Rushaga sector, in the south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is one of the four trailheads where daily gorilla trekking safari excursions start in Uganda. Rushaga trailhead is popular with tourists for its gorilla habituation experience, allowing trekkers to spend more time (at least four hours) in a day with a wild gorilla family.
In Uganda’s southwestern rugged region, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of two mountain gorilla habitats globally. The rainforest reserve protects almost half of the global mountain gorilla population, with approximately 200 gorillas fully habituated for tourism and research in four sectors around the park.
The 331 sq km (127 sq mi) Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is too large to trek or monitor. So UWA subdivided the sanctuary into four sectors to make it easy for tourists and researchers to access the habituated gorilla families. From the north, trekkers can see gorillas in the Buhoma sector. Ruhija is east of the park, while in the south is Nkuringo, and 18 km (11 mi) away is Rushaga.
Rushaga Sector is beautifully sitting on a hill, looking across the vast, rugged rift valley landscapes with all the Virunga Mountains vista insight. It’s a spectacular sight to see sitting on top of any ridge in this area. It will leave you spellbound and make you feel like you are in paradise. If the gorillas don’t bring you to this side of the country, then the envious landscape right out of storybooks should!
The Rushaga sector has eight gorilla groups available for gorilla trekking and two reserved for research and habituation experiences. Rushaga has more fully habituated gorilla groups than any other sector in Bwindi and is currently the only sector offering habituation experiences.
When you buy a gorilla permit for Rushaga trailhead, it does not indicate which gorilla group you’ll track. However, during the briefing at the sector’s UWA trailhead office, you’re assigned any one of these gorilla groups based on your physical ability. So knowing the gorilla groups in the Rushaga section will help you make that decision during the briefing.
Note that only eight tourists can track one gorilla family per day in the Rushaga sector and spend up to one hour with the gorillas at a safe distance of 32 ft (10 meters) and wearing a facemask. For more hours with the gorillas in Rushaga, buy a ‘habituation permit’, which is more than double the price of the trekking permit.
Gorilla groups in the Rushasha sector include:
Shongi gorilla group, one of the Rushaga sector’s fully habituated gorilla groups, has eight members under the dominant leadership of Silverback Bweza.
Initially, the Shongi gorilla group size was as large as 34 members, including several males, but over time intra-male rivalry caused notable dispersals of individual males as well as fissions. In July 2010, the Shongi family split to form the Mishaya family and again fissioned to form the Bweza group in August 2012.
Today the Shongi gorilla family is composed of 8 members, including;
The name Nshongi is adopted from the Nshongi River, found in the range where the group forages. Nshongi group is available for daily gorilla trekking excursions in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest’s southern section.
Mishaya gorilla family is a new group available for gorilla trekking in the Rushaga sector. The initial formation of the Mishaya group happened in July 2010 when the Shongi group split to form another family led by Silverback Mishaya.
On 3rd February 2014, Mishaya’s sole dominant silverback, ‘Mishaya,’ died from an obstruction of the intestinal gut, resulting in an unmonitored dispersal of the remnant group members as they had no other adult male to guide and protect them through thair jungle foraging excursions.
Some of the members sought solace with the Bweza gorilla family, and others joined the Bikingi group while researchers could not immediately trace the whereabouts of more others. In May 2018, researchers re-discovered Mishaya’s group remnants under the leadership of Silverback “Tinfayo” – a former member of the Shongi gorilla family. Tinfayo left the Shongi group in 2012 with one Adult female (Shida) and her infant (Rotary).
Re-habituation of the newly rediscovered Mishya group members became inevitable to keep monitoring the already habituated members. Mishaya gorilla group is the latest addition to the Rushaga sector gorilla groups available for daily gorilla trekking excursions.
Mishaya is currently under the leadership of the dominant Silverback “Tinfayo,” known for his carefree demeanor and brutal encounters with other silverbacks in the Bwindi jungle. In the local language, his name, Tinfayo, means unconcerned (or calm, cool, collected, composed, indifferent, laid-back, or casual.)
Mishaya gorilla family is composed of 10 members, including:
Busingye gorilla family is one of the fully habituated gorilla groups available for gorilla trekking in Rushaga southern tourism sector of Bwindi. Founder and dominant Silverback Busingye leads the group under the dense misty jungle canopy.
