How to book gorilla trekking permits in Uganda and Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park, also known as Parc National des Volcans in French and Parikiy’Igihuguy’Ibirungainin Kinyarwanda, is a small park that makes part of the Virunga Conservation Area that encompasses the Virunga National Park of the Congo and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Though mostly known for the amazing and gentle mountain gorillas and golden monkeys, Volcanoes National Park’s scenery is just as breathtaking and unforgettable. Within Volcanoes National Park are five of the eight lush and verdant volcanoes that are in the Virunga mountain range and they feature white-capped peaks, fascinating rainforests and bamboo vegetation on their slopes plus a number of serene lakes. 

Volcanoes National Park is found in the north-western part of the Republic of Rwanda in Musanze village, bordering national parks in Uganda and Congo’s Virunga National Park. Established in 1925 to protect the endangered mountain gorillas, the park covers an area of 160 square kilometers only. The altitude in the park is higher and generally colder compared to the other national parks in Rwanda. The park’s five lush and verdant volcanoes include Bisoke, Karisimbi, Muhabura, Sabinyo, and Gahinga. The park also has the Musanze caves that are quite attractive to tourists. Volcanoes National Park has the second-highest population of mountain gorillas after the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of Uganda that has over half of the world’s total gorilla population. 

Several years ago, the Volcanoes National Park was the base of American zoologist Dian Fossey, a passionate gorilla conservationist who dedicated her life to the protection and conservation of mountain gorillas. She carried out research on mountain gorillas at the Karisoke Research Center in the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda. Her study of the mountain gorillas that lasted i8 long years resulted into the availability of gorilla tourism in Rwanda and the other countries that also inhabit these mountain gorillas which also contributes to their conservation. Even after her death, her work is still much appreciated and lives on and is portrayed in the internationally acclaimed film “Gorillas in the Mist” that was shot in the Volcanoes National Park.

Volcanoes National Park is however not only known for mountain gorillas or have only those to offer to tourists. The park has wildlife that includes the golden monkeys that are not found in every park and are actually endangered too, forest elephants, bush pigs, buffaloes, duikers, spotted hyena and a number of many more animals can also be found in the park. The park is also home to over 200 bird species with a whole lot of the Albertine Rift endemics and some of the birds that travelers are sure to encounter include the Rwenzori Batis, Rwenzori Turaco, the handsome francolin, dusky crimson-wing, Archer’s ground robin among so many others. Just be sure to not forget your binoculars if birding is one of your specialties.

Activities in Volcanoes National Park

The Volcanoes National Park has a number of activities that travelers can take part in. Whereas some need prior booking, liking gorilla trekking and golden monkey tracking, others can be done when in the park and do not require prior booking. Activities in the park include;

Gorilla Trekking: Gorilla trekking is the number one and undoubtedly the most sought after tourist activity in Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda. Gorilla trekking takes place every single day ad a maximum of 8 persons are allowed to track a particular gorilla group. The activity usually starts with a brief at the park headquarters at 7 am by the rangers who share what travelers should expect and the rules and guidelines to be followed while on the trek. They are then divided into groups of eight and allocated gorilla groups to trek. The trek can take from 30 minutes to up to five hours or more depending on the location of the gorilla family. Travelers are allowed only one hour with the gorillas once encountered where they take pictures and videos (please do not use flask cameras) and marvel at the gentle near-human mountain gorillas, some playful juveniles may even come close and play around on you under a watchful eye of the dominant and very protective silverback.

Volcanoes National Park now boasts of about 10 different mountain gorilla groups that are fully habituated and open for gorilla trekking in Rwanda. Each gorilla group is given a name depending on different circumstances and is led by a dominant silverback. Silverbacks are overthrown sometimes by other more aggressive males and end up either splitting to make new families or take over leadership of that particular group. Some of the gorilla families or groups in Rwanda include;

Amahoro gorilla group

Amahoro, which translates into ‘peaceful’, is led by the very calm Ubumwe. They reside in the uphill, thereby strenuous to be tracked as one has to endure a steep climb which is worth it though once you meet this very calm family.

Hirwa gorilla group

This family came into existence from the different members that left groups of Susa, Sabinyo and Group 13. The group is led by Munyiya who broke off from Susa with two females.

Kwitonda gorilla group

This is led by Kwitonda the silverback whose name is translated to ‘humble’. This group migrated from the Congo and settled permanently in Rwanda.

Agashya gorilla group

During its habituation, the group had only 13 members but the number increased significantly with time. The group is led by Agashya the dominant silverback.

Sabinyo gorilla group

This group is led by the dominant silverback called Guhonda. The group is named after the volcano of Mount Sabinyo. The group is the closest to the park and is most recommended to trackers that are weary of tracking if doing gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

Umubano gorilla group

Charles, the dominant silverback of this group broke off from the Amahoro gorilla group along with some female gorillas to form his own. The term Umubano simply translates into ‘living together’.

Susa gorilla group

This is the largest gorilla group in Volcanoes National Park with up to 41 members. This group was studied by Dian Fossey and is known to having twins Byishimo and Impano born to the family which is actually a very rear scenario. 

Karisimbi gorilla group

This group split from the Susa group and has two silverbacks. The group resides in the upper slopes thus hard to trek. It is advised to travelers who are up to a challenge.

Titus gorilla group

The group was named after Titus, a gorilla born during Dian Fossey’s research time.

