8 MUST-DO WILD EXPERIENCES IN UGANDA
If you follow me on social media (which you’re welcome to do if you don’t already ~ Instagram | Facebook | Twitter, holler at me) then you know Uganda is one of my favorite places on Earth. It was here that I climbed my first mountain, went on my first hot air balloon ride, and, of course, had some of my most memorable wildlife experiences.
Not only does Uganda boast some of Africa’s most spectacular natural wonders, like the source of the Nile, but it’s also home to some of the continent’s most incredible species. From rare and endangered great apes to tree climbing lions, Uganda is nothing short of a wildlife lover’s paradise.
Its 10 national parks offer some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in East Africa — without the tourism traffic of some of its more popular neighbors. Its landscapes are among Africa’s most diverse, its people are warm and welcoming… I could go on and on. Let’s just say that Winston Churchill didn’t dub Uganda the “Pearl of Africa” for nothin’.
The last thing I’ll add is that both times I traveled to Uganda I did so as a solo female traveler, and both times I felt as safe as I have anywhere else in Africa — or any other continent for that matter. (For my tips on how to stay safe as solo traveler check out THIS post.)
Now without any further adieu, here’s Mar Gone Wild’s list of 8 Must-Do Wild Experiences in Uganda.
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1.) GO ON A CLASSIC SAFARI IN QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK
No trip to Uganda would be complete without going on a classic safari in the country’s most popular national park. Located in Uganda’s southwest region, Queen Elizabeth National park is a definite must-see, and doing a classic safari here is a definite must-do.
Commonly referred to as a “game drive”, a safari is basically just that — driving around looking for game (wild animals). But what makes a classic safari so classic is the experience in its entirety.
When it comes to morning game drives it’s all about loading into the safari vehicle before the sun comes up, wrapping yourself in a warm blanket, and catching the day’s first glimpse of wildlife. There’s always plenty of coffee, tea, and biscuits to go around… and if you really do it right, a bush breakfast waiting for you after. Afternoon game drives are essentially the same, except they usually end in a sunset cocktail know as “sundowner”.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to more than 95 mammal species, including 4 of the Big 5 (rhino can’t be found in the wild in Uganda, but skip to #6 on this list to see where you can get up close with them in the country). You can also find 10 different primate species in the park (including chimpanzees) and over 600 bird species.
If you’re lucky you may even spot one of Uganda’s most prized animals — tree climbing lions (which can be found in the park’s southern Ishasha sector).
Be sure to visit the famous Kazinga Channel that runs through Queen Elizebeth National Park. Here you can go from classic safari to boat safari for a whole different kind of wildlife viewing experience.
When I visited I was lucky enough to be hosted by Mweya Safari Lodge, located in the heart of Queen Elizabeth National Park. They arranged all my game drives (including an amazing bush breakfast), my Kazinga Channel boat safari, as well as an incredible hot air ballon safari over Queen Elizebeth National Park.
2.) GO MOUNTAIN GORILLA TREKKING
With less than 1000 mountain gorillas left in the wild, and Uganda being one of only three countries where you can find them, let’s just say this is one experience you shouldn’t miss (if your budget allows it).
It’s important I mention that gorilla trekking is not cheap. As of January 2018, Uganda’s gorilla trekking permits cost $600 a day (and $450 a day during the low season month of November. But if you’re able to swing it I can’t recommend this once-in-a-lifetime experience enough.
To see Uganda’s mountain gorillas you can visit Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (in the country’s southwest region) and/or head further south to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (bordering Rwanda).
I won’t go into any more detail for this must-do since I dedicated an entire in-depth post to it: Gorilla Trekking in Uganda (And Why It Should Be On Your Bucket List). It includes where I stayed, what to expect, tons of photos, and a fun lil’ travel video documenting my gorilla trekking experience.
Well we know there are gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP), obv, but there’s also plenty of other wildlife to see in these montane forests.
Bwindi is home to eleven different primate species, including chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus monkeys, and L’Hoest’s monkeys. Here you can also spot forest elephants and try your hand at identifying its more than 200 butterfly species (42 of which are endemic to the region, meaning you can’t find them anywhere else).
