Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Uganda – Things to do, activities and attractions
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is Uganda’s smallest national park situated at the border region of Uganda, Rwanda and Dr Congo. The park is a portion of the large Virunga Massif Conservation Area thus being contagious to other gorilla habitats of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in Dr Congo. The park derives its name from “Gahinga” a local word that means a heap of Volcanic stones cleared from the farmland at the base of the mountain. The British administration declared Mgahinga a game reserve in 1930 and later became a national park in 1991 to protect the endangered mountain gorillas that were threatened by the local people in the area.
The Topography of Mgahinga National Park is incredibly remarkable, it is characterised by three conical dormant volcanoes of Gahinga, Muhabura and Sabinyo. The three are part of the five volcanoes that form the Great Virunga Ranges and the other two remaining volcanoes are Bisoke and Karisimbi. Being dominated by mountains, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park lies in an area of high altitudes between 2,000 to 4,000 metres. The mountain gorilla park has various distinctive vegetation cover and the thickness of the vegetation diminishes as you go higher. The lower section of the park is covered with Montane and bamboo forests, the mid part with Montane Moorland and heath trees and alpine vegetation at the higher areas.
There are two wet spells experienced around the park that is in the months of February to may and September to December. The heavy rains and cool atmosphere is mainly attributed to the mountains and montane forests around the area. Water streams also flow out from Mgahinga (River Ntebeko, Nyabirerema and Kabiranyuma) which are sources of water to the local people in the area.
The thick vegetation and cool climate at Mgahinga gives so much life to different animal species. The park is a habitat to animals like the mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, red tailed monkeys, vervet monkeys, leopards, forest hogs, serval cats, bush babies, buffaloes, elephnats and different reptiles and amphibians. Out of the numerous creatures in this eco place, Mountain gorillas and the golden Monkeys are the most sought after. This is why Mghahinga national park is dubbed as “a place where silver meets gold”.
There are also human settlements around the area and the renown residents are Bakiga, Batwa and Bafumbira. These people live on the margins of the park and they carry out small scale cultivation on the lower slopes of the area. The local people at times encroach the forest and cut down trees hence leading to loss of habitat for the vulnerable animal species. The people too engage in hunting of edible angulates like the forest hogs and bushbucks. The Uganda Wildlife Authority is trying to engage the local communities by setting up social projects like funding of schools and health centres and also encouraging them to set up employment ventures like craft shops and creating of cultural performance groups to benefit from conservation and tourism. The strategy has yielded some fruits as many of the locals have abandoned the vice activities that threaten the existence of the forest and living species within.
How to Access Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
The distance between Mghahinga National Park and Pampala- the capital of Uganda is about 509 kilometers making it one of the most distant tourism destinations in the country. Mgahinga National Park can be accessed by both road and air. It takes about 9 hours to drive from Kampala through Masaka-Mbarara-Ntugamo and finally to Kisoro or Kabale. From the two districts of Kisoro or Kabale, you can easily connect to Mgahinga National Park area. The roads that lead to the park are gravel and tend to be slippery and mud on a rain day. Most of the tourists use tour companies or simply hire a 4×4 vehicle from a rental company. For sole travellers, public buses from Kampala to Kisoro or Kabale are available daily. From the two towns, you can get a boda boda or special hire to get to the park.
There is also an option of traveling from kigali Rwanda to Mgahinga, this is actually a shorter distance than that from kampala (Uganda). It only takes about 5 hours. Tourists are advised to acquire an east Africa tourist visa for easy and cheap border crossing from Rwanda to Uganda.
By Air, there are Scheduled charter flights organised by AeroLink from either Kajjansi Airstrip or Entebbe International Airport to Kisoro or Kihihi Airstrip. Visitors are advised to take the flight to Kihihi Airstrip since the one to Kisoro is less reliable due to the fog experienced around the area that deems flying difficult at times. From Kihihi Airstrip, road means are used to transfer the visitors to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Travelers are advised to use local tour operators to book the scheduled charter flights for them.
Major Tourism activities at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Mgahinga national park has a handful of exciting and adventurous tourism activities to partake. Gorilla tracking, Golden monkey trekking and Mountain hiking are the most involved in activities by tourists. One of the merits of the park is that it is less crowded enabling a visitor have a secluded and private experience.
In details, here are the popular activities and attractions at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park;
Gorilla Tracking: Apart from Bwindi forest, Mgahinga gorilla national park is the other place in Uganda to go gorilla trekking. In this mountainous park, there are less mountain gorillas about 80 individuals and only one gorilla group is habituated for trekking. The Nyakagezi group used to be a trans-border in nature as it moved from Uganda, Rwanda and Congo but now it has settled in Uganda. It is a very large group and the certainty of encountering is almost 100%.
