Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is Uganda’s smallest National Park at just 33.7 sq. kms. However, it is also one of the most dramatic as the Park lies on the northern slopes of Mts Muhavura, Mgahinga and Sabinyo, three volcanoes that create an unforgettable regional backdrop. These peaks are three of the six Virunga volcanoes that mark the southern limit of the Albertine Rift Valley and are divided between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. The Virungas are home to more than half of the world’s population of the endangered mountain Gorilla with 380 individuals roaming the slopes of the volcanoes while the remaining 340 live nearby in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Fortunately for the Gorillas, Mgahinga’s small area is supplemented by those of two larger adjoining Parks in Rwanda ( Volcanoes National Park ) and DR Congo ( Virunga National Park ).
Though Gorilla tracking is the Parks most popular activity, Mgahinga merits a visit simply to appreciate the scenery. A choice of hikes allows for all abilities, ranging from the 8 hour return trip to the summit of Mt Muhavura to gentle strolls across the lower slopes beneath the magnificent three peak backdrop.
The Park experiences two rainy seasons from March – May and September – November. October is the wettest month with 250mm of rain and July the driest with just 10mm.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park lies in the south-western corner of Uganda, 540kms from Kampala whose journey takes 8 hours excluding rest stops, passing via Kabale and Kisoro. The 80km section between Kabale and Kisoro is a winding, mountainous drive on murram that takes atleast 2 hours, while the Park gate at Ntebeko lies on a bumpy 14km ( 30 minutes ) south of Kisoro.
Charter flights can also be arranged from Entebbe or Kajjansi in Kampala to Kisoro Airstrip.
ACCOMMODATION IN MGAHINGA GORILLA NATIONAL PARK
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park at Ntebeko, the Volcanoes camp provides upmarket accommodation while camping and basic cottages are provided in the community campground. A wide choice of budget lodging is available in Kisoro from which Tourists can select depending on their needs and budget.
FLORA AND FAUNA IN MGAHINGA GORILLA NATIONAL PARK
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is composed of slopes covered with a series of distinct altitudinal bands of vegetation. The lowest zone is an area of grass and bush which was formerly encroached and cleared by farmers and is now regenerating. Undisturbed vegetation starts with montane woodland, followed by the bamboo zone, montane forest and the ericaceous zone which contains giant tree heathers. The sequence culminates with the spectacular alpine zone which occurs only on east African mountains above 3000m and includes bizarre giant forms of lobelia and groundsel.
Mgahinga Gorilla national park contains atleast 39 species of mammal and 79 birds. Larger mammals include elephant, leopard, buffalo and bush pig but are rarely seen. Mgahinga’s most famous resident is the mountain Gorilla. Less famous but equally rare and deserving of protection is the golden monkey which is found only in the Virungas and in one other forest in Rwanda. Notable bird species include the Rwenzori Turaco, crowned hornbill, black kite and crowned crane.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES IN MGAHINGA GORILLA NATIONAL PARK
A). THE PEAKS
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has three peaks namely Muhavura ( 4127m), Sabyinyo (3669m) and Mgahinga (3474m) which can all 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. Muhavura means ‘the guide’ and its towering cone is a prominent landmark. During the 19th Century its crater still glowed to provide a natural lighthouse to travelers. The rim of the older Sabyinyo has weathered into a ring of stubby peaks, earning it the title ‘old Mans Teeth’. These imposing cones overshadow the stumpy Mt Mgahinga which is named for the local practice of tidying the volcanic rocks that clutter farmland into small piles of stones or gahingas.
MT SABYINYO: This has three peaks. An ascent leads first to peak 1 before climbing towards peak 2 along a narrow ridge that overlooks breathtaking drops into deep gorges on each side. Peak 3 is reached by a steep and muddy scramble. The borders of three countries converge on this summit and you will find yourself simultaneously in Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda, The 14km round trip takes 8 hours.
