The park is located in south-western Uganda near Kisoro town and is one of the smallest parks in the country located in the Virunga volcanoes of Rwanda The 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. The park experiences two rainy seasons; March-May and September-November. October is the wettest months with 250mm of rain and july with just 10mm.
The main attractions in the park are
The Virunga Volcanoes
The Virungas are a chain of eight volcanoes which dot the borders of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Three of the conical peaks are in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park:
Mgahinga has three volcanic peaks, Muhabura(4127m), Sabinyo(3669m), and Mgahinga(3474m). These can be climbed though no specialist equipment is required, a reasonable level of fitness is necessary if you intend to enjoy the experience. The names of the three peaks come to life in translation. Muhabura means the guide and its toweringcone is a prominent landmark. During the 19th century it crater still glowed to provide a natural lighthouse for travelers. The ream of the older Sabinyo has weatherd into aring of stubby peaks, earning it the tittle ’ old man's teeth. These imposing cones overshadow the stumpy Mt. Mgahinga which is named for the local practice of tiding the volcanic rocks that clutter farmland into ‘small piles of stones’- or gahingas.
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 them 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 the DR Congo – meet on the highest of Sabinyo’s stumpy peaks. It has three peaks .An ascent leads first to peak 1 before climbing towards peak 2 along a narrow ridge that overlooks breath taking drops into deep gorges on each side. Peak 3 is reached by asteep and muddy scramble. The borders of three countries converge on this summit and you will find yourself simultaneously in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. The 14km round trip takes about 8hours.
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.
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 unrivalled.
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 main attractions are the rare mountain gorillas though they usually move to Rwanda and the golden monkeys. Mountain climbing is also among the activities carried out in the park near the volcanic mountains like Sabinyo, Mount Gahinga.
There is also Gorilla tracking where by the guide leads you through the gorillas’ world, surrounded by wild forest and impressive birdlife, explaining the gorillas’ behavior along the way. Tracking excursions leave from Ntebeko Entrance Gate at 8am daily and last between two and four hours.
ACTIVITIES DONE IN THE PARK
Birding in Mgahinga Gorilla
MGNPA3-aThe three to four hour Gorge Trail between Gahinga and Sabinyo can provide a 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 Trails
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 which echoes eerily around the depths of the dark cave, and leaves guests with a moving sense of the richness of this fading culture.
Gorilla Tracking in Mgahinga
Mgahinga’s most exciting and memorable activity is tracking the mountain gorilla in thick jungle. The park has one habituated gorilla group (Nyakagyezi) which is visited by tourists. This consists of 11 members, 2 silver backs, 3 adult females, 4 juveniles and 2 infants. This group is mobile and sometimes crosses into Rwanda and DRC so check for updates from Wildlife Authority. Registration and briefing for gorilla tracking starts at 08:30 and can take three to eight hours.
The guide leads you through the gorillas’ world, surrounded by wild forest and impressive birdlife and explaining the gorillas’ behavior along the way.
Tracking excursions normally leave from Ntebeko Entrance Gate at 8am daily and lasts between two and four hours. Visitors should please not that the Nyakagezi gorilla group moves frequently into the adjacent forests in Rwanda and DR Congo, but may only be tracked when they are in Uganda.
Visitors spend a maximum of one hour with the group in order to minimize disturbance.
Hiking and Nature Walks in Mgahinga Gorilla
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 an 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 Rwenzori
Buffalo Wall and Bird Watching
Farmland along the northern edge of the park is guarded by a dry stone wall that keeps buffalo in the park and of crops. The trail along the wall is ideal for birding. Guides will escort visitors between 1700-1800 and if you book by 10am in the morning. A stroll towards a wetland area where ibis, speckled mouse birds, and fire finch are found.