Uganda's panoramas seem to come straight from African reverie, towering forests casting shadows over mud-orange roads, straw-roofed houses clinging to distant hills. During the rainy season this iconic orange color sticks to your feet and shoes, a constant reminder of where you are.
Curving around Lake Victoria and fringed by central Africa's majestic mountains, Uganda always impresses the eye. Its major destinations are sprinkled around these natural landmarks, most notably those in the far west of the country. Gorilla trekking takes places in four different locations around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and a selection of nearby national parks and forests offer big game safari and chimpanzee trekking.
Mountain gorillas can only be visited in two African locations. Over two thirds of the world's population lives in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where the gorilla trekking is tucked away in the far southwestern corner of the country, just over an hour from the Rwandan border. The park's trailheads are anywhere from an eight to twelve hour land journey from capital city Kampala. Domestic flights and air charters can reduce this travel time. If you're just coming for gorilla trekking, allow four nights in Uganda, with the actual trek taking place on the third day.
Access to the trailheads is on dramatic mountain roads, the majority of them requiring four-wheel drive vehicles, especially in the rainy season. It's remote and time-consuming, slow road journeys taking you deep into the forest. This is undoubtedly both a challenge and part of the appeal; there's an evocative sense of traveling into the gorillas' kingdom. The actual trek to the gorillas is usually longer here than in Rwanda, but like the journey into the forest, some travelers prefer the deeper sense of exploring the wilderness. Habituated gorilla groups can be tracked from four sides of the park:
Buhoma – three groups including the first to be habituated in Uganda. Remote and time-consuming to reach but impossibly beautiful. Trailhead in the north of the park.
Ruhija – Two recently habituated groups; one is 23 strong and the other has a very rare four silverbacks.. One excellent upmarket lodge is the only nearby accommodation making Ruhija mostly reserved for luxury travelers. Trailhead in the southwest of the park.
Nkuringo – One habituated group and the toughest trek in both Uganda and Rwanda. This remoteness is its unique appeal. Trailhead in the west of the park.
Rushaga – Five habituated groups, three of which are family splinters of the original 36 strong Nshongi group. The easiest trailhead to reach, making it popular with independent travelers and those not staying in Bwindi. Trailhead in the south of the park.
Uganda has diverse appeal, with an eclectic mix of different destinations. Capital Kampala is a bustling and vibrant epitome of African city life, yet to be westernized and offering an exciting cultural experience. Lake Victoria is an obvious drawcard and a succession of small islands on the lake offer a beach-style serenity away from the coast. North of Bwindi, mountains soar to snowy levels, offering challenging and off the beaten track alternatives to East Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. These mountains spill into Queen Victoria National Park and Murchison Falls National Park. Both offer traditional big five safari with a mix of habitats and good numbers of the large mammals. While they don't rival Tanzania or Kenya's best, there's a good mix of safari activities and a strong overview of the mammals that inhabit East Africa.
Furthermore, it all comes with Uganda's rugged, sometimes chaotic, but always charming ambiance. The big game safari industry remains in its infancy, offering a rawness that many visitors enjoy. Just note the limited luxury safari options in comparison to its neighbors, especially Rwanda and Tanzania.
Gorillas aren't the only rare primates that have been habituated in Uganda. Chimpanzees inhabit three national parks, with a 95% tracking success rate making Kibale Forest National Park the best place in Africa to get intimate with chimps. Researchers are continuing to habituate further chimpanzee groups to increase the number of daily permits available. Six permits per group are available, and like trekking to gorillas, it's a luscious walk deep into the forest for one hour with the chimpanzees. Kibale and Bwindi are easily combined on a Uganda safari.
After recovering from three successive dictatorships in the 70's and 80's, Uganda is finally beginning to realize its tourist potential. The tourism infrastructure remains firmly in the developing stage, particularly its high-end luxury market. Upmarket hotels and lodges are available in the major destinations but you don't find the same choice as elsewhere. The roads are improving yet remain behind the rest of East Africa; most that visitors use are tarred but heavily potholed. All this makes Uganda an adventure. Some prefer this rawness, others enjoy the cleanliness and ease of Rwanda.
Longer itineraries tend to combine gorillas with the eclectic mountains and parks that cascade north from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in particular, chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest. Yet there is excellent safari all around Uganda, as an expert travel designer will be able to inform you.
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