A unique experience through the Virunga National Park
Mountain Gorillas trekking is one of the most fantastic experience you can have in your life, something that you’ll keep in your heart forever. I’ve had the luck to track these peaceful primates twice so far: I first met them a long time ago in Congo (DRC) hiking through the forest of Virunga National Park and in January 2018 in Uganda through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Both trekkings were beautiful but with no doubt, for its charm and ” not so easy to get there ”, the most exciting experience was in Congo.
The alarm is going off at 4 a.m., still sleepy but so excited because one of my dreams is coming true. I love Africa, its people, traditions, customs, nature, wildlife, and today it’s the time to live a unique experience looking for the mountain gorillas through the forest of Virunga National Park. The only two locations around the World where you can find this incredible animal are the Virunga range of extinct volcanic mountains on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, which includes Virunga National Park, Mgahinga National Park and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Sadly the IUCN has listed the gorillas as critically endangered, and the estimated number is about 880.
After leaving Kisoro, we get to Bunagana border when the sun has not risen yet and around us is all dark. The Immigration Office is still closed, and there are only two soldiers with a huge machine gun patrolling the entry to the border. In the past, this area was not safe ( and seldom nowadays) due to the rebels fighting with the government troops. In the middle of the deep vegetation, we notice an old wooden sign that says “you are now leaving Uganda and entering Zaire”. Zaire was the former name of DRC from October 1971 to May 1997 during the government of the president Mobutu Sese Seko.
Finally, around 6 a.m., the border Officer comes to permit me, and after getting the Visa, he opens the bar, and I enter the Democratic Republic of Congo. Around me just a few rundown brick buildings and some trucks waiting to cross the border. The only ”brave” tourists are…. only myself!
The Virunga National Park rangers wait for me beyond the DRC border, and after a pleasant greeting, I jump in the back of the 4×4 vehicle, ready to begin this fantastic adventure. They are all holding a machine gun, so my first thought is if it was the right choice to visit gorillas in DRC…anyways doesn’t matter!
The dirt road is terrible, full of chasms and big stones, lining the way only some huts hidden by bamboo canes and big banana plants. Many kids, after seeing our car running along the road, greet us shouting ”jumbo-jumbo”, that means ”hello” in the Swahili language. With no doubt, they don’t see so often tourists during the day. After 1 hour and a half drive, I reach the starting point of the trek, and in front of me, there are the three majestic volcanos Visoke, Karisimbi and Mikeno that mark the border with Rwanda: I’m ready to cross the forest and look for the mountain gorillas!
Before starting, the Rangers give me some essential notices how to behave in case we meet gorillas. Despite the fact they are monitored, they say ”in case” because is not 100% sure to meet them since the gorillas are wild animals and change their bed every day looking for fresh food. A ranger says that the duration of the walk is always different, when you are lucky, maybe you meet them after 2 or 3 hours, but if you are not, it happens that you could walk for 5 hours or more. Wishing to be lucky, we all start the trek crossing the colourful cultivated fields while many kids come up to say hello trying to get some gift. As we come through, step by step, the forest becomes very deep and lush, and the Rangers have to open a path with a machete while there is an incredible silence around us. After 3 hours hiking through the forest, we finally find a bed of branches.. it is the place where the gorillas have slept during the night! Every morning they leave the bed where they slept and move to a new place where it’s possible to find bamboo plants, seeds, leaves or barks. Suddenly the rangers stop me inviting not to move; a big male is here in front of us! He is about 1 meter and a half tall, and the weight is about 150 kg.
His chest is sculpted, and the back is covered by a thick silver fur (he’s called ”silverback”), very particular sign that marks him as the leader. We stand a few meters from him seeing this big and wild animal eating leaves and seeds. While we are huddle trying to take some pics, two beautiful, curious babies gorilla come up next to us. Unbelievable! The rangers help us to find a suitable position where we can knee down looking at the gorillas family: the Silverback sits down eating and resting while the babies run after each other inside the lush vegetation. There is also a female eating leaves, but she ‘s elusive keeping her distance from us. It’s an incredible emotion, and I can’t describe my feelings. More the time goes by, and more a thought stuck in my mind: surely I’ll go back to visit gorillas as soon as possible!!
Unfortunately, the time flies and after living a dream for one hour, I have to greet this wonderful family and go back to the vehicle. Touched by this incredible ” wild social gathering ”, I follow back the Rangers leaving the gorillas behind us in the forest, happy for this unique experience that is worth living!!
Need to Know
Virunga Park Website: click here.
Bwindi Forest National Park Website: click here.
Activities in Virunga NP: click here
About Gorillas trip: On a single day, nearly 72 people travel into Bwindi to see gorillas and only 8 people are allowed to see a gorilla family and just a few people a day can visit the other 2 national parks where mountain gorillas are living. You need a daily permit, and the price is around 600 US dollars plus the visa (in case you visit RDC side). The way to do the trekking is to book with some local tour operators in advance to be sure to get your permit. Anyways you can also try to book with Uganda Wildlife.