At A Glance
- At 236 580sqkm, Uganda is bigger than Great Britain but covered by forests, lakes and rivers!
- The source of the NIle is found at Jinga, on the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria
- Uganda has Africa’s greatest diversity of primates, including the mountain gorilla
- Expect rain at any time of the year in the popular western region
- The capital city is Kampala, but Entebbe has the international airport
Uganda Overland Travel
Gorillas, lions, elephants, thundering waterfalls and shimmering lakes: a general description of Africa? No, Uganda – the Pearl of Africa and home to an extraordinary range of environments and experiences.
Dispel all those negative images you may have of Uganda: the catastrophic 1970s and 1980s are well and truly over and Uganda has risen from the ashes stronger than before and is fast reinventing itself as a must-do safari destination, and it’s classic Overlanding country.
Small enough to get around easily and diverse enough to never get bored, a Uganda Overland adventure can blend adventure activities as varied as gorilla trekking, bungi jumping, big game viewing and hiking. Its dripping rainforests are home to an astonishing range of primates, butterflies and birds while elephants, lions and buffalo roam the savannahs. The local Ugandans are friendly, English widely spoken and the country combines well with neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania which means an Overlander can experience all that East Africa has to offer.
Parks and Reserves
From closed canopy mountain rainforest to classic East African open savannah and from huge lakes and wetlands to semi-desert habitats, Uganda’s diverse habitats make for a fantastically varied range of national parks, reserves and conservancies with an array of wildlife to match. Which other African countries can boast gorillas, chimps, elephants, lions and hippos?
Not all parks are easily accessible and some of Uganda’s parks are far better developed than others in terms of infrastructure and conservation programmes – but with good reason. These prioritised parks are fast on track to regaining their former glory as some of Africa’s most wildlife-prolific and exciting conservation areas.
Think Bwindi, think gorillas. The alarmingly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a genuine slice of mountain rainforest – tangled, damp, muddy on the one hand, but alive with birds and butterflies on the other. And of course it’s one of Africa’s best places to go gorilla trekking – visitors have a 90% chance of seeing mountain gorillas on an organised trek in Bwindi.
Apart from gorilla tracking, there are a number of other hikes and trails within the park, all accompanied by an experienced guide. It’s a great way to fill time while you wait for your prearranged date with a gorilla and to learn about the other animals, birds, butterflies, trees and plants.
Uganda’s other gorilla trekking destination is a small pocket of pristine mountain rainforest on the northern flanks of the Virunga Volcano Mountains. Gorillas roam into Mgahinga from neighbouring Rwanda but don’t live permanently in the park.
Remember that as a rainforest, the park is always wet and the going is tough: muddy, slippery paths and near constant dampness and humidity. On the plus side, besides the gorillas there is a good range of birds, butterflies and small forest mammals to keep an eye out for..
Fast developing a reputation amongst ‘those who know’, Kibale Forest National Park is one of Africa’s best places to track chimpanzees – and more. The beautiful and surprisingly accessible forest setting is home to East Africa’s greatest variety and concentration of primates as well as a huge range of birds and small forest mammals.
Chimpanzee tracking lasts 2 – 4 hours and is restricted to four groups of four people twice a day. If you are fortunate enough to find them, keeping up with them can be quite a challenge once they decide to move on at high speed through the branches.
If you’ve got half a day to spare in Kampala then you could do worse than head out to Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria. Besides kayaking and bird watching, visitors to this forested 50 hectare island are in for a treat: Ngamba is home to a chimpanzee sanctuary and apart from the sterling conservation work done there, provides an opportunity to interact with our closest related cousins.
After a briefing on chimpanzee etiquette, three people at a time can go on an hour’s stroll through the forest with some of the partially habituated chimps, closely supervised by a keeper. Remember you need an up-to-date vaccination certificate to get this close to the chimps – ask your travel consultant for more details.
Uganda’s largest park is the country’s best ‘all-rounder’ park: great swathes of wooded savannah and grassland lie on either side of the Victoria Nile and wildlife is prolific. Visitors can enjoy both game drives and river cruises, and with the thundering Murchison Falls providing a unique spectacle, you’ll not want to miss out on the latter.
The best way to see the falls is from the river – a three-hour boat trip departs from park headquarters at Paraa going upstream to the foot of the falls. The game viewing from the river is superb, and the boat is steered from shore to shore through hippo pods and past sandbanks where huge and contented crocodiles bask in the sun.
Uganda’s flagship national park is home to the country’s largest populations of classic African mammals and is considered one of the world’s best bird watching destinations (600+ species!). Other highlights here include chimpanzees, tree-climbing lions and boat cruises on the Kazinga Channel.
Astonishingly, QENP has 610 of Uganda’s 1 000+ species of birds – that’s over a quarter of Africa’s bird species and more than any other park in Africa. Have your binoculars handy.
The ‘Mountains of the Moon’ run along the DRC border and comprise a range of extremely rugged and isolated peaks, often snow-capped, and provide some of Africa’s most challenging but fascinating hiking and climbing. Habitats are determined by altitude and conspire to produce a great range of vegetation and wildlife.
