Uganda is a hidden gem and was definitely not the first African country that came to mind when we were looking for a once in a lifetime way to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. However, the more digging we did, the more we were convinced that Uganda was the best choice for a safari in East Africa.
Kenya and Tanzania may have the Big 5, but Uganda has so much more: iconic apes and gorillas, hundreds of fascinating bird species, lush fields of tropical fruits at every turn, and four of the Big 5 animals not to mention the happiest people in Africa.
Reflecting on our trip, we are convinced that Uganda is the coolest safari destination in East Africa. Here are 12 reasons why.
1. Track Uganda's Mountain Gorillas
The number one reason to visit Uganda is to trek into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and come face to face with endangered mountain gorillas. There are only about 800 mountain gorillas left in the wild with half of them in Uganda. Yes, you can also trek to see gorillas in Rwanda and the Congo but Uganda is an ideal place to see mountain gorillas with treks ranging from 'easy' to extremely challenging.
We chose to track the remote Nkuringo family of mountain gorillas. We hiked about two and a half hours on very steep and challenging terrain in order to come face to face and look into the eyes of these gentle giants. We definitely felt like we'd earned our one hour visit with the Nkuringo Family, especially when we returned to our lodge and discovered that other guests who tracked the gorillas out of Rushaga found their assigned family in just 15 minutes. To me that almost feels like cheating.
Experience our hour with Uganda's Nkuringo gorilla family in my video below.
2. Spend a Day with the Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest
Uganda is not just about gorillas. Meet chimpanzees, humanity's closest relatives, in Kibale National Forest. We embarked on a full day chimpanzee habituation trek. Deep in the forest, we looked into gentle curious eyes. Staying mostly in the treetops, the chimps came down periodically and we followed them through the dense forest as they went about their business.
For more from our trek through the Kibale Forest and day with Uganda's chimps, check out my video below.
3. Go Bird Crazy in Uganda
Uganda is also heaven for birdwatching and is the premier destination in East Africa for birders with over 1000 recorded species. You don't have to be an avid birdwatcher to appreciate Uganda's avian wildlife. Uganda's birding is very accessible with many species sunning themselves on power lines along the roads. Uganda's national parks are also a great spot for twitchers.
We especially enjoyed watching Uganda's national bird, the crested crane. Crested cranes are often seen in pairs as they mate for life. Given that this was our 20th anniversary trip, we now consider the crested crane to be our personal mascot.
4. Search for Shoebills, the Most Awesome Bird in Africa!
The shoebill is the most crazy, bizarre, and simply awesome bird I've ever seen. Uganda features over 1000 species of birds but there is one bird at the top of many birders bucket lists: the venerable shoebill. Uganda's shoe-billed stork is endangered and elusive. Your best shot of seeing a shoebill is in Mabamba Swamp about an hour's drive from Entebbe.
We hired a local boat and guide (ask for Ismail) to take us out to find the shoebill. We were lucky enough to find 3 shoebills on a two hour tour of the swamp. Check out my video below for more on our tour of Mabamba swamp and encounter with the amazing shoebill!
5. Pop the Top and Look for The Big 4 (and More!) in Queen Elizabeth National Park
6. Cruise the Hippo-Filled Kazinga Channel
Running through Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Kazinga Channel is another of Uganda's safari gems. Expect to see hippos by the hundreds as well as herds of buffalo and elephants. We also encountered crocodiles with razor sharp teeth and a Nile monitor lizard roaming in the grasses near the channel.
Our two hour cruise on Uganda's Kazinga Channel was one of the top experiences during our East African safari. See my video below for more highlights from our boat cruise.
7. Admire Volcanoes Where Uganda, Rwanda and The Congo Meet
The scenery in Uganda is simply stunning and changes daily as you drive across the country. We saw rolling green fields (not dissimilar to the landscape in Ireland), papyrus swamps, semi-arid savanna, and thick forests. Most impressive to us though was the jaw-dropping volcano views near Lake Mutanda where the Virungas seem to erupt from the lake. This could be your view from the safari lodge before you head out to track mountain gorillas.
The Virungas lie at the intersection of three countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The pinnacle of the highest peak is shared by all three countries.
8. Sample Matoke, A Ugandan Staple Food
Matoke are green bananas (kind of like plantains). They are not edible in their raw form but instead are steamed in leaves and mashed as a side dish to accompany spicy Ugandan stews.
Driving through the Ugandan countryside was fascinating. 90+ percent of Ugandans are subsistence farmers and grow all manner of food in Uganda's fertile soil. Matoke is a local staple. We saw large plantations of palm-like matoke trees growing along the roadside. We frequently saw locals carrying huge loads of matoke perched precariously on the back of motorcycles.
9. Bite Into the Freshest Mangos and Pineapple You'll Ever Taste
Because the land in Uganda is so fertile, Ugandans cultivate a wide range of crops. Locals also pick wild fruit and sell it at the roadside. We tasted the freshest and sweetest mangoes and pineapple that we'd ever tried in Uganda. The price is right too. When our guide helped us negotiate for some mangoes, he quoted 2000 Ugandan shillings (about 50 cents in USD at the time of writing). We assumed he meant 2000 shillings for one mango. It turns out that the price we were quoted was 2000 shillings for an entire bowl of mangoes! Amazing!
10. Take a Walking Safari in Uganda's Lake Mburo National Park
Lake Mburo National Park is Uganda's smallest savanna park. We saw countless zebras and newly introduced giraffes from the comfort of our safari vehicle. Because there are limited numbers of predators in the park, Lake Mburo offers walking safaris.
Once again, we had the park almost entirely to ourselves as we were led by an armed ranger from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) along the tracks carved out by animals. A highlight of our two hour walking safari was coming face to face with an eland, Africa's largest antelope.
11. Straddle the Equator Not Once But Twice
On our counter-clockwise safari circuit around the southwest of Uganda, we crossed the equator not once, but twice. Of course, we had to get an obligatory picture of me standing in one hemisphere and my husband standing in the other. For the crossing closest to Queen Elizabeth National Park, there was absolutely no tourist tack, just a simple marker and perfect photo spot. As with many places in Uganda, we had the equator all to ourselves.
12. Tour Western Uganda's Community Run Bigodi Swamp
On our trip to Uganda, I have to say that I was most impressed with the people that we met along the way. We took time out for a 3 hour guided walk through Bigodi Swamp. Bigodi Wetlands is situated near Kibale Forest and is run by KAFRED, the Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development.
Bigodi Wetlands is a protected area at the edge of the community and features an incredible variety of birds and primates. We were especially excited to see Uganda's famed blue turacos and the elusive L'Hoest's monkey. KAFRED uses the proceeds from visits to the swamp to fund local community projects including building primary and secondary schools.
I was so impressed with our guide, Rogers. He's 24 years old and has a wealth of knowledge about local flora and fauna. When I asked where he learned all this great stuff, he confided that he's completely self-taught. Taking walks everyday and cross referencing books in his down time have given Rogers an incredible amount of knowledge and the ability to create a better life for himself. Don't miss community sponsored attractions like this one on your trip to Uganda, especially since they put you in touch with inspiring local people.
Save Some of Uganda's Safari Sights for Next Time
As you can see, Uganda offers an amazing variety of activities for an ideal East African safari. On our 9-day tour of Uganda, we barely scratched the surface. If we'd had more time, we would most definitely have checked out Murchison Falls and Jinja (the source of the mighty Nile River). At least now we have an excuse to go back and visit Uganda, such an inspiring yet still mostly undiscovered destination, again.