Exploring The Imposing Virunga Volcanoes on The Edge of The East African Rift Valley.
The Virunga Mountains, locally known as the Mufumbiro Mountains, form a chain of volcanoes found in East Africa in the rift valley border region of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC). They sit between two lakes, Lake Kivu and Lake Edward. They are a section of the Albertine Rift Mountains, which run along the western side of the East African Rift.
This mountain range comprises eight prominent volcanoes, most of which are inactive, except for Mount Nyiragongo (3,462 meters) and Mount Nyamuragira (3,063 meters), both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These two volcanoes have erupted in recent times, i.e., 2006, 2010, and May 2021. Mount Karisimbi is the tallest volcano, towering at 4,507 meters. The oldest mountain in the range is Mount Sabyinyo, which rises 3,634 meters above sea level.
The bamboo forests of the Virunga Mountains slopes are a natural sanctuary for the mountain gorilla, an endangered species listed on the IUCN Red List due to threats such as habitat loss, poaching, and war.
The name “Virunga” is derived from “ibirunga”, a Kinyarwanda term that translates to “volcanoes” in English.
The major 8 volcanoes that form the Virunga Mountains
Mount Muhavura (Muhabura) 4,127 metres
Mount Muhavura, also known as Mount Muhabura, is a dormant volcano in the Virunga Mountains situated right on the border of Rwanda and Uganda. In the local dialect, Muhavura translates to “The Guide” because its gentle slope can be spotted from various places in Uganda and Rwanda.
Standing at 4,127 meters, Muhabura ranks as the third-highest peak among the eight prominent Virunga Mountains range. These mountains are part of the Albertine Rift, the western arm of the East African Rift. The top of Muhabura has a little crater lake, a popular attraction for hikers.
A portion of Mount Muhabura lies within Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, while another is in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. If you want to reach the summit, you can go hiking from Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which protects the Virunga Mountains on the Ugandan side as well.
Mount Gahinga (3,474 meters)
Mount Gahinga, located on the border of Rwanda and Uganda, is a dormant or inactive volcano. It’s smaller than its neighbors, Muhabura and Sabyinyo. In the local language, Gahinga is “a small pile of stones.” Its summit has a wide, swampy caldera measuring 180 meters (591 feet) across.
The mountain is covered in afro-montane vegetation, primarily bamboo. Just like Muhabura and Sabyinyo, Mount Gahinga’s bamboo forests provide a home for endangered mountain gorillas. You’ll also find other animal and bird species in the Mount Gahinga ecosystem, including the noteworthy golden monkeys.
You can complete a one-day hike to Gahinga Peak from Mgahinga National Park, which is another spot in Uganda where you can observe gorillas.
Mount Sabyinyo (3,669 meters)
Mount Sabyinyo, the oldest volcano in the Virunga Mountains range, is the second tallest among the three Virungas that touch Uganda’s border. It’s situated northeast of Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, and west of Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda. The name Sabyinyo is derived from the Kinyarwanda word “Iryinyo,” which means “tooth.”
At the mountain’s peak, you’ll find a unique spot where the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda meet. This place holds special religious significance for local people. It falls within three national parks: Virunga National Park in the DRC, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
The slopes of Mount Sabyinyo provide a home for endangered mountain gorillas. Locally, it’s affectionately called “Old Man’s Teeth” because its jagged summit resembles well-worn teeth in a gum line, unlike the smooth, conical summits of neighboring mountains in the Virunga Volcanoes range.
Mount Bisoke (3,711 meters)
Mount Bisoke is an active volcano, and its last big eruption was way back in August 1957. It straddles the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the very top part is in Rwanda. You can find it about 35 kilometers northeast of a town called Goma and near Lake Kivu.
Bisoke has had two recorded eruptions – one in 1891 and the other in 1957. The most recent eruption happened about 11 kilometers north of the summit and created two small bumps on the volcano’s north side. There’s evidence that this area where the eruption occurred is still geologically active, which means we might see more action from Bisoke in the future. Oh, and this volcano has two crater lakes, with one being the biggest in the whole Virunga Volcanos range.
The slopes of Mount Bisoke are home to Africa’s endangered mountain gorillas. Dian Fossey even set up the Karisoke Research Center in the valley west of this mountain. You can actually climb it in a single day if you start from the Rwandan side. And for those who like a challenge, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) organizes two-day trips to Bisoke and nearby Mount Karisimbi, usually starting from the nearby city of Ruhengeri. The climb can be steep, but it’s doable.
Mount Karisimbi (4,507 meters)
Mount Karisimbi is a dormant volcano, which means it won’t erupt again. It sits right on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This mountain is the tallest among the eight big ones in this range, reaching a height of 4,507 meters or 14,787 feet. Karisimbi has Mikeno to the north, Bisoke to the east, and Nyiragongo to the west on the other side of the Rift Valley as its neighbors. In Africa, it’s the 11th highest mountain.
The name Karisimbi comes from the local language, Kinyarwanda, where ‘amasimbi’ means snow. You’ll usually spot snow on top of this volcano during the dry season in June, July, and August.
And in between Karisimbi and Bisoke, you’ll find the Karisoke Research Center, set up by Dian Fossey to study the mountain gorillas living in this region.