His name, Busingye, is from a local dialect word that means ‘peaceful’ (or conflict-free, calm, restful, composed, or noiseless), but his demeanor is quite the opposite. Busingye has been observed to lead brutal attacks on other gorilla families to expand his family size.
Almost all Busingye gorilla family members initially habituated in the Kahungye gorilla group before the fission in 2008. In March 2012, Silverback Busingye led a splinter from Kahungye to form the Busingye group.
The group is fondly known for foraging within the inner forest with infrequent access to the park edges. Busingye gorilla family is composed of 12 individuals, including;
Busingye group is one of the most entertaining gorilla groups in the Rushaga sector. Its five young ones are exceptionally playful, and their father lets them play around him where he can watch closely. I guess that’s why he’s called Busingye.
Bweza gorilla group, led by dominant Silverback Kakono, is one of the fully habituated gorilla groups available for gorilla trekking in the Rushaga sector.
In 2013, some of the Shongi gorilla family members trusted Kakono to lead them from Silverback Bweza’s leadership and fissioned to form their own family. To clarify, Silverback Bweza leads the old Nshongi group, which split to form the Bweza group, while Silverback Kakono leads the new Bweza group.
Bweza group is famous for foraging on community land adjacent to the park (where vegetation is more disturbed) than deep inside the canopy. It has 11 members, including;
Bweza is one of the most manageable gorilla groups to track in the Rushaga tourism sector. Only six tourists can visit this family per day and spend only one hour with them at a safe distance of 32 ft from the gorillas.
Silverback Ruziika dominates the Kahungye group, with total family members of thirteen individuals.
From historical findings among gorilla families in Bwindi, this group may not stay that many for long. Silverback doesn’t like sharing family (specifically sharing females), so they break off to start their troops at maturity.
UWA started this group’s habituation process in 2008 with about 29 individuals, including 3 adult males (Silverbacks – Riziika, Busingye, and Rwiigi) who liked getting involved in the frequent intra-male rivalry. In March 2012, mature Silverback Busingye started the fission that split the members to create the Busingye gorilla family (mentioned earlier). Busingye left the group with 19 family members. Not long after, Silverback Rwiigi too split away with some females to create his troop.
Kahungye is one of the most revered gorilla groups to watch in Rushaga.
Bikingi gorilla family’s founder, Silverback Bikingi, died on 9th June 2018 after a brutal encounter with a lone wild silverback around the Rushaga sector. The group is now led by this unnamed silverback and available for gorilla trekking in the Rushaga southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Before the death of silverback Bikingi, the solitary male silverback occasionally attacked the group, violently seeking dominance. The last fight fetched his leadership, leaving the powerful fighter (Bikingi) down for good. After the death of the dominant silverback Bikingi, many of the group members dispersed, joining other groups, like the 7 individuals who joined the Mucunguzi group.
However, an intensive search found the lone (unnamed) silverback retained 9 members royal to his leadership. UWA decided to maintain their original name Bikingi and closely monitor the gorilla family.
UWA launched the Bikingi gorilla family’s habituation process in early 2012 as a follow-up exercise of the disintegrated Mishaya group. Indeed, they discovered that several members from the Mishaya group lived alongside other non-habituated members in the group. UWA later declared the Bikingi group for the habituation process and to keep a close eye on the formerly habituated members.
Bikingi gorilla family has 10 members, including
Mucunguzi gorilla family gets its name from its dominant male, Silverback Mucunguzi, whose name means ‘redeemer’ in the local dialect.
Silverback Mucunguzi left the Bweza family at maturity to roam the jungle on his own. After a few solitary years, he attacked the Bikingi gorilla family and snatched away enough females to start his own family.
Mucunguzi gorilla group currently has 12 members and is available for gorilla trekking in the Rushaga sector.
Rwiigi gorilla family is a new troop formed from a separation from the Kahungye gorilla family. The group gets its name from the dominant Silverback’s name. Rwiigi, in the local dialect, means an entrance or door.
All members in the Rwiigi group were already fully habituated in Kahungye before creating Rwiigi. So the group didn’t go through another habituation process, but UWA closely monitors its movements. It is available for gorilla trekking in the Rushaga sector.
