Mgahinga National Park

Despite being the smallest of Uganda’s National Parks, with a surface area of just 34 square kilometres, this beautiful park is located in the southwestern corner of the country.  Mgahinga sits high in the clouds, at an altitude of between 2,227m and 4,127m. While in the park, you will experience six vegetation types, Afromontane, tree heathers, montane forest, bamboo, montane woodland, and former farmland.  It is an important habitat for the remaining mountain gorillas in the world. It lies close to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest another home to the endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda.

Mgahinga National Park forms part of the much larger Virunga Conservation Area, which includes adjacent parks in Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo. It is bordered by the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda in the south and to the west by the Virunga National Park of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The volcanoes’ slopes contain various ecosystems and are biologically diverse, and their peaks provide a striking backdrop to this gorgeous scenery.

The park has alot of things to offer, a place where gold meets silver. Mgahinga National Park is home to three extinct volcanoes – Muhavura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo – whose forests and luscious slopes provide excellent opportunities for climbing, hiking and wildlife spotting. The Gahinga has a beautiful swamp at the top, Muhavura has a crater lake and the Sabinyo gives you the best and amazing experience ever whereby climbing to its summit you set a foot in 3 countries; Uganda DRC and Rwanda.

It is also a home to critically endangered mountain gorillas, the major reason as to why the park was created. The park protects these endangered apes that roam through the Virunga ranges that are spread through Uganda, Rwanda & DR Congo. The park has only one habituated gorilla family called Nyakagezi gorilla group with a Silverback Bugingo who is about 50 years old and leads the group. The rest of the gorillas have not be habituated for tourism.

The park has at least 39 species of mammal and 79 birds. Larger mammals include elephant, leopard, buffalo and bush pig but these are rarely seen. Mgahinga’s most famous resident is the mountain gorilla that live within the forest. Less famous but equally rare and deserving of protection is the golden monkey, which is found only in the Virunga’s and in one other forest in Rwanda. Notable bird species include the Rwenzori turaco, crowned hornbill, black kite and crowned crane.

Because of the park’s high altitude, there are also many flowering plants and shrubs sheltering beautiful butterflies. The biodiversity is also incredible, from the woodlands and montane forests at lower slopes, through the bamboo belts and Hagenia-Hypericum to the afro-alpine rare plants like giant lobelias and groundsels on top.

What to do in Mgahinga National Park

Gorilla Trekking

This is the most popular activity in the Mgahinga gorilla national park where you get the opportunity to visit the habituated gorilla families in their natural habitat. Mgahinga gorilla national park is a home of two habituated gorilla families namely Nyakagezi family and Hirwa family. The park used to harbour one habituated gorilla family until Hirwa family migrated from Volcanoes national park in October 2019 to add on Nyakagezi family.

Gorilla trekking in the park starts in the morning with a briefing at Ntebeko park headquarters about the expectations, rules and regulations to follow during trekking. After the briefing, visitors are grouped into 8 people and later start trekking in the jungle with a park guide who will be sharing information and answering questions about mountain gorillas. Trekking takes about 2 to 6 hours depending on the location of the gorillas because they prefer to move from one place to another in search of food. Once the gorillas have been found, you will be allowed to spend one hour with them in their natural habitat as you learn about their lifestyle, behaviors, habits, take plenty of photos with flash less cameras and record the moments.

Gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is open to visitors throughout the year. However, it is best done in June, July, August, and September then December, January, and February. During this period, gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is easier because it is a dry season and the habitat remains relatively drier thus making it simpler for visitors to hike through the dense jungles and steep slopes to search for mountain gorillas. However, March, April, May, and October, November are equally good for one to embark on gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park but these months are characterized by heavy rainfall, muddy and slippery steep slopes which make it challenging for one to hike while in search for these apes.

Tourists are advised to book their gorilla permits in advance (3 to 4 months) to avoid disappointments because the park only issues 16 gorilla trekking permits daily. A gorilla permit is a document that is issued to any visitor above the age of 15 years.

