Wildlife, volcanoes and people around the Virunga Mountains
Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo are tropical countries in East Africa. They share several ecosystems including the Virunga Mountains – a habitat for 603 of the 1,064 world’s mountain gorilla population which straddle the borders of the 3 countries.
Virunga Area contains a chain of 8 volcanic mountains including the active Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, with Mt. Karisimbi 4507 m (14787 feet) the highest in northern Rwanda. The gorilla protected areas in this region including Mgahinga (south west Uganda), Virunga (eastern DR Congo) and Volcanoes National Parks (northern Rwanda) share a lot in common.
Likewise, the people with amazing cultures particularly the Batwa pygmies (forest dwellers), Bakiga (mountain people) and the Bafumbira all live around this significant conservation area . Though there are some cultural differences between them, their cultural heritage is almost similar in one way or the other. The Batwa are pygmies who speak Rutwa while the other two belong to the Bantu ethnic group.
If you’re planning a gorilla trekking trip to see gorillas and other wildlife in the area, you can also explore the culture of the indigenous people through local community tours. Planning a visit to east Africa? here are some of the unique cultural and wildlife experiences in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo that are most appealing to travellers.
Batwa cultural tours
Primarily, the Batwa pygmies lived as hunter gatherers in East and central African tropical forests. Probably, they’re some of the shortest people in the world. While some still survive in the Congo basin, they were evicted out of their ancestral home in Uganda and Rwanda to conserve mountain gorillas.
Batwa lived in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga gorilla national parks which were gazetted in 1991. Afterwards, the Batwa were no longer allowed to access the forest. Unlike the general local community, the pygmies lived in harmony with nature. Given that they entirely survived by hunting, their way of life and heritage was put at stake. At first, living outside the forest made life difficult due to marginalisation and disease. They could no longer access the forest for wild honey and bushmeat which led to impoverishment. Due to frustration, poaching and encroachment became rampant thereby compromising the sustainability of gorilla tourism that had started in Uganda in 1993.
In order to achieve the balance, the revenue sharing program was initiated to facilitate a peaceful coexistence of locals and wildlife. A new policy was introduced through which 10% of the revenue from every gorilla permit purchased and 20% of park entrance fees were dedicated to benefiting local communities living around the parks.
Through the Batwa Development Organization, several projects have since helped them to survive and preserve their cultural heritage. Income generating projects like farming, bee-keeping and regulated access to the forests through the buffer zones have since been established.
The Batwa trail project in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has also been instrumental in improving the livelihood of the Batwa. The 4-hour gentle walk along the park boundary at the slopes of Mt. Gahinga offers visitors an opportunity to meet the pygmies and learn about their ancient way of life and how tourism transforms their livelihood. Probably, the tour is the most authentic Batwa cultural experience in East Africa.
You will witness the prehistoric ancient Batwa skills including fire making, pottery, wild honey harvesting and forest survival. The climax of the Batwa trail is to hike to Garama cave where the Batwa King resided. While there, the pygmies gather together to chant and perform their folklore and traditional dance.
Elsewhere, you can visit Batwa at Lake Bunyonyi islands, in Bwindi gorilla sectors including Buhoma and Nkuringo and also at Ntanda in Semuliki National Park. In Rwanda, the Batwa can be visited at the Gorilla Guardian’s Centre situated 10km outside Volcanoes National Park. The centre is a non-profit organisation established in 2005 to empower women and ex gorilla poachers through sustainable farming and cultural tourism development.
Bakiga people inhabit the Kigezi highlands region of southwest Uganda which includes districts like Kabale, Kisoro and Kanungu. They are also found in Byumba areas of north east Rwanda. They’re a Bantu speaking tribe known for inventing a terrace farming system as a way to cultivate the steep hillsides.
The Bakiga moved to the mountains and used the terraces to grow sorghum and Irish potatoes as the low lying areas attracted the nomadic Ankole – Watusi longhorn cattle keepers. Due to the nature of terrain in their area which is physically demanding, the Bakiga are known to be tough and hard working people.
Take note of the work it takes for the young boys and women fetching water down in the valley and carrying uphill the jerry cans and firewood. In fact, the energetic and aggressive traditional dance is a unique attribute of the Bakiga way of living. The language and other local customs of the Bakiga can be explored at the Cultural Museum of the Bakiga located in Kabale town.
The punishment Island
Among the ancient traditions of the Bakiga was this harsh practice of banishing young girls who could get pregnant before marriage to the punishment island. The victims could be taken to the island with their hands tied and abandoned there. The practise was later abolished with the coming of European missionaries who condemned it strongly. The human skeletal remains on the island serve as the evidence of this ancient barbaric act.
Unique wildlife experiences in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo
When it comes to wildlife experiences, Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo combined offer some of the best in Africa. From primate trekking including mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, golden monkeys and lowland gorillas to searching for tree climbing lions in Ishasha and boat cruise safaris.
