Uganda is primarily famous for its large population of mountain gorillas. However, I was soon to discover that there is so much more to this beautiful country than its gorillas. Uganda is such a special place to visit for all kinds of reasons. It completely blew me away.
A Uganda safari offers a huge range of wildlife experiences within a small region, from chimpanzee and gorilla trekking to river safaris and game drives. Beyond the wildlife, the landscapes of Uganda are simply spectacular, from impossibly green mountains to magnificent crater lakes and waterfalls. There really is something for everyone here.
I absolutely love Africa and gorilla trekking has been on my bucket list since I was young, so I couldn’t wait to explore Uganda. I spent a packed 11 days discovering the land known as “The Pearl of Africa” and it totally knocked my socks off.
Getting to Uganda is surprisingly easy and there’s only a two-hour time difference from the UK, which means very little jetlag. I flew with Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa (7 hours and 45 minutes) and then connected to Entebbe (2 hours and 5 minutes).
On arrival in Entebbe, I was transferred to the Boma Hotel, just 15 minutes from the airport. This hotel is the perfect place to relax and unwind around the pool and quiet gardens.
The next morning, we drove approximately 4 hours to the Nakasongola district, where we visited Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the proud home of the only wild rhinos in Uganda. Having been wiped out totally in Uganda in 2004, the Southern White rhino has been re-introduced and the sanctuary is home to over twenty rhinos.
These rhinos are free to move around the 7000 hectares of land, so we were driven to a nearby spot in our safari truck and then entered the territory of the rhinos on foot.
Led by a well-trained ranger, our guide walked us through the bush and after a twenty-minute walk, we saw a female, bull, and baby rhino in their natural habitat. We spent approximately an hour with them. It was an awesome experience to walk through the bush and quietly watch them grazing in the shade of the trees with their little baby.
They are habituated so they felt no threat at all. It was a very special moment indeed. The park is beautiful and a great place to break the journey enroute to Murchison Falls.
Next, we continued our journey to Murchison Falls, which took approximately three hours. Located in the northwest of the country, Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda’s largest national park, and, together with the adjoining wildlife reserves, forms a vast wilderness covering 5000 square kilometres. It is home to a wide variety of wildlife, forest primates, and 450 bird species.
As we drove through the park, we were greeted by schoolchildren on their way home from school. Big smiles and lots of warm welcomes, it is one of the reasons why I love Africa. We had a relaxing evening at Nile Safari Lodge, which offers incredible river views from its 8 beautifully designed thatched bandas.
After an early breakfast, we took the ferry across to the northern bank of the Nile River for our first game drive. We were lucky enough to see elephants, lions, Rothschild giraffe (only seen in Murchison and Kidepo National Park), Jackson hartebeest, Ugandan kob, waterbucks, hippos, and lots of savannah woodland birds. If you are lucky, we you can see a huge variety of wildlife on a short safari.
In the afternoon, we walked through the riverine forest and along the cliffs onto the breaks of Murchison Falls. As the river flows west into Lake Albert, the Nile squeezes through an 8-metre gap and plunges 45 metres over the Rift Valley wall down into what is known as “Devil’s Cauldron”. This is the most powerful waterfall in the world, as a huge volume of water squeezes through such a small space and the pressure makes the ground tremble. It’s incredible!
The hike to the top of the falls is worth the effort, as you are rewarded with stunning views of the Nile. I was amazed by the sight and sound of the raging water that forced its way through the narrow rocky gap. There is an open area where you can view the chasm from multiple angles but be prepared to get wet! We certainly got soaked but the experience was worth it!
We spent our second night in Murchison Falls at Bakers Lodge, an intimate safari-style lodge with direct river access, large shady trees, and abundant wildlife along the water’s edge. When the sun goes down, it is a lovely place to relax and listen to the sounds of the crocodiles and hippos throughout the evening. You can regularly view pods of hippos here and we were lucky enough to watch a 5-day-old hippo with its mother.
The following day, we had another early start to make the journey to Kibale National Park. The trip takes about 6 hours. Although some of the road transfers in Uganda are long, you will be spellbound by all the villages, farmland and tea plantations that you pass by. There’s always something fascinating to look at along the way.
