Expert Reviews – Mgahinga Gorilla NP
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
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Volcanoes in the mist
As indicated by its name, this small park – protecting the Uganda portion of the Virunga Mountains, on the border with Rwanda and Congo - is best known for the opportunity to track its habituated mountain gorillas. for years, this was a rather unreliable prospect, as the habituated group regularly crossed into Rwanda, sometimes for months on end. However, although operators remain unwilling to take tourists here, the habituated group has actually remained within the boundaries of Uganda since 2013, which makes this a good place to try for a last-minute permit when Bwindi is booked solid. Another good reason to visit Mgahinga, in my view, is the stirring setting provided by the Virunga Mountains, a chain of six massive volcanoes, some still active, that rise to elevations of up to 4,507m. Activities on offer include (demanding) hikes to those peaks that fall within Uganda, and tracking expeditions in search of the golden monkey, a delightful Virunga endemic that feeds mainly on bamboo. Other wildlife includes elephant, leopard, buffalo, black-and-white colobus monkey and at least 12 bird species endemic to the Albertine Rift.
Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
A forested primate refuge high in the clouds
I love the approach to this park near the small characterful town of Kisoro as it’s always a thrilling journey on the stunning road from Kabale, which dips up and down with ever-better views of the Virunga Volcanoes. Three of these magnificent densely-clad peaks lie within Mgahinga – Mounts Muhavura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo and they can be climbed, but it is the mountain gorillas that are the highlight (as the name suggests). However, fewer people go trekking here than Bwindi as there is only one habituated family of gorillas. Additionally, given that the park is contiguous with the Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans) in Rwanda, this nomadic group may choose to go over the border from time to time. As such the excursion is far from guaranteed – which is why permits at Mgahinga are only available 14 days in advance. My advice is to consider the gorilla trekking option here only for late bookings; and obviously check that the Nyakagezi group is around. But even without gorillas, Mgahinga is an incredible vantage point to admire the soaring beauty of the Virungas, and the park also offers golden monkey tracking, challenging hikes, and fun and informative excursions with the local Batwa pygmy communities.
Tim is a travel writer who has covered 10 African countries for Lonely Planet's Africa, East Africa and West Africa guidebooks.
The Other Gorilla Park
Like the more famous Bwindi, Uganda’s smallest national park (just 34 sq km) hosts habituated mountain gorillas. But here they sometimes cross the border out of Uganda, and since tour companies can’t guarantee the opportunity to track gorillas, Mgahinga is rarely part of a safari itinerary. On the other hand, if you’re planning things last minute, permits are sometimes available here when they are impossible to come by at Bwindi. The tracking is usually easier here too, but there are still long hills to climb. When I met the habituated group it was far up the mountain, but hanging out in a small clearing the whole time rather than in thick forest, so I got great photos. When the gorillas are gone, tracking beautiful and playful golden monkeys becomes the main activity. Though it’s hardly an equal substitute for gorillas, it is quite fun. There are elephants, buffaloes, leopards, and black-and-white colobus here too, but don’t expect to see them or much other wildlife except for birds. Many call Mgahinga Uganda’s most beautiful park. I assume these people haven’t seen Kidepo Valley, but the three extinct volcanoes certainly do make a stunning sight. They’re also are great trekking destinations with difficult but fun climbs through the strange afro-alpine moorland at the high elevations.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
Gorillas and Golden Monkeys
Despite being Uganda’s only other haven for the endangered mountain gorilla, Mgahinga is far less visited than its illustrious neighbour Bwindi. Although the park is small, it can be an awesome spot for trekking to see primates. But the problem it has is that gorilla viewing is unreliable. Mgahinga is home to just one habituated gorilla group and they regularly cross the border into Volcanoes National Park in neighbouring Rwanda, thereby preventing tourists from viewing them. If you’ve spent lots of money and flown half way round the world to get here, then this is an extremely frustrating and premature end to your gorilla safari experience. So I would strongly advise potential visitors to do their homework and find out whether the gorillas are in residence before embarking on a journey down here. Another option that I really like is taking a hike to track down the park’s other endangered primate: the rare golden monkey. Substantially smaller than the gorilla, these more arboreal primates still give tourists a good run around and great primate experience as they bound across the ground and leap between the tree branches while feeding.
Mark is a travel writer who grew up in Africa and has written over 700 titles for CNN Traveller, Travel Africa, BBC Wildlife and others.
A unique rainforest volcano reserve, in a golden triangle between Uganda, Rwanda and DRC
Even without spotting gorillas (the great apes are free to cross the borders and sightings are unpredictable at best) trekking in Mganhinga Gorilla National Park is a highlight of any visit to Uganda. The feeling of trekking through this dense ‘gorillas in the mist’ rainforest with armed rangers as guides is incredible. For some of the time on what is known as the ‘border trek’ you are actually trekking inside Congo rather than Uganda (the border is marked considerably short of where it shows on a GPS). On the plains and plantations at the foot of the volcanoes we saw immense flocks of several hundred astoundingly beautiful crowned cranes (national bird of Uganda).