As soon as you arrive in Uganda, you’ll immediately be struck by how green this country is. Uganda is incredibly diverse, with mountains, cloud forest, and open plains, in addition to immense lakes. Uganda’s greatest wildlife attraction is undoubtedly the mountain gorillas, and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest offers almost guaranteed incredible close encounters with these great apes. With all it has to offer, Uganda is known as “the pearl of Africa” and it’s a fitting title. Here in the heart of the continent, there’s a very real danger that you’ll fall in love!
- Trek through the “cloud forest” of Bwindi National Park to encounter mountain gorillas in their misty habitat
- Get your adrenaline pumping whitewater rafting through Jinji, the source of the Nile River
- Sip on fresh coffee from some of the best coffee plantations around, straight from the source
- Visit Queen Elizabeth National Park where you can spot the famous tree-climbing lions
Gateway city: Entebbe (Kampala)
Best time to travel: January through February; May through December
Bwindi rejoices in being known as the “impenetrable forest” – although its bark is worse than its bite, this reputation has long helped protect its most precious inhabitants: the mountain gorillas. Trekking up into the cloud forest to encounter these gentle giants is Uganda’s quintessential wildlife experience – only a limited number of permits are issued for each day, and these tend to get booked out quickly. The gorillas share the forests with a dazzling array of birds, butterflies and blooms, and forest hikes along paths leading to hidden waterfalls truly feel like voyages of exploration. Be sure to also take the opportunity to meet the Batwa people who have traditionally lived in this area and have a unique relationship with the forest. A cultural visit to Buhoma Village can reveal the secrets of growing bananas and producing local gin – you can even try a tot if you’re feeling brave.
Situated on a peninsula jutting out into Africa’s largest lake – Lake Victoria – Entebbe is likely to be your point of entry into the country known as the “pearl of Africa”. While many travellers simply pass through, it’s worth pausing here to learn about the airport’s fascinating history (some of the key true-life events portrayed in the movie “The Last King of Scotland” took place here). From Entebbe, you can easily reach either the Ugandan capital, Kampala, or visit the residents of the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. This island provides a safe haven for orphaned and rescued chimps from across East Africa and offers a wonderful opportunity to observe these great apes at close quarters. The island is a beacon of hope for this threatened species, and a reminder of the perils our closest animal relatives face.
Kibale National Park in western Uganda protects several different forest habitats at different altitudes. The local soils are especially fertile, and the drive to Kibale takes you through a patchwork quilt of plantations including tea, bananas and coffee. That’s right, you’re getting close to the source of your morning espresso! Kibale is known for its high density of primates, including chimpanzees. Chimpanzee trekking is quite a different experience to looking for mountain gorillas: chimps tend to be much more energetic and vocal. You’ll know immediately when you get close to them! The park also contains crater lakes (the remnants of extinct volcanoes) which make for challenging but rewarding hiking. The nearby Bigodi Wetland is a great place to see clouds of butterflies and gorgeous tropical birds. After all that hiking, you will have definitely earned the right to enjoy lunch at Tinka’s traditional restaurant, accurately billed as “Uganda’s best meal”.
KIDEPO VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
When you absolutely, positively have to get off the beaten track, the Kidepo Valley really delivers in terms of seclusion and remoteness. Wedged into the far north-eastern corner of Uganda, the park consists of open, rugged savannah bisected by two major river valleys. The two valleys receive differing amounts of rain, which influences the vegetation and wildlife found in each. In the far north of the park, there are also renowned hot springs. Although this region may feel like the ends of the earth – in the best possible way – you’ll find that you’re not entirely alone. The Karamojong people have long eked out a living in this arid area, and visits to their villages provide fascinating insights into their way of life. Their traditions include each would-be husband having to defeat his future wife in a wrestling match, as a test of strength.
At Murchison Falls, the Victoria Nile squeezes through a gap in the rocks just 23ft wide and then tumbles a further 140ft, creating an impressive natural spectacle that can be viewed from just a few paces away. Below the Falls, the river is much broader and calmer, meaning that boat excursions are a real highlight. The area is known for its prolific birdlife, including the semi-mythical shoebill stork (if you’re not sure what this is, ask any keen birder). Fans of literature might want to know that Ernest Hemingway once survived a plane crash by the Falls, but the main draw is the Buligi Peninsula – a pizza-slice of grassland delineated by the two different Nile Rivers as they enter or leave Lake Albert. It’s the place to go to see grazing animals in numbers – and where there’s prey, you may also spot predators.
QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK
The jewel in the crown of the Uganda’s protected spaces, “QENP” received its current name in honor of a royal visitor back in 1954. The park comprises a variety of habitats, with many of its features (including crater lakes) formed by ancient volcanic activity. QENP is known for the chance to see large herds of buffalo and kob (a distinctive species of antelope) grazing in the open on large swathes of savannah. Boat excursions on the Kazinga Channel are a sure-fire way to see hippo up close and personal, while the most famous inhabitants of Queen Elizabeth are probably the lions of Ishasha. Not only are the males in this species particularly impressive thanks to their dark manes, but these big cats have also mastered the art of climbing trees. It’s thought that they do this for relief from the heat, but it has to be seen to be believed.