“In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat,” wrote the eminent primatologist Dian Fossey, “are great, old volcanoes towering almost 15,000 feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest – the Virungas.”
Situated in the far northwest of Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park protects the steep slopes of this magnificent mountain range – home of the endangered mountain gorilla and a rich mosaic of montane ecosystems, which embrace evergreen and bamboo forest, open grassland, swamp and heath.
Volcanoes National Park is named after the chain of dormant volcanoes making up the Virunga Massif: Karisimbi – the highest at 4,507m, Bisoke with its verdant crater lake, Sabinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura.
Tracking endangered mountain gorillas through the mysterious intimacy of the rain forest, alive with the calls of 200 species of colorful birds and chattering of the rare golden monkey, is only one of the truly unique experiences in the area.
Within the boundaries of Volcanoes National Park are Buhanga Eco-Park, an ancient forest holding Rwanda’s most intriguing folklore and Musanze Caves, formed 62 million years ago after the last estimated volcanic eruption.
Volcanoes national park is a stop centre for all Rwanda gorilla safaris sheltering the highest number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Conservation area. The strategic location of the VNP roughly 2 hours drive from Kigali international airport make it the most accessible gorilla national park in the world. Besides gorillas, Volcanoes National park is a home for golden monkeys, a variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects among other creatures which together make a complete Rwanda safari package.
Spanning on a 160 sqkm area in the northern part of Rwanda, Volcanoes national park is part of the great Virunga volcano conservation region spanning to cover Virunga National Park Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Uganda. It was initially a small area around Karisimbi, Mikeno and Visoke volcanoes which was gazetted to protect the Mountain gorillas which were facing the threat of extinction as a result of poaching.
Mountain Gorillas live at high altitude in Volcanoes National Park. There are currently ten habituated gorilla families. A maximum of eight visitors per day can visit each family and viewing time is limited to maximum one hour. Gorilla trekking involves walking long distances through thick vegetation, up steep, wet and muddy terrain. This may cause difficulties for some visitors. We recommend you pace yourself; walk slowly and drink plenty of water. No one should feel deterred from making this trip. Children under 15 yrs of age are not allowed on gorilla treks.
For many years these groups have undergone an extremely delicate process that has gradually made them accustomed to the presence of humans and has allowed a few privileged visitors to interact with them briefly in the wild. However, the gorillas are by no means tame. They are completely wild animals, which even now tolerate human presence for an hour a day at most. Experienced guides will accompany you on your tracking, many of who have been involved in the habituation process themselves. These guides will brief you in detail on your arrival on the various aspects of 'gorilla etiquette', but the information contained here will help ensure you are well prepared and ready to enjoy this unique opportunity to the fullest.
Visitors may track for as many days as they like, provided they purchase the required gorilla permit for each day. The permits are in extremely short supply and are often booked up as early as 18 months in advance. Only persons over the age of 15 are allowed to track the gorillas.
Permit cost: The cost for one permit is $1500.
Gorilla tracking is a year-round activity, with no season as such. The forest is moist and it rains quite often in Volcanoes National Park, even in the dry season. Trekking commences every morning from the park headquarters at 8:30 AM. There is a daily maximum of eight visitors to each gorilla group and each group is accompanied by a guide and by porters who will carry your shoulder pack for you. The gorillas may cover large distances overnight and they are never constantly in one area. The gorilla location trackers will use their knowledge of the gorillas' habits and information from the previous day to locate the group's whereabouts and their job is to locate the gorilla group before you head on your trek so that your guide is able to take you directly to them.
Trekking conditions differ greatly according to the location of the gorillas, so the exact level of difficulty for a specific trek is impossible to define in advance. However, at the time of assignment to a gorilla group at the Park HQ, you will be asked if you would like an "easy" trek or a "more challenging" trek, so if you are not sure, make sure to get onto a shorter trek.
On an excursion, it is entirely possible that you will find the gorillas quite quickly and be back at your hotel for lunch. It is also entirely possible that you will have to hike three or four hours (or sometimes even longer) each way and will make it back to your hotel just before dark (you may therefore wish to bring some snack bars with you on the trek just in case). Because it is impossible to predict the length and difficulty of any single tracking excursion, this program should not be attempted by anyone who is not in fairly good physical condition.