 

Golden Monkey Trekking

This is another interesting activity done in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Golden monkey trekking is the second most done activity in the park after gorilla trekking. It involves moving in the forest in search of the habituated golden monkey families.

Golden monkeys are an endangered species with 3000 to 4000 individuals still left in the world. They have a number of colours on like grey, black and a beautiful shade of orange-gold that has them being called golden monkeys. They live in large groups of up to 100 individuals led by an Alpha male and do not move as much for they stay in one location for a time unlike the gorillas. Golden monkeys feed on bamboo leaves, seasonal fruits, flowers, leaves, small invertebrates all that are abundant in the forest

Just like gorilla trekking, golden monkey trekking starts with tourists arriving at the Park headquarters by 7:30am for pre-trekking briefing (on the dos and don’ts of trekking the golden monkeys). The actual trek begins at 8:00am. Hiking through the forests to sight the golden monkeys is not so strenuous like gorilla trekking because golden monkeys live in lower areas, so tourists do not track for more than 3 hours. When tourists encounter the golden monkey family, they are given one hour to spend with them (to take photographs and observe their behaviour). With this activity, there is no minimum number of tourists who trek each group and age limit is 12 years.

The activity can be done throughout the year and one needs to first purchase golden monkey trekking permit, which will allow one passage to take part in the activity.

 

Cultural Encounters- Batwa Trail Experience

Visiting the Batwa is a thrilling experience to engage in during your safari in Mgahinga gorilla national park. The Batwa were the original inhabitants of the forests before Mgahinga and Bwindi impenetrable National park were gazetted into National Parks in 1991. The dense forests on the foothills of Virunga Volcanoes used to be their comfortable homes where they lived as hunter-gatherers and fierce warriors depending on the forest for herbal medicine and food.

The Batwa Trail leads from the base of Muhavura Cave. The walk is a living museum where you can learn about the Batwa People, a pygmy’s tribe that used to live in the Mgahinga National Park. In creating the Mgahinga National Park, these people were forced out of the park. This forced them to drop their nomadic and Bushmen lifestyle and rehabilitated in the villages that surround the park. Today these are some of the poorest Ugandans, many of them earn a living from working on local farms of other people. The Batwa Trail was developed to teach visitors about the lifestyle of these people.

This walk is conducted by Batwa guides who provide insights into their traditional forest life and culture. The Batwa trail starts with the guide stopping and kneeling down at a certain hut to pray to the gods to bless the walk. This same spot is where the men in the ancient days used to kneel and pray to the gods before they venture into the forest to hunt. Learn about the different plants and roots that the Batwa used as medicine to stop bleeding after child delivery, herbs for malaria, blood pressure and other ailments/diseases. These friendly people will also demonstrate how to make bamboo cups and you will be totally touched by how they exhibit their skilful tactics.

The climax of this wonderful cultural trail is the descent to the sacred Ngarama Cave-an underground cave located beneath Mount Mgahinga and is about 200m long. Ngarama Cave was once a royal residence for the former Batwa King, the court of law, the food store, the consecrate heart of the forest, store for looted treasures, the meeting place and their shelter/hiding place during battles. The most exciting moment of visiting this Cave is listening to the Batwa women sing sorrowful songs and dance to songs relating to their ancient ways of living and how they cherished the Forest before they were evicted from it.

This tour always takes 4 hours and costs $80 per person per day. Part of the money that is paid is kept by Uganda Wildlife Authority to support Batwa Development projects like constructing schools while the other percentage is paid to the guides so that they can be able to support their families. You will get the real hand-on information because the Batwa themselves are tour guides.

In conclusion, the Batwa cultural trail is an incredible experience that you can engage in during your gorilla trekking experience. Besides the interesting activities they display including hunting skills, honey-harvesting skills, demonstration of making bamboo cups, visit to the pharmacy and the walk to the sacred Ngarama cave, you will be supporting a community and improving their standard of living.

