Uganda is a beautiful country with an impressive people. This is one of my favourite countries in all of Africa. The people of Uganda have survived the troubles of 1967-86 period and emerged standing upright and wearing a smile. In that short period, the country suffered under the caprice of two despicable despots. One was the indisputably insane Idi Amin and the other, the arguably insane Milton Obote.
This is now history – a testament to the dignity and endurance of this people. The transformation of the country in the period since normalcy returned is nothing short of astounding. And it shows in the faces of the people you meet. That the graceful beauties of Uganda have not received the recognition they deserve in international beauty pageants is, for me, incontrovertible proof that most of these events are really fixed.
Winston Churchill was so besotted by the country that he gave it the name that has endured: the “Pearl of Africa”. His observations about Uganda remain true today: “The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and, most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere …in the whole range of Africa”.
Travelers to Uganda are drawn by its stunning landscape – green rolling hills, snowcapped mountains, rainforests, majestic rivers and massive lakes. There are also a number of outstanding national parks for your safari encounter with the wildlife for which Africa is renowned. Unfortunately, I have to advise you to skip Kidepo Valley -a well-resourced park in the north, as it is not considered safe. The country’s edge as a worthwhile destination is further enhanced by its endowments for white water rafting and sport fishing. Tour operators have on offer a variety of Uganda safari and tour packages.
It is in Uganda that you find the highest number of primate species anywhere in the world. Opportunities for tracking rare mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are unrivalled elsewhere. The primate conservation efforts the country has followed are bearing fruit. A survey carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Jane Goodall Institute in collaboration with the Uganda government, revealed that there were 4,950 chimpanzees in the country in 2003. Previously, scientists guess for this number was between 3000 and 4000, but nobody knew for sure. The chimp is our closet living relative, sharing 98% of our genes and much of our behaviour. Uganda is the best country in the world to view chimpanzees in their natural habitat.
The best place to see the rare mountain gorilla is at the 331 sq. km Bwindi National Park. This park was formerly known as the Impenetrable Forest with good reason. The trees are thick and the forest thicker with dense undergrowth, creepers, bamboos and parasitic plants such as mistletoe and orchids. This environment is the habitat for mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, and 8 other species of primate. Not less than half the world’s population of an estimated 600 mountain gorillas have sanctuary here, making Bwindi the base for an important scientific conservation program.
Gorilla tracking is limited to small groups and the licenses are issued to ensure minimum disruption to the routine of the animals. Tracking gorillas is an arduous task and you should be prepared for up to 8 hours of hiking. Good physical condition is a must. You are advised to make arrangements 4-12 months prior to the date of your visit. Bwindi is essentially a rain forest and it is necessary to bring along a raincoat, walking boots and gloves.
In addition to its star gorillas, Bwindi is host to bush pig, giant forest hog and over 300 species of birds including rare forest birds. Others who have found a home in this ecosystem include many types of bats and rodents, 14 species of snakes, 27 species of frogs and toads, 6 chameleon types, 14 lizards, skinks and geckos and 200 species of butterfly. Bwindi is to the west of the country and is 560 km from Kampala.
Though not as famous for safari as neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda still has some pretty good game sanctuaries. The 3,840 sq. km Murchison Falls National Park is the largest and most spectacular of them. Aside from game, it is renowned for its scenic beauty. Rolling savannah, tall grasslands and thick bush woodlands make up the park. But you are advised not to miss out the magnificent waterfalls after which the park is named. The waterfall is formed where the Nile tapers from 50 metres to rush through a 7-metre gorge, falling 45 metres in a breath-taking leap. This phenomenon is said to be the most powerful natural flow of water anywhere on Earth.
If you are patient, you can catch some really huge Nile Perch at the foot of the falls. What kind of fish can withstand such a force that exists at the foot of the falls? Charles Norman describes his fishing day out with a companion who on seeing the massive fish “…let out a strangled squawk and I found myself staring at the hog-sized back of a huge fish protruding above the water at the rock’s edge – a 100kg fish with scales the size of tennis balls. Swimming next to it was a smaller one, a ‘midget’ of a mere 40kg or so”. This adventure is described by the prodigiously experienced Charles Norman as “…the most exciting morning’s fishing that I have ever known.” Other game fish found in the Nile include Barbel, electric Catfish and Tiger fish.
