An up-close encounter with the mountain gorillas while gorilla tracking (US$1500 per person) is the highlight of a trip to Africa for many visitors. A close-quarters encounter with a silverback male gorilla can be a hair-raising experience, especially if you’ve only ever seen large wild animals behind the bars of a cage or from the safety of a car. Yet despite their intimidating size, gorillas are remarkably nonaggressive animals, entirely vegetarian and quite safe to be around. You'll be given a safety briefing by park rangers before leaving to track the habituated gorilla groups.
There are 10 habituated gorilla groups (excluding those groups set aside solely for research purposes, which tourists are not allowed to visit) in Volcanoes National Park, including the Susa group, which has around 18 members. Although nearly everyone who shows up at the park headquarters is probably hoping to track the Susa group, the rangers usually select only the most able-bodied and all-round fit visitors. The Susa group is the hardest to reach – you need to trek for three to four hours up the slopes of Karisimbi at an altitude of more than 3000m.
The Sabinyo group (17 members) is a good choice for anyone who doesn’t want a strenuous tracking experience, as it's usually easily found. The Kwitonda group is the largest, with 29 members. The Agashya (22 members) and Amahura (19 members) groups are also popular with visitors, although no matter which group you end up tracking, you’re certain to have a memorable experience.
How hard is the trek to reach the gorillas? This is a question every other visitor seems to ask. It's a difficult question to answer, as it depends on which group of gorillas you go and see – some journeys are just a short stroll but others a half-day slog. You will most likely spend several hours scrambling through dense vegetation up steep, muddy hillsides, sometimes to altitudes of more than 3000m. At this altitude you will certainly be a little breathless, but someone of good fitness who does a reasonable amount of walking is unlikely to find the walk all that tough. If you're not used to walking though, it might be a very different story and you should request a group closer to the trailheads. At higher altitudes, you’ll also have to contend with the thick overgrowth of stinging nettles, which can easily penetrate light clothing. As if fiery skin rashes weren’t enough of a deterrent, it also rains a lot in this area and can get very cold. Oh, and when people say it gets muddy what they mean is it can get MUDDY.
Visits to the gorillas are restricted to one hour, and flash photography is banned. While you are visiting the gorillas, do not eat, drink, smoke or go to the bathroom in their presence. If you have any potential airborne illness, do not go tracking as gorillas are extremely susceptible to human diseases.
In theory, visitors are requested to remain more than 5m from the gorillas at all times, though in practice the guides (and the gorillas) tend to flout this rule. Although no tourists have ever been harmed by the gorillas, you should give them the respect and wide berth you would any wild animal.
The hefty US$1500 fee includes park entry, compulsory guides and guards. The number of people allowed to visit each of the groups is limited to a maximum of eight people per day, limiting the total number of daily permits to an absolute maximum of 80. Children under 15 are not allowed to visit the gorillas.
Gorilla permit bookings can be made through the RDB tourist office in Kigali or a Rwandan tour company. Those visiting on a tour package will have everything arranged for them, while independent travellers can secure permits if they make reservations early on. Frustratingly, it’s not always easy to deal with the RDB by phone or email from overseas, so it’s usually easier to book a permit through a Rwandan tour operator (although you will, of course, have to pay a small surcharge if doing it this way).
With demand often exceeding supply, you’ll need to book well in advance if you want to be assured of a spot, especially during the peak seasons of December to January and July to August. Bookings made direct through RDB are secured with a full payment (via bank transfer); if you book through a Rwandan tour operator, you'll need to make a US$600 deposit, and full payment must be made one month before the day of your visit.
Independent travellers who have only decided to visit the gorillas in Rwanda once in the East Africa region can turn up at the RDB office in Kigali and try to secure a booking at the earliest available date. During the high season, waits of several days to more than a week are not uncommon.
You’ll need to present yourself at 7am on the day that your permit is valid at the park headquarters, 3km from Kinigi. It’s worth emphasising that if you are late, your designated slot will be forfeited and your money will not be refunded.
What to Bring
You need to be prepared for a potentially long, wet and cold trek through rainforest. A pair of hiking shoes is a must, as is warm and waterproof clothing. The stinging nettles at higher elevations can really put a damper on the experience, so consider wearing trousers and long-sleeved shirts with a bit of thickness.
Despite the high altitudes and potentially cold temperatures, you also need to be prepared for the strong sun. Floppy hats, bandanas, sunglasses and lots of sunscreen are a good idea, as are plenty of cold water and hydrating fluids. Sugary snacks are also good for a quick energy boost.
When you check in at the park headquarters, you may be asked for identification by the park rangers. To avoid any potential hassles, carry your passport with you at all times in addition to your gorilla-tracking permit.
Porters (US$10) are available for the trek, though they’re not absolutely necessary unless you're carrying a lot of gear. The guides, guards, drivers and any porters will expect a tip – the amount is up to you, and ultimately depends on the quality of the service. However, keep in mind that the locals know you’re paying US$1500 for the privilege of gorilla tracking, so try not to be too stingy.
