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Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

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After a recent trip into the Congo, Mike McCartney could not help but writing to share the details

Founded in 1925, the beautiful Virunga is Africa's oldest national park. One of the most bio-diverse protected areas on the continent, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it is reputed to have more endemic species than other any park in Africa. Managed under the very capable stewardship of Emmanuel de Merode and his team from Institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the park is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, with financial support from the European Union. Virunga National Park (VNP) offers an exciting, out-of-the-way African experience for those of adventurous spirit seeking something a little different.

Description: the beautiful Virunga is Africa's oldest national park

the beautiful Virunga is Africa's oldest national park

I spent a week there at the end of March 2012, and our group were hosted impressively well by the ICCN team. We used the wonderful new Mikeno Lodge, which is in the forested VNP headquarters compound at Rumangabo, as our base for exploring the attractions of the Southern Sector of VNP.

The first trek we made was to Nyamulagira, one of the world's most active volcanoes. This is reached via a 30-minute drive and then a three-hour hike over rough lava. Some of the lava we walked on was still so hot that it melted the soles of our boots, and the ends of our hiking poles!

Description: Nyamulagira, one of the world's most active volcanoes

Nyamulagira, one of the world's most active volcanoes

The second trek we made involved a 90-minute drive on a very rough road to Bukima patrol post at the edge of the 250-square-kilometre Mikeno Sector in the southeast corner of VNP. From here we hiked for two hours into the forest to reach the Munyaga mountain gorilla family. This family group, consisting of three silverbacks, two adult females, one infant and one adolescent, is one of six habituated families here. There are approximately 200 gorillas in VNP. The rangers are very considerate around the gorillas, and the group size is limited to four visitors, which makes for exception l viewing and photographic opportunities.

The next day, despite my legs having almost given up on me the night before, we again set off early, with a substantial armed escort, to visit the habituated chimpanzees at Tongo Forest, to the northwest of Rumangabo.

Description: the habituated chimpanzees at Tongo Forest

the habituated chimpanzees at Tongo Forest

The final part of our adventure involved hiking up to the crater summit of the active stratovolcano Nyiragongo. The glow from the world's biggest molten lake is so impressive at night that it can be seen from neighbouring Rwanda! The hike to the crater at the summit is a strenuous one, not to be undertaken by those who are not reasonably fit. The view down into the crater is spellbinding. ICCN have recently built eight small two-person cabins just below the crater rim, so they can accommodate up to 16 visitors. Be warned though, the "washroom facilities" are basic to say the least! It is also my recommendation that you should hike Nyiragongo during the week as the group size will be smaller, and you can move at your own speed, or at least at that of the armed rangers accompanying you!

Description: the crater summit of the active stratovolcano Nyiragongo

the crater summit of the active stratovolcano Nyiragongo

All in all, our six days in Virunga were an incredible experience, even for such a seasoned group of safari guides as ourselves. We did not at any point feel that our safety was threatened or compromised, and the local people are delightful, friendly and very welcoming to visitors. Where else in the world can you have exceptional opportunities to view our very rarest primates and see active volcanoes? Virunga truly is a magical part of Africa.

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