Virunga Mountains

Virunga National Park Congo
July 30, 2018
Base of Rwenzori Mountains
Nature Walks in Uganda
March 27, 2019

Virunga Mountains

VIRUNGA CONSERVATION AREA The VIRUNGA Conservation Area is shared by 3 countries; Uganda, Rwanda and D.R.Congo. The mountain range consists of eight major volcanoes. Most of them are dormant, except Mount Nyiragongo 3,462 metres and Mount Nyamuragira 3,063 metres, both in the DRC. Recent eruptions occurred in 2006 and in January 2010. Mount Karisimbi is the highest volcano at 4,507 metres. The oldest mountain is Mount Sabyinyo, which rises 3,634 metres above sea level. The VIRUNGA Mountains are home of the critically endangered mountain gorilla, listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species due to habitat loss, poaching, disease, and war. The Karisoke Research Center, founded by Dian Fossey to observe gorillas in their native habitat, is located between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke. MGAHINGA NATIONAL PARK Mgahinga national park was a game reserve between 1930s and 1950s, and was established as a national park in 1991. Most of its lower altitudes have been turned into crop gardens. The park was created to protect the endangered mountain gorillas that live in its dense forests and is also a home to the rare golden monkeys. It is located in the Virunga Mountains and encompasses extinct volcanoes; Mount Muhabura, Mount Gahinga and Mount Sabyinyo. These volcanoes are part of the spectacular Virunga Range that lies along the border region of Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. Mgahinga forms part of the much larger Virunga Conservation Area which includes adjacent parks in these countries. The volcanoes’ slopes contain various ecosystems and are biologically diverse, and their peaks provide a striking backdrop to this gorgeous scenery. It shares borders with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and VIRUNGA National Park in D.R Congo. The parks altitude ranges between 2,227m and 4,127m (7,306 to 13,540 ft) above sea level. The national park encompasses bamboo forest, Albertine Rift montane forests, Ruwenzori-VIRUNGA montane moorlands with tree heath, and an alpine zone at higher altitudes. The park has only one gorilla group; Nyakagezi. The park was a home to the Batwa pygmies who are the indigenous people of the area. They were originally hunters and gatherers. When the area was set up for conservation, these people were forced to leave the forest. They now live around the park borders and have even intermarried with other surrounding tribes. Mgahinga National Park is has about 39 mammals of these including the Mountain gorillas, buffaloes and elephants, also endangered golden monkeys. Others include; giant forest hogs, bushbucks, leopards, spotted hyenas, black fronted duikers among others. The entire Virunga conservation area has well over 250 bird species; Mgahinga on its own has a record of 115 bird species which makes for interesting bird watching. Some of these birds include; handsome francolin, dusky crimson-wing, red-throated alethe, Kivu ground thrush, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori batis, Rwenzori double-collared sunbird, collared apalis, mountain masked apalis, Archer's ground robin, stripe-breasted tit, blue-headed sunbird, regal sunbird, strange weaver, montane nightjar, red-faced woodland warbler and Grauer's swamp warbler. Things to do in Mgahinga Gorilla tacking Mgahinga national park has only one gorilla group; Nyakagezi and it is open for trekking. Gorilla tracking starts the morning where by the trackers start from Ntebeko to track these gentle apes. There are UWA guides and park rangers that are well informed about the gorillas. Trackers are therefore advised to be free with them and ask questions. The activity doesn’t actually require any basic knowledge, a little body fitness would help so much since it involves moving through the forest, valleys and the steep slopes. The activity will take you around 2-4 hours depending on the location of the gorillas that day. The gorillas move around the forest daily in search for food. Volcano climbing Each of the volcanoes in Mgahinga National Park can be climbed in one day. You can either choose to hike one of them or even all the three depending on your interests. Some of the mountains that can be hiked include; Mt. Muhavura Mount Muhavura stands at a height of 4127m. The hike up to the top and back is around 12km which takes most hikers 8hours. When hiking, you will mostly move through small shrubs, grasses and the rock ground, this will give you some of the best views in the country, because when you reach the top you are able to see the peaks of Mt. Rwenzori, Virunga volcanoes, Bwindi forest, L. Edward in Queen Elizabeth national park and other things. You will also expect to spot various monkey species that live in the forest as well as different bird species. Mt. Gahinga Mount Gahinga hike is a full day activity that takes between 6-8 hours. You will move through the tropical rain forests, bamboo and some swampy vegetation. As you hike you will expect to see various monkey species that live in the forest like golden monkeys, various bird species and trees. The top will give you beautiful views of the Virunga massif; volcanoes, valleys and the vegetation cover. Mt. Sabinyo