 

Mountain/Volcano Climbing and Hiking

Apart from gorilla trekking and golden monkey trekking, Mgahinga gorilla national park also offers volcano hiking and climbing experience. The park has 3 dormant volcanoes believed to have formed in the mid Pleistocene era about 1.8 million years ago and form part of the Virunga chain of 8 volcanoes.

The hike starts from the Mgahinga National Park visitor’s centre, located about a 10-minute drive from Kisoro. There are 3 volcanoes in Mgahinga that you can access from this park therefore the choice is always yours depending to the fitness and the amount of time you have. Hiking the Virunga Volcanoes in Mgahinga can be fun and really rewarding because there are lots of attractions you will meet during your hike.

Mount Gahinga is as high as 3,474m. This hike takes about six hours to both ascend and descend, once at the top you will find the crater filled with swamp and giant lobelia. Those who are lucky will be able to see the golden monkeys as they walk through the thick bamboo forest.

The Gahinga Trail starts in recently reclaimed farmland and winds up to the edge of virgin forest. The hike is steep in places. The scenery is both breath taking and intriguing. Giant bamboo looms large over the trail, jungle elephant footprints cross the trail sunk deep in squiggly mud, earthworms as long as your forearm living above ground in the dark, wet environment and more birds that you could possibly catalogue.

Mount Sabinyo is 3,669m and requires eight hours to get to the top of this mountain since the distance from the base to the top is about 14km long round trip. As you hike, you will have to follow the route along the steep ridge up until you get to the peak.

Hiking to the Sabinyo is 6 kilometre long and it goes along an amazing mountain stream which meanders through that very dense forest covered by mainly the African-Montane kind of vegetation all the way to the gorge. This is a very rewarding nature walk, the hike may be tiring to a number of hikers but at the end of the trail, you will be amazed. On a very clear day, you will have a clear view of those ragged peaks of Sabinyo.

This hike usually takes about  8 hours because it is relatively hard to hike but what is more attractive about this hike is the fact that on many occasions hikers get to meet  primates like the Golden Monkeys, small antelopes like Duikers and  many other mammals. The bird watchers will really enjoy this nature walk as they will be able to see a number bird species and the commonest is the Rwenzori Turaco specie, one of the many that you can never miss seeing. You will go through Rugezi Swamp- also a great destination for those interested in bird watching.

Mount Muhabura-the third option available for hikers. This is the highest peak of all, it lies at 4,127m high, and the hike is planned for the same amount of time as Sabyinyo, which is eight hours. This means, you need to be fit enough to catch up with the fast hiking exercise. When you reach the top, you will have a beautiful view of the Virunga Volcanoes, Lake Edward, the great Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Rwenzori peaks.

Hiking Volcano Mountains is a very awesome activity which can be done all year around, however the suitable time to hike Volcano Mountains is the dry season-June, July, August, September, December, January and February because during this time trials are relatively drier and less slippery to climb or hike hence making it easier to climb Volcano mountain

 

Hiking and Nature Walks

Hiking/Nature walk adventures in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is exceptionally one of the perfect ways that you can easily discover and catch a glimpse at most of natural wonders that this protected area has in offer for the world. Nature walks allow travelers to explore in depth different species while on foot. There are various trails that tourist take on and each trail you consider has amazing attraction that takes you through waterfalls, swamps, caves, rewardable viewing of beautiful scenery and many more. During the hike, you will have sights of primates like mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, olive baboons, birds, butterflies, various vegetation types, and wild animals like white and black elephants, giant forest hogs and bushbucks among others.

Below are the forest trails in Mgahinga gorilla national park that bring out the hidden treasures of the area and get amazed in the cool breeze and green vegetation of Mgahinga national place.

Sabinyo Gorge Hike-The Sabyinyo gorge walk is a 5 to 6 hour adventure along its stunning vegetation and moss lined stream. Hiking through this trail takes visitors to the spectacular Mount Sabyinyo summit, which comes with views of waterfalls and the surrounding areas. The gorge is also one of the excellent birding sites in Mgahinga National Park as well as duikers and the rare golden monkeys though these are rarely seen while hiking through this mountain. The birds to spot include the white necked raven, ibis, Rwenzori Turaco, grey capped warbler, waxbills, paradise flycatcher, yellow vented bulbul, Rwenzori nightjar, pin tailed whydah, black kite, speckled mouse birds and many more.

