It’s the 22nd of December when I walk with a leaden step through the dust. I’m tense, but also excited about this trip. The sand blows up when I walk and falls back down behind me in a puddle. It is early morning and the small little town comes to life slowly. People poke their heads out of simple huts made out of wood, bricks and tinned roofs.
From their front doors I get some curious stares and even though I cannot hear them I see their lips make the well know “ Muzungu, Muzungu”, translated “white man, white man”. They whisper it, while they nod towards me with their heads. I think back to the Maasai who tell each other stories until deep in the night and it wouldn’t surprise me if my sudden appearance makes for a good character in one of their stories here.
Not that I have ever experienced it myself, but I can imagine that this, walking through an empty street, is how it feels to be model walking down the catwalk in a set of clothes from a daring desiger. A designer who has yet to make a name for himself in the fashion industry, he’s different from everyone else. As the model wearing it, you’re not entirely sure yourself what you think of the design while everyone stares at you.
My feet lead me to a table with some very strict looking officers. They direct me to a chair in the shadow outside. I am now in the French speaking part of Africa and I am reminded of the fact that this is not a language I am familiar with. From my spot in the shadow I can see people crossing the border with all their merchandise to sell. By the time I have been there of more than half an hour I start to get a bit anxious.
I’m looking out over a street filled with little shops, at the end of the street on my side where the borderpost is situated, they made a little piazza. The road and the piazza consist of sand and dust. In the middle of it is a flagpole. A soldier takes his position in the middle of the square and blows loudly on his whistle. It seems like a scene out of “Peep Behind The Curtain”. Everyone suddenly stands still: Donkeys, carts, vehicles, pedestrians, everything seems to be glued to their place. I follow their example and go and stand next to my grey bag on the ground. Three soldiers are now walking from the officers building to the middle of the square. Draped over the shoulder of one of the soldiers I see a flag. They quickly hoist up the flag to the top of the pole and while the soldiers walk back to the officers post I hear the same whistling sound again. Directly after the frozen world seems to come to life again. Children start running, women put down their heavy burdens from their heads and temporarily put it on the dusty ground, men urge their donkeys on and put the train in motion again. They tell me that the border is now officially opened.
A few minutes later I see a heavy and impressive looking Landrover Defender coming from the sandy track towards the border post. On the side of the military green Landrover is the logo from “Parc National De Virunga” visible. A sigh of relief goes through me. Two very impressive women poke their heads through the open windows together with their equally impressive barrels of their well maintained AK47’s. Both of them jump out of the spartan vehicle with grace and position themselves on either side of the car. It gives me goosebumps that very instant. The driver and the guide also jump out of the car, both of them walk to the entrance of the border post office and to the place which I now regard as my own. Just like the first ritual of the day, I immediately jump up out of my chair and welcome my saviors. A set of documents is given to the officers at the border. A small nod from behind his desk gives me the permission to go on into Congo. He slowly pushes my passport my way and I don’t hesitate in taking it as soon as I can.
I get in the car between the two ladies and get a hasty explanation from the guide: “ We have to hurry, a group of Mountain Gorillas has been spotted not too far from border just an hours drive from here and if we hurry we can still see them. It is a unique chance and a special group, but I’ll tell you all about it later.” The driver listens in on this conversation and starts the car when the guide is finished. A moment later there is no chance of even having a conversation and we need all our attention to stay seated in the shaking terrain vehicle.
We are driving through small villages and the view constantly changes. The only thing that doesn’t change is the poor condition of the road. Everyone around me tries to relax in their cramped position while I have to try really hard to keep myself in one place. I’m getting really excited by now to actually see the gorillas and my heart jumps when the speed decreases, the shaking becomes less, the vehicle drives a semi circle before it stops and everyone jumps out of the car (which doesn’t have any doors or windows by the way) with a military precision. We all walk to the park post with me in the middle. One of the trackers (these people are rangers who are specialized in finding the gorillas) is already waiting for us. The guide quickly exchanges information with the tracker, pulls out his machete from his pants and starts making his way through the heavy jungle.
I realize I am extremely lucky when within 10 minutes I am standing eye to eye with the Mountain Gorillas. I know from others this usually takes a substantial hike, but here I am. They almost seem shy and from behind a small tree 6 pairs of eyes stare at me and the group of men whom I came into their territory with. It is obvious that they were just busy with their siesta before we came to disturb. It takes a little while before they are used to our presence. Large branches are being torn from the trees and pulled through their mouths from left to right like they are eating satay. The tasty leaves are the ones being left in their mouths and the branch itself is discarded. It is fascinating to see how humanlike these animals behave and for one hour I feel like I am completely in their world.
My trip to Virunga is probably one of the highlights of my Africa journey. Through Virunga I got to do two activities: visiting the mountain gorillas and climbing the active volcano , the Nyarongo.
The National Park itself is just beautiful and one of the most stunning ones I’ve seen so far.
Organization wise I was very impressed with the way Virunga organizes your trip. They are well aware of the safety risks and take absolutely no chances at all. They will not let you drive into Congo yourself, but they will arrange transportation from the border and to all the activities you are going on. The rangers in Virunga are extremely well trained and very knowledgeable about the park.
Visiting the Mountain Gorillas in Virunga is just magical and definitely worth doing! Of course I have no experience with visiting the gorillas in the other neighboring countries, but I can imagine that seeing them in Virunga is a bit more authentic as there are not that many tourists going and because of the sheer wilderness you have to plough through to get to them.
