Virunga National Park – Essential and Quick Guide

Virunga National Park is a place of geologic marvel, tumultuous history, and is home to two of the most active volcanoes in the world. This fascinating national park is also one of the few holiday destinations with the most biologically varied protected habitats on Earth. You can find one half of all the biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa in Virunga, as it spans 7,800 square kilometres or 3,000 square miles. Virunga National Park begins in the Virunga Mountains in the South, stretching all the way to the Rwenzori Mountains in the North, and from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, to Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. It’s home to some of the most amazing animals in the world, and the most passionate people dedicated to helping them survive.

 

The Beginning of Africa’s first National Park

 

Virunga National Park has seen a lot of ups and downs in its long history. For many years, this protected land was severely threatened by armed conflict. Through the efforts and dedication of the national park’s rangers and wardens, Virunga has managed to make it through. Many politicians, conservationists, philanthropists, private donors, and the European Union have also put forth a valiant effort for the survival of  Virunga National Park.

Known at the time as “Albert National Park,” the park was founded by King Albert I of Belgium. Virunga, then Albert, was the continent of Africa’s first national park in 1925. The national park was established primarily as a means to provide protection to the mountain gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Massif, which had been controlled by the Belgian Congo. “Albert National Park” was later extended into the north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward, and the Rwenzori Mountains.

 

Virunga National Park’s Highs and Lows

During the national park’s first three and a half decades, poaching was minimal, and a sustainable tourism industry

Congolese Rangers

Congolese Rangers

thrived owing to the hard work of a large group of skillful Congolese rangers and dedicated park wardens. The use of park resources such as hunting and fishing, and land remuneration became a growing problem among the locals living there. When Congo was granted independence from the Belgians in 1960, the new state went downhill rapidly, taking Albert National Park with it. It wasn’t able to be stabilized again until 1969 when President Mobutu took a personal interest in conservation and made an effort to revive the failing lands. It was during this process that the park was renamed Virunga National Park, and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was also founded. Institut Congolais pour le Conservation de la Nature or ICCN, which resumes care of Congo’s protected park lands today.

Over the years, Virunga had more highs and lows. After a mostly wonderful decade in the 70s with a booming tourist industry and becoming a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Virunga plunged into chaos. During the middle of the 80s the Mobutu regime began to lose its control over the country, and Virunga suffered. Poachers depleted the park’s resources, the large mammal populations killed off, infrastructure was destroyed, and there were the deaths of many rangers. The Congolese Wildlife Authority was unable to control Virunga’s chaotic situation, and UNESCO changed the park’s World Heritage Site status to “endangered.”

For much of Virunga’s history, the park has struggled to survive through many of Congo’s troubles. In the time that followed, Virunga National Park endured the Rwandan Genocide’s refugee crisis resulting in total destruction of many forested areas within the park, and the rapidly increasing presence of armed militias throughout Virunga. The Kivu War rebel forces zeroed in on Virunga, forcing rangers out and occupying the park headquarters

 

Good Times Ahead for Virunga

 

The political situation has changed since then, and Virunga National Park is rejoicing in the resurgence of tourism and development it has been receiving in the recent years – which have been great to the park. International donors are investing in Virunga’s infrastructure development, and the park management is skilled, efficient and transparent. Morale among the park rangers, just like the tourism, is at an all-time high. New tourism opportunities are being developed in Virunga, including an upscale lodge located conveniently next to the centre of the three main tourist attractions North of Goma in the southern sector, and  the habituation of chimpanzees in the Tongo forest.

Africa’s first national park has survived decades of war, fire, destruction, depletion of resources and utter chaos against all odds, owing to the dedication of the rangers and the park staff who loved these lands and understood the value of saving Virunga National Park.

 

 

Planning a vacation in Virunga National Park

 

Getting into the park:

The southern sector, the Gorillas and Volcano area of Virunga National Park is easily accessible, and you have a number of different options. The most popular are:

  • Overland via Uganda, crossing the border in Bunagana, from where the Mountain gorilla sites Jomba and
    Mountain Gorillas in Bikenge

    Mountain Gorillas in Bikenge

    Bikenge are within 1 hour’s travel. The border crossing is generally easy, and a local visa can be purchased at the border for only 50$. Remember, this visa is not a fully recognized travel visa and is only to be used for visiting the Virunga National Park and then leaving the country at the Bunagana border post once again.

  • Overland via Rwanda, crossing the border at Gisenyi/Goma, the border crossing will be fairly easy if you have pre arranged a visa. If you haven’t, it might be difficult and it will be expensive, costing 280$ if purchased at the border.
  • Fly into Goma. Many flights from within the DRC connect to Goma. From outside the DRC Entebbe is the only city connected by TMK. Remember, again, that you will need to make sure you have a pre arranged visa.