We stayed at Papaya Lake Lodge, located within Uganda’s Great Crater Lakes region, with sweeping views of Kifuruka and Lyantonde lakes. Close to Kibale National Park, this is an ideal place to spend a night or two, where you can unwind and enjoy the remarkable beauty of the extinct volcano lakes. The scenery is simply spectacular.
The main reason to visit Kibale Forest is the chimpanzees. The high concentration of chimpanzees, the accessibility of the forest, and the length of the habituation all make Kibale the most popular place to track chimpanzees in Uganda. Although sightings are not guaranteed, you have over 90% chance of seeing these amazing animals.
Having never done something like this before, I was excited. Permits are required to track the chimpanzees and you will join a group (maximum of 8). When we arrived, we were introduced to our Uganda Wildlife Authority Ranger who gave us the pre-tracking briefing. Next, we drove to the trailhead and our ranger led us into the forest on the trail of the chimpanzees.
Kibale’s terrain is not too challenging, so you don’t have to be particularly fit or able to trek for a long time. Standard trekking trips last about three hours and include a maximum of one hour with chimpanzees, during which time you can expect to get within 8-10 metres of these amazing animals.
We didn’t have to trek too far before contact was made, and we spent an unforgettable hour watching these fascinating, intelligent, meat-eating apes. Although the chimps were high up in the trees, we were able to see them feed on figs, and we watched their intimate grooming session. We were warned to watch out for falling fruit and thankfully avoided the urine rainfall - there were some close calls though!
Tracking chimpanzees requires patience. On the way back, our ranger spotted two males coming down, so we were lucky enough to follow the chimps through the forest until they stopped. We watched one of the male chimps thump his hands against his chest and shake a small tree before he swung up into the canopy. Good things come to those who wait!
After the chimpanzee excitement, we continued our journey (approximately 3 hours) to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we spent the night at Mweya Safari Lodge. Located in western Uganda against the back of the Rwenzori Mountains, this is Uganda’s most popular national park. It’s home to four of the Big Five and over 600 species of recorded birds, as well as tree-climbing lions and leopards.
For me, one of the most interesting tourism experiences in Uganda was the lion-tracking research trip, which is only possible within Queen Elizabeth National Park under the Uganda Carnivore Project. We met our guide James, a lion researcher, and joined him on a tour to take a close look at lions and learn about their behaviour.
James used a radiation tracker to monitor the movement of the lions with the radio collars. The head lioness in each of the prides is fitted with a radio collar, so the researchers can find her with the help of a directional antenna held out of the window of our truck.
After a few sharp turns in the truck, James led us to three female lions. James told us that lions normally move in prides of three to twenty-five individuals. Next, we tracked a male lion, who didn’t hang around for too long and continued his solo journey through the tall grass. We then visited another pride with a couple of playful juvenile cubs.
One of the benefits of lion tracking with an expert researcher is being allowed to go off track. This meant that we were able to get up within a few metres of the lions, regardless of where they were in the park. This gave us a great vantage point from which we could quietly observe these beautiful cats.
Next, we stopped off for breakfast at the local craft market. I had to try the “Rolex” (rolled eggs) - a rolled chapatti with eggs and vegetables. Utterly delicious! Afterwards, James led us to the most memorable part of the trip so far.
As we stopped the truck, a leopard walked past it and we slowly followed it. The leopard climbed the tree, posed for us whilst we took some photos, climbed back down the tree, and then slowly walked into the bush to relax. I have been on several safaris in my life, but I have never experienced such a magical moment with a leopard.
After lunch, we took a boat tour of the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake Edward and Lake George. The area is home to large concentrations of water buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles, elephants, and exotic birds. The boat trip takes around three hours, and it is one of the most relaxing ways to see the wildlife. We were able to get close to them without disturbing them with the noise of a vehicle.
The following morning, we drove two hours to the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, known for its resident tree-climbing lions. They are unique to this to this very place, and Uganda is one of only two places in the world where tree-climbing lions are found. The other is Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.