The hike to the top of Mount Sabyinyo takes around 8 hours. This hike is quiet challenging, so you will need some physical fitness level but it will offer you a great and adventurous experience. When at the top, you will have a chance to be in 3 countries at the same time. This mountain is shared by Uganda, Rwanda and D.R Congo. As you hike, you will expect to spot various monkeys, birds and other mammals that live in the vegetation o the lower altitude of the mountain. Birding Mgahinga National park is good for birding all year round. Bird watchers can have a decent birding experience at any time of the year but the best time is April to Mid-May and October to November. There are usually migratory birds in the park from November to April adding to the variety of bird species to be seen. Apart from Mgahinga there are a number of other parks that are good for bird watching in Uganda, these include Murchison Falls national Park, Bwindi Impenetrable national park, Kidepo valley national park, and queen Elizabeth national park. White-necked raven, Black kite, Pin-tailed whydah, Double-collared sunbird, Speckled mouse bird, Ruwenzori nightjar, Ruwenzori turaco, Grey Capped Warbler, Waxbills among others. Batwa trail walk The Batwa are the indigenous people of this area and Mgahinga forest was their ancient hunting and gathering territory. They were forced to leave the forest when it was gazetted as a conservation area and they started around the park borders. The trail offers travelers opportunity to explore more about the Batwa pygmy cultures and traditions. Some of them have been employed as guides and they take visitors through areas like Garama cave where they used to give sacrifices to the gods and thereafter perform rituals. This is a full day activity that will take around 6 hours. As you move through the forest you will expect to see various bird species Golden monkey tracking Mgahinga forest is a habitat for the endangered golden monkeys. One troop of Golden Monkeys has been habituated in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park which is available for tracking and research purposes. The trek starts at 8am and the activity takes around 2 hours. You will expect to spot these monkeys in the bamboo zone as they jump from one tree to another. They travel in their hundreds, spending most of the time in the bamboo canopy picking the shoot from the tops, but will often come down to the ground as well. GETTING THERE Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is 510km from Kampala by road; the most commonly used route passes through Kabale and Kisoro. The 434km journey from Kampala to Kabale can be completed in 8 hours on good tarmac. It is then a further 76km to Kisoro town on a mountainous tarmac road with steep ascents and descents. Ntebeko, the main entrance to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is 14km from Kisoro at the end of a dirt road with some steep and rocky sections. Mgahinga national park can also be reached from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. From Bwindi’s southern gorilla tracking trailheads at Nkuringo and Rushaga, Kisoro lies 28km south and Mgahinga 14km beyond. Mgahinga is almost four hours drive from the main trailhead at Buhoma. Dirt roads from Buhoma pass the Ruhija trailhead to join the Kabale-Kisoro tarmac road. Another route leaves the main road in Kabale and follows the shoreline of the Lake Bunyonyi to rejoin the Kabale-Kisoro main road at its halfway point at Muko. Mgahinga can also be reached by air using the daily flights from Entebbe International Airport to Kisoro airfield. VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK VIRUNGA national park in D.R Congo is part of the Virunga conservation area. The parks altitude ranges between 680m in the Puemba River to 5109m the highest peak of mount Stanley in the Rwenzori. The national park’s central sector encompasses about two third of Lake Edward up to the international border with Uganda in the east. A narrow corridor of 3–5 km wide along the lake’s western bank connects the northern and southern sectors of the national park. The southern sector stretches to the shores of Lake Kivu and encompasses Nyamulagira, Nyiragongo and Mikeno volcanoes with montane forests on their slopes. The northern sector of Virunga National Park is contiguous with Uganda’s Semuliki and Rwenzori Mountains National Parks, and the central sector with Queen Elizabeth National Park. The southern sector borders Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The major rainy seasons are; March to mid-May and September to November. The average monthly rainfall in the savanna around the central sector is between 30-40 mm; this is the driest part of the landscape. The northern sector receives a monthly mean precipitation of up to 220 mm and the southern sector of up to 160 mm. Average temperatures in lower altitudes vary from 23–28 °C, and in higher altitudes from 16–24 °C. The park has about 2077 plant species; 264 tree species and 230 plant species that are only found in the albertine rift valley. The Virunga National Park plains are dominated by wetlands and grasslands with papyrus sedge, jointed flats edge, common reed, sacaton grasses, conkerberry, paperbark thorn and kowai fruit. Remains of dicots such as African caper, Maerua species, wild cucurbits and nightshades