“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 up almost 4500 m (15,000 feet), and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest – the Virungas”.
Situated in the far northwest of Rwanda, the Parc des Volcans protects the steep slopes of this magnificent mountain range – home of the rare mountain gorilla – and the rich mosaic of montane ecosystems, which embrace evergreen and bamboo forest, open grassland, swamp and heath.
Volcanoes National Park is an extraordinary park in Rwanda, full of impressive tropical rainforest and volcanic scenery, trekking, and is one of the best place in the world to see the rare mountain gorillas.
Both trekking options start at the park headquarters at 7AM. You will need to register yourself (or your driver and guide may complete this on your behalf). There is tea and coffee served in the main shelter and some days there is a dance presentation given by the local cultural center (this typically starts around 6:45AM). The park guides will place individuals into trekking groups based on ability and your preference for which group to visit. This process takes 30-40 minutes during which you can walk around the grounds or relax in the main shelter. After the assignments are made your driver and guide will direct you to a location on the lawn where your trekking group will assemble. Once all members are assembled the park guide will go over some basic information and have you fill out a form with your name, nationality, etc. The form has a location for passport number and permit number but these are not required (the form is for information gathering only). The park guide will give you an introduction to the group you will be visiting along with showing you a diagram of the gorilla group’s family tree. Once this initial introduction is complete (10-15 minutes) you will find your driver and proceed to the starting point for your trek.
Your driver will take you to the starting point of the trek (there are multiple entry points into the park) which can be a trip of 20-45 minutes sometimes on very poor roads. Once you have reached the entry point parking lot your trekking group will reassemble with your park guide and secondary guide. Additional instructions will be given and you will be offered a walking stick for the trek. In addition, this is when you can hire a porter. The porters are all wearing the same blue coveralls and there is a defined order in which porters are selected. Ask your driver or the park guide if you want to hire a porter and they will signal to a porter to give you a hand. It is recommended you use a porter if you have any bags or other equipment as the hike can be long, steep or through difficult terrain. Also, it is an important way to support the local economy and help incentivise anti-poaching efforts. You will pay/tip the porter at the end of the trek.
Your starting position will be outside the park and depending on the starting position you may have to hike up to an hour to actually get to the park boundary which is marked with a stone wall. The area before the park is typically made up of farming fields.
Once you reach the park boundary additional instructions will be given about how to behave around the primates such as restrictions on eating, drinking, smoking and bathroom breaks.
The trek inside the park boundary varies depending on the location of your group and may include steep climbs, movement through a bamboo forest or hacking through thick brush.
Viewing the Gorillas
You will know you have reached the staging area when additional park trackers join your group. At this point you will need to leave all bags and walking sticks with the porters but will be allowed to take cameras with you. A final hike (around 200 m) and you should be in the presence of the primates. After the one hour visit you return to the staging area where you left your belongings and prepare to hike out to the starting point.
Upon your return to the starting point you will pay your porters (consider giving tip) and can also tip the guides. Finally, you can return to the park headquarters where you will be given a certificate indicating that you have completed a visit with your specific gorilla group.