Go wild in Uganda: 5 incredible experiences

When most people think of Uganda, they rightly picture themselves deep in a rainforest, surrounded by mountain gorillas – surely one of the most exciting experiences East Africa can offer. But there’s plenty more to do here besides. Fascinatingly diverse, Uganda is a friendly, heritage-rich nation whose focus on sustainability is sure to impress travellers who like to tread lightly. Here are just five incredible travel experiences you can expect…

1. See primates in their natural habitat

Tracking mountain gorillas has all the ingredients of an excellent adventure: despite gorillas being worryingly rare, your chances of a sighting are extremely good, and while the experience demands time, money and effort, it’s accessible to everyone that can afford it. As a bonus, tracking fees help fund conservation and rural community development.

The gorillas you can visit have been studied for many years and, though wild, are habituated to tourists. In Uganda’s two tracking destinations, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Bwindi’s main starting points offer the best chances of seeing them.

The day starts with an early-morning briefing. Hiking in a group of no more than eight, assisted by scouts, guides and porters, you follow paths that can be steep and tangled – but the moment your precious one-hour audience begins, you forget every ache and scratch. Our tip? If you can, book permits for subsequent days. Your first encounter will vanish in a flash.

Searching for habituated chimpanzees in Kibale National Park or Budongo Forest costs less, and is just as exciting – often more so, given the dynamic, vocal nature of chimp society. Your guided forest hike could reveal a peaceful family scene, or a shouting match; either way, you’ll never forget it.

Go birdwatching

Compared to the glamour and emotional high of tracking primates, lions or elephants, birdwatching is thoroughly under-rated. It’s time to change that: with the right guide, this is a low-impact, high-return pursuit that hones your observation skills and encourages you to travel mindfully, exploring varied landscapes in depth.

Uganda is not much bigger than Great Britain, but has almost double the avian biodiversity: well over 1,000 local and migrant species have been recorded here to date. As such, it’s one of the best places in the world to tick species off your list. But birding is not just about the numbers. Ugandan bird guides often have exceptional general knowledge, and can teach you as much about butterflies, bees and borassus palms as about ornithology. Many guides are self-taught but no less expert for that, and women are making their mark in this specialist field.

A stay in Kampala or Entebbe, which in December 2021 hosted the fourth African Birding Expo, will get your adventure off to a flying start: their gardens and wooded outskirts shelter colourful firefinches, sunbirds and weavers, along with chatty species such as bulbuls, pied crows and doves. Elsewhere, unmissable hotspots include Mabamba Swamp, island-dotted Lake Bunyonyi and, frankly, any of Uganda’s ten national parks.

Here are just five birds to look out for…

1.     Grey crowned crane

Also known as the crested crane, this magnificently regal creature is an African icon and Uganda’s national bird. The grey in its name refers to its cape-like chest and wing plumage; its crown is pale gold in colour. Cranes can be spotted in Uganda’s wetlands and on the grassy banks of lakes and rivers.

2.     Shoebill

Well over a metre tall and strangely lugubrious-looking, shoebills are pelican-like birds with grey feathers, a bulbous beak, long legs and large feet. They’re found in wetland areas such as Mabamba Swamp near Entebbe, where they stand stock still in order to catch fish and water snakes by surprise.

3.     Saddle-billed stork

Widespread in sub-Saharan Africa but particularly strongly associated with East Africa, the saddle-billed stork is an elegant black-and-white bird with snazzy red and yellow colour-blocks. They prey on fish, frogs and crabs. Conveniently, they prefer not to stray too far from their favourite feeding grounds, so are easy to find.

4.     Great blue turaco

When you’re on a single-minded mission to find mountain gorillas, the forest bird most likely to distract you – however briefly – is this colourful character, whose deep blue plumage, yellow-and-red beak and Mohican-like crest are impossible to miss. Enthusiastic eaters of leaves, flowers and fruit, you’ll often see them high in the trees.

5.     Fox’s weaver

Uganda’s habitats tend not to be ecologically isolated, with many of its birds moving freely throughout East Africa. Just one species is known to be endemic: the Fox’s weaver, which is near-threatened and has never been seen beyond northern Uganda’s seasonal wetlands. Few records exist, making it a tempting objective for patient birders.

3. Make a splash in Jinja

1.     Explore Jinja and the Upper Nile

Laid out on a wide peninsula that’s lapped by the waters of Lake Victoria and the Victoria Nile, Jinja is adventure central. Once Uganda’s industrial hub, the town now appeals to outdoorsy types, with whitewater rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, horse riding and a 44-metre bungee jump over the Nile topping its attractions.