We found the tree-climbing lions and we had a wonderful time observing five lions relaxing in a fig tree. I also enjoyed the spectacular views of the savannah, teeming with large herds of buffalos, Uganda kobs, elephants, and topis. The Ishasha sector is strategically located along the road to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which makes it a good place for game drive en route to the mountain gorillas.
From Ishasha, our drive to Bwindi took 2.5 hours and we stayed at Mahogany Springs Lodge. The lodge offers comfortable rooms and a very friendly atmosphere with a focus on high quality customer service. It’s an ideal base for gorilla-tracking adventures.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is an ancient forest with incredible biodiversity. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its ecological importance and natural beauty. Most famously, Bwindi is home to around half of the world’s population of critically endangered mountain gorillas, and tourism to the park to see the gorillas is used to fund conservation efforts in the region.
After an early breakfast, we drove to the information centre for a short briefing about what to expect. We were then split up into smaller groups. Each group was assigned a different family of gorillas and we then set off in different directions to begin our descent into the jungle.
Our group was driven about twenty minutes to the start of our trek. We met our guide, Damian, and the porters, who cost USD 20 per person. I highly recommend paying for a porter, because it really helps the local community. Your porter will carry your backpack and, if needed, he’ll help you up and down the trails.
Our group of eight trekked for about forty minutes before our guide contacted our rangers to see if they had found the gorillas. I heard roars in the distance and thought we must be close to them. At this point, our guide nudged us down a little further and then told us to wait.
A few seconds later, the gorillas started to emerge from the foliage. That moment was breathtaking. Listening to them grunt and watching them eat was unreal. Even though you are supposed to keep seven metres from them, they walked past us very closely. Some of the little ones climbed up a tree and started swinging. The big silverback, who was 43 years old, was eating constantly before he lay down and tried to sleep, but he couldn’t as the playful juveniles were mucking around.
As the gorillas have been habituated, they are used to human presence so they didn’t run away or hide from us. Once I had taken hundreds of photos, I put my camera away and just enjoyed these extraordinary animals up close. Humans and mountain gorillas share 98% of the same DNA and it was mad thinking how similar they seem!
Gorilla trekking is one of the most fascinating and intimate wildlife experiences that I have been lucky enough to do. It was an hour that I will remember for the rest of my life. We walked back to where our trek started and drove back to HQ, where we received gorilla trekking certificates. What a day!
The following morning, we departed early for Lake Mburo National Park, which is small but fascinating. It’s brimming with flora and fauna, and it’s the only park in Western Uganda where you can find the Burchell Zebras.
With several lakes, the wetland ecosystem is an inland source of water for over 300 species of birds. These include Crested Francolin, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Brown Parrot, Barefaced Go-away bird, Red-necked Spur, common Quails, Black-billed Barbet, Greenwood Hoopoe, Blue-napped Mousebird, Lilac-breasted Roller as well as the African-grey Hornbill.
Along with the birds, there are many land mammals in the area, including zebras, hippos, impalas, warthogs, elands, buffaloes, jackals and even leopards. There have been reports of lions in the vicinity of the park too.
Nocturnal game drives are popular here, giving you the chance to spot bush babies, porcupines, and leopards, which are more active at night. Even better, 20% of the park’s entrance fee is used to fund local community projects such as building medical clinics and schools. We enjoyed a sundowner at the water’s edge and watched a baby hippo playing with his mum for quite some time.
In Lake Mburo National Park, we stayed at the beautiful Mihingo Lodge, which melts seamlessly into the surrounding rocky landscape. The 10 rooms are all environmentally friendly, as the electricity, hot water and water pumps are powered by solar energy. From the pool and dining room, you can watch stunning sunsets. It’s a great place to spend a couple of nights en route from Bwindi to Entebbe or Kampala.
On our final day, we departed early and travelled back to Entebbe. The total drive was around five hours. On the way, we stopped off at the Equator to see how the water drains straight down, which differs from the northern and southern hemispheres at the Equator line. It was also a great place to buy last-minute souvenirs before our journey back to Entebbe.
I never expected Uganda to be so beautiful. I had some of the most amazing experiences of my life within a short space of time. I can’t wait to return in the future with my family so that my children can fall in love with the “Pearl of Africa” just like I did. If you get the chance to visit Uganda – do it!