Bwenge gorilla group

The group was formed by Bwenge after he broke off with females and it mainly occupies the slopes of that are between Mount Karisimbi and Bisoke. Bwenge translates into ‘wisdom’. 

To do a gorilla trekking safari in Rwanda, one needs to have purchased a gorilla trekking permit that can be got from the Rwanda Development Board in Kigali or have a trusted tour operator do it for you. The cost of the permit in Rwanda is $1,500 and since it is a much sought after activity in Volcanoes National Park, travelers are advised to book at the very last 3 months in advance so as to secure and be guaranteed of an experience that awaits you in this once in a lifetime gorilla trekking safari.

There are rules and guidelines that are laid out to travelers in order to have a successful gorilla trekking experience in Rwanda. These include, among others;

  • Only eight visitors per day are allowed to a particular group. This is in order to minimize behavioral disturbances, stress and possible risk of infection.
  • Tourist trekking must be 15 years and over to avoid contraction of childhood diseases like mumps, measles among others and for the fact that they might not be capable of trekking.
  • Maintain a 7-meter distance from the gorillas
  • The time spent with the gorillas is limited to only one hour.
  • Flash photographic cameras are not allowed as they can threaten and frighten gorillas thereby provoking aggressive reaction or charge.
  • Sick persons are not allowed to visit the primates
  • All visitors should remain at least seven meters away from the primates.
  • Always keep your voices as low as possible and if need be, whisper
  • Always remain in a group and do not spread out or surround the gorillas.
  • Body language is important and visitors shouldn’t raise their hands, point or even stare at the gorillas. This is threatening to them and they might charge. Keep your eyes down as often as possible.
  • Eating, drinking or smoking is not allowed when with the gorillas. This should be done at least 200 meters away.
Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park

Having the appropriate packing list for a successful gorilla trekking safari is very essential, some of the items that are a must-carry include wet weather clothes (remember it rains just about any time in these tropical rainforests), good walking/hiking boots that are preferably waterproof, sunscreen, insect repellent creams, waterproof jackets and bags, gloves and a good working camera (you will need the pictures and videos to show off), among others.

Golden monkey Tracking

Golden monkey tracking takes place only once a day in Volcanoes National Park, and the activity usually starts very early in the morning. Upon your arrival at the park headquarters at 7 am, you are briefed on how to behave when on the golden monkey trek and when you actually do encounter them. You will then be divided into groups and allocated very experienced rangers to guide you all the way. There are two habituated golden monkey groups that are available for tracking and they total to 80 only. These golden monkeys live in bamboo vegetation since they love bamboo shoots very much. Given their active nature, golden monkey trackers will constantly be on the move as the monkeys from one tree to another looking for food. A level of fitness is required.

Mountain Hiking

This is another activity that travelers can do while in Volcanoes National Park. Hiking any of the five volcanoes in the park is rewarding as the views are worth the climb. Some of the volcanoes are as high as 4,507 meters above sea level. Be sure to have great views of the other mountains as you hike and a number of birds that are worth noting. You might even chance to see several primates including the mountain gorillas.

Bird watching

The park is one of the three Important Birding Areas in Rwanda. Together with your bird guide, be sure to encounter a number of them as the park has over 200 bird species including endemics of the Albertine Rift. Be sure to carry binoculars and when birding, keep keen and you will see very of them as you enjoy the great scenery the park has to offer.

Visiting the Musanze caves

These caves are formed as a result of volcanic eruptions which occur on these volcanic mountains. They are formed underground and have space large enough for humans to enter. This activity can be done after gorilla trekking.

Visiting the Dian Fossey tombs

Hiking the Dian Fossey tombs gives you an insight into the life of Dian Fossey and her conservation activity while in the Virunga region. You drive to almost half of the journey and then trek for about 1-2 hours. Travelers have an opportunity to sight some forest animals like the forest elephants, buffaloes, hogs, and many others including various bird species. Soon, you do arrive at Dian Fossey’s house from where she was mysteriously killed in 1985 and her tomb where she was buried next to her gorilla friend Digit. The graveyard also has about 20 gorilla graves that were killed by either poachers, animal traffickers or from natural causes.

The Iby’Iwacu cultural encounter

This cultural encounter is an initiative of the locals that were formerly poachers of the mountain gorillas but are now pioneering in their conservation efforts. Travelers get to enjoy an experience of the village and take part in the activities like the music and dance, cooking and other home activities plus being crowned as a king or queen the African way.

How to get to Volcanoes National Park

Located northeast of Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park is close to the border to Uganda in the north and the Congo in the west. It is a two hours’ smooth road drive from Kigali and it offers wonderful views of the Rwandan countryside. The park’s nearest town is Musanze, which is a twenty minutes’ drive away. The Cyanika border post with Uganda is a 30 minutes’ drive by road and an easy way to extend gorilla safaris between Uganda and Rwanda.

The park has a number of accommodations that travelers can choose from and they range from super luxury to very basic, so whichever your budget is, you are well sorted.

Visiting the Volcanoes National Park is worth it as it gives a variety of activities that a traveler can choose from but importantly, the amazing once in a lifetime gorilla trekking safari in Rwanda. You can choose to have several other national parks and sites incorporated to your Volcanoes National Park Safari or have it solo and enjoy it to the fullest. Whatever you choose, have a trusted tour operator plan it out for you.

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