Uganda is where eastern and central African habitats meet. Jungles, bristling with birds and primates, merge with open savannahs stocked with big game favourites. Add the mighty Nile, the Rwenzori Mountains and Africa’s largest lake and you have too many choices. Don’t worry. Philip Briggs and Andrew Roberts, Bradt’s Uganda guidebook authors, are here to help.
Flanked by the East African twin arms of the Great Rift Valley system, between the world famous safari circuits of Kenya and Tanzania and the less obvious destinations of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, Uganda is Africa in a nutshell. Here you can track chimpanzees or mountain gorillas through forests in the morning, and in the afternoon watch lions stalk their prey across great plains.
Thanks to a wide range of habitats – forests, savannahs, wetland, lakes and mountains – Uganda contains a remarkable biodiversity.
Although no larger than the United Kingdom, Uganda contains more than a thousand species of birds. There is quality as well as quantity too, with ‘restricted range’ overspills from the Congo forests and rarities like the iconic shoebill. Fifteen primate species are present, most notably chimpanzee and mountain gorilla: almost half of the latter’s global population of 880 live in the forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. With five trailheads and thirteen habituated groups between them, Uganda is the place to seek out this rare and enigmatic primate.
But what further sets Uganda apart from other African destinations is the abundant fresh water. The White Nile is born here, from myriad sources that include glacial melt waters from the Rwenzori Mountains, turbid lakes in the Rift Valley, rainforest streams, vast papyrus swamps and of course Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. This enables an exciting menu of tourist activities: scrunch across equatorial glaciers, search for shoebills in a dugout canoe, feel the ground shake at the explosive Murchison Falls, rafting Grade 5 rapids and fish for a 100kg Nile Perch.
Yet despite its wide-ranging appeal, Uganda remains firmly off the beaten track. Excuses are, however, reducing. Uganda is every bit as safe as (indeed in most cases safer than) any of its neighbours, while new and renovated accommodation exists countrywide, for all budgets. So for the time being at least, Ugandan safaris continue to be uncluttered by fellow tourists.
Prior to the colonial era, the hills around Kampala served in rotation as the capitals of Buganda, the centuries-old kingdom for which Uganda is named. A tour of these sites, now occupied by palaces, royal tombs, cathedrals and mosques, reveals Buganda’s 19th-century past, when Islamic slave traders and European imperialists and missionaries arrived – and bloody chaos followed.
Kidepo Valley National Park
Tucked away in Uganda’s remote northeastern corner between South Sudan and Kenya, Kidepo Valley is the ultimate safari destination. Rolling plains extending towards distant mountain ranges in three countries create one of East Africa’s most compelling wildernesses. The lengthy mammal and bird checklists include numerous species found rarely, if at all, in other Ugandan parks.
Murchison Falls National Park
Uganda’s largest protected area is centred on the Nile’s plunge through a 6m-wide fissure in the Rift Valley wall. Wildlife viewing is varied and memorable – look for lion, elephant, buffalo and Rothschild giraffe on a game drive on the Buligi grasslands, while close encounters with hippos, crocs and water birds are expected on launch trips to the waterfall. Motorised transport is eschewed altogether for chimpanzee tracking in the Kaniyo Pabidi forest.
Semliki National Park
Superbly located at the base of the Rwenzoris in the hot trough of the Albertine Rift Valley, Semliki National Park represents the easternmost extent of the great Ituri Forest. Birders are drawn by a list of ‘Semliki specials’, which includes 40 Central African forest species unrecorded elsewhere in East Africa.
Kibale Forest National Park
Best known for its superb chimp-tracking, Kibale harbours six other readily observed primate species, including two types of colobus and the white-bearded L’Hoest’s monkey. A wide range of monkeys and forest-fringe birds can be observed along an excellent community-run trail through the nearby Bigodi Wetland.