For all you birders out there Bwindi is also home to more than 350 bird species (23 of which are endemic). Highlights include Shelley’s crimson wing, Chapin’s flycatcher, northern double collared sunbird and Grauer’s broadbill (one of the most sought-after birds in Uganda).
Many of the abovementioned species can also be found in MGNP. In addition, MGNP visitors can track adorable golden monkeys (which are endemic to the region), and maybe even spot elusive species like the side-stripped jackal, giant tree frog and bushpig.
If you make it to one of these parks be sure to set aside time to take in the local culture. One of my favorite parts of my gorilla trekking experience was meeting some of the region’s indegenous peoples. I even got a nice little buzz going thanks to some homemade jungle juice! (If given the same opportunity just be sure to do so with a knowledgeable and trusted guide, and of course drink responsibly).
Boozy fun aside, I can’t stress enough how important it is to support the local communities living in wildlife-rich regions, both financially (through things like buying souvenirs directly from them, dining at their establishments, etc.) as well as culturally. Taking the time to connect with the local community will open up a whole new understanding of the ecotourism-community relationship, and in turn helps us become more informed, responsible tourists. [End speech] 🙂
3.) HIKE THE RWENZORI MOUNTAINS
Known as the Mountains of the Moon, the Rwenzori Mountains are undoubtedly one of Uganda’s most stunning natural wonders. The best way I can describe this part of the country is to say it’s like The Jungle Book meets a Tim Burton movie meets the North Pole.
Consisting of 5 different vegetation zones and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, the Rwenzori Mountains are home to Africa’s third-highest mountain — Mount Stanley.
Mount Stanley, also referred to as Mount Ngaliéma, boasts Uganda’s two highest peaks: Margherita (16,762 feet / 5,109 meters) and Alexandra (16,703 / 5,091 meters), both of which adventure-seeking travelers can attempt to summit.
When visiting I decided to go big and attempt the 7-day mountaineering adventure to Stanley’s Margherita Peak with Rwenzori Mountaineering Services. (Click THE GRAM tab below to see some Instagram highlights from my Margherita adventure.)
If you’re not keen on the idea of doing the Rwenzoris in such an extreme way don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways to take in their insanely unique beauty. From shorter (still adventurous) 3-day treks to single-day forest hikes along the Munyamubuli River, there are plenty of ways to experience this unspoiled wilderness.
Instead of WILDLIFE HIGHLIGHTS it might be more appropriate to label this subsection BIODIVERSITY HIGHLIGHTS.
As mentioned, 5 different vegetation zones can be found in the Rwenzori Mountains, including: grassland (1000-2000m), montante forest (2,000-3,000), a bamboo/mimulopsis zone (2,500-3000m), a heather/rapanea zone (3000-4,000 m) and an Alpine zone (4,000-5,000 m).
This unique stratification makes for incredibly scenic diversity that changes (in extreme ways) as you make your way through different elevations. Some of the mountains’ most striking plants can be found above the 3000-meter mark, such as the region’s giant lobelias and giant groundsels.
While I personally didn’t see too much animal life during my 7-day trek, the mountains are home to several endangered and endemic species. Notable species include the Rwenzori duiker, Rwenzori/Kivu climbing mouse, Uganda clawed frog, the Rwenzori Turaco, Bamboo Warbler, Golden-winged Sunbird, Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbird and Stuhlmann’s Double-collared Olive-back.
For all you birders out there, these mountains are also considered an Important Bird Area (IBA).
If you do decide to take on one of the Rwenzori’s highest peaks be sure to plan well in advance, as coordinating, preparing and properly packing for such an adventure will be more arduous than the other must-do’s on this list.
Lastly, try to book your Rwenzori hike between June and August or December and February.
If you’re looking for a place to rest-up and/or rejuvenate definitely check out GeoLodges’ Equator Snow Lodge. I was lucky enough to be hosted here before and after my trek and it was exactly what I needed pre and post-summit.