Mountain gorilla trekking
Mountain gorillas don’t survive outside their natural habitats and this is why they can only be found in the Virunga Mountains and in Bwindi Impenetrable national park in southwest Uganda. Bwindi, is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to 459 gorillas, almost half of the 1,063 world’s mountain gorilla population.
Other parks that protect mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains include Volcanoes national park in Rwanda, Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda and Virunga national park in DR Congo. All these parks have several gorilla families which have been habituated for tourism. Those intending to see gorillas can plan a gorilla safari through a local tour operator in any of the 3 countries.
Gorilla trekking offers an opportunity to spend 1 hour with gorillas which share 98% of the human DNA. However, the gorilla habituation experience in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable national park permits visitors to spend 4 hours with semi-habituated gorillas.
Lowland gorilla trekking in the forests of the Congo basin
Lowland gorillas known also as Grauer’s gorillas are found only in Kahuzi Beiga National Park in eastern DR Congo. The protected area covers 6,000 sq.km and forms part of both the Albertine rift valley and the Congo basin rainforest. This covers areas including Bukavu region, South Kivu Province on the western shores of Lake Kivu.
The park is 250km (5-hour drive) south of Rwanda’s Gisenyi resort town and 170km (2-hour drive) west of Goma capital city of North Kivu province. Bakavu the nearest town is 32km (20-min drive) away from Tshivanga the park visitor center. By air, you can reach the park through Kavumu airport.
Trekking lowland gorillas in Kahuzi Beiga National Park is safe and secure even for solo travellers. Being a UNESCO world heritage site since 2001, there’s a highly trained and professional force of rangers and trackers who keep gorillas and the park all the time.
The staff at the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) speak French and English. New facilities including 6 bungalows are available to stay in at the park and get easy access a gorilla family during early morning treks.
Though challenging due to the nature of terrain, hiking in Kahuzi Beiga National Park is an adventure of a lifetime. There are 2 extinct volcanoes: Mt. Kahuzi (3,317m) and Mt. Biega (2,790m) coupled with dense afro-montane vegetation and bamboo in the upper slopes and swamps in the lowland areas.
The habitats support a rich biodiversity including 136 mammal species, 13 primate species including chimpanzees and giant forest genet as well as 349 species of birds of which 42 are Congo Forest biome endemics. For nature lovers, Kahuzi Beiga is one of the best places to visit in Africa.
And for those looking for off-the-beaten path gorilla trekking safaris, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is less known particularly, the park gets fewer visitors that you might visit a gorilla group alone with rangers and trackers.
See Golden monkeys in the wild
Golden monkeys live only in Virunga Mountains with some of them habituated in parks like Mgahinga and Volcanoes National Park for tourism. Unlike gorillas which rarely move to feed above 2,500m, the golden monkeys live in the bamboo vegetation between 1800m – 3300m. The bamboo shoots are good for monkeys to eat and most of the time they stay on the upper slopes of the volcano.
Unlike gorilla trekking where there are no specific trails to follow, when trekking to see golden monkeys, the trails are straight forward until you reach the bamboo zone from where you begin to search for them. The bamboo forest doesn’t contain dense undergrowth. Viewing monkeys up close is possible but their shyness and swift movement can be challenging for photographs.
In Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, golden monkey tracking takes an hour once you reach them. The Rwanda Development Board or a tour operator may be used to make reservations for the permit, which costs $100 USD per person. Uganda, on the other hand, offers both regular tracking and a golden monkey habituation experience that allows visitors to spend 4 hours with the primates. Tracking permit cost is 60 USD and 100 USD for habituation.
Nyiragongo volcano hike
Africa has several active volcanoes including Mount Nyiragongo (3,470m) and Mt. Nyamuragira (3,058m) which are found in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. In particular, Nyiragongo, having erupted more than 34 recorded times according to NASA Earth observatory, is likely the most active in Africa. The lava lake, 2 km wide, might be the largest in the world.
This was measured before the recent volcanic eruption of May 2021 and was more violent than the one in 2002. Sadly, the eruption however left a big volcanic crack that has made staying at the summit shelters unsafe for visitors. Now the summit of Nyiragongo is not accessible until further notice.
Travelling to both Uganda and Rwanda in one trip is easier with the East African single tourist visa. This allows you unrestricted free entry and exit in both countries. The cost of the visa is $100 USD available for booking online.
For a safari to DR Congo, a visa can be obtained through the official Virunga tourism website with help of a tour operator. Selecting the destination is the first step followed by booking any activity or lodging that will serve as proof needed to obtain the visa. Traveling to Eastern DR Congo is easier done through Rwanda. For that reason, consider going through Gisenyi – Goma or Cyangungu border for those coming from Nyungwe Forest National Park southwest Rwanda. Ensure to book in advance given that obtaining Congo visa on arrival at either post might be challenging.