Expert Reviews – Volcanoes NP

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Gorillas in the mist
Overall rating

Protecting the Rwandan portion of the majestic Virunga Mountains, Volcanoes National Park warrants a five-star rating simply for its incredible scenery and the opportunity to track mountain gorillas in the wild – arguably the single most rewarding wildlife experience in Africa. Other highlights include day trips to the bamboo zone to see a troop of habituated golden monkeys, a strikingly marked species now all but restricted to the Virungas, due to deforestation elsewhere within its restricted range. There’s also a relatively undemanding hike to Dian Fossey’s old research centre and grave, and more demanding day or overnight hikes to various volcanic summits (most notably Bisoke with its gorgeous crater lake). The park still host small numbers of elephant and buffalo, as indicated by fresh droppings on the forest trails, but these are seldom seen. And while it has enormous potential as a birding destination, this is largely unreleased in practical terms, and birders would be better off heading to Nyungwe to see forest species associated with Rwanda.

Mountain gorillas, trekking and birding
Overall rating

Volcanoes National Park is the Rwandan sector of the 8000km² Virunga massif. The greater conservation area encompasses six active and three extinct volcanoes, straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mountain gorillas move freely between the countries, with the greatest number of habituated groups residing in Volcanoes National Park, making Rwanda arguably the best place in Africa to go gorilla trekking.

With the 2017 gorilla census revealing a total mountain gorilla population of just over 1000 of these engaging primates in all of Africa, gorilla trekking is truly one of the ultimate life experiences. Rwandan gorilla permits aren’t cheap at $1500 per trekker, and your permit allows just one priceless hour in the company of these great apes, watching the gorilla family interact, eat, play, tease, sulk, doze and groom each other. Sitting quietly among a family of these gentle giants is a bucket list experience for any serious wildlife enthusiast: it is an extraordinary hour that you will remember forever.

While the gorillas are the star attraction at Volcanoes, there are also golden monkeys, birding walks, forest and waterfall hikes, mountain climbing (including an overnight hike up the 3800m Karisimbi volcano) and – for the less active – luxury lodges with comfortable views of the gorgeous mountain rainforest scenery.

Coming eye to eye with gentle giants
Overall rating

Gorilla tracking is arguably one of the most rewarding wildlife encounters in Africa. Although chimps are more closely related to humans, gorillas seem to connect more to us as visitors. Nothing prepares you for being stared at by a gorilla. And that is exactly what they do: they seem to be looking at us as much as we are looking at them. I’ve been privileged to see gorillas in Volcanoes National Park about a dozen times, and each experience has been totally different from any other. One amazing experience was when the whole troop followed me down the mountain to the boundary of the forest after my time with them was up. Budget permitting, I can recommend booking two gorilla tracking permits on consecutive days. The one hour spent with these gentle giants might just feel too short. Keen hikers should stay on for a day or so to visit Dian Fossey’s research station or climb Bisoke Volcano. Tracking golden monkeys is also a worthwhile activity.

Magical mountain gorillas
Overall rating

I’m fortunate through my work to have tracked mountain gorillas six times and it never disappoints – it is the ultimate wildlife encounter. In Volcanoes National Park it’s a very smooth and well-managed operation, with strict rules to ensure gorillas aren’t adversely affected by visitors. These include – but aren’t limited to – keeping a distance of 7m from the gorillas (although gorillas don’t know this), never tracking gorillas if you have a respiratory infection or diarrhea, and never touching the animals.

Volcanoes National Park is often considered an ‘easier’ trek than those in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the other main center for tracking mountain gorillas. However, if you’re allocated to Susa B group, this may not be the case – their home territory lies high up Mount Karisimbi and it’s an exhausting hike to reach them.

Another big difference between the two parks is the cost of permits. The Rwanda Development Board unexpectedly doubled its permit price to US$1500 in 2017, while Uganda’s remain at US$600. Rwanda is also working to attract very high end, ultra-expensive lodges to the area, seemingly aiming to make it the ‘Botswana’ of gorilla tracking and focusing on high-income, low-impact tourism. One consequence of this is that many potential visitors have turned instead to neighboring Uganda – the impact on local low- to mid-budget businesses around Volcanoes National Park remains to be seen.

Luxury gorilla tracking
Overall rating

For most visitors Rwanda means Volcanoes National Park, and Volcanoes National Park means mountain gorillas. This is the original Gorillas in the Mist destination, Africa’s most hyped gorilla park, and the place where famed American primatologist Dian Fossey spent many years studying the gorillas. Up-close (sometimes so close you can virtually feel the gorilla’s breath on you) mountain gorilla sightings are a given and the park’s vegetation (compared to some other gorilla parks) is comparatively clear and conducive to easy sightings. However, having been lucky enough to see mountain gorillas in every park in which they exist, the gorilla-watching experience at Volcanoes National Park feels a little too polished and, dare I say it, not quiet wild enough. When I tracked the gorillas here I was surprised to arrive at the park offices to find around 80 other tourists milling around, as well as souvenir sellers and a dance troupe. It didn’t exactly feel like the African wilderness.

Once you’re with the gorillas, however, the experience is every bit as wonderful as you’ve heard, and if I based my review on the hour spent with the gorillas alone, then Volcanoes National Park would be hard to top. And of course, Volcanoes has more to offer than just gorillas and it’s these other activities that perhaps reveal the best of the park – tracking golden monkeys, bird watching, visiting local communities and, best of all, tough hikes to the misty summits of volcanoes.

This is one of the best parks in Africa if you allow sufficient time to partake in the broader range of activities on offer. The gorilla tracking itself is amazing, and with its upmarket accommodation and ease of access, it’s best suited to those who want a taste of the African rainforest without too much discomfort.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.4/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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