Rwigi group currently has 10 members with:
Gorilla trekking in the Rushaga sector begins at the head office for briefing and allocation of gorilla groups, then spreads out to various trailheads leading to the gorilla groups scattered around the southern Bwindi sector. But before you make it to the Rushaga starting point, you must have a gorilla permit.
Rushaga sector has eight gorilla families available for gorilla trekking. If only eight tourists can track each group, that means Rushaga can issue only 64 gorilla permits per day. Like all other sectors in Bwindi, a gorilla permit to track Rushaga gorillas costs $700 per person for foreign non-residents. Foreign residents pay $600, and East African nationals pay 250,000 Uganda Shillings.
Only adults above 15 years old can track gorillas in Uganda. You can purchase your permit directly from UWA offices in Kampala or use a licensed tour operator. However you get the permit, you’re ready to track gorillas when you show up at the Rushaga trailhead.
UWA guide assigns each gorilla family to a group of eight tourists based on their physical ability (or requests), with two armed rangers for security and an expert tracker guide to lead the tourists into the impenetrable misty jungle and find the gorillas.
At the briefing point, guests must be wearing a facemask, keeping physical distance between each other, and should have disinfected their shoes and hands before heading into the jungle. One of the Uganda entry restrictions is testing negative for COVID-19 so that every trekker will be checked for any signs of respiratory symptoms. Guests are advised to stay away if they’re not feeling well.
Through the thick vines and bushes, your guide and rangers will be making way with a machete, matching the slowest trekker’s pace. They’ll be communicating with a group of rangers that stay with the gorilla troops to get the troop’s bearings. The jungle’s enchanting magnificence distracts you away from time consciousness, and when you least expect to find them, there they are. Dark bodies are moving about in green foliage, scattered in a determinable area and minding their business.
For a moment, your presence is heavily ignored as they continue munching away leave, napping or youngs ones playing ruff and tumble near their dad’s watchful gaze. They seem to be used to this sort of thing, where visitors come, hang around with their snapping gadgets, and then quietly leave for precisely the same duration. They know you mean no harm; that is what habituation is about.
How you spend your time with a mountain gorilla family is entirely up to you. The best advice is to use half the time to connect with the gorillas and their environment in meditative quietness, and then you’ll find your photo moments when you’re one with your host. However, there’re some golden rules that you must observe.
After spending your time with Rushaga gorillas, you’ll slowly move away from the gorillas and follow a trail back to the trailhead. You may have packed lunch anywhere in the forest, but avoid litter and carry back everything you came within your backpack.
Gorilla trekking in the Rushaga sector is a rewarding experience, and at least everyone gets to meet the gorillas. It’s not difficult to track Rushaga gorillas; besides, guests can choose to trek the easiest of the eight gorilla groups available for gorilla trekking in the Rushaga sector.
For a more intimate time with Rushaga’s gorillas, opt-in for the gorilla habituation experience, where guests can join the typical research team in staying with the gorillas for at least four hours.
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The exclusive gorilla habituation experience in the Rushaga sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park offers a fantastic opportunity to spend up to four hours with remarkable wild primates. Rather than spending an all-too-brief hour with them, connect, observe and photograph them at a gentler pace.
Unlike the gorilla trekking experience, the habituation experience offers a more extensive, intimate, and powerful connection. The unrushed habituation process gives more time to relax and understand the everyday gorilla family life. It also presents photographers with a more relaxed environment to capture great shots in a challenging wild scene.
Expect to find gorillas not so relaxed around humans than in a usual trek. But the raw wild experience is what the gorilla habituation experience in Rushaga is all about.
Rushaga tourism sector in the south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the only trailhead that offers gorilla habituation experience in Uganda. There are only two gorilla groups reserved for research and habituation experiences in the Rushaga sector.
Highly trained trackers and guides lead tourists deep into the trees very early in the morning before sunrise. They pick up gorilla spoor and clues that gorilla left on the trail as they roam through the jungle. The search begins when you find the gorilla nests from the night before, and, given your early start, you usually see the gorillas soon after finding the nests.
Mountain gorillas build new nests (usually on the ground or occasionally in a tree) every night; they never use the same nest. Infants that are too young or don’t have the skill set to construct a nest of their own share with their mother. Since gorillas on average move less than one mile each day, they are never too far away from their previous night’s nest.
