A once-in-a-lifetime safari tour of Uganda was the perfect way to celebrate our 20th anniversary. A hidden gem in the heart of East Africa, Uganda features over 1,000 species of birds and the chance to come face-to-face with endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees (our closest relatives in the animal kingdom). You can see the Big 5 safari animals on a trip to Uganda and don't have to compete with throngs of tourists. Plus it's an adventurous yet safe top-rated destination.
We embarked on a custom 9-day safari tour in December of 2016 which included a private car and guide/driver. As you'll see from our day-by-day road trip itinerary, we experienced a ridiculous variety of wildlife, constantly changing landscapes, and some of the friendliest people in Africa.
Meet Geoffrey Katende - Our Matoke Tours Guide
After much online research we booked our safari with Matoke Tours who are locally based in Kampala, Uganda. We were met at our lodge in Entebbe (near the airport) by Geoffrey, one of Matoke's most experienced guides. Geoffrey has more than 15 years of experience showing off Uganda to eager tourists. We'd spend the next 9 days traveling in Geoffrey's capable hands.
We loaded our bags into our 4-wheel drive safari vehicle and got an early start. Here is what we did each day touring the national parks, scenic lakes, wildlife reserves, and volcanic vistas of Uganda.
Day 1: From Entebbe Airport to Fort Portal, Uganda
The first day of our safari tour of Uganda was mainly spent on the road. It takes about 7 hours to travel from Entebbe to the Kibale Forest with a break for lunch in Fort Portal, and that's with a shortcut on a red dirt road to avoid the traffic jams on the road between Entebbe and Kampala.
Spotting Ugandan Wildlife by the Roadside
We soon learned that Geoffrey has an eagle eye for spotting birds and other Ugandan wildlife. He frequently pulled over to the side of the road to show off a rare specimen. There was so little traffic once we left Entebbe that it was super easy to stop and take our time getting some great photos.
We spotted black and white colobus monkeys, long-crested eagles, a black-shouldered kite and countless other birds.
We normally don't relish long drives but in this case, the exciting new surroundings and frequent wildlife stops made the journey from Entebbe to Fort Portal fly by.
Our First Taste of Matoke, a Ugandan Staple
Matoke is a staple food in Uganda. Green bananas that aren't edible in raw form are steamed and served as a heavy, starchy side dish. We enjoyed an African buffet lunch at the Garden Restaurant in Fort Portal featuring hearty meat-based stews, ground nut sauces, and plenty of beans.
A Forest Walk with Colobus Monkeys at Kibale Forest Camp
We arrived at the remote Kibale Forest Camp in the late afternoon. After checking into the lodge, we were encouraged to take a walk on the loop path surrounding the property. Forged through a heavily wooded area, the highlight of the walk was seeing black and white colobus monkeys playing in the trees.
We also saw some cool and colorful butterflies.
Day 2: Full Day Chimpanzee Tracking and Habituation in Kibale Forest
We awoke early the next morning and suited up for our day long chimpanzee habituation experience. It's important to dress appropriately for the intense hike through the dense forest. There are some trails but you will go off-trail to follow the chimps. Wear long sleeves and long trousers and tuck your pants into your hiking socks to protect yourself against fire ants. Sturdy hiking boots are a must and gaiters are a plus to keep your trousers from getting muddy.
Our guide, Benson, sought out the chimpanzee night nests and from there we tracked the chimps to a grove of trees. They spent almost two hours feeding and resting in the treetops before coming down for a brief period. The habituation trek is very much a hurry up and wait affair. Once the chimps descended from the trees, we crashed through the brush in an attempt to keep up with them.
For more on our chimp encounter, check out my video from our trek through Kibale Forest.
Day 3: From Kibale Forest to Queen Elizabeth National Park
A Guided Walk in Bigodi Swamp with KAFRED
We started the third day of our safari in Western Uganda with a guided tour of Bigodi Swamp, a community led project run by KAFRED, the Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development. Designed to protect the nature and wildlife of the region while improving lives in the local community, KAFRED's Bigodi Wetlands is a treasure-trove of birds and wildlife.
