Mgahinga National Park
Mgahinga National Park is situated in Bufumbira County of Kisoro district. It is about 10km south of Kisoro and is bordered by the Volcanoes national park in Rwanda to the south and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west. Mgahinga National Park is one of the smallest national parks but the richest in terms of safari activities in Uganda covering a total area of 33.7 square kilometers and lies between the altitudes of 2227m and 4127m. It can be accessed by both by air from Kisoro to Entebbe and road transport where it takes about 9-10 hours to drive on road from Kampala to Mgahinga, 6 hours from Kigali Rwanda and 14km from Kisoro to Ntebeko the park entrance. Mgahinga national park covers the northern slopes of the three Virunga volcanoes which are mount Muhavura at 4127m, mount Gahinga at 3474m and mount Sabinyo at 3645m which all form 434 square kilometers of the conservation area.
The name Mgahinga was derived from the Kinyarwanda word Gahinga that means (a pile of volcano lava stone heaps where cultivation is carried out), Sabinyo which means old man’s teeth and Muhavura which means guide. Mgahinga national park was established in 1991 to majorly protect the endangered mountain gorillas. It is a home of over 76 mammal species including the famous gorillas, buffaloes, elephants, endangered golden monkeys, giant forest hogs, leopards, spotted hyenas, bushbucks, black-fronted duikers among others, about 115 bird species including black kite, ibis, paradise flycatcher, double-collared sunbird, white-necked raven among others. Mgahinga national park has various activities that visitors on a safari can engage in including gorilla trekking, volcano hiking, golden monkey tracking, Garama cave exploration, bird watching, nature walks among others.
Activities in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
These are the things that the visitors engage in while on a safari in Mgahinga national park to make it more interesting and memorable they include the following;
Gorilla trekking, this is the most popular activity that is done in Mgahinga national park where the visitors move on foot due to the mountainous area in search of the endangered gorillas. Gorilla trekking starts in the morning at 8:00 am from the Ntebeko gate where the visitors first get a briefing about the expectations during gorilla tracking and what they should carry for example light clothes, packed lunch, drinking water, cameras, masks among others and usually takes 2-4 hours depending on their location. Apart from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga national park is the second park in Uganda with the endangered gorillas. It has one habituated family called Nyakagezi with Bugingo silverback as the leader of the group, it used to migrate to volcanoes national park but later made Mgahinga as its home. Gorilla trekking in Mgahinga is limited to only eight people per trekking group and spend one hour in the presence of the gorillas once found hence advised to cancel in case of a cold, fever because gorillas can catch human diseases. Gorilla trekking is a must-do activity for great experience and memories in Mgahinga national park.
Golden monkey tracking, this is one of the interesting activities in the park apart from gorilla tracking where you get to watch the endemic and endangered golden monkeys in trees. Golden monkey tracking can be done in the morning or afternoon depending on the schedule and takes about four hours because they like moving from one place to another. Mgahinga national park has golden monkey habituated families where visitors get to spend more time with the golden monkeys in their natural habitats compared to one hour given to the common golden monkey tracking. Mgahinga national park is the only national park in Uganda where golden monkey tracking is carried out, it is done through the bamboo forest and visitors are required to put on long-sleeved shirts and trousers, rain ponchos, gloves, waterproof boots, cameras, binoculars for birding among others and the golden monkey tracking permit goes for $50 per person and golden monkey habituation permit costs $100 per person. Mgahinga national park is the only park where gorillas live with monkeys hence referred to as the only national park where gold meets silver which makes it unique from other national parks.
