A Guide To Gorilla Trekking in Virunga National Park Congo
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the four places in the world to go gorilla trekking and spend time with the endangered mountain gorillas.
Recently made famous by the 2014 award-winning British nature documentary Virunga, Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse protected area found in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Central Africa’s most famous wildlife park is home to over one thousand animal species, including a third of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas. It is one of the four national parks in the world that protect the last endangered mountain gorillas and their habitats.
Located on the eastern edge of the Congo Basin, Virunga National Park is the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest with diverse habitats extending from the Rwenzori peaks to the Semliki River basin, to the savanna plains around Lake Edward, stretching as far as the shores of Lake Kivu and encompassing the montane slopes of Nyamulagira, Nyiragongo and Mikeno volcanoes. Unfortunately, the UNESCO world heritage site is constantly threatened by war, illegal activities like poaching, and unpreventable natural disasters.
The park has spectacular sights, including impenetrable jungles, red-hot lava lakes, extensive savannah plains, and snow-covered mountains. But, the biggest attraction that would take you to Virunga National Park are the dark-fared mountain giants that roam the slopes of the Virunga Mountains slopes. Gorilla trekking in Virunga’s most feared jungles is an experience unlike any other. Here we try to give you a simple guide to gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park, with every information you need to plan your Virunga expedition.
Gorilla Trekking in Virunga
Virunga National Park is one of four national parks globally that offer gorilla trekking adventures to see mountain gorillas within their natural habitat. Although civil conflicts in the region keep visitors away, a few visitors that have adventured the montane Virunga forest say it’s one of the most incredible experiences in these parts of Africa. Visitors are escorted by armed rangers and expert trackers to find the gorillas and are allowed to spend at least an hour quietly sitting about ten meters from the gorillas.
Just like in Rwanda’s Volcanoes and Uganda’s Bwindi and Mgahinga, gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park starts early morning at 8:00 Am in small groups of 8 tourists, two armed rangers, an expert tracker guide, and in some instances, porters to help tourists trek the uneven terrain. Gorilla trekking excursions in Virunga can last half the day, and finding the gorillas could take from 30 mins to 6 hours through thick jungle, steep slopes, and cold-misty weather. It requires moderate physical fitness to trek through Virunga National Park, so prepare yourself before you go.
Virunga National Park has about eight habituated gorilla groups available for gorilla trekking to any visitor above 15 years. The gorilla groups are named Humba, Rugendo, Kabirizi, Lulengo, Munyaga, Mapuwa, Nyakamwe and Bageni for easy itentification. So, you’ll be tracking anyone with up to 30 family members under the protective and watchful eye of the dominant male silverback gorilla.
Since rangers watch the habituated gorilla groups in Virunga during the day, the rangers would know where the gorilla family is located at any one time during the day. At your morning briefing at the park headquarters, before you head into the jungle, the park superintendent will assign you a group the suits your physical fitness. By doing that, they ensure that every visitor gets to see the gorillas.
Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park is comparingly the same experience as trekking in Bwindi or Volcanoes in Rwanda. You’ll be trekking on uneven terrain, steep slopes, muddy ground, unused trails, and through thick jungle to reach the gorillas. Sometimes it rains unexpectedly: it’s a rainforest after all. There’s no shortcut or telling how long it will take to reach the gorillas; that’s what makes gorilla trekking an authentic African jungle adventure.
Cost of Gorilla Trekking in Virunga
A permit for gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park costs USD 450 per person per trek for anyone above 15 years. Compared to $800 Uganda’s permit and $1,500 Rwanda’s permit, DR Congo offers the cheapest gorilla trekking experiences.
You can book your gorilla permit with Virunga Foundation in Virunga National Park, a bureaucratic process many avoid, or with a licensed local tour operator like Encounter Africa Safaris. At Encounter, we make the booking process easier for our travelers and eliminate all the administrative sign-here-sign-there processes. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Apart from the price of the gorilla permit, the cost of your gorilla trekking safari in Virunga will include accommodation ($100 to $300) and transfers.
How To Get To Virunga National Park
The nearest town to Virunga National Park is Goma, an hour’s drive outside the park. There are flights into the Goma; check with your flight’s planner. However, there’s an assured connection between Goma and Kigali (Rwanda), Entebbe (Uganda), and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) with Uganda Airlines, Rwandair, and Ethiopian Airways.
Alternatively, you can drive 10-15 hours from Entebbe via Kisoro (near Bwindi Park), cross the Bunagana border, and be prepared to clear immigration bureaucracies between the two countries.
Another route is through Kigali International Airport, crossing the western Rwanda border at Gisenyi to reach Virunga National Park driving for 4-6 hours. Due to Covid-19, this route may be closed; please check with our reservations desk before you go.
Best Time To Go
Although Virunga National Park is open throughout the year, the best time for gorilla trekking in Virunga is during the dry seasons of June to September and December to February. Chances of rain during the dry seasons are minimal, the terrain is navigable, and the dirt roads to the park are dry.
Although some travelers choose to visit Virunga in the wet season to take advantage of the low-season promotions, the wet seasons are much avoided by many travelers. However, your visit could be determined by the availability of gorilla permits in Virunga than just the weather.
Where To Stay
The best accommodation close to Virunga National Park is in the four of the most outstanding safari accommodation.
Kibumba Tented Camp
Nestled on the slopes of Mount Mikeno, the Kibumba Tented camp offers sweeping views across the Mitumba Mountains and beyond the Virunga volcanoes. While sitting at the balcony of the tented rooms, you can see Mount Karisimbi with Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira red-hot glow over the top.
Tchegera Tented Camp
Located on a ridge of a collapsed caldera in the middle of the stunning turquoise waters of Lake Kivu, Tchegera Tented Camp is a perfect getaway for gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park. The camp shows off spectacular views of Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira on clear nights as their glowing red lava pierce a star-covered sky.
Cuddled within the lush Mahura Forest at the Park headquarters in Rumangabo, Mikeno Lodge offers a comfortable stay among beautiful birdsong and spectacular views of the Virungas. For a luxury stay, Mikeono Lodge is a perfect choice.
Other budget accommodation options for gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park include Lulimbi Tented Camp, Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters, Hotel Begonias, Bukima Tented Camp Orchids Safari Club, Exodus Bukavu, and Coco Lodge.
What To Pack
When preparing for your gorilla trekking safari in Virunga National Park, know that you’ll be spending time at altitudes of up to 5,000 meters; it gets cold out there and could rain any time. Your packing list should include a lightweight rain jacket, a sweater for the evenings at the lodge, a pair of warm socks, and maybe a scarf to help you stay warm and dry during your stay.
Please pack a pair of lightweight, waterproof hiking shoes, trousers, and gaiters to avoid the muddy trails and keep you dry. A long sleeve shirt should be great to prevent prickly plants from pocking your skin. Take a waterproof backpack to keep your gadgets dry, and maybe a hut to protect your head. These should all be lightweight; otherwise, you’ll be sweating while hiking with a heavy load.
Here’s a detailed packing list for gorilla trekking that should give you the information you need.
Organizing A Gorilla Trekking Safari in Virunga, DR Congo
When all is said and done, organizing a gorilla trekking safari in Virunga is not that easy as it seems. Being a country with unpredictable civil instability surrounding the national park, you’ll need an expert and licensed local operator to guide you and help you through all the logistics of planning a trip in DR Congo.
Encounter Africa Safaris has operated several trips to Virunga National Park in the past years, including filming safaris in the UNESCO world heritage site; we would like to offer our services to you. Email us at email@example.com to talk to a consultant and start planning your gorilla trekking safari in Virunga.