HIKING MOUNT GAHINGA- THE SMALLEST OF THE VIRUNGA MOUNTAINS

I had never heard of Mount Gahinga prior to Matt Battani, the secretary of the Mountain Club of Uganda, who mentioned it to me. He recommended it as a less technical 6-8 hour day hike that could easily be fitted in over a weekend. This sparked so much excitement inside me as it meant I could head out to Kisoro, very close to the Rwanda-Uganda border, on a Friday afternoon after work, hike on Saturday and then return to Kampala on Sunday.

At first I thought about hiking Mount Gahinga on my own, hiring one or two UWA guides for protection and guidance, but I later thought involving other friends and club members would make it even more interesting.

So, on Friday the 18th of August, 5 of us were seated comfortably in a super custom van we had hired, 2 lovely American ladies named Pam and Kate, 2 amazing brothers Andrew and Richard that took the initiative to drive, and myself. Our Journey towards Kisoro commenced at around 3pm on that Friday afternoon amidst the chaotic Kampala traffic jam where vehicles on the road were either stationary of moving very slowly. It was such a relief to finally get out of Kampala by 5pm and to enjoy a more relaxing drive towards Kisoro.

Pam and Kate had carried along enough food to feed all of us (a very kind gesture that I still appreciate). We had chicken, salami, cheese, bread, chapatis and Crisps. Andrew brought along some Juice and alcohol one could easily think we were headed out for a feast rather than a hike. The journey took us a lengthy ten hours prompting us to fall asleep in the vehicle, we got to Kisoro town at about 2.30am, rung our UWA guide Zachariah (a lovely gentleman who was recommended to us by Matt). He was kind enough to ride his bike in the cold as he guided us towards the park entrance.

Andrew and I were struggling to set up the tent and catch some sleep. Pam and Kate were luckier as they opted to sleep at the Cabin lodges.  I usually prefer camping and sleeping in tents but the idea of setting up a massive tent at 3am in the brutal cold in Kisoro was not such an appealing idea. Richard opted to sleep in the car, but helped us pitch our tent and we all went to sleep. I felt my head had hardly touched the pillow and it was suddenly 7am and we were up.

I headed out to the communal bathroom to have a shower, an act I greatly regretted in all the ten minutes I was in there! The water was extremely cold that I almost thought I would die from hypothermia while showering. However, after dressing I was glad I had the shower as it played a great role in waking me up and getting me both mentally and physically prepared for the hike.

Reception Mgahinga
Mt.Gahinga Guide Team

After posing for a lovely group photo, our trek begun. Our team of 5 plus Zachariah had been joined by another guide, Ambrose. As we climbed, we could see the Mountain Gorillas in a nearby bush shaking leaves as they ate them for breakfast, Golden monkeys jumping from one tree to another, Astonishing views of Mount Sabinyo and Mount Muhavura from a distance that made me eager to return to Kisoro at a later date to hike them as well.

Mount Gahinga
Mt Gahinga vegetation

We encountered different types of vegetation with every ascent we made towards the summit of Muhavura. The bamboo trees were my favorite part of the hike. A set of tall, slender trees lined up against each other with hundreds of bird nests resting high up in the branches undisturbed. The trees provided a cool shade that made walking underneath them very mentally & physically relaxing. We occasionally halted at resting points for refreshments and to take memorable pictures.

The trek was quite easy in the start as the ground was quite level. However I started to feel a bit nauseous and dizzy as we began ascending towards the peak. I regretted the fact that I had not swallowed my Acetazolamide tablets to help with the altitude sickness. By slowing down and drinking plenty of water each time I felt nauseous, I was able to control it.

Pam was way ahead of us and at 62 years of age, I greatly admired her zeal and energy. She was as fit as a fiddle and she didn’t seem exhausted as she ascended the mountain like a true warrior until reaching the peak. She greatly inspired me and I am working hard to ensure I am as physically fit as Pam is when I get to her age.

Uganda Flag Celebration
Lorna celebrating with Uganda Flag

The view at the top was eye-catching and I took off my Ugandan flag and proudly raised it in the air. Pam, Zachariah and I took amazing photos at the top as we waited for the rest of the group to join us. The peak of Gahinga is the central location of all the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. That explained the various “Welcome to Congo” and “Welcome to Rwanda” texts I received from Tigo and Airtel telecommunication providers on my phone! It was a bit confusing as we were in three different countries at the same time – even the time zone had changed as we had adopted the Rwandan time zone that is an hour behind Uganda’s.

