Spanning 160km2 and covered in dense rainforest and bamboo, the Parc National des Volcans (Volcanoes National Park) can be found in northwestern Rwanda. The national park borders the Virunga National Park in DR Congo and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, with all three conservation areas working to protect the rare mountain gorilla.
The name of this national park is extremely apt as it’s home to five impressive volcanoes: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Mahabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo. These volcanoes are part of the Virunga Mountain range and all, except Bisoke, are either extinct or dormant.
Parc National des Volcans was first established in 1925: the first national park to be created in Africa. Initially, it comprised a small area of land that was intended to protect the mountain gorillas from poachers. In 1929, the park was extended into Rwanda and the Congo, covering a massive area of 8090km2 and run by the Belgian colonial authorities that ruled over both countries at the time. When the Congo became independent in 1960, the park was divided. Rwanda gained independence in 1962 and the new government decided to maintain the conservation area.
1967 saw the arrival of Diane Fossey to the area, a naturalist who was keen to research and protect the native mountain gorilla species. She helped to set up the Karisoke Research Centre and dedicated her life to saving the gorillas from extinction.
During the Rwandan Civil War, between 1990 and 1994, the park was deemed unsafe and research and tourism ceased. Today though, Parc National des Volcans continues to be at the forefront of mountain gorilla conservation and supports sustainable tourism activity. Its main attraction is the gorilla population, with up to 80 people venturing into the mountains each day hoping to view these gentle giants.
The Parc National des Volcans is home to endangered primate species, including the peaceful mountain gorilla and elusive golden monkey. Other mammals to see in the area are the black-fronted duiker, buffalo, spotted hyena and the bushbuck. With over 178 bird species to spot, 13 of which can only be found in the Virunga Mountains, this national park is also a haven for birders.
The flora within the national park varies greatly due to the altitudinal range. Heading up the mountains, the forest diversifies, varying in tree and flowering plant species. 30% of the park contains African Redwood trees and this is one of the largest forests of this tree species in the world. A further 30% of the park area is covered with a bamboo forest, which is where you’ll most likely find golden monkeys as bamboo makes up a large part of their diet.
You can visit the Parc National des Volcans all year round, as the weather is temperate with a consistent temperature throughout the year. However, to make the most out of your gorilla trekking experience, its best to visit the national park during the dry season.
Visiting in the dry season is ideal because the lack of rain ensures that the trails and roads are safer to use. However, due to the park’s equatorial position there may be some unpredictable showers, so bringing waterproof clothing is advised. Bear in mind that during the dry season, the park is likely to be busy and there will be less accommodation available.
During the wet season, the rainy weather can make tracking the gorillas more difficult because conditions will be muddy and slippery. This may lead to certain tracks and roads being closed, so it’s advisable to check in advance before you travel. As there is a lack of tourism during the wet season, attaining a permit for visiting the park will be a lot easier, and you’re also guaranteed a great deal on accommodation.
The Parc National des Volcans offers fabulous opportunities for visitors to get up close and personal with nature. The main draw to this national park is the mountain gorilla population that reside in the depths of the forest. Tourists can take part in a gorilla tracking experience and once a group has been found, you will be able to spend up to an hour in their company, observing their day-to-day activities.
As well as looking for mountain gorillas, you can also search for the endangered golden monkeys. These monkeys are more difficult to find, but by sticking to the bamboo forests you may be lucky enough to see them.
For those who enjoy a challenging trekking experience, climbing the Karisimbi volcano is an epic adventure. This two-day trek requires a night of camping at 3,800m before you reach the 4,507m summit. As the highest mountain in the Virunga Mountain range, the view from the top is spectacular. If you want to climb a volcano but don’t want to camp, you can journey up the Bisoke volcano instead. This trek only takes a day and once you reach the 3,700m summit you’ll be treated to stunning views and the surprise of a tranquil crater lake.