Uganda: Africa’s Extraordinary, Underrated Safari Destination

Why Uganda?

This trip started with a ticket credit on Qatar Airways that was about to expire. I looked at the airline’s route map and Entebbe, Uganda jumped out at me. Uganda would be a new country for me (my 99th) and I’ve seen a lot of friends posting about gorilla trekking, which seemed like one of those extraordinary experiences to have someday. Why not now?

Uganda safari - Mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

I posted on Facebook that I was thinking about heading to Uganda and three friends said they wanted to come along. Working with our schedules, and that of Uganda Safari Company, we selected a week in mid-July that worked for everyone. July’s the peak month for travel to Uganda, as it’s the dry season, so we were lucky to be able to get the lodges and permits we wanted.

So many elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park!
Elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park

How to Get to Uganda

I was traveling from LA, as was another friend. The others were coming from Seattle and Vancouver. I arrived at LAX several hours early because of all of the hassles with flying right now, parking at The Parking Spot Sepulveda (free with points!) and taking their shuttle to the Tom Bradley International Terminal. My Seattle friend flew down to LA to take the same Qatar Airways flight (LA-Doha-Entebbe). The others flew Turkish Air via Istanbul to Entebbe. We arrived in Uganda within a few hours of each other.

A note on Qatar Airways: it’s my favorite airline because of its QSuite business class. All of their flights go through Doha, Qatar, so it doesn’t really make sense to take the airline to Europe or Southeast Asia from LA, but it’s great for anywhere in Africa, India or the Middle East. Prices generally seem to be the best from LA. Seattle-Doha-Entebbe was almost twice as much as LA-Doha-Entebbe, which is why my friend purchased a cheap Alaska Air ticket and flew to LA first. 

In the Qatar Airways QSuite. You can redeem American miles for tickets, but I've found it works better to transfer miles from my British Airways account to my Qatar Air account and then redeem the miles directly
In the Qatar Airways QSuite. You can redeem American miles for tickets, but I’ve found it works better to transfer miles from Chase Rewards to my British Airways account and then to my Qatar Air account, and redeem them directly.

Uganda Day One: Travel

Two of us arrived in Entebbe at 4am and the others at 7am. We were supposed to have a 10am or so flight to Kasese on a small plane, but that flight then moved to noon, and we finally departed at 2pm. So we were waiting at the small Entebbe airport for a long time. Not a fun way to start a trip, but there didn’t seem any way around it given the flight schedules and rather casual way that internal flights operate (more on that later on). Work with your Uganda safari company to have the least amount of time at the Entebbe airport that you can. If you do end up in a similar situation as us, there are nearby hotels where you can get a day room, and there’s a Priority Pass lounge at the airport. 

We finally flew to Kasese (1.5 hours, with one stop to drop off other passengers) and were met by Elton, our guide/driver for the next few days. He drove us maybe 45 minutes to Elephant Plains Lodge. We had dinner at the lodge and fell asleep early.

Uganda Safari - Flying from Entebbe to Kasese
Flying from Entebbe to Kasese
Uganda Safari - Arriving at the Kasese Airstrip
Arriving at the Kasese Airstrip for our Uganda safari
Uganda - My room at Elephant Plains Lodge
My room at Elephant Plains Lodge

Uganda Day Two: Animals! 

Elton picked us up from the lodge at 7am, we crossed the equator (traveling south to north), and headed into Queen Elizabeth National Park. We immediately started seeing animals, including waterbucks, Ugandan kobs and warthogs, but we didn’t have much time to stop since we had a chimp safari to get to. A little after 8am we joined five others and our chimp guide Harriet and set out walking into the Kyambura Gorge in search of chimps. We found one group that quickly scattered, and then walked along a hippo-filled river, crossed the river on a log (a little nerve-wracking) and found a larger group of chimps that didn’t mind us hanging out with them for half an hour. We then crossed back over the river and returned to the small Kyambura Gorge visitor center, where we ate a packed lunch overlooking the gorge. 

uganda safari - A waterbuck, with a heart nose, along the road
First animal spotted: a waterbuck, with a heart nose, along the road
Uganda safari - Harriet, our chimp tracker
Harriet, our chimp tracker
Uganda - A chimp on our chimp safari!
A chimp on our chimp safari!
Uganda - Photographing chimps
Photographing chimps
Uganda - Hippos nearby
Hippos nearby

I loved this experience! All of my previous African safaris (in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya) were car-based, so it was fun to hike to see animals for the first time. And after all of the travel just to get to Western Uganda, it was nice to get exercise. 