With three glacial peaks topping 4800m, the Rwenzoris are thought to be the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, a mysterious snow-capped source of the Nile described by ancient geographers. Though the legendary summits can be scaled, the greatest rewards lie below the snowline in surreal montane landscapes that are carpeted by garish mosses and dotted with giant, high-altitude forms of lobelia, groundsel and heather.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Superbly set on the floor of the Rift Valley at the foot of the Rwenzoris, ‘QE’ is arguably Africa’s most ecologically diverse game reserve. Highlights include the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha, the scenic ‘Crater Drive’ through a field of extinct volcanoes, and the launch trip on the Kazinga Channel to view elephant, buffalo, hippo and waterbirds. The bird checklist of 600-plus species exceeds that of many African parks ten times its size.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Uganda’s – and the world’s – primary mountain gorilla tracking destination, Bwindi now has four trailheads, twelve habituated gorilla groups and a total of 80 daily tracking permits. Bwindi’s jungle-swathed hills are also wonderfully scenic, while faunal diversity includes a wide range of other primates and 23 bird species endemic to the Albertine Rift.
Situated an hour’s drive from southern Bwindi, the islands and mountainous shore of this serpentine lake are studded with resorts to suit all tastes and budgets. ‘Bunyonyi’ translates as ‘Place of Small Birds’, but more impressive perhaps is its dense otter population – there’s surely no better place in Africa to see these delightful aquatic mammals at play.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Uganda’s smallest park protects the northern slopes of three of the Virunga volcanoes: Muhavura (4127m), Sabinyo (3669m) and Gahinga (3475m). Highlights include tracking the golden monkey, which is an Albertine Rift endemic, as well as viewing mountain gorillas (the habituated group can move into Rwanda between June and September). Challenging trails ascend to the volcanic peaks while the Batwa Trail provides insights into the life of the Batwa Pgymies.
Lake Mburo National Park
Centred on the lake for which it is named, this small national park is a popular stopover on the long trip between Kampala and Bwindi. It’s the only place in Uganda where you are likely to see zebra, impala and eland, as well as a host of colourful acacia woodland birds more normally associated with Tanzania.
A dugout canoe voyage into this papyrus swamp fringing Lake Victoria makes for an easy (and affordable) day-trip from Kampala or Entebbe. Yet it’s as reliable a locality as any in the country for sighting the bizarre shoebill, along with a host of other water-associated birds.
Set memorably on the lush green shores of Lake Victoria, Entebbe provides a perfect starting point for a safari. Besides being home to the international airport, it hosts the Entebbe Botanical Garden, with its rich birdlife and monkeys, and the island of Ngamba, which provides sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees.
A section of the White Nile recently impounded by a new hydropower dam, 10km north of the river’s exit from Lake Victoria, Lake Bujagali is East Africa’s answer to the more southern ‘adrenalin capital’ of Victoria Falls. The menu offers wild or mild options ranging from gentle cruises on the reservoir to Grade 5 whitewater rafting below the dam. Other activities include bungee jumping, horse riding, quad biking and kayaking.
With everything from silverback gorillas and Grade 5 whitewater to delicate birds and traditional culture, carefully planned itineraries are needed to ensure you experience everything you desire.
Best of Uganda (14 days)
Murchison Falls >> Kibale Forest >> Queen Elizabeth National Park >> Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Day 1 Land at Entebbe: visit the botanical garden or Mabamba Swamp.
Days 2-4 Visit Murchison Falls National Park for game drives, the boat trip to the waterfall and the ‘Top of the Falls’ viewpoint.
Days 5-6 After a long drive on day five, stretch your legs with a half-day of chimp tracking at Kibale Forest and walk in Bigodi Swamp.
Days 7-10 Spend two nights on Mweya Peninsula in Queen Elizabeth National Park for the Kazinga Channel launch trips, the crater drive and Kasenyi game drives. Heading south, spend two nights on the Ishasha plains.
Days 11-12 Drive to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s Buhoma trailhead, where the Waterfall Trail provides a useful warm-up for gorilla tracking on Day 12.
Days 13-14 Head back towards Entebbe, stopping overnight in Lake Mburo National Park. On your last day reach Entebbe for your outwards flight.
Birdwatching (14 days)
Mabamba Swamp and Lake Mburo >> Bwindi Impenetrable National Park >> Semliki Valley >> Murchison Falls
Day 1 Land and sleep at Entebbe, visiting the bird-rich botanical garden.
Day 2 Search for shoebill and pygmy goose in Mabamba Swamp before a late afternoon boat trip on Lake Mburo.
Days 3-6 After a morning bush walk at Mburo, drive to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – take in the birds in and around camp until nightfall. Allow one full day to explore the trails around Buhoma, and another to walk the Mubwindi Swamp Trail in search of rarities such as African green broadbill.
