360 degrees of Rwanda: a Virunga luxury gorilla safari
Misty volcanic peaks and lakes dotted with small islands are the backdrop to the sensational Virunga Lodge, our base for a luxury gorilla safari, a 45 minute drive from Kinigi, the starting point for Rwanda’s gorilla trekking.
The volcano and lake geography combined to give us constantly changing weather. I was quite absorbed by it. At one point, a thick white fog completely obscured the volcanoes and Lakes Ruhondo and Bulera (Burera). The mist unveiled the volcanoes, one peak at a time, and I enjoyed peeking through the window every few minutes to see the view evolve as the day progressed. Later, bright sunshine showed the detail of the villages far below us.
The main living and dining area of Virunga Lodge is perched on the top of a hill, 2300 metres above sea level. (Adjacent is a large football field cum helicopter pad cum stage for traditional Rwandese dancing by the charming and engaging Intore dancers).
I loved the (recently refurbished) African inspired décor: tribal art from the Congo, Rwandese wall hangings, black and white photographs and the library of conservation and travel related books. Snug in the huge living room, amongst the stacks of funky cushions, with an open fire burning in the late afternoon, the Muzungu planned her next East African adventure.
I loved the wood and bright colour combination of the dining room’s interior, intimate at night when candlelit. We all loved the food: the salmon mousse went down particularly well. The soups were heavenly and perfect for the chilly nights on the hill.
Needless to say, our Rwanda luxury gorilla safari trekking was a wonderful experience – and without doubt lived up to the hype.
Becca Hensley wrote a wonderful account of our trek to see Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. Suffice to say, two weeks later, back in the city, and I’m still dreaming about our magical gorilla trekking encounter in the bamboo forest.
The music and good humour of the Intore Troupe’s traditional dancing were infectious. They weren’t taking no for an answer when they pulled us up onto our feet to dance with them!
The backdrop to their grassy stage were the peaks of Mounts Muhavura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Karisimbi and Visoke.
About Virunga Lodge
The twin Bulera banda’s wide veranda opens on to views high above Lake Bulera and its islands. The bandas are very spacious and well equipped with a personal safe, a torch and solar lamp – even your own umbrella (quite indispensable in this part of the world!)
The sensors for the bathroom lights confused me to start with (as I was poised to insert a contact lens and the bathroom suddenly went black!) but I admired the considerable eco-efforts, here and throughout Volcanoes Safaris’ lodges.
Two of the bandas are now deluxe standard, with huge living space, and open fireplaces in the bedroom, private sitting room and outside on the veranda, perfect for honeymooners!
Upon arrival, our driver Sam had dropped us halfway up the hill to Virunga Lodge, where we were greeted with fresh sweet Tree Tomato juice and friendly staff who seemed only too happy to carry our big bags up to our banda rooms for us. The living and dining area is at the top of the hill, thus there is a short but quite steep walk from your banda.
Virunga Lodge provides free Wi-Fi, but the lodge’s remote location means it may not be as good a connection as you’re used to back home. The Muzungu’s advice? Leave the laptop at home, catch up on some reading, make some new friends and take the 360 degree views.
Activities from Virunga Lodge
The below are all included in the price of an overnight stay at Virunga Lodge:
- Traditional dance performance by the Intore Dance Troupe
- One complimentary massage
- Birding / birdwatching in and around the lodge’s terraced gardens or further afield, with a bird guide.
- A visit to the lodge’s Virunga Vocational Centre to learn about the community’s beekeeping and basket-weaving projects.
- Learn about the life of Dian Fossey in Virunga Lodge’s new Dian Fossey map room, a space that is perfect for small conferences and special occasions.
Additional activities from Virunga Lodge
Rwanda has 10 gorilla families that have been habituated for tourists to visit: Sabyinyo, Amahoro, Umubano, Susa, Kwitonda, Karisimbi, Agashya, Bwenge, Ugyenda and Hirwa. Generally it takes between one hour and half a day to trek a gorilla family in Rwanda, but it may take up to 7 hours to visit the Susa family. Trekking the gorillas in Rwanda is usually a little easier than gorilla trekking in Bwindi (Uganda), as the forest is less dense. It is a 45 minute drive from Virunga Lodge to the starting point of the gorilla trekking in Kinigi.
- Hike a volcano:
- Karisimbi Volcano is the highest mountain in the Virunga chain at 4507 metres. Its (frequently) snow-capped peak gives it the alternative name of the “white shell” volcano. Warning: this two day walk (camp overnight) can be tough, wet and cold! The Karisimbi Volcano hike needs to be booked in advance.
- The Visoke Volcano has the iconic cone shape. In its crater lies a deep lake (3,700m). While the hike up isn’t too demanding, nevertheless the altitude can affect climbers because of the sharp ascent. The walk takes about 5-8 hours. (If you are travelling with Volcanoes Safaris, this activity is included in the cost of your safari).
- Famous primatologist Dian Fossey studied Mountain Gorillas in the foothills of Rwanda’s volcanoes. From Virunga Lodge, you can visit Dian Fossey’s grave, the graves of 30 Mountain Gorillas, and hear more about her ground-breaking work and legacy.
- December 26, 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of Dian Fossey’s death. Who murdered her is still not known, but it’s certain that her passion for protecting the mountain gorillas made her many enemies.
- In this short video clip, Praveen Moman, owner of Virunga Lodge, discusses Dian Fossey’s legacy and the importance that ethically managed ecotourism plays in the protection of the gorillas.
- Trek to see the endangered but beguiling Golden Monkeys (which can also be tracked from Mount Gahinga Lodge, Volcanoes Safaris’ sister lodge in Uganda).
- A stay at Virunga Lodge is highly recommended if you are invited to attend Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla naming ceremony held in Kinigi.
- Prices for foreign non-residents are all inclusive (three superb meals plus afternoon tea / coffee and biscuits, all alcoholic drinks and a variety of community-based activities). Occasionally, there are special offers for local residents.
If you want to stay in a real ecolodge, then you will love Virunga Lodge.
Ecotourism is a word that’s often used but very few lodges live up to the title. Investments such as solar energy, rainwater harvesting, and low Flushing eco-toilets are just some of the lodge’s environmentally friendly features. Active development of community projects (at this and other Volcanoes Safaris lodges) are key to the company’s vision.
The Virunga Community Projects support activities that enhance the livelihood of local communities and in turn support the survival of the great apes. “We believe (carefully controlled) ecotourism is essential to the survival of the great apes and that local people need to earn a livelihood if they are to appreciate the importance of protecting our closest primate relatives and their habitats.” Volcanoes Safaris Ltd donate $100 to VCP from every full cost safari purchased.
If you’ve travelled halfway round the world for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the gorillas, I would highly recommend staying at Virunga Lodge. We flew from Entebbe, Uganda to Kisoro with Aerolink and then drove across the border. You may come for the gorillas, but you will stay for the views – and the food! And the friendliest staff! – it all adds up to an unforgettable experience.
DISCLOSURE: This blog is based on my personal experience. Thank you to Volcanoes Safaris for inviting me on this journalist’s trip and thank you to luxury travel writers Becca Hensley and Margie Goldsmith for all their tips and great stories! For more information on sponsored posts, please read the Muzungu’s Terms and Conditions.