Mgahinga Batwa Cultural Trail

Mgahinga Batwa Cultural Trail: Mgahinga Gorilla national park is the smallest montane rainforest national parks in Uganda located in the southwestern part of Uganda, Bufumbira County in Kisoro district bordering Volcanoes national park in Rwanda and Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mgahinga national park covers about 33.7 square kilometres, lies between the altitudes of 2227 meters and 4127 meters. Mgahinga national park harbours the three Virunga volcanoes namely Mount Muhabura which is 4127 meters high, Mount Gahinga which is 3,474 meters high and Mount Sabinyo which is 3,645 meters high. Mgahinga national park was gazette as a national park in 1991 and it was mainly established to protect and conserve the endangered mountain gorillas and the Golden monkeys blended with various wildlife species including 76 mammal species such as buffaloes, Forest elephants, giant forest hogs, bushbucks, leopards, spotted hyenas, black fronted duikers, and about 184 bird species among others.

The Batwa or pygmies people were the original inhabitants of the forests before Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park were gazetted into National Parks in 1991 and for the purposes of wildlife and environmental conservation, they were forced out of the world heritage parks recognized by the UNESCO to resettle in places outside the gazetted areas. The Batwa had to leave behind their native cultures and adapt to the ways of modern agriculture and pastoralism. This also meant that they were to let their original cultures die to the past and adapt to the modern era. 

However, the Mgahinga Batwa cultural trail one of the tourist activities in Mgahinga Gorilla national park usually done before or after the Mountain gorilla trekking experience in Mgahinga national park or Bwindi impenetrable national park, has created a way of teaching the world the Batwa rich culture so that their generations can find the written historical information about their origin and also attract the world to see the indigenous people of Uganda. The Mgahinga Batwa Cultural Trails gives visitors an experience into the ancient ways of the Batwa people who once lived within the forest and also explore their ancient cultures. The dense forests on the foothills of Virunga Volcanic Mountains used to be their comfortable homes where they were the fierce warriors who depended entirely on the forest for food and shelter, they used to hunt small animals, gather fruits and honey, used forest plants for medicine among others. 

The Mgahinga Batwa Cultural trail usually starts in the morning where you will report to the park head office and meet with the Batwa local guide; he will introduce himself then brief you about insights into their traditional forest life and culture before you start the walk. Thereafter, he will then proceed to first stop and kneel down at a certain hut to pray to the gods to bless the walk. This same spot is where the men in the ancient days used to kneel and pray to the gods before they venture into the forest to hunt. As you continue with the trail walk, you will also stop to pick some berries that the hunters of olden days used to consume as a meal before hunting. You will then continue to a local herb area in the forest where you will learn about the different plants and roots that the Batwa people used as medicine for things like herbs for stopping bleeding in women after child delivery, herbs for Malaria, Blood pressure and other ailments/diseases. For example the black covers of ant nests were used for treating Skin fungal infections and for other illnesses. You will also be shown the leaves that are always pounded into paste used to get rid of evil spirits. Surprisingly there is no plant within the forest that is not important, everything in it is useful. In the forest, what seems as a wild yellow fruit or plant, the Batwa people see it as a delicious vegetable sauce or even ingredients for a natural soap.

Still during the trail walk, you will visit the Archaic Batwa grass-thatched huts and you will be demonstrated on how those huts are constructed, maintained and shared among the Twa family, the women at the hut will demonstrate some family customs like cooking, taking care of the family and also perform a cultural dance where, as visitors, you will be kindly asked to join to participate.

At the end, you will then be invited to visit the sacred Ngarama Cave that was once a home to the Batwa King. The Garama cave was a sacred piece of Batwa history whereby they also used to hide in the cave from the Bantu invasion many years ago, also used it at a granary or storage area of the food staffs. In conclusion, they will demonstrate entirely their ways of life through hunting skills, music, dance, storytelling, and ways of gathering honey and if interested, they will demonstrate to you a medical plant that they use to make Bamboo cups, interesting!

With the sensitization and support from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Batwa people have managed to copy with the modern life which was quite hard for them were they were displaced from the forest. The Batwa now live in permanent houses, some of their children now go to school and others are employed to earn a living for their families. Their communities now are improved with medical centres, schools and markets where they can sell their products to visitors as a way to earn a living in this day modern era. 