Bird watching, Mgahinga national park offers an opportunity for visitors to participate in birding because it habits over 115 bird species. It can be done all year round in the park and April to May, October to November being the best time with birding experience, bird watching takes around three hours and visitors take the gorge trail in the montane forest and bamboo forest between Sabinyo and Gahinga Mountains. During bird watching visitors have a higher chance of seeing the Rwenzori turaco and other birds like cape robin chat, bronze sunbird, black-headed waxbill, handsome francolin, Rwenzori batis, olive pigeon, brown woodland warbler, dusky turtle dove, fire finch, white snapped raven, yellow ventured bulbul, blue-headed coucal, olive woodpecker among others and also view some animals in the park like, buffaloes, bushbucks, elephants, golden monkeys among others.
Nature walks / hiking, nature walks in Mgahinga national park offer wild experiences to visitors on a safari where they will move within the park on foot. Nature walks in Mgahinga are done around the edges of the mountains through the bamboo forests, hike on Gisozi hills to see Kisoro, Lake Mutanda, Bunagana town, Rugezi swamp trail which has a great scenic view of the agricultural villages, the surrounding lakes like Lake Mutanda where you spot forest bird species like Rwenzori turaco, scarlet tufted sunbird, streaky seedeater, handsome francolin, bronze sunbird, animals like bush pigs, porcupines, buffaloes, bushbucks, wild vegetation like afro montane vegetation bamboo montane, farmlands, tree heathers, montane forest, cool climate during the walk and also have an encounter with the Batwa known as pygmies which makes the nature walk a memorable one.
Cultural encounters, Mgahinga national park is a home of various communities including the indigenous Batwa who used to live in the forest many years ago and depended on the forest for shelter, food, and medicine before the forest was gazetted into a national park. After the forest was gazetted they were resettled out of the park and they now stay around the park and also participate in the tourism industry as guides and porters. During the Batwa trail, they will demonstrate how they used to live in the forest, their hunting skills, traditional medicines, gathering honey, performances like music, dance among others. Visit the Garama cave during the cultural encounter which is a sacred piece of Batwa history in that the cave acted as protection from their enemies during the Batwa invasion many years back. Batwa are interesting and unique people in Mgahinga and the cultural encounter safari is worth taking.
Mountain climbing, this is an adventurous activity in Mgahinga national park where you get to climb the three volcanoes each taking a full day to reach the top they are,
Mount Muhavura also translated as (guide) in the local language is the highest of the three mountains, it is 4127m high covers 12km and takes about 8 hours to reach the top. Hikers move in small grasses, rock grounds, shrubs and on top of the volcano you will see mount Rwenzori peaks, Virunga volcanoes, Bwindi forest and Lake Edward in Queen Elizabeth national park.
Mount Sabinyo also translated as (old man’s teeth) because of the deep gorges and ravines that dissect it is the most challenging among the three volcanoes because its trail is filled with mushy vegetation, therefore, hikers need to wear waterproof boots. Sabyinyo volcano is 3645m high covers 14km and takes about 8 hours to reach the top. On top of the volcano, you will be standing in three countries which are Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mount Gahinga also translated as piles of rock for cultivation is the smallest of the Virunga volcanoes 3474m high, covers 8km and takes about 6 hours to reach the top. Hikers move through the bamboo forest and on top you will find a swamp filled crater that measures 180m wide and stone piles in some gardens. Hiking the three volcanic mountains in Mgahinga national park is rewarding with beautiful wildlife views and great photographic moments.
Mgahinga national park experiences two rainy seasons between March to May and September to November with October being the wettest month and July the driest month, the park can be visited throughout the year and offers a number of luxury and midrange accommodations to make the safari complete which include mount Mgahinga rest camp with comfortable grass-thatched Bandas, mount Mgahinga lodge located at the edges of Virunga volcanoes, clouds mountain gorilla lodge in Kisoro, travelers nest hotel located outside the park in Kisoro, Nkuringo safari lodge located on the shores of Lake Mutanda among others.
Mgahinga national park, like its neighbor Bwindi national park, offers several sights and sounds. But it also stands out, promising the great potential to its visitors as one gets closer, since some of its dominant features the mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, the three volcanic mountains, stand tall and proud on the horizon, inviting.