Nothing can prepare the visitor for the impact of encountering a troop of gorillas munching bamboo in their unfenced natural habitat. The sheer physical presence of an adult male silverback three times as bulky as the average man, yet remarkably peaceable and tolerant of human visitors – defies verbal description. Nor are there words to convey the thrill of recognition attached to staring deep into the liquid brown eyes of these gentle giants, who share some 97% of their genes with humans.
The Virungas are the last outpost of the endangered mountain gorilla, and their lush slopes provide an appropriately dramatic natural setting for what is perhaps the most poignant and thrilling experience to be had in Africa.
Protected within the Parc Nationale des Volcans, the lushly forested slopes of the mountains form an appropriately dramatic natural setting for what is arguably the most poignant and memorable wildlife experience in the world: gorilla tracking. The exhilarating climb to the gorilla’s natural habitat of shady bamboo forest offers fantastic views in all directions, before the trackers are immersed in the mysterious intimacy of the rain forest, alive with the calls of colourful birds and the chattering of rare golden monkey.
That mountain gorillas survive today is largely thanks to Dian Fossey who is buried at Karisoke, her research centre in the Virungas alongside some of the animals to which she dedicated her life. Fossey became a household name following the release of the biographical film Gorillas in the Mist, which was set in the Parc National des Volcans, and shot on location there.
Critical and public acclaim ensured that Gorillas in the Mist also served to raise international awareness of the plight of the mountain gorilla, whose numbers have increased from an all-time low of 250 in the 970s to almost 400 in 2001.
Roughly half of the world mountain gorillas are resident on the Rwandan slopes of the Virungas, where four habituated groups – ranging in size from seven to 37 individuals – can be visited by up to 32 tourists daily Permit to visit the gorillas are issued by the Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parts Nationaux (ORTPN) /The Rwanda Tourism Board, in Kigali or Ruhengeri.
The Volcanoes National Park is managed and protected by the Rwandan Office for Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN). Access begins in the lively town of Ruhengeri, situated at the base of the entrance of the park. Ruhengeri has long been the base point for gorilla visits and entertains a stunning backdrop of Karisimbi, Visoke, Mikeno, Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes.
Ruhengeri is a 90-minute drive from Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. One can get to Ruhengeri from Kigali either by private vehicle or by public taxi minibus. If you intend to make a gorilla visit, you will need to organise your own transport from Ruhengeri town to the park boundaries, where you will continue your trip on foot. Vehicles can be hired for this purpose in Ruhengeri town. Ruhengeri is also only a 45-minute drive away from Gisenyi and the stunning Lake Kivu.
The Kinigi Guest House on the foot of Mount Sabyinyo was recently fully refurbished, and is now open. It offers very comfortable accommodation in cottages for two, four or eight people. It also offers a good restaurant and bar. Hotel Muhabura in Ruhengeri town also offers comfortable accommodation in reasonably priced single and double rooms. The hotel also features a reasonable restaurant and bar and fax and telephone facilities.
A gorilla visit can entail anything from a 1 to 4-hour trek through the forest, led by experienced trackers who have spent their entire lives living in or close to the forest. Your trek through the forest will be enchanting as you weave through overhanging vines, moss covered Hagenia trees and giant Lobelias that thrive in the tropical climate of the forest. You will spot golden monkeys swinging from the bamboo, or see wild buffalo, bush duiker and a wide variety of bird life.
The Virunga ecosystem is composed of 4 major vegetation zones: bamboo (base altitude), Hagenia and Hypericum forest (2600-3300m), Sub-alpine (3300-4000m), and Afro-alpine (4000m+).
Then of course, nothing could be more of a privilege than to spend an hour watching the gorillas as they go about their daily routine, feeding, playing and resting, as you question your primeval existence and relive the wonder that kept Dian Fossey living in the forest for almost 18 years.