Mgahinga national park is located in south western Uganda and covers an area of 33.9 square kilometers. The park encompasses three inactive volcanoes, namely Mount Muhabura, Mount Gahinga, and Mount Sabyinyo. In altitude the national park ranges from 2,227 to 4,127 m and is part of the Nile River watershed area. It is contiguous with Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and the southern sector of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The park was gazetted to protect the rare mountain gorillas that live in the dense forests, and it is also an important habitat for the endangered golden monkey.
On top of being for wildlife, the park also has a huge cultural significance, in particular for the indigenous Batwa pygmies. This tribe of hunter-gatherers was the forest’s first inhabitants, and their ancient knowledge of its secrets remains unrivalled.
Apart from the spectacular Virunga range that lies at the border region of Uganda, D.R Congo and Rwanda border. Mgahinga’s other striking features are the conical and extinct volcanoes. Mgahinga forms part of the much larger Virunga Conservation Area which includes adjacent parks in these countries. The volcanoes slopes have biologically diverse ecosystems and their peaks provide spectacular views. The area experiences two wet rainy seasons: February to May; and September to December. The average monthly rainfall varies from 250 mm in October to 10 mm in July.
The park was established in1991 in an area that used to be a game reserve between the 1930s and 1950, but was partly converted to crop fields in lower altitudes. Biological surveys were initiated in 1989, wire traps destroyed, rangers trained and trees planted. Settlers were relocated to areas outside the national park’s borders in the early 1990s.
The park is a home to primates like mountain gorilla and golden monkeys. There are also various bird species that love in the forest, some of which include; handsome francolin, dusky crimson-wing, red-throated alethe, Kivu ground thrush, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori batis, Rwenzori double-collared sunbird, collared apalis, mountain masked apalis, Archer’s ground robin, stripe-breasted tit, blue-headed sunbird, regal sunbird, strange weaver, montane nightjar, red-faced woodland warbler and Grauer’s swamp warbler.
Mgahinga national park is a home to only one habituated gorilla group (Nyakagezi) which is made up of 9 members. The unpredictable forest weather requires travelers to carry rain jackets, sweaters, hiking boots and hand gloves to ensure smooth hiking on the steep slippery grounds.
On the trekking day, you will be expected the park headquarters at around 7am where you will be briefed about the park and the activity by the park ranger guide. Your permits will be verified. You will start the trek through the forests to look for the gorillas. The trek takes between 2-6 hours depending on where the gorillas would be that day. As you trek the gorillas, you will expect to spot birds that live forest as well as other primates like vervet monkeys. When you find the gorillas, trekkers are reminded to keep a distance of seven meters away, keep a low tone, move at a low rate and littering in the park. You will have an hour with gorillas, take photos and videos.
The Virunga conservation area shelters 8 volcanoes with 3 volcanoes in Mgahinga national park. The 3 volcanoes are; mount Muhabura (4127meters), mount Sabyinyo (3645meters) and mount Gahinga (3474 meters). Each of the volcanoes can be hiked in a day and there are some porters who can help to carry your baggage. Hiking permits can be purchased from the park headquarters on the hiking day.
The park guide will brief you about the hike and some park rules and regulations and then start the hike. The hike takes from 5-8hours depending on the hiker’s fitness and speed. You will expect to see various bird species that live in the forest on the mountain and at the top; you will be met by beautiful views of the great Virunga massif.
Cultural encounters in Mgahinga usually lead to the Batwa communities. The Batwa were the indigenous people of the forest. They were hunter-gathers and fierce warriors and depended on the forest for shelter, food and medicine.
The Batwa trail walk is a full day activity with Batwa guide who will tell you a lot about the forest and their culture. While at the Batwa community, you will get to interact with the pygmies, learn about their culture, lifestyle and be entertained by their cultural dance.
Birding is one of the interesting activities done around the park. The park is a habitant to over 115 bird species. Birding is usually done in the gorge between Gahinga and Sabyinyo Mountains, and through the bamboo and montane forest zones of the mountains within the park boundaries. There are also migratory birds, which are only seen in the months of April, May, October and November. The most spotted bird species include white necked raven, pin-talled whydah, black kite, paradise flycatcher, ibis, speckled mouse birds, grey capped warbler, Double-collared sunbird, waxbills, alpine, Blue-headed Coucal, Archer’s Robi-chat, Yellow-vented bulbul, Olive pigeon, Olive woodpecker among others.
Hiking through the hills around the park offers great wilderness experience. The walks offer great scenery of the parks topography, vegetation and some spots with lake views. The walk to the Rugezi swamp offers great chances of spotting various bird species. The walk to the Batwa community offers a chance to learn about the Batwa people and their culture.
WHEN TO VISIT
Mgahinga national park experiences 2 seasons, the dry and wet season. The park can be visited throughout the year.
This is also considered the peak season where gorilla permits are on high demand as well as accommodation facilities. The season runs from months of June through August and December through February. Tourists intending to trek gorillas with in these months are advised to book the permits at least 4months in advance. This is considered the best time to trek because lesser rain is expected around the region and the forest which makes moving through the park much easier.
This season runs from April to May and October to November and is considered not the best time to go, though it’s possible to discover the park during this time. The season is associated with a lot of mist and hailstorms which make it challenging to sight wildlife and birds from a farther distance. Furthermore, some of the roads are not easily passable. But after it rains, there are clear and beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, which make it a great place for taking photos.