The Kyambura Gorge - where the chimps are
The Kyambura Gorge – where the chimps are

We then drove some more through the park, and past a few villages, to get to the Kazinga Channel, connecting Lake Edward to Lake George, for an afternoon cruise. I wasn’t expecting much – just relaxing on a tourist boat and maybe seeing a few animals. But the boat trip was amazing! I bet we saw a thousand animals in the course of two hours – mainly elephants, hippos, cape buffalo, Nile crocodiles and a lot of birds. 

Elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park, near Kyambura Gorge
Elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park, near Kyambura Gorge
Hippos, cape buffalo and elephants along the Kazinga Channel
Hippos, cape buffalo and elephants along the Kazinga Channel
Uganda safari - Love all the elephants!
Love all the elephants!
On our river safari
On our river safari

But our day wasn’t over. We went to the nearby Mweya Safari Lodge for coffee with warthogs, and then drove to Lake Katwe to see its salt production. A local took us around, showing us the different types of salts mined from the lake (everything from table salt to industrial salt) and we watched dozens of people moving and loading heavy bags of salt as the sun went down. We then headed to another nearby lake to see flamingos before going back to our lodge for dinner. An extraordinary day overall! And it was mostly unexpected. When I booked the trip it was to see mountain gorillas. Then when I received our itinerary the chimps and gorillas were the primary elements. I didn’t realize that we would be getting a pure safari experience as well – as good as any safari experience in the more popular African countries.

Uganda - Coffee with warthogs
Coffee with warthogs!
Learning about salt at Lake Katwe
Learning about salt at Lake Katwe
Moving salt at Lake Katwe
Moving salt at Lake Katwe

Uganda Day Three: More Animals! 

We checked out of Elephant Plains Lodge at 8am and drove to our next lodge, Ishasha Wilderness Camp. But of course a drive isn’t just a drive in Uganda. We first stopped at the nearby equator to take photos and watch a demonstration of the Coriolis effect, where water (and storms) spin counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere and clockwise in the northern hemisphere. It’s why storms never cross the equator. I’ve heard that the demonstration is rigged, but it was still worth $3 to watch. 

I usually don't have any photos of me! Fun traveling with other photographers.
I usually don’t have any photos of me! Fun traveling with other photographers.

Then along the road to Ishasha we saw dozens of baboons, as well as elephants and Ugandan kobs. Kind of a bonus Uganda safari! We checked into the lodge and I napped for two hours (horribly jet lagged) while the others explored and got great monkey and lizard photos just around the camp. We then headed out with Elton in search of tree-climbing lions. There aren’t many places in the world where lions climb trees. We searched all of their normal acacia and fig trees for well over an hour and never found the lions, but we did find a lot of other animals, and some of my favorite photos of this trip are from this game drive. Even without the lions it was a great experience.  

Uganda safari - Baboons were everywhere!
Baboons were everywhere!
Uganda - Another baboon
Another baboon
Safari - Ugandan kobs
Ugandan kobs
Topis in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Topis
Searching for tree-climbing lions
Another kind of Uganda safari: searching for tree-climbing lions
Uganda safari - An elephant in a recent (controlled) burn area
An elephant in a recent (controlled) burn area
Straight out of The Lion King!
Straight out of The Lion King!

In between the lion area of Queen Elizabeth National Park and Ishasha Wilderness Camp, we stopped above a large valley for a sundowner. The lodge had set up tables with snacks and drinks, as well as chairs for all of us, and we sat out watching the sun go down over a valley with 90+ elephants. Such an amazing experience! We then went back to the lodge for dinner by the river. Another magical day!

Snacks and drinks at our sundowner
Snacks and drinks at our sundowner
So amazing watching the sun go down with 90+ elephants!
So amazing watching the sun go down with 90+ elephants slowly moving towards us!
Dinner at Ishasha Wilderness Camp
Dinner at Ishasha Wilderness Camp

Uganda Day Four: Hiking and Culture

We only stayed one night at Ishasha Wilderness Camp because we needed to get to Bwindi National Park, home of the mountain gorillas! We ate breakfast at 6am and immediately got in the car for a two-hour drive to Buhoma.

So here’s the thing – it’s possible to drive all the way to Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, but it’s a really long drive. Instead the standard journey is to hike up from Buhoma to the lodge.

