The first animals we met on our travels through Africa were the Gelada Monkeys in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. Since then we’ve met more than half a dozen species of monkeys and baboons, particularly around south-western Uganda, and spent an unbelievable day with the chimps in Uganda’s Kibale Forest. We were now in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Parc National des Virunga (Virunga National Park) to meet the big guys – the mountain gorillas.
Founded in 1925 and formerly known as the Albert National Park, the Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park. It’s a massive and incredibly diverse park that contains the largest number of mammals, birds, and reptiles of any park on the African continent, one of the world’s largest volcano lava lakes and “the greatest landscape diversity in the world” including alpine forest, moorlands, tropical forest and savanna.
It’s also home to a quarter of the world’s population of mountain gorillas (the remaining population live on the Rwandan and Ugandan slopes of the Virunga Mountains and in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest). American primatologist Dian Fossey pioneered the study of these rare and critically endangered animals, sacrificing her life in the process when she was murdered in 1985, and for many decades the survival of these animals has been far from certain.
They’ve come under threat from poachers, various militia and habitat loss. In 2007, seven mountain gorillas of the same family were murdered in Virunga by an illegal charcoal mafia. Their thinking being that if all the gorillas are killed then there’ll be no reason to protect the Park, and they’ll be free to plunder its resources.
Despite two civil wars in the 11 years since, the Park and it’s amazing team have done the most incredible job to protect these beautiful animals and supporting this amazing effort was one of the reasons we decided to visit the gorillas in the DRC. Rangers have put their lives on the line to protect these animals and they continue to do so every day. The Park is constantly juggling political, local, community and environmental factors as they fight to protect the gorillas, preserve the park’s bio – diversity and uplift local communities living on the park borders.
The anticipation was too much so after a broken nights sleep we were raring to go when our transport arrived at first light. The tarred road out of Goma very quickly deteriorated into comfortably the worst road we’ve seen on our trip and it was a long and bumpy two and a half hour drive to the park office at Bukima.
We had a lovely briefing by our guide Emmanuel who warmly welcomed us and introduced the eight families living in the area. He explained that numbers are increasing, with 125 mountain gorillas living near the Bukima trailhead and over 450 in the DRC, and that we would be meeting the Rugendo family.
Named after its former chief and led today by Bukima, the family consists of three silverbacks, two adult females, one sub-adult, one juvenile and three babies.
We excitedly set off, initially through the countryside before ducking under a fence into the Park proper, and with the trackers out early in the morning, it wasn’t too long before we we were told to put on our face masks. We stepped off the well-maintained track and followed the tracker into the thick jungle as he cleared a path with his machete.
And there he was, a huge silverback sitting on the floor and enjoying eating the plants around him. He had a beautiful long face, a thick chest and huge hands that quickly wiped each branch clean of all its leaves.
We took a few steps around the corner and our jaws dropped when we met the chief. He was massive! We’d seen pictures of silverbacks before but they are so much bigger and stronger than the pictures portray. Weighing up to 300 kg, the dominant silverback makes all decisions, is responsible for the safety of the family and mates with all the females. They are bottom-heavy with huge, thick legs and torsos. They also have broad chests, massive arms and long faces with distinct noses. Their nose is their unique identifier.
While he lay down to be groomed by one of the females, we continued walking and met a six-month old who just about stole the show. He had a lovely little afro and wide, curious eyes. He enjoyed swinging between the trees like he was Tarzan, occasionally falling off but seemingly not worried in the slightest. He tried playing with another of the family silverbacks by jumping on him and poking him but the silverback was enjoying his rest so it was back to playing in the trees for the little one.
Over the course of the hour, we met the rest of the family, including a tiny baby that the guide said was no more than two weeks old. Mom had quickly disappeared up the tree when we first arrived but with the silverback now next to us, she made her way back down with her baby tightly wrapped up in her arms and with just a tiny gorilla hand poking out.
As our time with the gorillas was coming to an end the family all joined together and we were surrounded! There were gorillas everywhere we looked, all shapes and sizes, all busy with their days eating, resting, grooming and playing.
We felt incredibly lucky to have had a glimpse in to these rare and beautiful creatures’ lives.
How to buy a permit
It’s incredibly easy to buy your permit on the superb Virunga National Park website . We booked a month in advance.
Once you’ve paid for your permit, you’ll get an order number and you apply for your visa on the Virunga National Park website using this order number.
The website notes it can take 14 days but almost immediately you’ll get an email from the park with your visa letter, which you print and take with you when you cross the border.
You can book this through the park, but we found it much cheaper to use a private company. We contacted Emmanuel from Okapi Tours, one of the recommended companies on the Virunga website, and saved over $150.
You need your original certificate to enter the country and they look for any reason to charge you $70 for an ‘official’ certificate. Stick to your guns!
Getting into Goma and where to stay
Once we’d crossed the border, we walked to our accommodation. We were staying at ShuShu, supposedly the cheapest in town at $20/night. It’s very basic, but clean and centrally located.
Costs (US $)
- Permit – 400/person
- Visa – 105/person
- Transport – 300 (this was for both the gorillas and the Nyiragongo hike).