Visiting Virunga National Park in Congo

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Virunga National Park of Congo
Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo

Straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the Virunga are not mountain range as such, but a chain of isolated freestanding volcanic cones strung along a fault line associated with the same geological process that formed the Rift Valley. Virunga is the incredible true story of a group of brave people risking their lives to build a better future in a part of Africa the world’s forgotten and a gripping expose of the realities of life in the Congo.

In the forested depths of eastern Congo lies Virunga National Park, one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth and home to the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas. In this wild, but enchanted environment, a small and embattled team of park rangers – including an ex-child soldier turned ranger, a caretaker of orphan gorillas and a dedicated conservationist – protect this UNESCO world heritage site from armed militia, poachers and the dark forces struggling to control Congo’s rich natural resources.

When the newly formed M23 rebel group declares war, a new conflict threatens the lives and stability of everyone and everything they’ve worked so hard to protect, with the filmmakers and the film’s participants caught in the crossfire.

About Virunga National Park

The Virunga National Park (French: Parc National des Virunga), formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7,800-square-kilometre (3,000 sq. mi) National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the South, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the North, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

The park was established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park and is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. In recent years, poaching and the Congo Civil War have seriously damaged its wildlife population. The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities; the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and its partner the Virunga Foundation, formerly known as the Africa Conservation Fund (UK).

When the Belgians granted Congo independence in 1960, the new state deteriorated rapidly, and so did Virunga. It wasn’t until 1969 when President Mobutu began to take a personal interest in conservation, that the park was revived. In the process, it was renamed Virunga National Park and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was established. Institut Congolais pour le Conservation de la Nature or ICCN, is still in charge of Congo’s protected areas to this day.

The political situation in the DRC has changed exponentially since then. The park is back in the hands of the ICCN and enjoying the greatest resurgence of tourism and development in its history. International donors are investing in the development of the park’s infrastructure at unprecedented levels. Virunga’s management is efficient and transparent, and morale among the rangers is at an all-time high.

Getting a tourist Visa

  • You must first purchase a mountain gorilla trek permit, a Nyiragongo trek permit, or book and pay for accommodation at the Mikeno Lodge.
  • Treks or accommodation linked with the purchase of a tourist visa through Virunga National Park are non-refundable.

How to get there

The southern sector (Gorillas and Volcano) of Virunga National Park is easily accessible in a number of different ways the most common are:

  • Overland via Uganda, cross the border in Bunagana, from where the Mountain gorilla sites Jomba and Bikenge are easily accessible within 1 hour.
  • Overland via Rwanda, cross the border at Gisenyi/Goma, the border crossing is easy if you pre – arranged a visa, if not it will be difficult or expensive (280$ if bought at the border).
  • Fly into Goma, from within the DRC many flights connect to Goma, from outside the DRC Entebbe is the only city connected by TMK. Once again make sure you have a pre – arranged visa.

Permit fees

Mountain Gorilla Permit: $400 USD ($400 less than the cost in Uganda and Rwanda). These can be bought online via the Virunga National Park Tourism Website

Nyiragongo Volcano Trek Permit: $300. If you have a sleeping bag, you can stay overnight and sleep on the summit in one of the twelve summit shelters (each contains two single beds) with a view over the largest lava lake in the world. Although these shelters aren’t plush, they offer a welcome escape from the elements. The cost of staying in a summit shelter is included in the permit fee. There is no food service on Nyiragongo. Porters can be hired at the base of the climb to carry loads for $12/day ($24 for the overnight trip). The maximum weight that porters are authorized to carry is 15kg.

Rwenzori Mountain Trek Permit: 200$ (multi-day trek). Different treks are possible (4-5-6 days)

Things to do in Virunga National Park

Climb Nyiragongo Volcano

This volcano, famous for its lava lake, is a technically easy climb from the direction of Goma. A trip to the top should take 6 hours, most climbers spend the night at the top. This also makes it possible to see the boiling lava by night, when it becomes even brighter.

Visit the Mountain Gorillas

The Mountain Gorillas are located in the Mikeno Sector, about a two and half our drive from Goma. They can also be approached from Bunagana (border of Uganda). The permit is $400, so slightly cheaper than in Uganda or Rwanda. The visits are also a bit more authentic and in smaller groups. Treks usually require 1-2 hours of hiking in each direction, depending where the mountain gorillas spent the previous night and the difficulty of the terrain. To safeguard the health of Virunga gorillas, visitors will be required to wear surgical masks (provided) when in the presence of gorillas. Time with the mountain gorillas while on your gorilla trekking safaris is strictly limited to one hour.

Rwenzori Mountain Trek

The Rwenzori Mountains are a snow capped mountain range in the north of Virunga National Park on the Border with Uganda. The highest peak in the range lies on the border and can be climbed from both countries. The trek to the glacier can be made in a 4-5 or 6 day trek. In order to start the trek visitors will need to travel to Beni by airplane (either from Goma or Entebbe).

Chimpanzee Treks

Guests staying at Mikeno Lodge can join this team on their daily visits to the chimpanzees. The day begins when a group of local trackers leave their camp at 4:30 am to locate where the chimpanzees spent the previous night. Lodge guests set out at 6:00 am to find the chimpanzees. Groups are limited to 4 people and time with the chimpanzees is restricted to one hour. The group now consists of 32 individuals.

Accommodation at Virunga National Park

Nyiragongo Crater Cabins

The Cabins are situated at the edge of the crater in sight of the lava lake, the sight of which has an astounding effect on visitors. Small cabanas built and managed by the park at the edge of the most active volcano of Africa. An overnight in the cabanas is included in the permit fee for visiting the volcano and checking out the amazing lava lake. All guests can arrange packed meal service and gear rental for the trip at an additional charge at checkout. Packed meal service includes snacks, lunch, and dinner on Day 1 and breakfast and snacks on Day 2. Water is also included for both days. Porters can be hired at the base of the climb to carry loads for $12/day ($24 for the overnight trip). The maximum weight that porters are authorized to carry is 15 kg.

Bukima Patrol Post

Bukima Camp is situated in the foothills of the Mikeno Mountain, the home of the Congolese Mountain Gorillas. An old research camp transformed into a cozy and basic tented camp at the foot of Mikeno Mountain where the hikes to the gorillas start. It is a cheaper option to spend the night close to the gorillas, but offers all essentials, toilet, shower, BBQ area, drinks for sale etc. The views are amazing day and night (when the glowing Nyiragongo volcano can clearly be seen.

Mikeno Lodge

The only high-end option within the park is the Mikeno Lodge.  The lodge is situated in the forest of Rumangabo in the southern sector of the park, 1 hour north of Goma. 5 minutes’ walk from the lodge the Senkwekwe gorilla center is located where guests can see the only 4 captive mountain gorillas in the world, 2 of which were the baby orphans rescued after their mothers were killed in the 2007 gorilla massacre. The lodge is owned and operated by the Park, assuring that all profits from the lodge are reinvested in conservation efforts.

Camping

Bukima Patrol Post

The camp also offers secure self-camping options for travelers on a budget, you can pitch your own tent on the camps grounds and use its facilities for only 15$ per person.

Transportation to Goma and Virunga National Park

Goma is just across the border from Gisenyi (Rubavu) which is about a 3 to 3.5 hour drive from Kigali. If you don’t have your own vehicle you can easily catch a bus from the Nyabugogo bus station.

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