Prior to my first visit to Uganda (affectionately referred to as the Pearl of Africa) I had a few preconceptions, which I believe many others share:
- The main only reason to visit Uganda is to view the endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
- The infrastructure, accommodations & service levels are not up to the standards of other African tourism destinations.
- Tourism is not a major focus and the people/culture are/is not as welcoming as other East African nations (Kenya, Tanzania).
I rarely say this and likely won’t say it again soon, so enjoy – I was wrong.
The biggest takeaway from my two weeks spent in Uganda is the diversity of the country; each national park so different from the others. The lush beauty of the mountainous rainforests in Bwindi & Kibale (pronounced Chi-bah-lee); the tranquil plains of Queen Elizabeth NP; the abundance of life and activity in Lake Mburo NP; and the variety of experiences available in Murchison Falls NP. Each stop on the itinerary was a perfect complement to the other parks visited.
First and foremost I must thank the incredible team at Wild Frontiers Uganda. Everything about the operation was first class – the vehicles (in which we spent A LOT of time) were in great condition & comfortable, the guides top notch, and most importantly the execution of the entire itinerary from arrival to departure went off without a hitch. I especially found the pre-trip briefing and documents to be the best and most thorough of all my trips; each passenger is provided with a great map of Uganda and the national parks, a day by day itinerary, and a branded book with general destination info, FAQ’s, animal sightings checklists, and blank pages for notes.
Each of the 10 WF vehicles has 6 comfortable Each of the 10 WF vehicles has 6 comfortable on the go; an electric cooler box; and large windows and a high raising pop top for optimal game viewing.
Besides the hub of Entebbe, Wild Frontiers also has a fully functional office on the Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park.
- Wild Frontiers owns boats on Lake Victoria in Entebbe and on the Nile in Murchison Falls National Park.
My 13 night itinerary included stops at all of the major National Parks (5 in total) that would be included in some combination for most leisure trips. Which parks are included and how many nights spent at each is dependent on a traveler’s interests, but my experience gave me a good feeling for the general circuit. The following pages will contain relevant information and my opinion on these areas. I will not comment on the seldom visited Kidepo Valley NP & Mount Elgon NP since I did not visit these areas.
Safaris in Uganda are extremely similar to those in Kenya – you start at a main hub (Entebbe or Nairobi, respectively) and spend your time visiting several parks, each offering a different experience, overland with one guide throughout. Flying is an option if the budget permits and would eliminate some of the longer drives, increasing the amount of time in the parks. The roads are in much better condition than I expected; some paved and some dirt. And while portions of the drives were very bumpy it was no worse than the roads and drives that I’ve experienced in Kenya & Tanzania. The below maps show a complete circuit that visits all of the main national parks in Uganda, this includes 7 transfers which have been numbered and details provided below.
Complete Safari Circuit (Includes visits to 5 NPs) Same circuit, zoom view
- Entebbe (EBB) – Lake Mburo NP: Approx 5 hour drive (including a lunch stop); this drive includes an equator crossing (photo op); mostly on paved road
- Lake Mburo NP – Bwindi NP: 6-7 hour drive from Lake Mburo; approx 12 hours if you drive straight from EBB and skip Lake Mburo; scheduled flights also available EBB/Bwindi
- Bwindi NP – Queen Elizabeth (QE) NP, Ishasha region: Approx 2.5 hour drive
- QENP, Ishasha – QENP, Mweya region: Approx 2 hour drive; some of this is game drive
- QENP, Mweya – Kibale Forest NP: Approx 3 hour drive – mostly paved road
- Kibale NP – Murchison Falls NP: Full Day drive; not great roads; flying is an option
- Murchison Falls NP – EBB: 6-7 hours depending on stops; there is a rhino sanctuary that you pass at about the midway point and a restaurant for lunch. Flying is also an option
Climate: Straddling the equator, there is little year round fluctuation in temperature; average temperature is in the 80’s F all months. It is quite humid, especially in the mountainous areas where you do your trekking. There are two rainy periods: MARCH – MAY & OCT-NOV. June is drier and very green (as is December). The rains are usually very short, heavy storms and it is very seldom that any activities are limited as a result of the rains. Any time is a good time to visit Uganda.