Our guide, Rogers, was a 24 year old self-taught naturalist. He spotted and identified countless birds for us and even mimicked their calls to get them to come closer.
Thanks to Rogers, we got to see Uganda's famous blue turacos.
We also spotted the elusive L'Hoest's monkey.
We spent 2 hours traveling a circuit of the Bigodi Wetlands and it felt great knowing that the fee for the tour was going to help local community projects like building schools.
Nearly Stuck in the Mud
After our nature walk in Bigodi Swamp, we embarked on another long drive from Kibale Forest Camp to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Geoffrey opted to take a scenic shortcut to avoid back-tracking through Fort Portal. We nearly regretted that decision as the road got muddier and muddier due to heavy rains in the vicinity the previous evening. As we drove on, various locals shook their heads and spoke to Geoffrey in the local language. They seemed to be saying "you should turn back". However, Geoffrey pressed fearlessly on.
After fishtailing back and forth up a steep stretch of road, we were dismayed to see that a truck had jack-knifed and was currently blocking our path. Geoffrey carefully picked his way through the mud on foot to see what was up. Fortunately, within 15 minutes, the truck was cleared from the road and we made it, just barely, over the ridge. I was so thankful when we finally reemerged onto a tarmac (paved) road. Such an adventure! We were super-grateful to have Geoffrey's expert driving skills at our disposal.
Afternoon Safari Game Drive in QENP
We arrived in Queen Elizabeth National Park in the late afternoon. We picked up Ruth, a guide who works for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, popped the top of our vehicle and set out to discover the wonders of the park. We spotted Ugandan kob in abundance.
Warthogs stared at us curiously in the tall grass.
We even spotted two lions: one in a tree and one in the grass.
We only saw two other cars at any point on our afternoon game drive. Magnificent!
Mango and Pineapple Sundowner in Uganda
It's not officially a safari without a sundowner. The previous day, Geoffrey had picked up some fresh pineapple and mangos from a roadside vendor. Geoffrey expertly carved the pineapple and cut it into 4 long strips for everyone to share.
As pineapple juice sluiced down my chin, I was aware that this was the freshest and most delicious pineapple I'd ever tasted. For our second course, Geoffrey treated us to wild mangos cut into sections and served in the rind. I've never tasted mangos so sweet and ripe.
Day 4: In and Around Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park
Sunrise Safari with Elephants Galore
We returned to QENP the next morning at sunrise and picked up Ruth for a second safari game drive. We had the narrow driving tracks through the park all to ourselves. We spotted crested cranes, Uganda's national bird. Ruth smiled as she told us how crested cranes mate for life, just like the two of us. She was genuinely thrilled to be a part of our 20th anniversary trip.
The grass was high but we managed to spot another lion nonetheless.
It was hard to see at first, but these Egyptian Geese are standing on a hippo in a pond covered with green slime.
We were also excited to see elephants in abundance in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Check our my video of elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park and later along the famous Kazinga Channel.
A Boat Cruise on the Kazinga Channel
We spent the afternoon on the Kazinga Channel, linking Lake Edward and Lake Albert. Filled with hippos, buffalo, hungry crocodiles, elephants, and plenty of birds, Uganda's Kazinga Channel quickly became one of our favorite safari destinations of the trip.
For more highlights from our two hour boat cruise, check out my video below.
Day 5: A Bumpy Road to Lake Mutanda
We embarked on another long drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park to Lake Mutanda in the southwest of the country. Road quality varies considerably throughout Uganda. While the road was paved most of the way, the final 90 minutes or so was spent climbing up a narrow muddy road just feet away from a steep cliff.
Hop into the car and experience what that final stretch of road was like in my video below.
Hop into the car and experience what that final stretch of road was like in my video below.
Getting Psyched (or Psyched Out?) for our Gorilla Trek
We arrived in the early evening at Lake Mutanda Resort. Situated in the shadow of the stunning Virunga volcanos, it was an idyllic setting to prepare for our upcoming trek to see Uganda's mountain gorillas.
