Mgahinga National Park sits high in the clouds, at an altitude of between 2,227m and 4,127m. As its name suggests, it was created to protect the rare mountain gorillas that inhabit its dense forests, and it is also an important habitat for the endangered golden monkey.
As well as being important for wildlife, the park also has a huge cultural significance, in particular for the indigenous Batwa pygmies. This tribe of hunter-gatherers was the forest’s “first people”, and their ancient knowledge of its secrets remains unrivaled.
Mgahinga’s most striking features are its three conical, extinct volcanoes, part of the spectacular Virunga Range that lies along the border region of Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda. Mgahinga forms part of the much larger Virunga Conservation Area which includes adjacent parks in these countries. The volcanoes’ slopes contain various ecosystems and are biologically diverse, and their peaks provide a striking backdrop to this gorgeous scenery.
The Virunga Volcanoes
The Virungas are a chain of eight volcanoes that borders Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. Three of the conical peaks are in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park:
Muhavura (4,127m) is the highest of the peaks in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. The name means guide, and the Batwa used to look for its high peak to help orient themselves in the forest. Muhavura has a crystal clear crater lake about 36m wide at its summit. The top commands panoramic views far into Uganda, Rwanda, and along the length of the Virunga chain
Mount Gahinga (3,474m) is the smallest of the Virunga volcanoes. It is named after the local practice of tidying the volcanic debris that clutters local farmland into neat cairns – or gahinga. Its swamp-filled crater is around 180m wide.
Sabinyo means old man’s teeth, a reference to its jagged summit which is dissected by deep gorges and ravines. The countries that share the Virungas – Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo – meet on the highest of Sabinyo’s stumpy peaks.
Some of the steep mountain slopes contain caves formed by lava tubes, one of them being the famous Garama Cave located near the park headquarters. This is a sacred place for the Batwa, and during the Batwa Trail, you can discover how it was used as a shelter during battles and as a place to store looted treasures.
Ntebeko Visitors’ Centre
The Visitor Centre at Ntebeko is the starting point for nature walks, volcanoes hiking, golden monkey and gorilla tracking, and the short (4km) Batwa Trail. The trailhead of the long Batwa trail is at the base of Mt Muhavura. Exhibits inside the building explore themes relating the Virunga environment. A trail along the stone Buffalo Wall – built to keep animals out of neighboring farmland – provides good birding and views of the volcanoes.
Outside the Park
A worthwhile diversion on the route to Mgahinga from Kabale, Lake Bunyonyi is dotted with at least 20 small islands and encircled by steep terraced hills, Africa’s second deepest lake is unforgettably scenic. Visitors can stay overnight at a number of lakeside resorts or simply follow the lakeshore road to Kisoro and Mgahinga.
Birding in Mgahinga Gorilla
The three to four-hour Gorge Trail between Gahinga and Sabinyo can provide spectacular sightings of the Dusky turtle Dove, Cape Robin-chat, Kivu-ground Thrush, Olive Thrush, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Bronze Sunbird, Regal Sunbird, Blue-headed Sunbird, Rwenzori Batis, Black-headed Waxbill, and Streaky Seedeater.
Other good birding areas are at the bamboo belt at about 2,500m above sea level, and the tall montane forest at 2,660m. The Rwenzori Turaco is mostly sighted at around 2,700m. Along the Uganda-Congo border and on level ground, the Chubb’s Cisticola, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Banded Prinia, and Doherty’s Bush-shrike are vocal yet inconspicuous inhabitants of the tangled vegetation at the forest’s edge.
Cultural Encounters in Mgahinga Gorilla
The Batwa Trail
For generations, Mgahinga’s dense forests were home to the indigenous Batwa: hunter-gatherers and fierce warriors who depended on the forest for shelter, food, and medicine.
When the national park was established the Batwa were evicted from the forest and abandoned their low-impact, nomadic lifestyle. The only time they are permitted to re-enter their cherished forest is as tour guides on the Batwa Trail, on which visitors will discover the magic of the Batwa’s ancient home while enjoying nature walks and learning about the cultural heritage.
The Batwa demonstrate hunting techniques, gather honey, point out medicinal plants and demonstrate how to make bamboo cups. Guests are invited to the sacred Garama Cave, once a refuge for the Batwa, where the women of the community perform a sorrowful song that echoes eerily around the depths of the dark cave, and leaves guests with a moving sense of the richness of this fading culture.
Part of the tour fee goes directly to the guides and musicians and the rest goes to the Batwa community fund to cover school fees and books and improve their livelihoods.
