Volcanoes national park is located in northwestern Rwanda and covers an area of about 160 square kilometers. The park borders with Mgahinga national park in Uganda and Virunga national park in Democratic Republic of Congo. The park is a tropical forest and encompasses 5 of the 8 Virunga volcanoes; Muhabura, Bisoke, Karisimbi, Sainyo and Gahinga. The park was gazetted in1925 intended to protect mountain gorillas from poachers.
The park later became the base for the American naturalist Dian Fossey to carry out her research about gorillas. 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 bringing their plight to the attention of the international community. She was murdered unknown assailants at her home in 1985, a crime often attributed to the poachers she had spent her life fighting against. She is buried in the park in a grave close to the research center, and amongst the gorillas which became her life.
During the Rwandan civil war in 1992, the research centre was abandoned, and all tourist activities like gorilla trekking were stopped. They did not resume again until 1999 when the area was deemed to be safe and under control. There have been occasional infiltrations Rwandan rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda in subsequent years, but these are always stopped quickly the Rwandan army and there is thought to be no threat to tourism in the park.
The park is a home to a variety of wildlife that ranges from various animal and plant species. The park is best known for the mountain gorilla. Other mammals include: golden monkey, black-fronted duiker, buffalo, spotted hyena and bushbuck. The bushbuck population is estimated to be between 1760–7040 animals. There are also reported to be some elephants in the park, though these are now very rare. There are 178 recorded bird species, with at least 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to the Virunga and Ruwenzori Mountains.
The Vegetation within the park varies considerably due to the large altitudinal range. There is some lower montane forest. Between 2400 and 2500 m, there is Neoboutonia forest. From 2500 to 3200 m bamboo forest occurs, covering about 30% of the park area. From 2600 to 3600 m, mainly on the more humid slopes in the south and west, is Hagenia-Hypericum forest, which covers about 30% of the park. This is one of the largest forests of Hagenia assinica. The vegetation from 3500 to 4200 m is characterized Lobelia wollastonii, L. lanurensis, and Senecio erici-rosenii and covers about 25% of the park. From 4300 to 4500 m grassland occurs. Secondary thicket, meadows, marshes, swamps and small lakes also occur, but their total area is relatively small.
Things to do in Volcanoes National Park
Mountain gorilla trekking
Volcanoes national park is a home to 10 habituated gorilla families which are all open for trekking tourists. They include the Susa A group which derives its name from the Susa River and known to have been monitored Dian Fossey-the famous primatologist, Sainyo family which is headed the hugest silverback gorilla “Guhonda” in the entire Volcanoes National Park, Amahoro, Hirwa, Ugenda, Agashya, Kwitonda, Umubano, Karisimbi and Bwenge.
The 10 habituated gorilla families translate to 80 permits and only eight visitors are assigned to track one group per day. The trek takes from 30 minutes to 8 hours depending on location of gorillas, nature of the habitat, visitor speed and many other factors. Visitors are given only one hour to be with the apes in the wild, explore their behavior and take as many photos as possible. Across the world, it is only in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo where you can have a chance to see these rare species while they are still in their natural habitat.
The trekking permit in Rwanda is at $1500
Golden monkey tracking
Golden monkeys are fascinating creatures that are worth tracking while on your visit to the park. These monkeys can only be found in the Virunga region and part of Kahuzi biega national park. The golden monkeys are a sub species of the Sykes monkey also famous as the blue monkey. There are 2 habituated golden monkey groups that consist of around 80 individuals, and the groups are open for tracking tourists. The activity starts at 7am and takes from 30 minutes to 3 hours and you only have an hour face to face with the monkeys. Unlike the gorillas, golden monkeys shall be expected to be spotted jumping from one bamboo plant to another as they go about their daily activities.
The park is a home to over 13 primate species. Apart from chimpanzee trekking, you can also look for other primates like; the grey cheeked Mangabeys and Ruwenzori colobus Monkeys in Nyungwe Forest. These monkeys can also be seen in large groups of up to 300 colobus monkeys.