Because we couldn’t leave Ishasha until after breakfast, we arrived at Buhoma and the Bwindi Visitor Center too late to join the other hiking groups. This worked out to our advantage. It took a while to get us guides and porters, but when we departed an hour later we had a private hiking group for the day – the four of us, four porters to carry our luggage, two security people with guns in case of animal encounters, and a guide. I loved this hike! It started out flat under towering trees and giant ferns, then we did a couple river crossings and headed straight up the mountain. We even hiked along tea plantations. No wild animal sightings, but the hike was stunning – one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. We reached the road to Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge after three hours – 8 miles / 13km of hiking total – and were picked up by the lodge for the last stretch.

Arriving at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Arriving at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Setting off on our hike, with porters carrying our luggage
Setting off on our hike, with porters carrying our luggage
Along the walk
Along the walk
It was a stunning hike!
It was a stunning hike!
Uganda safari - Overlooking the tea planations. I tucked my pants into my socks to prevent fire ant bites.
Overlooking the tea planations. I tucked my pants into my socks to prevent fire ant bites.

We checked in, had lunch, rounded up our dirty clothes for the lodge to clean (free!), and relaxed. Our butler John mentioned that his wife Evelyn sold woven plates and baskets nearby and walked us over. We purchased a lot of things from her and other nearby sellers (generally $5-10 per item) and went back to the lodge. We then relaxed with Amarula and caught up on email.

Yannick, Isabel and our butler John welcoming us to Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge
Yannick, Isabel and our butler John welcoming us to Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge after a long hike
Uganda: My room at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge
My room at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge
My living room at Clouds!
My living room at Clouds!
Evelyn and her shop near Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge
Evelyn and her shop near Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge

A little after 5pm a group of school children came by to perform. One great thing about Clouds is that 30-40% of revenues go straight to the local community, funding schools, clinics and other organizations. 90% of the employees at the lodge are from the community. So different groups of kids come by every few days to sing as a way of thanking the guests for supporting them. 

Uganda: School children performing for us. So amazing!
School children performing for us. So amazing!

The performance was magical! I have videos on my Instagram Uganda highlight. This trip so far had been all about animals, so it was wonderful to have the cultural element. We then had dinner at the lodge (all food was amazing) and we went to sleep.

Uganda Day Five: Gorillas!

Finally, the day had arrived to hike to see mountain gorillas! How it works: in advance our safari company had secured permits for the four of us. There are 30 or so gorilla groups/families in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and there are only eight permits issued per family per day. There’s one gorilla permit center near Clouds, and others that you need to drive to. We found out the night before that we would be departing from the closest point.

In the morning at 8am we put on our hiking clothes, packed water and lunch and headed over to the gorilla center for a briefing (we needed to stay 10m from gorillas, we had to wear masks and leave our packs and poles behind with the porters, and we got one hour with the gorillas) and learned about the three nearby groups – Nkuringo, Bishaho and Christmas. We were assigned to the Christmas family with its nine gorillas including two babies. Our group consisted of the four of us, a Dutch couple and a Brit. 

As I mentioned above, the community is heavily supposed by tourism. Some of the permit money goes to the community, but you’re also encouraged to hire porters for the hike. There are so many porters that each one only gets maybe one hike a month, and a lot of mornings porters come to the center for work and are turned away. So we all hired porters. But it’s not charity at all – the porters carried our backpacks and helped us up and down the steep mountain. My porter was a small guy named Nathan. I didn’t need much help with the hills, but it was very nice not having to carry anything! 

Uganda: Heading off on our gorilla trek, with Nathan carrying my pack
Heading off on our gorilla trek, with Nathan carrying my pack

Trackers had gone out on the morning to find the Christmas family. They did, and they radioed the location back to Peace, our guide. We then hiked all the way down to the river – some along flat paths, some through tea plantations, and some pure bushwhacking with machetes. When we reached the river a couple of us crossed on a non-stable log, when we found out that the gorillas were now back on our side of the valley so we crossed back over and cut through a lot of forest to get to them. 