Overlanding through Uganda will inevitably bring you into contact with places other than the country’s national parks and reserves. It’s a small country by African standards and you’ll be stopping off in towns and villages to restock, get information on local conditions and so on. Listed below are the destinations you are most likely to visit on a Uganda Overland adventure.
Home to Uganda’s international airport and gateway to Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the relaxed town of Entebbe lies on the shores of Lake Victoria 43km from Kampala.
Entebbe serves as the jump-on point for either a slow Sese canoe or a faster motorised boat to Ngamba, which actually lies across the equator a short distance from Entebbe. Jump out and swim over the equator if you dare!
The capital of Uganda, Kampala, is one of East Africa’s most laid-back and friendly cities. is situated 40 kms north of Uganda’s international airport at Entebbe on Lake Victoria, and is spread haphazardly over seven hills.
Its name comes from a Kiganda expression – kasozi k’empala – meaning the hill of antelopes (impala) – not that there are any impala in those there hills today.It You will undoubtedly pass through it overland, en route to other Ugandan destinations and national parks.
Jinja & Bujagali Falls
Jinja has become Uganda’s adventure capital in a similar vein to Victoria Falls. Lying on the banks of Lake Victoria, this overland-friendly town is best known as the location of the source of the River Nile.
Most people move on to Bujugali Falls, 8kms upstream. This is a spectacular scenic spot with 1 kilometre of thundering rapids, forested islands in the Nile and an abundance of bird life. There are a couple of lively campsites overlooking the rapids and a number of adventure activities and community projects to keep you occupied.
Kabale is a small rural town in south-west Uganda that you will undoubtedly pass through en route to gorilla trekking at Bwindi or Mgahinga national parks. Kabale and the nearby picturesque Lake Bunyonyi are popular overnight stops, and there’s no shortage of accommodation.
Kabale is also where the Kampala road from the north joins the road to the borders with both Rwanda and the D.R.C. With its dusty streets lined with goods sheds, precariously overloaded haulage trucks, fuel stations and roadside mechanics, it has a distinct frontier-town feel.
Lying close to gorilla-trekking destinations Bwindi and Mgahinga, island-studded Lake Bunyonyi is undisputedly one of the most beautiful areas of Uganda.
Lake Bunyonyi is around 6 500 feet above sea level and is the deepest crater lake in the country, having started life a few million years ago as a volcano. It’s also one of the few lakes in Uganda that is bilharzia-free – though watch out for leeches if you decide to go swimming.
Thought something was familiar when you looked at those photographs of gorillas? Human beings and gorillas share an astonishing 97% of their DNA. And of all the different races and sub-species of gorilla, it’s the mountain gorilla, that is the rarest of all the apes, and the mountainous rainforest that straddles Uganda, Rwanda and the D.R.C in East Africa is the only environment in which mountain gorillas are able to survive.
Only a few have been habituated for humans to visit, and these rare apes are sometimes not easy to find. This is what makes gorilla trekking such an exciting and privileged adventure. You can go gorilla tracking at two of Uganda’s national parks: Mgahinga on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes that border Rwanda and the D.R.C and in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
The groups can be visited for one hour per day by six people; gorilla permits must be purchased well in advance (make sure you do this before you leave on your trip) and cost between US$500 and US$750 for 2012-2013, depending on whether you’re trekking in Rwanda or Uganda. (though watch out for price increases – ask your consultant about any recent rises in permit costs).
The hike is not a walk in the park: conditions under foot are wet and muddy, the terrain steep and slippery, and the weather generally wet, hot and humid. It’s a very expensive hour’s wildlife viewing, but more than worth it: looking into the soft brown eyes of a gorilla in its natural habitat is without doubt one of Africa’s greatest wildlife encounters.
The ancient Egyptians were certainly not into white water rafting on the River Nile but at Jinja inhabitants have been floating down the nearby Bujugali Falls for centuries. In the old days, it was fishermen in wooden canoes; now it’s thrill seekers in bright orange inflatable paddle rafts and streamlined kayaks.
Where the Nile spills out of Lake Victoria through the Owen Falls Dam – over which runs the Nairobi-Kampala road – it soon quickens pace and hits a 30-km stretch of world class white water rapids. Most are grade four to five, so you’re in for a turbulent time on a rafting trip.
For the real adrenaline junky, get a closer perspective of the Nile and surf ten kilometres of rapids attached to a body board. The Nile is also the only river in the world where you can raft under the light of a full moon, and if that’s not enough, thanks to growing demand, the rafting companies are now offering 5–day kayak courses.
The Nile High Bungi, the brainchild of New Zealand’s most experienced bungi consultants, is one of Uganda’s newest attractions. Attached by a piece of industrial elastic, you take a leap into thin air while over the source of the Nile to experience a few exhilarating seconds of plummeting through nothing – space and silence like no other sensation in the world.
A 12-metre steel bungee tower sits on top of a 32-metre high cliff above the river, and brave/foolish (you choose the adjective) jumpers can plunge themselves into the swirling water 44 metres below. And we mean into the water – a head touch is part of the deal if you’re up for it.
