At just 33.7 square km, Mgahinga Gorilla is Uganda’s smallest national park. However, it is also one of the most dramatic for the park lies on the northern slopes of Mts. Muhabura, Mgahinga and Sabyinyo, 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 more than half of the world’s population of the endangered mountain gorilla. 380 individuals roam the slopes of the volcanoes while the remaining 340 live nearby in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Fortunately for the gorillas, Mgahinga’s small area is supplemented by those of two larger, adjoining parks in Rwanda (Volcanoes NP) and DR Congo (Virunga NP).
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 the driest with just 10mm.
The park lies in the south-western corner of Uganda, 540km from Kampala. The journey takes 8 hours, excluding rest stops, passing via Kabale and Kisoro. The 80km section between Kabale and Kisoro is a winding, mountainous drive on murram that takes at least 2 hours, while the park gate at Ntebeko lies a bumpy 14km (30 minutes) south of Kisoro. Charter flights can be arranged from Entebbe or Kampala (Kajjansi) to Kisoro airstrip.
At Ntebeko, the Volcanoes Camp provides upmarket accommodation while camping and basic cottages are provided in the Community Campground. A wide choice of lodging is available in Kisoro.
Mgahinga’s slopes are covered with a series of distinct altitudinal bands of vegetation. The lowest zone is an area of grass and bush which was formerly encroached and cleared by farmers and is now regenerating. 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 3000m and includes bizarre giant forms of lobelia and groundsel.
The park contains at least 39 species of mammal and 79 birds. Larger mammals include elephant, leopard, buffalo and bush pig 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 which is found only in the Virungas and in one other forest in Rwanda. Notable bird species include the Rwenzori turaco, crowned hornbill, black kite and crowned crane.
Kisoro District is heavily populated with 331 people/ km2. There are two main ethnic groups. The most numerous are the Bafumbira who are primarily farmers. The Batwa, who once practiced a subsistence hunter-gather life in the forest, form a minority group.
Ntebeko Visitor Centre
Park activities are arranged from the Visitor Centre at Ntebeko
A viewing platform, 800m uphill from the Visitor Centre, provides good views of the park and the surrounding areas. A guide is not necessary and access is free.
Mgahinga has three volcanic peaks, Muhubura (4127m), Sabyinyo (3669m) and Mgahinga (3474m). These can all be climbed. Though no specialist equipment is required, 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 Sabyinyo 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.
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.
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.
This classic volcanic cone is capped by a small but pretty crater lake; a modest reward for a 5 hour trek that rises steeply for 1700m to over 4100m. The real incentives for the climb are the mountain’s marvellous alpine vegetation and superb panoramas. The Muhuvura 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 mountains. The 12km round trip takes around 8 hours. If you have your own 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 clear views).
Farmland along the northern edge of the park is guarded by a drystone wall that keeps buffalo in the park and out 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 bird, and fire finch are found.
The Batwa Trail leads from the base of Muhuvura 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 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 atmospheric setting for a performance of Batwa music at the end of the Batwa Trail.
Mgahinga’s most exciting and memorable activity is tracking the mountain gorilla in thick jungle. The park has one habituated gorilla group (Nyakagyezi) which is visited by tourists. This consists of 11 members; 2 silverbacks, 3 adult females, 4 juveniles and 2 infants. This group is mobile and sometimes crosses into Rwanda and DRC, so check for updates from Uganda Wildlife Authority (see contacts). Registration and briefing for gorilla tracking commences at Ntebeko at 07.45. Tracking starts at 08.30 and can take three to eight hours. Gorilla tracking is Uganda’s most sought after tourism activity. You should book well in advance to ensure that permits for your requested dates are available.
What to take – a checklist
Porters are available at a modest cost.
To protect the gorillas and visitors, the following rules must be adhered to:
For information on fees for park entrance and activities, please refer to the UWA tariff sheet.
20% of all park entry fees are shared with communities living in park boundary parishes in order to spread the benefits of ecotourism and generate local support for conservation.