Gorilla Tracking in Mgahinga
Gorilla tracking at the park
With a diverse collection of tourism activities, Gorilla tracking stands out to be the leading activity at Mgahinga Gorilla national park and 75% of Mgahinga’s visitors come to view the primates. With Uganda left with about 400 mountain gorillas, the park is one of the two places where a visitor is guaranteed to have a glance at the endangered species. It is the best point to trek the Nyakagezi gorilla group which frequently moves adjacent to the forests of Conga and Rwanda. The other park where gorillas are found is Bwindi Impenetrable and these two parks are near each other making it possible for one to trek through both of them on most of Uganda’s safaris.
The moment you visit the park, the welcoming atmosphere is evidence of adventure filled with natural beauty. A day’ trek through the forests of Mgahinga with a well-trained guide who explains the gorillas’ behaviors along the way is a lifetime experience.
Normally, Gorilla trekking Safari starts from Ntebeko Entrance gate t around 8:00amin the morning daily taking 2-4 hours. A visitor is expected to budget for his/her time well while with a gorilla family since the maximum time allowed to spend with them is one hour.
When to go gorilla tracking at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
The best time to visit the place for tracking is during the two dry seasons when the park is easily accessed. It is during this time that the thick forests can be penetrated easily and when the paths are not as muddy as it is in the rainy season. The two dry Seasons best for Gorilla Safari are; mid-December to the end of February and June to October. However, gorilla tracking tourism is possible throughout the year.
How to get there
By road, one can access the park by use of a car from Kampala via Kabale to Kisoro. This journey takes about 8 hours.
By air, one can board a plane from Entebbe to Kisoro Airstrip which is near the park. This is the quickest mode of access and it takes about 1 hour. There are daily scheduled flights that must be booked long in advance with your local Uganda safari operator.
While at Mgahinga Gorilla national park, one should not worry about accommodation because there are various lodges suitable for relaxation and overnight. These are found in Ntebeko, Kisoro and Lake Mutanda. In Ntebeko, the accommodations are; Volcanoes Mount Gahinga Safari Lodge and Amajambere Iwacu Camp. The lodges in Mutanda include; Lake Mutanda Chameleon Hill Lodge. In Kisoro, the lodges where a visitor can stay are; Kisoro Traveler’s Rest Hotel and River Mucha Hotel.
Gorilla Tracking in Mgahinga – Habari link
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is located in southwestern Uganda on the border with Congo and Rwanda. Covering an area of about 33.7 sq kilometers, the park is a habitat for man’s closest, the mountain gorillas which roam about the whole forest in search of food. This park is one of the few places in the world where the endangered mountain gorillas live and it attracts people from different countries to come on the Uganda Gorilla Safari. There is no doubt that Mgahinga Gorilla national park is one of the leading tourist sites in Uganda since it harbors these rare primates.
One may wonder why gorilla Safari should be done in Mgahinga and not other places but the secret behind it is that this park has a thick rainforest with a wide variety of tree species and gorillas are known to be vegetarians. There is enough food for them in the park and this is the reason why some even migrate from Congo and Rwanda to this place. Though not in large numbers, gorillas of Mgahinga are easily seen in their natural habitats and this makes tracking more easy compared to other parks.
A hike through the forest to the deep Sabinyo Gorge – a massive gash in the flank of Mount Sabinyo – provides good birding opportunities and the chance to find the Rwenzori Turaco. This walk takes four hours and passes through the Rugezi Swamp which is fantastic for bird watchers.
The walk to the Congo border transcends different vegetation zones. Hikers can sight the calderas on top of the Gisozi hill, look out for Kisoro and Bunagana towns, and be captivated by Lake Mutanda.
The golden monkey track is a gentle steep but interesting two-hour trek through former farmland to the bamboo forest. On a clear day, you may view the Virunga Volcano range and come across buffalo and duiker.
Mountain/Volcano Climbing in Mgahinga Gorilla
All three volcanoes in this park can be summited. Mt. Sabinyo, at 3,669m, takes about eight hours to cover the 14km round trip, following a steep ridge up to the peak.
It takes around six hours to ascend and descend Mt. Gahinga (3,474m), topped by a swamp-filled crater and giant lobelia. Lucky climbers may spot golden monkeys on their way through the bamboo forest.
Mt. Muhavura is the highest peak at 4,127m, and this 12km round trip takes around eight hours. Once at the top, hikers are rewarded on a clear day with views of the Virunga Volcanoes, Lake Edward, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and the peaks of the Rwenzoris.