Virunga National Park is in the development process of establishing a tourism visa. It is expected that the visa will cost approximately 50$ and will be bought in combination with a Virunga National Park permit, so watch the Virunga National Park Tourism Website for updates.

 

Fees and Permits

Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the Congolese wildlife authority, has an agreement with Direction Générale de Migration (DGM), the Congolese immigration service, to offer 2-week, single entry tourist visas for visitors to Virunga National Park. The price of the visa is USD $105.

Virunga National Park Permits:

  • Mountain Gorilla Trek Permit: $400 USD (Which is $400 less than the cost of the same type of permit in Uganda and Rwanda). These can be bought online via the Virunga National Park Tourism Website.
  • Nyiragongo Volcano Trek Permit: $250 USD. You can stay in the Nyiragongo Crater Cabanes overnight and sleep on the summit with a view over the largest lava lake in the world.
  • Rwenzori Mountain Trek Permit: $200 USD (multi day trek). A variety of different treks between four and six days in length.

 

Where to stay in Virunga National Park

 

Mikeno Lodge: Mikeno Lodge is Virunga’s upscale accommodations. The lodge is located one hour north of

Mikeno Lodge Bungalows

Mikeno Lodge Bungalows

Goma in the forest of Rumangabo, in the southern sector of the park. Just a five minute walk from the lodge is the Senkwekwe gorilla center. The centre allows guests to see the only 4 captive mountain gorillas in the world, including 2 baby orphans who were rescued after their mothers were unfortunately killed in the Congo Gorilla massacre of 2007. Virunga National Park owns and operates Mikeno Lodge, and all profits from the lodge are in turn reinvested back into conservation efforts. For bookings, reservations and pricing contact the Virunga National Park sales office:  +243991715401

 

Bukima Patrol Post: This is a basic and comfortable tented encampment, which used to be an old research camp at the foot of Mikeno Mountain. This is where the hikes to the gorillas treks start. It is a considerably cheaper option to spend the night camping close to the gorillas, and features amenities such as toilets, a shower, a BBQ area, and drinks available for sale. You can see the magnificent glowing Nyiragongo volcano at night, and the views by day are just as impressive. For bookings and reservations contact the Virunga National Park sales office: +243991715401 or book directly through the Virunga National Park Tourism Website. (rates: 40$ per person, per night, half board)

 

Nyiragongo Crater Cabanes: This is camping with quite the view. The cabanes are situated right at the edge of the crater in full sight of the molten lava lake. The little cabanas were built and are maintained by the park staff, and it’s true that they are situated right at the edge of the most active volcano of africa. Spending a night in the cabanas is included in your permit fee for visiting the volcano, so take advantage of this opportunity and go see the amazing lava lake! For bookings and reservations contact the Virunga National Park sales office: 243991715401 or book directly through the Virunga National Park Tourism Website.

 

Camping: Bukima Patrol Post, which is the camp mentioned earlier also offers self camping options for travellers who would rather bring their own gear and pitch their own tents on the camp’s grounds, and subsequently use its facilities for only 15$ per person, per night.

 

 

What to Do in Virunga National Park

 

Climb Nyiragongo Volcano

See the Lava Lake of the Nyiragongo Volcano, the largest lava lake in the world!  This volcano, famous for its spectacular lake of lava,  is a hike from the direction of Goma. It is technically an easy climb, and the trip to the top should take  less than six hours. Most who climb spend the night at the top, taking advantage of the opportunity to see the boiling lava under the stars, glowing even brighter.

 

Visit the Mountain Gorillas — These Mountain Gorillas are situated in the Mikeno Sector, and are about a two and half hour drive from Goma. The gorillas can also be approached from Bunagana (border of Uganda). The permit for the Gorilla Trek is $400, which is significantly cheaper than in Uganda or Rwanda. The treks are also more authentic, and are conducted in smaller groups making it more personal. Many tour operators organise this Virunga trek, but they all book via the ICCN (Congolese Wildlife Authority) sales office in Goma. You can book yourself directly with ICCN (tourism@gorilla.cd) They can also organise your transport.

 

Rwenzori Mountain Trek — The Rwenzori Mountains are a beautiful range of snow capped mountains in the north of Virunga National Park, falling along the Border with Uganda. The highest peak of the Rwenzori Mountains lies on the border and can be climbed from both countries – so take your pick! The trek to the glacier can be accomplished in about a five day trek. In order to begin the journey, trekkers will first need to travel to Beni by airplane – either from Goma or Entebbe.

 

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