Top 5 weekend getaways from Kampala

1 – Ssese islands

The Ssese Islands is the most popular getaway destination in Uganda. The Ssese is a collection of 84 islands located on Lake Victoria. Some islands of Ssese have been developed for tourism, with beautiful sandy beaches, cozy beach hotels, boat cruises, wildlife trails which visitors can take to and observe nature, and enjoy the best fish which you catch from the lake and roast in the evening. The best developed island is the main Bugala Island that has nice beautiful, the most popular being the Brovad Sands Beach Hotel, and a forest for nature walks to spot monkeys and other wildlife. Ssese Islands can be reached by a ferry from the shores at Entebbe to Bugala and it is a 3 – 4 hours

2 – Bulago Islands

Bulago Island is arguably the most beautiful island on Lake Victoria, and is also one of the most accessible from Kampala. It located about 2 hours boat ride from the shores at Ggaba Kampala. The Island has excellent beach hotels and the best beaches. Bulago is perfect weekend getaway more so for couples who just want some time to themselves away from the noisy city! Popular hotels include the Pineapple Bay Resort.

3 – Ngamba Island

Ngamba Island is a small forested island 100 acres is located in Lake Victoria, 45 minutes boat ride from shores in Entebbe. The island has a chimpanzee sanctuary with over 40 chimps, and is a popular spot for day visits to watch chimps for an hour. The island is also a wonderful place to retreat for a weekend and spend relaxing time on the shore of lake Victoria, watch birds, and can also participate in the caretaker programs. Nice accommodation is available

4 – Samuka islands – Jinja

Samuka Island is located in Lake Victoria, about 30 minutes boat ride from the Source of the Nile in Jinja. The island has nice accommodation facility, and is an ideal place to retreat for a weekend and enjoy the tranquility while you can enjoy boat cruises on Lake Victoria and visit to the source of the Nile. The island receives flocks of water birds.

5 – Mabira – Rainforest lodge

Mabira forest is the biggest forest in central Uganda. It is well situated along the Kampala – Jinja highway and can be reached within an hour’s drive from Kampala. A weekend spent at the Mabira Rainforest Lodge in the heart of the forest is a rewarding experience. Immerse in the tranquility and feel close to nature with the sweet songs of birds and chattering of monkeys and different noises of the forest. While in Mabira you can set out on walk in the forest and observe nature, glide through the forest canopy via the Zip line at the griffin falls!

Comparing Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park, which park will give you the best safari in Uganda?

For travelers that want to go on a short wildlife safari in Uganda, say 2 – 3 days, there are two primary choices of parks or destinations to choose from, they are; Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park. These two parks are the obvious choices if you want to explore the bush to watch wildlife but have just a weekend or a couple of days.

So, quite often travelers want to know which park they should visit for the best safari experience in Uganda.

Many of the animals most sought after by the safarigoers can be found in both parks such as lions, elephants, buffaloes, hippos, etc… Both parks have many similar activities ranging such as game drives, boat cruises and chimpanzee tracking, etc…

In this blog I compare Murchison falls and queen Elizabeth national parks, and highlight where they differ and which one may give you what you are looking for in the safari.

Murchison Falls National Park vs Queen Elizabeth National Park

Game drives

Most travelers have found Murchison Falls national park to give a better game drive experience than Queen Elizabeth national park. The game drive session in Murchison Falls lasts up to 4 hours due to longer game drive tracks hence you will most likely spot more types of animals in a morning game drive session. It is also easier to find most animals in Murchison Falls National Park, because, the park is divided by the River Nile into the north and south parts, with the north having the savannah grasslands and therefore hosting higher concentration of animals. Game drivers are therefore done in the northern part of the park.

Nubian giraffe in Murchison Falls NP

Meanwhile game drives in the game watching area of Queen Elizabeth National Park called Kasenyi plains last about 3 hours and you will have exhausted all the possible sightings there. Drive tracks are still limited in the park otherwise the park is quite rich and diverse.

Elephants in Queen Elizabeth NP

The iconic Nubian giraffes (formerly Rothschild’s giraffe) are probably best spotted in Murchison Falls National Park in the entire world. There are no giraffes in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Hence if you want to spot these elegant animals as a top priority then Murchison Falls is the park to go.

Elephants are present in both parks, however on a lucky day Queen Elizabeth National Park can provide incredible sightings of big herds and massive tuskers.

Lions and other cats – which park provides the best chances of seeing lions, leopards, hyenas.

The lion has earned the reputation of the “king of the jungle” and therefore a safari feels almost incomplete without spotting a lion

One of the reasons travelers decide to include both Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Park in their itineraries is to increase the chances of spotting Lions, and may be other big cats like the leopard and hyena. However, what if you can only visit one park, which park will give you the best chances of spotting the lions??