While at Mgahinga national park, tourists are advised to get at the park Headquarters (Ntebeko) at 7am in the morning for briefing. After briefing, they are led by a park ranger through the montane and bamboo forest in search of the gorillas. The terrain of the park has less thick forest but its steepness poses a challenge to the visitors. There are also some chances of visitors getting high altitude related sickness. It takes about 1-4 hours to find the Nyakagezi family in its feeding area. The first sight of the gorillas in their locales is really a nerve cracking moment especially when a tourist may make an eye contact with the huge silverback. Visitors are advised to remain calm and collected. The gorillas might seem scary in appearance but very gentle and peaceful in actions. The tourists have an hour interaction with the gorillas, observe them feed, communicate amongst each other as photographing and video capturing prevails. To trek the gorillas in Mgahinga, a traveller must pay 700$ as permit fees to Uganda Wildlife Authority or pay indirectly through the local tour operator.
Golden Monkey Trekking: This is the second most popular tourism activity in the park. Travellers who miss out on gorilla trekking opt for golden Monkey trekking. Sometimes itinerants engage in both activities at the park. The Golden monkeys are very rare species of monkeys which evolved from the blue monkeys. These primate species are only restricted to the Afro montane forests of Africa and this is why Mgahinga national park is one of the few places in the world with them. The golden monkeys are so beautiful on the eyes, they have a glittering gold colour on their cheeks and backs. A date with them is a memorable one!
The golden monkey trekking activity starts at 8am in the morning with briefing of visitors who then head to the montane forests. It takes less time to meet the golden monkeys compared to the mountain gorillas. However, the interaction is not intimate as that of the gorillas because of the golden monkey’s arboreal and agile nature. The visitors are advised to carry binocular to get the best out of the trekking experience. The golden Monkey trekking permit costs 100$.
Mountain Hiking: The main physical features in Mgahinga national park are the three conical dorman volcanoes. The three volcanoes of Muhavura at 4127metres, Gahinga at 3474 metres and Sabinyo at 3669 metres can be hiked and explored by even first time climbers. It takes a minimum of six hours and a maximum of eight hours to climb any of the three volcanoes. For hikers interested in climbing the three mountains altogether, it takes three days.
The rewards of hiking the volcanoes are encountering of different monkey species, mammals, birds and gorillas randomly. At the peak of any of the mountains, crater lakes and amazing views of the natural scenery of the three countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Dr Congo await. The hiking fee per individual charged by Uganda Wildlife Authority is 80$.
Birding: Birds thrive most in area with forests and Mgahinga national park is one of those place with an astronomical collection of trees, making it one of the ideal environments for birds to nest. The park has over 110 bird species of which a great number is endemic to the Albertine rift and some are migratory birds from Europe. Birders are advised to visit the park during the periods between April and May and October-November since it is the prime time for the migratory birds from Europe. The popular birds to watch around the park include; Rwenzori Turaco, regal Sunbird, Shelly’s Dusky Crimsonwing, Paradise Fly-catcher, White-necked raven, Wax Bills, White-starred Robin and many more.
Nature Treks: Mgahinga national park is a great place of nature with so many living species and physical features to encounter. There are various walking trails which reward visitors opportunities of sighting most of the park’s attractions personal and up-close. For example, there is a trail that leads to Batwa Villages and caves and the border trail at the base of Mount. Sabinyo is also another scenic trail that leads to the margins of Uganda, Rwanda and Dr Congo. The trail goes up to the hill of Gisozi, a great view point of the entire park and Virunga Conservation Area at large. Animals are also sighted like gorillas, golden monkeys, other monkey species, elephants, bushbucks, antelopes and a wealth of birds. The trail takes 5 hours to complete it.
The Batwa Trail Experience: One of the local tribes that reside around the park is the Batwa. The Batwa are the originals of these great lands. In the early years, Batwa used to live in the forest of Mgahinga national park and led a rudimentary life. A life that comprised of hunting, fruit gathering, harvesting of honey and seeking of herbs. However, by 1991, this life was no more as Mgahinga was turned into a national park and Batwa were evicted from the forest. They were resettled into the nearby communities. Batwa failed to adopt to the new life and were marginalised by the other races They now live in absolute poverty as many fail to make ends meet. These people still sneak to the forest to find a living but it is illegal as hunting is considered as poaching by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority has tried to involve them by creating the Batwa trail experience. This is an experience that lead tourists to the former habitats of the Batwa in the forest. The tourists visit places like Ngarama caves. The caves used to be a sacred place for the Batwa people, their leaders used to hold meeting of wars and make sacrifices for the gods at the place. The Batwa tour is guided by a mutwa which is the most noble and fascinating thing.
After the tour around the past and present Batwa habitats, the experience ends with cultural entertainment dominated by singing and dancing from the women and children groups. The Batwa trail experience costs 80$ and most of the funds go to rehabilitating the Batwa into a better life.