4.) DO A CHIMPANZEE HABITUATION EXPERIENCE
Gorilla trekking may be the most popular primate experiences in Uganda, but it might not be in every traveler’s budget. But fret not budget travelers, because Uganda offers two other, more affordable great ape experiences: chimpanzee trekking and the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience.
Similar to gorilla trekking, chimpanzee trekking allows you to be in the presence of our wild ape cousins for about an hour, but at a fraction of the price — $150.
And for an additional $70 (a total of $220) you can partake in a much more immersive and intimate primate experience that lasts the entire day. This less talked about but insanely one-of-a-kind experience is known as the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience. Essentially, this experience entails getting wild chimpanzees used to the presence of humans — a process known as habituation.
Instead of getting just an hour with the chimps, the chimpanzee habituation experience allows tourists to spend up to 10 hours observing, documenting and learning about them in their wild habitat. While the long-day may not be everyone’s cup of tea, for anyone looking to have a really unique and educational wildlife experience — this is definitely it.
There are two places in Uganda where you can do a Chimpanzee Habituation Experience — Budongo Forest in Murchison Falls National Park (located in the country’s northwest) and Kibale National Park in the country’s south.
Years ago tourists had about a 20% chance of seeing chimpanzees in the wild. But today, thanks to the habituation process, that chance has increased to over 90%! So if you do decide to add this wild adventure to your itinerary there’s a pretty solid chance of having an epic chimpanzee encounter.
Uganda’s total chimpanzee population is estimated to be more than 4,950 individuals. Of the two abovementioned parks, Kibale National Park has the larger chimpanzee population — with roughly 1500 individuals, while Budongo Forest’s chimp population is estimated to be between 600-700.
Kibale National Park is also known for having one of the densest and most diverse populations of primates in Africa. In addition to chimpanzees, the park is also home to 12 other primate species, including black-and-white colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, L’Hoest’s monkeys and blue monkeys. If you’re lucky you may even spot some nocturnal primates like potto, Demidov’s dwarf galago, and the eastern needle-clawed bushbaby.
If for some crazy reason Kibale’s abundant primate population doesn’t impress you, then perhaps its birdlife will. Approximately 350 bird species can be found in the park, including hornbills, warblers, starlings, flycatchers, thrushes, and plenty of parrots.
While the highlight of my Kibale experience was of course the chimpanzees, my night hike through the jungle was a very close second. Apparently my good friend Peter and I were good luck during our night hike because we saw two bushbabies — which we were told was super rare!
If you do find yourself in Kibale National Park be sure to look into a nighttime forest hike. You won’t regret it.
When visiting Kibale National Park I stayed at Primate Lodge Kibale. What I loved about this eco-accommodation is that it emphasized sustainable tourism.
The lodge was constructed using local materials and makes use of solar-powered electricity. In addition, Primate Lodge Kibale contributes to the livelihood of the surrounding community by employing locals and buying from local suppliers.
5.) DO A NILE RIVER SAFARI IN MURCHISON FALLS NATIONAL PARK
Yes, I’m referring to THE Nile River. And one of the best places to marvel at its beauty is in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park.
The star of the show is actually Murchison Falls itself, the park’s more than 140 ft. tall waterfall located at the head of the Fajao Gorge. It is here you can witness the entirety of the Nile force its way through a mere 23-ish ft. gap — putting on one of the most spectacular displays of Mother Nature.
But while Murchison Falls may be the park’s most prized feature, it’s actually getting to it that makes this wild adventure a definite must-do in Uganda. The wildlife viewing en-route to the park’s main attraction is some of the country’s best. And the fact that it all goes down while you’re cruising on the Nile River, well… let’s just say it’s pretty epic.
There are plenty of local operators to choose from — offering everything from double-decker boat safaris to private cruises, with most lasting between 2-4 hours.
For my Nile River boat safari to Murchison Falls I opted for a semi-private excursion with Wild Frontiers Uganda Safaris.
Murchison Falls National Park is home to everything from big game to forest primates, and everything in between. On your Nile River cruise expect to see elephants and Rothschild’s giraffe hanging out along the river banks, as well as pods of hippos and plenty of crocodiles wading in the water.