Tree climbing lion in Ishasha Queen Elizabeth NP

This is a tricky question because lions and generally cats are very unpredictable in the wild because of their small numbers and wide territories. There is no guarantee seeing them, because nature is nature… Today you can be lucky and find a big pride of lions in the open near the game drive trucks, and tomorrow they could be in a thicket a few meters from the drive track but you can’t see them.

So, lets say chances of seeing lions in either parks is about the same.

However, Queen Elizabeth National Park is famous for the tree climbing lions found in its remote part called Ishasha. You would need an extra day to go up to Ishasha to look for the tree climbing lions which are often seen in the morning hours relaxing in fig trees after the morning hunt. Chances of seeing these lions too are 50/50, so there’s not guarantee.

For guaranteed sighting of lions, Queen Elizabeth National Park has a lion tracking activity where you join a researcher and track lions under study that are fitted with tracking collars. If you do not want to miss the lions, then book this activity to see the lions.

Murchison Falls National Park is found to give better chances of sighting the leopard, which is perhaps the most elusive big cat.

Meanwhile Queen Elizabeth National Park is hyena country, if you don’t see them during the day your night in the park will filled their ‘wailing’ calls.

The boat cruises – Nile boat safari vs Kazinga Channel boat safari

Both Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park have a boat safari activity, a unique highlight of wildlife safaris you cannot find in many safari destinations in Africa. The boat safaris in the parks give great sightings of water wildlife such as hippos & crocodiles as well as up close views of other big game that come to drink and cool off, such close views you cannot easily get on a game drive.

The round boat trip on River Nile in Murchison Falls National Park is longer lasting up to 3 hours, and a variety of wildlife is spotted along the river and the banks, however the biggest highlight is perhaps going to the bottom of the spectacular Murchison Falls, the world’s biggest waterfall. You can also continue off the boat and take the incredible hike to the of the Murchison Falls which starts from the bottom of the falls, giving you incredible views of the waterfall as you hike along it to the top.

View of Murchison Falls from the boat

The boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel is shorter, the round trip lasting up to 2 hours. However the channels flat banks host a higher concentration of wildlife than the Nile banks which has lots of high cliffs. Other than hippos and crocodiles, buffaloes, elephants, and antelopes are sight on several spots along the channel banks. And for the bird lover, the Kazinga Channel is simply a heaven as hug flocks of water birds, especially wintering birds gather at the channel banks creating such a spectacle of birds.

Scenery

While I can say, Murchison Falls National Park will give you a bigger checklist of animals spotted, Queen Elizabeth National Park makes up with an unrivalled scenery! Queen Elizabeth National Park is located on the edge of the Albertine Rift valley that is a geographical marvel, having a breathtaking landscape of rolling hills and valleys dotted with a series of crater lakes. If you want a safari beyond seeing many animals, then I can say Queen Elizabeth National Park will give you a memorable experience.

Chimp trekking – which park will give you better chimp experience

Chimpanzee trekking is one of the top things to do in Uganda and in case you wish to squeeze this thrilling adventure into your short safari know that both Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park are home to chimps that have been habituated for the experience.

Which would be the best park to combine a big game safari and chimp trek?

Murchison Falls National Park is the best choice for a wildlife safari and chimp trekking. Murchison Falls boundary extends into Budongo forest the biggest forest in East Africa and is home to the second biggest population of chimps in Uganda after Kibale Forest National Park. A troop of more than 100 chimps at Kaniyo Pabidi within Murchison Falls was habituated and offers one of the best chimp tracking experiences in Uganda.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to a small population of chimps in Kyambura Gorge forest. Kyambura does not provide good chances of seeing the chimps (50/50), however this unique forest is located in a gorge and is popularly referred to as an underground forest. The trek in the gorge provides one of the most exhilarating forest walks you will ever have. You take in the amazing scenery and a chance to encounter some rare wildlife such as the giant forest hogs. For better chances of seeing chimps when you visit Queen Elizabeth National Park you can do the chimp tracking in Kalinzu Forest which is located less than an hour’s drive from the park. Kalinzu forest has more chimps than Kyambura and gives way higher chances of seeing chimps.

Extra activities you can do – which park will give you a chance to explore more activities in and near the park?

The most popular extra activity to combine with a safari to Murchison Falls National Park is the rhino tracking at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary which is situated along the way to the park. If you dream of ticking off all famous “big five”, a stop over at the sanctuary will give you the first big five and you will look forward to tick off the leopard, lion, buffalo, and elephant in Murchison Falls.

