Not going to lie. Uganda wasn’t a place I thought I was going anytime soon. Rwanda had been on my radar since it was the first country to popularize gorilla ecotourism, which I had dreamed of doing since birth. Of course the second I decide it’s my time to go, they jacked up the gorilla permit prices but I found that Uganda was a more affordable alternative plus I could see chimpanzees. The more I researched, the more I wanted to see it so I booked a one-week safari in Uganda. I didn’t know anyone who had been to Uganda and all I knew was secondary to negative media stories. I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest.
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Equatorial Africa bordered by South Sudan to the north, Kenya to the East, Tanzania and Rwanda to the South and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the east.
Ugandan Schilling. Dollars accepted widely. (1 $USD = 3700 UGX). ATMs available in cities and larger towns. Larger town also have FOREX (foreign exchange) places.
Like many African countries, it is multi-lingual. English is the official language, inherited from colonial times. Swahili is the other official language. The Bantu originated language of Luganda may be the most widely spoken.
Weebale (Way-ball-ee) is Thank You in Luganda. I heard this more than Asante, which is Thank You in Swahili.
Mzungu (“Mi-zun-goo”) is something you will hear often. It is the southern, central and east African term for foreigner.
The only airport is in Entebbe, which is about an hour from the capital Kampala. A taxi between the two costs roughly $30 USD depending on who the driver is (that’s the way they roll here in Africa). There is a mini-bus network, you can rent a car, you can hire a private driver or use a boda-boda (motorbike) “taxi”.
Here is a guide to self-driving and doing many of the same things I did with the tour, written by a lovely British girl I met at the Gorilla Lodge. One Week in Uganda
I did a tour with G Adventures.
G Adventures Must Go Sale – up to 25% off!
I chose it because they are a responsible tour company that uses local guides and they don’t charge a single supplement. It was one of the more reasonably priced “gorilla” tours I found. I can’t say that I loved every place we stayed but it was fine. They choose very modest accommodations that are a step up from camping.
If this stuff bores, feel free to scroll past to animal photos. However, you know how I am and how I need to learn the background of every country I visit. So for the fellow nerds out there…keep reading.
Uganda was a British Protectorate since 1894 and gained independence of 1962. At this point, Uganda was a kingdom. In 1966, the kingdom was abolished and Uganda was declared a Republic, with a prime minister, a president, and a parliament. Dr. Obote was the first prime minister. A struggle went on for years led by those who refused to give up kingdom status.
In this time of political turmoil, Idi Amin and a disgruntled part of the army was able to lead a military coup and overthrow Obote. This was at first celebrated by many Ugandans but quickly turned into a dark period…an era of terror for the people of Uganda that lasted 8 long years. During this period all Asians, mainly Indians, were expelled from Uganda and as a result, the economy suffered tremendously. Furthermore, an estimated 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives through indiscriminate extrajudicial killings during Idi Amin’s regime.
Idi Amin, largely considered a madman who ruined the country, was overthrown in 1979 by Ugandan exiles with the help of the Tanzanian People’s Defense Force. For the next 20 years, there were multiple political and economic struggles and an estimated half a million Ugandans lost their lives.
In 1986 Museveni became president and largely put an end to the human rights abuses of earlier governments, initiated substantial political liberalization and general press freedom, and instituted broad economic reforms. He is the president today, serving a 6th term but isn’t the champion of human rights he was thought to be.
Joseph Kony led the LRA from 1986 to 2009 before finally being exiled indicted for war crimes. During this time he ordered the abduction of children to be soldiers and sex slaves. Reportedly 66,000 children became soldiers and 2 million were internally displaced because of his war. He is reportedly unwell and with no real power so as of 2017 Uganda and the US have ended the manhunt.
One of the more internationally controversial things that happened in Uganda was the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act which passed in Parliament and signed by Museveni, who claimed he had scientific reports that nobody was born homosexual. It originally called for the execution of gays but now it is life in prison (after threats from western nations and the World Bank to cut off millions in financial aid). The Ugandan Constitutional Court declared this Act invalid because of lack of quorum. Sadly some prominent evangelical Christians from the United States were involved with promoting anti-gay sentiment in Uganda. I was encouraged to read that many Christian organizations including Pope Benedict, publicly opposed the bill and due to further threats of international aid being pulled, the bill never really materialized and is still in limbo today.
Uganda isn’t alone on the continent. A majority of African nations have criminalized homosexuality in some way. This is a complicated topic and one that I actually encourage you to read more about. Uganda’s Anti-Gay Legislation Explained
As you can see Uganda hasn’t had it easy. The newfound era of peace here and the burgeoning tourist industry is a welcome change. I saw United Nations staging sites near the airport in Entebbe, providing assistance to refugees from the DRC. Multiple NGO’s operate in the north, caring for Sudanese refugees. Uganda has now become one of the stable countries in the region and a base for international aid organizations.
The Bigodi village in the highlands of western Uganda is lush, full of banana trees and tiny huts and kind of like one may expect a small African village to be except more beautiful and more interesting. The group was led by a ranger who was from the village. He took us to his uncle’s banana beer “factory”. I use this term loosely. It is a very low tech, local operation, but so cool to see. I thought the banana beer was tasty. The banana gin on the other hand…no thanks.
