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Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Mgahinga gorilla national park

Located in south western Uganda in Kisoro district, Mgahinga gorilla national park is undoubtedly the smallest of the three national parks in the Virunga series. It spans an area of 33.7 square kilometers of the Virunga conservation area. The other national parks are Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Volcanoes national park in Rwanda.

Mgahinga gorilla national park stands at an altitude of 2,227 meters to 4,127 meters above sea level. The terrain in the park is mostly rocky owing to the fact that three of the Virunga volcanoes that is; Mt. Muhavura at 4,127 meters, Mt. Gahinga at 3,474 meters and Mt. Sabinyo at 3,645 meters above sea level, are found within Mgahinga gorilla national park.

The park was established in 1991 under the Uganda Wildlife Authority to protect Mountain gorillas under the Virunga Conservation area. Recently, however, Mgahinga national park has also become a famous haven for golden monkeys. The park was named after Mt. Gahinga which translates into “a pile of volcanic lava stone heaps where cultivation is carried out” in the local Kinyarwanda language.

Mgahinga gorilla national park is a perfect destination for hikers all around the world. The three distinct volcanoes offer some memorable experience in that the summit of Mt Sabinyo gives you the feel of being in three countries at once and Mt muhavura provides a beautiful view of its crater lake. On the other hand, Mt. Gahinga offers a glimpse of its vast swamp.

For years, gorilla trekking has been one of the major wild activities undertaken at Mgahinga gorilla national park. Considering Uganda has the cheapest gorilla permits as compared to her counterparts; Rwanda and DRC, tourists would always opt to trek the Ugandan Nyakagezi gorilla group. However, following the growing numbers of golden monkeys in the park, Golden monkey trekking has also become a favorite to tourists in Mgahinga gorilla national park.

Apart from the intriguing mountain gorillas and golden monkeys, Mgahinga gorilla national park also has about 39 mammal species recorded. Most of these animals can be spotted during a game drive while others are better witnessed on foot. Some of these animals include; buffaloes, Elephants, Giant forest hogs, bushbucks, Leopards, spotted hyenas and black fronted duikers among others.

Mgahinga gorilla national park has over 115 bird species including White necked raven, Black kite, Pin tailed whydah, double collared sunbird, speckled mouse bird, paradise flycatcher, fire finch stonechat, Grey capped warbler, waxbills, yellow vented bulbul, , Archer’s robin chat, Blue headed coucal, dusky crimson wing and Kivu ground thrush among other birds.

There is a range of fun activities that you can do while on your safari at Mgahinga gorilla national park including hiking on the three distinct volcanoes, birding, Golden monkey trekking, mountain gorilla trekking, nature walks and cultural encounters with the local people to learn about their way of living and cultural history. All these activities are guaranteed to make your safari a memorable one.

Location and how to get there:

Mgahinga gorilla national park is located in south western Uganda in Kisoro district about 510 kilometers from Kampala district, the capital of Uganda. It is about 10 hours to the park from Kampala by road; 8 hours to Kabale town covering a distance of 434 kilometers. From there, you continue on a mountainous tarmac road to Kisoro town for 76 kilometers

Alternatively, you can use the Kabale route tearing through Kabale town via Lake Bunyonyi to the Kabale Kisoro road. From there on, it is only 14 kilometers to Ntebeko, the park’s main entrance. However, you can also access the park by air. You would need to board a flight from Entebbe International airport to Kisoro airfield. Earlier booking is essential if you intend to use these flights.

Attractions in Mgahinga gorilla national park:

  • Virunga volcanoes:

Mgahinga gorilla national park lies along the northern slopes of Mt Muhavura, Mt Gahinga and Mt Sabinyo. The enchanting scenery from the park with the volcanoes in the background is one not to easily forget.

Mt Muhavura:

Standing at 4,127 meters above sea level, Mt Muhavura, also known as Muhabura, is the third highest among the eight volcanoes of the Virunga ranges. It is an extinct volcano on the border of Rwanda and Uganda located in the Albertine rift on the western arm of the East African Rift valley.

