Close encounters

The Virunga Mountains are home to one of the planet’s most-loved and most vulnerable species – the mountain gorilla. Adrian Mourby visited the region for one of the world’s ultimate wildlife encounters

VirungasThe Virunga Mountains are a chain of eight volcanoes in East Africa that form a border between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These dramatic peaks were pushed up millions of years ago as the East African Rift began to split the continent, a process that continues today even though all but one of the volcanoes is now considered extinct. The name ‘Virunga’ is derived from the local Kinyarwanda word ‘ibirunga’, which means ‘volcano’.

The impressive Virungas are mighty cones that rise above the treeline – the tallest being Mount Karisimbi, a massive 4507 metres above sea level. But it is the mountain gorillas that the Virungas are best known for today. These huge, shy, gentle creatures live in the trees that fringe the base of the volcanoes and were brought to the world’s attention in the film Gorillas in the Mist, which was filmed in the Virunga Mountains.

The story
Thrown up when the Albertine Rift split the crust of East Africa, releasing billions of tons of magma, the Virunga Mountains have always been too steep for human settlement. These days farmers in all three countries that share the Virunga Mountains cultivate the land as high as they are allowed, but the creation of national parks in the twentieth century – Mgahinga in Uganda, Parc National Des Volcans in Rwanda and Virunga in DRC – has limited human intrusion, leaving a landscape that at times looks as if it predates homo sapiens.

Many species live among the trees that fringe the base of the (mostly-dormant) volcanoes, including water buffalo, golden monkey, duiker and elephant. However it was the huge mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) that attracted the American zoologist Dian Fossey.  She observed this endangered species for eighteen years from a Rwandan camp that she created between two of the volcanoes, Karisimbi and Visoke.

These were troubled times, with the Congo Crisis raging (in 1967 President Mobutu’s soldiers arrested Dian Fossey), Idi Amin’s military dictatorship in neighbouring Uganda in the 1970s, and the Rwandan Genocide brewing.

The dwindling population of mountain gorillas was also under threat from poachers who operated with impunity across all three countries.

But when peace came at last to this troubled region the people of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC found they had a natural asset in the gorillas, whose presence attracted wealthy tourists. Today gorilla-trekking is a significant source of foreign income for all three countries.

The experience
Early each morning in the car park by the Kinigi entrance to the Parc National Des Volcans Landcruisers arrive, each bearing the logo of a hotel or safari company. Dressed in safari gear and wrapped up against the chilly morning mist the visitors assemble for coffee, browse a few handicraft stalls and watch the display of traditional Intore dancing on the lawns.

At the end of the dance the different tour groups assemble around a guide, who describes gorilla life in the Virunga Mountains and gives some background about the particular family that will be visited. Trackers follow the gorillas on a daily basis and know where each group is located. At US$750 a visit to the park, guests want guaranteed ‘facetime’.

Vehicles are loaded up and disperse across the park. There are many rough roads up towards the treeline and guides will get you as close as possible. Porters and trackers are waiting where the road ends. Blue-clad porters carry your bags for a tip and will also help you over walls and through undergrowth. Trackers are there to help the guide, but they also carry guns in case there are any threats from the wildlife.

Climbing steadily through a steep and intensively farmed landscape, the convoy of trackers and tourists comes eventually to a 74km stone wall that has been built along the full length of the national park in Rwanda. Beyond it no one is allowed to farm, and over the wall there is a deep ditch to make sure that neither the gorillas, elephants nor water buffalo can get out and damage crops.

Once over the wall, the incline is steep and the vegetation dense except where elephants have demolished a few trees overnight. It can take up to an hour to locate your particular gorilla family. Once the guides have smelled gorilla, they tell everyone to leave their bags with the porters. If humans can smell gorillas, gorillas can certainly smell visitors. Walking sticks are also left behind – mountain gorillas may be habituated to human visitors, but they also harbour bad memories of spear-wielding aggressors.

Cameras at the ready, the group moves forward quietly. Then, rounding a clump of bamboo, the first primate swings – literally – into view, a two-and-a-half-year-old female dropping nonchalantly from branch to branch.  Cameras go into a frenzy, but no flashguns. Gorillas have no fear of the noise modern cameras make, but they do not like flash.

The group of guests moves in, ducking, stretching and weaving their way through the undergrowth until they find the silverback whose family this is: a huge 220-kilogramme male, who – unlike his wives – looks every kilo. He sits with his back to you, being groomed by two much smaller males.

People squat to be photographed with the silverback. You’re supposed to keep a seven-metre distance but that’s not always possible, especially when the younger gorillas come over to investigate. If they get within touching distance, one of the trackers will grunt in a very convincing impersonation of the gorilla sound for ‘back off’.