Rare birds like the insanely cool shoebill (aka whalehead bird, aka shoe-billed stork) can also be spotted on your way to Murchison Falls. So be sure to keep your eyes peeled.
Those looking to add even more adventure to their Nile River safari can hike to the top of Murchison Falls to get a bird’s-eye view of the chasm and all its wild glory.
And don’t forget to take advantage of everything else that Murchison Falls National Park has to offer, including its classic game drives and chimpanzee encounters in Budongo Forest (refer to #4 on this list for more info). For the full rundown, you can check out the park’s website HERE.
Accommodations situated along the river banks can be a bit pricey, but if you can swing it (even if just for a night) go for it! It really is magical to watch the sun begin and end its day while overlooking the Nile River.
If you’re looking for a bit of luxury then definitely check out Baker’s Lodge located on the Nile’s south bank. I was lucky enough to stay here during my visit to Murchison Falls in exchange for co-producing some digital media/marketing for their website. To give you a taste, here’s a promotional video showcasing the lodge and its offerings:
6.) GO RHINO TREKKING AT ZIWA RHINO SANCTUARY
Located about a 2.5-hour drive from Murchison Falls is Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary — home to the country’s only wild rhinos. The sanctuary is an integral part of Rhino Fund Uganda and Uganda Wildlife Authority’s Rhino Reintroduction Project, a breed-and-release program aimed at reintroducing rhinos back into Uganda’s national parks (where they went extinct in 1983).
Here visitors can take guided walking tours through Ziwa’s more than 17,297-acre sanctuary and get up-close with its rhinos (including some adorable babies). In addition to its signature Rhino Treks, Ziwa also offers Shoebill Treks, Canoe Rides, and Aardvarks and Pangolin Walks.
And for anyone looking to take their love of rhinos a step further, the sanctuary offers short and longterm volunteer opportunities through Rhino Fund Uganda. For more information check out their website HERE.
In 2005 Ziwa Rhino Santuary had just 6 southern white rhinos. Today, that number has almost quadruppled to 22! (Get to know each of them HERE.) But Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is home to more wildlife than just its horny inhabitants.
Other wildlife species that can found inside the sanctuary includes kobs, reedbucks, oribis, rich bucks, hippos, crocodiles, and more than 250 different bird species.
Rhino trekking at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is one must-do on this list that’s particularly close to my heart.
I spent 5 days at the sanctuary and fell in love with everything about it. From its conservation mission to all the people who help make the project possible, it really is a beautifully done example of conservation.
Angie Genade, who runs the sanctuary, is one of the most passionate conservationists I’ve ever had the honor of meeting. So if you get the opportunity to visit be sure to meet her (and tell her I said hello). She’s truly a conservation #Legend.
The coolest part of Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is you that can actually stay overnight (or two, or three, or more).
If you do decide to have a rhino sleepover, be sure to check out Amuka Lodge located inside the sanctuary. It’s the perfect lil’ weekend getaway spot and run by Angie and her family.
7.) STAY OVERNIGHT AT NGAMBA ISLAND CHIMPANZEE SANCTUARY
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary was originally started in 1997 as a safe haven for rescued chimps. Today, the island sanctuary has developed into one of Uganda’s most unique ecotourism experiences.
Located in the middle of the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, Lake Victoria, Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary welcomes day visitors and overnight guests interested in observing and interacting with chimps in an educational way.
But wait. . . there’s more.
In addition to things like chimp walks, chimpanzee viewing and feeding, and caregiver for a day, Ngamba also offers activities like fishing, sunset wine cruises, kayaking and swimming at the equator.
Travelers looking to treat themselves to a relaxing island staycation can also book a night (or more) in one the island’s 4 East African-style luxury tents overlooking the lake. For more information about Ngamba Island’s tours packages click HERE.
Last but not least, the sanctuary also offers long stay volunteer opportunities for anyone interested in getting hands-on experience in primate conservation. (For more information click HERE.)
