kigezi highlands

Kigezi highlands: The tourism hub in southwest Uganda

The Kigezi highlands are located in southwest Uganda covering a number of districts including Kabale, Kisoro, Kanungu, and Rukungiri districts. The hills are bordered by Virunga massif and Rwanda to the south and DR Congo to the east.

The national parks of Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable national park, both of which are known for harbouring mountain gorillas, are also geographically part of the Kigezi highlands. Due to the presence of mountain gorillas in these parks, people often refer to the place as the “gorilla highlands.”

kigezi highlands

The altitude range of Kigezi hills is between 1,500 – 2,700 meters above sea level. Below the steep mountains there are lava dammed lakes with beautiful islands including Bunyonyi, Chahafi, Mutanda, and Mulehe. The presence of all these has made Kigezi the ultimate destination for hiking, trekking, canoeing, and road trips through tropical forests and rural villages.

The lakes and terraced hills make Kigezi highlands one of the most spectacular landscapes in East Africa. They have been dubbed “Switzerland of Africa”, because of their resemblance to the Swiss Alps. To capture beautiful sights like Muko town, keen photographers might require permission to fly a drone. 

Culture and people

kigezi highlands

The People who inhabit Kigezi region include Batwa pygmies, Bafumbira, and the Bakiga. According to the book titled “Kigezi and its People” by Paul Ngologoza, the Bakiga introduced the terrace farming system to make use of steep terrain. Kigezi offers the best cultural tours in Uganda including visiting the Batwa trails in Mgahinga and Echuya forest. Canoeing, boat trips, and walking tours on the islands of Lake Bunyonyi are available for booking through a tour operator. Due to the nature of terrain, how men and women get along with making a living involves hard work such as fetching water downhill. You can also help by supporting the community clean water development project at Bakiga lodge in the Bwindi gorilla sector of Ruhija. 

The fertile volcanic soils are suitable for growing sorghum, irish potatoes, fruits and vegetables. Many people have settled there for green pastures in farming including Bafumbira (who speak Kinyarwanda) and Banyankole. Today, Kigezi is one of Uganda’s densely populated regions in Uganda. With over 300 people per sq.km and a growth rate of about 2.2% per annum, people depend on natural resources such as medicinal plants, water, and firewood. People live and cultivate both the valleys, mid, and steep slopes, which requires that people plant more trees to prevent soil erosion and landslides. Despite the dense population, there has always been appreciation of Eco tourism in Bwindi, Mgahinga, and Echuya forest reserve. Benefits of gorilla tourism revenue inspires people to preserve nature. 

Attractions in Kigezi highlands

Kigezi is mostly known for gorilla trekking safaris to Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable forest national parks. However, there are several attractions in Kigezi including Echuya forest reserve and lakes such as Bunyonyi, Mulehe, Chahafi, and Mutanda. The two protected areas are rich in biodiversity including mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, chimpanzees, and forest elephants. There are also Albertine rift endemic species of birds. Bwindi alone is famous for harboring 23, which is almost 90% of the Albertine rift endemics. 

Echuya forest reserve 

kigezi highlands

Echuya forest reserve is 13 km from Mgahinga, 5 km east of Lake Bunyonyi, and 15 km from Kabale town. The forest can also be accessed through the Kabale -Kisoro road, which winds through the northern section. The dense forest covers 34 sq.km of which 80% consists of medium semi-deciduous tree species such as macaranga kilimandscharica and African redwood (hagenia abyssinica). The southern part is made up of bamboo and the 7-sq.km Muchuya swamp.

At high altitude between 2,270 – 2,570 meters. Echuya is rich in biodiversity including 152 species of birds of which 18 are Albertine rift endemics including the Grauer’s swamp warbler, dwarf honeyguide, and archer’s robin chat. For that reason, Echuya is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and one of the best birding spots in Uganda. In addition, Echuya is also home to both primate species such as blue monkeys and small mammals including African golden and serval cats, side striped jackal, and servaline genet. The reserve is managed by Uganda Wildlife Authority in partnership with National Forestry Authority who have developed trails and projects for the adjacent communities. Echuya offers the opportunity for Batwa pygmy cultural encounters and a swamp walk.

Bwindi impenetrable national park

kigezi highlands

Bwindi is famous for harboring 459 gorillas, which is almost 50% of the world mountain gorilla population of which 22 gorilla families have been habituated for tourism. There are 4 gorilla trekking locations in Bwindi including Buhoma (the park’s headquarters), Rushaga, Nkuringo, and Ruhija. When choosing a destination, one must carefully examine the nature of terrain, lodging, interest in gorilla families, and other activities. Unlike other places to see gorillas, Bwindi is the only park that offers two options to see gorillas which include gorilla trekking and gorilla habituation experience. Both of these activities are available for booking through a tour operator or Uganda Wildlife Authority head offices in Kampala capital city. Treks in Bwindi can be challenging due the nature of terrain. Bwindi has dense tropical forests and steep mountains. 

