Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Some Wildlife, Unique Landscapes… And So Gentle People!
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
I visited Uganda twice. In August 2011, during 2 weeks, I discovered the string of National Parks in western Uganda, starting with Lake Bunyonyi, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Queen Elisabeth National Park, Kibale Rain Forest, Semliki National Park, Murchison Falls National Park and last but not least Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. The 3rd week, I used Jinja as a base to discover the area.
In January 2017, I spent 2 weeks and refocused on some National Parks (except Bwindi, as I went Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda): Lake Bunyonyi, Queen Elisabeth National Park, Kibale Rain Forest, Murchison Falls National Park & Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
Why Travel To Uganda?
Of course, no one would go to Uganda without Tracking Mountain Gorillas and going for a Chimpanzees Habituation, a new but amazing program. Both are the experience of a lifetime! Note that Rwanda decided to double its prices for Gorilla Permits in May 2017 (climbing from 750 USD to 1.500 USD), so Uganda is currently an outstanding option, with Gorilla Permits at “only” 650 USD…
Uganda also takes pride in famous National Parks, like Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elisabeth National Park, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, and many others… Those do offer decent game viewing opportunities, but pick the time of your visit very carefully, as some seasons are very poor for wildlife watching, like the short dry season from December to February. And do not expect prices to drop during this time of the year… Local agencies will hide the truth about the best and lesser appropriate moments for game viewing, more interested in short-term business than long-term development…
Most important, do not overlook the actual country and do not spend too much time in the National Parks: Ugandans are very gentle and welcoming, the landscape is unbelievably green & lush, and the hotel / hostel / guesthouse infrastructure is now well-developed, catering for all budgets and offering a good price-quality ratio. Yes, Uganda is a great place for “Beginners in Africa”, though public transports may be challenging…
Challenges In The Organization Of The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?
- First: Decide on what you want to focus on!
As mentioned above, National Parks offer decent game viewing opportunities, but probably not the best in Africa, and in the meantime belong to the most expensive of the continent… Obviously, local operators tend to believe that if “Mzungus” can pay 650 USD for a Gorilla Permit, they can pay anything for the National Parks… With the major difference that Gorilla Tracking is indeed unique, and that Ugandan National Parks simply aren’t…
You should hence maybe not solely focus on National Parks, but also take enough time to discover the actual country… Or better, pay a visit to the great apes (Gorillas & Chimpanzees) and then focus on the country itself, not the National Parks, which will save you tremendous amounts of money…
- Tour operator, car rental or public transport?
All major cities in Uganda are connected by frequent bus services that travel mostly on paved roads. So if you ignore National Parks, you can travel on public transports easily. Note that those can be challenging for inexperienced African-travelers, especially in more remote and rural areas!
Nonetheless, reaching most Nationals Parks in reasonable time and above all, traveling within them requires private transport (and not always a 4WD). Self-driving in Uganda is probably only an option if you are very experienced with bad roads and especially aggressive drivers.
It is possible to rent a car with driver though, for approx. 60 USD a day, and a 4WD will cost you approx. 100 USD a day. Except in the middle of the summer (July & August), very few places are fully booked, so you can decide a few days in advance where you should go, or actually even on the spot…
Worried about permits? Any company can get you a gorilla permit for an extra 50 USD fee (on top of the 650 USD, of course). On a short notice this might be challenging in the high season, but for one or two persons it is not impossible. Chimpanzee permits are much easier to get and can even be arranged at the park itself, without notice.
- Which tour operator?
Back in August 2011, we chose Katona Tours, the cheapest of the expensive options, a two week private tour for 2.900 USD per person for two weeks (that’s 207 USD per day including a Gorilla Permit), including pretty much everything (transport, accommodation, three meals, all permits, park fees). What makes such a trip so costly? Permits and park fees are a big chunk (gorilla permit was 500 USD p.p., two Chimpanzee permits at 100 USD p.p. each, National Park fees 30 USD p.p. per day). On top of that, distances are long and a gas sucking 4WD is necessary for most areas… Their service is all in all ok, they delivered what was promises, but for small minors points.
In January 2017, I was about to give up when I finally found a new agency, TourLand Uganda, who offered me an option that was far cheaper than its competition… 2.200 USD for 9 days (that’s 244 USD per day excluding a Gorilla Permit!!!), which already seems mind-bogglingly expensive, especially since I went Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda and not in Uganda! They delivered what was promised, the driver Emma was really good and motivated, but they surely failed to mention that January was not the best time (by far) to go on game drives!
Highlights Of The Trip
- Mountain Gorillas Tracking in Biwindi Impenetrable National Park: there is nothing more soothing then watching these beautiful creatures…
- Chimpanzees Habituation: spending a whole day with our closest relatives and discovering their daily routine is an amazing experience. Beware that it’s a long day walking through thick jungle, and that a porter is no luxury…
- Watching on foot White Rhinoceros from no more than 10 meters distance at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, one of the few places in Africa where the rhinoceros population is actually growing!
