Personal Take: Hikes in Gorilla Parks of Rwanda and Uganda

Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo

Marcus’s introduction to our series of walking articles reminded me of my unique position: I must be one of the few who have done (almost) everything in all mountain gorilla parks of Uganda and Rwanda. I am also a lover of walking trips and it’s kinda my duty to share with others like me!

Then again, I don’t want my strong opinions to overpower any facts, so I will begin every section with brief descriptions of the hikes available. The stress is on “available” — I have checked with our Gorilla Highlands Experts in the three parks to establish which trails are in active use. (For Bwindi Impenetrable National Park five top staff got involved, that’s how comprehensive this article is!)

I have purposely stayed away from mentioning any simplified difficulty levels. The number of hours these hikes take is the best indicator of how ready you need to be for them, and the rest is rather subjective. My “somewhat hard” could be your “I’m about to die”.  Unlike the other two parks, Bwindi is not about volcanoes so walking hours there could be easier on you.

Hiking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

Volcano Climbing:

Mount Bisoke (3,711m/12,175ft)
5 hours; main attraction: top crater lake

Mount Gahinga (3,474m/11,400ft)
5 hours; main attraction: top pretty swamp (read more about Gahinga here — written from the Ugandan side but still valid)

Mount Karisimbi (4,507m/14,787ft)
2 days; main attraction: highest mountain of the Virungas

Mount Muhabura (4,127m/13,500ft)
8 hours; main attraction: top crater lake

Other Hikes:

Lake Nagezi
3 hours; main attraction: shortest and cheapest hike giving you a bit of Mount Bisoke

Karisoke Research Center
1.5 hours; main attraction: graves of Dian Fossey and her gorillas

Pricing:

Karisimbi: foreign visitors USD 400; foreign residents USD 250; East Africans USD 200; Rwandans RWF 30,000; students RWF 15,000
Lake Nagezi: foreign visitors USD 55; foreign residents USD 45; East Africans USD 35; Rwandans RWF 3,500; students RWF 2,000
others: foreign visitors USD 75; foreign residents USD 65; East Africans USD 55; Rwandans RWF 4,000; students RWF 2,000

There are discounts on all of the below valid till 31 December 2022: 10% off for individual travellers, 15% off for family visits.

Review:

First of all, the Karisoke Research Center hike only makes sense if you are personally attached to Mrs Fossey and wish to see where she rests in the company of her primates. There is not much else you will find there, and that is frankly a pity. Any valuable Karisoke items have been transferred to the small museum at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Musanze Town, and the historical buildings are gone — almost without a trace.

Second of all, I must admit I did not climb Gahinga (“pile of stones” in the local language) from the Rwandan side, nor experience Lake Nagezi. The other three hikes are great and highly recommended.

Bisoke (“soaked with water” in the local language) is that perfect mountain for anyone, not too demanding and with a beautiful lake awaiting you up there.

Camping under the peak of Karisimbi is special and cold. You need to bring your own tent, but there is a roof to pitch it under. The top is not a pristine mountain environment you might expect, it’s more like an abandoned communication site with some broken gear … The wind can be outrageous, and that whiteness you sometimes see from below (giving the mountain its vernacular “white shells” name) proved to be ice. But the views towards Lake Kivu and towards the rest of the volcanoes make it more than worth it, and the vegetation is spectacular.

The Muhabura climb is the only time in my life that I did not reach a mountain peak — “the guide” was too steep, too intense and we started too late in the morning to allow for a peaceful, gradual ascent. The rangers tell you to turn around at some point. Funnily enough, Marcus also didn’t manage, on a separate occasion. He is younger and fitter than I and his somewhat valid excuse is a torrential rainstorm high on the volcano. Have you gotten the picture by now? Muhabura from the Rwandan side is only for the connoisseur!

Hiking in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Volcano Climbing:

Mount Gahinga (3,474m/11,400ft)
6 hours; main attraction: top pretty swamp (read more about Gahinga here)

Mount Muhavura (4,127m/13,500ft)
10 hours (or a 2-day trip — read more about this new option); main attraction: top crater lake

Mount Sabinyo (3,669m/12,000ft)
10 hours; main attraction: spot where Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo meet.

Other Hikes:

Sabinyo Gorge Walk
5 hours; main attraction: waterfall at the end

Pricing:

Volcanoes: foreign visitors USD 80; foreign visitors USD 70; East Africans UGX 50,000
Sabinyo Gorge: foreign visitors USD 70; foreign residents USD 45; East Africans UGX 35,000

Review:

While it is super simple to advise people about Volcanoes National Park (Have one day? Do Bisoke! Have two? Do Karisimbi!), Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a different case altogether. All the four hikes listed above are worth it — provided there has been enough rain to make the grand finale of Sabinyo Gorge walk, the waterfall, attractive enough.

