Uganda Safaris – The Pearl of Africa and Home of Mountain Gorillas
Uganda Safari Overview
With its lush landscapes and friendly people, it’s easy to see why Churchill called Uganda the Pearl of Africa. Intimate encounters with mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are the exclusive wildlife highlights, complemented by a collection of laid-back big-game destinations.
Uganda Safaris At a Glance
Two-thirds of the world’s mountain gorillas live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Trekking to see them is a life-affirming experience. You can spend an hour with a wild troop. There are no fences, just you and your primate cousins exchanging expressions from just a few meters away. Uganda’s other key highlight is chimpanzee trekking in Kibale. Like the gorillas, it is intimate, authentic, and one of the world’s ultimate wildlife connections. Trekking through the forest is part of the experience and you spend an hour with a troop, sharing in their daily life and routine.
These two experiences are the reasons to visit Uganda. If you are not interested in gorillas or chimpanzees then we recommend you do a safari elsewhere in East Africa. Choose Uganda for primate encounters. Then choose to extend the stay by visiting one of the country’s bucolic national parks. While Uganda’s big game can’t quite rival Kenya or Tanzania, the safari is excellent value and offers a great contrast to the primates. It means you can have lions and gorillas on the same holiday.
With gorilla and chimpanzee trekking you journey deep into the mountainous rainforest, with the guide opening a path with his machete. The guides will push you onwards and often you are surrounded by the troop, with gorillas also in the canopy above your head. An hour spent with gorillas or chimpanzees goes very slowly. There is time to really focus on their individual behaviors and mannerisms. It’s you and them out in the wild, a connection that really can be life-affirming.
For gorilla trekking, you need a minimum Uganda safari of three days two nights. Make that five days four nights for the gorillas and chimpanzees. These short tours will use domestic flights to save on travel time, along with lodges that overlook misty rainforests.
Uganda provides a lovely adventure for those with more time. The most popular route is a one-week journey incorporating Bwindi, Kibale and Queen Elizabeth national parks. Also consider Lake Mburo, an excellent destination for walking and horseback safaris. And if you want to get even closer to the gorillas, ask us about the exclusive gorilla habituation experience.
Uganda Safari Highlights
- Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where you get to spend one hour with a habituated troop.
- Visiting a troop of chimpanzees in Kibale Forest.
- Searching for tree-climbing lions and savannah giants in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
- Cruising past hippos and elephants on a Uganda safari in Murchison Falls.
- Going on a horseback safari around Lake Mburo.
- The River Nile white-water rafting in Jinga is some of the best in the world.
- Bwindi now offers a gorilla habituation experience, giving you four hours with a mountain gorilla troop.
- When Winston Churchill set foot in Uganda in 1902, he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the country he called it the ‘Pearl of Africa’.
- Banana is a very popular fruit in Uganda, you can even get a wine that has been produced from banana.
- Uganda has 11% of the birds found in the world – over 1060 recorded species of birds – making it the number one country in Africa for Birders.
- Grasshoppers are an important and popular seasonal delicacy!
- Uganda gained independence from Britain on 9 October 1962 as a Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
Recommended Destinations in Uganda
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
There are only around 1000 mountain gorillas left in the wild and two-thirds of these live in Bwindi (the others are in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda). These are the world’s largest primates and the human similarities are astonishing, especially the facial expressions. Gorilla trekking requires a pre-arranged permit (currently USD 800) and takes a full day. You walk deep into the virgin rainforest, usually on trails created by forest elephants. After arriving at the troop you spend an hour in their presence. This is more than long enough to observe and appreciate your giant primate cousins.
The rules state that you can only come within seven meters. But the gorillas don’t know this. Often they are swinging through the trees, above you, behind you, and besides you. It’s hard to know where to look when there are 10 – 20 gorillas just a few meters away. Although the gorillas have been habituated to human contact they are very wild. This is not a zoo and one look from a silverback will assure you that touching isn’t possible. There is no more intimate wildlife encounter anywhere on the planet. All you need is a permit and the fitness to walk for an hour through the muddy, hilly rainforest.
