The EA guide to Uganda safaris

Uganda safaris are for people seeking something beyond the brochures. Uganda may not be a big country, but it’s blessed with outstanding untouched natural beauty and wildlife habitats flourishing with game, natural attractions… and very few other tourists.

You can enjoy “traditional” savannah safaris in Uganda’s 10 national parks, along with boat tours, forest hikes, mountain climbing, wildlife research activities and more. Photographic safaris and fishing safaris are also growing increasingly popular. And with a phenomenal 1,060 recorded bird species – including several found nowhere else on the planet Uganda is unrivalled as a bird-watching destination in Africa. It’s no wonder birding safaris are popular here.

But it’s the opportunity to get up-close and personal with mountain gorillas and chimpanzees that most people come here for. Home to 13 types of primates, including around half of the world’s remaining population of endangered mountain gorillas, Uganda is a mecca for safari holidaymakers seeking the ultimate wildlife interaction. The mountain gorilla tracking experience is the absolute highlight of this region, and the two best places to see these majestic animals – after a strenuous trek – are, unsurprisingly, two of the country’s top tourist attractions: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinda Gorilla National Park.

Another highlight is chimpanzee tracking, which you can do in a few forests around the country: there are habituated groups of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Semliki Wildlife Reserve, Kyambura Gorge, Budongo Forest Reserve and Kalinzu Forest. Uganda is also home to the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust on Ngamba Island. Kibale National Park is a primate haven – there are 13 resident species, including the chimpanzee, and the largest concentration of primates in the country, while Budongo Forest Reserve conserves Uganda’s largest population of chimpanzees, and is also considered one of the country’s best birding destinations.

Queen Elizabeth National Park offers outstanding wildlife sightings, away from the crowds you’ll encounter elsewhere in East Africa. There are more than 600 species of birds and 95 species of mammals here, including the Big Four (buffalo, lion, leopard and elephant) and tree-climbing lions (there’s only one other place in Africa where you’ll find these incredible animals).

Murchison Falls National Park is another place you can see the Big Four (again, only rhino is missing), as well as giraffe, buffalo and – if you’re lucky – the rare ground-dwelling patas monkey. For twitchers, this is a great place to try and spot the prehistoric-looking shoebill, and if you love fishing, a top spot to try and snag the Nile perch is from the banks of the Nile, below Murchison Falls.

Other safari adventures in Uganda include whitewater rafting at Murchison Falls; trekking up the Virunga volcanoes; summiting the Elgon Mountains or the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains; or enjoying some of the country’s many other breathtakingly beautiful nature walks and scenic trekking routes.

The most time-efficient safari holiday in Uganda is an air safari, where you fly from place to place, usually starting in Entebbe or the capital, Kampala. Uganda has a network of runways and small airports servicing its cities, towns and national parks, plus a decent schedule of light aircraft allowing you to take to the sky. From the air, you’ll see Uganda as a myriad of waterways, lakes and lush green vegetation. Famous lakes in the country include Lake Victoria, Lake Kyoga, Lake Edward and Lake Albert, the lowest point in the country at 621 metres below sea level.

Travel Uganda with an open mind and you’ll be hugely rewarded. Its scenic beauty and impressive wildlife will thrill you, but it’s the warm hospitality of Uganda’s people that will touch your soul.

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The best time to safari in Uganda

Thanks to its location on the Equator, Uganda has a year-round moderate climate, with little variation in temperatures throughout the year. Average daily temperatures rarely exceed 29C, even in the lowlands, except in the mountainous areas in western and eastern Uganda, where it can get very cold (especially at night), and the tops of some peaks are often covered with snow.

There are distinct wet and dry seasons in most of the country, except the semi-arid northeast. The dry seasons – generally from December to February and June to August – are the best times to travel. This is because the dry weather makes for more pleasant trekking (and the gorillas are more easily reached and spotted); the dirt roads are in better condition; and mozzies are at a minimum. A great time to travel is during the hottest and driest months of the year, January and February. Another popular time is June – it’s officially the dry season, but the landscape is still lush. If you plan to travel at this time be sure to book your permits for gorilla trekking and chimpanzee trekking well in advance (and prepare to pay top dollar), as this is the high season. The end of the dry season is best for game-viewing, when the lack of water attracts animals to the waterholes and makes them easier to spot.