Because of the climbing and bending required as you make your way through the thick foliage, gorilla tracking should not be attempted by anyone who has any kind of heart or back problem. Only those who are confident that they are capable of walking at high altitudes over slippery, muddy terrain should attempt gorilla trekking. Trekking may also involve scrambling through, over, and under dense undergrowth with nettles, barbed vines, and bamboo thickets. Correct footwear and clothing are essential (see our clothing recommendations in the next section below). It is recommended that you build up the strength and endurance of your leg muscles by walking, stair climbing, bicycling, doing knee bends, and similar exercises before you leave home. This should always be done under the supervision of your doctor
Remember, the slopes are steep (often steeper than a flight of stairs) and covered in dense vegetation. Furthermore, the high altitudes of 5,200 feet and more means you will have to work a bit harder than at home if you are living at lower altitudes. This all said, the group will make frequent rest stops along the way to make sure everyone has ample time to rest and catch their breath along the way. You will also have the use of walking sticks which are provided. Once the gorillas are located, your group will be allowed a maximum of one hour with them. After this, you will return to the park headquarters and your camp.
The climate in the Virungas is typically damp, with daytime temperatures averaging 50°F (10°C).
Dry Season: June to September and January and February are the driest months and best for gorilla trekking, but be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms at any time.
Rainy Season: The long rains are from mid-march to mid-May, when many roads become impassible. It also usually rains in October and November.
A small, lightweight, frameless, waterproof back/day pack.
• Light, waterproof hiking boots or shoes with treaded soles.
• Thick socks and gaiters to wear over your pants and shoes.
• Leather or heavy canvas (gardening-style) gloves for moving through the vegetation and especially avoiding any contact with stinging nettles.
• Waterproof rain pants and top with hood.
• Short sleeved shirt or T-shirt.
• Long pants worn under the rain pants should be the light-weight trekking variety. Many just wear their lightweight rain pants instead of trousers.
• A waterproof, squash-able hat.
• Bottles of water (bring more than you think you'll need),
• Energy bars or other high-energy snacks to keep you fueled.
Each traveler is assigned his or her own porter for the duration of a tracking excursion (you may ask for two porters if you would like and there never seems to be a shortage ready and willing porters... remember that they can all use the income and it is very inexpensive... see the section on Tipping below).
As you set off from the starting point, your guide will lead you to the trek to find the early morning trackers (who have set off at first light separately from you and your guide) and likely have already located the gorilla family. Your group's lead tracker will have his "own" gorilla family, which he visits each day and whose home range and travel routes are familiar to him. All trackers are experienced in looking for signs of the gorillas, such as footprints, dung, chewed bamboo and celery stalks, and abandoned nests from the previous evening. Gorillas soil their nests and then abandon them to build new ones each night, and trackers are able to tell the age of the nests as well as which group made them. On days of heavy rain, it is more difficult to distinguish signs of the gorillas and the age of nests.
Gorillas do not live in the most easily accessible terrain and some of it is virtually impenetrable. They prefer secondary growth vegetation with plenty of food plants near the ground and think nothing of climbing extremely steep slopes to get it. Unfortunately, this means that tracking gorillas can be difficult for humans. If the gorillas you are tracking have wandered deep into the forest, it is entirely possible that the trek to find them will take three or four hours (or sometimes even longer) in each direction. Additionally, you may have to overcome mud, stinging nettles, and some areas of elevated vines where your feet may not touch the ground. The trek can be difficult in both directions (out to the gorillas and back to the starting point).
Your guide will allow time to stop and rest along the trail; however, they tend to hike at a steady, somewhat upbeat pace throughout the excursion, for they must be mindful of the time to ensure that you will be able to reach the gorillas, spend a full hour with them, and make it back down the trail before dark. If you occasionally lag behind the group to take photos or are having difficulty negotiating a steep or slippery portion of the trail, your porter will stay with you to assist; but the group will most likely continue forward.