Also as you track any of the primate group, you will likely see some other monkeys along the trek. These might include; L’ Hoest’s monkey, the Owl faced monkeys, Mona monkey and the blue monkeys. The forest is also a primate country and you can also trek the chimps, the gray cheeked and the Colobus monkeys in the ancient forest.
Volcanoes national park is a home to over 200 bird species, an exciting place for a birder. There are various trails that visitors follow as they look for these birds. Some of the notable birds you will expect to spot include; Rwenzori Turacos, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, Handsome Francolin, strange weaver, dusky crimson wing, collared apalis, archer’s ground robin, Grauer’s rush warbler, red faced woodland warbler and many more. If you are planning any birding tour in Rwanda, consider Volcanoes National Park as a must destination. You will need a pair of binoculars and camera for bird watching and many others.
Hiking to the Dian Fossey tomb
Dian fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist known for undertaking an extensive study of mountain gorilla groups from 1966 until her 1985 murder. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey.
The Dian Fossey tomb hike is one way that you can best explore more about Dian Fossey’s conservation life. For those who have watched “Gorillas in the Mist” movie, it entails more about Dian Fossey’s life and her research camp in the Volcanoes National Park. The trek to the tomb site lasts for about 3 hours where you find the beloved gorillas “Digit” and her resting site. Dian Fossey is known to have saved the critically endangered mountain gorillas that the world is proud of today.
Her research work and conservation was facilitated the Karisoke research center that she established at a time of her research in 1967. She conducted her research on mountain gorillas for over 18 years but unfortunately she was murdered unknown people in 1985. The surrounding area features spectacular scenic views and wildlife species, birds as well as primates. The trek also comes with views from golden monkeys and at times the rare mountain gorillas and birdlife.
Apart from trekking primates, the volcanoes with in the park can be trekked too. This activity offers breathe taking experiences to hikers and adventure enthusiast.
For hiking adventures within the park; you can climb Mount Bisoke which comes with spectacular Crater Lake on its top. The trek lasts for seven hours plus the two that you spend while descending back to the starting point. The hikes start at 7:00am with briefing from park official and then you will be assigned a guide. Mount Bisoke stands at 3711 meters above sea level and it features a number of stunning floras, and offers opportunity for visitors to catch a glimpse of the remarkable views of Virunga Volcanoes and the Crater Lake “Ngezi.” The hikes are less strenuous and even a person without experience can hike through it.
Karisimbi hike; this volcano features as the highest out of all the 8 Great Virunga Volcanoes. It stretches up to 4507 meters above sea level and features as the sixth highest in Africa. To hike to its summit takes 2 days and above where you will first camp around 3700 meters and catch a glimpse of stunning Mount Bisoke. The second day takes you to the summit and return to where you started from.
The top of this mountain meets hikers with views of many geographical features, vegetation and sceneries. This mountain was named after amasimbi which denotes white shell in Kinyarwanda due to its white capped summit. The trek is breathtaking compared to Bisoke Mountain but the experiences thereafter are worth the trek
For cultural tours around the park, you can engage in I’Iwacu cultural village visit. This cultural encounter was local community project to help previous poachers choose to support conservation and protection of mountain gorillas and other animals around the park. In other wards the centre was put up to teach the locals about tourism and also appreciate tourism activities in their region.
The cultural site is situated near Volcanoes National Park. Rwanda historical and present time is kept in its way for tourists to personally engage in cultural experience. It can be visited within a few hours or you can choose to spend a night in a traditional style Rwandan home that will also make up part of your experience in Rwanda. There are also traditional meals and drinks like banana beer or you may have a taste of banana juice. You can be part of people participating in riding a wooden bicycle, grinding millet and sorghum, shooting bows and arrows with the unique Batwa people, be entertained the Intore dances people and also explore more on banana and sorghum that are used as staple food in Rwanda. You can as well take part in the demonstration of the Rwandan marriage ceremony.