Virunga mountains straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Virunga are not a mountain range as such, but a chain of isolated freestanding volcanic cones strung along a fault line associated with the same geological process that formed the Rift Valley. Sometimes also referred to as the Birunga of Bufumbira Mountain, the chain comprises of six inactive and three active volcanoes, all of which exceed 3,000m in altitude from the tallest being Karismbi (4,507m), Mikeno (4,437m) and Muhabura (4,127m).
The names of the individual mountains in the Virunga chain reflect local perceptions. Sabyinyo translates as “old man’s teeth” in reference to the jagged rim of what is probably the most ancient and weathered of the eight volcanoes. Muhabura is “the guide”, and anecdotes collected by the first European to visit the area suggest that its perfect cone, topped today by a small crater lake, still glowed at night as recently as the early 19th century. Gahinga is variously translated as meaning “pile of stones” or “the hoe”, the former a reference to its relatively small size, the latter to the breach on its flan. Of the other volcanoes that lie partially within Rwanda, Karismbi which occasionally sports a small cap of snow is named for the Crater Lake near its peak. The vegetation zones of the Virunga correspond closely to those of other large East African mountains forest below the 2,500m contour has been sacrificed to cultivation.
The most famous denizen of the Virunga is the mountain gorilla, which inhabits all six of the extinct or dormant volcanoes, but not for obvious reasons the more active ones. The Virunga also form the main stronghold for the endangered golden monkey, possibly the last one now that their only other confirmed haunt.