You will probably smell the gorillas before you actually see them. When you reach the forward trackers, you will all gather whatever cameras you want and leave your packs behind with the trackers. When everyone is ready, your guide will move forward, making soft smacking and groaning sounds with his mouth, to assure the group that friends are approaching. Although gorillas make very few vocalizations, this sound of reassurance is one that family members often use with each other.
If your trek to find the gorillas has not been unusually long, you are likely to visit them during their long midday rest and play period. At this time of day, the dominant male (usually a silverback) generally lounges on the ground or against a tree while youngsters roll in the vegetation and climb on trees, vines, and each other. Females nurse and play with their infants. Occasionally, a curious youngster may approach you or someone in your group. Though it is tempting to touch, this is STRICTLY forbidden.
Your trekking group will be instructed to stay together and crouch down while observing the gorillas so that the dominant male can see you at all times and the family does not feel threatened, surrounded, or overwhelmed. Never stare directly into the eyes of a gorilla, for a fixed stare is as aggressive to them as it is to most humans. Although you may find a gorilla looking directly at you, you should maintain a subservient stance and look at it sideways or from a lower height. Sometimes, as a release of tension or as a display to the rest of the group, a male gorilla may charge and beat his chest, tearing up vegetation and hurling his tremendous frame directly at your tracking group. Despite the temptation to run, you must stand your ground, maintain a subordinate, crouching position, and do your best not to flinch -- for the gorilla will stop before actually reaching you and calmly return to his previous location, glancing back at you with smug satisfaction. Such displays may turn savage when used between males of different gorilla families but are simply a bluff when used with human observers on tracking excursions to habituated gorilla groups.
Your trekking group will spend up to one hour with the gorillas on each excursion. This time limit is carefully observed and protects the gorillas from undue stress. If your group were to stay longer than this, the gorillas would probably end the visit themselves -- by simply leaving. Although they are getting used to being visited regularly and are curious about their human visitors, they are accustomed to one-hour visits and their intensely shy and private nature will reassert itself in the end.
In the event a gorilla trekking participant is unable to complete a tracking excursion to the gorillas, he or she will either be allowed to immediately return to the base of the trail with a porter OR the participant will be asked to remain in place with a porter while the group continues its track of the gorillas, rejoining the rest of the group on its way back to the base of the trail.
Please keep in mind that gorillas are shy, wild animals. At the start of the trekking day, there is no way of telling exactly where the habituated gorilla families are (even though trackers are very skilled at looking for signs of gorillas and their paths of travel). Also, because gorillas are wandering animals that favor areas of dense vegetation, consistent, clear viewing at close range cannot be guaranteed.
It is important that all gorilla trekking participants familiarize themselves with the following regulations and rules of conduct:
• You MUST, at all times, follow the instructions of your guide. He is in contact with the gorillas every day and understands them well. Always remain in a quiet, compact group behind the guide, who will attempt to position you in such a way that the dominant male of the group can see you at all times.
• If the dominant male gorilla (usually a silverback) approaches very closely or if he charges, it is very important that you do not move backwards. Remain exactly where you are, look downward, and adopt a submissive, crouched posture. NEVER make any sudden moves or loud noises in the presence of the gorillas.
• If a young gorilla approaches, NEVER (under ANY circumstances) make any move to touch it. Your guide, in certain instances, may take steps to discourage a youngster from touching you, as this could create a threatening situation with the dominant male
• If a gorilla stares at you, look away or down.
• NEVER use a flash when photographing the gorillas.
• Only visitors in good health AT THE TIME OF THE EXCURSION will be permitted to track gorillas, as gorillas are susceptible to common colds and other respiratory diseases transmitted by humans. All visitors must be physically fit and capable of enduring a walk of several hours in difficult terrain (as described above).
• Each gorilla family may be visited only once each day, during the morning hours. At this time, all gorilla visits are limited to a maximum of eight persons per gorilla family for a maximum length of one hour. Due to the already-limited number of persons allowed to visit the gorillas each day, it is not possible to do gorilla tracking on a private basis.
