An alternative view of Uganda, from the top of one (or more) extinct volcanoes…
By Charlotte Beauvoisin
Do you fancy the chance to encounter some new primates … and to step back thousands of years in time to acquaint yourselves with the Batwa ‘pygmy’ tribe, Africa’s oldest people? Then read on!
Who can help but fall in love with the fabulous scenery of south-western Uganda? The combination of high-peaked volcanoes and low-lying lakes look like a scene from a film set. By far the most enchanting setting from which to view the volcanic peaks is from Mount Gahinga Lodge, nestled at the base of Mounts Sabyinyo, Muhavura and Gahinga, and just a few minutes’ walk from Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda’s smallest National Park.
What is so special about Mgahinga?
Mgahinga is one of the best spots in the country for hiking and walking and Mount Gahinga Lodge is located close to the three extinct, volcanic mountains of Muhavura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo, all of them offering incredible hikes.
The hike up Mount Sabyinyo (3,634m) takes 8-9 hours in total, there and back, and you will need to be fairly fit. The jagged appearance of the mountain’s three peaks gives the volcano its name – ‘old man’s teeth’. The reward for Sabyinyo’s steep climb is the chance to summit three countries simultaneously: Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC meet at the peak, at their tri-point, common boundary.
Climbing the distinct, cone-shaped Mount Muhuvura (4,127m) ‘The Guide’ is the most demanding. Although not technically demanding, it can nevertheless be tough, sometimes cold and often muddy. The round trip hike takes between 8-10 hours but the ascent is well worth it, for the dramatic changes in vegetation, the chance to swim in a crater lake and breath-taking views as far north as the Rwenzoris.
Mount Gahinga (3,474m) is the lowest in the Virunga volcano range. The climb first takes you through bamboo forest at the volcano’s base. At the top of the volcano is a shallow crater floor, covered in swamps and moors, where plants like Alchemillia, Senecio and Lobelia thrive. The Mount Gahinga hike takes between a half and a full day, depending on the strength of the climbers and the time spent at the summit.
But you’re on holiday… and strenuous activity is not compulsory! Even if you’re not trekking or hiking, there are an abundance of well-organised shorter walks and activities, well within the vicinity of Mount Gahinga Lodge. The Batwa Village Walk, Caldera Walk and Buffalo Wall Walk are just a few of them.
Mgahinga has good park infrastructure
A visit to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is highly recommended. This Park has few visitors, so you may well get to experience it with just a ranger or two for company. On one visit, we stumbled across a tortoise! On another, we disturbed a Bushbuck not far from the visitor centre (quite unusual, according to our UWA guide).
As well as being home to a variety of birds, the forest boasts a great diversity of animal life, including duiker, buffalo, serval cats and forest elephants!
Mgahinga boasts some of Uganda Wildlife Authority’s best infrastructure. There is a state-of-the-art information centre and an excellent viewing platform, just a 15 minute walk uphill from the main entrance.
This little corner of the country has tourism headline acts such as the Mountain Gorillas.
Why headline? That’s because the Nyakagezi family group has a total of five Silverbacks. Everyone who has tracked this gorilla family says how engaging and entertaining they are.
For a number of years, the Nyakagezi family (the only habituated gorilla family in Mgahinga) was known to wander across the border into Rwanda or the DRC. They have stayed on the Uganda side of the border for approaching three years now, so it is highly likely you will see them.
Trekking in Mgahinga will take the walker through light woodland and bamboo forest, rather than the thicker jungle that is characteristic of Bwindi. You will also be rewarded with some incredible views of the surrounding landscape.
Mgahinga is home to the less well-known Golden Monkey
This rarely-promoted activity is an absolute winner! If you love wildlife encounters and have enjoyed tracking the gorillas or the chimpanzees, then the Golden Monkeys in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park should definitely be on your wildlife wish list.
The endangered Golden Monkey, also known as the Blue Monkey, can be found in the foothills of the volcanic Virunga Mountains of Mgahinga and in the Parc National de Virunga. They thrive in the rich, bamboo forests of the Virunga mountain range.
Bird watching – look out for the Rwenzori Turaco
Birdwatchers will delight in the great array of bird species in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
According to UWA: “The 3-4 hour Sabyinyo Gorge Walk takes you through the forest in the Park initially and then continues deep into the gorge Itself. This walk offers some excellent birding opportunities.”
The trail between Gahinga and Sabyinyo can provide spectacular sightings of the Dusky Turtle Dove, Cape Robinchat, Kivu Groundthrush, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Bronze Sunbird, Regal Sunbird, Blueheaded Sunbird, Rwenzori Batis and Black-headed Waxbill. The Rwenzori Turaco is mostly sighted at an altitude of around 2,700m. Along the Uganda-Congo border and on level ground, the Chubb’s Cisticola, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Banded Prinia and Doherty’s Bush Shrike are vocal yet inconspicuous inhabitants of the tangled vegetation at the forest’s edge.
