Grand Escapades’ Travel Guide To Uganda – Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Wildlife, Unique Landscapes… And Such Gentle People!
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
In August 2011, we visited the string of National Parks in western Uganda, starting with Lake Byunyonyi, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Queen Elisabeth National Park including the Ishasha Sector, Kibale Rain Forest, Semliki National Park, Murchison Falls National Park including Budongo Forest and last but not least Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. This journey can leisurely be done in two weeks. Kidepo National Park in the Northeast we skipped, too remote and too expensive.
The third week, we crashed at the fabulous 2Friends Guesthouse in Jinja and used it as a base for numerous activities and outings, like walking to the source of the Nile, marveling at soon to – disappear Bujagali Falls and volunteering at Soft Power Education. Last but not least, we did some serious rafting over grade 5 Rapids on the Nile.
Why Travel To Uganda?
Hardly anybody goes to Uganda without doing the strenuous trek to the misty homes of the Mountain Gorillas. Getting face to face with the Chimpanzees is a lot easier – it is more of a leisurely walk. Both experiences of a lifetime!
That said, Uganda offers much more than this: world class wildlife viewing in Murchison Falls National Park, a unique opportunity to do a walking safari with Rhinos at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, …
Last but not least, the very gentle and welcoming Ugandans & the unbelievably green & lush landscape make it a very pleasant country to visit! Actually, Uganda is a great place as “Africa for Beginners”!
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?
Tour operator, car rental or public transport?
All major cities in Uganda are connected by frequent bus services that travel mostly on paved roads, but this is not where and how the “Mzungos” travel. The Nationals Parks is where they are heading. To get there, and above all in reasonable time requires private transport.
Would we use again the services of a tour operator to visit the National Parks in western Uganda? Probably not, but rent a car with a driver instead. Of course a tour operator gets better rates at the really expensive lodges in the National Parks, organizes your permits, knows the best lodges, no time is wasted with decision making and the drivers are very experienced.
But we simply missed the flexibility to stay and stop and yes, weigh the pros and cons of doing so. No matter how well you plan, some things pop along the road, like the fishing village of Butiaba or the Salt Garden at Kibero. It always seemed an annoyance to ask for these changes and extra miles. At times, it was simply impossible.
Worried about permits? Any company can get you a gorilla permit for an extra 50 USD fee (on top of the 500 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.
And of course, traveling during the high season requires a certain amount of planning unless you do not mind pitching a tent at the many camp sites, if certain lodges are booked.
Our tour operator – Katona Tours
As mentioned above, the trip itself went just smoothly. Communication while planning the trip was fast and seemed reliable. Their offer, 2.900 USD pp for a 14 day tailored private tour was the cheapest: 20% cheaper than the second best offer, Kazinga Tour. Actually Heidi used the later to get her gorilla permit in Rwanda – An extremely reliable company: we transferred too much money and it was sent back in no time.
As for other offers, some of the highend companies asked for no less than 6.500 USD for the same itinerary, often even shorter.
So we considered Katona as a good choice. But a few things really teed us off!
- We had agreed on making a down payment of 1.500 USD and the rest to be paid by credit card in their Kampala office. Three days before we left for Uganda, they asked to bring the money in cash!
- Once we had left Kampala, our driver presented an updated version of the itinerary. Without any explanation, one of the two planned game drives in the Ishasha Sector of Queen Elisabeth National Park was cancelled. Well, we did not see the Tree Climbing Lions…
- At the end of the tour, they asked for an extra 23 USD for a detour of 50 (!) kilometers to a hospital to get Gilles eye checked. So very ungracious after paying a total of 5.800 USD for the whole tour.
Highlights Of The Trip
- Mountain Gorillas in Biwindi Impenetrable National Park: spending one hour with the Habinyanja family and Makara, their silver backed master.
- Two-year old Obama, the first White Rhinoceros born in Uganda after 26 years at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
- Fighting hippos and giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park.
- Strolling Bigodi Wetlands near Kibale
- The boat ride along Lake Bunyonyi to visit the Batwa people
- The frontier feel in the fishing village of Butiaba
- Relaxing at the 2 Friends Guesthouse in Jinja
- Tumbling through grade 5 rapids on the Nile
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 small 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 an (almost) mosquitoes-free environment. 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.
- 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!
- Skip Semliki National Park – we did not see the point of driving 5 hours to see a few monkeys from the distance and a few butterflies…
- See a specialist doctor next time we have a medical problem. Gilles’ eye was successfully treated by the only ophthalmologist within 200 kilometres, but waiting for 60 hours and relying on general practitioners without the proper equipment could have cost Gilles’ left eye!
- Get a Ugandan mobile phone or SIM card for organising spontaneous excursions and reconnecting with people you meet along the way. We were the only tourists without one! They are very easy to organise and extremely cheap. Ugandans are addicted to mobile phones!
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 usually go or want to go.
Unfortunately, Uganda has hit the headlines with abuses against Human Rights and especially proved to be one of the most backwards countries on Gay Rights.
The country has had a very troubled history. We hope that an increase in tourism will help improving things – Ugandans are open to visitors and extremely gentle people. They surely deserve an improvement of their situation. A flow of dollars from tourism can really help.
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 June to August and December to February. At that time, permits need to be booked months in advance.
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 driving overland, a proof of Yellow Fever Vaccination might be required.
Photography – Uganda: World-Class Wildlife Pictures!
As a traditional Safari destination, your Tele-Lens will be your best friend! Do not leave home without it.
The challenge will be while trekking Gorillas and Chimpanzees: there is very little light in the rain forest, so you will have to play with the ISO setting. A Full-Frame camera might there prove very useful there, even though you loose the crop factor. For Gorillas, you actually might want to use a High-Aperture lense (f4.0 or even f2.8), as you can approach them as close as 7 meters. But a Tele-Lens is still necessary.
For landscape photography, you should use pretty much all the time a Polarization Filter to improve contrasts. But Uganda’s nature itself is full of contrast: green, lush vegetation, red soils, and dark skies (before the daily downpour).
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Uganda
Conclusion About Uganda…
Uganda is an incredibly pleasant country, for its people, the wildlife and the evergreen landscape. It is the ninth country we have visited in Africa, and we 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.