Visiting the Virunga Volcanoes

Published: October 18th 2007
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Virunga Massif

Here's a look at the Virunga Volcanoes, home to the mountain gorillas. The gray/white lines are the political boundaries at the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Notice the dark green forested areas that shows up in the satellite imagery - this is it, the only remaining forest for half of the world's mountain gorillas, fortunately protected in national park land. Villages and farms run right up the slopes to the edge of the boundary. The yellow waypoint is the approximate location of the Mt. Gahinga Lodge; Green is approximate location of Virunga Lodge; Red is the spot where I went trekking to see the Susa Group of Mountain Gorillas on the south face of Karisimbi. As always, zoom in and out for reference on where in the world we're talking about!

The Anniversary

This blog posting finds me at a very interesting landmark: roughly one year since I left the United States! My last day in Seattle was the 18th of October, 2006, which in some ways feels like a lifetime ago, and in other ways feels like it was only yesterday. Since that time, I've begun speaking a new language (Kiswahili), visited five countries, held two volunteer positions in two different countries, learned about wildlife (especially primates) thanks to many books and a few safaris, made lots of friends from other countries, hosted a few friends from back home and have experienced all kinds of different cultural nuances - both positive and negative - in South Asia and East Africa.

This year has far surpassed any expectations I may have set, and I continue learning and growing everyday. But I've also had to miss out on many exciting things back home - dems regained the congress and turning Bush into an early lame-duck, colts are superbowl champs!, lots of my close friends have gotten married, even more have had babies, my cousin started college. So after a year away, I've found my attention has started to turn back homeward.
Year in PicturesYear in PicturesYear in Pictures

Here's a look back - chronologically - at the year that's been. I've got one photo from every month, plus a few extras just for fun.
My latest adventure - a three-day trip to the Virunga Mountains at the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo - concluded with an interesting twist. As I returned from Rwanda to Uganda, I purchased my final tourist visa of the trip, a prelude to my last three months of my time in East Africa. Even though I will miss this place dearly, as I already miss India and Tanzania, I am looking forward to reconnecting with my friends and family at home. Last October, I had unbelievable levels of excitement and anticipation as I embarked on my one-way journey away from the USA. Come January, I anticipate a similar excitement when I finally hop on a plane and return home.

The Virunga Massif and Mountain Gorillas

Okay, okay, enough of the reflection time. Let's talk about what I've been up to for crying out loud! As always, I've only posted a few pics in the blog and you'll find the rest of the photos here (this entry happens to be a particularly photogenic one, too). I've also got a map and some videos on this one, really pulling out all the stops for this entry.

From the moment I set out for East Africa, I knew I wanted to go hiking in the Virunga mountains and the bamboo rainforests around the Uganda/Rwanda/DRC border to visit the critically endangered mountain gorillas. This has been one of my strongest nature/travel interests ever since my friend and former colleague Jenny visited Uganda five or six years ago and returned home with unbelievable stories and photos.

There are just under 700 mountain gorillas in the entire world, all of them wild, as none survive in captivity. I'll repeat for emphasis, because I just learned it myself. Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity. If you've seen a gorilla in the zoo, it's a lowland gorilla, which is another species that also happens to be endangered.

These animals basically only live in two places in the entire world. One is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in SW Uganda, though I didn't visit them there. In fact, some researchers think this is a different subspecies of gorillas that used to be a lowland variety but at some prior time, were forced to move up into the mountains as human encroachment destroyed their forested habitat. Now they live in the mountains, and have therefore been dubbed "mountain gorillas." The other place where gorillas live (also not far away) is in the Virunga Massif, a small range of volcanoes at the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo. I like to think of it as an East and Central African version of a "tri-state area." But this is another point which had me confused. I knew that gorillas lived in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC, which misled me into thinking the population was larger and more distributed. Not true. This is one place, one very small place, that happens to straddle the political boundaries of three countries. The fact that mountain gorillas live in three countries is very misleading. They live on the slopes of volcanoes at the border, and in some of my photos, and definitely the map, you can see a distinct line between the forest and the villages. These amazing animals are confined to small forest patches at the tops of the mountains with no where to go, no place to diversify their gene pool.

