Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and is also the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. The park’s 7800 square kilometers (3000 square miles) includes forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains.
Virunga is home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park’s two other Great Ape species, eastern lowland Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees, make Virunga the only park in the world to host three taxa of Great Apes. Another prominent inhabitant of the park is the Okapi, an endangered species that resembles a zebra but is more closely related to the giraffe. Large colonies of hippopotami, forest and savanna elephants, lions, and numerous rare bird species can also be found in the park.
Virunga National Park is comprised of three sectors:
- The northern sector’s defining feature is the Rwenzori Mountains that border Uganda. At over 5000 meters (16,400 ft), the summits of the Rwenzoris are permanently snow-capped. Snowmelt from the Rwenzoris is one of the primary sources of the Nile River. Okapis can be found living along the Semliki River valley below.
- Lake Edward, the Ishasha river valley, and the Rwindi plains are the dominant geographical features that define the park’s central sector. Lake Edward contains over 50 species of fish, as well as numerous bird species. The lake and the adjacent Ishasha river valley are home to the park’s recovering hippo population – once the world’s largest. The park’s highest concentrations of elephant, buffalo, warthogs, and topi are found on the Rwindi plains of the central sector.
- Virunga’s southern sector is best known for the mountain gorillas that live on the flanks on the dormant Mikeno volcano (4380m/14,557 ft). Dense forests cover most of southern Virunga, which also make it ideal habitat for chimpanzees and numerous species of monkey.
- Across the valley to the west sits Nyiragongo volcano (3470m/11,382 ft). Visitors that climb to the top are treated to a spectacular view of the world’s largest lava lake. A little farther north is Nyamulagira volcano, which is considered the most active in Africa. Nymulagira has erupted over 40 times since the late 1800s – the most recent eruptions occurring in January 2010 and November 2011.
The park was gazette in 1925 by King Albert of Belgium solely with a purpose to protect the endangered mountain gorillas. The Park covers an area of about 7800km2 and is part of the Virunga conservation area which includes Mgahinga in Uganda and Volcanoes national park in Rwanda.
Tourism in this park has been hit hard by civil unrest but since 2013 the park has been growing tremendously and the park brags of about 10% of the Vegetation endemic to the region.
Some of this vegetation is what facilitates the habituation of some wildlife species like the gorillas.
Mountain gorilla trekking
This is the most obvious thing to do in this park. There are six habituated gorilla families in the park and are waiting to be trekked. Virunga National park is among the four only parks where these gorillas still inhabit. Others being Mgahinga, Bwindi and PNV.
Kabirizi is the largest family in the national park with approximately 32. The other gorilla families in the national park are Rugendo, Munyaga, Humba, Mapuwa and Lulengo families.
This is the next most obvious thing in the Virunga. This chimpanzee tracking is as old as 1987 and was started by a zoologist named Frankfurt in 1987.
Chimpanzees are the most closes apes to human and since there discovery, a lot of people have been flocking the Virunga Parks to have a look a these special creatures.
The chimpanzee habituation permit is sold at 100usd and allows travelers to interact with the chimpanzees learning more about them.
Virunga national park is a tropical rain forest with dense vegetation. There are various trails that travelers follow leading to different directions and sites.
Travelers encounter various animals during the walks, which include buffalos, elephants, different types of monkeys, Thomas cobs and large concentration of hippopotamuses approximately 20,000 living on the banks of lake Edwards and other water in the national park.
There is the other exciting thing to do which is hiking Nyiragongo which is an active volcano. It is found in the center of the park and it has the largest lave lake in the world.
This mountain last erupted in 2002 and the lava streamed more than 20km into the communities around. Up to 2002, the mountain had been recorded to have erupted over 34 times.
Virunga national park is the best site for viewing the spectacular montane landscapes in the neighboring countries.