Currency: Uganda uses the Ugandan schilling; approx. 2,500/US$1. Most itineraries will include all meals since you are spending most of your time on safari, with drinks billed separately. Beers and local brand spirits are US$1 – US$2, with wine and imported brand spirits ranging from US$3 – US$5. Snacks/soft drinks that might be picked up during a stop on one of the drives are very reasonable (US$1).
Language: English is spoken throughout the country and all guides, drivers, hotel staff, etc. spoke and understood english very well. Local dialects are spoken regionally and there is not one that is understood and spoken everywhere (like swahili in Kenya).
Accommodation: The only thing that Uganda lacks in my opinion is the existence of a real 5* circuit. The camps and lodges that exist in Uganda today are not up to the luxurious level of many other more developed destinations in Africa – South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania. Most of the properties that I saw I would put in the 3* – 4* category. Everywhere that I stayed and most that I saw were clean & comfortable, with friendly and professional staff, and they offered tasty, hearty (rustic) meals. The camps were perfectly fine for me but might not live up to the expectations of a more ‘high maintenance’ traveler. I can say with certainty though that anything Uganda lacks in creature comforts it more than makes up for in experiences (I know I would trade 1800 thread count Egyptian sheets for the opportunity to see a mountain gorilla anyday…)
Food: In the cities (Entebbe & Kampala) there is a wide range of cuisine on offer including Indian, American/continental, Italian, etc. In the lodges the meals are not ‘fine dining’ as in many Southern African camps or more upscale properties in Kenya & Tanzania, but it was still very good. There were no lunch or dinner buffets either which surprised me. Speaking in general terms the meals in lodges/camps are as follows:
BREAKFAST: pretty standard – cold buffet (cereals, fruits, yogurt) with hot breakfast cooked to order.
LUNCH: usually salad followed by a hot plate (pasta, chicken, etc.); due to several long drives and trekking you will also have some packed box lunches (sandwich, fruit, quiche, cake, juice)
DINNER: usually soup and fresh baked bread followed by a hot plated meal (beef and chicken primarily with potatoes and vegetables). The soups throughout the trip were some of the BEST I’ve ever had!
*It is very important to notify your operator and camps of any dietary requirements and/or allergies since most meals are plated and there is not a ‘menu’ (some places do have a vegetarian and non-vegetarian option). We had one woman traveling with us that was lactose intolerant and all properties were able to cater to her needs but it did often take some explaining.
I will now outline each of the areas that I visited in some detail.
Entebbe is the safari hub of Uganda and the city into which international carriers fly. Airlines servicing EBB include Emirates, South African Airways, British Airways, KLM, Qatar, Ethriopian & Kenya Airways. It is a small city of only about 10,000 people located on Lake Victoria about 45 minutes south of the capital, Kampala. There is a variety of accommodation options in Entebbe ranging from small guesthouses and bed & breakfasts to large city hotels. Entebbe is used as a 1 or 2 night stay on either end of a safari itinerary, however there are a number of things to do while spending time here:
- Half Day Tour of Kampala: Visit the capital of Uganda, full of life and activity during the day. It is estimated that although the resident population is around 1.5 million people, there are upwards of 3 million people in the city during the day. The tour will take you to some mosques, historic buildings, and of course the markets; and teach you about the history and hardships that Uganda has faced throughout it’s history.
- Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary: This 100 acre island in Lake Victoria has been set aside for rescued chimpanzees (mainly orphaned chimps that lost their parents to poaching), and currently has 47 chimpanzees living there. Guests visit at feeding time (11am or 2:30pm); access is a 45 minute boat ride from the jetty in EBB. It’s a great learning experience and an opportunity to view the chimps if you are not going to Kibale.
- Uganda Wildlife Education Center: Admittedly I do not like zoos, nor am I a fan of petting or riding wild animals. That being said the UWEC is much more than a zoo and the ‘Behind the Scenes’ experience is INCREDIBLE! This activity (2-3) hours allows you to get up close and personal with a number of animals native to Uganda and also learn about conservation efforts that are going on to protect and grow the number of all animals (especially rhinos). I Highly Recommend this experience.