The game you come across in the park includes elephant, hartebeest, leopard, lion, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, crocodiles and many species of antelopes. Upstream of the Murchison Falls are the Karuma Falls, where the Nile cascades over 23 kilometres of rapids. Here you have some of the most exciting white water in Africa. Murchison Falls is located 330 km from Kampala.
The Queen Elizabeth National Park is another outstanding treasure. It is a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve for Humanity. The recognition arises from the tropical forest, green meadows, savannah and swamps that constitute the park. In terms of wildlife, you find elephant, buffalo, hippos, baboons, chimpanzees and over 600 species of birds. The park occupies 2,000 sq km and is situated 440 km from Kampala. At the northern end of the Queen Elizabeth, you find Kibale. This park has a unique forest habitat and has an excellent diversity of animal and plant life. It is at Kibale that you find the highest number of primate species in Uganda, and one of the highest primate densities and diversities in the world.
Traveling from Kampala to the Queen Elizabeth or Bwindi, most visitors break at Lake Mburo National Park. The park is 230 km west of Kampala along the Mbarara road and is the most accessible in the country. It is a very attractive park of rolling hills, open grassy valleys, interspersed with thickets, woodlands and rich wetlands. In addition to viewing game, (including zebra, cape buffalo and eland) you can relax by taking a boat trip on Lake Mburo.
The fairly flat terrain of the country is interrupted to the west by the Rwenzori Mountains and to the east by Mount Elgon. Rwenzori, otherwise known as “Mountains of the Moon” has the third highest peak in Africa after Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. The Rwenzori is part of the national park of the same name and contains 6 snow-capped peaks. You can hike the trails of this mountain without any special climbing equipment unless you want to go for the peaks. The mist covered mountain range stretches for about 100 km.
Mount Elgon sits by the Kenyan border and is the shell of an ancient volcano. The main attractions here are the waterfalls, caves that were once used by indigenous people, hot springs, the mountains’ vegetation, the various peaks, the Suam Gorge and the caldera itself. After millions of years of erosion, the oval shaped caldera now measures roughly 7 by 8 kms, one of the largest in the world.
The traveler with a sense of history will want to visit the Source of the Nile at Jinja. Jinja is 60 km to the north east of Kampala and is easily accessible by road. This is where the White Nile begins, as it exits Lake Victoria on its 5,600 km journey to the Mediterranean. The source of the Nile was a thousand year old mystery that was decisively settled by the explorer John Speke in 1862.
If you are keen about culture, go for the The Kabaka’s Trail. This is a unique journey through a part of Uganda’s rich heritage that has been shaped by the region’s kings over the years. The Kabaka is the ceremonial king of the Baganda and his lineage goes way back to the 14th century. The Trail combines a series of cultural sites, all within easy reach of Kampala. You can easily combine the Kabaka Trail with your Search of the Nile excursion to Jinja. The Trail offers much more than sightseeing and you will learn about the hidden and forgotten history of Uganda. You will also experience an authentic tribal culture – with traditional dance, music, craft making, spiritual healing and storytelling.
There are international standard hotels in Uganda, especially in the main towns of Entebbe, Jinja and Kampala. The quality is variable in the smaller towns and rated accommodation is scarce. All of the major national parks offer accommodation in game lodges and tented camps.
If you want to drive around Uganda, you need to show an international drivers license to hire a vehicle. Rental cars in Uganda are available in Entebbe and Kampala. Roads radiate from Kampala and are of varying quality. In the north of the country the security situation is still doubtful and so are the roads. Its is a good idea if you are on self drive to get local advise about the condition the roads you intend to use.
Uganda enjoys a tropical climate tempered by altitude. The hottest period of the year is from December to February when temperature rise to 29 degrees Celsius. For the rest of the year, temperatures range between 21 to 25°C.The country experiences two rainy seasons: April to May and October to November, with April being the wettest month. The best times to visit are December-March and June-September. Light informal clothing is generally adequate. But you need warmer wraps and sweaters for the evenings and early mornings. You are also advised to carry some rainwear, just in case.
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About the Author
Andrew Muigai is the editor of AfricaPoint Insider online newsletter. It is part of AfricaPoint.com- the Africa travel website that has helped thousands of travelers discover Africa. You can view more info on Uganda safari and tours at the website.
Written by: Andrew Muigai