• Smoking, eating, and/or drinking is not permitted within 200 meters of a gorilla family.
• It is prohibited to destroy any vegetation unnecessarily or to make open fires in the national parks and reserves. The flora and fauna of national parks and reserves are strictly protected. All visitors must carry their own litter with them out of the park or reserve, leaving NOTHING behind.
• Children under the age of fifteen (15) cannot be accepted on gorilla tracking excursions. As mentioned previously, travelers should be in good physical condition and be physically and mentally prepared to walk long distances over rough terrain if that is where the search for gorillas takes them.
Note: Eyes on Africa does not control the administration nor play any part in the operation of Rwanda's national parks or reserves. These areas are the total responsibility of local authorities. If the local staff observes situations that merit improvement, they will request that local authorities make changes; but these authorities are under no obligation to do so. While our local ground handlers have cultivated an excellent relationship with local authorities and they are always eager to help us look after our clients, it is they who operate the actual gorilla tracking excursions not Eyes on Africa nor our local counterparts. It should also be noted that Eyes on Africa and our ground handler do not employ any of the local guides, gorilla trackers or porters and therefore, we cannot accept responsibility for the manner in which they operate. Travelers should keep in mind that the trackers are local, native-born people who have spent a lot of time in the forest with the gorilla families and that they probably have very good reasons to do things a certain way.
The following are guidelines and you may tip more or less at your discretion:
• Porter US $10 per trek.
• Gorilla Trek Guide US $20 per trek.
• Gorilla Trek Assistant Guide US $10 per trek.
• Gorilla Trackers US $5 per tracker per trek (usually 3 or 4 trackers are used to find the gorillas).
• Gorilla Security trekker US $5 per trek.
Please bear in mind that Porters do not earn any salary, and if you do choose to take a porter (highly recommended) or two, he or she will depend on your tip for remuneration. Guides (1-2 per group), Trackers (2-4 per group) and Security personnel (1-2 per group) do earn salaries.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park today has a number of 10 habituated gorilla groups for visitors to see and one set aside for research from which the Kwita Izina baby gorilla naming ceremony are selected. This means, a number of 80 gorilla permits are available each day for tourists going watch gorillas on a single day.
Surprisingly, each gorilla group has distinct and unique characteristic quiet different from another. Below are the gorilla groups available;
The Titus group is the original family named after the Silver back Titus which was born during the days of Dian Fossey’ research at Karisoke which was the gorilla group Dian Fossey was studying. Titus the your gorilla lost his family to poachers including his father, uncle and brother and his mother and sinter joined other families leaving Titus to be raised by an unrelated male gorillas. According to Dian Fossey Titus the infant seemed “underdeveloped and spindly” and had difficulty breathing, but Titus overcame these difficulties.
Susa group (Susa A)
This is the most popular family with previously 42 members before the split. Well known for being the group studied by Diana Fossey during her time in Rwanda from 1967 to 1985. In 2008 the group of 42 individuals split into 2 as it had become so large . The breakaway group was later known as Susa B or Karisimbi group. Susa A group is well known for its playful twins of Byishimo & Impano and was named after the Susa River that drains through their home range. The group is composed of 33 members including 2 silverbacks and inhabits the forests on the lower slopes of Mt. Karisimbi.
Karisimbi group (Susa B)
This is sometimes referred to as Susa B and is the group which split from the original Susa in 2008. It is made up of 16 members including 2 silver backs. The group is the hardest to track as it inhabits the upper slopes of Mt. Karisimbi at an altitude of 4507m. The group has established their home high in the upper slopes and is suitable for trackers interested in serious hiking. Tracking this group is sometimes difficult as they go further high though RDB rangers will first locate the group a day before.
Amahoro is a Kinyarwanda word to mean serenity, as the name goes, the family is known for its peacefulness and congeniality which on the other hand has caused its silver back Ubumwe to lose some members into another group called Umubano. Amahoro means ‘peace’ and the group has lived to the expectations of her name and is regarded as the most peaceful group. It is composed of 18 members including 2 silver backs and is a bit strenuous to track as one has to endure a hike up Mt. Bisoke slopes where the group established their home.