Ladder Ascent
Ladder time

The rest of the group arrived and we all settled down for delicious chicken sandwiches, cheese and salami, some fruit and juices. I usually avoid eating a lot during a hike so I opted for smaller food portions. We rested a bit, took some more photos and then began the descent. The hike downwards was much easier than the ascent and I admired how fast and comfortably Zachariah ran down the ladders. I felt jealous and secretly wished to get as fit and as steady on my feet as he was. I always feel a need to be extra careful while descending a mountain as the gravitational force seems stronger hence easier to slide and fall.

There was plenty of fresh buffalo dung along the trails which meant a heard of buffaloes had just walked passed the trail. This prompted Zachariah and I to wait for the rest of the group that were lagging behind for safety purposes. Ambrose had a gun with him which would come handy in case we needed it.  Zachariah and I sat under the shade of the bamboo trees, watching music videos on my phone, laughing, dancing, singing and just being silly till the rest caught up with us after an hour.

Mt.Gahinga Security
Zachariah
Gahing ascent
Mt.Gahinga Smiles

There was a bit of a downpour as we walked towards the camping site, resulting in a beautiful rainbow arcing across the sky in the distance. Too good a photo opportunity to miss, so we stood and posed for more photographs and walked back to base. It felt good taking off my shoes after an 11-hour hike. I opted for a hot relaxing shower and relaxed with a glass of vodka. I scrolled through the pictures on my phone and sent them  to my friends to intentionally make them jealous and to obviously market the beauty of Uganda.

The night was extremely cold but we managed to get some good sleep, woke up to an early start and drove back to Kampala.

I am glad to have added Mount Gahinga off my hiking conquest list and I am eagerly waiting to go back and hike Mount Sabinyo and Mount Muhavura to successfully complete the peaks that make up the Virunga Mountains.

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Ngamba Island -Chimp viewing and Birding

Ngamba Island is a chimpanzee sanctuary for 49 orphaned chimps currently. Numbers may continue to grow because of the illicit trade of chimps. Lucky enough there is an organization like the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and wildlife trust (CSWCT) an NGO that has taken it upon themselves with the support of donors to provide exceptional care to the chimps.

The chimps are confiscated and rescued throughout Uganda. They are later handed over to the wildlife authorities who entrust the chimps with the NGO.

Chimp viewing and Birding

A visit to this island is such a wonderful experience. My visits to this place have always been exciting. On my recent trip with friends we extended our trip to neighbouring  Koome Island for bird watching where we were surprised to see the Black bellied Bustard mostly seen at Lake Mburo National Park. Seeing the chimps feed is such a humbling experience. What impresses the onlooker is the time keeping and the gesture requests for food. Indeed they are man’s closet relatives .Chimps are fed four times a day on the Island. Chimp Intelligence is 98.7%.

These chimps are held behind an electric fence so that they do not escape. The NGO has done its best to keep them in the forest habitat alongside caged shelter. This is done to enable the chimps to assimilate to its original environment and also have a chance to closely look after them.

It is humbling to listen to the sanctuary care taker stories about their behavior especially the battle for the Alpha male position, grooming and looking after the young chimps. The rivalry for this position reminds me of the various leadership rivalries at School, Sports arenas and Politics where individuals compete for positions. The chimps are no exception since they are man’s closest relatives.

There are many activities at the Island available to the visitor that includes Chimpanzee feeding, visiting the nearby fishing villages, become a care giver for a day, go for a sunset cruise. If you are bird watching enthusiast, you can go birding at the nearby Koome Island.

Voluntering

Volunteer programs are also available at the Island and other natural habitats in western Uganda. This program gives you a firsthand insight into the conservation activities of these endangered species. This enables you the visitor to further educate yourself and the public about the importance of chimpanzee conservation .Meet Medina the chimp artist and other chimps with interesting stories. You have to be there yourself to capture the real stories.

Any visitor Restrictions: No visitor age restrictions. All are welcome.

Accommodation: Tented accommodation is available with additional camping tents.

A Night visitor will also be able to enjoy an evening camp fire.

Booking: Book directly with the Ngamba reservations office or tour operators like Rafiki Eco Safaris.

How to get there:

Ngamba Island is 23km on Lake Victoria. It can be accessed through Entebbe by boat. The boats cater for various groups and budgets. Traditional motorized canoe takes 90 minutes. Speed boats travel for approximately 45- 50 minutes. Half and day boat trips leave at 9:00am or 12:45pm.