The Virunga Mountains: the last refuge of the mountain gorilla

Julia Campos
Julia Campos

The gorilla has not always enjoyed the deserved fame. Having King Kong as a reference is not exactly a positive example. The film showed him being fearsome, huge and monstrous. Reality is something else. Reality is more related to the image of the affable friends of Tarzan.

The great mountain gorillas are calm and sociable beings that live in communities formed by around a dozen individuals. They follow a fundamentally herbivorous diet, feeding on barks, roots and fruits; and in spite of his imposing presence, the man, weaker in appearance, has taken their land. The human settlements near their habitat have placed them in very isolated areas, although they are not inaccessible.

Thus, in a mountainous chain of Eastern Africa, the Virunga Mountains, you can enjoy the incredible experience of finding yourself face to face with gorillas weighing approximately 200 kilos. This mountain range extends along the northern edge of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and shelters an intricate jungle where the last specimens of this species take refuge.

I recommend four National Parks located among these three countries so you can enjoy this incredible ecotourism experience.

THE (ALMOST) INNACESSIBLE FOREST OF BWINDI

The Bwindi National Park is located in southwestern Uganda, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is a mountainous area of ​​more than 32,000 hectares occupied by one of the oldest and most biodiverse forests in the country.

But what makes this place really famous are the 340 mountain gorillas that live there, approximately half of the specimens of this species that remain alive in the world.

The first thing you need to know if you want to see gorillas in Uganda is that you need to apply for a special permit on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website. It is convenient to have it several months in advance and it costs between 450 and 600 dollars depending on the season.

When you apply for the permit, you are assigned to a family of gorillas that can belong to any of the 4 sectors of the Park: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. Only one visit per day is allowed per family, in groups of 8 people.

If you are planning to make a trip to Africa on your own, you may have some problems when it comes to finding the entrance to your assigned sector, since sometimes these are not clearly signed. Therefore (among other things), it is recommended to book the visit through an agency. They will help you to ask for permission and they will take you to the right place.

Although the Park can be visited throughout the year, most people prefer to go between June and September or between December and February to avoid rainy seasons. Keep in mind that Bwindi is in a remote place and the access is difficult due to poor road conditions. From Kampala, the capital of the country, it can take up to 8 hours by bus.

If you are not in for so much travelling, but still want to watch the wildlife, why not starting with a guided tour to watch the Iberian wolf in Zamora? Surely you’ll love it, and you end up taking that plane to Uganda.

THE SANCTUARY OF MGAHINGA GORILLAS

Gorilla de Mgahinga National Park is also in southwestern Uganda, near the city of Kisoro. With just 3,400 hectares, it is the smallest National Park in the country, but also one of the most important ones, being one of the only two places in Uganda where mountain gorillas can be found.

Its entire area is covered by dense vegetation and crossed by numerous streams. On its horizon, you can distinguish the craters of three extinct volcanoes: Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura. The last two have lakes on their craters.

A single family of gorillas lives in Mgahinga, so sometimes, seeing them can be an arduous task. But don’t worry, the guide who will be with you knows all the habits of this group and will take you through the safest places to find them. In addition, Mgahinga keeps other faunistic treasures, like a rare species of golden monkey that can only be seen in this part of Africa.

Mgahinga National Park is also a place recognized for being a home to the Batwa, a tribe of indigenous pygmies who are focused on hunting and gathering.

The Park is located about 55 kilometers away from Kabale, the most important city in this area, from where you can take a bus to Kisoro. If you are coming from the Central Region, you can also take an Entebbe-Kisoro flight.

Like the Bwindi National Park, Mgahinga suffers two rainy seasons a year: between February and May and between September and December.

THE STRONG NATIONAL PARK OF VIRUNGA

Within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the oldest National Park in Africa, founded in 1925, is home to some 200 mountain gorillas.

The political situation of the country and the interest of big oil companies have threatened it for years, even closing its doors. But despite all the conflicts, the Park opened again to tourism in 2014. The expeditions to spot the gorillas are the most demanded activity and, perhaps, the only hope to safeguard these primates from serious danger.

This huge protected area has an incomparable diversity of habitats: jungles, steppes, lava plains, savannahs and volcanoes. And, above all, snowy peaks of over 5,000 meters high.

The Park is divided into three sectors: the northern sector, dominated by the Rwenzori Mountains; the central sector, where Lake Edward is located and inhabits the largest population of hippos in the world; and the southern sector, where the gorillas are, on the slopes of the Mikeno volcano.

In the expeditions, you will be accompanied by the park rangers, who are the ones who best know these primates. You will walk a couple of hours in their search, depending on the place where the gorillas slept the previous night and then you will have an hour to watch them. To safeguard gorillas from human diseases, it is mandatory that all visitors wear masks (they will give you some right there).

The most usual way to get to the Park is to take an international flight to Kigali, in Rwanda, and from there take a taxi to Goma (Democratic Republic of the Congo) in three hours. From Goma there is official transport of the Park to the entrance.

NATIONAL PARK OF THE VOLCANOES, THE “SWITZERLAND OF AFRICA”

Dian Fossey, famous naturalist who studied in situ for 20 years the gorillas in Rwanda, gave fame to this National Park. His work, staged in the movie Gorillas in the fog, served to found the Karisoke Research Center, which has been working for half a century for the conservation of these primates.

In the National Park of the Volcanoes, much less conflictive than the neighboring Park Virunga, live 4 gorilla families perfectly accustomed to the presence of humans. Only 32 daily passes are granted for visits, always in groups of 8 people, and you can not spend more than an hour with them.

The walks to find them start very early and take you through a striking environment, through bamboo forests and tropical jungles, where you can also watch many birds and other primates.

The park is an extraordinary place. In addition to its leafy mountains, it houses 5 of the 8 existing volcanoes in the Virungas. If you are going to spend several days in the area, it is worth taking one to visit the tomb of Dian Fossey at the base of Mount Sabyinyo or even to try to climb to its summit.

The closest city to the Volcanoes Park is Ruhengeri. From Kigali there are buses and the road is paved (a luxury if we compare it to other areas of Rwanda). The trip does not last more than 2 hours.

From Ruhengeri to the entrance of the National Park public transport is not used, so the options are reduced to rent an SUV or to book the visit with an agency, which is, without doubt, the most recommended option.

You know where to find the giant of Africa. Now, do you dare to go in the search of the largest mammal in the European continent? Do it with this activity photographing bisons in Poland.

Darwin had it for an overweight man, but the truth is that the gorilla is the quiet one of the forest. It’s a peaceful creature that lives slowly because in the jungle, except for the cheetah, rushing is not good. A piece of advice: if you are into partying in Ibiza, this is not your trip.

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