Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

At just 33.7 square kilometres, the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is Uganda’s smallest national park. On the northern slopes of the park are Mountains Muhabura, Mgahinga and Sabyinyo, the 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 the endangered mountain gorilla. Several individuals roam the slopes of the Volcanoes while more than half of the total population lives nearby in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Fortunately for the gorillas, Mgahinga’s small area is supplemented by those of the two larger, adjoining parks in Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Virunga National Park).

 Though gorilla tracking is the park’s 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. Muhabura to gentle strolls across the lower slopes beneath the magnificent three-peak backdrop.
The park experiences two rainy seasons; March-May and September-November. October is the wettest month, with 250mm of rain and July is the driest with just 10mm.

Flora and Fauna of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Mgahinga’s slopes are covered with a series of distinct altitudinal bands of vegetation. The lowest zone is an area of grass and bush. 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 3000 and includes bizarre giant forms of lobelia and groundsel.
The park contains at least 76 species of mammals and 180 bird species. Larger mammals include elephants, leopards, buffalos, and bush pigs but these 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 found only in the Virungas and in one of other forests in Rwanda. Notable bird species include the Rwenzori turaco, crowned hornbill, black kite and crowned crane.

Local People

Kisoro District is heavily populated with 331 people per square kilometre. There are two main ethnic groups. The most numerous are the Bafumbira who are primary farmers. The Batwa, who once practiced a subsistence hunter-gatherer life in the forest, form a minority group.

The Peaks of Mufumbiro Mountain Ranges

Mgahinga has three volcanic peaks, Muhabura (4127m), Sabinyo(3669m) and Mgahinga (3474m). These can all be hiked/climbed. No specialist equipment is required, and 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 towering cone is a prominent landmark. During the 19th century, its crater still glowed to provide a natural lighthouse for travellers. The rim of the older Sabinyo has weathered into a ring of stubby peaks, earning it the title ‘old man’s 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. Sabinyo

Sabinyo 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, Congo, and Uganda. The 14km round trip takes about 8 hours.

Mt. Gahinga

An ascent of 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 from 1700m to over 4100m. The real incentives for the climb are the mountain’s marvellous 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 (in clear weather) the Rwenzori Mountain. The 12km round trip takes around 8 hours. If you have your 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 a clear view).

Buffalo Wall & Bird Watching Safari

Farmland along the northern edge of the park is guarded by a dry-stone wall that keeps buffalo in the park handout of 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 that morning. A stroll towards the Democratic Republic of Congo takes you through a wetland area where ibis, speckled mouse birds, and fire finch are found. 

Batwa Trail and Garama Cave

The Batwa Trail leads from the base of Muhavura to Garama cave. This walk is conducted by Batwa guides 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 atmosphere setting for a performance of Batwa music at the Batwa Trail.

Gorilla tracking in Mgahinga

Mgahinga’s most exciting and memorable activity is tracking the mountain gorilla in the thick jungle. The park has one habituated gorilla group (Nyakagyezi) which is visited and has females, juveniles and infants. This group is mobile and moves to and from Uganda and Rwanda. Booking is through Uganda Wildlife Authority (see contacts). Registration and briefing for gorilla trekking commence at Ntebeko at 07:45. Trekking starts at 08:30 and can take to eight hours.

Gorilla tracking is Uganda’s top tourism activity you should book well in advance to ensure that permits for your requested dates are available.

What to take – a Gorilla Tracking checklist

* Solid walking shoes or boots
* Rain gear and hat
* Sunscreen
* Insect repellent
* Drinks and snacks
* Binoculars
* Camera
* Porters are available at a modest cost

Gorilla Tracking Rules

To protect the gorillas and visitors, the following rules must be adhered to:

  • No one with a communicable disease (e.g. Flu, diarrhoea) is allowed to enter the park.
  • Stay together in a tight group while with the gorillas, don’t surround them.
  • Don’t get closer than 7 metres (21 feet) to the gorillas.
  • Don’t use flashes while photographing the gorillas.
  • Don’t eat or smoke when with gorillas or within a distance of 200 metres from the gorillas.
  • Turn away from the gorillas if you have to sneeze or cough. Cover your nose and mouth in the process.
  • Burry all human faeces a minimum of one foot deep and ensure that the hole is properly covered.
  • Don’t leave litter. All litter must be carried out of the park and disposed off properly.
  • No person under 15 years is allowed to track gorillas.
  • Don’t make loud noise or move suddenly.
  • You are allowed a maximum of 1 hour with gorillas.
  • Don’t spit on vegetation or soil while in the park, use your hankie or other garment.
  • Your group must not be more than tourists and must all be over 15 years old.
Safaris to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
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