Last but not least, a reminder that these animals are some of our closest relatives. We share about 97% of our DNA with the mountain gorilla (compared to nearly 99%!w(MISSING)ith chimps). And despite what hollywood would have you believe, these behemoths are relaxed and gentle vegetarians. Yes, the large male silverbacks squabble and fight for dominance and the right to mate with females, but they do not eat other animals and were it not for humans like these who attempted to take one as a pet and these recent gorilla murderers, they would have no predators to fear.

Despite the fragility of the species, the mountain gorillas do attract a lot of tourists. And as long as we don't get too close and transmit our diseases, the tourism boom has really helped keep the plight of mountain gorillas in the public eye, where they've been ever since the murder of Diane Fossey, the first westerner to study mountain gorillas, and the subsequent film about her life, Gorillas in the Mist.

Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla Trekking has become one of Uganda's premier tourist attractions, and the lifeblood of Rwanda's burgeoning tourist industry. Permits are now $500 for gorilla tracking, which after a hike, is a one-hour visit with a local group of gorillas. The single hour was definitely the high point of the four days, but the whole experience was
The viewThe viewThe view

This is the lawn right outside my front door at Virunga lodge!
so much fun!

First off, I had a local insider connection as my friend Nicole studies a small chimpanzee population in Kyambura Gorge of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Coincidentally, she lives and works at a safari lodge (still under construction) run by Volcanoes Safaris. As their name suggests, this company primarily operates lodges in Virunga mountains, all of them upscale and all of them jumping off points for Gorilla trekking activities. The company asked Nicole to give a couple of workshops about primates to the hotel staff and to design some interpretive materials at Mt. Gahinga Lodge (southwest corner of Uganda) and Virunga Lodge (opposite slopes of same mountains, northwest corner of Rwanda). So I was able to tag along as a friend-in-tow, and enjoyed complimentary transport, food and accommodation for the entire journey! And since the gorillas come with that $500 price tag, I happily rationalized the cost with the savings from other would-be costs.

A quick plug for Volcano safaris - and not just because they hosted me as a special guest - the company runs amazing environmentally friendly lodges, using minimal water (no running water, the staff hangs an adequately sized pouch of hot water for
Virunga ViewVirunga ViewVirunga View

One view from the patio at Virunga Lodge: Right to left (and foreground to background) Muhavura, Gahinga, Sabinyo (which means old man's teeth). Like the others, it's a conical volcano. South face entirely in Rwanda, NW face in DRC and NE face in Uganda! From this view, we're basically looking east to west, with those lower slopes being all Rwandan villages.
your shower and provides a canister at the sink), composting toilets and solar power. Meanwhile, they hire local staff and are in the process of establishing a nonprofit to educate the residents in nearby villages, build schools and help with revenue generating projects in the community. The food is delicious, and contrary to what you might think, the lodges are absolute luxury (see the photos if you don't believe me).

For our first night, we drove to the Mt. Gahinga Lodge in the extreme Southwest corner of Uganda at the edge of Mugahinga National Park. We were the only visitors at the lodge and Nicole gave her spiel to the staff before we went and visited the interpretive center at the park. At the moment, there are no mountain gorillas in the park (hence the empty lodge) because the gorillas are bachelors who have lost their females to groups on the Rwanda side of the mountain. They are continually shifting back and forth, but we presume they'll stay in Uganda if/when they secure enough females to sustain a group.

After Mugahinga, we drove across the border into Rwanda, where we stayed two nights at the Virunga Lodge, overlooking
Virunga MapVirunga MapVirunga Map

Here's a great map of the area ... of course Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. All the mountain gorillas in the world live on this small stretch of volcanoes and up in the Bwindi Forest (NE corner of map)
the twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhondo and the Virunga Volcanoes. Then on the morning of October 15th, I had a 5:00a.m. wake-up call, quick breakfast, packed a lunch and headed out to the Parc National Des Volcans (or volcanoes national park for us yanks) where I joined with seven other tourists to hike up and visit the Susa group, consisting of 37 gorillas and including four silverback males!

