Uganda Safaris – Uganda is a small landlocked country that sits on the northern shore of the vast Lake Victoria. Relatively populous and tucked away in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, Uganda is one of the most vibrant emerging safari destinations in the world. Its mesmerizing views, astonishing biodiversity, opportunities for gorilla trekking and lower temperatures made it the safari destination of choice and a Uganda safari is rapidly rising to its deserved spot among the top experiences in East Africa.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (or, officially, Impenetrable National Park) is an ancient, deep forest rising up along the south western border of Uganda. Climbing up along the slopes of a mountain range, the park consists of a series of narrow, steep valleys, deep green and cloaked in mist. The park is an old and complex ecosystem with a wealth of biodiversity and within its depths lies a rare and striking world. Due to the dense undergrowth and rugged terrain, large portions of it can only be reached on foot, preserving its primordial nature. A variety of species makes its home here, many of them found nowhere or scarcely anywhere else on earth. Forest elephants, giant forest hogs, hundreds of butterfly species and several types of primate roam beneath the thick canopy of trees.
Bwindi is home to half the world’s remaining population of critically endangered mountain gorilla. Out of these, several families have become habituated to humans, allowing small groups of people to track them and spend an hour in their company. The gorillas remain wild and the interaction takes place under the careful eyes of highly trained trackers. As gorillas are susceptible to human disease, the health restrictions for visitors are stringent. Due to the rugged terrain, only those older than 15 years are allowed to track. A day of gorilla trekking begins early, departing from your lodge with the dawn. The guides will meet and brief groups of visitors at the gathering point before setting off. The walk can be challenging, especially during Uganda’s two rainy seasons, which are from March to May and then again in November and December. Depending on where the gorillas were last seen, the trek can take anywhere between 40 minutes to six hours spent making your way through the tranquil green undergrowth that covers the mountain slopes, with several quiet encounters with the other denizens of the park en route. When the gorillas emerge from the foliage, time stands still as you enjoy their company for an hour. There is something deeply moving about being in the presence of these regal creatures.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
North of Bwindi lies the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Named after the British monarch, the golden grasslands and pristine landscapes of this park connect several regions and two lakes (George and Edward), with the scenic Kazinga channel, which runs through it. Whether explored on a leisurely river cruise or in a safari vehicle, the park now boasts four of the Big Five, with steadily increasing populations of lion, elephant and leopard, as well as great herds of buffalo. This is also one of the few places in the world known for tree-climbing lion, similar to those found in Lake Manyara National Park across the border in Tanzania. The southern part of the park is volcanic and is pocked with crater lakes that are rich in minerals.
Murchison Falls National Park
Situated even further north, Murchison Falls is the largest national park in Uganda and is well on its way to recovering from the damage it sustained during less conservation-minded years. Home to four of the Big Five, the park boasts excellent game viewing. The mighty Nile River cuts through the park and is responsible for its name, creating the beautiful Murchison Falls as it squeezes through a narrow gorge. Keen fishing enthusiasts can find the legendary Nile perch in the waters below the Falls, one of the best spots to seek it out.
Kibale National Park
Along with the Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale forms part of a greater conservation area. Its evergreen montane forest is home to a strong population of chimpanzees and one of the main attractions for visitors is the opportunity to track deep into its heart to view the chimps. Though not as close an encounter as the gorilla trekking in Bwindi, the antics of humanity’s nearest relative never fail to amaze. Kibale has a range of landscapes and, due to its combination of lowland and montane forest, it is home to several other species of primate, including colobus monkey, as well as an assortment of regular game such as elephant, bush pig, warthog and antelope. As in so many of Uganda’s parks, the birding is phenomenal, with over 300 species recorded here alone.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
This tiny park is the smallest in Uganda, nestling along the border with Rwanda and sharing part of a greater conservation area with that country. This is the only other park in Uganda that is home to mountain gorillas, though trekking here is less reliable than in Bwindi, as the gorilla families can cross freely into Rwanda. However, Mgahinga also has another attraction to offer. An ancient people, the Batwa pygmies lived deep within the forests of Mgahinga and Bwindi prior to being relocated after the parks were formed. Marginalised for years, their culture is becoming the focus of serious efforts at preservation. One of these includes the opportunity for guests to visit with them and gain an insight into their fascinating way of life. Mgahinga is sprawled along the base of tall volcanoes and guests can also choose to hike their slopes or to enter the park in search of the hyperactive golden monkeys.