MT GAHINGA: An ascent on Mt Gahinga climbs through bamboo forest to reach a lush swamp which lies in the crater at the summit. The round trip from Ntebeko takes around 6 hours.
MT MUHAVURA: This classic volcanic cone is capped by a small but pretty crater lake, a modest reward for a 5 hour trek that rises steeply for 1700m to over 4100m. The real incentives for the climb are the mountain’s marvelous alpine vegetation and superb panoramas. The Muhavura trail provides the quickest and shortest ascent route to experience these dramatic plants while the view includes the five other Virunga volcanoes, the rift valley, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains in clear weather. The 12km round trip takes around 8 hours. If you have your own equipment and food, you should consider camping at the ranger post at the base of the volcano to make an early start and improve your chances of clear views.
B). GORILLA TRACKING
Mgahinga’s most exciting and memorable activity is tracking the mountain Gorilla in thick jungle. The Park has one habituated group ( Nyakagyezi ) which is visited by Tourists and consists of 11 members; 2 silverbacks, 3 adult females, 4 juveniles and 2 infants. This group is mobile and sometimes crosses into Rwanda and DR Congo, so it is advisable to check for updates from Uganda Wildlife Authority. Registration and briefing for Gorilla tracking commences at Ntebeko at 07:45 and tracking starts at 08:30 which can take three to eight hours. Gorilla tracking is Uganda’s most sought after Tourism activity, so it is advisable to book well in advance to ensure that permits for your requested dates are available. What to take for Gorilla tracking may include solid walking shoes or boots, rain gear and hat, Sunscreen, insect repellant, drinks and snacks, binoculars and Camera. Porters are available to carry your baggage at a modest cost.
GORILLA TRACKING RULES
In order to protect the Gorillas and visitors, the following rules must be adhered to;
• No one with a communicable disease, such as flu or diarrhea is allowed to visit the Gorillas
• Do not surround the Gorillas but remain in a tight group
• Leave a distance of atleast 5m between you and the Gorillas. If they approach you, move back slowly.
• Flash photography is strictly forbidden.
• Do not eat or smoke within 200m of the Gorillas.
• If you need to sneeze or cough, turn away from the Gorillas and cover your nose and mouth.
• Bury all human feaces in a hole dug atleast 30cm ( one foot ) deep and ensure that it is properly filled in afterwards.
• All litter must be removed from the Park for disposal.
• Do not spit on vegetation or soil while in the Park.
• No Person under 15 years is allowed to track Gorillas.
• When with the Gorillas, avoid making loud noises or sudden movements
• Contact time with the Gorillas is strictly limited to one hour
• Please observe all instructions from your Guide.
c). BUFFALO WALL AND BIRD WATCHING
Farmland along the northern edge of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is guarded by a drystone wall that keeps buffalo in the Park and out of Peasants crops. The trail along the wall is ideal for birding. Guides will escort you between 17:00 – 18:00 if you book by 10:00 in the morning. A stroll towards the Democratic republic of Congo takes you through a wetland area where ibis, speckled mouse bird and fire finch are found.
D). BATWA TRAIL AND GARAMA CAVE
The Batwa trail leads from the base of Muhavura to Garama cave. This walk is conducted by Batwa guide who provide insights into their traditional forest life and culture. The 342m long Garama cave lies beneath a plateau near the northern edge of the park, 3km from Ntebeko. It is set in the former farmland zone but in earlier times, the cave lay deep in the forest when it was occupied periodically by Batwa who used it as a council chamber and a retreat after raiding their bafumbira neighbours. Today the cave provides an atmospheric setting for a performance of Batwa music at the end of the Batwa trail.
E). NTEBEKO VISITOR CENTRE
Park activities in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are arranged from the visitor centre at Ntebeko. A viewing platform, 800m uphill from the Visitor centre provides good views of the Park and the surrounding areas. A guide is not necessary and access is free for Tourists.