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Mgahinga Gorilla National Park – A Travel Guide

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park – A Travel Guide

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a hidden jewel on the very edge of Uganda. Located high up in the Virunga Mountains, the park borders Rwanda to the south and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the west. This lesser-known park offers a unique experience for nature enthusiasts, particularly those that like to head off the beaten path. In this travel guide we’ll cover the history of Mgahinga and its unique wildlife as well as the practical information to help you plan your visit including what to expect, how to get there, the activities offered, and where to stay.

History of Mgahinga

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park was established in 1991 but the area was first declared a game sanctuary by the British back in 1930. Mgahinga is part of the larger Virunga Conservation Area, which spans across Uganda and two of its neighbors – Rwanda and the DRC.

The region has long been inhabited by the Batwa pygmies – a forest-dwelling population of hunter-gatherers that lived off the land.

Mgahinga National Park

Mgahinga National Park is only around 13 square miles, making it the smallest of Uganda’s parks. It’s wide-ranging high-altitude of 7,306 to 13,540ft (2,227 to 4,127 m) creates diverse ecosystems like bamboo, broadleaf, and alpine forests.

The park is named after Mount Gahinga, one of the three volcanoes within its boundaries. Gahinga itself is the local word meaning the piles of volcanic stones that were cleared for agriculture.

Is Mgahinga Worth Visiting?

Mgahinga is absolutely worth a visit! The region offers many breathtaking landscapes, local tribal history, and the rare opportunity to see mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in the wild. This unique combination is captured by the park’s clever tagline: “Where Gold Meets Silver”, the “silver” referring to the dominant male gorillas, known as silverbacks.

Unlike the more crowded national parks, Mgahinga provides a more intimate and peaceful experience. The park’s small size and less frequent visitors make it an excellent destination for a closer connection with nature.

Wildlife in Mgahinga

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is home to a diverse range of wildlife, the highlight, of course, being the mountain gorillas. Besides gorillas, the park is inhabited by other primates including golden monkeys, blue monkeys, and black-and-white colobus monkeys.

It’s also a great spot for birdwatchers, with over 180 bird species crammed into this small area. There are many bird species native only to this region.

Things to Do in Mgahinga National Park

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) who manage the country’s national parks offer a range of activities to enjoy.

Gorilla Trekking

The most sought-after activity is of course the mountain gorilla trekking. It’s not cheap, with the gorilla permit setting you back $700 alone, but seeing these magnificent creatures up close is one of the best experiences we’ve ever had. However, there’s a few issues with deciding to do this in Mgahinga.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the gorillas that you can see have been through a process known as habituation. Many of you might be aware of this already, but we didn’t know before researching our trip.

Habituating a gorilla family involves gradual exposure to a small number of humans, usually researchers or experienced rangers and trackers. Without this process it’s very likely that a wild group of gorillas would simply leave an area on hearing humans. They may perceive us as a threat or feel stressed, anxious, or fearful and would prefer to distance themselves.

With that in mind, the catch with Mgahinga is that there is currently only one habituated group. “Okay”, you might think, “what’s the issue with one habituated group?”. And you’d be right, except for the larger problem, which is that they are transboundary, meaning they cross from Uganda into Rwanda and DRC from time to time. Whilst human borders aren’t a problem for a mountain gorilla, they are for tourists!

So, as incredible as the intimate experience could be at Mgahinga, we would personally advise doing the gorilla trekking in nearby Bwindi Impenetrable Forest instead.

If you do decide to go ahead with gorilla trekking here at Mgahinga be sure to sort out your permits well in advance. This goes for any of the activities, it’s better to know you’ve got a space as many activities around the UWA parks have limited spaces. Any tour company can arrange the gorilla permits for you, so if you’re renting a vehicle or hiring a driver, let them know the date that you need.

Golden Monkey Tracking

On to the next of the primate adventures, and our main reason for hitting Mgahinga on our road trip – the adorable and rare golden monkeys. The permit to see these little guys is a lot cheaper at $100, so combining with the park fees of $40 makes a total of $140 for the day.