Mt Muhavura was named after the local Kinyaranda phrase “Muhabura” translated to mean “guide”. This is because it was used by locals in ancient times while navigating from distant lands due to its impressive height. The slopes of this giant volcanic cone lined with lush alpine vegetation that thrives with the climate in this region.

Hiking to the top of Mt Muhavura takes about 5 hours following trails on its steep slopes. The elevation ranges from a mere 1700 meters to an impressive 4100 meters above sea level.  The Muhavura trail is considered the shortest route with about 12 kilometers to cover in 8 hours and provides incredible views of the other Virunga volcanoes, the Rwenzori ranges and Lake Edward.

Mt. Gahinga:

Gahinga is derived from the local Kinyarwanda phrase, “a volcanic pile of stones”. It is the mountain from which Mgahinga gorilla national park gets its name. Mt. Gahinga stands at an altitude of 3,474 meters above sea level between Mt. Sabinyo and Mt. Muhavura. The mountain is crowned with a soggy caldera swamp as wide as 180 meters on its peak.

The vegetation on Mt. Gahinga is dominated by lush afro montane forest highlighted by bamboo shoots. These specific shoots are a delicacy to mountain gorillas living in this forest on Mt. Gahinga and within the entire Mgahinga gorilla national park. Also living deeper within the lush forest, are golden monkeys and a variety of bird species.

Mt. Gahinga is a natural delight to hikers from within the country and across the globe. Tourists embark on a hike through its green afro montane forest encountering mountain gorillas, golden monkeys and other wildlife including birds to the summit where a lush swamp awaits them. A round trip from the park’s entrance at Ntebeko to the summit takes about 6 hours.

Mt. Sabinyo:

Mt. Sabinyo has three peaks and is located within three countries; Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mountain lies west of Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda and northeast of Lake Kivu in Rwanda. Hiking to the summit of Mt. Sabinyo would mean that you are literally standing in three countries at the same time.

Mt. Sabinyo stands at 3,645 meters above sea level at the intersection of the adjoining parks in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The name “Sabinyo” was derived from a local saying meaning “old man’s teeth”. This is owing to the fact that its serrated summit resembles an old man’s teeth that have been worn down over time.

The slopes of Mt. Sabinyo are a habitat for the endangered mountain gorillas and it is part of the Virunga Conservation area for the gentle giants along with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Around trip hike to the summit of the mountain takes about 8 hours covering 14 kilometers.

  • Golden Monkey tracking:

Mgahinga gorilla national park is home to the intriguing golden monkeys. These primates were listed among the endangered species by the World Conservation Union making them very precious in the Ugandan tourism industry. These golden monkeys, however, are endemic to the Albertine rift which means you can track them within the park.

The golden monkeys were a dominant species in the Gishwati Forest Reserve in Rwanda before the forest was cut down following the 1994 genocide. The refugees who had fled the war returned, cutting down the forest for resources and a livelihood. This saw numbers in the primate population dwindle. This forced a small population of the monkeys to flee south ward to Nyungwe Forest National Park.

Mgahinga national park has an impressive population of golden monkeys estimated to be about 3,000 – 4,000 golden monkeys. This makes it easier to track the primates in this park than anywhere else. In previous years, the monkeys were much harder to find since they are small, did not make nests and hid from eagles and other predators.

Following the success of recent habituation efforts, you can now easily track the golden monkeys in Mgahinga gorilla national park. The primates are now used to human presence and you can watch as they go about their daily tasks, finding food, taking care of their young and escaping potential danger.

Golden monkey tracking starts at the park headquarters at 7.30 am followed by a thirty minute briefing about the rules and regulations of the activity. Tourists then head out into the jungle with a trained guide to find the golden monkeys. The activity takes about three hours since the monkeys are easier to find compared to Mountain gorillas since they live in lower altitudes.

Once you find the monkeys, you can spend an hour with them observing as they go about their day to day activities. Trackers are expected to be 12 years and older and must have a golden monkey tracking permit. Permits in Uganda go for as low as $40 dollars for foreign residents, $50 for foreign non-residents and UGX 20, 000 for East African residents.

