Volcanoes National Park is also known in French as Parc National des Volcanoes is positioned in north western Rwanda bordering Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park and Congo’s Virunga National Park. Volcanoes National Park is part of the Virunga conservation area and is a habitat of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park shares 5 of the 8 volcanoes that form the greater Virunga massif including Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Bisoke and Karisimbi.
Volcanoes National Park was first established in 1925 comprising of the land mass incorporating Mount Bisoke, Mikeno and Karisimbi with the aim of protecting Mountain gorillas from poaching. This made the first National Park to be gazetted in Africa. The boundary of Volcanoes National Park was extended in 1929 to include more areas of Rwanda and colonial Congo and was named Albert National Park stretching to 8090 km² under the management of Belgian colonial government which was ruling both Rwanda and Congo by then.
Following the independence of both states, the national Park was split into two however the Rwandan side was reduced to cater for pyrethrum rowing in 1969.
Volcanoes National park later became the base for the American Primatologist Dian Fossey who set her life to research about Mountain gorillas. She arrived at Karisoke in 1967 and established a research centre between Karisimbi and Bisoke. This research centre laid a strong foundation for gorilla conservation something that was to gain considerable attention in the subsequent years. The works of Dian Fossey are still celebrated up to today despite her demise in 1985 from unclear circumstances. Movies and documentaries have been recorded featuring her with the gorillas such as the famous gorillas in the mist.
Volcanoes National Park contains range of vegetation zones that vary following changes in altitudinal levels. The lower slopes comprise of the lower montane forest which was erased due to farming practices (2400 – 2500 m) and it is followed by Neoboutonia forest (2500 – 3200 m), Bamboo forest stretching to over 30% of the protected area. The Hagenia-Hypericum forest one of the largest forests of Hagenia abyssinica thrive at 2600 – 3600m while from 3500-4200m the forest is majorly marked by Lobelia lanurensis, Lobelia wollastonii, and Senecio erici-rosenii. The grassland occurs between 4300 – 4500m marked by Secondary thicket, meadows, swamps, marshes, and small lakes occur on a limited range.
Volcanoes National Park is famously known for containing a good number of the world’s critically endangered Mountain gorillas along with other species like the endangered golden monkey species that only thrive in the Virunga Volcanoes, spotted hyena, black-fronted duiker, bushbuck and buffalo. The Park also has 178 bird species of which 13 species and 16 sub species are endemic to Virunga and Mountains of Rwenzori.
Scientifically referred to as Gorilla beringei beringei, Mountain gorillas are posterities of ancestral monkeys and apes that lived in the tracts of Africa and Arabia at the onset of the Oligocene epoch (34-24 million years ago). Though the archaeological records to trace their history of evolution is poor, it can be noted that the primate group that resulted into gorillas separated from their common ancestor along with humans and Chimpanzees approximately 9 million years ago. The earliest relative of gorillas has been recorded as proconsul Africanus. The current mountain gorillas split from the eastern lowland gorillas approximately 400,000 years ago while these two species are thought to have separated from their western counterparts approximately 2 million years ago.
Gorillas present themselves in two sub species that is gorilla beringei and gorilla gorilla considering the IUCN classification. The classification of gorillas has not been an easy journey and the following was the process; in 1847, the gorilla genus was recorded as Troglodytes which did not last for long and in 1852, the genus was referred back as gorilla. In 1967, the taxonomist Colin Groves proposed that all gorillas should be categorised as gorilla gorilla with 3 sub species Gorilla gorilla gorilla (Western low land gorilla), Gorilla gorilla beringei (Mountain gorillas found in Virunga and Bwindi) and Gorilla gorilla gruaeri (low land gorillas inhabiting the west of the Virunga mountains). However, IUCN reviewed this and categorised gorillas in their current classification.
Mountain gorillas are naturally vegetarian and on minor occasions insect eating animals which are shy and less offensive as they are always thought. They are the most powerful of all apes and an adult gorilla stretches to 275kg with a height of 1.7m (6ft).
Volcanoes National Park has a considerable number of these critically endangered mountain gorillas some of which have been habituated for gorilla trekking safaris in Rwanda. They thrive in what has been termed as gorilla families or gorilla groups and these groups include the research groups and gorilla trekking groups.
The research groups include; Beetsme, and Pablo’s Shida’s which have got great number of individuals. Groups to trek number to ten and they include the following;
Susa -A Family
The Susa – A family contains 28 members including 3 Silverbacks. This was the largest gorilla family with 42 individuals and due to this, it pulled the interest of Dian Fossey regarding gorilla studies. The gorilla family later separated into two groups and it derives its name from River Susa where it was first sighted. The group has two young twins namely Impano and Byishimo who are so playful and jumpy that makes the Susa A group thrilling to trek while on Rwanda gorilla trekking safari.
