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.

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

 

Is it safe to track chimps in Uganda?

Chimpanzee trekking in Uganda gives you the opportunity to trek a forest and see up close chimpanzees in their natural home, without a barrier. This is a unique experience because chimps in many parts of the world are seen in zoos from a safe place behind a fence. So the idea of trekking the jungles to see wild chimps raises concerns as to whether it is safe?

Below I give some guide and assurance

The chimps are known to be wild and violent, won’t I be attacked during the chimpanzee tracking?

True, chimpanzees are some of the most violent creatures, no wander they are our closest relatives! They are also very powerful, that the strength of one grown chimp is said to be equal to the strength of five energetic human males. On the internet you can find many gruesome pictures of humans that have been attacked by chimps and these can worry you if you are planning to include chimpanzee tracking on your African safari.

However, you will be tracking habituated chimpanzees. Chimpanzee habituation is a long process taking several years where trained park personnel make frequent visits to the chimps till the time chimps realize these humans do not pose a threat to them and will stop running away or won’t attack them. The chimps see these park personnel as friendly since during the habituation they will carry some goodies such as bananas.

Make no mistake, the habituated chimps are still wild and can make an attack. However, as long as they see among the tourist group the park personnel who they regard as friends they will not become violent.

Once some tourists who didn’t want to pay for the chimpanzee tracking activity went into Budongo forest without the knowledge of the park authorities so they could track the chimps on their own. The tourists found the chimps but once the chimps didn’t see any familiar faces (park guides) among the tourists they became suspicious of the group, got agitated and started roughing up the tourists who fled for their lives while the chimps gave them a chase. It is was the park authorities that heard screaming tourists that run in to rescue them.

So, you will NOT be attacked by the chimps because you will be tracking a chimp community that has undergone habituation and you will be led by park guides who are known to the chimps and these park guides also know what to do in case the chimps become moody.

How about other dangerous animals in the forests?

Several other animals can be found in the forests, such as elephants, leopard, buffaloes, non-habituated chimps, etc… These are not habituated of course and can cause a danger if encountered at close quarter. However these are also quite shy and elusive and in most cases flee before you see them. However nothing is left to chance, so for each tourist group tracking the chimps there is an armed ranger who will shoot in the air to scare away any animal that may seem it could attack the group.

This 2 day Kibale chimpanzee trip and the 3 day Kibale chimpanzee tour are some of the best short trips to track chimps in Uganda.

Is it safe to track gorillas in Uganda

 

Below are some of the safety questions or concerns that tourists have when deciding to do the gorilla trekking in Uganda.

Won’t the gorillas attack me during the gorilla tracking?

The gorillas are wild animals and like other wild animals their natural instinct of survival is to attack or flee when they feel threatened by another species in their space. And indeed, gorillas being the strongest primate, that the strength of one grown male gorilla is said to be equal to the strength of about 8 energetic male humans, an attack from a gorilla would be fatal.

However, the possibility of being attacked by the gorillas during the watching are very minimal because the gorillas you will track are habituated. Habituation of the gorillas is the process of getting the gorillas to accept humans in their space without seeing them as threats. This is through continuous contact with the gorillas over a long period of time (more than 3 years) until the gorillas notice the humans mean no harm & will begin to feel relaxed in their presence. The habituation is done by trained park personnel.

When you track the gorillas you are in company of park guides who are known by the gorillas and who have been habituating the gorillas. These park guides are able to read the moods of these gorillas & know the characters of each gorilla and shall guide the tourists on how to carry themselves while with the gorillas and advise on what to do in certain situations. The guides also know the different vocalizations of the gorillas and will communicate with the gorillas to make them feel comfortable.

Also, importantly, the gorillas recognize the familiar faces of the park guides and thus will accept the rest of the tourist groups on seeing their ‘friends’ in the group.

Can I be attacked by other wild animals in the jungle during the trek?

There are other wild animals in the jungle other than the gorillas and of course these are not habituated. First of all, you can still find unhabituated gorillas who are aggressive and violent. Elephants, buffaloes, and leopards are plenty in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (which is the number one gorilla trekking destination in Uganda). However these animals are very hard to encounter because they are shy and naturally flee at the slightest sensing of humans approaching. In most cases you will see only foot prints or droppings, and if lucky may just catch a glimpse of them disappearing into the jungle.

However, an encounter cannot be ruled out completely and once in a while it occurs. So for protection you will be in company of an armed personnel whose first order is to shoot in the air to scare away an animal.

Are the jungles secure from wrong people?

This is a very valid question. Many years ago the jungles were a haven for wrong doers such as criminals hiding from justice, kidnappers, rebels, poachers, etc… In 1999 the most unfortunate of incidents happened and what is the darkest time in the history of gorilla tracking in Uganda, 8 tourists were attacked by rebels while on the trek in Bwindi forest and killed.

However, the jungles of Bwindi have since been pacified of all wrong elements. The armed forces continuously patrol the jungles. Most of the wrong elements sneaked in from the neighboring DR Congo but the Uganda army and security apparatus since established surveillance posts along the border and further created an intelligence & security buffer into the Congo to eliminate any potential threat.

So the jungle is safe and there has not been any incident of an attack on tourists tracking gorillas for the last so many years