Uganda gorilla trekking - Peace updating us as to the Christmas family's location
Peace updating us as to the Christmas family’s location
Gorilla trekking - Hiking down through tea plantations
Hiking down through tea plantations
Uganda gorilla trekking - Crossing the river, and then crossing back
Crossing the river, and then crossing back
Uganda gorilla trekking - Bushwhacking to reach the gorillas
Bushwhacking to reach the gorillas

It took us almost two hours total to reach our family, and then our one hour with them started. They were in an area that had never been cleared before, so our guides did the best they could to get us areas to stand to watch the gorillas. Most of the time we were closer than the 10m requirement, simply because it was impossible to clear away enough brush for us to move back, plus the gorillas kept moving. If there’s an ideal gorilla-watching situation, this wasn’t it. It was hard to see them at times, the babies were barely visible, and there were very few amazing photo opportunities. But of course something like this isn’t all about the photos, and the difficult conditions encouraged us to put our cameras down and appreciate the experience. 

Gorilla trekking - The gorillas were pretty much just sitting around and eating
The gorillas were pretty much just sitting around and eating
Uganda gorilla trekking - Amazing to be so close!
Amazing to be so close!
Uganda gorilla trekking - Photographing gorillas
Photographing gorillas
Uganda gorilla trekking - We had an hour with the Christmas family
We had an hour with the Christmas family
Uganda gorilla trekking - my favorite photo
My favorite photo!

After our hour was up, we started the hike back, stopping at one point to have lunch. It wasn’t an easy hike, but the porters helped considerably. It took 5.5 hours total from the top down to the gorillas and back. 

Uganda gorilla trekking - Hiking back up
Hiking back up

Back at Clouds we had an afternoon snack (they’ll bring you anything you want, anytime!), relaxed with Amarula, and went to buy a few more things from Evelyn and the other vendors. Dinner was once again excellent.

Uganda Day Six: Back to Entebbe

Day six was imperfect. Two of us had 4am flights out on day seven, and the other two had 5:30pm flights. For those of us with later flights, it would have been more fun to spend another day at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge and fly to Entebbe just before our international flight. But we stuck together as a group and all flew back to Entebbe the morning of day six.

We woke up at 5am (John brought us all coffee in our rooms), ate breakfast early and left at 6am for the drive to Kisaro Airstrip. It was a fairly rough road through the impenetrable forrest, and we arrived at the airport at 7:45 for an 8:45 flight.

But things never go that smoothly! It was extraordinary windy. Our incoming flight couldn’t land on its first approach but then was able to circle back and land. The pilot though came in and said that he wasn’t confident he could take off in that wind with all 9 of us and our luggage. He ended up leaving with five others first and taking them to the (non-windy) Savannah landing strip roughly 20 minutes away. He then came back for us, we flew to Savannah to pick up the others, and we all continued on to Entebbe. We were supposed to arrive at 11:25am and arrived roughly on time even with the detour. The flight schedules are nicely padded!

Uganda safari - Flying back to Entebbe
Flying back to Entebbe

In Entebbe we got our luggage and headed to nearby Hotel No 5 to check in and have lunch. We then met up with Eric from the Uganda Safari Company who took us on a short tour of the city. We went to the local crafts market, but didn’t enjoy it. In Bwindi we were buying things from the people who actually made them. In Entebbe it was obvious that most people selling items hadn’t made them, and a lot of them had bought t-shirts, woven items and woodcarvings from the same vendors. I’m sure it was all still Ugandan, but it didn’t feel nearly as authentic as in Bwindi and the the rural areas.

Entebbe's craft market
Entebbe’s craft market
Uganda safari - I bought a mask here
I bought a mask here

We then headed to the main fruit/vegetable market, which felt far more authentic, and we walked around for a while. I really enjoyed this excursion overall. We then headed to Lake Victoria where we had a private sunset cruise for two hours. We saw some birds but no other animals, but it was a nice way to end the trip. They had enough snacks on board for us that it became a de facto dinner cruise. We brought our own Amarula to drink. They had water, gin and beer for us.

Inside Kitooro Market in Entebbe
Inside Kitooro Market in Entebbe
Walking around Entebbe
Walking around Entebbe
Uganda safari - Lake Victoria - Our boat. It was only the four of us on board, plus two staff.
Our boat. It was only the four of us on board, plus two staff.
Uganda safari - On our sunset cruise on Lake Victoria
On our sunset cruise on Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria - Sunset from the water
Sunset from the water

We went to sleep at the hotel, and two of my friends left at 2am for their Turkish Airlines flight.