We also visited a little old lady’s coffee-making workshop. By workshop, I mean a patch of ground behind her hut. We saw the beans go from a tree into our cups. The process was fascinating and more so because this tiny sinewy badass elderly woman did everything by hand starting from husking the beans, roasting them, crushing them, sifting them and boiling them in water to produce what may be the smoothest least acidic coffee I’ve ever had. Yes, she sold bags of it and I bought that shit and wish I had more.
I have videos of all of this in my Uganda Instagram story highlights and I urge you to check them out!
This is considered the primate capital of Africa with 9 types of primates living here. There are over 1500 chimpanzees in Kibale National Park. They are divided into 10-15 communities. Of these, 3 are habituated to humans. 2 are mainly for research and 1 for tourists to observe.
This was SO much cooler than I thought it would be. I thought we may see a black fuzzy thing way up in a tree with binoculars but no…we became bystanders to the chimp soap opera I like to call “Chimp Manor”. I don’t want to go into the entire story now, but we witnessed some intense chimp family drama involving betrayal, bloodlust and forgiveness and It. Was. Wild!.
Read More: Chimpanzee Trekking in Uganda
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I thought this was pretty cool. Especially since earlier in the year I had posed by the Tropic of Capricorn Sign in Namibia. I also went to the Tropic of Cancer beach in the Bahamas so….random life goal I never I knew I had completed. Woohoo! But I digress. You pass the Equator on the way from Kibale Forest to Queen Elizabeth 2 National Park. Of COURSE you stop for a photo.
This is not a game park that you often hear of. It’s not nearly as famous as Masai Mara, Serengeti or the Okavongo Delta. It’s relatively uncrowded with other cars or safari goers and it’s beautiful! Certain popular game animals don’t live here, like giraffe or cheetah, but they have plenty of elephants, hippo, and various antelope and bird species.
I think the antelopes and birds are both underrated game. You always see them when you don’t always see predators. At first I was like…oh just a bird…or just a waterbuck, but I grew to appreciate them for the beautiful animals that they are, as well as their important role in the ecosystem.
They have predators…lions and leopards, both of which we saw. We saw a spectacular female leopard in a tree that was one of the highlights of my entire 3 months in Africa. Seriously.
To give you perspective on how impressive it is to spot these creatures, who are ambush attackers and have evolved over centuries to be expert hiders, this is what it looks like WITH an ordinary zoom (say 50mm). The pics I took above are with 300 mm lens and THEN cropped. That’s the value of having a guide with good eyes and the knowledge of where to look. I would NEVER have seen the leopard.
Another part of this park that I loved was a boat ride on the Kazinga Channel. This connects Lake George with Lake Edward. I will refrain from ranting about all these colonial names. Did English aristocrats just roll around Africa naming shit or what? Anyway, this boat ride was super cool because TONS of African Buffalo and Hippo hang out here (and apparently are chummy with each other) and there are tons of beautiful birds and at the end, we saw elephants. All while sipping wine on a boat. If you haven’t had a drunken game drive/boat ride…you haven’t lived, let me tell you.
Again, in the stories I mentioned earlier, you can see all of this including some badass hippo that tried to chase our large boat. They have some cajones!
The safari camp where we stayed was notable because it was near the river and every night hippos invaded camp to eat their body weight in grass. Imagine waking up at 2 am to the sound of munching, and when you dreamily look outside your mesh tent window you are a few feet from a massive deadly animal. Good Times! Just make sure you don’t have to use the restroom which for us was NOT en-suite.
So this is it. The main event. The reason for the season. Or at least the reason most of us booked this trip. Gorilla Trekking!!!
Over 1000 mountain gorillas reside in the high altitude forests of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. These numbers are amazing because 10 years ago it was thought that these majestic close relatives of ours may go extinct in my lifetime. I remember when there were only 300. Yeah conservation!
Read More: My Fairytale Gorilla Trekking Experience
Bwindi received UNESCO status in 1994. It is the only place where you will find both Chimpanzees AND Gorillas. There are birds here that don’t live anywhere else. Medicine has been found here such as a plant that de-worms children. It is the biggest of the 3 national parks that contain mountain gorillas. The permit is pricey at $650 (it’s $1500 in Rwanda/ $250 in DRC) but this money largely goes to conservation of the park, the gorillas (and other animals) as well as helping the local community. Most locals have never themselves seen a mountain gorilla. Many can’t imagine why wealthy people from other countries pay more than they make in a year to have 45 minutes with these animals. It’s almost unfair if they didn’t benefit from the gorilla tourism in some way.
The last stop was Kigali, Rwanda. The drive before the border crossing was stunning. At one point you can see volcanoes in three countries, Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. Super cool.
Crossing the border into Rwanda was quite an experience. At the Ugandan side, we had to get out, go to a little office and show our visas and get customs approval. Then we had to walk about 10 minutes over the border crossing to another office to get another stamp and approval on the Rwanda side. Next, we had our luggage checked by border guards. They were looking for plastic bags. Rwanda has banned plastic bags! Who knew?
There were some other delays and a period of time I like to call…”sitting around in a developing country wondering what the hell is going on and why does it take so long” that I have experienced many times around the world. I can’t explain it. But this whole process took about an hour. Finally, we were on our way into Rwanda.
I will be writing about this part of the journey soon, so once again I ask you to “stay tuned”. I stayed at the famous Hotel Rwanda (the one the movie is about) and can’t wait to tell you all about it.
I hope I’ve got you a little more interested in Uganda, a place I’m sure many of you haven’t thought much about. Any questions about this or comments? I always love to hear your thoughts.