Who are the Batwa? Meet Africa’s oldest tribe
The Batwa are the original inhabitants of the forest. They were subsequently evicted in the 1990’s, as a result of international pressure to protect the gorillas and their forest habitat. The Batwa had spent their whole lives in the forest. They hunted and they gathered. They did not farm, nor did they keep livestock.
Unfortunately the Twa people, having little understanding of land ownership, were unable to produce legal documents proving the forest was theirs. As a result, they received no compensation for being evicted from their ancestral homeland. There was no plan for how they would survive in the world outside the forest and, more than two decades later, the Batwa community is still suffering. With no land of their own, they are squatters and casual labourers. Without land or regular income, they have limited access to education and healthcare.
The Batwa Heritage Trail at Mount Gahinga Lodge remains a highlight of my trip to Mgahinga and offers a fascinating glimpse of the ancient life of the Batwa. Its simplicity belies how highly evolved their traditional lifestyle was. On this interactive tour, members of the Batwa demonstrate how to light a fire the traditional way – using dry sticks! They describe the healing powers of traditional herbs, and show you the children’s nursery up in the trees. Dressed in hides and adorned with flowers, Sarah and Steven, and other members of the community, invite you into their hut. They show you how to set a snare to catch an animal. You can even try your hand at shooting a bow and arrow.
The impoverished and landless Batwa community are slowly learning skills such as farming and sewing. Educational levels remain extremely low. It is, therefore, impressive to see the small but growing range of products that are available to buy from the Batwa Vocational Centre. Their basket ware is of good quality, as is the selection of knitted woolly hats and matching scarves. Next to the vocational centre is a small plot of land, owned by the VSPT (Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust), that is used as a demonstration garden.
The Batwa Cultural Dance Group performs every week at Mount Gahinga Lodge for guests, who are warmly encouraged to join in with the dancing. The three volcanoes provide a picture-perfect backdrop to the traditional dancing routines.
The weekly dance draws in big crowds of children. They love it when visitors join in with the dancing. Through dance, the Batwa communicate their traditions to their children and to the wider community. It should be noted that the Batwa are a minority group in the area; the major local tribe are the Bafumbira, with whom relations have not always been easy. Performing the Batwa dance helps preserve their cultural heritage, so they can pass it onto the next generation. Without such initiatives, the Batwa culture would otherwise quickly die out. Dance also helps build trust and understanding between the different communities.
All of these projects have been developed by the VSPT and are supported by clients at Mount Gahinga Lodge. Taking part in these activities is included as part of a visitors stay at the lodge.
Where to stay
Mount Gahinga Lodge is a luxury eco-lodge a few minutes’ walk from the Park entrance. Other accommodation is available, an hour’s drive away, in Kisoro.
The lodge’s nine bandas (rooms) are each named after volcanoes in the Virunga chain and are based around traditional ‘Pygmy’ huts, but come with the modern comforts of solar heated showers and flushing toilets, fireplaces in every room and a complimentary massage for every guest. The three-course meals are scrumptious.
If Ugandans are generally described as friendly, then the staff employed at this secluded and intimate lodge must be Uganda’s friendliest! Amron, the Lodge Manager and Herbert, of Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT), are full of information about the local community, the geography of the volcanoes, the birdlife in the lodge gardens and the various Batwa activities. They can also advise on the various UWA activities in the National Park.
I love the lodge for its remote location, the brilliant community initiatives and the sensitive planting of trees in the gardens to attract a diversity of birdlife. I knew very little about the Batwa ‘Pygmies’ before my conversations with the VSPT. It was a real education.
How to get to Mgahinga
- Treat yourself. Fly with Aerolink from Entebbe to Kisoro Airstrip. This is an adventure in itself. Take an early morning flight and arrive at the lodge in time for a late (huge!) breakfast. En route (weather permitting) enjoy views of Lake Victoria and its islands, lakeside villages and the undulating landscape of south-western Uganda, culminating in the peaks of the volcanoes of the Virunga chain.
- If you have more time, it’s a day’s drive to reach Mgahinga, which is approximately an hour from Kisoro, and three hours from Kabale.
- An alternative route is to fly to Kigali. From there it is a four hour drive to Mount Gahinga Lodge, across one international border.
Unlike some of the more “touristy” areas, you’re unlikely to get harassed by anyone in Gahinga. The children may sing “muzungu” at you as you pass, but requests for money or pens are rare, thanks to the excellent community initiatives run by VSPT and UWA. We all need reminding occasionally that begging really doesn’t help anyone in the longer term, since the danger is that children get used to earning a quick and easy buck from tourists and are then tempted to drop out of school. The locals understand that support through sustainable projects is far better for the community as a whole.