Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP) is arguably the most interesting park in Uganda. With over 39 mammal species and 79 bird species living in an approximately 33.7km2 in size, MGNP is both Uganda’s smallest park and among its most bio-diverse protected areas. It was created to protect the rare mountain gorillas that inhabit its dense forests and is also an important habitat for the endangered golden monkey.
Sitting high up in the clouds, at an altitude of between 2,227m and 4,127m, the park comprises three volcanoes—Sabyinyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura— which are part of the spectacular Virunga Conservation Area, a spectacular group of volcanic ranges that lies along the border region of Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo. The volcanoes’ slopes contain various ecosystems that are biologically diverse and provide breathtaking views.
As well as being important for wildlife, the park also has immense cultural significance; it is home to the Batwa, a reclusive group of first nation people believed to be the first inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. The Batwa have lived in these forests for millennia and Mgahinga is one of few places tourists can encounter these mysterious enchanting people up close and learn their ancient knowledge of the forest’s secrets: it’s an experience for a lifetime.
While there have been 39 mammal species recorded in MGNP, it is believed that up to 89 do occur in the park. The larger mammals include the mountain gorilla, the elephant, and the buffalo. Other mammals include the spotted hyena, the golden cat, the leopard, the serval cat, the side-striped jackal, the giant forest hog, the black-fronted duiker, and the bushbuck. Also recorded is the blue monkey.
The real treat at MGNP is the golden monkey, a rare species indigenous to the forests of Virunga and two other forests in Central Africa. MGNP provides a rare opportunity to see this rare species in addition to an up-close encounter with a habituated mountain gorilla group.
There are about 79 bird species in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, including several endemic to the East Congo Montane region. However, most of the 185 bird species recorded in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park are most are likely to occur in MGNP as well.
Gorge Trail is the main birding trail in the park. It’s a three-to-four hour trek between Gahinga and Sabinyo with spectacular sightings of the Dusky Turtle Dove, Cape Robin-chat, Kivu-ground Thrush, Olive Thrush, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Bronze Sunbird, White-starred Robin, Equatorial Akalat, Red-throated Alethe, Archer’s Robin-Chat, Kivu Ground Thrush, Banded Prinia, Regal Sunbird, Blue-headed Sunbird, Rwenzori Batis, Black-headed Waxbill, and Streaky Seedeater, among others. The Rwenzori Turaco is mostly sighted at around 2,700m. Other good birding areas are at the bamboo belt at about 2,500m above sea level, and the tall montane forest at 2,660m.
While at Mgahinga Gorilla national park, one should not worry about accommodation because there are various lodges suitable for relaxation and overnight. These are found in Ntebeko, Kisoro, and Lake Mutanda. In Ntebeko, the accommodations are; Volcanoes mount Gahinga Safari lodge and Amajambere Iwacu camp. The lodges in Mutanda include; Lake Mutanda Chameleon Hill Lodge. In Kisoro, the lodges where a visitor can stay are; Kisoro Traveler’s Rest Hotel and River Mucha Hotel
ACTIVITIES IN THE PARK
The beauty of MGNP becomes immediately apparent the moment you enter the park’s gate. Gorilla tracking is the park’s leading activity with 75% of visitors coming to see the primates. It is closely followed by the Batwa Heritage Trail, a popular cultural encounter whose proceeds go cover education and livelihood needs in the Batwa community.
Batwa Heritage Trail: For generations, Mgahinga’s dense forests were home to the Batwa; indigenous hunter-gatherers who depended on the forest for shelter, food, and medicine. When the national park was established, the Batwa were evicted from the forest and abandoned their ancient nomadic lifestyle. The only time they are permitted to re-enter their cherished forest is as tour guides on the Batwa Trail. On this trail, the Batwa demonstrate hunting techniques, gather honey, point out medicinal plants, and demonstrate how to make bamboo cups. Guests are taken to the sacred Garama Cave, once a refuge for the Batwa, where women of their community perform a sorrowful song that echoes eerily around the depths of the dark cave, leaving guests with a moving sense of the richness of this fading culture.
Gorilla Tracking: The park is a sanctuary for a trans-boundary habituated group. The best time for tracking is during the dry season when the paths are not too muddy to become un-navigable. Tracking begins early in the morning and takes 2-4 hours before a gorilla family is sighted. According to the UWA policy, the maximum time visitors are allowed with a gorilla family, once sighted, is one hour. MGNP is near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, another park with gorillas, making it possible to trek through both parks on one safari.
Mountain Climbing: All three volcanoes in MGNP can be summated It takes about 8 hours to ascend and descend Mt Muhavura (the highest volcano) and Mt Sabinyo (the second-highest), and about 6 hours to scale Mt Gahinga. Once at the top, hikers are rewarded with spectacular views of the Virunga Volcanoes, Lake Edward, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and peaks of the Rwenzori ranges.
Hiking/Nature Walks: A hike through the forest to the deep Sabinyo Gorge— a massive gash in the flank of Mount Sabinyo—provides good birding opportunities and the chance to find the Rwenzori Turaco. This walk takes four hours and passes through the Rugezi Swamp which is fantastic for bird watchers.
Golden Monkey Track: The golden monkey track is a gentle steep but interesting two-hour trek through former farmland to the bamboo forest. On a clear day, you may view the Virunga Volcano range and come across buffalo and duiker.