Talking to another couple visiting from Germany, we mentioned that we were signed up to track the Nkuringo gorilla family. The woman looked at us in awe and said something like "that's supposed to be the hardest hike with lots of scrambling through the brush and fjording of rivers. I'd never sign up to do that!" She was going to continue in that vein until I asked her to please stop since she was starting to scare us :-D We were hoping to get psyched for the trip but ended up feeling a little psyched out in the end.
Day 6: Tracking the Nkuringo Family of Mountain Gorillas in Uganda
It was with some trepidation that we departed before dawn for the trail head where we would begin our gorilla trek. After an hour bouncing around on the steep muddy roads winding upward toward Bwindi Impentrable Forest from Lake Mutanda, we finally arrived. We checked in by showing our passports and gorilla tracking permits which had been arranged by Matoke Tours ($600 USD at the time of writing).
Our entourage included two armed rangers (in case of encounters with forest elephants or rogue gorillas), a UWA guide, and two porters to carry our bags and lend a helping hand as we negotiated the trail. We did our trek on the day of our 20th anniversary and were simply thrilled when we learned that we were the only two tracking the gorillas that day. Apparently, the intimidating reputation that is associated with the Nkuringo hike scared others away.
We asked our guide for an estimated range of times that it would take to find the gorillas. He told us that the fastest he'd ever found the Nkuringo Family was 2 hours and the longest was four hours. We got lucky and it took about two and a half hours to find them that day. We spent a magical hour in the presence of these awe-inspiring creatures.
I'll admit, the return hike (mostly uphill) nearly killed me: you need to be in good shape to attempt the Nkuringo trek but I'm proud to say that we made it out under our own power albeit with plenty of short breaks and huffing and puffing. The high altitude definitely doesn't help. What an amazing, once in a lifetime way to spend our wedding anniversary!
Day 7: A Day of Rest and Recovery at Lake Bunyonyi
We drove from Lake Mutanda Resort to the Birdnest Lodge on picturesque Lake Bunyonyi. Matoke Tours had wisely scheduled a light day for us involving a later departure and only a three hour drive. We were tired and our legs were burning from the gorilla trek the previous day. We spend a leisurely afternoon on Lake Bunyonyi and arranged for a boat cruise around Uganda's deepest lake.
Punishment Island and a Bird Restaurant
Lake Bunyonyi features Punishment Island. In the past, women who got pregnant out of wedlock were sent here. They were faced with certain death unless a man who couldn't afford the dowry for an 'untainted' wife rowed out to the island and rescued the woman.
We also stopped at Bushara Island Camp on Lake Bunyonyi which features a bird restaurant. The resort puts out food that attracts a wide range of birds to the area. I especially enjoyed watching speckled mousebirds revel in the feast.
Day 8: On the Road to Lake Mburo National Park
Matoke and Fruit Markets in Uganda
We really appreciated having a private car and local guide on our Ugandan safari trip. Geoffrey gave context to all the things that we passed at the roadside and was patient with our frequent questions. On the road between Lake Bunyonyi and Lake Mburo we witnessed a large scale market where locals buy and sell matoke.
We were also impressed by the sheer volume of pineapples that industrious Ugandans could fit on the back of their motorcycles.
The stretch of road we traveled featured countless stands selling a wide range of produce grown in Uganda's fertile soil. Over 90% of Ugandans are subsistence farmers and live off the fruit of the land.
A Private Game Drive in Lake Mburo National Park
We arrived at Lake Mburo National Park, Uganda's smallest protected savanna, in the late afternoon. I stared in wonder at the skulls picked clean stacked at the entrance gate to the park. Once again, the birdwatching opportunities were amazing. I especially enjoyed watching pairs of woodland kingfishers call and display for one another.
Lake Mburo National Park has a few predators (mainly leopards) but they are elusive and so the main attraction was herds of Burchell's zebra.
Rothschild's giraffe was also recently reintroduced to the park with animals relocated from Murchison Falls.
The giraffes were introduced because the park was experiencing a proliferation of acacia trees and there was a risk that the savanna would become a thick forest. Thorny acacia trees are the preferred food for giraffes.
