Mgahinga National Park is the smallest park in Uganda covering an area of 33 square kilometers and sits on a high altitude of 4,127m. The park is found in Kisoro district in the Southwestern corner of Uganda bordering Congo and Rwanda. The park was founded in 1991 to help protect the endangered mountain gorillas. Mgahinga Gorilla Park is known as one of the only four place in the world where gorilla trekking can be done – The others are the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Virunga National Park in DR Congo and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The scenery in and around the park is stunning with three extinct volcanoes Mount Sabinyo, Mount Muhavura and Mount Gahinga all having their slopes in the park. The forests provide shelter and sufficient food for the mountain gorillas and other park animals. Although the park is located in Uganda, it is much easier to access it from Rwanda in a journey that takes about three hours from Kigali through the border Kyanika. The park can also be reached by air and road from Kampala. The road journey from Kampala takes about 8 hours while using a chartered plane from Entebbe takes only one hour.
Mgahinga has a total population of 80 mountain gorillas, but only one gorilla group is habituated and open to tourists – the Nyakagyezi family. The group used to move to Rwanda and Congo but have now settled in Uganda for more than three years. Gorilla safaris to Mgahinga are great because the park attracts fewer crowds. Having one habituated gorilla group means only 8 gorilla permits can be sold in a day. Visitors are advised to book their permits weeks in advance from the Uganda Wildlfe Authority offices in Kampala or the Park Headquarters in Ntebeko. A Uganda gorilla permit costs $600 compared to $1,500 in Rwanda.
gorilla tours are carried out throughout the year. However, the best time to visit Mgahinga is during the dry seasons of December to February and June to October. During the dry season the forest paths are not overgrown with vegetation and are less muddy. Tracking gorillas in Mgahinga begins with early morning briefing at the only park entrance – the Ntebeko gate. Tourists are briefed about rules and regulations for gorilla tracking. The average length of gorilla tracking in Mgahinga is less than at Bwindi impenetrable forest National Park because the Nyakagyezi family lives and feeds in a smaller range which is easier to find. However, tracking the gorillas can be challenging depending on the location of the family on a specific day. If they move towards one of the three volcanoes are found in the park, navigating through the mountain slopes can become tiring. You will be allowed only one hour with the gorilla family. Use the one hour to take photos and observe the group dynamics.
How does gorilla trekking in Mgahinga compare to Bwindi?
Mountain gorillas are found in only three countries in the world – Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A Uganda gorilla safari can be done in two national parks – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla Park. So how does tracking gorillas compare in the two national parks.
- 80 percent of the mountain gorilla population in Uganda is found in Bwindi – about 400. Being a UNESCO world heritage site, Gorilla trekking in Bwindi is a more popular than in Mgahinga. Visitors have a variety of habituated gorilla groups to choose from – 12 in number. Mgahinga only has one gorilla family – the Nyakagezi family. However, the Nyakagezi group is one of the best gorilla groups for gorilla tracking in Uganda. It is a group with the highest number of silverbacks than any in Uganda, Rwanda or Congo. Both parks can be accessed by road from Kampala and by air from Entebbe or Kajjansi. Flights take about 2 hours while the road journey can go on up to eight hours.
- Bwindi Impenetrable forest has four sectors where visitors can do gorilla tracking – Rushaga, Nkuringo, Ruhija and Buhoma. It is therefore possible to do double gorilla tracking in Bwindi unlike in Mgahinga. Visitors can track gorillas in one section and then another section the next day. Watching gorillas twice makes it possible to compare experiences tracking different gorilla families and in different sections of Bwindi.
- Bwindi impenetrable forest is the only park in the world where tourists can spot both chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Mgahinga has its own advantage – Golden monkeys!! Mgahinga is the only in park in Uganda were visitors can track both gorillas an golden monkeys.
- Spotting mountain gorillas is not a guarantee in both national parks. The one gorilla family available for tracking has a history of migrating from Uganda to Congo and to Rwanda. They have been in Uganda for the last four years but you can never tell when they might decide to pay a visit their brothers in Rwanda or Congo. The only time when tourists could miss seeing a gorilla family in Bwindi is when the assigned gorilla family moves too deep into the forest. It is very rare but the activity could be cancelled to allow visitors return back to the starting point before dark.
- Bwindi impenetrable forest park is located nearer to some of Uganda’s most attractive parks like Queen Elizabeth National park and Kibale Forest Park. Visitors can conveniently combine gorilla tracking with a safari to spot the big five.
- The cost of gorilla trekking is the same for all two parks. A Gorilla permit costs $600 in both countries but Bwindi impenetrable forest park has more accommodation options than Mgahinga.
Other activities in Mgahinga
Mgahinga is not just about gorilla tours, the park has a large population of the endangered golden monkeys, Colobus monkeys, other primates, leopard, porcupines, buffalo, tortoise, bushbuck, golden cats, bush hogs. The Batwa pygmies still live in this forest and a visiting them is worthwhile as we shall see shortly. Let’s look at these activities in more detail:-
Golden Monkey trekking: Golden monkeys can only be sighted within the Virunga ranges like mountain gorillas. Uganda’s golden monkeys are only found in Mgahinga. These cute subspecies of the blue monkey are considered endangered and highly sought by tourists. They are among the most beautiful looking monkeys in the world.