Golden Monkey Tracking
Golden monkey tracking (US$100 per person) is a relative newcomer on the wildlife scene of East Africa, but is rapidly rising in popularity. More like chimp-viewing than a gorilla encounter, these beautiful and active monkeys bound about the branches of bigger trees. If you’re looking for a reason to spend an extra day in the park, don’t miss the chance to track these rare animals.
Golden monkeys, which are a subspecies of the wider-spread blue monkey, are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley and are distinguished by their gold body colouration, which contrasts sharply with black patches on their extremities. Classified as an endangered species, golden monkeys can only be seen in the Virungas, as deforestation and population growth in the Great Lakes region has greatly affected their home range.
Permits to track the golden monkeys are easy to get hold of – simply enquire at the RDB office in Kigali or Musanze, or at the park headquarters in Kinigi. As with the gorillas, your time with the monkeys is limited to one hour. But unlike the gorillas, children are allowed to take part (permit price is the same as for adults).
Climbing & Trekking the Volcanoes
Dian Fossey was fascinated by the Virungas, and justifiably so. These stunning volcanoes serve as an evocative backdrop for a guided climb or trek. As you make your way along the ascents, you’ll pass through some remarkable changes of vegetation, ranging from thick forests of bamboo and giant lobelia or hagenia on to alpine meadows. And there’s further rewards in store: if the weather is favourable, you can enjoy spectacular views over the mountain chain.
There are several possibilities for climbing up to the summits of one or more of the volcanoes in the park, with treks ranging in length from several hours to two days. A guide is compulsory and is included in your trekking fee; additional porters are optional (US$20 per day). Note that it is forbidden to cut down trees or otherwise damage vegetation in the park, and you are only allowed to make fires in the designated camping areas.
One of the best parts of climbing and trekking the volcanoes is that you will be awarded ample opportunities to view wildlife (sans gorillas and golden monkeys, of course). The most common herbivores in the park are bushbucks and black-fronted duikers; buffaloes, bush pigs and giant forest hogs are infrequently spotted. Also, be sure to inspect the hollows of trees for hyraxes, genets, dormice, squirrels and forest pouched rats. The richest birdwatching zone is in the hagenia forests, where you can expect to see turaco, francolins, sunbirds, waxbills, crimson-wings and various hawks and buzzards.
Climbing Karisimbi (4507m), the highest summit in the Virungas, takes two long and taxing days. The track follows the saddle between Bisoke and Karisimbi, and then ascends the northwestern flank of the latter. Some five hours after beginning the trek, there is a metal shelter under which you can pitch your tent. The rocky and sometimes snow-covered summit is a further two to four hours walk through alpine vegetation.
To do this trek, take plenty of warm clothing, your own food, a sturdy tent (these can be rented from the park office for US$20) and a very good sleeping bag. It gets very cold, especially at the metal shelter, which is on a bleak shoulder of the mountain at 3660m. The wind whips through here, frequently with fog, so there is little warmth from the sun.
The two-day climb up Karisimbi costs US$400 for a solo climber or US$300 per person for groups of two or more, including park fees and a guide.
Bisoke Crater Lake
The most popular hike is the return trip up Bisoke crater lake, which takes six to seven hours from the car park at Bisoke. The well-defined track takes you up the steep southwestern flanks of the volcano to the rim (3630m), where you can see the crater lake. This climb costs US$75 per person, including park fees and a guide. From the park headquarters it's about a 30-minute drive to the trailhead.
Dian Fossey’s Grave
A popular trek is to the site of the former Karisoke Research Center, where Dian Fossey is buried alongside many of her primate subjects, including the famous Digit. From the park headquarters it’s about a 30-minute drive to the trailhead, followed by a two- to three-hour hike to the ruins of the camp. This excursion costs US$75 per person, including park fees and a guide (though you are responsible for your own transportation to/from the trailhead).
Ngezi Nature Walk
The return walk to Ngezi (about 3000m) takes two to three hours from the car park at Bisoke. This is one of the easiest of the treks, and at the right time of the day it is possible to see a variety of animals coming down from the hills to drink at streams and springs. This trek is slightly cheaper than the others at US$55 per person including a guide.
Gahinga & Muhabura
Climbing Gahinga (3474m; in Uganda) and Muhabura (4127m) is a two-day trip from Gasiza (US$200 per person including guide). The summit of the first volcano is reached after a climb of about four hours along a track that passes through a swampy saddle between the two mountains. The trip to the summit of Muhabura takes about four hours from the saddle. It is also possible to climb these volcanoes separately. For Gahinga, allow seven to eight hours for the return hike, and a minimum of nine hours for Muhabura. You'll need to be very fit to climb Muhabura as there's an altitude gain of more than 2000m. The trekking fee is US$100 for Muhabura and US$75 for Gahinga, including a guide.