Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
Down on the border with Rwanda rises a chain of volcanoes, whose slopes, forest-clad, host golden monkeys and mountain gorillas. There are few visitors to enjoy the view, but those who make it, climbing to the higher reaches, are rewarded with a glimpse into the very heart of a country. The volcanoes are collectively known as the Virungas. The place to visit is Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
Reasons to Go
Mgahinga is Uganda’s smallest national park – just 34km2. But small, as they say, is beautiful and that is definitely true of Mgahinga. Behind the dramatic volcanic skyline. In front Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Somewhere off to the right lakes so scenic you can’t believe more people don’t know about them.
The montane-woodland, montane-forest and large swathe of bamboo forests supports a large population of golden monkeys, found only here in Uganda. They are also home to the Nyakagazi family of mountain gorillas, the only habituated group outside of Bwindi.
Traditionally, Mgahinga was used as an ‘over-flow’ gorilla tracking destination for Bwindi, but that has changed for two reasons. The first is that the increase in the cost of Rwandan gorilla permits to $1,500 per person has prompted visitors to explore Rwanda and then nip across the border to Mgahinga where the treks cost $600 per person. The second reason is that Mgahinga is such a wonderful place to visit. Situated so closely to Mutanda and Bunyoni Lakes that you can spend a week in the far southwest and save the rest of Uganda for a second trip.
In addition to gorilla treks and golden monkey excursions – both a standard visit and the longer habituations – Mgahinga is an excellent general trekking destination. Challenging guided day hikes are available to the summits of all three of the mountains accessible from Uganda: Gahinga, Sabyinyo and Muhabura.
Places to Stay
There is only one tourist lodge currently available in Mgahinga, the luxurious Mount Gahinga Lodge. Sister property to Volcanoes Bwindi and Kyambura Gorge, the lodge is a stylish and comfortable options located just a few hundred metres from the park gate. Lovely gardens brings the wildlife to your door. The lodge has also done incredible work supporting the local Batwa community evicted from the forests when the Park was gazetted. They have built a village, established a cultural centre, helped run a dance group – with the aim of aiding the integration of the Batwa with the other local communities – and begun a vocational training centre.
Further afield, Mgahinga is accessible from lodges on Lake Mutanda like Chameleon Hill and on Lake Bunyonyi like Birds Nest.
Things to do
The gorilla tracking follows the same model as in Bwindi. Treks depart in the morning at about 9am. The length of the trek before you make contact with the gorillas depends on the location of the gorilla family. Contact lasts for one hour, during which you will be about 7 metres from the gorillas. When the hour has elapsed, you return through the forest to Park HQ, normally returning by early afternoon.
Although gorilla families constantly cross the border from Rwanda to Uganda, there is only only family habituated to make contact in Mgahinga. Called the Nyakagazi group, it has five silverbacks, two adult females and three young gorillas.
Between 2004 and 2012, after being attacked by a lone silverback, the family spent most of the time on the Rwanda side of the border. However, since 2012, they have been a regular presence on the Ugandan side. In the event they move again after permits have been bought, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority has committed to moving the treks to Bwindi or refunding the money.
Like in Bwindi, Mgahinga gorilla treks can be tough and challenging experiences. You need to be physically and mentally prepared and adequately dressed. Get that right and you will enjoy one of the most memorable wildlife experiences in the world.