Nature Walks: This is done on different sections of the forest using different forest trails. The walks can be done on the slopes of the volcanoes, the forest, swamps (Rugezi swamp), plantations and along the shores of Lake Mutanda. Visitors go for the walks with a guide and escorted by an armed ranger. The walks provide several opportunities to spot birds, tree species and encounter the forest creatures/primates.
The Batwa Trail: The Batwa Trail gives you an opportunity to see the people who originally lived in the forest. The Batwa used to hunt and gather food from the forest while living in the Garama caves for thousands of years. The Batwa were evicted from the forest and resettled outside the park to reserve the park for tourism and other wildlife conservation activities. They have been forced to abandon their original way of life and adjust to life outside the forest. The Batwa Trail is led by a Batwa guide who takes visitors through the traditional way of life in the forest for the Batwa. There will be demonstrations like hunting, fruit gathering, singing, dancing, making fire and collecting honey. Visitors may be requested to take part in some of the activities.
Cave exploration: This usually involves going to the base of the Muhavura and Garama Caves. This activity is connected to the life and history of the Batwa people. The Batwa were often fighting their Bantu neighbors and used these deep caves as a meeting and assembling point. The caves are now occupied by bats and moving inside requires strong torches. The Garama Caves are thought to be so deep that they reach Rwanda.
Mountain Climbing in Mgahinga
One of the great activities to take part in while in Mgahinga is climbing one of the extinct volcanoes found in the park. Climbing each of the mountains takes only a day and hiking permits can be bought at the park offices on short notice. Let’s look at each of the volcanoes in more detail:-
Mount Muhabura or Muhavura: At 4,127 meters is the highest and most demanding climb that takes between eight to ten hours navigating through tough, cold and muddy terrain before reaching back to the starting point. The reward is the changing vegetation, swimming in a crater lake, stunning views of the Rwenzori Mountains, Bwindi impenetrable forest park and the wider Virunga ranges of mountains.
Mount Sabinyo: Locally means “Old man’s teeth”, is the second highest and most demanding at 3,634 meters. Hiking to the top of the summit and descending takes 8 hours. A point that marks the border between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Cong is located at the summit. One can therefore put their foot in three countries in minutes.
Mount Gahinga: The hike up and descending down Mount Gahinga takes about 7 hours through bamboo forests and is the least demanding. Visitors will be treated to beautiful scenery while ascending up and spot the great swamps found at the summit.
Birdwatching in Mgahinga
Mahinga Gorilla Park is one of the top birding spots in Uganda. Birding in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park gives you an opportunity to spot about 100 bird species in the montone forests, bamboo forests, swamps and gorges found in the volcanoes Sabinyo and Gahinga. A local bird guide will take you out to look out for species like the Archer’s Robin-Chat, Banded Prinia, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Black kite, Blue-headed Coucal, Blue-headed Sunbird, Bronze, Cape Robin-chat, Chestnut-throated Apalis, Collared Apalis, Doherty’s Bush-shrike, Double-collared sunbird, Dusky Crimsonwing, Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo, Dusky Turtle Dove, Equatorial Akalat, Fire finch, Grauer’s Warbler, Grey capped warbler, Handsome Francolin, Kivu Ground Thrush, Lagden’s Bush Shrike, Mackinnon’s Fiscal, Montane Oriole, Mountain Masked Apalis, Olive pigeon, Olive Thrush, Olive woodpecker, Paradise Flycatcher, Pin-tailed whydah, Red-throated Alethe, Regal Sunbird, Rwenzori Batis, Rwenzori night jar, Rwenzori Turaco, Shelley’s Crimsonwing, Speckled Mouse Bird, Strange Weaver, Strip-breasted Tit, Waxbills, White necked raven, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, White-starred Robin, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher and Yellow-vented bulbul among other.
Accommodation in Mgahinga
Finding accommodation while in Mgahinga isn’t a problem. The problem is choosing the right one from the different lodges, hotels and campsites offering budget, midrange and luxury options in Kisoro, Ntebeko and near Lake Mutanda. Lets look at some of the options available.
- Mount Gahinga Safari lodge: Found in Ntebeko, this luxury lodge is built with traditional material and is strategically located at the foot of three stunning volcanoes.
- Amajambere Iwacu camp: Located in Ntebeko and near the park offices offering excellent budget accommodation and even dormitories.
- Chameleon Hill Lodge: Located near Lake Mutanda offering stunning views of the lake with possibilities to go for nature walks and mountain biking.
- Traveler’s Nest Hotel: In Kisoro is one of Uganda’s oldest hotels with beautiful rooms with fire places.
- Nkuringo Safari Lodge: Is near Mgahinga and found around the shores of the beautiful Lake Mutanda with views of the three volcanoes in Mgahinga. The lodge offers camping activities and is ideal for those looking for good accommodation but on a budget.
- Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge: This is a luxury lodge built in Kisoro town near Bwindi impenetrable forest park but allowing one to easily reach Mgahinga. The lodge has fine interior, a fireplace and other luxurious specials.
- Mount Gahinga Rest Camp: Is located just next to the park gate. Visitors have options of sleeping in tents or grass thatched rooms that overlook Lake Mutanda.
- Mount Gahinga Lodge: Offer stunning views of the three volcanoes, fine food, good cabins, complimentary massages, hot showers, free wifi and runs on solar power.