Virunga National Park (Parc National des Virunga Fr) is the dream destination for the adventure traveler with high expectations of travel to a destination that is packed with exciting sightings and less congested. Virunga National Park rises 680 m (2,230 ft) in the Semliki valley to 5,109 m (16,762 ft) at Mt Stanley on the summit of the Ruwenzori Mountains East of Democratic Republic of Congo. Virunga National Park was formerly Albert National Park covers approximately 8,090 km2 (3,120 sq mi) geographic area.
Virunga is the oldest wildlife protected area on the African soil created in 1925 by Frankfurt Zoological to protect and conserve the unique wildlife species therein, for science and research purposes and protecting an indigenous threatened fruit-gathering community; the Twa. The Virunga wildlife conservancy is the joint where the West African rainforests meet with the East African savanna grasslands and runs more than 300 km (190 mi) along the Albertine rift that splits the African continent from north to south.
The vestiges of Virunga’s rich diverse ecosystem that includes block mountain, volcanic mountains, the Albertine rift, craters and crater lakes, rainforests, woodlands, open grasslands, swamp and wetland vegetation amongst others extend into Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable, Queen Elizabeth, Semliki, Ruwenzori and Mgahinga National Park as well as Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
In 1979, the Virunga was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of her ecological importance though political upheavals have had negative implications on the conservancy. The 1990’s war period in the Rwanda was so challenging to the Virunga because of high influx of refugees into the Virunga conservancy who encroached on wildlife resources. In 1994, the Virunga conservancy was declared World Heritage in Danger and later became a Ramsar site of international importance in 1996. The Virunga is still rated a strong ecological pillar for the entire east and central African ecosystem.
How to access Virunga National park
Virunga National Park is located in Eastern DR Congo. Travel by road to Virunga is challenging in some way from the rest of DR Congo except Goma Town 32km close. Many travelers to Virunga National Park fly to Kigali International Airport, connect by road through Gisenyi town, and cross to Goma in DR Congo by dirt road. From Gisenyi it is average 2-hour drive to reach the park headquarters at Bukima. Travelers from Uganda side cross at Bunagana border post in Kisoro town and take an hour drive to Bukima the Mountain gorilla trek starting point. Ethiopian Airways operates single flights each week to Goma. The park arranges private transport for travelers arriving by air at Goma Airport. Seek guidance from Virunga National Park on the best way to travel into the park. Travelers may need ranger escorts at times to guide them on the best way to make it to the tourism zones.
Major Attractions in Virunga National Park
Climate; The Virunga conservancy is many travelers’ dream destination because of pleasant warm weather and mild showers. The equator line runs through the Virunga and carries with it high temperatures. Some parts of the Virunga are at a higher altitude and get chilly all the time. The Virunga volcanic soils are rich in nutrients for plant growth and the favorable temperatures ensure rapid plant growth. The surrounding large water bodies; Lakes Kivu, Edward, Albert and other smaller lakes, Rivers Congo, Nile, Semliki and other tributaries have cool breezes and are ideal for water adventure activities. These factors result in a pleasant mix of tropical and equatorial climate with to mean rainfall at 190 mm (7.5 in). Mean temperatures vary between 23–28 °C (73–82 °F) in lowlands, and 16–24 °C (61–75 °F) at higher altitude. March-May and September -November experience large volumes of rains and night temperatures drastically fall low. The climate is favorable for travel and exploration of Virunga attractions all through the year.
Wildlife species; unique impressions of number of wildlife species and populations overwhelm travelers on tour into Virunga National Park. A combination of factors pleasant weather, soils that are fertile and rich in plant mineral content, limited number of travelers explore, discover and congest the wildlife have allowed the Virunga to remain pure and chaste. The conservancy is very rich in wildlife species, a very vibrant plant life and boasts of close to 2,077-plant life of these 264 are tree species and 230 of the grasses, shrubs, and plants are endemic to the Albertine Rift. Swamp and wetland vegetation ring the water bodies rising to open grasslands, woodlands, rainforests, montane forests, heath and alpine vegetation in the highlands. The Virunga is top travel destinations for travelers with an eye for wandering in the lush vegetation to explore and discover the beauty that is hiding in the African wilderness.