Karisimbi Family (Susa-B Family)
The Karisimbi or Susa B gorilla family separated from the Susa A family and it dwells in the slopes of Karisimbi Volcano. The gorilla family comprises of 15 members and prefer the higher slopes of Karsimbi Mountain which is the highest of all the eight Virunga Volcanoes. Due to this, trekking Karisimbi group requires a relative degree of physical fitness as it dwells on raised altitude.
The Sabyinyo gorilla family comprises of 9 individuals including 2 Silverbacks. It is among the easily accessed gorilla families while undertaking gorilla trekking safaris in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Guhonda is the dominant silverback and this gorilla family dwells along the gentle slopes of Sabyinyo and Gahinga mountains.
Amahoro gorilla family derives its name from the local word Amahoro which translates to peace in English. The gorilla family has a reserved silverback called Ubumwe and it comprises of 17 members. The group dwells on raised altitude thus require a relative steep climb while of gorilla tracking safari in Rwanda.
Group 13 (Agashya Family).
The Agashya gorilla family was formerly referred to as group 13 because at the time of habituation the group had 13 members. Apparently, the Agashya gorilla family has 25 members and the dominant silverback is called Agashya which is famously known for protecting the gorilla family members from attacks. He even takes them to the top of the mountain in case of big danger. He succeeded Nyakirima silverback
Kwitonda gorilla family comprises of 18 individuals including 2 silverbacks. Kwitonda gorilla family likes moving to Democratic Republic of Congo and the dominant silverback is called Kwitonda which literally translates as the humble one.
The Umubano gorilla family separated from Amahoro gorilla group and its dominant silverback is called Charles. Ubumwe and Charles disagreed leading to several fights that culminated into separation. The Umubano gorilla family contain 9 members including 1 silverback.
Hirwa gorilla family comprises of 12 members including 1 silverback. Hirwa which translates as lucky one was formed with amalgamation of members from group 13, Sabyinyo and other gorillas. The gorilla family was unwrapped for trekking in 2006.
The Ugenda gorilla family thrives in the region of Karisimbi. The gorilla family has 11 gorillas including 2 silverbacks. The gorilla family tends to move from area to area justifying its name Ugenda which means being on the move. This prolongs its trekking duration while on gorilla trekking safari in Rwanda.
Bwenge gorilla family comprises of 11 individuals including 1 Silverback. The group dwells in the Karisoke Volcano slopes and its dominant silverback is called Bwenge who established the group in 2007. The Bwenge gorilla family went through trying moments after losing 6 infants though it has started to recover following two positive births. Trekking the Bwenge gorilla family involves hiking 600m that in turn makes it challenging to trek while on gorilla tracking safari in Rwanda.
Besides mountain gorillas, Volcanoes National Park is also a home to a range of wildlife species that can be encountered on Rwanda safari including; golden monkey (Cercopithecus mitis kandti), black-fronted duiker (Cephalophus niger), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta). The park has forest elephants though they are rarely seen.
Volcanoes National Park contains 178 bird species with 13 species and 16 sub species restricted to Virunga and Mountains of Rwenzori. Bird species that can be encountered in Volcanoes National Park include; Archer’s ground robin, dusky crimson-wing, the francolins, red-faced woodland warbler, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori batis, collared apalis and strange weaver.
Volcanoes National Park has 5 of 8 Volcanoes that form the greater Virunga massif including; Karisimbi (4507m) which is the highest of all the eight volcanoes, Bisoke (3711m), Muhabura (4127m), Gahinga (3474m) and Sabyinyo (3634m).These Volcanic mountains stand in form of series and present impressive scenic sights from distant places and in close ranges. The lower slopes of these mountains contain lush vegetation which draws its nutrients from the fertile volcanic soils.
Activities in Volcanoes National Park
Mountain Gorilla tracking / trekking.
Gorilla trekking commences at 8am local time in the morning at the Park Headquarters Kinigi with short briefing that is conducted by the park warden or the rangers. It is with in the briefing session that gorilla trekkers are allocated respective gorilla families to track and an arrangement can be made regarding the trekkers’ interests and variables including physical fitness and age. The travellers on Rwanda gorilla safari then head to the forest in search of these endangered apes traversing the jungle full of birds and wild fauna, hiking through amazing landscapes dotted with lush flora and surrounded with chanting jungle sounds. The 2 – 8 hour gorilla trekking activity includes your one full hour encounter with mountain gorillas where you are free to maximise your experience, take many photos as possible provided you observe the gorilla trekking rules and regulations. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda requires a minimum of 15 years of age and a gorilla permit that costs $750 per person.
Golden Monkey Tracking:
Besides Mountain gorilla trekking, Volcanoes National Park also offers an interesting golden monkey tracking encounter. The golden Monkeys are rare and endangered species that thrive in the range of Virunga. Tracking golden monkeys involves assembling at the park headquarters Kinigi to commence on this activity at 8am local time and since they dwell in the bamboo forest of the Volcanoes, tracking them involves traversing the lower layers of the jungle involving relative hikes. The activity tends to take 4 hours and by midday the trekkers are already back from the activity.