- The frontier town-feel in the fishing village of Butiaba
- Bird Watching in Nyombe Swamp on Lake Bunyonyi
- Tumbling through grade 5 rapids on the Nile
- If visiting during the long dry season (June through August), wildlife watching in Murchison Falls National Park
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
Just get out of the National Parks, and you will be Off The Beaten Track! There are plenty of opportunities, and all this can be done on a budget.
What Will We Especially Remember?
- Gentle and welcoming – The people of Uganda
- Relaxed – Nobody is pushing his wares and trying to sell you something at any cost. A simple “thank you” or gesture is enough.
- Pleasant – The weather and the fact that you have (almost) no mosquitoes. It was delightful!
- Delighted – Children getting excited over every “Mzungo” (foreigner / westerner) waving and screaming “Howareyou, howareyou?”
- Green – The landscape is so unbelievably green and lush.
- Rainy – We travelled in August, but there was not a single day or night without some kind of downpour. In the short dry season in January, it was much drier, though…
- Skilled – Many crafts we saw are simply unbelievable. Several times we joked about filling a container and sending it home
- Overcrowded public transport – Up to 5 people on a motorbike, up to 11 people in a normal car, and we stopped counting on mini buses.
- Crazy – The traffic / pollution in Kampala and the way people generally drive.
- Mystical – Landscapes wrapped in the morning fog, then even Kampala displays a certain charm.
What Would We Do Differently?
- Pack warmer clothes! Travelling near the Equator we expected hot humid weather… Very wrong, especially at night!
- Spend less time in National Parks and more time discovering the actual country and the so gentle Ugandan people…
Is It Safe & Is It Morally Justifiable To Travel To Uganda?
Uganda is an extremely safe country to travel. True, the East and North East of the country are still at times unstable, but this is no area where tourist will go or want to go.
Unfortunately, Uganda has hit the headlines with repeated abuses against Human Rights and especially proved to be one of the most backwards countries on Gay Rights…
Best Time To Visit Uganda
There are two rainy seasons in Uganda: March to May and September to November. During this time, parks are far less crowded and permits much easier to get, but roads can be very bad and trekking in the rainforest very challenging.
The best time is definitely during the long dry season, from June to August. At that time, permits need to be booked weeks, if not months in advance. The short dry season from December to February is excellent for Gorillas & Chimpanzees, but very poor for other National Parks.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
With English widely spoken, Uganda is a very easy country to travel. Even in more remote villages like Butiaba, which are definitely Off The Beaten Track, communication was easy… and pleasant.
Getting Around In Uganda
See Above: “Tour Operator, Car Rental or Public Transport”
Citizens of many countries can get a Visa On Arrival, either at the border or at the International Airport in Entebbe. If you are coming overland, a proof of Yellow Fever Vaccination might be required.
If you consider also visiting Uganda and / or Kenya on the same trip, you can apply for an East African Visa that covers multiple entries for the 3 countries for up to 90 days and cost 100 USD. This can also be done Online, with a payment with Credit Card upon arrival at the airport. The process is quick and straightforward. Beware that you must apply in the first country of arrival, though: if you travel to Rwanda and then Uganda, then you must apply in Rwanda; if you start with Kenya, then you must apply in Kenya…
Photography – Uganda: World-Class Wildlife Pictures!
- Mountain Gorillas Tracking & Chimpanzees Habituation are probably the highlight of a trip to Uganda… Beware that it is technically quite challenging, as you will have very little light in the Rain Forest! You will need:
- A Full Frame camera to be able to go up with the ISO (at least 640, and most of the time far above 800).
- Optic that enables you to have a completely open Aperture, at least 4.0 and ideally 2.8, which turns quite expensive for tele-lenses.
- Ideally 2 cameras, one with a tele-lens (200mm or even more) and one regular lens (for instance 24-105), as you will be partly far away, partly close from the Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzees.
- For Safaris in the various National Parks, your Tele-Lens will be your best friend! Do not leave it at home.
- For landscape photography, you should use pretty much all the time a Polarization Filter to enhance contrasts. But interestingly, you will have great contrasts in Uganda: green, lush vegetation, red soils, and dark skies as if rain was about to pour down.
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Uganda
There are only very few blogs with current and reliable information about Uganda… If you want an example of how to travel on a much lower budget in Uganda, check the excellent blog of Sonia & Ainara. At least Africa is written in English (other parts are in Spanish)…
Audrey & Dan from Uncornered Market also wrote an excellent overview of their experience in Rwanda.
Conclusion About Uganda…
Uganda is an incredibly pleasant country, for its people, the great apes (Gorillas & Chimpanzees) and the evergreen landscape. The hotel / hostel infrastructure is now well developed, and I would recommend it with all our heart, because it is so relaxed and easy to travel, except the completely overloaded vehicles used in rural areas.
But… Do not spend too much time in National Parks (except for the great apes), as those belong to the most expensive of the continent, though they offer decent but not exceptional wild life watching opportunities!