Virunga National Park

Overview

Introduction

When conditions are stable, this is a marvelous area with thermal/volcanic attractions and wild game. Right now, we don't recommend a visit. Located on the eastern border with Uganda, the park covers 4,633 sq mi/12,000 sq km and stretches from Lake Kivu to Lake Edward. It's one of the oldest parks on the continent, home to lions, elephants (locally it's claimed they're the biggest in the world), antelope, baboons and hippos (more than 25,000—it's the best place to see them out of water). Keep looking at the air as well: African fish eagles, cranes and a multitude of butterflies can also be seen.

The Mount Ruwenzori "Mountain of the Moons" area provides a beautiful backdrop—or you can see the mountains up close on a five-day trip guided by park rangers (some speak English). Van operators can get you to Beni, where you'll have to arrange a ride to Mutwanga to start the trek. It's primitive and strenuous, but well worth it, especially if the major peaks (Ruwenzori is the third-highest in Africa) peek out from their cloud shroud.

The park also offers gorgeous lakeside scenery, and boiling thermal "paint pots" line some roads. Visit Vitshumbi village, a great place with lots of activity and delicious fresh and smoked capitaine (Nile perch).

Near the park is Mount Nyragongo, a volcano that erupted most recently in January 2002. Check locally about climbing conditions, and consider it only if you're in good physical condition. The trail begins at 4,000 ft/1,200 m and rises to 11,400 ft/3,070 m. No special equipment is needed, but the going gets tougher as you climb—not only is the air thinner in the higher reaches, but the trail becomes steeper, the footing worsens and there's less vegetation to grab to help you along.

The view from the top, however, is tremendous. In one direction, you're looking down on clouds, lesser volcanoes and the dramatic countryside of Virunga. In the other direction, you can look into the cauldron itself. When the volcano is active, you can see steam shooting through crevices and even pools of lava (should molten lava be present when you climb it, you may want to camp at the shelter near the top to watch the lava glow at night). Check conditions with local authorities, and be aware that anyone wishing to make the ascent must hire a local guide. 75 mi/120 km north of Bukavu.

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