Days 7-10 Head northwards to Semliki Valley and Kibale Forest, preceded by one night at QENP en route. Birding highlights include the QENP launch trip, Bigodi Swamp, and the forested Semliki National Park.
Days 11-14 Spend two nights in Murchison Falls National Park, enjoying game drives and Nile launch trips. If you missed shoebills at Mabamba, then hire a private boat to seek them out at the delta before spending the night of Day 13 in Kaniyo Pabidi Forest.
Adventure and hiking (14 days)
Rafting the Nile >> Mgahinga National Park >> Rwenzori Mountains
Days 1-2 Spend your first two nights at Entebbe or Kampala, with a day trip to raft the Grade 5 rapids at Bujagali Falls on Day 2.
Days 3-5 Drive to southern Bwindi from Entebbe or Kampala, having pre-arranged a gorilla-tracking permit for Day 4 or 5. Use the spare day to ascend a volcanic peak in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park – a great hike in itself and a useful high-altitude primer for the Rwenzoris.
Days 6-12 Overnight on the Kichwamba escarpment, looking across the Rift Valley to the Rwenzori Mountains. On Day 7 head up to Kilembe trailhead to spend six days ascending the dramatic but demanding Kilembe Trail to around 4000m, sleeping in huts en route.
Days 12-14 Leaving the mountain on Day 12, treat yourself to two nights of luxury at Kyaninga Lodge before returning to Entebbe on Day 14.
Language English, Swahili and Luganda
Time zone GMT + 3
International dialling code + 256
Visas Visas are required by most visitors, UK nationals included. They can be bought on arrival at Entebbe airport.
Health Malaria is widespread; prophylactics should be taken. A certificate of yellow fever vaccination is required. Consult your doctor for further advice.
Money The official currency is the Ugandan shilling (Ush). Recent exchange rates were: UK£1=Ush3900, US$1=Ush2600 and €1=Ush3350. Travellers’ cheques are not accepted, but credit and debit cards can be used to withdraw local currency from ATMs across the country.
Getting there British Airways (www.ba.com) flies direct to Entebbe from the UK thrice weekly. Other carriers include KLM (www.klm.com), Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) and Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com).
Getting around The best way to see the game reserves is on an organised safari, which normally entails travelling in one or two 4WD vehicles. Most places of interest can be visited using public transport
Costs Mid-range to upmarket lodges or camps are available at all key tourist sites. Rates start at around £70 double. Budget travellers have a wide choice of inexpensive local hotels, backpacker hostels and campsites
Safety Travel is generally safe. Crime directed against tourists is unusual, even in the capital. Consult the FCO travel advice service (www.fco.gov.uk) for the latest advice on travel to Uganda.
Gorilla permits Gorilla tracking permits must be reserved and paid for in advance, and are often booked solid for months ahead, especially during the dry season. Bookings can be made through the Uganda Wildlife Authority or most tour operators.
Books The most comprehensive guidebook is Bradt’s Uganda (6th ed, 2010), while the locally available Uganda Maps series (www.uganda-maps.com) covers all national parks.
Find out more
Uganda Tourist Board (www.visituganda.com)
Uganda Wildlife Authority (www.ugandawildlife.org)
Right time, right place
• Snowy scenes The rainy periods of March through May and October through November can complicate safaris, making remote dirt roads impassable and gorilla tracking on the steep terrain in the Bwindi Impenetrable more difficult. Nor is this the time to trek the notoriously boggy Rwenzoris. It is however the time to visit if you want to see this mountain range’s famously shy snow peaks from afar. After rain dispels the equatorial haze, you’ll experience the Rwenzoris and Rift Valley scenery in fabulous clarity. And since the rainy months coincide with the low season, you’ll have the views virtually to yourself!
• Ceremony One of the most colourful traditional ceremonies in Uganda is the protracted build-up to male circumcision among the Bagisu people, which takes place all over the Mount Elgon foothill region from August to December in even numbered years.
• Chimps Chimpanzees are more mobile in their habits when no trees are in fruit, as reflected in a markedly higher success rate at most chimp tracking sites over the fruiting months of May to September as compared to October to January,
when food is most scarce.
First published in Travel Africa magazine, Issue 63