were found in dung balls of African elephants that play a significant role for seed dispersal in the grasslands. The montane forest between 1,800 and 2,800 m in the southern sector is dominated by Ficalhoa laurifolia and Podocarpus milanjianus with up to 25 m high trees. African alpine bamboo grows at altitudes of 2,300–2,600 m. The vegetation above 2,600 m is subalpine with foremost African redwood growing up to 3,000 m. Tree heath, heather and mosses cover humid slopes up to 3,700 m altitude. Senecio and Lobelia species grow on vast clearings and attain heights of up to 8 m. THINGS TO DO IN VIRUNGA Mountain gorilla This is the major activity done in the park. The park is one of the 4 national parks that provide a home to mountain gorillas; Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It has 6 habituated gorilla families and are all open for trekking. Kabirizi is the largest family in the national park with approximately 32 members including 10 babies, 4 sub adults, 1 black back, 11 adults, five juveniles and 1 silver back named kabirizi. The other gorilla families in the national park are Rugendo, Munyaga, Humba, Mapuwa and Lulengo families. Chimpanzee habituation This is another interesting activity done in Virunga National Park, it was started by a zoologist named Frankfurt in 1987. Chimpanzees were made familiar to human beings and since the travelers have been flocking into the national park for chimpanzee habituation and trekking experiences. Booking for this activity is done at Mikeno Lodge. On the tracking day, local guides leave for the forest at 4.30am to locate the chimps while guests start tracking at 6.00am. Each chimpanzee group is limited to four people and just like the gorillas time spent with the chimps is limited to one hour. Nature walks The park has various trails in the forest which tourists follow and all lead to different attractions the park has to offer. As you move through the park, you will expect to see animals like buffalos, elephants, monkeys among many others. Scenery viewing VIRUNGA national park is the best site for viewing the spectacular montane landscapes in the neighboring countries. These include the snow summits and the jagged relief of the Rwenzori Mountains, the volcanoes in the Virunga conservation area together with the Afro alpine vegetation of tree ferns and the dense forests. More still, travelers see the eroded valleys spotted in the ishango and Sinda regions. The views provide travelers with extra ordinary experience since they do not need to travel to the places viewed while in the Virunga National Park. Nyiragongo hike VIRUNGA national park has the very active Nyiragongo volcano in its center whose summit harbors the largest large lava lake in the whole world. The volcano is very active in that records show that it has erupted over 34 times and the last one was in 2002 when the lava lake drained and lava flowed to the nearby communities. The hike takes 2 days, whereby hikers take a day going up, camp and spend a night on the mountain and then descend the following day. At the top of the mountain you will have a clear view of the Nyiragongo lava lake. GETTING TO VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK The southern sector of VIRUNGA National Park is easily accessed in a number of different ways the most common are: Virunga national park can be assed via Uganda whereby you cross the border in Bunagana, from where the Mountain gorilla sites Jomba and Bikenge are easily accessible within 1 hour. The border crossing is easy, and a local visa can be bought at the border for only 50$, however this visa is not a fully recognized visa and can only be used to visit the park and subsequently leaving the country at the Bunagana border post again. One can also go to VIRUNGA via Rwanda, cross the border at Gisenyi/Goma, the border crossing is easy if you pre-arranged a visa, if not it will be difficult or expensive. One can also fly into Goma, from within the DRC many flights connect to Goma, from outside the DRC Entebbe is the only city connected by TMK. You will need to apply for a visa before you travel. VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK The park was set up for conservation in 1952 as a small area bounded by mount Karisimbi, mount Bisoke and mount Mikeno, intended to protect the gorillas from poachers. It was the very first National Park to be created in Africa. It lies in northwestern region of Rwanda and borders Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The national park is known as a home for the endangered mountain gorilla and golden monkeys. It is home to five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains (Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo), and spans 160 km2 covered in rainforest and bamboo. Subsequently, in 1929, the borders of the park were extended further into Rwanda and into the Belgian Congo, to form the Albert National Park, a huge area of 8090 km2, under the Belgian colonial authorities who were in charge of both colonies. When D.R Congo got independence in 1960, the park was split into two, and upon Rwandan independence in 1962 the new government agreed to maintain the park as a conservation and tourist area, despite the fact that the new republic was already suffering from overpopulation problems. Between 1969 and 1973, over 1000 