Eventually, when you reach the family’s location, approach cautiously. Getting close to these powerful yet intelligent mountain giants can be intimidating for a first-timer. Your guide will instruct you on how to use non-threatening body language to put the dominant silverback at ease and allow him to assert his dominance.
Stay amongst the wild gorilla family company, watching as they slowly relax to the presence of humans and move with them when they decide to relocate. Still not familiar with your presence, they may display unexpected behavior, which your guide will most probably know how to handle. It is only through this time-intensive approach that they will eventually become entirely comfortable in the company of tourists.
What the experience of spending a day with the huge gorilla silverback and his family is like.
A gorilla habituation permit in Uganda costs $1,500 per person, and they’re only available for the Rushaga sector in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The price is undoubtedly high but considering Rwanda charges the same for a mere gorilla trek, the cost of habituation experience in Uganda is worth it.
Foreign residents and East African nationals get discounts on the habituation permit. Foreign residents pay $1000, and citizens pay 750,000 Uganda Shillings.
You can get your habituation permit from the UWA office or a licensed tour operator. The age limit of habituation is above 15 years.
Whether you’re trekking fully habituated mountain gorillas or taking the gorilla habituation experience, no gorilla experience is ever the same. With so many day-to-day variables involved, it’s tough comparing gorilla trekking with habituation experience.
On one particular trek, the gorillas could be sleepy and lazy, but the same group could be excited and active the next day. They could be hiding in dense jungle bush and playing in clear forest dale on another occasion.
Keeping all these day-to-day variables in mind, how does the gorilla habituation experience compare to a standard gorilla trekking in Rushaga?
Firstly, unlike on a standard gorilla visit, where your time with the giant primates is limited to one hour, you get four hours with the wild mountain gorillas. Secondly, up to eight tourists (plus guides and rangers) can visit each gorilla group in a typical gorilla trekking visit. Still, on a habituation experience, only four tourists are allowed per gorilla family. It provides a more private and intimate jungle experience.
Can you do both gorilla trekking and habituation experience? Yes, one can do gorilla trekking and join the habituation experience the next day on the same Uganda gorilla safari. UWA allows a tourist to book a gorilla trekking permit and habituation permit on different days because both start early in the mornings.
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After seeing gorillas, several activities around the Rushaga area engage tourists, including cultural encounters, village community walks, birding trails, and nature walking trails, among the many.
The Batwa lived in the Bwindi forest for many centuries before they were forced out to pave the way for conservation. Their cultures are deeply rooted in the rainforest jungle. Today the Batwa occupy villages in the outskirts of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and offer tours to visit their cultural sites and experience their significant cultural values.
The Batwa cultural visit in Rushaga is one of the profoundly captivating activities you can do after trekking the mountain gorillas. A visit to the Batwa site in Rushaga will reveal a rich history of Batwa interactions with the forests, indigenous knowledge, and a deeply rooted culture of forest dependence.
Batwa traditional practices and belief systems are linked to forest plants, animals, and sites. Although the Batwa tribe no longer lives inside the forest, they attach cultural importance to the forest’s resources which sustained the lives of their forebears. As such, they consider forest plants and animals, including tubers, herbs, vines, fruit trees, duikers, flying squirrels, bushbucks, and cane rats, as part of their natural world and culture.
In addition, Batwa people attach considerable cultural importance to forest sites, including caves, hot springs, swamps, rivers, hills, giant stones, and pits. Many of these sites have spiritual values which they believe helped their ancestors to live for many years.
A Batwa elder will narrate a detailed account of forest myths, taboos, totems, and folklore on the trail. You’ll visit a homestead, dance to their music, taste their beer, and speak their language on this cultural trail.
There are two major engaging trails for tourists in the Rushaga sector, including the Kara ridge trail and the Kapata trails. The Kara Ridge Trail showcases the picturesque landscapes around the Rushaga area extending as far as the Virugans with sweeping views across the rugged western Uganda region. It’s the best for photography.
The 3-hour Kapata trail is a much easier one, taking you through a village homestead, showcasing agriculture, plant species, and a honey firm.
