Making an impact by travelling to Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park is a beautiful place, and was recognized early on for its great variety and natural splendor, when it became Africa’s first National Park. During the 70’s it became famous and many travelers from Europe ventured out to the savanna’s of the central sector of Virunga. The gorillas were not yet famous at the time, but the park had (and has) much more to offer than only the  gorillas. During the latter part of Mobutu’s reign, the parks facilities started to crumble and Virunga’s tourism lost a lot of its appeal, although more people started to visit the gorillas in Jomba, Bikenge and Bukima. Then in the 90’s the Rwandan genocide spilled over into Eastern Congo and the flood of refugees combined with armed conflict in the region made Virunga completely inaccessible  and the pressure on its resources increased enormously with the refugees around the edges of the forest.

Miraculously Virunga pulled though, able to maintain most of its boundaries (although the original buffer zones were largely lost), however park management was unable to regain full control and corruption was rife, which eventually came to a climax in July 2007 when multiple gorillas were murdered in an attempt to make the park fail completely and give free reign to those who wanted to exploit the park for its natural resources (primarily charcoal). Read the National Geographic story here

From the ashes of the incident arose a new park management, under the charismatic leadership of Emmanuel de Merode. Many people in the conservation community had all but given up on Virunga by this point, and the ambition levels of Emmanuel and his team seemed unrealistic at this early stage. However in the years that followed, Virunga regained structure, by clear direction in its conservation strategy, new and highly trained Rangers, better equipment (largely funded by the EU).

In 2009 the first tourists slowly started coming back, and the park started to develop a bold strategy to kickstart tourism again by investing in high-end tourism facilities & services. Tourism was (and is) a highly tangible industry that can provide a lot of jobs in all levels of a society and as such is a favorable industry for communities to see the value of the National Park, which is an essential component of any National Park’s chance of survival.

We at Inspired Journeys believe strongly in the Conservation strategy deployed in Virunga, and wish we could bring everyone to Virunga to see the efforts and the impact that you can have as a traveler. Two of the founders of Inspired Journeys worked at Virunga during this exciting period and saw first hand what was being achieved and the enormous untapped potential the park still offers.  By spending a couple of nights you can meet Virunga staff and rangers and learn more about these conservation efforts (which go much further than tourism). And also learn about the great sacrifices many of the Virunga Team have had to suffer to make Virunga what it is today.

How does your travel benefit Virunga?

When booking a trip to Virunga with us, we ensure we use as many of the services of the Park as we can. That means that a very large component of your travel cost go directly to the park and funds their operation. This includes for instance sleeping in Mikeno Lodge, where instead of financing a large hotel corporation the profits of this lodge go 100% into the parks operational costs, which is essential for the parks future. All your park fees (e.g. your gorilla permits) are paid to the Congolese Institute of Conservation (ICCN), these funds are Partially (30%) used for community projects, the park supervisors are more than happy to show you around for you to see the funds being put to good use. The remainder is used for Funding Virunga as well as the conservation of other parks in Congo that have less access to financial resources. Besides the direct financial impact, possibly even more important is job creation and possibility for young people in the areas around Virunga to find long term employment and a positive outlook to the future. Which is an essential part of rebuilding a broken region, and as such is essential for the future of Virunga.

Virunga is a magical place. I count myself very lucky that i got to spend 2 years working with a team of incredibly dedicated and brave individuals that have put their lives on the line to save this park. They have come a very long way over the last 8 years, making the park prosper and bringing stability to the region. The best way to recognize these efforts is to come and see what this park has to offer its visitors and meet some of the people involved, I will guarantee you, you will come back inspired!
Cai Tjeenk Willink
Co-founder Inspired Journeys

Great Ape Bonanza

See all three of the great apes of eastern Africa

An amazing trip combining three different parks in Rwanda and the Dem.Rep.Congo. After exploring Kigali for a day, set of to the Virunga National Park (DRC). Spend 6 days in the Virunga rainforests, going on a Mountain Gorilla trek, visiting the Virunga conservations projects and climbing the Nyiragongo Volcano, which showcases the biggest lava lake in the world.

Leave Virunga National Park inspired by the guides, rangers, care-takers and the rest of the Virunga team who do everything to conserve the oldest National Park in Africa!

Head towards Bukavu, crossing Lake Kivu by boat taking in the beautiful landscapes of Rwanda and the DRC from the lake. Spend 3 days at Bukavu as a base for expeditions further afield. Visit Kahuzi-Biega National Park and trek the Eastern Lowland Gorillas (aka Grauers Gorillas). Visit the Lwiro primate sanctuary and the King’s palace.

From the Bukavu make your way across the border back into Rwanda and on to Nyungwe Forest National Park, and catch a glimpse of the third grate ape of the trip: the Chimpanzee. Besides chimpanzees, Nyungwe offers a chance to see 12! other primates, so worth spending an additional day, for instance to do the canopy walk to see the primates and other forest dwellers face to face.

From Nyungwe you could either drive or fly back to Kigali for your flight back home.