hectares of park land were cleared to grow pyrethrum. Later on, an American zoologist Dian Fossey made the park a base to carry out her research about gorillas. She arrived in 1967 and set up the Karisoke Research Centre between Karisimbi and Visoke. From then on she spent most of her time in the park, and is widely credited with saving the gorillas from extinction by bringing their plight to the attention of the international community. She was murdered by unknown assailants at her home in 1985, a crime often attributed to the poachers she had spent her life fighting against. She was buried in the park in a grave close to the research center, and amongst the gorillas which became her life. The park’s Vegetation varies considerably due to the large altitudinal range. The lower vegetation is mostly montane forest and most of which was lost to agriculture. Altitudes Between 2400 and 2500 m is Neoboutonia forest and bamboo forest from 2500 to 3200 m, covering about 30% of the park area. From 2600 to 3600 m, mainly on the more humid slopes in the south and west, is Hagenia-Hypericum forest, which covers about 30% of the park. This is one of the largest forests of Hagenia abyssinica. The vegetation from 3500 to 4200 m is characterised by Lobelia wollastonii, L. lanurensis, and Senecio erici-rosenii and covers about 25% of the park. From 4300 to 4500 m grassland occurs. Secondary thicket, meadows, marshes, swamps and small lakes also occur, but their total area is relatively small. The park is best known for the mountain gorilla. Other mammals include: golden monkey, black-fronted duiker, buffalo, spotted hyena and bushbuck. There are also reported to be some elephants in the park, though these are now very rare. There are 178 recorded bird species, with at least 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to the VIRUNGA and Ruwenzori region. THINGS TO DO IN VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK Mountain gorilla The national park is a home to 10 habituated gorilla families available for trekking which are all open for trekking. The park also covers Rwanda’s share of the great VIRUNGA massif bordering VIRUNGA national park in Congo and Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda. Tourists are required to have gorilla permits which are all issued out by Rwanda Development Board. The activity starts at 7am with briefing at volcanoes national park headquarters and then drive to the starting point of the trek depending on which gorilla group you are trekking. You will move through the forest to look for the mountain gorillas and once you find them. You will be given an hour to interact with the gorilla; see how they go about with their daily life, take photos and videos of the gorillas. The whole activity takes about 4-6 hours depending on the location of the gorillas that day. Golden Monkey trekking Golden monkeys are exceptional creatures which every traveler should not miss out on his/her Rwanda safari. Golden monkey trekking is yet another most done activity in Volcanoes national park which attract thousands of travelers into this jungle. The activity takes about 3 hours. While in the forest, you will expect to spot these monkeys jumping from one bamboo tree to another. Unlike the gorillas, golden monkeys are so shy and keep moving, so you will need some level of body fitness to trek them. Volcano climbing Volcanoes national park is a home for three extinct volcanoes; Mount Karisimbi, Mount Visoke and Mount Sabyinyo. While on your trip to volcanoes national park, you might as well consider hiking any of these peaks. The longest hike takes a maximum of 2 days. The top of these volcanoes offer beautiful scenery and views of the Virunga volcanoes and massif. MOUNTAINS IN VIRUNGA Mount Karisimbi The name Karisimbi comes from the word 'amasimbi' in the local language, Kinyarwanda, which means snow. Snow can mostly be found during the dry season in June, July and August on the top of the volcano. Mount Karisimbi is an inactive volcano in the Virunga region on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Karisimbi is the highest of the eight major mountains of the mountain range, at 4,507 metres, which is a part of Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift. Karisimbi is flanked by Mikeno to the north, Bisoke to the east and Nyiragongo to the west, on the other side of the Rift Valley. Karisimbi is the 11th highest mountain of Africa. Between Karisimbi and Bisoke is the Karisoke Research Center, which was founded by Dian Fossey in order to observe the mountain gorillas living in this area. Mount Mikeno Mount Mikeno is the second highest peak in the Virunga Mountains after Karisimbi, and the 13th highest mountain of Africa. It stands at a height of 4,437metres. Mikeno means "poor" and is so named for its harsh slopes which preclude human habitation. The mountain is a dormant volcano located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo section of the Virunga Mountains along with Mount Nyiragongo, Mount Nyamuragira, Mount Karisimbi, and Mount Bisoke. Mount Muhabura The name Muhabura means "The Guide" in the local language, Kinyarwanda. Mount muhabura is an extinct volcano in Virunga located at the border of Uganda and Rwanda. At 4,127 metres Muhabura is the third highest of the eight major mountains of the mountain range, which is a