This family broke away from Ubumwe silverback as a result of constant battles between Charles and Ubumwe the two head silver backs; Charles consistently challenging the supremacy of the leader Ubumwe. Charles eventually succeeded in breaking away with some members hence forming Umubano group. The group is composed of 13 members including 2 silver backs and its name means ‘living together’.
The nearest gorilla family and easiest to track inhabiting the gentle slopes between Mt. Sabyinyo and Mt. Gahinga. The group is popular for its giant silver back known as Guhonda which has kept its main challenger, Ryango out of the family to remain as a lonely silver back. The group is composed of 13 members including one silver back after another was exiled from the group. The commander of the group; Guhonda is the largest silver back in the park weighing about 220kg. The group was named after the Sabinyo volcano that means the ‘old man’s teeth’.
Agashya group – Group 13
This group is named after the initial family individual who were 13 at the time of habituation. The group was initially led by a silverback called Nyakarima but was later over thrown by Agashya meaning the ‘ News’ which is now the leader and the family was named after him. Today the family has grown to 27 members including one silver back (Agashya). The group occupies the same territory with Sabyinyo group but sometimes Agashya takes the family deeper into the mountain when it senses danger.
This is a migrant group from Democratic Republic of Congo which was named after its dominant silver back called Kwitonda which means the ‘Humble one’. Because of its migration background, the group wonders in the lower slopes of Mt. Muhabura and like Karisimbi group, it is onerous to track as it sometimes moves to the upper slopes. The group is composed of 23 members including 4 silver backs.
This family was formed in 2006 by some members of Sabyinyo group and others from 13 group (Agashya). More gorillas joined in and now the group is composed of 16 members including one silver back. The group derived its name from its formation process that was out of luck. Hirwa means ‘the Lucky one’ and as luck has it, the group got twins in 2011. Hirwa group inhabits the foothills of Mt. Sabyinyo to the side of Mt Gahinga.
This is a Kinyarwanda word ‘Ugenda’ to mean ‘on the move’ or ‘mobile’. The group was named after its unique behavior of roaming from place to place. It consists of 11 members including 2 silver backs and wonders around Karisimbi area hence very difficult to track since it has no particular home.
This group was formed as early as 2007 by Bwenge, and named after him the group’s dominant silverback,after he had left his Natal group and was joined by females from other groups. The group occupies slopes of Karisoke volcano between Karisimbi and Bisoke mountains and had witnessed dark times when its 6 infants died. The group has however recovered and now has 11 members including one silver back. Bwenge is a Kinyarwanda word which means ‘Wisdom’ and it’s no wonder that this was the group that featured the Movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’.
Volcanoes National Park is located in a small village called Musanze previously well-known as Ruhengeri, which is very accessible by public transport from Gisenyi or Kigali or from the airport. The drive to Volcanoes national park is 2 hrs and hence one can do gorilla tracking on the same day and drive back to Kigali after the trek. You will be required to arrive at the headquarters of ORTPN in Kinigi, at the park entrance, by 7:00 am, therefore, if you hope to trek gorillas for one day, you have to wake up very early for your journey so that you are on time. However, there isn’t any public transport from Musanze to the headquarters of the park at Kinigi.
Activities in the park include:-
Gorilla trekking, Hiking Karisimbi volcano (3,800 m), One day Mount Bisoke volcano hike, Visiting Dian Fossey, Visiting the twin lakes of Ruhondo and Bulera
Tracking Golden Monkeys starts at the same time as mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes national park by 7:00 assembling for a briefing. These rare species are also listed as endangered and Volcanoes national park currently has two habituated golden monkeys’ troops that are available for visiting.
The Dian Fossey Tomb is situated 30 minutes drive from the Volcanoes park headquarters and to the trailhead to the Karisoke Research Camp. You will start the trek through the forest taking between an hour and a half and three hours, depending on your fitness
The twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo were named so because they are situated in the same areas and their physical connection. They are located with in Musanze district a walk away from the Volcanoes national park. The lakes offer tourists a beautiful view of landscape, wetland habitat, and water birds.