Border Trail-This comes with moderate hiking adventures to the lower base of Mount Sabinyo which leads visitors via lush montane forest prior reaching to the side of Democratic Republic of Congo and catching a glimpse of the stunning views of Sabinyo gorge and its peaks. This is a five-hour hike and once you reach to Congo line, visitors will follow the international borderline for around 2 kilometers. You will find 2 rest huts and you may have a chance to sight some of the rare golden monkeys along the way.

The Batwa Trail-This is one of the most remarkable trials that you should try out while on safari in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. The trail offers travelers opportunity to explore more about the Batwa pygmy cultures and traditions. The Batwa are famous forest dwellers who lived in the jungles for more than 500000 years while hunting and gathering but left without any negative impact. These remarkable creatures were evicted from the forest and now have become marginalized around the park areas. Some of them have been employed as guides and they take visitors through areas like Garama cave where they used to give sacrifices to the gods and thereafter perform rituals.

Walking around the visitor centre this is the best option for those looking for the shortest trail to hike. It takes you through Mgahinga National Park its vegetation zones, birds, Virunga Massif, wildlife species, Batwa pygmy and many more.

Walk to the Border-The walk to the border is yet another interesting nature walk that takes you through the different vegetation covers. It’s a relatively easy walk taking about 5 hours only and you will be walking through the lower areas of Mt. Sabinyo occupied by the montane forest. Once you get to there, you will have clear view of Sabinyo Gorge and Sabyinyo peaks.

Hike Up Gisozi Hill-This is the easiest nature walk you can take, it’s good for those that cannot handle either hiking or walking for long. This walk takes about 40 minutes, you get to visit the visitor’s centre, which is located at the entrance of Mgahinga national park, and from there you get all the information you wish to know about the wildlife in the park, the different volcanoes and the indigenous people-the Batwa too. This viewing platform is found 800m away from the visitors’ centre in the south; you will have a view of the 3 volcanoes but mostly Sabinyo. In the north, there are farmlands, there is Lake Mutanda, there are highlands, you can also see part of Bwindi forest, and then in the west, the Rift Valley in Congo is very visible.

 

Birding

Commonly known for the mountain gorillas, volcanoes and golden monkeys, this small but very beautiful park, covering just 38 sq. km has a lot more to offer. Mgahinga gorilla national park is a haven to over 180 bird species including Albertine rift endemics due to a band of different vegetation zones forming habitats for birds. The birdlist include at least 14 of the 24 bird species that are endemic to the Albertine Rift Mountains. Not only that, Mgahinga National park harbors about 39 bird species of the total 88 of the Afro-tropical highlands biome bird species that occur in Uganda.

Some of the bird species you can spot include the Rwenzori Turaco, kivu ground thrush, Regal sun bird, handsome Francolin, crowned hornbills, montane Sooty babou, chubs Cisticola, olive woodpecker, western green tinker bird, African hill babblers just a glimpse of species.

The best bird watching trails in Mgahinga national park include the Gorge trail between Mount Gahinga and Mount Sabinyo, offers beautiful sighting of the Regal Sunbird, Bronze Sunbird, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Blue-headed Sunbird, Kivu-ground Thrush, Black-headed Waxbill, Dusky turtle Dove, Rwenzori Batis, Cape Robin-chat, Olive Thrush and Streaky Seedeater among others.