Mammals; The Virunga overflows with stunning beauty shown by high diversity in terrain, land features, vegetation and plant species. The Virunga National Park has ideal habitat conditions for any mammal species. The 2012 wildlife census recorded 218 mammal species of these 22 are primates, 706 bird species, 109 reptiles and 65 amphibian species. Travelers into Virunga have options of observing wildlife on game viewing drives, nature walks, hikes, boat cruise or trekking them in the forest. Notable mammal sightings in open grasslands or water include elephant, buffalos, lions, hippopotamus, leopard, okapi, bongo, warthog, waterbuck, bushbuck, blue duikers, bay duiker, yellow backed duiker, red river hog, giant forest hog, topi, aardvark, kob and many others. The rainforests, montane forests and alpine vegetations are ideal places to spot primate species. Travelers trekking Mountain gorillas and tracking chimpanzees in the rainforests have high opportunities to encounter red-tailed monkeys, De brazza’s monkey, blue monkey, golden monkey, Dent’s Mona monkey, Hamlyn’s monkey, Central African red colobus mantled guereza, grey-cheeked mangabey, black and white colobus monkey and olive baboon. Nile crocodiles and monitor lizards are often sightings along the shores of Lakes Edward and Albert and the Semliki River.
Mountain gorilla trekking; Note that Virunga massif that extends into Rwanda and Uganda is the only habitat for Mountain gorillas on earth. Mountain gorilla trekking safaris to Virunga are the most popular of tourism activities in DR Congo. There are not so many Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park despite the large size of the habitat and six families are open for tourism activities. Kabirizi family is the popular to many travelers on gorilla trekking safari to DR Congo. Kabirizi is a dominant polygamist silverback with the largest of the gorilla family that has close to three dozen members.
Chimpanzee tracking /habituation; Chimpanzees tracking safaris are the second most popular tourism activity in the Virunga that started in 1987 by Frankfurt Zoological Society for research study purposes. Travelers walk into and explore the rainforests on the lookout for families of chimpanzees that are less bothered by curious eyes of adventurers. Travelers tracking chimpanzees are restricted to one-hour interaction with the chimpanzees. Chimpanzee habituation exercise is an exciting travel activity that gives travelers an entire day unlimited interaction with families of chimpanzees. The chimpanzee habituation teams set out early morning and wander into the rainforests looking for chimpanzees before they leave their nests, spend entire day observing and discovering their habits until evening when they make nests for the night.
Nature walks; Virunga National Park is a majorly tropical rain forest with dense vegetation. However, some parts are woodland, grassland and swamp. Adventure travelers on safari to Virunga set out in the morning and walk into the wilderness to explore and discover the breathtaking beauty of the landscape and entire wilderness. A defined trail system leads travelers to secret corners with unbelievable sightings and unique sounds from the wilderness.
Nyiragongo hike; Virunga National Park is a travel destination blessed with natural beauty in abundance. Nyiragongo is an active volcano where volcanic eruption goes on in a lava lake all year round. Hiking to the summit of Nyiragongo and observing the natural geographic force as boiling molten lava gush out of the earth crust is an experience that is so rare and for the stonehearted. Nyiragongo hiking safari is a test for travelers’ bravery and a very rare opportunity that awakens travelers’ adventure senses.
Landscape viewing; Virunga National Park is a travel destination with eye-catching landscapes that appeal to many travelers. From snow peaked Ruwenzori Mountains, Nyiragongo active volcanic mountains, extinct volcanic mountains, craters, rift valley, clear water bodies, rainforests, savanna grassland and many other, Virunga is every nature lover’s dream destination. Hiking, photography and sightseeing safaris are very popular and give travelers wonderful experiences than ever before.
