Established in 1925, Volcanoes National Park is one of the oldest parks in Africa, and attracts a constant flow of tourists from around the world. Stretched across the forested Virunga volcanic mountain range on Rwanda’s western border, the park’s main attraction is its population of mountain gorillas. Watching these gentle and peaceful giants at close quarters is without a doubt one of the most thrilling and poignant experiences in the world of wildlife.
The 16 000 hectare park has an altitudinal range of 2 400m to 4 500 metres, encompassing six extinct or dormant volcanic peaks. Bamboo forests cover approximately 30% of this area, and during the bamboo shooting season from September to November, the gorillas spend most of their time in these forests. Eight gorilla groups have been habituated to humans, and are undisturbed by the presence of hikers.
The magnificent golden monkey is the park’s other primate, living almost exclusively in the bamboo forests. Forest antelopes, elephant, buffalo, spotted hyena, genets and rodents also live in the dense rainforests, but are generally extremely shy and difficult to spot. Bird-watching, however, is spectacular, with over 290 species observed, 20 of which are endemic.
The lower altitudes of the park are covered in dense forest, broken up by open areas with grass and bush. The Hagenia–Hypericum forests are some of the most spectacular vegetation communities, comprising tall, straight-trunked trees and massive hygenias with gnarled trunks and spreading branches. Higher up, the closed forests give way to the Subalpine Zone, a bush-like habitat dominated by striking Giant Lobelias and Giant Senicios. Above 4 000m, the landscape changes again into a desert-type topography, scattered with a few small shrubs that have adapted to survive in the extreme cold.
While watching mountain gorillas is undoubtedly the number one attraction in the park, several hiking trails have been developed that will lead hikers to the summits of most of the volcanoes, where they can enjoy spectacular views over Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, numerous lakes and mountain ranges. The duration of hikes vary from between a few hours to several days, and due to the steepness of the slopes and the muddy nature of most trails, hikers need to be accompanied by a guide at all times.
Volcanoes is situated about 110km from the capital city of Kigali and the nearest town is Musanze. A relatively good tarmac roads link these two towns, while another navigable tar road links Musanze to Kinigi – the place where all activities in the park start. Gorillas are exceptionally sensitive to human diseases, so strict regulations have been put in place to minimise the risk of transmission, something that all visitors need to take note of.
Average temperatures hover between 11 degrees and 19 degrees Celcius. The dry seasons (from June until September and January to February) are certainly the best times to visit.