You will need two nights at a lodge near the park. We recommend the high-end properties for such a once in a lifetime experience, especially as they provide sublime views over the rainforest. In 2018 Bwindi introduced a gorilla habituation experience. With this, you join researchers who aim to habituate a new gorilla troop. This means you don’t get as close to the primates. However, this experience allows four hours of contact in a group of just four people (gorilla trekking groups are up to eight people). It currently costs USD 1500 and needs to be booked many months in advance. Ask us about the possibilities.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Stretching from crater-dotted foothills to rivers and lakes, this accessible savannah is Uganda’s main big-game safari park. Elephant and buffalo roam in large numbers here. Lions climb trees and sometimes battle with leopards upon the branches. Then there are zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and most of the other safari favorites (unfortunately no rhinos). Game drives and game walks complement a boat trip, meaning wildlife confrontations from all angles. Plus, with the proximity to Kibale and Bwindi, this park is easy to add into any Uganda safari.
Kibale National Park
Kibale’s thick forest is all about primate encounters. Colobus monkeys are just one of a dozen monkey species that call the park home, with their tails dangling elegantly from high up in the canopy. Chimpanzees are the premier highlight, playful creatures that move in large troops through the park. Kibale is the best place in Africa to go chimpanzee trekking and the experience is similar to the gorillas, involving an exhilarating trek then one hour with a habituated troop.
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives and the comparisons are remarkable. To come eye to eye with one is magical. To meet the eye of many is another of the Uganda safari life-affirming moments. Chimpanzee trekking is significantly cheaper than the gorillas. It is also easy to combine the two primate experiences. We recommend at least two nights in Kibale, one for the chimps, and another to explore the park’s other forest trails.
Lake Mburo National Park
A lack of lions and leopards makes Lake Mburo a wonderful place for a walking or horseback safari. This is a destination for close-up encounters with Africa’s smaller and less dangerous species, such as zebra. Experienced riders can literally gallop with the herds, while the game walks also bring some thrilling intimacy. We do not recommend Lake Mburo if you seek game drives and a classic big five experience. But for adventures on foot and some deserved downtime, it is one of Uganda’s best.
Two hours east of capital city Kampala, Jinga is an old colonial town on the banks of the River Nile. It’s included here because of the white-water rafting. There are few better places on the planet for rushing down Grade IV and V rapids, meaning Jinga is a bucket-list destination for some.
Key Uganda Travel Considerations
Passports must be valid for 6 months. Visas are required.
GMT + 2 hours
Best Time for a Uganda Safari
When it rains in Uganda it really rains. We’re talking torrential daily downpours, flooded roads, and lightning storms across the sky.
The rainy months are best avoided and these are April, May, October, and November. Any of the other months offers a good time to travel.
December to March is peak season. The temperatures are cooler and these are the best months to see the big game in the parks. Gorilla and chimpanzee permits can book out, so it’s important to get them before you travel.
June to September is a lovely time as well, especially June and July when the landscapes have turned green after the rains. Although it can get hot on the plains, you will usually at a cooler higher altitude.
Tips for Gorilla and Chimpanzee Trekking
We receive many questions about the fitness that is required for gorilla and chimpanzee trekking. If you are able to walk for an hour on a hilly landscape at home, then you should be okay. The actual trek can be anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours.
However, trekking groups are divided based upon the fitness level of visitors, so older and less fit people are usually allocated to the gorilla troop that is closest to the trailhead. Arrive with an okay level of fitness and adrenaline should push you the rest of the day. And if it gets too challenging on the way back, there are porters who will carry you.
Our main tip is to put the camera down. It’s easy to get carried away when you are so close to such incredible animals. But getting photos is very difficult, what with the poor rainforest lighting and black, shadowy subjects. Spend the first ten minutes taking some photos, including the obligatory selfie. Then put the camera away and live in the moment. You will be side by side with the world’s largest primates, sharing glances and expressions, understanding their behaviors and movements.
Planning Your Uganda Safari
The landscapes are lush, the people are friendly, and wherever you travel there is a sense of exploring real Africa. Think ochre-colored dirt roads, amazing hikes, local markets and plenty of wildlife. We think that it is good to do Uganda in style, as the budget and mid-range accommodation may not live up to your standards. We prefer the mid to high-end camps, where you luxuriate in prime wildlife locations and enjoy downtime away from the primates and treks. But whatever your budget and ideas about a Uganda safari, talk to us and we’ll give you expert advice.