Golden Monkey trackers are advised to carry waterproof hiking boots, long sleeved shirts and trousers to protect from scratches from plants and a backpack for food and personal belongings. You should also carry enough drinking water and snacks, a trekking permit and have a hiking support stick. Porters can be hired to carry your luggage while you hike.

  • Birding:

There are about 115 bird species recorded in Mgahinga gorilla national park. Most of these birds are endemic to the Albertine rift while others are migratory. The bamboo and montane forests on the slope of the mountain ranges make for a birding haven for any birder. More bird species can be spotted in the gorge between Mt. Sabinyo and Mt. Gahinga.

Some of the birds that you are most likely to see in this park include; Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori nightjar, Olive woodpecker, Rwenzori batis, Olive pigeon, Kivu ground thrush, Dusky crimson wing, Blue headed coucal, Archer’s robin chat, Yellow vented bulbul, Alpine chat, Grey capped warbler, Fire finch stonechat, speckled mouse bird and Black kite among others.

  • Mountain gorilla trekking:

Mountain gorillas are some of the animals found in Mgahinga gorilla national park. They live on high altitudes in the afro montane and bamboo forests on the slopes of Mt Sabinyo, Mt Muhavura and Mt. Gahinga. These giants are highly sought after and you would need to hike to elevations of up to 8,000 – 13,000 feet to find them.

Mgahinga gorilla national park is one of the only four national parks where the endangered mountain gorillas can be found in the entire world. The other parks are Bwindi impenetrable forest national park also in Uganda, Virunga National Park in DRC and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. This means that the mountain gorillas can be found only in these three countries in the world.

Mountain gorillas are settled in families comprising of several individuals which are led by the strongest male; the silverback. The head male is in charge of protecting its family, setting daily schedules and leading them to areas of the jungle which are safer and have enough resources for them to live on.

The Nyakagezi gorilla group is the only group of mountain gorillas that tourists can track in Mgahinga gorilla national park. The habituated group of gorillas consists of nine members, four silverbacks, two female adults, one juvenile and two infants. These gorillas are always mobile and sometimes harder to find.

Mountain gorilla trekking starts at the park headquarters at 7.30 am followed by a thirty minute briefing about the do’s and don’ts of trekking. Tourists are then placed in groups and led by a guide into the jungle. The whole process can last from 2 hours to an entire day since the gorillas are harder to find compared to golden monkeys.

Once you have found the mountain gorillas, you can spend strictly one hour in a one on one encounter. Tourists can observe from a safe distance of about 2 meters as the mountain gorillas go about their daily activities like feeding, finding food, taking care of their young and sometimes even mating.

After a fun filled gorilla trekking experience, tourists are then led back from the jungle to the park headquarters where they are issued certificates of participation. The hike back to the park is usually easier than hiking up since its downhill. Gorilla permits are available for booking with Uganda Wildlife Authority at the park offices.

  • Hiking and Mountain climbing:

Hiking is a popular activity among tourists that visit Mgahinga gorilla national park. This is because three of the nine Virunga volcanoes are located in the park. The visitor’s center in the park is the starting point of the hiking trails in the park followed by meandering rock paths joining up major hiking trails.

Mt. Gahinga trail starts in a recently reclaimed farm land  and leads into the virgin forest. The round trip takes about 6 hours while ascending and descending. The trail involves hiking through steep slopes of bamboo, alpine forest and soggy swamps. Once you reach the summit, you will encounter breathtaking scenery of a swampy crater lined with giant lobelia, surrounding areas and mountain birds.

Mount Sabinyo hike takes about 8 hours covering over 14 kilometers on a round trip from the base to the summit. The trail leads through lush afro montane vegetation to the clear water mountain stream all the way to the gorge. On this trail, you can encounter plenty of birds especially in the Rugezi swamp, primates like golden monkeys and beautiful view of the serrated peaks of Mt. Sabinyo.