Rainfall can occur anytime throughout the year, but the rainy seasons are from March to May (this is when the heaviest rains fall), and September to November. If you’re gorilla trekking in the rainy months, be aware that the trails can get washed out and you’ll get wet and muddy!

Wildlife in Uganda

Uganda’s extraordinary biodiversity when it comes to wildlife reflects the enormous variety of habitats in this amazing country. Around 1,020 species of bird have been recorded in Uganda, as well as 345 species of mammals. These include African bush elephant, leopard, chimpanzee, African buffalo, hippopotamus, Nile crocodile and tree-climbing lions in the Queen Elizabeth National Park; while in in Kibale National Park there are leopards, African golden cats, servals, red and blue duikers, bushbucks, warthogs, African buffalo and two species of otter, to name but a few. Lions also visit the park on occasion, while its population of elephants travels between Kibale and Queen Elizabeth National Park. Kibale is also home to a huge number of species of birds, but it’s most famous for having the greatest variety and concentration of primates of anywhere in East Africa: you’ll find an incredible 13 different species of primates here. Primates can also be found in Murchinson National Park and the Rwenzori Mountains, but the prime locations for mountain gorilla trekking are undoubtedly Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinda Gorilla National Park.

Gorilla trekking

For many people, there’s only one reason to visit Uganda: to see the mountain gorillas. You can find these magnificent animals in just three countries on the entire planet: Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and, of course, Uganda (where gorilla permits are currently cheaper than Rwanda). A sub-species of the eastern gorilla, they’re critically endangered, with only around 1,000 of these precious creatures left in the world. Around half of them live in Uganda, where there are two populations – one in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and one in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Bwindi, located in south-western Uganda, really is the pinnacle of Uganda wildlife safari experiences. Mostly, of course, because it offers mountain gorilla trekking. Because you never know the distance you’ll be required to hike before you come across the gorillas – it literally could be hours – it’s vital you be in reasonable shape before you attempt a trekking experience (this is another reason why children under 15 cannot track mountain gorillas). Make sure you dress to protect against mosquitoes, flies, ants, nettles, thorns and branches, too. We also recommend using a walking stick to steady yourself, and use a porter. Hiring a porter makes it easy for you and also helps to support a local family. You’ll spend an hour with the gorillas, observing them, taking photos and simply soaking up this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Covering 32,000 hectares renowned for their exceptional biodiversity, there are more than 160 species of trees and 100 species of ferns in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which also boasts 120 mammals and 350 bird species. This includes an incredible 23 of the 24 bird species endemic to the Albertine Rift – that is, bird species that are only found in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Seeing mountain gorillas is obviously the main reason people travel to this incredible part of the world, but Bwindi is also a sanctuary for colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and seven other primate species, as well as elusive forest elephants and more than 200 butterfly species.

Chimpanzee tracking

Did you know chimpanzees share over 98 percent of their DNA with humans? They’re not easily observed in the wild because they move so fast and cover quite considerable distances. But if you do manage to witness these incredible creatures in their natural habitat, it’s a thrilling experience. If you want to tick this experience off your bucket list, Uganda is one of the best places to go. Chimpanzees can be found in a handful of forests across the country, with habituated groups in Kyambura Gorge, Budongo Forest Reserve, Semliki Wildlife Reserve and Kalinzu Forest. One of the best destinations for chimpanzee tracking, however, is Kibale National Park, where five habituated groups are all within easy walking distance.

Divided into northern and southern areas and the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale is a stunning forest area. Covering just 795 square kilometres, it’s a lush green tropical rainforest that’s home to more than 350 tree species, 70 mammals and 325 bird species, as well as 13 different primate species. Leopards are also known to reside here, however they’re rarely spotted (pardon the pun!).