This endangered species of old-world monkey is actually a subspecies of the blue monkey found across central and eastern Africa. Facially, they look very similar to the blue monkey, but their striking golden-orange patch on their back sets them apart. The Virunga Conservation Area is practically the only place on earth you can see these in the wild. They have been spotted elsewhere but only in remote highland areas with fragmented populations.

As a habituated group, they’re not fearful of humans and so you can watch their natural behavior up close. The group are highly social and it’s really interesting to watch them feeding and interacting with each other through play.

You’re permitted one hour with the group to avoid too much invasion into their lives and behavior. It sounds like a lot of time, but for wildlife lovers like us, the time disappears quickly. You’re also required to wear a face mask to avoid spreading communicable diseases to the monkeys.

Aside from the golden monkeys, the trekking itself is an incredible experience. Hiking through the jungle with views over the surrounding lower grasslands and forests is an unreal opportunity.

Hiking and Volcano Climbing

Hiking enthusiasts certainly won’t be disappointed with Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. The three volcanoes which dominate the park can all be climbed.

Mount Muhabura

Height: 13,540 ft (4,127 m)

Hiking Time: 7-9 hours

The tallest of the three volcanoes in Mgahinga passing through various ecosystems. The trail can be steep and challenging, especially towards the summit.

Mount Sabinyo

Height: 11,959 ft (3,645 m)

Hiking Time: 8-10 hours

Offers a longer hike with some steep sections. The trail involves navigating multiple peaks and some ladders.

Mount Gahinga

Height: 11,398 ft (3,474 m)

Hiking Time: 5-7 hours

The smallest, and most frequently climbed of the three volcanoes. A better option for hikers with limited time or seeking a less strenuous hike.

Batwa Cultural Experience

Long before Mgahinga was established as one of Uganda’s national parks, the forests were home to the indigenous Batwa Pygmies. Today, Batwa guides lead visitors through the lower slopes of the forests, introducing them to their old home and demonstrating the skills they used to survive as hunter-gatherers.

Bird Watching

The final activity that Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has to offer is a birding experience. Whilst this isn’t for everyone, keen birdwatchers will find this area particularly interesting.

Mgahinga is located in an area known as the Albertine Rift that runs through Central Africa. There are many bird species – known as the Albertine Rift endemics – that are only found here, like the beautifully colored Rwenzori turaco and Shelley’s crimsonwing.

Getting to Mgahinga National Park

The two options for getting to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park both involve off-road driving, but you can choose whether to self-drive or to hire a driver.

Self-Drive with Road Trip Africa

For those who enjoy the freedom and flexibility of exploring on their own, self-driving is a great option. Road Trip Africa offer 4×4 vehicle rentals equipped for the rugged terrains.

From Kampala, it’s approximately a 10-hour drive to the park, but we’d advise doing Lake Mburo first. From there it’s around a 6.5-hour drive, or you could stop one night in Lake Bunyonyi, which is under 2 hours away.

Make sure to use the main roads to Kabale, then the best option is a mountainous road between Kabale and Kisoro followed by a steep and rocky off-road drive through impoverished local villages to the park.

Hire 4×4 with a Driver

If you prefer a hassle-free journey, consider hiring a 4×4 with a driver – Road Trip Africa offer this option too. This allows you to relax and enjoy the scenic drive while an experienced driver navigates the sometimes challenging roads.

Mgahinga Accommodation

There are two very different accommodation options near Mgahinga. Both are in a prime location right next to the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park entrance.

Amajambere Iwacu Community Camp is a budget-friendly option with basic amenities and it’s a great way to support the local community. They also offer pitches if you’d prefer to camp.

For the ultimate luxury stay, Mount Gahinga Lodge offers beautiful “bandas” or cottages, excellent service, and beautiful views of the volcanoes. The resort also has a spa with complimentary massages.

Where to Eat in Mgahinga

Dining options are seriously limited in and around the park. For any of the activities it’s important to take a packed lunch with you as there’s nowhere to eat.

Outside of the park the accommodations have restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or for campers you can always choose to cook your own meal.

Final Thoughts on Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Uganda. Its combination of natural beauty, unique wildlife, and cultural heritage makes it a standout experience.

Whether you decide to trek through the forests seeking primate encounters, hike the volcanic peaks, immerse yourself in the local culture, or go in search of rare bird species, Mgahinga is sure to deliver.

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