Before continuing with our gorilla trek, I’d like to tell you a bit about my accommodations in Rwanda at Volcanoes Safaris’ Virunga Lodge, a once-in-a-lifetime getaway that can best be described in a single, all-encompassing word: spectacular. Virunga Lodge boasts one of the most jaw-dropping views in all of Africa: 360 degrees taking in the entire Virunga volcano chain plus the beautiful volcanic lakes Ruhonda and Bulera. I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to experience not only the incredible view, but also the lodge’s exceptional cuisine and very friendly staff. Few places in Africa can equal what Virunga has to offer.
Sunset over the Virunga volcanoes from the grounds of Virunga Lodge. East Africa is home to eight Virunga volcanoes: the three shown here (left to right) Sabinyo, Mgahinga, Muhabura, plus Bisoke, Karasimbi, Mikeno, Nyiragongo, and Nyamurigira. The Virunga chain extends for close to 50 miles along East Africa’s Albertine Rift, straddling the converging borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The explorer John Hanning Speke was the first European to spot the Virungas in 1861. Five of the volcanoes are dormant, but Nyiragongo and Nyamurigira are active indeed– having erupted as recently as 2006. The Karisoke Research Center, founded by Dian Fossey in 1967 as a hub of mountain gorilla research, was located in the saddle area between Karisimbi and Bisoke. The original center was destroyed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Another view of Mt. Muhabura from my ravens-nest perch on the lodge grounds. Muhabura means “The Guide”, so called because the majestic cone of the mountain can be seen as a landmark from a great distance. Still, Muhabura at 13,540 feet (4127 meters) is only the third tallest of the Virungas, behind Mikeno and Karasimbi. At 14,787 feet (4,507 metres), Karasimbi’s peak is occasionally blanketed in snow.
When an afternoon thunderstorm sweeps across the Virungas here, the view from the lodge veranda is transformed into a J.M.W. Turner painting come to life.
The African white-naped raven (Corvus albicollis) is easily seen on the immaculate grounds of Virunga Lodge.
I have long been interested in these birds, ever since first reading George Schaller’s Year of the Gorilla. Schaller was the first scientist to study mountain gorilla ecology and behavior in the wild. Year of the Gorilla is Schaller’s popular account of his year long study of the gorillas in the Virunga highlands in 1959-60 (pre-dating Fossey by six years). Of Mt. Mikeno’s white-naped ravens, Schaller wrote: ” On days when the warm air from the lowlands rushed up the canyons, or the winds howled and the thunder grumbled around the upper slopes of Mt. Mikeno, the ravens played their airy games. Like black messengers from Thor, they emerged out of the wind-tattered clouds, rushing downward with folded wings, until abruptly they veered skyward and disappeared, only a disembodied krrrua-krrrua echoing from the clouds.”