Mgahinga gorilla national park which was once a home for the minority Batwa is located in the southwestern region of Uganda in Kisoro district. The park is situated 519 kilometers from Kampala the capital city and is a 9-10 hours’ drive by road. Mgahinga gorilla national park is the smallest national park in Uganda lying at the coordinates of 1.3641° S, 29.6383° E at the altitude range of 2227 m and 4127 m covering an area of 33.7 sq. km bordering Rwanda’s volcanoes national park in the south and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga national park in the west.
Mgahinga gorilla national park is part of the great Virunga conservation area covering 8 % of 434 sq. kilometers covered by the region (Virunga conservation area which consists of Mgahinga national park, Virunga national park, and volcano national park), the park was first established in 1930 by the British administration as a game sanctuary purposely to conserve the rare endangered mountain gorillas. In 1991 it was declared a national park because of its ecologically potential and currently it is governed by the wildlife authority.
Mgahinga gorilla national park derives its name from a local slag “gahinga” meaning piles of volcanic stones which were collected from farmlands at the slopes of the volcanoes while carrying out farming activities, covering 3 out of the eight Virunga volcanoes that are Mount Muhavura, Mt Gahinga, and Mount Sabyinyo. Mgahinga forest national park is the coldest national park in Uganda experiencing average temperatures of 68°F/20°C during the day and 9°C/48°F in the evening. Basically, its colder during evening times and the temperatures drop by 6.5°C every 1000 m you climb. The park also experiences two heavy rainy seasons of March to May and September to November with October as the wettest month, July is the driest month but it is not so dry as it can rain anytime.
Mgahinga gorilla national park is 15kilometres from Kisoro, 55 kilometers from Kabale and 160.5 km from Rwanda with the main Ntebeke gate which is accessible from Kisoro since the park is located in Virunga conservation area. The slopes of volcanoes in Mgahinga forest national park are covered with various vegetation types of bamboo forests, Albertine Rift montane, Rwenzori –Virunga montane moorlands and the alpine on higher altitudes.
Mgahinga gorilla national park is safe and secure for tourist activities but it has occasions of insecurity for example in November 2013 the park was a battlefield where the M23 movement a Congolese rebel group was defeated by the Congolese army in a war termed as M23 rebellion.
Mgahinga gorilla national park is significant for it is cultural importance particularly for the hunter-gatherers Batwa pygmy community who were the early ancient settlers of Mgahinga together Bwindi impenetrable national park and also for its biologically diverse ecological system which consists of many attractions which are a reason to why Mgahinga gorilla national park is a famous destination in Uganda and Africa at large. These attractions include:
- Batwa trail. The Batwa trail launched on 7th June 2011 depicts the life of the ancient people of the forest the Batwa who were the inhabitants of the forests before the gazetting of the park in 1991, the Batwa pygmy people were hunter-gatherers who depended on the forest as a home, unfortunately, they were forcefully displaced from the forests to areas neighboring the forests. The Batwa trail starts from the base of Muhavura cave a living museum where tourists get a chance to learn and be informed about the lives of the pygmy people.
- Birding: Mgahinga gorilla national park is a home to a variety of bird species approximately over 115 bird species with specifically Albertine Rift Mountains endemic species, Bird species in Mgahinga gorilla national park include firefinch, dusky crimson wing, Kivu ground-thrush, Olive Pigeon, Olive woodpecker White-necked raven, double-collared sunbird, pin-tailed whydah, black kite and many more.
- Golden monkeys: Golden monkeys are rare endangered primates with a black and orange patch on their upper flanks, they live in a group of family members with an adult male as a leader.
- Virunga Volcanos: Mgahinga gorilla national park lies on the slopes of three volcanoes that are mount Sabyinyo which is 3645m of height with three peaks and derives its name a local name Iryinyo meaning a tooth, mount Muhavura which is the third highest volcano among the 8 Virunga volcanoes a height of 4127 m and mount Gahinga of 3474m of height, which derives its name from a local Rufumbira word meaning pile of stones.