For anyone interested in learning more about Ngamba’s conservation initiatives and community-based projects check out my Film ~ Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
The 98-acre island sanctuary is currently home to 49 orphaned and rescued chimpanzees. Plenty of other wildlife can also be found at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, including monitor lizards and over 120 bird species.
But the coolest non-primate sighting has got to be Ngamba’s fruit bats. Every evening more than 50,000 of them take to the sky to put on one of the best post-sunset shows around. So if you make it to the island be sure not to miss it.
Another must-do at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is visit the neighboring fishing villages. If you take the time to visit the neighboring communities be sure to take some Ugandan shillings with you.
During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet some talented women who were hand-making beautiful jewelry with beads made from recycled paper. And I’m so glad I had cash on me to purchase some.
To this day, one of the necklaces I bought is my most complimented keepsake. (To see some photos click THE GRAM tab below.)
8.) GO BEHIND-THE-SCENES AT UGANDA WILDLIFE EDUCATION CENTER
Okay, so the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC) is technically Uganda’s official zoo. But let me tell ya, UWEC is not your typical zoo. Here, visitors can get the most incredible hands-on experience (in a safe, educational and conservation-focused setting) with some of Uganda’s coolest wildlife ambassadors.
Ever dreamt of being a zookeeper for a day?
How about feeding a giraffe or playing with chimpanzees?
If so, you can do all those things here — and it all goes towards supporting wildlife conservation and education.
To help paint the picture (and because I couldn’t write it any better myself) here’s how UWEC puts it:
Wild animals have been kept in captivity for thousands of years, as symbols of power or religious significance and many times as pets for those that have the love and fascination for animals.
However, what we now recognize is the need to use the animals in our care to inspire behavior-change and conservation-action, especially among the young people in our society. The transition from the traditional zoo to the Education Centre came with the demands for a complex operation:
– A move from simply displaying animal collections to utilizing them for education as a response to a growing realization of the decline in wildlife population.
– The exploration of new avenues to help conserve wild animals and their habitats fulfill a number of roles. Some of the species which we keep at UWEC are already extinct in the wild and would have disappeared completely without captive environment.
These animals have not only an educational role, they are ambassadors for their species! Through visiting the facility, one makes a direct contribution to the daily operation as well as enabling the Education Centre to undertake field conservation activities aimed at ensuring that the few wildlife is saved for the generations to come.
In addition to being a wildlife education center, UWEC is also a wildlife rescue center, a wildlife hospital, a wildlife rehabilitation facility, and endangered species breeding hub.
To learn more about the center’s conservation efforts, check out my short film Uganda Wildlife Education Center.
UWEC is like a window to Uganda’s wildlife. It’s home to primates, reptiles, big cats, birds and much more.
Visitors’ favorites include giraffe, leopard, lion, chimpanzee, pythons, cheetah, rhinos, and Charles the elephant.
When I visited UWEC I got to meet a handful of its wild residents during my behind-the-scenes experience (check out THE GRAM photos below). The major highlight for me was doing the Chimpanzee Close-Up. In fact, it’s my #1 most favorite wild experience on this entire list.
There is nothing like being in the presence of wildlife that is so much like us (more than 96%-like us if we’re being technical). But getting to interacting with them in the way that this experience allowed for took my obsession/fascination/respect for our ape relatives to a whole new level.
If you want to experience this truly once-in-lifetime interaction be sure to plan well in advance, as you’ll need to have a health clearance and up-to-date vaccines to participate in the Chimpanzee Close-Up. Just be sure to confirm everything with UWEC directly as restrictions may have changed since my visit.
Uganda Wildlife Education Center is just a short 15-min drive from Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport, making it an easy stopover for travelers en-route to other must-do wild experiences.
If you don’t want to rush your visit consider staying overnight in one of UWEC’s super cute ‘n’ cozy African-style cottages. (To browse lodging options and availability click HERE.)
So there you have it friends, Mar Gone Wild’s 8 Must-Do Wild Experiences in Uganda.
But before I officially sign off, I’d like to share a travel video I created after my first trip to Uganda. I hope it helps illustrate why I love this wild destination so much . . .
DIG IT? SHARE IT!
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