Climbing an active volcano is something you can only do in a few countries in the world and to see the lava churning beneath you while you stand on the crater rim is something you can hardly do justice with by taking photos. You have to experience it yourself!
The climb up is long and a serious one, but doable for a different levels of fitness. I would recommend hiring a porter and a cook which will make it a lot easier. The guides take it slow and take the altitude changes into account.
If you have the opportunity to visit this park: Go!
Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park. The park’s 7800 square kilometers includes forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains.
Virunga is home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park’s two other Great Ape species, eastern lowland Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees, make Virunga the only park in the world to host three taxa of Great Apes. Virunga’s southern sector is best known for the mountain gorillas that live on the flanks on the dormant Mikeno volcano (4380m). Dense forests cover most of southern Virunga, which also make it ideal habitat for chimpanzees and numerous species of monkey. Across the valley to the west sits Nyiragongo volcano (3470m).
Climbing to the top gives you a spectacular view of the world’s largest lava lake. A little farther north is Nyamulagira volcano, which is considered the most active in Africa. Nymulagira has erupted over 40 times since the late 1800s – the most recent eruptions occurring in January 2010 and November 2011.
Is Virunga NP safe?
Even though there have been 2 recent killings of rangers in the Northern part of the Park, the Southern sector of Virunga NP is considered safe for visitors.
Virunga officially reopened for visitors 3 years ago and since then there have been no reports of tourists being involved in shootings or incidents. New tourist activities have been developed and the park now offers high-end lodging located near the center of the three main tourist attractions: the mountain gorillas, Tongo chimpanzees, and Nyiragongo volcano.
Personally I consider the park as being very safe. The rangers are highly trained and as a tourist you’re under continuous supervision of an armed ranger squad.
Even though the current situation in Congo is questionable, Virunga NP is working really hard and is very much succeeding in securing a safe zone for tourists, their staff and for the species they’re protecting. I would very much recommend traveling to Virunga NP
How does Virunga NP ensure security?
Before opening for tourists and after a tragic event where 5 members of a gorilla family have been killed, the park has undergone significant institutional and security reforms. The international community continues to ensure that Virunga rangers have the equipment they need in order to patrol the park. For National Park standards the rangers are highly trained and used to risking their lives on a daily basis to protect the endangered wildlife and habitats within the park, as well as the people living around the park boundary. Booking a trip through the official Virunga NP website. Virunga NP offers pick up and assistance with the border crossing entering Congo, guarded and armed transportation, guarded and armed trips and excursions and variety of accomodation.
The mountain gorilla, a large, strong ape inhabiting Africa’s volcanic slopes, has few natural predators. Yet due to detrimental human activity, such as poaching, civil war, and habitat destruction, the mountain gorilla, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, has become the most endangered type of gorilla. Currently, the mountain gorilla’s habitat is limited to protected national parks in two regions of Africa. One group of gorillas lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. The other group is spread over three national parks in the Virungas mountain region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas are as shy as they are strong. But when threatened, they can be aggressive. They beat their chests and let out angry grunts and roars. Group leaders will charge at the threat. Mothers will fight to the death to protect their young. Mountain gorillas live in groups of up to 30. The group, or troop, is led by a single alpha male and an older silverback. These males are called silverbacks because of the silver stripe they develop on their backs when they mature. The oldest males of the group are at least 12 years old. These troops also include several younger males, adult and juvenile females, and infants. In addition to providing protection to group members, silverbacks maintain order and decide all activities within their troop. They schedule feeding trips, resting time, and travel. They also father the majority of the young in the group. Female mountain gorillas can produce young beginning at age 10. They carry one or two babies at a time and give birth after a 8.5-month gestation period. In general, they will bear between two and six offspring in a lifetime.
Newborn gorillas weigh about 1.8 kg (4 lb.) at birth. They are as weak and uncoordinated as human babies. For the first four years of their lives, they get around by clinging to their mothers backs. By 3.5 years of age, the young gorillas are fully weaned from their mothers milk and start the same diet as mature mountain gorillas: plants, leaves, roots and shoots.
Fully-grown male mountain gorillas can weigh up to 180 kg (400 lb). Females weigh half that at about 90 kg ( 200 lb). Aside from the silver stripe on their backs, male mountain gorillas are distinguished from females because they have a crest of fur on their heads. Both genders have similar thick black hair covering their body. Their thick hair keeps them warm in cold mountain temperatures. (Source)
How endangered are the Mountain Gorillas?
Mountain gorillas are considered critically endangered by IUCN’s Red List. Not only are mountain gorillas threatened by loss of habitat due to human encroachment, they have also become victims of human violence. As civil war rages in Africa, efforts to conserve mountain gorilla populations have been curtailed. Mountain gorillas have also been killed or captured by poachers. Their body parts are sold to collectors, and baby gorillas are sold illegally as pets, research subjects, or private zoo animals. (Source)
Estimated are that there are currently around 300 Mountain gorillas. Talking to the rangers in Virunga I understand that in the area that I’m visiting there are 121 gorillas divided in 8 groups with 4 solitary silverbacks.
How does Virunga NP sustain without being a much traveled tourist attraction.
Virunga has 3 ways of generating income. Through worldwide sponsoring and support, through the generation of Electricity produced by a couple of small energy plants and through tourism.
How do I get there?
Travel from Uganda and cross the border with the assistance of Virunga NP at Bunagana.
Travel from Rwanda and cross the border with the assistance of Virunga NP at Gisenyi
Virunga NP arranges Short-Stay Virunga Visas for access to the park.
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