Quad-biking in Uganda? Yes, at Bujugali Falls near Jinja, also the location of white water rafting on the River Nile and bungee jumping just in case you need more adrenalin rushes. A quad bike is a four-wheeled motorbike. It’s an all terrain, roughty-toughty, 4×4 motor bike that can be ridden by anyone who knows the difference between an accelerator and a brake.
Protective clothes – helmets, gloves and very attractive bright orange overalls – are supplied, as are refreshments en route. For the more experienced, there are half day, full day, and overnight quad-bike safaris, for which a tent, lanterns, food and drink are strapped to the front of the bike. It’s the best way to get right into the heart of rural Uganda.
Most visitors to Bujugali Falls near Jinja are there to experience the adventure activities on offer at, on, and in some cases in the River Nile. But it’s also well advised to get into the community spirit and part with about US$5 of your cash to support the local villagers. There’s no better way to get to the ‘heart’ of Uganda than venturing into its villages, and all that is required is a warm smile.
Fun, informative guided walks are available to local homes and subsistence farms to see demonstrations of farming methods, crops, traditional skills, wedding ceremonies and cooking. Lunch is included and this is a rare opportunity to sample some traditional Ugandan food and see how it is prepared in an outdoor environment using basic equipment.
The interactive experience provides a great understanding of Ugandan rural life. Best of all, the fee paid for the walk goes into a Bujagali Falls community trust fund until it reaches an amount to be spent on something worthwhile that supports the whole community. Thanks to this excellent initiative, the village at Bujugali Falls now has a new primary school – completely paid for by foreign tourists.
At the time of the first European exploration of what we know as Uganda, three main kingdoms existed – Buganda, Kitara, and Karagwe. Each was ruled by a king with separate laws and customs. These are thought to have their origins back in the 16th century and the land before this time was probably occupied by Khoisan Bushmen and Batwa (pygmies, to use the old name for this ancient people, many of whom still live in remote forest regions of Uganda).
The first Europeans to visit Uganda were German missionaries in 1849 who sent reports back to Europe of ‘great lakes and snowy mountains’. Then in 1862, the explorer John Speke found the source of the Nile at Ripon Falls near present day Jinja. The British colonialists were next to arrive and they made Uganda their own in 1893 – hence the very English names of Uganda’s lakes and national parks.
Uganda achieved independence from Britain in 1962, and for a moment it was thought to have the best prospects for prosperity of any of the newly independent African states. In particular, the country’s national parks had abundant game in lush settings, and animal numbers were higher than in Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa. But it wasn’t long – thanks to a series of inept and despotic regimes – before things started to go seriously wrong for Uganda.
The first of the dictators was President Milton Obote. He banned opposition parties in 1969, and rewrote the constitution putting all the power in his own hands. Next up was the infamous Idi Amin. He overthrew Obote in a 1971 coup and made himself President of Uganda, King of Scotland, and Master of all the Fishes in the Sea (his inaugural speech was that of a man with a warped mind). A former sergeant in the British colonial army, the unhinged Amin directed a reign of terror for eight years, during which 300 000 opponents of his dictatorship were murdered, many more were tortured, and society effectively collapsed.
The educated classes were first to be targetted, followed by the 70 000-strong Asian community, mostly traders and business people. In 1972 they were ordered out of the country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Blatantly using them as a scapegoat for the troubled economy, Amin grabbed the US$1000 million in cash and assets they were forced to leave behind. He then threw out the British companies with interests in tea plantations and other industries, and once again squandered the US$500 million they left behind in investments.
Uganda under Amin became a wasteland, governed by a tyrannical, inept leader, dressed in shades and combat fatigues and protected by a pet security force of armed and financially rewarded henchmen. Anybody who challenged him was killed or thrown into jail while his wayward armies managed to destroy most of the animals in Uganda’s unprotected national parks. Then in 1978 Amin’s insanity reached fever pitch when he decided to invade Tanzania. But he severely underestimated the force of the Tanzanian army, who joined forces with Ugandan nationalists and quickly turned around and counter-invaded Uganda. Amin was finally ousted and fled to Libya in 1979. A few years later, Gaddafi threw him out after a quarrel, and he died in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in 2003. Few Ugandans mourned his death.
Obote subsequently returned to office but soon found himself fighting various guerrilla groups including the remnants of Amin’s army and Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army. A civil war broke out between the various movements and ethnic groups that claimed another 100 000 lives, and the interminable conflict dragged on until 1986, when the National Resistance Army finally took control and Yoweri Museveni was sworn in as president.
Museveni is now in his fourth term of office and the economy has grown steadily, foreign investment has increased and many Asian Ugandans have returned to reclaim their businesses. Though the majority of Ugandans still live in poverty, and the Aids epidemic has struck hard in Uganda, the country remains in considerably better shape than its war-torn neighbours, even after the horror years of Amin and his successors.
Gorilla Trekking Taking in the beautiful sights while trekking.
Giraffe Grazing Africa's tallest, stands proud!
Gorilla Trekking A highlight to remember!
Uganda Landscapes Beautiful view of Uganda mountains.