Mgahinga gorilla national park

kigezi highlands

Mgahinga gorilla national park is one of the 3 protected areas in the Virunga massif – a chain of 8 volcanic mountains of which 2 are active including Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. The Mufumbiro mountain range straddles the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo. Mgahinga interconnects with Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park and Virunga park in DR Congo. 

The Virunga area is home to 603 gorillas of which over 100 are found in Mgahinga. Uganda Wildlife Authority has habituated only 1 gorilla family Nyakagezi with 9 individuals including silverback. Covering 34 sq.km, the park is the smallest in Uganda, but has 3 dormant volcanoes to hike including Muhabura, Sabinyo, and Gahinga. Much of the park is covered by bamboo vegetation which is a habitat for golden monkeys, a species of old world monkeys endemic to Virunga area. Mgahinga also provides tracking and habituation opportunities for golden monkeys in addition to gorillas. Given that the foliage is less dense, hikes in the park are less taxing. Although climbing the volcano can be difficult, going down is much simpler. 

The complex of lava dammed lakes 

Kigezi consists of over 6 lakes including Bunyonyi, Mulehe, Mutanda, Chahafi, Nakasanda, and Kayumba. They are the best spots to unwind immediately after gorilla trekking or volcano hike in Mgahinga. Lake Bunyonyi boasts a wide range of accommodations and activities such as canoeing and boat rides than the others. Mulehe, Mutanda, and Chahafi have a few lodgings and offer activities like boat rides and canoeing too. Both lakes are lava dammed formed due to volcanic eruption 18,000 years ago, which resulted in lava flow blocking waterways.  

Lake Bunyonyi

kigezi highlands

Lake Bunyonyi has19 islands and is the most beautiful of all. Bunyonyi means ‘a place of many little birds’ in English, making for a key birding spot. There are over 200 species including the endangered gray crowned crane. The canoe is the most important mode of transport used to move across the 2nd deepest in Africa. Due to the steep slopes, the lake is too deep with an average depth of over 39 meters. There are no hippos, crocodiles, and the risk of bilharzia is very low. Swimming in lake Bunyonyi is recommended for experienced swimmers. There are diving platforms at lodges including Bird Nest and Bunyonyo rock resort. However, you should take caution to protect yourself against water borne infections or typhoid fever. Motorized canoes and boats offer the quickest way to explore the islands of lake Bunyonyi. Each island has its own unique history. 

Kahugye island

For instance, Kahugye, the second largest island of Bunyonyi covers 35 acres. It almost looks like a garden with different tree species such as black wattles (acacia mearnsii), figs and eucalyptus which support wildlife including zebras and over 60 species of birds. The story behind the name Kahugye, which means madness in English, is about a man with 12 wives who once lived on the island. He offered sacrifices by slaughtering a cow every year to please them. His animals eventually got finished, which troubled him mentally and made him act like a lunatic hence the name of the island.

Punishment island

Another island with an interesting story is Akampene, known as the punishment island. There was a time in Kigezi when pregnancy before marriage was prohibited. For young girls who disobeyed, a severe punishment included tying them up, abandoning them on an island, and then leaving them to starve and die. Many girls lost their lives, however. The lucky ones would survive at the mercy of the young men wanting to marry but had little to pay as dowry. So, they would frequently check the islands to see who was there. The tradition lasted until the mid 20th century when Christian missionaries arrived and disregarded it as primitive. Leonard Sharp and his wife settled on Bwama, the largest island of lake Bunyonyi. They established a hospital to treat leprosy patients, however, it was too isolated, so he went to a neighboring Njuyeera (Sharp’s island) and constructed a cottage to live in. 

Lake Mulehe 

Lake Mulehe is 21 km (45 min drive) south of Mgahinga gorilla and 81 km (2-hour drive) south of Ruhija sector Bwindi. As a midpoint between the two destinations, it is easier to visit both gorillas and golden monkeys whilst staying at Lake Mulehe safari lodge. The place is suitable for those intending to travel with children. Given that kids can be left behind doing other activities at the lodge. The lodge offers accommodation, restaurant, bar, making for an inclusive stay.

Lake Chahafi 

Lake Chahafi, located 22 km southeast of Kisoro town, is a good area to unwind before or after visiting Mgahinga gorilla national park. Chahafi Resort, with 9 cottages overlooking the lake, is the sole lodge on the lake. Flanked by Mount Muhabura and the Kigezi highlands, the place is spectacular for keen photographers.

Lake Mutanda 

Lake Mutanda has spectacular views of 5 Virunga volcanoes. Given that the altitude is 1,800m (5.900 feet),the mountains provide a perfect backdrop for the nature photographer. There’s Chameleon hill lodge offering luxury accommodation for those intending to trek gorillas in Rushaga, the briefing point is 16 km away from lake Mutanda. 

Kigezi highlands is one of the places that many Ugandans are proud of. The region has an advantage over the others due to the adventure and wildlife tours to be found there. 

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