Guide to Virunga National Park – Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Congo
Virunga National Park is a 7800 square kilometer World Heritage Site that lies on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and is just over the border from Rwanda and Uganda. Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and is considered one of the most beautiful and diverse in the World, containing Savannah, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, forests, active volcanoes and the ice fields of the Ruwenzori Mountains. The park provides a home to numerous species of wildlife, including 200 of the worlds critically endangered mountain gorillas.
For years the political situation in Congo prevented tourists from visiting Virunga but Now that the Democratic Republic of Congo is ruled by an elected government and is at peace with her neighbors, the park has been re-opened to tourists and the world is re-discovering one of its most treasured places. With so much diversity in one park, Virunga offers visitors opportunities that can be found in few other places. Our most popular attractions include visiting the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, climbing a volcano to spend the night next to the world’s biggest lava lake and trekking through the spectacular snow capped Ruwenzori Mountains.
History of the Virunga National Park
The history of the park is deeply affected by the country of which it is part. For much of its long history, Virunga National Park has struggled to survive through many of Congo’s troubled times. Thanks to the dedication of certain politicians, conservationists, park rangers and wardens, the park not only has survived, but is currently experiencing a resurgence. The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium and originally named Albert National Park, the first national park on the continent of Africa. It was founded primarily to protect the gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Mountains controlled by the Belgian Congo, but later expanded north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Ruwenzori Mountains in the far north. In the first 35 years, the boundary of the park took shape, poaching was kept to a minimum and sustainable tourism thrived due to the work of a large body of hand-picked Congolese rangers and dedicated wardens. Land remuneration and the use of park resources such as fishing and hunting by the Congolese citizen population became an on-going problem and attempts were made to solve these issues.
In the process it was renamed Virunga National Park, and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was established (today known as ICCN). In 1979 UNESCO designated the park as a World Heritage Site. The Congolese Wildlife Authority slowly lost control of Virunga and UNESCO changed the World Heritage Site status to “endangered.” Over the twenty-five years that followed, the park staff endured an almost uninterrupted series of trials that included a refugee crisis from the Rwandan Genocide that contributed to the severe destruction of park forests, 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.
Tourism has increased from zero in 2008, to approximately 2000 in 2010 with numbers continuing to grow steadily. New tourist activities are being developed in the park, including the habituation of chimpanzees in the Tongo forest and a high-end lodge conveniently located near the centre of the three main tourist attractions in the southern sector, north of Goma.
Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Congo
Virunga National Park is home to approximately 200 of the world’s remaining 790 Mountain Gorillas. The park’s gorillas live in the Mikeno Sector, an area of forest situated on the flanks of a range of mostly dormant volcanoes. Virunga National Park has 6 habituated gorilla families which can be visited by a maximum of 30 visitors per day. Visitors will have the opportunity to observe the gorillas for up to an hour. Gorillas may surround you while playing and eating in the trees, or the family may be at rest in an open grassy area. As you walk through the family you must keep a distance of at least seven meters. If a gorilla family consists of more than ten individuals, we allow a group of eight tourists to visit one gorilla family .
The treks leave from one of three patrol posts Bukima, with several rangers and trackers to accompany you. Bukima post, the most popular with tourists and the closest to Goma, has a basic tented camp or overnight stays. Treks can take from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours to reach a gorilla family, often moving through dense forest and across steep hills, so a reasonable level of fitness is required. Weather conditions can range from sunny and warm to cold and rainy, so visitors should come prepared for both.
Where to Stay in Virunga National park-Safari lodges in Congo
Mikeno Lodge, Mikeno Lodge is Virunga National Park’s first lodge opening for tourists in August of 2011. Centred between three main tourist attractions, it is a perfect location to begin treks to see the gorillas, chimpanzees, and Nyiragongo volcano. Nestled among the trees of a virgin forest, the weather is cool, the views spectacular,
and the lodging luxurious. Location: Mikeno Lodge is roughly one and half hours north of the city of Goma
(border Rwanda) and the same distance west of Bunagana (border Uganda) and can be found tucked into a
forested hillside at Virunga National Park headquarters of Rumangabo.
To the east is the Mikeno Gorilla Sector, and to the southwest is Nyiragongo Volcano. To the west, the chimpanzee treks begin in the forests of Tongo and chimpanzee Tracking permits in congo are paid upon seeing the Chimpanzee, so no need to book in advance.
Visiting the Orphan gorillas At Mikeno Lodge.
The close proximity of the lodge to the Senkwekwe Centre means guests have the opportunity to visit the four orphan gorillas living in a spacious natural enclosure with viewing platforms around the periphery. A 30- minute nature walk along a forest trail that encircles the hilltop is available for those who enjoy stretching their legs.
Whether your stay is the starting point for gorilla, volcano, and chimp adventures, or purely for a relaxing
time-out in a peaceful location, Mikeno Lodge provides an indulgent experience among the wildlife and beauty
of Virunga National Park.
Bukima Tented Camp, Bukima is one of the sites where we start our gorilla treks. Just outside the perimeter of the park a tented camp has been established catering for up to 16 people at a time. What used to be a base for Gorilla
researchers is now a basic but comfortable tented camp, Tents with 2 beds with warm blankets. Shared shower block with cold water shower. A sparsely furnished dining banda, with surprisingly good food, and a cash bar. It provides all essentials for a comfortable night out in the wilderness, with a magnificent view of the Mikeno volcano draped in tropical forest and the Nyiragongo volcano, of which the glow from the lava lake can be clearly seen at night. Spending the night at Bukima Tented Camp ensures that you can leave for gorilla trekking at a leisurely time in the morning due to the fact that gorilla trekking base is at bukima and will ensure that you will be back at your destination of choice with time to spare after your encounter with the Mountain Gorillas of Virunga.