The Virunga mountain range spans 1.9 million acres (7,800 square km) and 3 countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is also one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth and is home to approximately 800 of the last surviving mountain gorillas.
Founded in 1925, Virunga National Park (originally Prince Albert National Park) is located on the eastern edge of the DRC and was the first national park on the continent of Africa. A revolutionary idea at the time, this park led the way to conserving some of Africa's most valuable land. Now almost 90 years later, this park is at risk: people's desires for oil and other minerals (specifically, tantalum) threaten the concept of conservation and protection.
In the last three years Virunga National Park has been the epicenter of civil conflict and closed its doors to tourism in 2011 due to the increased violence and conflict in the area. Fortunately, the war has since ceased, allowing Virunga to reopen to tourists this past January.
There are only a few places in the world to see mountain gorillas: Bwindi NP in Uganda, Volcan NP in Rwanda, and Virunga NP in the DRC. When the time came to make a decision, I overcome my fears of civil unrest and lack of security; I chose to give my money to Virunga, Africa's most at-risk national park.
The drive from Goma, the closest city to the park, to the park headquarters at Rumangabo takes 1.5 hours and winds through UN military bases, open fields that used to be home to over 1 million Rwandan refugees, and lush jungles. Upon arriving at the only accommodation in the park, Mikeno Lodge, you instantly feel like you are in a distant land far from the chaos of Goma and the rebuilding efforts taking place in eastern Congo. Virunga is a land of extreme beauty. From the wide open plains to the towering volcanos, it is easy to understand why so much wildlife resides here and why Emmanual De Merode and his ICCN rangers risk their lives daily in order to protect it. In the last 10 years, 140 rangers have lost their lives in the fight against poachers, rebel groups, and large international companies that are illegally exploring for oil.
Trekking mountain gorillas in the wild is a process very different from other African game drives. Due to both the gorillas' natural habitat and their susceptibility to human diseases, gorilla viewing is highly regulated and protected. All visitors must hold a permit ($465 at Virunga) and are limited to one hour of viewing time once the family has been spotted. [Note: Virunga is the only park that requires masks and has been lobbying the other parks to follow suit due to the death of one gorilla last year from a human virus.]
Leaving at 6:30am escorted by one of Virunga's dedicated rangers, we made our way towards Bukima camp, the launching point for our trek. The drive took roughly 1.5 hours on one of the most atrocious roads on the planet. After our brains and bodies had been sufficiently jostled we arrived at Bukima for our debriefing and long awaited trek.
Winding through intense jungle we literally hacked our way through thick vines in search of the Nyakamwe family. The excitement and nervousness of seeing such large animals in the wild intensified with each step. After an hour of hiking we met up with the trackers who brought us 20 minutes further up the mountain side to witness one of the most spectacular sites on earth: mountain gorillas in the wild.
The Nyakamwe family is comprised of 2 babies, 3 silverbacks and 4 females. As we sat less then a meter away from these great animals we were greeted with grunts, playful grabs, and looks of complete disinterest. The babies swung from vines and wrestled in the bush as the others lazed about. The sheer size of the males was both intimidating and awe-inspiring. One look into these great apes eyes and you are both in love and in fear of getting ripped to shreds. The surge of thoughts and emotions while sitting amongst them is beyond comprehension. In one simple word, the experience was magnifique (and worth every penny).
Need another reason to visit Virunga? This park is also home to the only gorilla orphanage in the world. Thanks to Andre, the gorilla whisperer, and the other rangers, Virunga has rescued 5 gorillas who were orphaned due to the civil conflict. The gorillas are outside from 9-3 daily. No entrance fee. Just sit and watch at your leisure from one of the many view points. The gorillas love to show off so you are guaranteed a good time.