Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo


Virunga National Park, a 3,000-square-mile park on the eastern
border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as
Albert National Park.

Why now?

According to NASA the DRC is the lightning capital of the world,
and this is a pretty good metaphor for the magical unpredictability
of the country. While there’s no denying DRC’s violent and
chequered past – refugees, poaching and oil extraction have all had
significant human and environmental impact, with unrest continuing
due to President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down – Virunga has
restructured and is now open to tourists. At least 30% of park
revenue is reinvested into community projects such as schools, as
well as into gorilla and elephant protection. This means there is
no better time to visit; the park is still largely unexplored and
unspoilt, with park fees going towards preserving the wild beauty
of one of the most vulnerable UNESCO World Heritage sites on the

When to go?

During the cooler, drier seasons, which run from June to October
and December to January.

Don’t miss

If you only do one thing (not recommended), climb Mount
Nyiragongo, an active volcano that last erupted in 2002. The walk
to the 3,470 metre summit starts from the Kibati patrol post and
takes between four and six hours, with frequent stops to eat, rest
and take in views over Goma and the surrounding volcanic landscape.
Spend the night in a summit shelter overlooking the world’s largest
crater lake. If Mount Nyiragongo isn’t high enough for you, the
park is also home to the Rwenzori Mountains or the “Mountains of
the Moon” which are up to 5,109 metres tall, with the largest
glaciers in Africa. These are a little more difficult to access
(usually requiring a flight from Goma to Beni), and you’ll need to
be well prepared, bringing your own gear and food.

The park is enormous and has exceptional biodiversity, with more
mammal, bird and reptile species than any other protected area in
Africa, including savanna and forest elephants, okapi, giraffe,
buffalo and eastern lowland gorillas. Virunga has done some very
successful conservation work in order to secure the remaining
populations of chimpanzees and mountain gorillas, and it’s these
animals that most people come to see. Treks to see the mountain
gorillas start from Bukima Tented Camp and take a couple of hours
in each direction – there are several families of varying sizes,
and you’ll spend an hour with them in their natural habitat.
Chimpanzee walks start from Mikeno Lodge, joining a team
trained by the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

After all this activity you’ll want to relax, and Tchegera
Island – once a volcano but now a lake surrounded by a crescent of
the volcano’s remaining rim – is a perfect place to do so, as well
as being a popular lunch destination for UN workers based in Goma.
The island has a tented camp for those who want to stay, and you
can explore the wildlife on foot, by kayak or paddle board. Boats
are organised by the park and leave from Goma by prior

Most likely to bump into?

A deity from an age gone by. At night you can see the red glow
from the top of Mount Nyiragongo, bringing to mind the fiery wrath
of the ancient gods.

Who to take with you?

An entomologist. The beetles in the park haven’t been properly
examined or classified since the 1960s, so there are plenty of
species waiting to be discovered.

How to get there

The easiest way to book your trip is through the
park itself
as they run the camps and activities, and will
organise your transport. There are currently flights into Goma, but
it’s quite easy to cross via a land border – the most hassle-free
is between Gisenyi in Rwanda and Goma in the DRC, where you can
arrange to be picked up by park staff. Buses from Kigali to Gisenyi
are cheap and easy, and will give you time to spend an evening on
the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu, which we highly recommend. Visa
requirements are prone to change, but at the time of writing it is
possible to get a 14-day tourist visa to allow entry to the park
(you’ll need to apply and pay for this in advance, which can also
be done through the park). Be aware that anyone leaving from Goma
airport is subject to a $50 leaving tax.

Before you go

Keep up to date with the latest news coming from the DRC. The
eastern region of the country, where Virunga is located, is still
home to armed rebel groups so it’s worth being up to date with the
political situation. It’s better to book your trip with a tour
company who know how to keep you safe and will arrange armed
escorts where necessary, and don’t forget to take out comprehensive
travel insurance with a company that covers high-risk destinations.
To get you in the mood before your trip, watch the BAFTA-nominated
film “Virunga” by Orlando von Einsiedel, which documents the lives
of the park rangers and the park director, Emmanuel de Merode, as
they work to conserve the area and its animals in the face of the
2012 M23 Rebellion and the activities of the Soco International oil
company. As with most countries in Africa, you’ll need to show your
yellow fever certificate at the border, so make sure it’s in

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