We were simply excited to see the giraffes without having to take a two day detour to Murchison Falls. Our final night on safari was spent at Rwakobo Rock Lodge overlooking the park.
Day 9: Our Final Day on a Private Safari in Uganda
Walking Safari with Elands, Topi, and Zebras
We arose at dawn on the final day of our Ugandan safari and met up with a UWA guide for a walking safari in Lake Mburo National Park. My first question was "Is a walking safari safe given that there are leopards in the park?" Our guide reassured us that leopards hunt at night so their bellies would be full and they'd be resting during the day. As a back-up, our UWA ranger was armed so that was comforting.
We were excited to see topi with their hyena like gait.
Of course, we saw plenty of zebras with an entourage of cattle egrets.
We also spotted the normally shy eland in the distance. Elands are the largest antelopes in Africa.
Near the tail end of our walk, we even spotted a mongoose! I'd never seen one before.
Tangling with Uganda's Ankole Cattle
We also enjoyed getting up-close to a herd of impressive Ankole cattle (back in the safety of our car) on the way back to our lodge. Cattle ranchers live nearby and their herds often get very close to the road.
Crossing the Equator and Return to the Northern Hemisphere
On our return drive to Entebbe we crossed the equator. Geoffrey arranged for a demonstration of the Coriolis effect where water swirls in opposite directions depending on whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. How cool is that?!
In our demonstration, a flower placed in a bowl of water didn't swirl at all when draining at the equator.
Lunch at Flamingoz Joint (on the Equator!)
We also enjoyed our last African meal of beef, rice, matoke, and avocado at Flamingoz Joint in the Southern Hemisphere but within sight of the sign marking the equator.
Buying Mangos by the Basket Full
We really enjoyed all the fresh fruit that we tried on our Ugandan safari so we asked Geoffrey if he could help us buy some mangos to eat in Entebbe after our safari ended. He asked us how many we wanted and we said 5 or 6. Geoffrey told us that the roadside vendor was asking 2000 Ugandan shillings (about 50 cents at the time of writing). We assumed he mean 2000 schillings per mango. As the woman start rolling full bowls of mangos into a bag, we realized that the price was 2000 schillings per bowl. We definitely ended up with more fruit than we bargained for but somehow managed to eat our way through about 8 delicious mangos before heading back to Ireland.
Saying Goodbye to Geoffrey and Our Matoke Tours Safari
Geoffrey dropped us off at our guest house in Entebbe and after 9 non-stop days together, it was time to say farewell. We were super-grateful to have him with us. He was a wealth of information about Uganda and was patient with our questions. Being in Uganda, we were definitely out of our comfort zone and it was reassuring to have Geoffrey with us every step of the way as we visited some of the most rural and off the grid places we've ever traveled to. He was also a confident and very safe driver.
He really made our 20th anniversary trip truly special. If you are planning to travel to Uganda and need a guide, Geoffrey Katende is your man. We highly recommend both Geoffrey as a tour guide and Matoke Tours for making all the arrangements for an unforgettable trip to Uganda.
Uganda Travel Planning Links
You can follow our route and key places of interest on my map below.
Things that Surprised Us About Uganda
1. A Ugandan tourist visa is free if you have an Irish passport.
You'll pay $50 USD a head if you visit Uganda from most countries. However, people traveling on Irish (and some other) passports get their visa gratis.
2. Arrival in Entebbe Airport was hassle-free
It took us about 10 minutes to clear immigration and pick up our checked bags.
3. Uganda is on the equator but it's not *that* hot
Temperatures stayed solidly in the 20's Celsius (80's Fahrenheit) due to Uganda's higher elevation and even got chilly some nights.
4. The toilet facilities were better than expected
We encountered mostly western toilets complete with toilet paper and only used the bush toilet on days when we were tracking the gorillas and chimps.
5. Biting insects were generally not an issue (outside of Entebbe)
due to Uganda's higher elevation about sea level.
Where to Stay in Uganda - A Review of Our Lodges
We stayed in a variety of mid-range lodges and resorts during our safari in Uganda. All of the lodges offered cabin choices with an en suite toilet (a must-have for us) including a sink and shower. Here's what you can expect from your accommodations in Uganda.
