Chimpanzees inhabit several of Uganda’s protected forests, the most popular of which is Kibale – which shelters a total of 13 primate species including some 1,500 chimps. You can also track chimps in Budongo, where they are best seen from Feb-Sep; and the stunning “underground” forest of Kyambura, set in a deep, mist-filled gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The “Mountains of the Moon” form an impenetrable, rocky chain along Uganda’s western edge, perpetually capped with snow, clouds and fog. Walks in the foothills reveal clear streams, lush vegetation and thriving villages; longer expeditions take you through otherworldy Afromontane forest, bamboo and giant heathers, with the option to summit Margherita Peak – Africa’s third highest, at 5,109m.
Uganda might lack the big name tribes of other African countries: the statuesque Maasai, for example, or the photogenic Himba. But it’s hard not to fall in love with Ugandan culture. Spend an evening being treated to cultural performances at Kampala’s Ndere Centre; learn to grind millet, “mingle” porridge over a fire, or play the stringed adungu – and enjoy joyful song and dance in each new region of the country that you visit.
Uganda is such a delightful country, and one that really seems to get under people’s skin. For visitors who want to spend more time here, or to give something back, responsible volunteering placements are a brilliant way to do this. Help out at an after school club, volunteer as a teaching assistant, get involved in gorilla conservation or – for those will the skills, apply for a healthcare placement.
Uganda is home to over half of the earth’s 850 or so mountain gorillas, and most of these live in the mist-shrouded forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Tracking one of the 11 habituated families is Uganda’s most compelling activity, as a 2-6 hour trek up the steep slopes of the Rift Valley culminates in an eye-to-eye encounter with one of our closest relatives, lasting up to an hour.
This waterfall is created by the River Nile squeezing itself through a 7m-wide gap – with all the spray and thunder you would expect. Boat cruises downriver take you past eles and hippos to admire the falls – or trek to the top if you’re up for a soaking. The surrounding national park is Uganda’s largest, with miles and miles of open savannah to explore, filled with lion, buffalo, elephant and more.
Far too many tourists come to Uganda for the gorillas – then fly straight out to see the Big Five in Kenya. Ugandan safaris are set against stunning backdrops of volcanic craters and lakes. Walking, driving and boat safaris are possible in many national parks, and the smaller distances mean you can cover plenty of ground. Four of the Big Five can be seen in the wild – with rhinos present in Ziwa Sanctuary.
Uganda is centrally located, and tucked in between the vast savannah game parks of Tanzania and Kenya, and the gorilla-inhabited forests of Rwanda. East Africa overland tours can combine great apes with traditional safaris and time spent on the beach, exploring how the cultures and landscapes change from country to country. Or for hardcore adventure – travel from Cairo to Cape Town, via Uganda.
The Batwa are Uganda’s most marginalised community. Evicted from their forest home over two decades ago when it became a national park, the Batwa remain landless and incredibly impoverished. Unscrupulous companies have cashed in on their desperation, offering tasteless “pygmy tours” where they perform on demand. Seek out ethical tours that involve the Batwa at every level to avoid exploitation.
Every visitor to Uganda (this writer included) has a photo of themselves straddling the equator in the giant concrete “O” that marks the spot. Chances are you’ll cross this line at some point, so there’s no harm stopping off – but it’s not worth spending more than a few minutes here unless you are really keen to visit the touristy souvenir shops, or pay to watch someone pour water down a sink in the name of ‘science’.
Every year, well meaning volunteers and tourists descend on Africa to visit orphanages – handing out gifts, singing songs and giving cuddles. It all seems rather lovely – until you start reading up on the harm that this type of tourism can cause. If you want to make a difference to children’s lives, look into helping out at after school clubs – or healthcare volunteering if you have the necessary skills.
T.I.A.: This is Africa. You’ll hear this on your Uganda vacation, as well as numerous mentions of ‘Africa Time’, prepare yourself for both. Things always work out just fine in Uganda, they just don’t always happen on schedule, or even quite as anticipated. The crazy roads take care of that, as do the sudden equatorial downpours, and the ‘load shedding’ – regular power cuts which are, thankfully, becoming less frequent.