Volcanoes National Park contains 178 species of birds thus forming good ground for birding activity. Birders can encounter the following bird species among others; Rwenzori turaco, Archer’s ground robin, dusky crimson-wing, francolins, red-faced woodland warbler, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, strange weaver, Rwenzori batis, and the collared apalis.
Karisoke Mountain Climbing:
Karisimbi Volcano is the highest of the eight Virunga Volcanoes and the highest point in Rwanda at 4,507m. It was first summited in 1903 and holds the sixth position in terms of height on the continent of Africa after Kilimanjaro of Kenya; Mt. Kenya of Kenya, Mt Rwenzori of Uganda, Mt. Meru of Tanzania and Ras Dashen in Ethiopia. Summiting Mount Karisimbi is a two day active adventure that takes you through the grave yards of Dian Fossey though booking them extra cost. You traverse the various vegetation zones including Bamboo and wild celery that cover the lower slopes perfect for Mountain gorillas, continue through the hagenica forest before approaching splendid giant lobelia and groundsel. The first camp is pitched at 3,700m with clear views of Mount Bisoke and the second day takes you through a strenuous climb to the summit and then a descend back to the ground which takes about 6 hours.
Hiking Bisoke Volcano:
Mount Bisoke is 3,711m and offers a one day mountain climbing adventure in Volcanoes National Park. The Mount Bisoke climb commences at 7am and takes 7 hours round trip. The hike takes you through impressive flora and amazing scenic views including the views of Lake Ngezi. Climbing Bisoke is not so strenuous and can be ideal for first time climbers.
Hiking the Dian Fossey Grave:
The American Primatologist Dian Fossey is celebrated for her great works towards the Mountain gorilla conservation. After her death in 1985, she was buried at her research station Karisoke where body lies alongside that of her most loved silverback Digit. Visiting her grave is considered as an ethical encounter to commemorate her gorilla conservation efforts while on gorilla trekking safari in Rwanda.
Twin Lakes Walk:
The twin lakes walk takes you to the twin Lakes of Burera and Ruhondo with great sights of Russumo falls. The twin lakes walk takes you through a valley where the waterfalls mark its end. The activity also offer birding opportunities with encounters of Long crested Eagle, African Marsh Harrier, Stonechat, Grey-throated tit, Cinnamon-breasted Bee-eater, Paradise Fly catchers and Common Moorhen. The activity is 3 – 4 hours and is best done in the morning. The afternoon offers a relaxing boat cruise on Lake Ruhondo stretching for approximately 1.5 hours..
Lake Ngezi Hike:
Lake Ngezi is a small crater on the foothills of Mount Bisoke one of the eight volcanoes that mark the Virunga massif. The hike offers impressive scenic views and lasts 3 – 4 hours. You go along with the park ranger for protection and guidance. Lake Ngezi is also a bird habitat thus you can have opportunity to spot birds like Grauer’s swamp warbler and monkey species. The encounter also exposes you to the sights of Democratic Republic of Congo.
The caves are found in Musaze dating back to the ancient times with great historical attachment which makes it worth to encounter on Rwanda safari tour. The caves are millions of years old and in the pre-colonial Rwanda they were used as a refugee places for the King in times of war and storage for the supplies. They have unique natural build that resembles ancient Romanic cathedrals. The serene environment in the interior of these caves is only intercepted by water drops that hit the ground from the cave roof. The caves walk is ideally done in the afternoon and can be incorporated in your gorilla tracking safari in Rwanda.
Buhanga Sacred Forest Nature walks:
The Buhanga Sacred Forest is a small forest that is situated on a hill with great cultural and historical attachment to the people of Rwanda. It is noted that the Kings of Rwanda would bath in the waters of this forest before their coronation which in turn prompted people to desist from cutting trees or farming with in this forest environs regarding it as sacred. The local traditions have it that Buhanga forest tends to alter its colours in various seasons of the year. The encounter with this forest can be done in the morning and in the afternoon. The tress in this forest support counts of birds, and butterflies. The lava stone designed network of trails takes you to various viewing platforms allowing Rwanda safari undertakers to explore the forest in detail.
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge is positioned about 15 minutes’ drive from the entrance of Volcanoes National Park. The lodge offers an upmarket accommodation and offers a good ground for gorilla trekking and golden monkey tracking travellers to undertake their respective activites. Accommodation is provided in 30 private cottages and lodge has got a bar and restaurant.
Kinigi Guest House is positioned in Kinigi district about 11km from Ruhengeri town. The accommodation establishment can take up to 40 people and the rooms feature electricity and warm water. It offers impressive views of the volcanoes.
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is positioned close to the Volcanoes Park Headquarters is about few minutes’ drive. Accommodation is provided in six cottages with two (2) suites with private verandas, inbuilt ablutions and living room overseeing fireplace. The lodge also has lush gardens.
The Virunga Lodge is an upmarket/luxury accommodation establishment positioned with in 1 hour transfer from the Volcanoes Park Headquarters. Accommodation is provided in 8 chalets that are spacious with private veranda to offer good scenic views of the area.