Mount Mikeno (4,437 metres)
Mount Mikeno is an old volcano, and you won’t see it erupting again. It’s in the part of the Virunga Mountains that’s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This mountain reaches a height of 4,437 meters, which is about 14,557 feet, making it the second tallest in the Virunga Mountains, right after Karisimbi. In all of Africa, it’s the 13th highest mountain. The name Mikeno means “poor,” and it got this name because its steep slopes are too harsh for people to live on.
The whole of Mount Mikeno is within Virunga National Park, and it’s also a place where the endangered mountain gorillas live. People who want to see these gorillas usually start their expeditions from the nearby Bukima Patrol Post. To get to the mountain, you can come from Kigali, which is about a 4-hour drive away with a border crossing.
Mount Nyiragongo (3,470 metres)
Mount Nyiragongo is an active volcano located within the Virunga National Park in DRC, near the border with Rwanda, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Goma. At the top of the mountain, there’s a big crater that’s 1.3 miles (2 km) wide and 820 feet (250 meters) deep, and it holds a pool of hot, liquid lava. Some of the older craters on this mountain have interesting plant life growing in them.
If you stand at the viewing terrace of the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, you can see Nyiragongo in the darkest nights with clear skies, and it looks like it’s on fire with red flames.
Nyiragongo is famous for its powerful eruptions. Back in 1977, an eruption killed about 2,000 people, and in 2002, the nearby city, Goma, was severely damaged by flowing lava. This left more than 100,000 people without homes and caused a refugee crisis. In 2021, there was another eruption, and although the lava didn’t reach Goma’s city limits, it still caused more than 30 deaths and destroyed several villages. Mount Nyiragongo, along with nearby Mount Nyamuragira, are responsible for around 40% of Africa’s recorded volcanic eruptions.
Hiking to the summit of Mount Nyiragongo is an exhilarating adventure for those seeking a unique and breathtaking experience. The treks to the summit typically begin from the Kibati Patrol Post, situated not far from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These hikes are challenging but immensely rewarding.
Mount Nyamuragira (3,055 metres)
Nyamuragira, also known as Nyamulagira, is an active shield volcano found in the Virunga Mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s located around 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of Lake Kivu. The name comes from the Bantu word “Kuragira nyamu,” which means herding animals, whereas “nyamu” stands for animals or cows.
This volcano is quite active, and it has erupted more than 40 times since 1885. These eruptions don’t just happen at the very top but also on the sides of the volcano, creating smaller volcanoes that don’t last very long. For instance, one called Murara was around from late 1976 to 1977. Some of the more recent eruptions occurred on January 2, 2010, November 8, 2011, and May 23, 2021.
Lesser Known Peaks in The Virunga Mountains
Murara was a small and short-lived volcano, like a pile of rocks, on the side of Mount Nyamuragira. It started erupting on December 23, 1976, about twelve kilometers south-southwest of Nyamuragira’s main crater. By January 18, 1977, the top of the cone had reached a height of about 150 meters.
After the big eruption of Mount Nyiragongo on January 10, 1977, the eruptions from Murara became much less, and by April 1977, they completely stopped. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, the people in charge of Virunga National Park set up a temporary camp pretty close to Murara. This way, visitors could come and watch the Nyiragongo eruption and the flowing lava for themselves.
Volcan Rumoka, also known as Rumoka or Le Rumoka, is a small volcano consisting of ash and rocks in north Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s like a tiny bump on the side of the huge Nyamuragira volcano. You can find it about 16 kilometers (10 miles) to the south of Nyamuragira’s big crater.
Rumoka’s last eruption happened between 1912 and 1913. In December 1912, lava started flowing from the volcano, which continued until March 1913. In February 1913, Nyamuragira also erupted, and people thought that maybe the two volcanoes were somehow affecting each other.
Hiking The Virunga Volcanoes
The Virunga Mountains, which stretch across Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, offer an extraordinary experience for hiking enthusiasts. To kick things off, Mount Karisimbi and Mount Nyiragongo are two top volcanoes perfect for intrepid hikers. Mount Karisimbi, standing tall at 4,507 meters (14,787 feet), offers a challenging trek through bamboo forests and alpine meadows, with panoramic views that will leave you spellbound. On the other hand, Mount Nyiragongo is famous for its fiery lava lake and night-time hikes, although reaching its 3,470-meter (11,380-foot) peak is quite demanding.
Accessing these challenging Virunga Mountains is relatively straightforward. You can start in Kisoro in Uganda, Kigali, or Gisenyi in Rwanda and arrange guided tours with authorized operators. Despite past security concerns, efforts have been made to enhance safety, making the region more accessible for hiking enthusiasts.
For those seeking a more relaxed adventure, three single-day hikes – Mount Sabinyo, Mount Gahinga, and Mount Muhabura – are accessible from Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. Mount Sabinyo offers a picturesque hike with a unique three-country border crossing experience. Mount Gahinga, the smallest volcano, provides a gentle hike through bamboo forests, with a chance to spot mountain gorillas. For a bit more of a challenge, Mount Muhabura stands at 4,127 meters (13,540 feet) and offers breathtaking panoramic views of the entire Virunga mountain range.
These single-day hikes are a great way to experience the beauty and diversity of the Virunga Mountains without the commitment of multi-day treks. Mgahinga National Park is the ideal starting point for these shorter, yet still, remarkable mountain adventures.