LAKE MBURO NATIONAL PARK
Lake Mburo NP is the only park in Uganda with zebra – and LOTS of them! The main reasons for visiting Lake Mburo are (1) a 90 minute boat cruise on the lake which offers incredible birding, some game activity on the banks, crocodiles, and hundreds of hippos; (2) to see zebra since it is the only park where you can view the beautiful mammals; and (3) to break up the drive to Bwindi. The drive isn’t bad (only about 5 hours) and you do cross the equator so there are some points to stop. The game viewing was excellent for plains game (buffalo, zebra, warthogs, all types of antelope) but it’s unlikely to see cats in the park unless you are lucky. This is an ideal one night stop on an overland itinerary but it’s skippable if you have the budget for a flight directly to Bwindi NP from Entebbe.
BWINDI NATIONAL PARK
Bwindi Inpenetrable National Park is the highlight of any visit to Uganda, as this is the home to the habituated groups of mountain gorillas. There are only about 800 mountain gorillas left in the wild so it is truly a treat to be able to observe them in their natural habitat. Bwindi is accessible by road (about 6 hours from Lake Mburo or 10+ hours from Entebbe) or air (scheduled flights are approx $275 per person and land at an airstrip about 1.5 hours away from the park; charter flights are available and can land right at the park but are quite expensive). There are multiple sections within Bwindi that offer gorilla trekking (there are a total of 12 gorilla groups that you can view in the whole park), but the most popular by far is Buhoma, which has 3 habituated groups of mountain gorillas. Buhoma is the most popular because it has the best accommodation options and is the easiest to access. There are lodges located inside and just outside the park boundaries but all are very close to the NP headquarters from where your trek starts. We stayed at Buhoma Lodge which is a nice property inside the park with very comfortable rooms, views of the mountains, great food and friendly staff; I would definitely recommend this lodge to anyone visiting the area.
Buhoma is a quiet little town of about 8,000 people situated right outside the park gate. It’s small and everything is close so it’s easy to walk around and visit curio shops along the road or even a local bar for a cheap beverage. Anyone with a free day in the area should go on the community walk during which your guide will bring you to meet the local herbalist (medicine man), see the banana farm where they manufacture banana juice, wine & gin (a few samples are obviously a must), visit a mock Pygmy village in the forest, and the highlight of the walk is a visit to the local community school.
Most people will spend 2-3 nights in Bwindi and many will do 2 treks. Each trek requires a permit (now US$600 each) and must be purchased well in advance b/c the groups are limited to 8 people – so there are only 24 permits available per day in the Buhoma area. Your trek consists of the 8 pax, a guide, 2 armed escorts and porters (porters are optional but highly recommended; not only do they help you but it is also a way to support the local community; the cost is US$15 + tip per porter), and a tracker that departs an hour before you to locate the gorillas and is in radio contact with your guide. You need to be at the NP headquarters by 8am for your briefing and then you start trekking 8:30 – 9am (depending on the last place the group you are trekking was seen you may be driven to your start point). Treks can last anywhere from 45 minutes to 10 hours before you find the gorillas and they can be quite strenuous. It is very important that you adhere to the recommended attire due to thorns, bugs, etc. My trek was about 3.5 hours before we spotted our group, the Habinyanja Group (20 gorillas), and we were fortunate that a majority of the trek was on narrow pathways but still a climb at high altitude. Once you get to the group you have one hour to watch and photograph the majestic primates.
QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK
QENP is widely regarded as Uganda’s most diverse park because of it’s wide range of habitats and abundance of mammals (95 species), birds (over 600 species), and primates. QENP also presents the best opportunity for safari goers to see cats in the wild, and the tree climbing lions of QENP have been well documented over the years. I did not see any tree climbers on my trip but we did see 10 lions while in QENP (3 different sightings), although they were at a distance. We also had some incredible hyena sightings and there’s plenty of other game to keep you occupied for your entire drive (lots of elephants, buffalos, antelopes, etc.). There are several areas of QENP, but the two that most people visit are Ishasha in the South and Mweya in the North. Only a two hour drive from Bwindi, Ishasha offers vast grassland plains and this is the area where the tree climbing lions often frequent. While in the south we stayed at Ishasha Wilderness Camp which is a beautiful tented camp built on a permanent river; the setting is simply spectacular and it’s not uncommon to get visitors in camp (we had elephant, buffalo and monkeys in camp during my 2 night stay).