A professional guide will take you into the forest and be responsible for not only your safety, but also the chimps’. Time with the chimps is restricted to an hour, but what an hour it will be! You’ll observe them swinging in the trees, feeding, playing and moving at breakneck speed along pathways in front of you. It’s an experience you’ll never forget. There are strict rules when it comes to chimp tracking. They include keeping an eight metre distance between you and the chimps, avoiding eating near the animals and not trekking if you’re ill, as chimps are highly susceptible to human disease. Permits are restricted each day, so you need to book well in advance, and please note that children under 15 are not allowed.

Uganda is also home to the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust on Ngamba Island. Surrounded by the waters of Lake Victoria, the sanctuary is home to 49 orphaned chimpanzees rescued from across East Africa. Behind-the-scenes activities will get you close to the rescued chimps for a truly unique, life-affirming experience.

Rwenzori Mountains

The glacial peaks of the remote Rwenzori mountains (“Mountains of the Moon”) offer world-class hiking in stunning crowd-free landscapes. Sixty-five kilometres wide and stretching out for 120 kilometres, this is Africa’s largest mountain range – they’re higher even than the Alps. The tallest peaks of the range lie within the Rwenzori Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the western part of Uganda. It sits just north of the Equator, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These permanently snow-capped peaks rise above the clouds, looming above the diverse and varied landscapes that make this one of the continent’s finest trekking destinations. There are glaciers here that are one of the sources of the River Nile. There are also still valley lakes, waterfalls, bamboo forests and five distinctly different vegetation zones where you’ll find more than 200 bird species and 70 mammal species, including chimpanzees and monkeys.

The tallest mountain in the range, Mount Stanley, is Africa’s third-tallest mountain. Its highest spike, Margherita Peak, stands at 5,109 metres high. The main trail up Mount Stanley’s peaks generally takes 4-10 days to trek; the best time to take on this little-known mountain is December to February and June to August.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Uganda’s most-visited national park lies in the western region of Uganda, about 400 kilometres south west of Kampala. Covering 1,978 square kilometres, the park is incredibly biodiverse, with lakes and wetlands, savanna, humid forests, volcanic craters and green rolling hills all home to an abundance of flora and fauna. There are more than 600 bird species and 95 species of mammals, with leopard, elephant, hippo and chimpanzee all on the list. Safaris in Queen Elizabeth National Park often set out to find the famous black-maned and tree-climbing lions as well. In addition to enjoying traditional safari holidays with 4×4 game drives, you can go on nature walks, track chimps, ride a boat through the Kazinga Channel, visit the saltwater Lake Katwe, go hot-air ballooning or straddle the equator.

Lake Bunyonyi

Close to the border of Rwanda, in southwestern Uganda, you’ll find one of the most beautiful parts of Uganda, Lake Bunyonyi. Meaning “Place of many little birds,” this is surely the loveliest lake in the country. With a depth of 914 metres, it’s also the second-deepest in Africa. Dotted with 29 islands, it’s like Uganda’s version of the Bay of Islands in New Zealand or Halong Bay in Vietnam. It’s a magical spot, especially when the morning mist rises off the tranquil waters, or when the sun sets over the steep terraced hillsides. And because there are no crocs or hippos in the lake – or bilharzia – you’re safe to swim here too.

Kampala

The only densely populated corner of Uganda is home to Entebbe and Kampala. It’s also the starting point for most Uganda safaris. While many guests treat Kampala as an inconvenient stopover, we like to share the charms of the Ugandan capital. This is a city with an exciting vibe and a population of around 1.5 million people. Built on a number of hills, it’s located near the shores of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. In the Old Kampala area you’ll find the Uganda National Mosque, a place of worship that took more than 30 years to construct and seats up to 15,000 people. For the best view of Kampala, join a tour of the mosque and climb its towering minaret. Kampala also has the largest markets in this region of Africa. Endless booths line chaotic alleys in Owino Market, where you’ll find a mind-boggling array of everything from secondhand clothes to African foods and souvenirs. For a smaller and local feel try Nakasero Market which is great for fresh fruit and vegetables. The craft market on Buganda Road is popular with tourists and it attracts a high portion of unoriginal products these days, but we recommend Banana Boat craft shops, where you can pick up ethical and authentic crafts from three outposts. Just ask what’s made in Uganda as they also sell products from Kenya.

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