The most engaging nature trails require driving at least 10 km away from Rubuguri, in Nkuringo, Buhoma, Lake Mutanda, and around the stunning Lake Bunyonyi islands and shores. In Buhoma or Nkuringo, you can join the trails into the Bwindi jungle or across the imposing rainforest.
At lake Mutanda, one can take a canoe ride across the lake in a traditional dugout canoe. The enchanting Lake Bunyonyi presents many active and leisurely attractions that will keep you busy for a day or two.
Rushaga sector, south of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, offers some of the best montane-forest birding in Africa. A birding foray of 350 species that fly through and up the Bwindi forest canopy will be a delight for birding nads in ticking off their list on a 2-3 hour excursion that is hosted by an expert guide.
It is a journey of discovery, traversing along a winding trail framed by exotic and emerald vegetation through this ancient jungle and outside undulating terraced farms on the slopes of rugged western Uganda.
Winding through evergreen and montane marshes that intertwine across the lush forest floor, Rushaga birding trails lead you to enchanting falls, booming out a thunderous roar of pristine river water crushing against enormous rocks. Set in exquisite verdant terrain, the waterfalls that rumble in the Bwindi jungle is truly a sight to behold. Prolific with birds, the cacophony of chatter, and the cascading falls is a magnificent sound that will vibrate through your eardrums and bring life to your unconscious body.
Ambling along a Bwindi river trail, be sure to look out for the White-tailed Ant Thrush and dapper francolin, the splendid Black Bee-eater, Yellow-eyed Black and African Sooty Flycatchers along the river.
Venture to the Mubwindi Swamp trail in Ruhija, where sightings of the endemic and localized African green broadbill are frequent. Gaze up at the treetops and keep your binoculars handy to spot the Short-tailed Warbler and Blue-headed Sunbird as well as the African Green Broadbill and Shelley’s Crimsonwing.
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Rushaga Sector is open for gorilla trekking all year round, but the best times to go are from June to August and December to February. At these times, the jungle trails are drier, less slippery, and your chance of not getting wet while viewing the gorillas is higher during these months. Also, the dry season gives a better experience, especially with photography.
However, the dry seasons of June to August and December to February are peak seasons in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Uganda as a destination. Gorilla permits for the Rushaga Sector are in high demand during the peak season, and I would highly recommend booking your permit months in advance. Or take advantage of the low season numbers, especially if you’re traveling to Uganda on a budget.
During March, April, May, October, and November, roads to Rushaga may be challenging for some cars during the wet seasons of March, April, May, October, and November. However, the roads have been improved, and a moderate 4×4 can navigate the 43-km dirt road between Muko and Rushaga with less trouble.
Gorilla trekking excursions in the Rushaga sector go out every day throughout the week irrespective of the weather or public holidays. Besides, the tropical rainforest weather around Bwindi is quite unpredictable—it could rain any minute in and around the jingle. So, if you don’t mind the showers, visit Rushaga and track mountain gorillas on any date on your calendar.
Rushaga sector sits in Uganda’s wettest tropical regions, which means that your first items to carry should be things that will keep you dry during your gorilla safari or hiking adventures.
Remember to pack light because you may be walking for hours a day, and a heavy backpack will slow or cut your expedition short.
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The most outstanding luxury accommodation for tracking gorillas in Rushaga is a few kilometers (averagely 14 km) outside the sector. The more available places to stay around Rushaga are low budget with moderate service quality.
Budget accommodation around the Rushaga section is readily available. For about $20 to $180 per night, you can get a decent bed, bathroom, and breakfast.
Rushaga sector is located on the southern Bwindi Impenetrable National Park border, a few kilometers from the DRC border, at the Edge of the Albertine Rift. It is about 34 km (1.5-hour drive) from Kisoro Town (Kisoro airport) and about 83 km (2.5-hour drive) from Kable Town at coordinates 1°07’09.4″S 29°42’36.7″E.
Entebbe – Kabale – Rushaga: The Entebbe, via Kabale and branching off at Muko (2 km from Lake Bunyonyi on Kabale-Kisoro road) to drive 38 kilometers on a dirt road to Rushaga is the easiest road route to the Rushaga sector. The route is 497 km (297 mi) with only 34 km (21 mi) on a dirt road easily navigable with a 4×4 vehicle in approximately 10 hours.
