By Mubiru Ivan
This is the Pearl of Africa. Uganda has also been described by leading travel magazine Lonely Planet as “Africa Condensed” elaborating that you can see pretty much everything Africa has to offer in this relatively small land-locked country.
With the dense misty forests, snow-peaked mountains, glassy lakes, sprawling savannas and probably the most hospitable folks around, many times tourists find it hard to single out their highlight in Uganda.
But we shall try to pick out Uganda’s top ten must-see features from an astounding variety of attractions:
You must see the Source of the Nile
Declared as one of the seven wonders of Africa, the source of the mighty River Nile in the eastern town of Jinja is a must-see.
This is where the world’s longest river kicks off its 6,650 KM-long journey northwards. British explorer John Speke discovered the Nile source centuries ago but clapping your eyes on the point where it originates still makes you feel like you’ve made a discovery of your own today.
Standing where Speke stood, take a picture with the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, go for boat ride across the river and into Africa’s largest fresh water lake, Victoria, see birds, monkeys and other wildlife makes a trip to the source simply priceless.
Jinja is 80 kilometres from Kampala, an hour or so drive from the capital and there is still a lot to see along the way including the road-hugging Mabira Forest, and extensive sugarcane plantations.
Adrenaline junkies can get their fix any way they like in Jinja. The source of the Nile is a magnet for white-water rafting enthusiasts where you can plunge down Grade-5 rapids or otherwise kayak or try the white-knuckle jet boat ride. Those who prefer a different kind of plunge can opt for bungee jumping by Bujagali Falls.
Jinja also allows for camping, nature walks, parties, quad biking, horse-back riding and this is why it is dubbed the “Adventure Capital of East Africa.”
You must go gorilla tracking
This is what fetches Uganda the most tourism monies and understandably so. Tracking mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or the Virungas is one of the quintessential Uganda experiences and nothing quite prepares you for the first glimpse of black fuzz amidst the dense foliage.
These are enormous animals: up to three times as bulky as the average man and five times stronger than the biggest rugby player and yet despite their fearsome appearance, gorillas are remarkably peaceful.
Bwindi is home to more than half of the world’s remaining endangered mountain gorillas.
This biological diverse region also provides shelter to a further 120 mammals, including chimps and baboons plus 350 bird species. Bwindi was actually named the best place for bird watching in Africa by Bird Africa Club.
Bwindi can be reached within six to eight hours drive from Kampala via Mbarara then Kabale. A daily bus service leaves Kampala for Butogota via Rukungiri and Kihiihi. A matatu or boda-boda can be taken from Butogota to the park entrance gate at Buhoma.
Mgahinga Gorillas National Park is another place for gorilla tracking but the park also has a huge cultural significance, in particular for the indigenous Batwa pygmies.
Mgahinga can be approached from Kisoro which is 43 kilometres west of Kabale, and approximately 460 kilometres southwest of Kampala.
It is such a daunting journey from the capital but the opportunity to get up-close and personal with these man’s close cousins is a truly magical experience worth the effort.
Go spot tree-climbing lions
There is a reason why Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s most visited game park. The never-ending savannas, humid forests, sparkling lakes and fertile wetlands have drawn a plethora of wildlife towards this place. And in return, the classic big game, ten primate species including chimpanzees and over 600 bird species attract many tourists to Queen Elizabeth.
In Kyambura gorge you can see chimps while the boat ride along the Kazinga Channel is another spectacle which allows you view elephants, hippos, buffalos, crocodile and plenty of birds in the most relaxed manner possible.
Salt mining on Lake Katwe is another exciting experience that is hoisted by the presence of the flamingos.
But perhaps the signature attraction of Queen is the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha which lies in the southern sector of the park along the Democratic Republic of Congo border. The resident lions here have taken to a curious habit, climbing into giant fig trees and acacia trees to laze about.
It is not fully understood why they do this but it is clear they enjoy hanging around in the trees which makes for a rare treat for safari goers.
Ishasha can be approached from three directions: Kabale and Bwindi National Park in the south, from Rukungiri to the east or from the north via Katunguru on the main Mbarara-Kasese Road.
You must watch birds in Uganda
Uganda is one of the most popular birding destinations in Africa hosting over 50% of bird species on the continent. The country boasts over 1060 bird species which is 11% of world’s bird species – many of them which are endemic, meaning they can only be found here and about. Given the concentration of so many birds in the relatively small country means that serious birders can travel to many birding locations throughout the country with relative ease in the attempt to check off as many species as possible and enjoy the scenic countryside along the way.
All the beaches and islands on L Victoria including Lutembe beach near Kampala offer birders the ultimate chance to see both migratory and resident birds. Bwindi was voted the best birding destination in Africa; Murchison Falls National Park came in at number nine on that list. Queen Elizabeth National Park also boasts over 600 bird species.
There are birds pretty much everywhere in Uganda.
There are a large number of extinct volcanoes known as explosion craters that dot the landscape of Western Uganda.