After exploring the Ishasha area of QENP most itineraries will bring travelers north – a quick 2 hour drive (much of it on paved road; and the other parts are a game drive) through a fishing village gets you to Mweya. Mweya is a peninsula on the Kazinga Channel which connects Lake George & Lake Albert. Mweya offers a different landscape also filled with wildlife and an amazing water experience in the Kazinga Channel. The double decker boats coast along the banks of the river which is teeming with wildlife activity. The game experience from the water rivaled that which you get in the Chobe area, but unlike Chobe we only saw one other boat besides ours! The afternoon cruise is a MUST, especially if you do not include Lake Mburo in your itinerary. Game drives in this area were also good but this part of QENP does have the highest concentration of vehicles – we were one of 6 at one of the lion sightings. This is nothing when compared to the national parks in neighboring Tanzania or Kenya, but it was noticeable since there was no other instance on this trip that there were more than 2 vehicles (including ours) at a sighting.
KIBALE NATIONAL PARK
The highlight of the trip for me was our trek to see the chimpanzees in Kibale. Kibale is a 3 hour drive (on paved roads) north of the Mweya area of QENP. The national park is a tropical forest reknowned for the primates (13 species can be found here) that call it home. The main activities here are the chimpanzee trekking and birding. Chimpanzee treks are done at 8am & 1pm and limited to 6 pax and a guide; the permit for this isonly US$150. We stayed at Primate Lodge which is located right at the park headquarters where you begin your chimpanzee trek. The tented camp is very basic but fine for what it is; there are other accommodations that offer more of the creature comforts to which many Americans have become accustomed but those lodges are about an hour from the trekking start point. The other activity that is popular in this area is the swamp walk which focuses on birds and 6 of the primate species found in the swampy area of the NP.
This portion of the trip was my highlight because we had an exceptional and very rare chimpanzee viewing – we saw a group of about 25 chimps hunting red colobus monkeys and saw 4 kills. Chimps only hunt about twice per month and we were told that groups actually get to witness this brutal and savage occurrence only about 5 times per year. A normal chimpanzee trek consists of viewing them from the ground through thick vegetation while they are high up in the trees. The treks in Kibale are more of a walk through a forest and not nearly as physically demanding as the trekking in Bwindi.
MURCHISON FALLS NATIONAL PARK
Many companies end their itinerary after Kibale and offer Murchison Falls as an optional extension. I cannot stress enough how big of a mistake I think this is. It is a full day drive to get to MFNP from Kibale (driving from Kibale back to Entebbe is approx 7 hours) but it is well worth it. MFNP is the largest of all the national parks in Uganda and the highlight of the park is Murchison Falls which is part of the Nile River, running right through the middle of the park. Most of the camps and lodges are situated right on the river and the impressive Murchison Falls is located just about 25 minutes upriver by boat. The falls are a narrow 40 meter drop (about 120 feet) and the power is undeniable.
Within the vast park there are some great areas for game drives and this is the only park in Uganda where travelers can see giraffes (I saw about a dozen in just one game drive). There is also great fishing for nile perch as well as tigerfish, and obviously sunset cruises are a must. The setting is peaceful and the mighty Nile and falls so impressive that this is the perfect place to end an itinerary.
Once finished in MFNP make your way back to Entebbe by road (7 hours, broken up by a stop at the rhino conservancy about halfway) or air (just over an hour flight; about US$275 per person).
I visited Uganda for the gorillas but came home loving every single aspect of the country. The people and culture are so welcoming; every national park is so different from the last, each one magnificent in it’s own right; and the abundance of diverse activities that the country offers is amazing. Uganda was the ninth country that I’ve visited in Africa and I can say without hesitation that it offers the most diverse wildlife experience of them all. If the tourism industry continues to develop and grow in a positive direction over the next decade, Uganda could become the 800 pound ‘Gorilla’ in the room…Tags: Africa, National Park, Uganda
Categorized in: Trip Reports