The tiny 34sqkm Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in the far southwest corner of the country is Uganda’s silver of the volcanic Virunga range, which extends in greater part to the dense tropical rainforests of eastern DRC and northern Rwanda. The 434sqkm Virunga Conservation Area that is shared between the three countries is home to half the world’s mountain gorilla population.
Gorilla tracking is the main attraction, but it’s less popular than Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, due to the one habituated family having a tendency to duck across the mountains into Rwanda or the DRC. But there’s more on offer here than just gorillas. Elephants, buffaloes, and serval are rarely seen, but they’re also out there, and 115 species of birds flutter through the forests, including Rwenzori turaco and mountain black boo.
All activities are booked through UWA in Kisoro, or otherwise its office in Mgahinga.
Activities In Mgahinga
A community initiative based around Mgahinga National Park and Kisoro, Mgahinga Community Development Organization provides a range of opportunities including teaching, farming, animal conservation, and beekeeping.
If you plan to come here specifically for gorillas, the first step is to check they’re on this side of the border. When the gorillas are living on Ugandan soil, eight people can visit per day. Due to the higher altitude, gorillas here have a fuzzier, more luxuriant coat compared to their cousins in Bwindi.
Some permits may be available last minute, so check with the UWA office in Kisoro, though it’s ideal to buy them at least a month before.
Trips depart from park headquarters at 8:30 am, but check-in at the office in Kisoro the day before your trip to confirm your arrival.
Unlike permits for Bwindi, bookings for Mgahinga Gorilla National Park aren’t taken at the UWA head office in Kampala. You must make your reservation by calling the park office in Kisoro no more than two weeks in advance. You pay at the park on the day of your tracking. Because of this system, tour operators rarely come here, making it a good place to get permits at the last minute. It is also possible to book permits in Kisoro for Rushaga at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Golden Monkey Tracking
While inevitably overshadowed by the gorillas, golden monkeys (a very rare subspecies of the rare blue monkey found only in this part of the world) are another lure to Mgahinga. Tracking starts at 8:30 am, and the guides can find the habituated troop 85% of the time, though they are less easily spotted if it’s raining.
If you’re really into the idea, there are longer four-hour trips, which allow you to be involved with the habituation process.
Mgahinga has three dormant volcanoes that can be climbed, which, though strenuous, require no mountaineering experience. The most popular climb is Mt Sabinyo (3669m), which involves breathtaking walks along gorges and a few challenging ladder ascents, with the reward of getting to the third and final peak where you’ll be standing in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC all at once. It’s a 14km, eight-hour trek.
There’s also the 12km, seven-hour trek to the crater lake at the summit of Mt Muhavura (4127m). It’s the tallest of the volcanoes and almost too perfect to be true, with views reaching all the way to the Rwenzori Mountains. Mt Gahinga (3474m) is the least taxing of the climbs, an 18km, six-hour trek up to its swampy summit through the bamboo zone. All treks lead you into the otherworldly afro-alpine moorland, home of bizarre plants such as giant groundsel and lobelias.
Two less demanding treks, both about 10km long and great for birdwatchers, are the Border Trail, which starts at Sabinyo but then cuts back south along the Congolese border, and the Gorge Trail, which leads to a small waterfall in a gorge halfway up Sabinyo. You could combine these into one long trek.
Organized by UWA, forest tours led by local Twa(Batwa), explain how they used to live in the forest before being forcibly removed when it became a national park. The 3½ hour tours include Twa legends, demonstrations of hunting and fire lighting, and a visit to the 342m-long Garama Cave, a historic residing spot of the Twa, with a song-and-dance performance.
While at times it feels a bit contrived, the tour provides a much better insight to the Twa people than the often-depressing village visits. Ask your hotel or travel agency to arrange these tours, but do check that all your money goes to the Twa themselves, rather than to people in the middle.
Amajambere Iwacu Community Campground
Right at the park’s gate, this friendly and extremely peaceful camp, set up and run by the local community has a variety of rooms with nice verandas for relaxing. It’s a good choice for those seeking a local experience and has volunteer opportunities and hot meals available. Proceeds fund school projects in the area.
Mt Gahinga Lodge
Set in a rocky garden that blends in beautifully with the natural surrounds, this luxury lodge oozes charm. The homestead-style cottages have volcano views, playful, bold African décor and ample space, with sofas and fireplaces that take the damp edge off the forest. Rates include drinks and a massage, both perfect after a day’s trekking.
To get here from Kisoro, go 14km in on the Mgahinga-Kisoro road and turn at the signpost for the park. It’s on your right.