On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth National Park is great for community and hiking activities. Queen Elizabeth National Park is a biosphere with parts of the park shared between wildlife and humans living in harmony. You can visit a community to experience they traditions and lifestyle, visit a fishing community, salt mining community, etc… The park is also located in the shadows of the Rwenzori mountains that you can visit for a day hike as an extra to your wildlife safari.

Is Uganda safe for tourists?

Is Uganda safe? This is one of the most crucial questions that finally determines whether a tourist will have Uganda in his or her African safari vacation, included mostly for the famous gorilla tracking adventures and chimpanzee trekking experiences in the beautiful jungles.

Very many tourists do not believe Uganda is safe and do not bother to include it on their itineraries (opting for Rwanda gorillas if gorilla trekking was the reason for thinking of visiting Uganda). While, many other tourists are not sure but are overcome by the adventure bug and the curiosity to discover this country referred to as the Pearl of Africa, and so they simply take a leap of faith hoping they will be safe.

Uganda is a big recipient of bad publicity and this is largely due to the huge media freedom which perhaps you cannot find in other African countries. So, each and every misfortunate (faced by almost every country) of Uganda finds itself out there, thereby painting a picture of a country that is not safe.

Uganda is also not helped by her location in a region marred by conflicts and epidemics. Whatever happens in the Congo and South Sudan, discourages many tourists from visiting Uganda who do not think Uganda is any safe.

In this blog I will enlighten you on the safety and security situation of Uganda and how to keep safe when you are a tourist in Uganda

Again, is Uganda safe for tourists?

The answer is Yes, Uganda is safe for tourists. To put it into perspective, more than one million tourists visit Uganda each year and this number is increasing exponentially as more people discover that Uganda is in fact very safe. Uganda for long has larked in the shadow of its tumultuous past of civil wars and bad leaders, so much that many people still believe the dictator Idi Amin is still the president of Uganda, a man that died decades ago.

For more than 15 years now Uganda has enjoyed peace with no war going on in her land. President Museveni’s government has built a formidable military that has effectively protected the country from insecurity both from within and without.

What are the concerning security and safety situations to look out for and how to stay safe in Uganda?

Petty crimes

Petty crimes including pickpocketing, car break-ins, phone snatching and mugging would be your biggest safety concern in Uganda. But these are more rampant in the bustling cities, more so in the capital Kampala City in congested spaces of the city and in the ghettos.

This calls for maximum vigilance.

Observe the following as SOPs to safeguard against petty crimes;

  • Do not use your phone while in the congested place within the city. Smartphone are the most targeted items by petty thieves in Uganda as they are easy to sell off.
  • Do not leave your phone unattended to, if not using it put it in your pocket.
  • Always have your window glasses up when driving through the city or simply do not use your phone or have any easy to pick valuables near an open window
  • Ensure your car doors are locked when traveling
  • Do not display a lot of money in public
  • Do not expose your wallet or money purse, keep it hidden as much as possible. A pocket with a zipper would be the ideal.
  • Do not keep valuables such as phone, money, camera, passport, etc… in the car
  • Do not leave money, passports and devices such as phone and camera in your hotel room when going out. If there is a safe in the room keep the valuables you can’t carry with you in a safe
  • Avoid walking alone in the night

Road accidents

Road accidents is perhaps the number one threat to a tourist’s life in Uganda. Uganda has one of the highest rates of accidents in Africa. Lack of discipline by road users, poor roads, and poor cars are some of the factors causing accidents.

  • Ensure you are driven by a professional tourist driver and that he or she must follow the traffic rules.
  • Ensure you are driving or being driven in car without any mechanical problems. Car should be properly serviced. In fact I encourage you to use the 4X4 tourist vehicles.
  • Avoid traveling on the motorcycle taxis popularly called “boda boda”. They are the most reckless of road users and account for most road accidents in the cities.
  • When crossing a busy road in the city, please take enormous care and especially look out for the reckless “boda boda” motorcycle taxis who don’t follow any traffic rules. They will come from any direction of the road even on a one-way traffic street.

Political unrest and riots

Elections in Uganda are an intense affair that often sees riots and clashes between opposition and the government forces, especially in the cities and towns. There is a level of lawlessness during this time and often lives and property are lost. This is however a short period. Tourists are never targeted, however some individuals could take advantage of the confusion to carry out robberies. When planning your trip perhaps you can avoid the presidential elections time. Otherwise, if you come during this time be vigilant and avoid any areas with political rallies and processions. Avoid the cities all together.