part of the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift. Muhabura is partly in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda and partly in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda. Mount Bisoke Mount Bisoke is an active volcano in the Virunga Mountains of the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift. It straddles the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is located approximately 35 km northeast of the town of Goma and adjacent Lake Kivu. The mountain is within the Rwandan Volcanoes National Park and the Congolese Virunga National Park. The steep slopes of the peak are densely covered with equatorial rainforest and alpine meadows. The summit does not gather snow, but is often shrouded in fog. Bisoke is one of the mountains considered a habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla, and the Karisoke Research Center founded by Dian Fossey is in the valley to the west of the mountain. Mount Sabyinyo The word sabyinyo is derived from a Kinyarwanda word "Iryinyo", meaning "tooth". The mountain carries the local nickname "Old Man's Teeth," because its serrated summit resembles worn teeth in a gum line. Mount sabyinyo is an extinct volcano in eastern Africa in the Virunga Mountains located north-east of Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes, and west of Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda. The mountain summit is at 3,669 metres, and marks the intersection of the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, and holds religious significance to local tribes. It also is within the adjoining national parks established by these countries: Virunga National Park in the DRC, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The slopes of Mt. Sabyinyo are a habitat for the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Mount Gahinga The word ‘Gahinga’ means ‘small pile of stones’ in rufumbira. Mount Gahinga is an extinct volcano in the Virunga Mountains on the border between Rwanda and Uganda. Gahinga lies between Muhabura and Sabyinyo, but is the smallest of these three. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park also got its name from this volcano. The mountain has a swampy caldera on its peak which is believed to be about 180 meters wide. Mount Gahinga, whose elevation is 3,474 meters, is part of a chain of 8 volcanic mountains of the Mufumbiro ranges. The volcano chain spans across Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The vegetation across the mountain can be described as afro-montane with bamboo composing the main vegetation. Like Muhabura and Sabyinyo, the bamboo forests on Mount Gahinga are a habitat of the endangered mountain gorillas and golden monkeys. There are several other species of animals and birds that form part of the Mount Gahinga ecosystem. Mount Nyiragongo Mount Nyiragongo is an active stratovolcano standing at a height of 3,470 metres in the Virunga Mountains within the Albertine Riftvalley. It is found within the great Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about 20 km north of Goma town and Lake Kivu and just west of the border with Rwanda. The main crater is about 2 kilometers wide and usually contains a lava lake. The crater presently has two distinct cooled lava benches within the crater walls – one at about 3,175 m and a lower one at about 2,975 m. Nyiragongo's lava lake has at times been the most voluminous known lava lake in recent history. A maximum elevation of the lava lake was recorded at about 3,250 m prior to the January 1977 eruption – a lake depth of about 600 m. A recent very low elevation of the lava lake was recorded at about 2,700 m. Nyiragongo and nearby Nyamuragira are together responsible for 40% of Africa's historical volcanic eruptions. The volcano partly overlaps with two older volcanoes, Baratu and Shaheru, and is also surrounded by hundreds of small volcanic cinder cones from flank eruptions. The lava emitted in eruptions at Nyiragongo is often unusually fluid. Nyiragongo's lavas are made of melilite nephelinite, an alkali-rich type of volcanic rock whose unusual chemical composition may be a factor in the unusual fluidity of the lavas there. Whereas most lava flows move rather slowly and rarely pose a danger to human life, Nyiragongo's lava flows may race downhill at up to 100 km/h. This is because of the extremely low silica content. Mount Nyamurangira Nyamuragira is an active composite volcano in the Virunga Mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is located about 25 km north of Lake Kivu. It is 13 km north-north-west of Nyiragongo, the volcano which caused extensive damage to the city of Goma in its 2002 eruption. Nyamuragira has a volume of 500 cubic kilometers, and covers an area of 1,500 square kilometers. It has a low shield profile volcano and contrasts with adjacent steep-sided Nyiragongo volcano. The mountain has been described as Africa's most active volcano and has erupted over 40 times since 1885. As well as eruptions from the summit, there have been numerous eruptions from the flanks of the volcano, creating new smaller volcanoes that have lasted only for a short time like Murara. Nyamuragira volcano is responsible for a large portion of the sulfur dioxide released into the atmosphere by volcanoes.

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