bounded by Karisimbi, Bisoke and Mikeno, intended to protect the gorillas from poachers.
The park derives its name from the rugged chain of steep volcanoes that form a chain stretching across into the DRC and is the habitat for the mountain gorillas.
Volcanoes National Park was also the base for the American naturalist Dian Fossey to carry out her research into the gorillas. Dian Fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist known for undertaking an extensive study of mountain gorilla groups from 1966 until her death in 1985. She arrived in 1967 and set up the Karisoke Research Centre between Karisimbi and Visoke.
From then on she spent most of her time in the park, and is widely credited with saving the gorillas from extinction by bringing their plight to the attention of the international community. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there by palaeontologist Louis Leakey.
Her 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist, combines her scientific study of the gorillas at Karisoke Research Centre with her own personal story. It was adapted into a 1988 film of the same name.
Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world, Dian Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdikas, were the so-called Trimates, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on common chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans).
The three were sent by Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments. During her time in Rwanda, she actively supported conservation efforts, strongly opposed poaching and tourism in wildlife habitats, and made more people acknowledge sapient gorillas. Fossey was brutally murdered in her cabin at a remote camp in Rwanda in December 1985. It has been theorized that her murder was linked to her conservation efforts.
Rwanda’s capital Kigali has a lush, mountainous setting and lively nightlife, with the sobering counterpoint of a genocide memorial. From Kigali, it is a short stop to Musanze (Ruhengeri) and the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park, one of the best places in East Africa to track the mountain gorillas.
Since permit holders are required to check in at the park headquarters in nearly Kinigi at 7:00am on the day of tracking, staying in Musanze is a much safer option than leaving from Kigali at the crack of dawn.
Musanze is a pleasant enough town to explore on foot and it is situated near a number of interesting natural sights with the massive Virunga Volcanoes looming to the north and west.
Gorilla Trekking Experience
Tracking the endangered mountain gorillas on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes is a magical experience. Volcanoes National Park protects around 400 mountain gorillas which amounts to roughly half of the world’s existing population. It is the ideal place for a gorilla safari in Rwanda.
Nothing can really prepare you for that first moment when you find yourself in the midst of a family of mountain gorillas. It is an utterly humbling experience, sharing the forest with the silver-back, whose sheer size and presence will leave you in awe, or with adorable fuzzy babies clowning about tumbling from trees.
The term once in a lifetime is bandied about a lot, but gorilla tracking in Volcanoes National Park is one experience for which it just happens to be true.
Visits to the gorillas are restricted to one hour and flash photography is banned. While you are visiting the gorillas, do not eat, drink, smoke or go the bathroom in their presence. If you have any potential air bone illness, don not go tracking as gorillas are extremely susceptible to human diseases.
The cost of a Gorilla permit
The gorilla permit costs USD 1500 per person which includes park entry, compulsory guides and guides’ fee. The number of people allowed to visit each of the group is limited to a maximum of 8 people per day, limiting the total number of daily permits to an absolute maximum of 80.
Children under the age of 15 years are not allowed to visit the gorillas. Bookings for gorilla permits can be made through the RDB tourist office in Kigali or a Rwandan tour company. With demand often exceeding supply, you will need to book well in advance if you want to be assured of a spot, especially during the peak seasons of December- January and July- August.
Other Activities in the Park
Volcanoes National Park is a central location for exploring experiences. While a visit to the mountain gorillas is often at the top of every visitor, the dramatic landscapes also offer thrilling hiking and visits to the fascinating golden monkeys is also an incredible experience.
Once you have finished tracking the gorillas, you can share the park with rare golden monkeys, a troop of which has also been habituated to human contact. These beautiful and active monkeys bound about the branches of bigger trees.
If you are looking for a reason to spend an extra day in the park, do not miss the chance to track these rare animals. Permits to track the golden monkeys cost USD 100 per person. If you need it, simply enquire at the RDB office in Kigali or Musanze or at the park headquarters in Kinigi.
The Virunga’s which tower over Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; also present a variety of rewarding climbing and trekking options. To get the most from the Virunga’s give yourself as much time as you possibly can. This is absolutely a park that rewards those who linger.
Visitors can also pay homage to the legendary scientist and gorilla advocate Dian Fossey with a hike to her tomb, a beautiful yet challenging hike to 3,000 meters up the slopes of Mount Bisoke or a hike to the beautiful Ngezi Crater Lake at the top. You can also go deep into the earth with Musanze’s caves, one of the area’s newest attractions.