Highlights of this trip:

  1. See all three of he great apes of Eastern Africa
  2. Includes the highlights of Virunga National Park
  3. Boat ride across Lake Kivu
  4. Visit the “primate paradise” of Nyungwe Forest National Park
A trip for true primate lovers! This trip takes you deep into the central African forests of the Congo and Rwanda, to see our closest relatives up close and personal. A unique trip offering the opportunity to see three types of great apes in a very short time, which is only possible in this region. The chance to see many other monkeys along the way only makes this itinerary more complete.
Leonie vd Vijver
General Manager Inspired Journeys

Best of East Africa

Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes and the Great Migration

An intense two to three week itinerary combining the highlights of East Africa.

Start your trip with four days in Ruaha National Park or Tarangire National Park in Central Tanzania. The focus of these days is predominantly elephants and other savanna wildlife including the big cats as well as giraffe, greater & lesser kudu, and large herds of buffalo. Staying long enough to allow opportunities for un-rushed game viewing you board a flight (or drive from Tarangire) to Kilimanjaro airport to catch the Rwandair flight to Kigali.

From here it is on to the DRC. Mountain Gorillas are first on the list and 2 treks are a must. This is followed by a day of rest at Mikeno Lodge (or chimp trekking if they are around) and then summiting Nyiragongo for an overnight watching one of the most incredible natural spectacles on Earth, the biggest lava lake in the world. This rounds off DRC nicely and we head back to Kigali for an overnight.

Slightly sore from the hikes in DRC, taking a small aircraft flight, there is a stopover on Rubondo Island National Park for a couple days of water based activities. Fishing for Nile perch, or birding the shores we also add to our mammal list with specialities like Sitatunga and Spot-necked otters. A morning kayak on glassy waters is essential to take in the calm island and get ready for the last few days in Serengeti to take stock of the Great Migration!

From here we head to (northern) Serengeti to Kimondo camp or Sayari depending on the season. If the wildebeest are in the south, we add 3 nights in southern Serengeti.

Highlights of this trip:

  1. Rugged landscapes and excellent wildlife in Ruaha (or Tarangire) National Park
  2. Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Congo
  3. The lava Lake of the Nyiragongo Volcano
  4. The Great Migration in the Serengeti
This is one of my favorite trips to guide, it gives me the chance as a professional guide to show my guest some of the most spectacular natural scenery in Africa, from the expansive savanna's in central Tanzania to the Rain Forests of the Virunga Massive. This trip covers many of the African eco-systems and offers our guests the chance to develop a true insight in the natural splendor of east Africa. Ending up with the Great Migration in the Serengeti has people leaving Africa with an abiding love for the African Wilderness.
Ethan Kinsey
Co-Founder & Professional Guide at Inspired Journeys

For the energizer bunnies among us

For those of us with too much energy that need to blow off some steam on vacation, Rwanda offers enough calorie burning activities. depending on how much time you have you can spend 5 days up to two weeks on various of the below adventures.

Start your adventure in Kigali exploring via foot with a local guide, giving you an intimate insight into this bustling city. Learn some Kinyarwandan phrases before visiting a local market where you will see traders with their local produce, have the chance to learn about cassava production and also experience isombe (cassava leaves) preparation, carpet weaving and blanket embroidery. Later visit a local tailor, hair saloon and traditional music store to really feel the colour, style, rhythm and heartbeat of the neighborhood. End the tour with some traditional dishes served in a local home environment to ensure none of your 5 senses have been neglected on this unique tour.

Next stop is the city of Musanze, nestled below a number of the Virunga Mountains, which are all dormant volcanoes. Hike for either one day up Mount Visoke (3,711m) to reach the crater lake, or for two days scaling Karisimbi (4,507m) the fifth highest mountain in Africa. Additionally, you can partake in a cycle tour guided by former members of the Rwandan cycling team, made famous in the 2012 documentary Rising from the Ashes. Get tips on how to handle you bike professionally as you traverse different terrains, but don’t forget your camera as the villages and landscapes you pass through will offer endless stunning photo opportunities.

Continue onto the lake side town of Gisenyi which sits next to the peaceful Lake Kivu. You can choose between one, two or four day excursions kayaking on this picturesque lake. The one-day tour gives you the chance to paddle around the bay taking in the deep blue of these waters and to enjoy your packed lunch on an uninhabited island. Two day tours incorporate an overnight stay in Cyimbili with views of scenic islands and the chance to follow the full life cycle of coffee, beginning with the bushes that grow the beans and ending with the delicious coffee drink they produce. Both options end by paddling back to Gisenyi with the active volcano Nyiragongo looming above you and returning to Kigali via car the next day.

The four-day tour adds on visits to larger islands to see a church, mosque, local market and even a noisy bat colony, ending in Kibuye with an overnight stay at a unique waterside lodge.

All tours offer the option at dusk to watch local fisherman boats silhouetted against the sunset as they head out for their night time fishing sessions-truly magical. If you have travelled to Kibuye you can choose to fly back to Kigali from Kamembe airport or continue onto Nyungwe Forest.

At Nyungwe Forest you can reach the tree tops as you cross the 200m high Canopy Walk, hike to a waterfall and/or visit a tea plantation. (There is also the option to trek Chimpanzees and Colobus monkeys here if you want to add some wildlife into your itinerary).

Tired yet?