2.     Ride the rapids

Downriver from Jinja, beyond the Bujagali Dam, the Nile plunges over a series of Grade Three and Grade Five rapids – East Africa’s answer to the whitewater in Zambia’s Batoka Gorge. For the ultimate adrenaline high, book a half-day or full-day rafting trip, tackling the tumbling river in a six-strong team with an expert guide.

3.     Kayak

For a different type of river challenge, try kayaking. Jinja’s whitewater kayaking instructors offer a thorough grounding, including how to read the river and control your craft in fast-moving conditions. Alternatively, for a gentler (and drier) experience, you could kayak on flat water: smooth, peaceful and gorgeous at sunset, Lake Bujagali is ideal.

4.     Go Sport fishing

Jinja has two catch-and-release sport fishing seasons a year, corresponding to the calmest, driest months, from June to August and December to February. Set out in a speed boat across one of the region’s lagoons and you can fish for tilapia or Nile perch, mighty creatures that anglers attract with a lure.

5.     Staying beside the Nile

Jinja has no shortage of places to relax your tired muscles after a day of adventures. Top-end choices include an upmarket boutique hotel decorated with colourful African fabrics and a cosy guesthouse with inviting hammocks in the garden. There are also backpacker hostels, simple city crash pads and a grassy campsite overlooking the river.

4. Immerse yourself in the national parks

1.     Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

If you have a passion for nature in the raw and the budget for a gorilla tracking permit, make a beeline for Bwindi. Though definitely not literally impenetrable, it’s every bit as wild as its name suggests. A Unesco World Heritage site since 1994, this exceptionally biodiverse rainforest protects more than half the world’s population of mountain gorillas, and its rangers have been guiding tourists into their midst for almost 30 years. Bwindi is also home to elusive chimpanzees, baboons and duiker antelopes. Around 350 species of birds are found here, too – but you may well be too excited about the gorillas to notice more than a few of them.

2.     Kibale National Park

Chimpanzee tracking is the main attraction in this beautiful, gently undulating forest. Setting off from Kanyanchu Visitor Centre, you’re guided along footpaths forged by forest elephants, making for the area where the park’s habituated community of chimps was last seen or heard. There’s a spacious, cathedral-like feel to Kibale’s groves of wild rubber, fig and ironwood trees, some of which are more than two centuries old. Plenty of light filters through the branches, offering superb opportunities for photography and video. Monitored by researchers and tourists since the 1990s, the chimps are largely unperturbed by the presence of strangers, and make noisy, energetic and entertaining subjects.

3.     Kidepo Valley National Park

Far enough away from Uganda’s other parks to be relatively little visited, Kidepo Valley is an austerely beautiful region of rolling grasslands, edged by mountains and lapped by the deserts of South Sudan and northwest Kenya. Its hub is Apoko, in the Narus Valley. The region’s ecosystems were ravaged by wildlife poaching in the late 20th century, but have shown strong signs of recovery in recent years. The park’s maze of seasonal rivers, palms and shea trees protects lions, antelopes and a small but nationally important population of Rothschild’s giraffes – a species that used to be free-ranging and abundant throughout Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.

4.     Lake Mburo National Park

Well-placed to break up the overland journey between Kampala and Bwindi, Lake Mburo is an under-rated wildlife-watching destination that’s home to Uganda’s only impalas, along with Burchell’s zebras and elands; the only other Ugandan park where you can see both the latter is Kidepo. Its acacia woodlands and abundant fresh water attract over 350 bird species, including the red-faced barbet, which is found nowhere else, and characters such as bare-faced go-away-birds, Abyssinian ground hornbills and saddle-billed storks. Since Uganda’s southern border lies only 25 miles (40km) away, this is a good place to look for species more often spotted in Tanzania than in Uganda.

5.     Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Uganda’s smallest national park is a lush pocket of rainforest, perched high in the clouds. It’s sometimes possible to see mountain gorillas here, but, despite the promise contained in its name, Mgahinga is not as reliable a gorilla-tracking destination as Bwindi, since its residents sometimes ramble across the border into neighbouring Rwanda or DRC. However, there are other primate species to discover here, including endangered golden monkeys that bound elegantly through the canopy overhead. Like Bwindi, Mgahinga is also the ancestral home of the Batwa people, who run craft workshops and cultural entertainment projects nearby.

