Expert Reviews – Volcanoes NP

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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.

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.

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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