These include the snow summits and the jagged relief of the Rwenzori Mountains, the volcanoes in the virunga conservation area together with the Afro alpine vegetation of tree ferns and the dense forests. Virunga’s proximity to Rwanda and Uganda makes it one of the more accessible national parks in DR Congo. CAA, Compagnie Africaine d’Aviation, a national carrier, offers flights from Kinshasa to Beni, which is just outside of Virunga. This airline also services Johannesberg, so it’s also possible to fly from South Africa into Virunga with just one plane change. For Garamba, your best option is to hire a charter flight. Qwikflight offers flights from Kinshasa to Beni and to Dungu, which is not too far from Garamba. They also provide helicopter flights, for those looking to do aerial filming or who may wish to land even closer than an airstrip can provide.
Another company that offers regional service within DR Congo is Air Tropiques.
Virunga National Park can also be reached by crossing over the border in Uganda, in two places. The Kisoro-Busanza Rd just south of Bwindi, or, north of Lake Edward, just outside of the town Bwera. Border crossing can be tricky, and it’s highly advised to do this with a reputable tour operator, if this is your choice.
The Lulimbi tented Camp is the newest accommodation facility in Virunga national park. Its in the Ishasha sector at the eastern part of the park. This area is dominated by savannah plains which are cut through by river Ishasha.
The camp consists of eight tents each with good water system, toilets and solar energy. They are well furnished. The private tents have the verandas facing the river where you can watch the hippos.
Activities available include walks to Lake Edward, game drives, community visits, elephant monitoring patrols, birding walks, fishing and boat trips.
The camp depicts another position of the park especially in the southern sector. It shows how the park is unexplored and virgin to tourists.
Lulimbi’s savannah plains are enticingly isolated, making this camp an exciting new addition to the steadily growing number of Virunga properties.
The position of the camp allows or makes it possible for you to see a lot of classic mammals and birds: elephants, buffalos, hippos, warthogs, topis, kobs and vultures
Crocodiles bask on the sand banks while waders work the shores and it all feels a million miles from the Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee habitat you’ll have spent the morning in – in fact it is less than 100 and is covered by one of the Park’s light aircraft which gives an interesting and unique overview of how it all fits together and the challenges that are still being faced.
Tchegera Island Camp is the greatest place to be and escape the hustles of the city more so after hiking Nyiragongo or doing gorillas.
It’s partially submerged caldera found off the shores of Lake Kivu and it over some of the best views of the lake and here you can see four of the eight Virunga Volcanoes.
On clear nights, Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira volcanoes add to the drama by turning the night sky red with their glowing lava.
Tchegera is the perfect place for rest and relaxation. Accommodation reservations include breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Tchegera offers spectacular views of the lake and four volcanoes. For anyone who wants to do more than put their feet up you can swim in the (croc-free) bay and there are kayaks available for use – the area immediately in front of camp is well protected from the elements and is typically mill-pond calm, while the open lake beyond can get quite sporty.
The camp was opened in 2015 and the eight well-appointed tents and furnishings remain in mint condition.
In Virunga National park a UNESCO Heritage site is where this Luxurious Mikeno Lodge facility is located. It is a balance of adventure and serenity in the wild. It’s recommended for friendliness and comfort. It’s a perfect place for gorilla trekking safaris and a center for bird watching and it’s also a point for many of Virunga monkeys.
Mikeno lodge gives good views of the Nyiragongo Volcano and the rift Valley. The lodge is a 90 minutes’ drive from the Border town of Goma. There are about 12 structures or rooms at the lodge each with a unique setting all surrounded by forest and build with lava stones and Mahogany.
It is home to a variety of the Congo’s 1,185 known species of birds; baboons, colobus monkeys and chimpanzees.
There is an excellent restaurant that offers indoor or outdoor dining, with a selection of fresh cuisine – breakfast is included but additional meals are not.
The facility is a perfect location for most safari activities like chimpanzee trekking which is usually done in the forest adjacent to the lodge, the lodge is also nears the starting point for those that want to hike Nyiragongo the still active volcano. The area is also distinctive for the mountain gorillas and there is a local gorilla orphanage that you can visit too. Treks to glimpse gorillas in the wild are also frequent, and unsurprisingly very popular with guests.