The craters are concentrated in three areas; the Katwe explosion craters within the Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Bunyaruguru crater field near the Kichwamba escarpment and the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Field located near Kibale National Park. Many of the creators are home to freshwater and in the Katwe area a couple craters have saline lakes. The explosion craters are very scenic and offer great views from the rim.
The Ndali-Kasenda Crater Field has created what Uganda tour operators call the “Romantic Trail” where lovers stroll while scenery viewing. The scenery here is the stuff of wallpaper.
The areas around the craters are generally lush and full of thriving vegetation. A wonder that has evolved from such violent beginnings!
You can reach Ndali through Fort Portal town which is 320 kilometres west of Kampala. It will take you about four hours along Fort Portal highway. Public means is also available from Kampala.
Mountains of the Moon
Rwenzori mountain ranges, sometimes referred to as Mountains of the Moon, climb high from the Albertine Rift Valley floor and provide a stunning backdrop to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The highest peaks are permanently snow-capped and although they are often surrounded by clouds, you do get the rare opportunity to see their massive existence in full.
Snow on the equator is a must-see indeed!
The Rwenzoris are hosts to the widest variety of mountain flora in Africa and for this reason, is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Rwenzori moutains are popular with climbers who trek through rainforests and alpine meadows to the snow-capped Margherita summit which stands at 5,109 metres. But reaching the top isn’t easy as Rwenzori is deemed to be the hardest mountain to climb in the whole of Africa.
But there is a lot to miss out if you don’t dare the Rwenzoris.
Check out the magnificent Kidepo National Park
Few tourists make it as far north as Kidepo Valley, but those who do are rewarded with not only the best selection of animals, but some of the most spectacular scenery in Africa.
Situated up in the country’s remote northeastern corner, Kidepo contains rolling savannas extending towards mountain ranges in three countries, Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. Kidepo has – in recent past – won a number of travel accolades including being named one of the best game parks in Africa by CNN.
Distant mountain ranges touching the sky, large herds of buffalos together with the sprawling grasslands create picturesque scenery – at times – making it look like a painting.
The black-backed jackal bat-eared fox, aardwolf caracal and the world’s fastest land mammal, the cheetah are found in no other game park in Uganda.
Kidepo was once the playground of Idi Amin and you can still visit the haunting ruins of a lodge that could just as easily have been designed as a massive bunker.
You can also visit an indigenous tribe the Ik here besides bird watching, and hiking on the several rocks.
Kidepo is 740 kilometres from Kampala and you can reach it via Mbale to Sironko to Kotido and Kaabong before reaching the park, a 12-hour drive. The shortest way though is 571 kilometres running through Karuma to Gulu then Kitgum and finally Kidepo, an eight-hour drive.
You ought to see Murchison Falls
At the Murchison Falls, the mighty R. Nile explodes through a 6-metre gorge to form the most dramatic feature along its 6,650 kilometre journey. The river forces its way through rocks and falls 43 metres forming the hardest water fall in the world. The view from the top of the falls is a sight to behold as the onrushing water violently thunders and blows a fine mist high into the sky filled with dancing rainbows. The view from a boat below gives a sensational view of the majestic falls while surrounded by crocodiles, hippos and other game.
But Murchison Falls is Uganda’s biggest and oldest game park for a reason – there is so much to see on game drives.
You can enter the park through its southern gates from Masindi, which is 305 kilometres from Kampala or through Chobe, Wankwar and Tangi gates which can be reached from Kampala – Pakwach Road via Karuma Falls, a 260 kilometre distance.
In the southwest of Uganda between Kabale and Kisoro towns near the border with Rwanda lies one of the deepest lakes in Africa.
Lake Bunyonyi is Uganda’s deepest lake at 2950+ feet (900+ metres) deep.
The landscape around the lake is indicative of its depth with steep slopes covered with lush green vegetation protruding from the water’s edge.
Bunyonyi means “place of many little birds” and as the name suggests, there is plenty of bird life around here. The lake also plays host to freshwater crayfish, one of the few places in Uganda they can be found.
With many resorts on the lake shores and on many islands in the lake there are plenty of spots to enjoy this lake from. Bunyonyi is proof that not all islands need beaches to thrill.
It is popular with both foreign and domestic tourists and there is a wide variety of tourist accommodation.
See caldera on Mt Elgon
Straddling the Kenyan border east of Mbale town in eastern Uganda, Mt. Elgon is the eighth-highest mountain in Africa and it rises from the broadest base of any free-standing mountain in the world.
Elgon’s tallest peaks form a jagged circle around the more-or-less-intact caldera, which has a diameter of about 8 kilometres( making it one of the largest in the world). You can also visit the many caves within the park.
You can easily access Mt. Elgon through Mbale town, which lies approximately 245 kilometres northeast of the capital.
Meanwhile, while in the region don’t forget to go check out the stunning Sipi Falls, which is earning a reputation for its uninhibited views of the crashing falls.