Hi travellers, my name is Dennis Stever. Welcome to my article on the epic Volcanoes National Park. I was born in Nova Scotia, Canada but spent most of my adult life living abroad. In my early years, I was an amateur athlete competing in sprint kayaking for the Canadian National Team.
After narrowly missing out on my Olympic dream, I made a difficult decision to retire from sport and began searching for a new passion. Ultimately, I was drawn to landscape photography as the idea of shooting quiet sunsets and desolate landscapes satisfied my introverted nature.
In 2010, I had the opportunity to move to Dubai and spent over seven years living in the Middle East. Dubai is a hub for travellers because it’s central to many incredible destinations. During this time, I developed a passion for travel photography – it became an escape from my day-to-day job.
The opportunity to explore new lands, capturing the culture and landscapes, furthered my passion to see the world. In 2017, I met my best friend and business partner, Michelle Karam. Having experience in the hospitality and events industry, we shared the same passion for travel.
Together, we started our first entrepreneurial endeavour, TJD. Today, we have grown into an award-winning luxury adventure company focused on guided trips to the Nordic countries and East Africa – travelwithtjd.com.
Adding Rwanda to the Portfolio
Rwanda has always been on my bucket list. In 2016, I had the chance to visit Kenya’s Maasai Mara and experience my first safari. It was at this moment I realised how special Africa is. Fast forward to 2020, TJD had experienced a lot of growth and we were recognised as experts in the Nordic region.
Unfortunately, with the challenges of COVID-19, we had to rethink our business model in order to continue growing. The pandemic allowed us to diversify our destinations – keeping in mind our core values and mission.
In October 2020, we had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda to meet with potential partners, experiencing everything this small country has to offer. From gorilla trekking, safaris, cultural experiences and so much more.
Rwanda has stunning scenery: dense forests, volcanoes and vast open plains. It’s a unique destination that offers so many diverse activities. The highlight and most notable activity is gorilla trekking. Seeing the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is a life changing experience.
Volcanoes National Park – Home to the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
I had always been fascinated with wildlife photography and high up on that list was seeing the endangered mountain gorilla. Before travelling to Rwanda, I had spent a lot of time reading and researching the destination.
Home to the mountain gorilla, Volcanoes National Park is an iconic African location featured in stories such as “Gorillas In The Mist” which showcases the life of Dian Fossey and her incredible bond with the animals.
Volcanoes National Park is not only home to mountain gorillas but also the golden monkey, buffalo, spotted hyena and bushbuck. There are also reports of some elephants in the park. However, sighting an elephant is extremely rare. Ultimately, we had ended up in Rwanda through a series of fortunate events and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity.
Visiting Volcanoes National Park with an Authorised Tour Company
When travelling to Volcanoes National Park it’s essential that you use an authorised tour company in order to visit and explore this precious national treasure. Rwanda does a fantastic job of protecting its nature and supporting the local communities through tourism at the same time.
On our first trip to Rwanda the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) helped with planning our visit. Working with a local tourism operator, we created a partnership in order to learn more about this destination. Fast forward to 2021, TJD is now offering private and group tours to Rwanda.
As Volcanoes National Park is regulated by the government – all tourists must use an approved tour agency to help with permits, logistics and the hiring of local guides and rangers. It works out to be a great system. As a tourist you cannot venture into the national park without a guide, which is a great way to protect the fragile ecosystem from over-tourism.
Since October, we have organised a number of group trips to Rwanda. TJD has created partnerships with guides, hotels, government and airlines in order to offer full-service experiences to the “Heart of Africa”.
My Experience Seeing the Mountain Gorillas of Volcanoes
Witnessing the majestic mountain gorillas of Rwanda in the wild is truly a magical experience. Rwanda does a fantastic job at regulating the tracking of mountain gorillas in order to best protect them in their natural habitat.
When you arrive at Volcanoes, you are assigned to a certified guide. The group of six travellers is briefed on how to safely observe the gorillas before setting off on the hike. In total there are eight families of gorillas that you can potentially visit on any given day based on their location.
Rangers follow the movements of the gorillas in order to provide a guaranteed sighting. On this occasion we were assigned to the Kwitonda Gorilla Family. This family is the largest group in Volcanoes National Park with approximately 30 members in the group. The family also has four massive silverbacks and a number of smaller babies and juvenile gorillas.
After a hike that can range from two to four hours you will eventually make contact with the group of gorillas. Depending on the movements of the gorillas they can either be sleeping, eating or moving through the forest. The best sightings happen when the gorillas are moving, as it provides an opportunity to see the true capabilities of these incredible creatures.
The most memorable interaction was seeing juveniles play in the treetops. You can see the similarities to children playing on the playground. They pull at each other, wrestle and cause mischief while the adults try to rest or eat.
On another occasion in the park a lone female from another family ventured into the territory of the Kwitonda family. The male silverback then stood up tall, aggressively moving toward the female. The silverback pounded on his chest to warn the female she was too close to the family.
The experience was suspenseful and energising. You could literally feel the pounding of his chest reverberate in your own chest – as if someone was pounding a large bass drum. It was an extraordinary moment in the wild.
Other Experiences to Enjoy in Volcanoes National Park
Apart from Gorilla Trekking, you can also track the golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park. Golden monkeys is another unique experience as families of monkeys move through the treetops and across the forest floor. I would recommend this experience to photographers as there is an excitement to the intimate encounters with these primates.
The park also offers cultural sessions and sightseeing – including some of the most luxurious hotels and bespoke stays in Africa. For the adventurous, there are also multi-day hikes to the summits of the dormant volcanoes.
Where to Stay in the National Park
Musanze is the main hub connecting Volcanoes National Park. As a visitor you have options of staying in Kigali (a two hour drive from Volcanoes) or staying in Musanze. A diverse range of pricing for accommodation can be found but I recommend looking at some of the bespoke luxury stays.
A highlight of some of the luxury stays near Volcanoes National Park is One&Only Gorilla’s Nest. This is the pinnacle of luxury accommodation with one of the most stunning landscapes you will ever see.
Upon entering, you are greeted with local songs and drumming, a warm welcome, and a level of hospitality that is unmatched. A property that has taken into consideration every detail to make your stay unforgettable.
Favourite Memory from Volcanoes National Park
One of my favourite memories from our visit to Volcanoes was the cultural drumming session organised by One&Only Gorilla’s Nest. In this session a local drum group plays a number of traditional songs but the unique part is that you get to participate and learn how to drum with them.
The high energy experience around a campfire and under the stars is truly awe-inspiring. The warm smiles from the locals and the encouragement for someone like myself who is an introvert was exceptional.
Need to Know Before you Go
With the current pandemic and travel situation, Rwanda has implemented rules in order to support the tourism industry. Any travellers visiting Rwanda must book their experiences through an authorised tour agency.
Although Rwanda is small there are three main attractions that everyone should see: Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National Park and Nyungwe Forest National Park. They fall into separate corners of the country.
If you are planning on visiting Rwanda, it’s best to allow for at least two days in each of the national parks. If you are short on time then it’s best to pick two of the national parks and take your time enjoying the scenery.
For questions about visiting the heart of Africa you can reach out to me directly or look at some of the options we offer at travelwithtjd.com. Thanks for letting me share a little bit about this beautiful country.