An hour later, the exhilarated trekking group is back down at the wall. They may have seen ten or more gorillas, magnificent creatures, relaxed and playful, with facial expressions that so closely resemble humans’ that you believe you know exactly what they’re thinking. It’s good to see wild creatures who have no fear of us.

More mountains to explore
• Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Kenya Airways flies daily to Kilimanjaro from Nairobi. The famous mountain with its three volcanic cones is visible as soon as you step onto the tarmac. Airport Kilimanjaro
• Mount Kenya, Kenya
Mount Kenya is located 150 kilometres northeast of the capital Nairobi. Its mini-glaciers and forested slopes are an important source of water for much of Kenya. Airport Jomo Kenyatta International
• Drakensburg, South Africa
Formed by massive uplift over the last 20 million years, the ‘Dragon Mountains’ of South Africa and Lesotho are popular for hiking. Fly Kenya Airways’ new Dreamliner to Johannesburg. Airport Oliver R. Tambo International

Need to know
KQ flies daily to Kigali and Entebbe. The best times to visit are from December to February and June to September. March, April and May can be rainy and so make trekking conditions more difficult.
• Check visa requirements with the embassies of Uganda and Rwanda as they vary according to nationality.
• Transfers to the national parks from Kigali take at least three hours, and much longer from Entebbe. Although the drives are very scenic, 20 or 30 minutes in a helicopter is an exciting alternative. Prices vary but are in the region of a minimum of US$1200 one way.
• Some inoculation may be advisable. Yellow fever certification may be required. For details visit www.masta.org or www.cdc.gov
• Altitude sickness is rare in the Virunga Mountains.
• For travellers it is possible to pay for most items, in Rwanda and Uganda, in American dollars.

And don’t miss…
Other activities in the Virunga Mountains include visiting Dian Fossey’s grave at Karisoke, where she is buried alongside Digit, her favourite silverback. Golden monkey tracking also takes place in the park. These are amongst the most endangered primates in Africa and no more than eight guests are allowed to visit at any one time. Some village schools welcome visitors and many of the safari companies contribute to the upkeep of the schools.

Birdwatching walks are often run from safari lodges, and Volcano National Park has recently unveiled cave-walking tours. More ambitious activities in the Virunga Mountains include actually climbing the volcanoes. Climbing Karisimbi Volcano takes two days with an overnight in a tent. Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes that lies between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, is part of the Great Rift Valley and a popular excursion. Visitors can tour the coffee plantations by boat or just enjoy watching the bustling lakeside lifestyle. Visits to Batwa (pygmy) settlements can be arranged.

Where to stay
• Jack Hanna’s Guesthouse, Rwanda
A luxury private guesthouse in Rwanda, with great views of the Virunga mountain range and excellent proximity to the national park. The guest house is perfect for families or a small group of friends who are looking for exclusivity and privacy. www.gorillanestlodge.com

• Virunga Lodge, Rwanda
With views of the twin lakes Ruhondo and Bulera, Virunga Lodge opened in 2004 and is popular as a honeymoon destination. www.volcanoessafaris.com

• Mount Gahinga Lodge, Uganda
Nestled high at 2300m in the Virunga foothills, Mount Gahinga Lodge opened in 1998. Its nine bandas (rooms) are all named after volcanoes in the Virunga chain, and are modelled on traditional pygmy huts – albeit with modern comforts.  www.volcanoessafaris.com

The locals
Praveen Moman, Founder of  Volcanoes Safaris
“The golden monkey, a teddybear-sized primate, is a delight to see, munching away in the bamboo trees. Birdlife in the high altitude forest is also unique, with many species of birds found only in the Virunga massif. Experiencing the life of the pygmies – the Batwa, who were the original inhabitants of the forest but were displaced when the land became national parks – is a very humbling experience.”

How to meet the Batwa people
Contact Uganda Wildlife Authority (+256 414 435 5000) | email  uobdubatwa@gmail.com or see the Forest Peoples Programme in the UK.

Jan Ramer, Regional Manager, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project
“It is so incredibly beautiful in the Virungas! For my part, going to the forest as many times as possible is what I love – gorillas, golden monkeys, volcano hikes, Dian Fossey site.  When I’m not called out to help one of the gorillas, I love to just walk in the park. But of course I think all visitors should learn about the work the Gorilla Doctors do. Any tourists particularly interested can arrange a group lecture about the conservation of the Mountain Gorilla with the veterinary project.”   www.gorilladoctors.org

Prosper Uwingeli, Chief Park Warden, Volcanoes National Park
“The mountain gorillas are more than a tourism product. The researchers at Karisoke Research Center and the vets at the Gorilla Doctors’ HQ are based in Musanze and happy to interact with visitors. Those keen for the thrill of adventure can try cave diving in the spectacular Musanze Caves. Over two million years old and formed during major volcanic eruptions, these 2km-long caves are home to a large colony of bats as well as incredible plant growth and rock formations.”   www.rwandatourism.com