- Galama cave: Galama cave is found 3 km from Ntebeke for many years it was once home to the pygmy Batwa people of the forest, the cave is 342 meters long and 14 meters of deep
- Mountain gorilla: mountain gorillas are the major attraction of Mgahinga gorilla national park attracting the highest percentage of tourists for gorilla trekking, with only one habituated gorilla family in the names of Nyakagezi which consists of 9 members, 2 silvers bucks, 3 adults females, 2 juveniles and 2 infants. This group is mobile as it occasionally crosses to Rwanda.
Mgahinga gorilla national park offers the following activities
Bird watching. Mgahinga gorilla national park harbors many beautiful various bird species, with over 155 species the park is very ideal for tourists interested in bird watching which it can be done throughout the year, through April to Mid-May and October to November being the best times since there are migratory birds which come into the park in the months of November to April. Birds, for example, Olive Thrush, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Bronze Sunbird, Regal Sunbird, Blue-headed Sunbird, Rwenzori Batis, Black-headed Waxbill, and Streaky Seedeater can be seen in the gorge between mount Gahinga and mount Sabinyo and in three bamboo and montane forests.
Gorilla trekking. Gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla national park is a wonderful experience which involves tracking down the habituated gorilla family of Nyakagezi of 9 members. Gorilla trekking requires a tourist to purchase a permit from the Uganda wildlife authority at a cost of US $ 600 for each person allowing only one hour with the mountain gorillas, a tourist can purchase it personally or through a trusted tour operator. Mountain gorillas are shy humble creatures but they can become aggressive in case of any threat or attack when triggered. That is why Gorilla trekking rules and regulations were drafted to ensure that humans behave while in the forest. For example, no making unnecessary movements, ill tourists are not allowed into the park, no taking of photos while the flashlight is on. Gorilla trekking is not an easy expedition that’s why it has gorilla trekking essentials which are a must have to trekkers. For example, a porter to carry the bags, a walking stick, long-sleeved shirts, hard trousers, and strong boot shoes. The best time to go for gorilla trekking is during the dry months of June, July, August, September because the trail is easy to navigate through.
Golden monkey tracking. Mgahinga gorilla national park is a home to the endangered golden monkeys which more than 300 in number according to thee statics of 2003, golden monkey tracking can last can last for 4 hours as you track for the beautifully colored primates with long golden hair, orange mixed into it along with its black limbs in their habituated state. Golden monkey tracking can take four hours and as an exhausting journey you need the following items Insect repellent, day pack for your lunch as the trek might take more than longer than expected, water for drinking for rehydration purposes, wear long sleeved shirts, trousers, waterproof hiking boots and a good mood and a walking stick .
Batwa trail. The batwa trail takes the tourists through the life of the ancient early habitants of the forest the batwa people who were evicted from the forests during the gazetting of national parks, as the trail begins you meet the batwa guides and as you proceed you will get inform of the traditional practices of hunting, herb picking and collecting of water using bamboo stems. Galama cave and Muhavura cave are part of the trail, these two caves are of a greater significance to the life of the Batwa as they were used hiding places during times of conflicts and their treasures, and they were also homes for the kings
Nature walks. Nature walks in mgahinga national park are very breathing taking as you fall many trails, for example, one trail which begins from Ntebeke through the bamboo forest, this trail is very ideal for bird interested tourists as they are seen around the Sabinyo gorge and also in golden monkeys can be seen in the bamboo forest. Another trail leads to Rugezi swamps and this location you can see elephants and other birds, you can also choose a trail which goes to garama cave which was used as a court for the Batwa which is 4 km from ntebeke, there is also border trail.
Hiking. Hiking in mgahinga gorilla national park takes places on the slopes of three volcanoes that is gahinga, muhavura and sabinyo. It is one of the most thrilling adventures in the park. Hiking to the summits of these volcanos can take a day each and you get to see many animals from mountain gorillas to golden monkeys and many bird species as you go through bamboo forest. Hiking requires specific essentials, for example, a porter to help you carry the bags, hiking stick with hiking boots, packaged lunch as its take more time