The Mgahinga Batwa cultural trip itself is a way to help them earn revenue. This trail walk takes about 4 to 5 hours and to participate in this walk trail, both foreign non-residents and residents pay a fee of US$80 Per Person while East African citizens including Ugandans pay 50,000 Uganda Shillings per person on a daily. Part of the money collected is kept by Uganda Wildlife Authority to support Batwa Development projects like constructing schools while the other percentage is paid to the local Batwa guides so that they can be able to support their families and communities. 

Other activities done in Mgahinga National Park

Gorilla trekking is an activity where visitors hike or trek in the dense forests in search of the mountain gorillas and it is the most popular activity done in Mgahinga national park. Gorilla trekking activity starts early in the morning at Ntebeko park headquarters where visitors first have a briefing on what to expect before going into the forest with the guide who shows them the trails to use and shares knowledge about the gorillas. Mgahinga national park harbors one habituated gorilla family called Nyakagezi which is composed of about10 members. Gorilla trekking in Mgahinga national park allows a maximum of 8 people to trek Nyakagezi family on daily. The groups is allowed to spend one hour with the gorilla family in the natural habitat taking photos, learning more about the gorillas among others. Trekking gorillas in Mgahinga costs US$700 for Foreign Non Residents, US$600 for Foreign Residents and UGX 250, 000 for East African residents. Visitors are recommended to book gorilla permit should about 4 to 6 months in advance before the trekking date because the permits are highly competitive thus sold out quickly. 

Golden monkey trekking is another fascinating activity in Mgahinga national park. Mgahinga national park is the only place to see the Golden monkeys in Uganda with about 6 habituated golden monkey groups. Only a maximum of 6 people on a daily is allowed for an hour to be in the presence of the Golden monkeys while they play on tree branches as you take photos, and recording. Golden monkey trekking is best done in the morning where you hike through the bamboo forest and the activity takes about 2 to 5 hours depending on their location. Golden monkey trekking permits cost US$100 for Foreign Non Residents and Foreign Residents while 20,000 Uganda shillings for East African residents. 

Mountain climbing/Hiking is the most adventurous activity in Mgahinga national park. Given that it is located on the Virunga Mountains, Mountain climbing has been encountered on the Volcanoes. Mgahinga national park harbours the three Virunga volcano mountains namely; mount Muhavura which is the highest volcano among the 3 in Uganda with a high of 4,127 meters high. Hiking Mount Muhabura covers about 12km and it takes about 8hours to reach on top where you will use trails via the shrubs, rock grounds, small grasses among others. While on top, mount Muhavura Mountain provides views of the Rwenzori peaks, the other Virunga volcanoes, Bwindi forest, Lake Edward in Queen Elizabeth national park. 

Mount Sabinyo is 3,645 meters high and is challenging mountain among the three.  When hiking on Mount Sabinyo, you will pass through the trails filled with mushy vegetation hence needs one to dress up in hiking boots. The hike takes about 8 hours and while at the top, you will be standing in three countries at the same time that is Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Finally, Mount Gahinga is the smallest of the Virunag volcanoes at a height of 3,474 meters high covering a distance of 8 kilometres. While on the hiking, you will pass through the bamboo forest and while at the top, you will experience a swamp filled crater that is 180 meters wide and the stone piles in the gardens. The three volcanic mountains in Mgahinga national park can be climbed in a day as long as you are in good health and with physical ability.

Bird watching experience in Mgahinga national park is also one of the best birding destinations in Uganda. The park has recorded over 184 different bird species. Bird watching is best done in the morning where you are guided through the trials in the montane bamboo forest. You will spot different bird species such as Rwenzori Turaco, Rwenzori Batis, Handsome francolin, Kivu ground, Black headed waxbill, Bronze sunbird, Brown Crowned Tchagra, Cape robin chat, Western green tinker bird, Brown woodland warbler, Malachite sunbird, Striped breasted tit, White starred robin, Olive pigeon among others.

How to get to Mgahinga National Park

Mgahinga national park is located in southwestern Uganda and can be accessed by both air and road transport. By road, you can use private means by hiring a tour operator like Achieve Global Safaris to take you or take a public Bus to Kisoro town driving from Kampala via Masaka, Mbarara, Kabale, Kisoro and then to the park. The whole journey takes about 9-10 hours’ drive. By road, the park can also be accessed from Kigali-Rwanda for about 4-5 hours crossing via either Cyanika or Katuna border. By air the park can also be accessed by taking a domestic scheduled or charter flights from Entebbe international airport and landing in Kisoro Airstrip. Domestic flights are only scheduled in the morning given the changing weather conditions in the area of Kigezi.

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