Kidnaping tourists

Kidnapping tourists for ransom had never happened in Uganda until the April of 2019 when two tourists were kidnapped while out in the bush in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The tourists were never harmed and were released after negotiations and ransom was paid to the kidnappers. Queen Elizabeth National Park borders the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a hotspot of insurgencies and lawlessness. The kidnapers indeed originated from the D.R. Congo. The government has since reinforced security along the border with DR Congo and within the park.

This kidnap of tourists in Uganda can be treated as a one-off incidence that cannot easily happen again, so you should not be worried about being kidnapped while in Uganda.

Joseph Kony

Joseph Kony is a notorious rebel leader whose rebel outfit (LRA) terrorized northern Uganda for years. He was eventually flushed out of Uganda and pursued till he posed no threat to Uganda. Some tourists do still believe Kony is still in Uganda causing mayhem, however this is not true.

Be assured there is no threat of Joseph Kony in Uganda anymore!!

Regions or areas of safety concern

North eastern Uganda – Karimojong cattle rustling corridor

Home to the Kidepo Valley National Park and other remarkable wildlife reserves, this is the remotest of Uganda’s regions that was for long off the tourist circuit because of the insecurity. The insecurity was due to the cattle rustling tradition practiced by the cattle keeping tribes of this region. This region is home to the famous Karimojong people as one of the local tribes in the area. Tribes in this region had been practicing cattle rustling which is a tradition of stealing cows from each. The communities throughout the region were heavily armed with guns for cattle rustling and protection from cattle rustling. The region was basically inaccessible unless if one went with a military convoy as everyone would be targeted. Operations were undertaken by the government to disarm the region and for more than 6 years now one can travel to the region and enjoy the magnificent landscape and rare wildlife.

However, once in a while cattle rustling clashes between communities are reported. They are promptly taken care of by the military. It is therefore advised to find out the situation in the region before traveling there.

Kasese near the Congo border

Kasese is home to Queen Elizabeth National Park and the Rwenzori mountains national park. The areas near the Congolese border, especially in the remote Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park can be of concern (this is where kidnap of tourists happened in 2019). There are frequent patrols by the army. However to avoid any surprises if you will be taking long watching animals in the bush, take an armed ranger guide provided by the park.

Kampala slums

Kampala slums harbor thugs, only venture there when you are in a group and better take a police escort for guaranteed security.

Is Rwanda safe for tourists?

One of the biggest concerns for tourists planning to travel to Africa, more so to Sub-Saharan Africa, is safety or security. Rwanda is located in the central Africa a region known for insecurity so it is understandable when one is concerned before booking that gorilla trekking trip, or a safari to meet the chimpanzees and walk in the canopy of Nyungwe forest, an ancient forest said to have existed since the ice age.

This blog will enlighten you on how safe Rwanda is and how to keep safe in Rwanda

Rwanda, by far is the most secure and safest country in Africa….

Due to her tumultuous past and location in a volatile region, Rwanda has invested heavily in her security systems. Rwanda has one of the most effective militaries in Africa that has ensured insurgencies in the region never spill over into her land, and a police force so professional that ensures everyone in Rwanda is safe and none is above the law!

I don’t know any cities in Africa where you can comfortably walk on a street at night while using your smartphone and not lose it within minutes, it is possible only in Rwanda’s capital Kigali City and in all other towns in Rwanda. Here you walk any street or alley without having to constantly look over your shoulders worrying about getting mugged like it is in most African cities and towns.

The clean and very tidy streets all across the country are well lit and with security cameras.

A few safety concerns and how to keep safe in Rwanda

There is no perfect society, keep this in mind when you visit Rwanda because it is not heaven 😊

Though at very low levels, there are petty crimes such as; pickpocketing, phone snatching, car break-ins

Take the following precautions to avoid any surprises:

  • Do not leave money, passports and devices like phones in your hotel room. If there is a safe keep those that you cannot carry with you in a safe
  • Do not display money in public or show off how you got a lot of money in public
  • Do not leave valuables in the car
  • Ensure the door to your hotel room is locked when you go to bed
  • Do not leave your smartphone unattended to on a table or charging spot. Keep it in your pocket if not in use.
  • Do not give away your email. Some locals will approach you and request for your email to send you soliciting emails.

I need to stress that no one is above the law and you can’t offer a bribe and get away like in most African countries. If you break any law you will be charged without any favor.