Kibale Forest Camp for a Retreat in the Woods
The common area was open air and a nice spot for grabbing a drink. Dinner was served on the upper deck.
The Bush Lodge at Queen Elizabeth National Park for a Rustic Eco Experience
Bush Lodge was the most rustic but most professionally run place that we stayed at on our safari in Uganda. Bush Lodge is located on hippo trails and you can hear hippos grunting in the night as they come up from the Kazinga Channel to feed. The staff will walk you back to your room after dark if you don't have a strong torch (or if you are afraid of hippos!). There are security patrols all night long.
Bush Lodge sits on a more open plain and there was plenty of ambient light thanks to the full moon outside. Bush Lodge did have mosquito nets but did not provide bottled water for the tent.
Classed as an ecolodge, our tent had a drop toilet (just add a scoop of the provided wood chips after each use). The sink and shower were both outside and surrounded by an approximately 5 foot high fence. As a city person, I found it unnerving to go outside at night to wash my hands (especially when I could hear hippos grunting nearby). I ended up using lots of hand sanitizer instead. You need to order a shower at Bush Lodge in advance and one of the staff members will deliver hot water to your tank in large buckets.
Lake Mutanda Resort for Stunning Views
Mutanda Lake Resort had the most spectacular views of all the lodges we stayed in on our safari in Uganda. The lake lapped nearly to the foot of the stairs leading up to our sturdy cabin perched on a hill. We could see the Virungas (and Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the distance.
It's not easy to get there. The drive to Mutanda Lake Resort involves bouncing around on a winding dirt track clinging to a cliff face for about 90 minutes.
Lake Mutanda Resort did provide water and mosquito nets and had a modest selection of crafts and postcards in the lodge. The property runs their generator in the evening from about 6:30 - 10:30 pm. There is WiFi in the restaurant but it only works when the generator is on. There is solar power to run lights 24/7 if needed. The toilet, sink, and shower were en suite and hot water was available at all times.
Birdnest Lodge at Lake Bunyonyi for a Day of Rest
A three story lodge with a thatched roof, Birdnest @ Bunyonyi was the only traditional hotel that we stayed in on our safari. Our room overlooked the lake with a balcony to take in the views. Lake Bunyonyi did not provide bottled water and there were no mosquito nets (the staff claimed that they weren't needed due to the altitude).
The room was quirky with the shower and toilet essentially in the main room (just separated by a partial wall). Don't expect a lot of privacy here. Electricity was nominally available 24/7 (subject to the whims of the local power grid) as was hot water. We learned the hard way that the hot water tank is shared between multiple rooms and ended up taking a cold shower because the people we were sharing with used it all up :-/
Birdnest @ Bunyonyi also had a trio of donkeys on the property and they wandered through the patio at will. A quirky touch.
Birdnest Resort also had the best selection of crafts that we found at any of our accommodations in Uganda.
We enjoyed sipping a bottle of wine as the sun set on the lake. There is not all that much nearby so plan to spend a very chill day relaxing on the lake.
Rwakobo Rock at Lake Mburo for Great Wildlife Viewing
Rwakobo Rock sits just outside the entrance gate of Lake Mburo National Park (about a 10 minute drive). The lodge is centered on the restaurant/bar tent with a vaulted thatched roof. After dark, a couple of bats darting about were a bit unnerving.
The bar tent is a great spot to watch the sun rise and set.
Regular wildlife visitors frequent the area below the restaurant. We saw a herd of zebras and a vervet monkey carrying her baby. Amazing!
It can be a long walk to the cabins at Rwakobo Rock. We stayed in Mongoose which was about a 5 minute walk away from the main lodge.
The cabins were solid structures with thatched roofs. Purified drinking water was provided and there was a mosquito net over the bed. Hot water and solar-powered lights were available 24 hours a day. There were no sockets in the cabin but devices could be charged at the restaurant/bar.
Rwakobo Rock also features 'Top of the Rock' about a 10 minute hike from our cabin. From here, you get 360 degree views of Lake Mburo National Park and the surrounding savanna.