Located in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Virunga National Park is one of the important UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you should visit while on safari in Africa. The park features as the oldest protected area in Africa and it is famous as one of the most spectacular and diverse conservation areas in the world. It comes with savanna, swamps, Lava plains, erosion valleys, tropical forests, powerful volcanoes and ice fields of the Rwenzori Mountains.
Virunga National Park covers an area of about 7800 square kilometers and it was designated as the world heritage site purposely to offer refuge to the rare mountain. Out of 900 individuals of mountain gorillas that thrive in the world, 200 of them are found in the jungles of Virunga National Park. Whereas the political instability barred most visitors from realizing their dreams in the Virunga National Park, the Democratic Republic of Congo is recovering from the insecurities and Virunga National Park is open for tourism. The park is famous to offer refuge to not the mountain gorillas but also the powerful Nyiragongo volcano with the world’s largest Lava Lake and hiking through it comes with incredible snow capped Rwenzori Mountains.
Historically, Virunga National Park has been affected by the political situation in the country. It has tried to withstand the most of political unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Appreciation goes to some politicians, conservationists, park rangers and wardens that the park has not only thrived but also currently experienced some growth in its tourism sector. Virunga National Park was established in 1925 by King Albert 1 of Belgium and initially was called Albert National Park, which featured as the first protected area in Africa.
It was established mainly to offer refuge to the rare mountain gorillas that thrive within its tropical rain forest. With time, the park was extended up to the Bwindi plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains in the north. Around the first 35 years, the park boundary gained its shape, poaching was kept off and sustainable tourism continued as a result of the big body that picked interest in conserving the critically endangered apes. Land remuneration and use of park resources like fishing and illegal hunting by the local residents turned to be a continuous challenge and efforts to save these endangered species was established.
Later, the park was renamed as the Virunga National Park and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was founded and today it is called ICCN. Around 1979 the park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Congolese Wildlife Authority drastically lost control of Virunga and the UNESCO turned its World Heritage Site status as endangered. About 25 years, the Virunga National Park withstood the instabilities from Rwandan genocide which led to deep destruction of protected area’s forest. Currently the Virunga is under the management of ICCN. Tourism in the park has kept improving right from zero in 2008 to 2000 in 2010. This came with new activities like habituation of chimpanzees around the Tongo and several luxurious lodges around the major tourist attractions in the southern regions, north of Goma.
The rare mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park largely thrive around the Mikeno region, the park portion with forest that lies within the Nyiragongo Mountain. For lifetime experiences with Great apes, Virunga National Park features eight (8) habituated gorilla groups that have been set for tourism purposes. Gorilla permits are sold at $400 per visitor. Visitors on safari to Virunga equally have a chance to strike their imagination with these spectacular species within the one hour. Like any destination, visitors are advised to keep a distance of 7 to 8 meters away from the gorillas at all times and before setting off do not forget to put on your masks.
Only eight visitors are allowed to track one group of gorillas. Gorilla trekking in Virunga start from one of the 3 patrol stations Bukima where most park rangers and trackers will accompany visitors to the forest. Bukima station is famous with visitors and it is near Goma town and it also comes with tented camp for visitor stays. Treks in the Virunga national park range from 30 minutes to 3 hours but this depends on the visitor speed, location of gorilla family and nature habitat. The whole adventure needs you to be physically well as it involves hiking through the strenuous altitudes and the thick forests. For lifetime encounters, the park is best visited from June to September and December to February.
Accommodation options in Virunga National Park
There are several exceptional lodges and accommodation facilities for visitor stay in the park some of which include Mikeno Lodge which features as the first lodge to be opened in 2011 in the Virunga National Park. It is strategically located at the heat of Virunga’s tourist attractions (Mount Nyiragongo, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees). A stay in this lodge gives you a chance to visit the orphan gorillas at Senkwekwe centre.
The other lodges include the Bukima Tented Camp which lies within the main starting point for gorilla trekking. The lodge accommodates about 16 visitors. There is also Lake Kivu Lodge, Lulimbi Tented Camp, Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters and Tchegera Island Camp.
While planning for this adventure make sure that you have packed appropriately starting with waterproof hiking boots, camera, insect repellent, long sleeved shirts/T-shirts, bottle of water, sun screen, hats and many more.
The Virunga National Park can be reached by air and road From Kigali International Airport where you will spend about 3 hours. It is advisable to book through tour operators or rent 4×4 car with driver in Kigali because self drive is not recommended in DR Congo.
For visitors who wish to travel by air, there are international flights and the notable airlines to use are the Ethiopian airlines and many domestic airlines that set off and land into Goma airport.
Basing on the above discussion, gorilla tracking is exceptionally one of the most strenuous experiences that require you to be physically well. You have to be prepared before traveling for the actual trek. However, a face to face encounter with the rare mountain gorillas is such a magical experience that comes once in a lifetime.