The Bamboo trail that lies at 2500 meters and the montane forest at 2660-2700 meters above sea level are popular for the Rwenzori Turaco. Along the ground level of the Uganda-DRC border, you will encounter the Doherty’s Bush-shrike, Chubb’s Cisticola, Banded Prinia and Red-faced Woodland Warbler. Other popular bird species in Mgahinga National park include Archer’s Robin-chat, Back kite, Alpine chat, Black kites, Pin-tailed whydah, Blue-headed Coucal, Double-collared sunbird, Grey-Capped Warbler, Dusky Crimson wing, White-necked raven, Fire Finch stonechat, Olive woodpeckers, Speckled Mousebird, Waxbills, crowned hornbill, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Paradise Flycatcher, Ibis, Rwenzori Turaco, Rwenzori batis, Kivu ground-thrush, olive pigeon, Rwenzori nightjar and Yellow-billed Kite among others.

Tourists considering visiting Mgahinga National park for bird watching should book in advance and have to carry binoculars, cameras, wear long sleeved shirts, long trousers, rain jacket and waterproof hiking boots.

Birding in Mgahinga can be conducted all year round, but the perfect time is the Wet season from Early March to Mid-May and September to November because it is the breeding season for the birds and you will be rewarded with the view of numerous bird species. The best months for viewing/seeing the migratory bird species is from November to April.

All in all, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is one of the 10 (ten) most magnificent protected areas in Uganda that feature distinct activities and attractions that reward travelers with lifetime experiences while on African safaris.

WhEN TO VISIT Mgahinga National Park

Mgahinga Gorilla National park is open for tourism throughout the year. The Park has several interesting tourism activities, which tourists can participate in at any time of the year. Gorilla trekking for example is an all year adventure hence you can visit at any time you desire. However, the activity is best done during the dry seasons from December to February and June to September because this is when the hiking trails are not slippery and muddy.

Dry Season-The dry season (June to September and December to February) is the time to visit the park and the park’s peak season. The demand for gorilla permits and lodging facilities is high; hence, tourists are advised to book for the adventure at least 5 months in advance to avoid disappointment. During the dry season, there is less rainfall in the park therefore the gorilla trekking trails and access roads to the park will be passable. Though most visitors prefer visiting in the dry season, it can rain anytime of the day due to that fact that the park has tropical rainforests.

 

Wet Season-The rainy/wet season from April to May and October to November is not preferred because the trekking conditions are not favourable, trails tend to be slippery and muddy hence making trekking to be challenging. This season is also associated with a lot of mist and hailstorms, which make it challenging to see wildlife and birds from a far distance. This season however offers clearer views than in the dry seasons because after it rains, the clouds disappear and the mist lifts up unlike the dry season associated with hazy air. Not only that, the scenery is breath taking and vegetation greener during the rainy seasons.

One advantage tourists enjoy for trekking gorillas during the rainy season is that prices of gorilla permits are always discounted.

The wet season is also the best time for bird watching, because it is during the rainy season that the migratory bird species like the Brown-chested Lapwings can be sighted within Mgahinga National park.

HOW TO GET To Mgahinga National Park

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is one of the gorilla destinations located in southwestern Uganda in Kisoro district bordering with Volcanoes national park in Rwanda and Virunga national park in Democratic Republic of Congo. There are various ways of getting to the park by use of either road or air. It is exhausting to travel to Mgahinga national park by road but it is rewarding in that you will have great views of the homesteads, local markets, farmlands, local people, Kigezi hills and banana plantations among others, which make the journey exciting and enjoyable.

 

Road transport

Drive from Entebbe or Kampala via Masaka, Mbarara, Kabale, Kisoro and then the park headquarters. This takes about 9 to 10 hours’ drive to the park.

There is also Entebbe/Kampala via Masaka, Mbarara, Kabale, Kisoro and then Ntebeko park headquarters. This route takes almost a whole day with stopover on the way at the equator, Igongo cultural centre for lunch or tour around the museum among others.

 

Air transportation

There are domestic airline companies such Aerolink that organise flights to Mgahinga gorilla national park. Aerolink Uganda operates scheduled and charter flights daily from Entebbe International Airport or Kajjansi Airfield to Kisoro airstrip.

Mgahinga Gorilla national park can also be accessed from Kigali Rwanda, fly to Kigali International Airport and then connect by road via Cyanika border to Ntebeko park headquarters which takes about 3 to 4 hours’ drive.