The Mt Muhavura trail is the hardest since its peak is the highest of the three standing at an elevation of 4,127 meters. The hike is planned for 8 hours meaning hikers would need to be fast and also physically fit to accomplish the task. Once you reach the summit, you can clearly observe the magnificent Bwindi Impenetrable forest, Lake Edward, the Rwenzori ranges and the Virunga volcanoes.

  • Nature walks:

Nature walks in Mgahinga Gorilla National park are done following mountain trails in the park. The trails follow the edges of the volcanoes through dense bamboo and Alpine vegetation to the Rugezi swamp where bird life like the Rwenzori Turaco is abundant. The trail further leads through local agricultural areas and surrounding scenery like Lake Mutanda.

  • Cultural encounter:

The Batwa people, also known locally as “the people of the forest”, were the original occupants of the forest before Mgahinga gorilla national park was gazzetted into a national park. They lived on the slopes of the volcanoes depending on hunting, food gathering and plants for medicine. The Batwa have currently settled into communities outside the park.

The Batwa trail starts at the base of Muhavura cave pioneered by Batwa guides who will take you around the village providing knowledge about the way of living of the Batwa, how they survived in the forest for that long and what traditions they have maintained from their ancient way of living.

You can watch practical demonstration of their hunting techniques, honey gathering ways, making of bamboo cups and how to extract natural medicine from plants. You can also visit Garama, their sacred cave where the ancient Batwa king lived. The women crown things up with a traditional dance for your pleasure and enjoyment.

The cultural encounter with the Batwa community was arranged to preserve the culture of this ancient community. The experience is enriching to tourists and at the same time improves the livelihood of the locals by providing employment as guides, traditional dancers and music instrument operators.  The whole experience takes about 4 hours and proceeds are used to improve social services in this area like building schools.

Where to stay in Mgahinga gorilla national park:

  • Clouds mountain gorilla lodge:

Clouds mountain gorilla lodge provides luxurious accommodation in Kisoro district. It is located on Nteko ridge in the southern part of Bwindi IMpenatrable forest. The facilty has 8 cottages; two family suites and six double rooms. All the cottages are fitted with a fire place and a luxurious comfortable interior.

  • Nkuringo safari lodge:

This lodge is located near Mgahinga gorilla national park on the shores of Lake Mutanda. It provides self-contained rooms and tents together with room services. Nkuringo safari lodge also provides laundry services and private camping for guests with their own camping equipment. You can enjoy delicious meals and scenery of the volcanoes while at this lodge.

  • Traveler’s Nest Hotel:

Traveler’s Nest Hotel is located in south western Uganda in Kisoro district. It offers comfortable facilities which are self-contained with a fire place. This hotel is among the oldest hotels offering accommodation to tourists who visit Mgahinga gorilla national park. Enjoy a sumptuous meal and views of the Virunga volcanoes from the hotel.

  • Mgahinga rest camp:

This camp has 9 grass thatched bandas, 3 tents and cottages facing Lake Mutanda with private balconies. All the rooms and tents are fitted with private bathrooms. Mt. Mgahinga rest camp is located near Mgahinga gorilla national park with amazing views of the Virunga volcanoes. The facility uses solar lighting and provides activities like birding, gorilla tracking at an extra cost.

  • Mout Mgahinga lodge:

Mount Mgahinga lodge is located on the edges of the Virunga ranges in south western Uganda. The lodge has comfortable rooms with private bathrooms. The lodge offers well cooked meals prepared from the restaurant on the premises. Enjoy spectacular views of the Virunga volcanoes and the forest from the comfort of the lodge.

When to visit Mgahinga gorilla national park:

Mgahinga gorilla national park experiences two major rainy seasons, that is; March – May and September – November. The wettest month is October and usually many roads get slippery and this hinders transport. However, during this time, the views are clear and the weather is cool and the vegetation is green so animals come out often to graze.

During the dry months of June – October and December – March, Gorilla trekking is more undertaken since the slopes of the mountain are not slippery and the hiking trails are dry. July is the driest month of the year and during this time; animals are more concentrated around water sources trying to quench their thirst. It is advisable to book gorilla permits 4 months before your safari since they are always on high demand. Park fees are usually cheaper during low seasons as compared to peak seasons.