Uganda is a good year-round destination, but the rainy seasons (March to May and November to December) can make logistics a little tricky. Rain also increases the difficulty of tracking in Bwindi, Mgahinga and Kibale, rendering the mountain slopes muddy. Uganda has a major advantage in terms of temperature – although its location is equatorial, the high altitude eases the heat, meaning that the weather remains temperate all year round. The high season for Uganda safari falls in line with other East African destinations, which means during the winter months in the southern hemisphere, from June to October.
Uganda is striking in many ways. A paradise for primates, it is home to a multitude of species, ranging from chimpanzee to golden monkey and mountain gorilla. Its elevation above sea level lifts it out of the heat of the Equator and into more temperate climes, while the variations in terrain, drainage and altitude create an incredible variety of scenery and habitat. Uganda is located where the savannah of East Africa meets the jungles of central Africa, meaning that you can view lion and elephant in sweeping grassy plains one day and track primates through lush rainforest the next. The abundance of water makes for a wide variety of river adventures, from superb white water rafting at Jinja to more sedate river cruises viewing vast numbers of hippo and crocodile along the country’s western border. Boasting one of the highest mountains in Africa, Mt Stanley, the Ruwenzori Mountain range, also known by the colourful name of the Mountains of the Moon, is higher than the Alps and rises along Uganda’s western border. The glaciers and montane forest of the mountains are a stark contrast to the savannah and lowlands of the central areas. Though amazingly scenic, high rainfall and rugged terrain mean that these mountains are notoriously difficult to explore when compared to popular trekking destinations such as Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.
Much of the country is defined by water and the Nile River is said to have its source here. The mighty river itself curves through the country from northwest to southeast. Uganda is also a birders’ paradise, with well over 1 000 recorded species, including the fascinating shoebill.
In comparison with its neighbours, Uganda sees fairly low numbers of tourists, meaning that its national parks are uncrowded. The country’s main attraction is undeniably the imposing mountain gorillas, the last of their kind. They make their home in the forests along the south western border of Uganda, mostly in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Impenetrable Forest. This park is home to over half the remaining wild mountain gorilla in the world.
What to expect on safari in Uganda
Uganda has a fairly high population and human habitation reaches right up to the borders of many of the parks. A striking feature that is most often seen in the areas near the rainforests is the use of terraced agriculture, which rings the hills in thousands of shades of green. Beginning at the main point of arrival in Entebbe, most safaris will head west to the broad belt of national parks that form the western border. Due to the country being situated right on the meeting point of the eastern savannah and western jungle ecosystems, Uganda has excellent terrain for a wide variety of safaris, from traditional game drives through golden grassland seeking lion or elephant to strapping on your hiking boots and trekking through lush rainforest. The birding is superlative, with the variation in habitat attracting a vast array of species, including the crowning glory of the shoebill, a highly sought-after sight for the true birder. The traditional Big Five parks of Uganda, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Murchison Falls, do not yet match the game densities of their contemporaries to the east. That said, the game viewing is still very much alive and well and the parks boast a mere fraction of the tourist numbers that may dilutes the experience for those visiting the more developed destinations. A sighting of lion, elephant or leopard here is a moment to treasure and is seldom shared with other vehicles.
Why choose Uganda
Uganda is filled with the enthusiasm and lively atmosphere of a country that is rapidly on the rise. The culture is vibrant, the people are friendly and its wild places are unlike those found anywhere else. It is a magical mix of contrasts and a microcosm of the African continent itself – towering volcanic mountains, deep, lush rainforests, golden grasslands and mighty rivers and lakes. Everywhere in Uganda there is life waiting to be discovered, some of it as weird and wonderful as a children’s story, with giant hogs and tiny elephant shrew. Uganda cradles the last mountain gorilla at its heart and this conservation success is driving a rebirth of what was once the most refined of destinations for an African safari.
Who is it for?
Uganda is the dream destination for those in search of the absolute pinnacle of primate safaris. Chimpanzees roam in numbers in Kibale and Queen Elizabeth National Park, as do colobus monkeys, vervet monkeys, de Brazza monkeys and a host of other species. The last mountain gorillas are carefully protected in the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi. There is absolutely no exaggeration in gorilla trekking as life-altering. The destination is just as much sought after by birders, as Uganda boasts over a thousand species among its varied habitats. A keen birder can hope to encounter the handsome francolin, dwarf honeyguide and purple-breasted sunbird, among many other species that are very difficult to see anywhere else. And, like the gorilla, there is the highlight of seeing the unforgettable shoebill. Uganda outshines all other safari destinations in these two areas, but, in addition, it remains a superb destination for traditional safari by vehicle or by boat, thanks to its lush habitats and variety of species. For those in search of something fresh and vibrant, Uganda is the perfect choice.