Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park was founded in April 1925 and is arguably the gem of Africa. For those who wish to experience Africa’s true natural beauty then the Virunga National Park must be on your number one list. It is this beauty and biodiversity in spite of the sometimes volatile security in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that many travelers still desire to visit. The park is the oldest national park in Africa and it covers an area of 7800 square kilometers along the Great Albertine Rift valley. The Virunga National Park still has that freshness and wildness for the few numbers of tourists that visit it, thereby making it the best park for new discoveries, research, and adventures.
Virunga National Park was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979 for its ecological importance. The rebel activities in the park negatively impacted the park and the 1990’s war period in Rwanda was challenging to the Virunga as there were high numbers of refugees that sought refuge in the Virunga Conservancy. The refugees encroached on the wildlife and its resources that in 1994, the Virunga conservancy was declared a World Heritage in Danger and later on became a Ramsar site of international importance in 1996. The Virunga is a strong ecological pillar for the entire east and central African ecosystem.
The climate in the park and the Albertine Rift is greatly influenced by the intertropical convergence zone movements thereby making the park experience both the rainy and dry seasons. The rainy season occurs in the months of March, April, mid-May, September, October, and November. The rest of the months are in the dry season and are arguably the best times to visit the park. It is because of the abundant vegetation and climate that the Virunga National Park is blessed with great varieties of fauna and rare primates.
There are 196 mammal species, 67 amphibians,708 bird species and 108 reptile species with the Nile crocodiles topping the list. Mammals like the African bush elephants, Bay duikers, African leopards, bushbucks, Checkered elephant, Crested porcupine, Lord Derby’s Scaly tailed squirrel, Aardvark, African buffaloes among so many others. The park is also a lion conservation area and a sizeable number still exists in the park despite the rampant poaching.
The primate species in the park is second to none; the park has a variety of primates that are rear to be found in the same place and among them include the endangered great and gentle mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, Blue monkeys, Central African Red Colobus, Golden monkeys, Dent’s Mona Monkeys, De Brazza’s monkey, Grey-cheeked mangabey, Hamlyn’s monkeys, mantled Guereza, Olive Baboon among so many others.
The Virunga National Park, however, does not have only wildlife that finds the park home: local tribes like the Batwa, Mbuti, Hutu and the Tutsi live in some parts of the park. These local people in the park live in communities and they offer services to the tourists as porters and local guides at subsidized prices. They also share their way of life and rich culture to the tourists through melodious songs, traditional dances, local foods among others.
The Congolese Institute of National Conservation (ICCN) is the managing body of the park and all others in the country. The institute has however faced a number of challenges. The volatile environment in and around the park has had about 175 park staff be killed by rebels and very aggressive poachers who find trading the wildlife and their remains a source of income. The park has had a number of closures due to the volatility of the area with the most recent being in May 2018. It was however reopened in 2019 and tourist activities are now ongoing. Virunga national park is safe to visit, just be sure to have a ranger with you while in the jungles.
Attractions and activities in Virunga National Park
The great biodiversity of Virunga National Park is irresistible to adventure seekers and tourists in general. The park has so many activities that a tourist can take part in while in the park and among them include the following;
Mountain gorilla trekking
Visiting the Virunga national park without going gorilla trekking is unbelievably rear as it is the topmost activity that tourists go for in the park. There are eight habituated mountain gorilla groups that are available to be tracked. Kabirizi gorilla family is the largest family with about 32 members. Mountain gorilla trekking in Virunga national park starts with purchasing a gorilla tracking permit from the park headquarters.
Once you have secured a gorilla trekking permit, gorilla trekking in the park starts with a briefing early in the morning. After the brief, trekkers are led by the park rangers in search for the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The trek takes up to four hours or more depending on the location of the mountain gorillas. You are allowed an hour to be with the gentle creatures once you encounter them. You can take pictures or videos of the gorillas or simply watch them as they feed and groom each other. Gorilla permits in Virunga National Park are at $400 only.
Chimpanzee Habituation Experience
Chimp habituation started back in 1987 by zoologist Frankfurt but it was until 2014 that the activity was opened to tourists with the guidance of the researchers and rangers. The chimpanzee habituation experience stars as early as 5:30 am when the chimps start their day. Tourists follow the chimpanzees as they go in search for something to eat. Chimps are always on the move and do not stay in the same place during the day. They will jump from tree to tree in search for what to eat and to also just play around. The chimpanzee habituation experience allows tourists to understand the chimpanzees’ way of life and group dynamics.