Respect the traditions and cultures

Some of things not to do while in Rwanda to keep within the law and respect the local traditions:

  • Do not liter! Rwanda is probably the cleanest country in Africa because effort has been put into enforcing laws against littering. A culture of cleanliness has been developed through communal cleaning activities every last Saturday of the month.
  • Obey traffic rules to the hilt! If you will be driving, the easiest laws to break are the traffic laws such as driving above the speed limit. Ensure you or your driver respect the speed limit and other road/traffic laws
  • The genocide is still fresh in the memories of many adult Rwandans. Please avoid starting a conversation about the genocide with just about anyone because it is very sensitive topic.
  • Rwandan women are some of the most respected and protected in Africa. Disrespecting a Rwandan woman may be one of the quickest ways to earn you jail time in Rwanda. If you are man, avoid bad touches, vulgar conversations etc…
  • Do not take pictures of military sites, government buildings and border crossing points. It is totally prohibited. I need to stress, do not take pictures of any military installation, you will be detained promptly.

What is the cost of a gorilla tour in Uganda?

Gorilla trekking is number one in the top things to do in Uganda. Many tourists visiting Africa for safaris will include a detour to Uganda for just the gorilla trek. Many however are put off by the cost of a gorilla trip in Uganda and do not know what really makes the trip expensive.

Below I will guide on the costs involved in a gorilla trip, and how one can, may be, get a cheap gorilla tour in Uganda.

Gorilla tracking permits

The gorilla trekking permit or pass or ticket, is the most important item of the gorilla trip. It is also a significant cost of the trip.

The price of the gorilla permit in Uganda is USD 700 for international tourists visiting Uganda. The price is different for the locals, and foreign east African residents.

The price of the gorilla permit does not change.

When booking a gorilla trip ensure that your gorilla permit has been purchased at the time of booking because the permits are limited and sell out quite fast. A maximum of 8 persons can track a gorilla family in a day, and there are only about 15 habituated gorilla families.

Note that the Uganda gorilla permit is way cheaper compared to the Rwanda gorilla trekking permit which is USD 1500. But there are also advantages of tracking gorillas in Rwanda vs Uganda and you can read this article where I compare gorilla trekking in Uganda vs Rwanda.

Accommodation and meals

The gorilla parks Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are located far from Kampala and Entebbe which are normally the starting points for a gorilla trip in Uganda. The journey by road is about 8hours drive.

That means you can not visit the gorillas in one day.

You need to overnight near the park before the gorilla trek, and then also after gorilla trekking because you may return from the park in the late afternoon and you can’t drive back to Kampala or Entebbe immediately.

In short, you need at least 2 nights of accommodation near the park.

Accommodation is a varying cost as there are different types of lodging/hotels ranging; basic camping, budget, midrange and luxury lodges. So you choose accommodation depending on your budget and the level of comfort that you need.

An overview of the pricing of the different accommodation types:

Budget cost between USD70 – USD150

Midrange cost between USD250 – USD400

Luxury cost USD600+

Transportation to gorillas

The distance from Kampala or Entebbe to the parks is more than 500km so obviously you need transportation.

You can travel by air or by road using a car.

Traveling by air is more costly with a return ticket by Aerolink costing close to 500USD (USD 472 for 2021 – 2022)

Most trips are by road with a car. Most of the road is smooth tarmac/paved but the feeder roads to the parks and within the parks are untarmacked/unpaved and rough so needing a four-wheel car.

We use two types of cars, the tour vans and the bigger customized safari land cruisers. Both are four-wheel drive, but during the long rainy season from Mar to May, a land cruiser may be preferred because the roads become so slippery and a much more stable car like the safari land cruiser is a better choice.

The tour vans cost about 70USD per day. While the land cruisers cost 150 USD per day.

Fuel consumed is about 200 USD

The tour driver is paid about 60 USD per day.

Porters

For your gorilla trek you can take a porter which I highly recommend because the time taken to find the gorillas is unpredictable & the terrain is quite rugged and mountainous, so it can be very tiring and challenging if for the seasoned hikers. The porter is very helpful in carrying your daypack and provide a push or pull where needed during the trek.

The porters are hired at $15

Taking a porter is also one way of directly supporting the locals.

Tipping

Tipping is not compulsory, however recommended as one of the ways to directly put some money in the pockets of the locals.

You expect to tip the following people and the amount I can recommend. You can always tip more or less.

Tour driver ($15 – $20 per day), park guide ($15), porter ($10), about 2 lodge waiter/waitresses ($5 – $10)

Souvenirs

You can support the local artisans by purchasing some of their items. Items include printed t-shirts, small wooden curvings of gorillas, crafted trekking sticks, etc… The items cost from $15 to $30

Items Cost
Gorilla tracking permit
Tour car *multiply by number of days
Fuel
Tour driver *multiply by number of days
Hotel on full board *multiply by number of nights
Porter
Tips
Souvenirs