We hiked for about an hour up through the villages on the slopes of Karisimbi and crossed the park boundary, entering a forest of tall bamboo. We continued up and up, finally reaching lush rainforests until we reached the group. At first we saw a mother and baby in a tree, then a few young one's playing and beating their chests in typical gorilla fashion. Within minutes, my heart was racing and adrenaline pumping just at the site of these amazing animals. I had to fight the urge to take pictures at times so I could just soak in the moment and the surroundings. We next moved over to a large blackback (adult male that's still maturing) and then on to the oldest female in the group, with two of her children present. Beyond her, our first silverback - a mature male with gray fur on his back, one of the dominant males who protects the group. He - was - massive! Unbelievably so! Just the sight of him took my breath away, but then promptly reclined in a thicket and went to sleep. So we walked down the slope and found a second silverback with a few females and smaller, young gorillas. They moved up the slope after a few minutes of eating, and we continued down to meet the alpha male silverback, who was relaxing, surrounded by a harem and some of their kids.

We all moved uphill together to a forested patch where we concluded our visit. By now, one of the silverbacks was noticeably agitated at our presence and kept moving (not charging) in our direction - very imposing, nonetheless. But he settled down to chow on some vegetation and became fully absorbed in consuming his roughage. By the time we the clock ticked down to the final minutes of our visit we had seen more than 30 of the gorillas in Susa group, including all 4 silverbacks, and left in complete awe of these amazing primate cousins of ours.

After the visit we hiked down for a couple hours and returned to our vehicles just as the afternoon rain began to fall. We returned to the lodge and relaxed with cocoa, later settled in for dinner and I passed out asleep at 9:30 at night. The next morning we departed around 8 a.m. from the lodge and I didn't get home to Entebbe until after 11 pm, as we had to drop Nicole off at Queen Elizabeth National Park, not exactly on the way.

In the Meantime

It's been over a month since my last blog post, and that's partially due to my anticipation for gorillas, knowing this would be fun to write about and share photos, as well as the coincidental one-year-abroad timing. That said, I just thought I'd take a moment to talk about what I've been up to in recent weeks. After spending most of August helping to revise environmental education curriculum for p6 and p7 teachers, I hit the road for 3+ weeks evaluating one of our previous projects, a p5 teacher's guide. I've covered thousands of kilometers with my colleague Richard, heading west into the forested areas of Uganda where we distribute materials. We've been heading deep into villages in country that would put the best american SUV commercial to shame, up and down steep hills, in the rain, in the mud, adjacent to national parks and forests, meeting with teachers and students along the way.

Now back in Entebbe, I'll be spending the next month or so going back to work on the p6 and p7 guide, incorporating feedback from teachers who have been piloting the materials in their classrooms. After that, I should be back in the field working on training some forest guides and helping establish an ecotourism program in Kasyoha-Kitomi forest in SW Uganda.

Meanwhile, I'm just looking forward to the November rematch of last year's colts and patriots AFC championship game, no doubt the marquee matchup and best rivalry in the NFL. I probably won't get to watch it live, but I'll be following the game action online!

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


Susa GroupSusa Group
Susa Group

This is about half of the susa group ... photos, names and noseprints
uganda forests and districtsuganda forests and districts
uganda forests and districts

Here's a look at Uganda's districts and forests. Most of my work - when not in Entebbe - is in SW forested districts: Kabarole, Bushenyi, Kamwenge, Kyenjojo and one day in Bundibugyo. JGI is also at work up in Masindi area, but other than a July weekend, I haven't been up there.

25th July 2009

about the place
The place was very good and very enjoing i saw the virunga but unfortunately i didnot reach there but also it was very ammusing other wise i liked your place very much thank you and continue the spirit
11th September 2010

It was absolutely spectacular seeing the chain of volcanoes from Rwanda side...unfortunately i didnt make the trip up to see the Gorillas nor to explore the Volcanoes...But it was very nice waking up to as the sun rise, coffee in the hand and those volcanoes in the mist of the morning....beautiful ... August 2010

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