Entebbe – Kisoro – Mutanda – Nkuringo: Entebbe, Via Kabale, Kisoro, and then Rushaga is the longest route from the International Airport. It covers about 527 km (327 mi) with just about 34 km (21 mi) on a dirt road from Kisoro Town and will take close to 11-hours of driving time.
Travelers can also join this route at Kisoro from Rwanda via the Cyanika border in the south and DCR via the west Bunagana border. Both border entry points are about 19 km (11 mi) from Kisoro Town.
If you’re using the Katuna (Gatuna) border from Rwanda, drive 24 km (14 mi) on a paved smooth road to Kabale and then join the Kabale-Kisoro road. Then turn off at Muko (2 km from Lake Bunyonyi on Kabale-Kisoro road) to join the 34-km (21-mi) dirt road to the Rushaga sector.
Ishasha Sector in Queen Elizabeth NP – Kihihi – Rushaga: From the Ishasha sector in Queen Elizabeth National Park, you can drive through Kihihi (airstrip) via Kanungu, Rutoma, and join the Kabale-Kisoro Highway at Rubanda and continue up to Muko, where you branch off the highway. This route is not paved and would need a 4×4 safari truck to navigate. This route is about 160 km (99 mi) and would take approximately 5-hours of driving time.
Alternatively, you can drive into Buhoma and go round the Bwindi Forest via Ruhija Sector for 148 km, which would also take about 5-hours of driving time on a dirt road.
The quickest air transfer to Rushaga Sector from Entebbe International Airport is at Kisoro Airport, about 34 km (21 mi), an hour’s drive on a dirt road. Aerolink operates daily scheduled and chartered flights between Kisoro and Entebbe.
If you’re connecting flights to Masai Mara or Serengeti, you’ll fly from Kisoro to Entebbe then connect to the other destinations in the region. Also, flights connect to Kasese (Queen Elizabeth NP), Semiliki, Murchison Falls NP, and Kidepo NP. Ask your operator for available flights.
The alternative airport is at Kihihi, about 125 km (77 mi), a four-hour drive. Usually, Kihihi Airstrip is not a great option if you can fly to Kisoro. You can use it if you intend to take the Buhoma-Nkuringo trail across Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Buhoma – Nkuringo (across Bwindi) – Rushaga
If you’re pondering an outdoor adventure to include on a journey to Nkuringo to see the mountain gorillas, the Buhoma-Nkuringo walking trail is one I would recommend. It is Bwindi’s most famous hiking trail crossing the impenetrable jungle via Kashasha or Ivy Rivers.
There’s about 120 km of bone-jarring dirt road between Nkuringo and Buhoma. The 17 km across the jungle is not just the avoidance of the long 5-hour drive between the two but also a reward for walking in one of the earth’s oldest and untouched rainforest reserves.
If there’s one place we go above all others when we need to relax, it’s the forest. Walking between old trees is almost meditative and pretty much the antidote to stress. Hikers always come out of the jungle tired but happier than they went in.
Your driver, who would have driven around the jungle, will be on the other side to receive you and transfer you to your accommodation in Rushaga or Nkuringo.
Kisoro – Lake Mutanda – Rushaga Village Walking Trail
Suppose you fly into Kisoro and still have the energy to take on a village hiking adventure in the remotest parts of western Uganda. In that case, the Kisoro-Mutanda-Rushaga African village walking trail is highly recommended.
Operated by Nkuringo Walking Safaris, the African village walking adventure trail starts from Kisoro town with an expert walking/birding guide, leading through homesteads and villages. Forget the staged village shows and welcomes: on this guided village walk, no one expects you, making for an authentic walk to pass by Africans in their usual way of life.
From the densely populated villages near Kisoro town, the trail leads down valleys, over steep ridges, and round beautifully cultivated gardens to reveal stunning views of Lake Mutanda and the imposing Virungas in the backdrop.
At Lake Mutanda, you’ll get into a dugout canoe with a rowing expert guiding you across the stunning Mutanda up to the resort, from where you’ll find your driver to transfer you to Rushaga. There’s so much to learn, see and experience on this village trail; take it if you’re flying into Kisoro.