Let’s stop there for a moment. This walk takes you into the lush world below Sabinyo, most of it upstream a brook that originates right from the fall under the vertical wall of the mountain. This is also one of the best birding areas of Mgahinga.

People afraid of heights should avoid climbing the peaks above the gorge, due to its many tall ladders. If you don’t have that problem, Sabinyo is the most “mountain” experience, because of its rocks and three peaks. It’s name means “old man’s teeth”, that’s how rugged it is. The vistas towards the gorge are especially pretty, and there is no lack of fabulous flora.

Muhavura Uganda-style is demanding but very much doable. The recent addition of an optional overnight stay makes it a no-brainer for anyone wanting to experience the lovely lake at its top. … Talking about that, I did experience it fully — I swam in it for some seconds and “freezing” doesn’t begin to describe it — but I am sad to report that such adventures aren’t allowed anymore. “We are not sure of the safety and even the quality of water,” explains Moses, the tourism warden.

Gahinga is a great option for those who aren’t very physically ready. Moses has previously made a good case for it.

Hiking in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Buhoma Gate:

Buhoma Gate to Nkuringo Gate
5 hours; main attraction: crossing the national park, including a beautiful river junction

River Ivi Trail
2.5 hours (with car pickup); main attraction: easy crossing of the national park

Munyaga Waterfall Trail
3 hours; main attraction: three waterfalls

Munyanga River Trail
half an hour; main attraction: free self-guided trip

Ruhija Gate:

Swamp Trail
3 hours; main attraction: great for birding

Rushaga Gate:

Rushaga Waterfall Trail
3 hours; main attraction: waterfall

Mpororo Trail
5 hours; main attraction: different monkey species, butterflies, birds

Nkuringo Gate:

Nkuringo Gate to Buhoma Gate (also known as the Buffer Zone Walk)
4 hours; main attraction: crossing of the national park, including a beautiful river junction

River Ivi Trail
2.5 hours; main attraction: easy crossing of the national park

Circular Trail
6 hours; main attraction: Munyaga waterfalls

Pricing:

Foreign visitors USD 70; foreign residents USD 45; East Africans UGX 35,000

Review:

The one hike you surely have to consider putting on your Uganda itinerary is the “gate to gate” option (red on the map). It allows you to efficiently make it to the other side of the national park, with the deep green splendour of Bwindi on full display. It’s far better than the miles of rough roads that would take most of your day stuck in car. But there is a caveat: it is much easier to do it from Nkuringo to Buhoma than the other way around …

Honestly, when I did it from Buhoma to Nkuringo, I was tired enough at one point to humbly ask our ranger how much more there was. “We are almost half way,” he said to my dismay.

We were half way the tiresome climb that lifts you from Bwindi to the village of Nkuringo lying on a ridge (600m/2,000ft altitude difference). But if Nkuringo, not Buhoma, is your starting point, this literally is a walk in(to) a park!

The best part of this route is the narrow forest path that leads through the dense woods, across a peaceful river junction that can even offer a quick dip in a pond. Swimming in the middle of a rainforest does feel special!

The rest is shockingly wide and easy. No wonder: you are on a route cleared in 1970 to become a motorway! To conservationists’ relief cars never came to be, but when you walk it you do notice the difference. Not exactly what you would expect crossing the Impenetrable Forest … It plays a fascinating role in the lives of the local people — they use it to walk to village markets, so you will likely have company.

This “road” route transitions into the Ivi River Trail (yellow on the map), an excellent option for weaker hikers. It is ascending/descending gently and it is 15km/9mi shorter than Gate to Gate. But you do need a driver to help you with the Nkuringo ridge.

Note that the triple waterfalls of Munyaga lie close to the Gate to Gate/Ivi River route. Branching off to see them (purple on the map) adds an extra hour to your experience but is more than worth it.

If you are stationed in Buhoma and have no need to cross the park, doing the Munyaga Waterfall Trail should be your top choice. 2km/1.2mi from Buhoma, you branch off the cleared route we already discussed. You turn left onto a winding path that climbs through the forest and tree ferns to three waterfalls, the highest measuring 33m/100ft.

The Munyaga Waterfalls will also be your highlight if you do the Circular Trail from Nkuringo. This activity includes the best parts of Gate to Gate, and after you are done with the waterfalls you turn back using the Ivi River Trail. A vehicle pickup is necessary.

I have unfortunately not done the hikes at the Rushaga gate, so let me conclude with Ruhija: its only nature walk, to the swamp, is lovely. But let my old video do the talking …

photo by Marcus Westberg

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