Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is home to the majestic mountain gorilla. With only 880 remaining in the world, Rwanda is one of only three places that mountain gorillas are found along with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One of the obvious highlights of a visit to Rwanda is trekking in Volcanoes National Park to spend an unforgettable hour with a group of mountain gorillas, in their own natural habitat. Looking into the brown eyes of one of these hairy, gentle giants who are so much like ourselves is not to be missed, definitely the stuff of bucket lists. Treks are timed to coincide with the gorilla’s feeding and resting time, meaning that they are relaxed and calm and often not moving around too much. Watching the juveniles play together, the mothers feeding their babies and resting plus beholding the sheer size of the silverbacks is a mesmerising experience.
It is important to have a moderate level of fitness, as they are mountain gorillas, meaning you need to trek up part of a mountain to see them! We were designated to see the Ntambara group, who are typically a one and half to two hours trek from the car park. This is one of the ‘medium difficulty’ groups, the ‘easy’ group are typically one hour from the car park and the ‘hard’ groups can be up to four hours trek away. Although these are wild animals, they can move around as much as they like!
The first part of our trek was through farmland. Once we entered the national park the terrain changed and was steeper and a lot more muddy.
It is worth remembering that you will be trekking at altitude. We began at 2,300m above sea level and the gorillas were at 2,900m, which makes the trek feel harder than it would do if you were at sea level and if you are not used to being at altitude, you may find it quite psychically exhausting. However, the guides, rangers and porters don’t try to rush you; they allow you to go at your own pace, take lots of breaks and are both patient and motivating.
There are 10 habituated groups of gorillas, meaning that they are used to a maximum of eight tourists coming to observe them for 1 hour per day. As there are only 80 permits issued per day, it is important that you purchase your permits in advance. During the peak seasons (Dec to Feb and June to Aug) you may need to purchase your permits six to nine months in advance. Permits cost $750 per person per trek. You can either book them yourself directly with Rwanda Development Board (Government Tourist Board) or you can ask your travel agent/tour operator to book them for you. Permits during the rainy seasons are less in demand (Mar to May and Sep to Nov). Link to official permits
The money from the permits is being put to excellent use, not only is it paying for the guides and trackers to take you on your trek, it is also paying for the rangers who patrol the national park, keeping the gorillas safe from poachers, looking for snares and also is ploughing money into the local community by providing schools, healthcare, roads and other community projects. All of this enables the local community to see why it is worthwhile to protect the mountain gorillas as they feel the benefits from the tourism.
Once you have arranged when you are going to do your trek, there are a few other things you should know….
You will need to be at the park headquarters at around 7am the morning of your trek. You will need transport to get there, but also to get from the headquarters to the nearest car park from where you will start your trek. If you book your permit through a travel agency, they will be able to provide a driver for you. If you plan on driving yourself, make sure you have a 4WD as the drive to the car parks is off road and very, very bumpy.
You need to bring your passport with you to register at the park headquarters the morning of your trek. It may be a good idea to keep it in a plastic bag inside your daypack in case of rain.
It is not possible for you to request a particular group of gorillas to visit. You will be assigned depending on the ability of all the other participants of the day. You can request an easy, medium or hard trek, but you may not get your first choice.
You should bring a packed lunch with you, even if you are expecting to get an ‘easy’ group, as you never know how long you may end up being in the park, the gorillas may have moved. You should also bring around 2 litres of drinking water per person with you. If you finish your trek before lunchtime, you can always give or share your lunch with the porters/trackers/guides.
Upon arrival at the car park, you will be offered a porter to help you. Even if you think you are capable of carrying your own bag, it is good practice to agree to pay for one porter per person, these porters are often ex-poachers, and by tourists providing them with a steady income they are less likely to go back to poaching. Porters are typically $15-$20 each, and will also provide walking sticks, very useful for the muddy terrain, especially on descent.
There are lots of stinging nettles in the areas where the gorillas live. A pair of gardening gloves can be helpful to prevent your hands getting stung whilst you are walking through the forest.
You should bring some money in your pocket for tipping. Firstly it is nice to tip the trackers; they are the ones who have got up even earlier than you to trek into the park and find your group of gorillas. You will say goodbye to them before you begin your descent back to the car park. It is also nice to tip the guide and the porters.
The minimum age for gorilla trekking is 15 years old. This is strictly enforced.
You will need the following:
- sturdy hiking shoes/boots
- waterproof jacket
- long sleeves and long trousers
- gaiters (optional to protect your trousers from mud)
- packed lunch and at least 2l of water
- You will not need binoculars as you will be close to the gorillas (approx. 7m away).
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO IN VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Golden monkey trekking
Golden monkeys are another endangered species found in Volcanoes National Park. There are two habituated troops of golden monkeys who live at the base of the volcanoes. The treks are also limited to 8 people per group and they take place daily. Permits are $100 per person, and can be purchased in the same way as for the gorillas. The meeting point is also the park headquarters and usually at 7am. A moderate level of fitness is required. Link to official permits
Visit Dian Fossey’s tomb
Dian Fossey studied the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for over 18 years. She is buried at Karisoke in a site where she had buried many of the gorillas that she had studied, whom had been killed by poachers. Visits to her house and her grave can be arranged through Volcanoes National Park headquarters, and involves a 30 min drive plus a one and half hour walk each way. The terrain is steep and a moderate level of fitness it required.
Hike Mount Karisimbi
This is a two day hike. Mount Karisimbi is the fifth highest volcano in Africa. An early morning climb involves navigating through the Bisoke side of the mountain before camping overnight at an altitude of 3,700m before reaching the summit at 4,705m the following morning and then making your descent. You also have the opportunity to visit Dian Fossey’s grave. You need a high level of fitness to undertake this activity.
Hike Mount Bisoke
Mount Bisoke is a dormant volcano and can be hiked in one day. It is 3,711m and has the largest crater lake of the Virunga’s range. The ascent usually takes approx. 4 hours with a 2 hour descent. You need a high level of fitness to undertake this activity.