Mount Nyiragongo hiking
Mount Nyiragongo is one of the best places to visit while in Congo and hiking the Nyiragongo is one of the most sought after activities while in Virunga National Park. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and it has erupted up to 34 times with the latest having taken place in 2002. Thousands of visitors visit the Virunga National Park solely for the purpose of witnessing one of nature’s wonders- boiling red lava up-close! The hike up the Virunga mountain is rewarding with breathtaking scenery of the nearby forests and other volcanoes’ insight. Porters are available to help with luggage carrying, carry plenty of water and energy giving snacks for the long hike.
It is important to note that temperatures at the summit while at Mount Nyiragongo can drop to freezing points especially during the wet season.
The Batwa cultural trail
The Batwa pygmy communities who had for long-lived in the forests of the Virunga and had co-existed with the wildlife of the park were recently evicted from the national park which negatively impacted them for they were used to living I the forest and highly depended on it. The Batwa cultural trail is led the Batwa themselves who share with the tourists how they make their homesteads, harvest wild honey and tourists can prepare and eat local foods with the Batwa. The melodious songs and dances are also shared with the tourists and the Batwa also share their hunting techniques, ancient farming tools and also how to make fire from just a stick. The revenues raised from this experience are shared in the community and most of it goes to funding the Batwa children’s schooling.
Nature walks are a good way to explore the great biodiversity in plant and animal life of Virunga National Park. Tourists will be rewarded with magnificent scenery and landscapes including sights of the volcanoes like the Nyiragongo and the eroded valleys of the Sinda and Ishango or better yet marvel at the snow-capped Mountain Rwenzori in Uganda. Various wildlife views of primates and many others including butterflies will all be possible while on a nature walk in Virunga National Park.
Boat cruises on Lake Kivu
A bot cruise on Lake Kivu is a good option for one to unwind after a long hike to mount Nyiragongo, gorilla trekking or nature walks in the park. The boat cruise will give you clear views of neighboring communities and the cruise would take you to a number of islands like Ijwi which is the biggest island on Lake Kivu and the 10th in the entire world.
Perfect packing list for Virunga National Park
Visiting Virunga National Park necessitates one to have the right packing list and making sure to carry them along, some of them include;
Travel documents: A valid passport, VISA, and Yellow Fever vaccination card are very essential documents that one must have to be able to get entry into Congo and Virunga National Park as well. It is a good practice to have both hard and soft copies of these documents just in case something happens. Medical insurance documents, your travel itinerary, and an updated local map are also important documents to have with you.
Clothes: Given that Virunga National Park has unpredictable weather conditions due to the tropical rainforests that make part of the park, carrying the right clothes is necessary. A sweater, rain jacket, long sleeved shirt, trousers, good hiking boots, and stockings are advised to be carried.
A good camera and binoculars: You can’t miss keeping a record of the beautiful forest, landscape, people and animals. The park is one of the most naturally beautiful places that keeping a record of all that you see to remind you of where you once were is important. The binoculars will be good to help you see the rather distant features. Make sure to carry a waterproof backpack to safeguard your equipment.
Emergency telephone numbers: A traveler can acquire a local sim card as you make entry into the country. These sim cards can be got from the airport or you can ask your tour operator of choice to help you purchase it. This would come in handy in case of emergencies as you will be able to make calls, say in case of an accident or maybe you get lost (those who love self-drives and do own safari handling).
Other essential items that one ought to consider to carry are antibiotics, electric adapters, flashlights, hand sanitizers, insect repellents, pain killers, vitamins, allergy medicines, hair shampoo, and lip balm.
Accommodation in Virunga National Park
Accommodation in Virunga is readily available in and around the park. Depending on your budget, luxury, midrange, and budget options are all available. You can book your accommodation of choice by yourself or have a tour operator handle it all for you.
The park can be accessed easily and readily. Since it is located in the capital Kinshasa, the park needs just about 3 hours of driving to be reached. Travelers are advised to have ranger escorts with them for directions such that they do not get lost.
Virunga National Park offers a lot of activities to travelers and its untampered wild is perfect for explorers who love to make new discoveries. Take time to plan a perfect trip to Africa’s gem and you will live to remember your visit.