Birding watching; Virunga has varied habitats that range from mountains, rainforest, open grassland, swamp and marsh, water bodies and rift valleys. These attract different species of birds with more than 706 record sightings. There bird watching expeditions in Virunga have very high potential but opportunities are not fully exploited as of now. Grey throated barbet, Madagascar bee-eater, Narrow-tailed starling, Ruwenzori turaco, African fish eagle and many others are often sighted.
Mikeno Lodge; This lodge is the typical African safari camp set in the middle of wilderness where travelers and nature are at par. At any time of the day, there are magnificent views of the Albertine rift and the adjacent Nyiragongo volcano. The lodge is one and half drive from Goma in the foothills of Nyiragongo volcano. The lodge has a dozen private chalets with warm showers built with strong volcano lava rocks and a unique African touch to give travelers everlasting impressions of wilderness travel. Meals are served in the restaurant and bar is fully stocked with many international brands of drinks. It is an ideal site to launch volcano climbing and chimpanzee tracking expeditions. Mountain gorillas are in close proximity and beautiful birds tweeting sweet melodies surround you from all corners.
Lulimbi Tented Camp; This camp is located in the open grassland on the edges of River Ishasha that forms international boundary with Uganda. The tents are private with clean running water, bathroom and solar power. The safari camp is strategic for travelers in need of experiencing the open grassland wilderness of DR Congo that is less explored, less discovered and less talked about. The Lulimbi Tented Camp is an ideal place to launch game viewing safaris, bird watching safaris, nature walks, community tours, boat cruises and sport fishing on the Lake Edward. For travelers in need of maximizing the excitement of adventure expedition in the Virunga National Park, the odds of not visiting Lulimbi Tented Camp are almost zero.
Tchegera Island Camp; This camp is located on top of a caldera overlooking Lake Kivu in the foothills. The camp boasts of eight well-furnished and tended private tents. Meals are served in the common dining area and the bar is fully stocked with drinks. The campfire is recommended choice of welcoming the night, an opportunity for guests to catch sight of galaxy of colors in the sky due to Nyiragongo eruptions, share DR Congo safari experiences and sip on chilled drinks of choice. Boat cruises, kayaking and other beach sports on Lake Kivu are popular ways of relaxation giving travelers several options of adventuring into the DR Congo.
Kibumba Tented Camp; The safari camp is located in Goma in the foothills of Nyiragongo Volcano, close to the border with Rwanda. The camp has eighteen luxurious private tents with large beds, warm showers, WIFI and power. There is a lounge, two neat dining areas and a fully stocked bar with most brands of beers, spirits and wines on international market. Kibumba Tented Camp is strategic for Nyiragongo hiking, Mountain gorilla trekking and chimpanzee tracking expeditions in the Virunga National Park.
Bukima Tented Camp; This camp is strategically located close to Mountain gorilla trekking assembling point and sometimes gorillas are close to the camp courtyard. Its five luxurious tents are private with comfortable bed and warm showers set in African bush. The lodge has clear views of Mikeno Mountains and is an ideal starting point for game drives, Mountain gorilla trekking expeditions, bird watching safaris and nature walks into the wilderness. The camp is located on the edge of the Virunga National Park and a good start point for community tours.
Mt Nyiragongo Summit Shelters; This is the only camp at the summit of the active Nyiragongo volcano situated close to the lava lake. The shelters have aerial advantages scenic viewing of the Virunga National Park, Lake Kivu and the rest if the world below. The burning lava paints the skies red in the night, giving the rest of the world a rainbow of colors. 12 cabins offer basic accommodation with large beds on which travelers lay their sleeping bag. For the travelers whose mind is preoccupied with eruption of the volcano in the lava lake, this kind of accommodation for a night is much more than a bargain.