6.     Mount Elgon National Park

Thought to be at least 24 million years old, Mount Elgon is the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa. Straddling the border between eastern Uganda and Kenya, its vast free-standing base, 50 miles (80km) across, is the largest in the world, and long ago, before erosion took its toll, its peak was Africa’s highest. With unusual Afro-alpine vegetation underfoot and soaring lammergeyers overhead, Elgon’s moorland trails and enormous caldera have huge appeal for hikers, while Sipi Falls, to the northeast, is delightfully pretty. Nonetheless, the park remains little-known compared to Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya or even the Rwenzori Mountains, making visits peaceful and affordable.

7.     Murchison Falls National Park

Named after the 19th century British geologist Roderick Murchison, the cascade at heart of this huge protected wilderness is a thundering, roaring spectacle, created by the fast-flowing Victoria Nile squeezing through an eight-metre-wide gorge in the Rift Valley Escarpment then plunging over a 45-metre wall of rock. For wildlife-watchers, a boat trip from Paraa on the broad river below the cascade guarantees thrilling sightings of mammals, reptiles and birds, with elephants and buffaloes patrolling the grassy banks, hippos yawning from the shallows, crocodiles lurking silently on the sand and herons scanning the water for frogs and fish.

8.     Queen Elizabeth National Park

If you’re keen to see herds of kobs, the antelope that, together with the crowned crane, appears on Uganda’s coat of arms, a visit to QENP is a must. Lying on the Equator, with the jagged Rwenzori Mountains as a backdrop, it’s Uganda’s most popular park, and supremely diverse. Of the 90-plus mammal species and 600-plus bird species found in its varied habitats, highlights include elephants, buffaloes and lions, some of which have the endearing habit of climbing sturdy fig trees. This region is rich in cultural traditions , too, with the communities surrounding the park sharing aspects of their heritage through storytelling, music and crafts.

9.     Rwenzori Mountains National Park

Running for almost 120km along the Congolese border north of QENP, the Rwenzori Mountains are a genuinely adventurous destination for determined hikers and experienced mountaineers. It was the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley who immortalised the local name Rwenzori, meaning Rainmaker or Cloud King, when he mapped the mountains in 1888. Their distinctive vegetation ranges from tropical rainforest to alpine meadows featuring giant species of groundsel, lobelia and heather. The highest point in the range, Mount Stanley’s Margherita Peak, reaches 5,109m into the sky, and is Africa’s third highest peak after Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.

10.  Semuliki National Park

The only swathe of true lowland tropical forest in East Africa, Semuliki is an ancient and fascinatingly diverse landscape. Situated close to the Congolese border, at a point where several ecological zones meet, its ironwood trees and glades harbour well over 400 bird species (around 40 of which are unrecorded elsewhere), more than 450 butterfly species and more than 50 species of mammal including leopards, monkeys and bush babies. However, despite this spectacular biodiversity, Semuliki remains an under-the-radar destination. Though few in number, its hiking trails are well worth exploring, and there are hot springs to discover at Sempaya, a short walk from the information office.

5. Meet the locals

Ugandans are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you could ever hope to meet. Their rich cultural heritage is likely to make your trip as educational as well as enjoyable, while their natural hospitality is sure to add a warm dimension to the experience.

Some of Uganda’s indigenous peoples have created cultural attractions and shows that are designed to keep their traditions alive in the current era of rapid change, while enabling them to share their heritage with others. Many of these provide great entertainment by any standard; the performances given by the Batwa communities whose ancestral lands like within Bwindi Impenetrable Forest are excellent examples of this.

Traditional dances worth seeking out in western Uganda include Entogoro, a stamina-testing courtship dance performed by the Nyoro, and Ekitaguriro, a celebratory dance performed by the Banyankole with arms raised, to honour their beloved longhorn cows.

Including heritage sites such as Kitagata Hot Springs, the reconstructed Kasubi Tombs and the 14th to 16th century Bigo bya Mugyenyi earthworks in your itinerary will add a deeper cultural and historical perspective to your trip, while to experience life in a Ugandan community through its food and drink, you could try your hand at making banana beer, sample ugali with groundnut sauce or simply tuck into the nation’s favourite street food, a rolex. Said to have been invented in Jinja, this is an omelette-stuffed chapati that’s been rolled up to make it easy to eat on the go – perfect for fuelling up at the start of a busy day.

Make memories that will last a lifetime in Uganda

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