The Virunga Region Straddles along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though always refered to asa single range, the Virunga is a chain of isolated free-standing volcanic cones strung along the fault line associated with the same geological processes that formed the Great East African Riftvalley.
The Virunga Volcanoes
The Virunga is also reffered to as the Birunga or Mufumbiro Mountains. The chain comprises of six inactive and two active volcanoes all of which exceed 3,000m in altitude. The tallest of these volcanoes is the Karisimbi.
- Karisimbi Mountain (4507m asl)
- Mikeno (4437m)
- Muhavura (4127m)
- Gahinga (3475m)
- Sabinyo (3699m)
Three of the eight mountains lie partially within Uganda and Rwandan. The Muhavura and Gahinga straddle the Rwanda border while Sabinyo stands at the conjuction of the three national borders.
The names of these Virunga mountains reflect local perceptions
- Sabinyo means “old man’s teeth” referring to he jagged rim of what is probably the most ancient and weathered eight volcanoes.
- Muhavura means the “guide” and anecdotes collected by the first European to visit the area suggest its perfect cone glowed at night becoming a guide to the locals.
- Gahinga means “small piles of stones” that locals always pile in their fields.
- Visoke means a watering hole in reference to the crater lake near its peak
The Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda
The 5 Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda are part of a chain of 8 volcanoes that span at the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They take their name from Kinyarwanda word ibirunga denoting to volcanoes. The existence of these magnificent features makes Rwanda one of the best hiking safari destinations in Africa. The 5 Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda include Mount Sabyinyo, Muhabura Volcano, Bisoke and Karisimbi Volcano.
Apart from Sabyinyo volcano, it is possible to hike anyone of the 4 volcanoes while on Rwanda safari in Volcanoes National Park. A hike through Rwanda’s magnificent volcanoes exposes hikers to park’s beautiful forests, vegetation zones, crater lakes, wildlife, breathtaking sceneries and surrounding areas.
Bisoke volcano (3711m) is one of the 5 Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda. It is set at the Rwanda border with the DRC. Unlike other volcanoes, Mount Bisoke is dormant and features a beautiful crater lake (Lake Ngezi) which you will enjoy great view. The Crater Lake expands 400m in diameter and it is one of the interesting point of areas most hikers on Rwanda hiking safari like to visit. It takes hikers 6 hours and this includes 4 hours hiking to the top and 2 hours descending.
Muhabura Volcano (4127m) is a magnificent volcano of its own. It is also best known as Muhavura and it is shared between Uganda and Rwanda. This volcano straddles just on the end of the Virunga Mountain ranges. Hiking through Muhavura is amazing and while on a hike, you get a chance to enjoy great view the twin Lakes; Lake Ruhondo and Burera. It takes climbers 6 to 8 hours to make a complete hike and it requires you to have some physical wellness in you.
Karisimbi Volcano (4507m) is the highest of all the 8 Virunga Volcanoes and in Africa, it is 5th highest. In some months, this volcano experiences snow the fact that it lies near the Equator crossing. A complete hike through Karisimbi Volcano can take hikers about 2 days accompanied by a memorable camping experience at 3700m.
Unlike other volcanoes, Mount Sabyinyo is shared by all the 3 Virunga Conservation Areas (Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in DRC). It takes its name from its jagged appearance like old man’s teeth.
Mount Gahinga (3474m)
This is the shortest of all the 8 Virunga Mountain ranges in Rwanda Volcanoes National Park. It is also the least climbed in the protected area. Gahinga Volcano is ideal for none seasoned hikers on Rwanda safari holiday.
When to visit Rwanda for volcano hiking
Hiking adventures in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park are best enjoyed or conducted during the dry season. This starts from June to August and December to February. The park records the least rainfall amount during these months and the ground is kept relatively drier thus making it easier to hike through the steep slopes.
The wet or rainy season is when the park records high amount of rainfall (from March to May and September to November) but it is ideal for bird watching since it is breeding period and some migrant birds can be spotted. Volcano hiking during this period can challenging and that is why most hikers prefer the dry season.
What to carry on hiking safari in Volcanoes National Park?
- Sturdy hiking boots (should be waterproof)
- Long pants
- Long sleeved shirts
- Plenty of bottled drinking water
- Camping gear
- Gardening gloves
- Rain jacket or poncho
- First aid kit
- Insect repellent
The Virunga Mountains are still young. None of the Virunga mountains is more than two million years old and two ofthe cones remain highly active. However the eruptions of the earlier Virunga volcanoes ten to 12 million years ago marked the start of the tectonic processes that formed the western arm of the rift valley. The dramatic volcanic explosion of historical times was the 1977 eruption of the 3465m Mount Nyiragongo in the DRC, about 20km north of the Lake Kivu port of Goma. During the eruption, a lava lake that had formed in the volcano’s main crater back in 1894 drained in less than one hour, emitting streams of molten lava that flowed at a rate of up to 60km/h killing an estimated 2,000 people and terminating only 500m from Goma Airport.