MGAHINGA GORILLA NATIONAL PARK
Mountain gorillas form the main attraction at Mgahinga National Park, which protects the Ugandan portion of the Virungas, an imposing string of nine freestanding extinct and active volcanoes that runs along the border with Rwanda and the Congo.
Located in the far southwestern corner of Uganda, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is the smallest park in Uganda but an important park hosting the endangered mountain gorillas. The park covers an area of only 34 square kilometers. This park makes up the Ugandan part of the Virunga Conservation Area which spans three countries — Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). Each of these countries has established National Parks in the area to protect the tropical rainforest watersheds and wildlife of the Virunga region.
Virunga is a Kinyarwanda word which means ‘boiling pots’ and references the mountains’ volcanic origins. At least one volcano in the range is active and erupted last in 2001, which contributes to the unique nature of the mountain range.
Mgahinga National Park boasts three extinct volcanoes: Mount Muhavura (4,127 meters), Mount Gahinga (3,475 meters) and Mount Sabyinyo (3,645 meters). Gahinga, “old man’s teeth”, is the lowest of these mountains and has given the park its’ name. There are 7 volcanic mountains in the area, one of which erupted in 1996.
Flora and fauna
The vegetation of Mgahinga is typically afro-montane, with a forest belt, a bamboo zone, and an ericaceous belt leading up to an alpine zone. Many local herbs grow in the park, including a giant tree-sized relative of the herb St. John’s Wort.
The park supports 39 recorded mammal species, although it is believed there may be 50 more species unrecorded. Of the larger mammals Mgahinga boasts are the mountain gorilla, buffalo and forest elephant. The endangered golden monkey, a subspecies of the blue monkey, can only be found in this region. Leopard and several other small felines can also be found here.
294 bird species have been recorded in Virunga region, among which are the handsome Francolin, the Rwenzori Turaco and the Side-breasted Tit. Twenty of these species are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley.
Attractions and activities at Mgahinga
The most interesting activity in the park is tracking of gorillas and this has inspired tourists to visit the park. This activity takes a period of three days and there are over three groups of gorillas with the grey backed gorilla but tracking require one to move with the permit and the vaccination documents.
There are also wetlands with in the park and along the park edges there are some bird species thus the activity there is bird watching. The species of birds are the grey chapped warbler, yellow vented bulbul, stone chart, Ibis, black kite, wax bill, speckled mouse bird and others. But for one to under stand these birds it requires one to have a bird guiding book as well as an experienced guide.
The former warrior caves of the Batwa are suitable for cave exploration known as the Garama caves. The great History of the cave on how the Batwa lived and fought their neighbours, cultural dances and the weapons they used for fighting are of great importance and another advantage is that they are near the park headquarters.
Scenic viewing is another activity and it is free of charge the park provides a clear platform to the surrounding mountains, vegetation as well as the Bafumbira and Batwa homes.
Mountain climbing and volcano hiking the most challenging mountain to climb is Mt Sabyinyo that’s why ladders are provided to get to the peak of 3669m high another Mt suitable for climbing is Muhavura it covers a big part of kisoro and can as well view it while in Kisoro
It is also possible to enjoy one day’s hike to the summit of Mount Muhavura, in the local language ‘The Guide’, the highest point in the park. Magnificent views of the other Virunga volcanoes, Lake Edward in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Bwindi and the Rwenzori Mountain peaks can be seen from its summit. The hike takes approximately 8 hours round trip and covers 12 kilometers.
Less strenuous hikes are available to the top of Mount Gahinga or to the breathtaking Sabyinyo Gorge. Golden monkey walks, a historic Batwa (pygmy) cave, village walks through the Batwa area along the edge of the park and a unique swamp walk are all interesting activities for those who have extra time to spend in the area.
From the base in Kisoro, it is also possible to visit the Nkuringo family of gorillas in the southern end of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. If you are interested in expanding your knowledge of local Ugandan culture, visits can be arranged to the local community. See traditional costumes and jewelry making. Batwa pygmies traditionally inhabited this area, and a local support group helps protect the Batwa culture by offering a village walk with a chance to see the blacksmith and basket weavers at work. Locally produced craft items can be purchased from the park tourist office in Kisoro and along the road at various craft markets.
The best time to see the gorrillas
Wondering about the best time to visit Mgahinga? 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. Most tourists go for gorilla safaris during the dry months of June-October and December to March. It is advisable to book your gorilla passes at least 4 months to the travel period given that there is a high demand for the Mgahinga gorilla passes.
Where to stay
There are several campgrounds, hotels and lodges around Kisoro and Lake Mutanda Area. There are no developed lodging facilities inside the park. There are various lodging options near the Ntebeko’s entrances. Depending on the season, you will need to reserve hotels and campgrounds well in advance.
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