Uganda Day Seven: Hotels and Flights

For the first time, we slept in! We got breakfast around 9am at the hotel and then checked out at 10am. We wanted to book a day room at Hotel No 5 for the day, but they were full, so they took us over to the nearby Protea Hotel by Marriott instead. The hotel has a beach and pool, but we opted for checking email, editing photos and getting spa treatments instead. My massage was $32 for an hour and was pretty good.

Breakfast at Hotel No 5 in Entebbe
Breakfast at Hotel No 5 in Entebbe

At 3pm we headed to the airport for our 5:30pm flight. The hotel is only a mile from the airport, but it still took half an hour to get through the security checkpoint and then walk the last stretch to the airport. We first waited in line to show our covid and yellow fever vaccination cards (not sure why they check those if you’re leaving the country?), and then went through initial security, checked in with Qatar Airways, waited in line for immigration, went through security again, and finally made it to the Priority Pass lounge where we relaxed for half an hour before boarding.

Uganda Safari and Gorilla Trekking: Summary

This was a short but amazing trip. I was blown away by all of the animal encounters, and gorilla trekking is a magical, bucket list experience. And Uganda impressed me. The people were extraordinary nice and appreciative of visitors – especially in the rural areas.

We traveled with Uganda Safari Company and paid normally. They were amazing. We had originally scheduled this trip for February, but my wife broke her knee and I couldn’t go. They rescheduled everything for us for July, and moved forward our deposits. They arranged absolutely everything in Uganda, and even scrambled at the end to set up the city tour, boat trip and day room since we weren’t sure until that day what we wanted to do. Elton and Eric, our guides in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Entebbe, were excellent. If you contact them, please tell them you read about them here!

Entebbe isn’t exciting. If possible organize your flight schedules to minimize your time there. At the time we visited, Qatar Airways only flew out of Uganda at 5:30pm every other night – otherwise it would have been perfect to fly back from Kisaro on day six, wait at the airport a few hours and take that flight. The last 30 hours of our trip were sort of wasted, but there was no way around it since we couldn’t shift dates, and we wanted to spend the last day with our friends, who had an earlier flight.

Our three safari lodges, Elephant Plains Lodge, Ishasha Wilderness Camp and Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, were all incredible. The food was excellent everywhere and to the best of my knowledge none of us had stomach issues. Service was perfect. Every morning we had coffee delivered to our rooms as a wakeup call!

Our two Entebbe hotels, Hotel No 5 and Protea Hotel, were letdowns compared to the safari lodges. My room at Hotel No 5, one of the top-rated places in Entebbe, looked out over the parking lot. As I said above, skip Entebbe if you can.

Uganda Safari Expenses

This was peak season (dry season), and we splurged on a high-end trip. After not traveling for a couple of years, it felt good to splurge! Expenses per person broke down as follows:

  • $50 for a Ugandan visa
  • $700 for a gorilla permit
  • $50 for a chimp permit
  • $4,687 for the safari, hotels, guides, drivers, meals and internal flights
  • $75 for the sunset boat cruise
  • $68 for a day room in Entebbe

Safaris aren’t cheap, but there are ways to do this trip less expensively, like traveling in low season, driving from Entebbe to Queen Elizabeth National Park instead of flying, and staying in simpler lodges. My tips for booking an affordable African safari are applicable in Uganda. And as always, let the tour company know your budget and ask them what they can create for you for that amount.

We overtipped everywhere – a $50 instead of a $20 means a lot more to them than to us. I’d estimate I spent $500 or so in tips, including our guides, drivers, porters, butlers, housekeepers and other lodge staff.

Packing List for a Uganda Safari and Gorilla Trekking

I overpacked. I brought 21kg (46 pounds) of luggage total, including my laptop, camera and lenses, which I thought was pretty good. But based on our weather, the fact that I never used a pool anywhere (3 out of 5 hotels had pools) and the laundry service at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, I could have gotten by with less. What I should have packed – based on a July (dry season) trip: 

  • 3 merino wool shirts (two short-sleeve, one long-sleeve). I love Unbound Merino.
  • 2 pairs hiking pants
  • 1 pair shorts
  • 6 pairs merino wool socks
  • 4 pairs underwear 
  • 1 hiking pole
  • 2 water bottles
  • 1 fleece jacket
  • 1 pair good hiking boots
  • 1 pair comfortable walking shoes
  • Sunglasses
  • Baseball cap (for sun)
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent 
  • Thick gloves for the gorilla hike 
  • Plug converters (3-prong UK style)

Rain jackets are recommended too but we never needed ours.

Gorilla trekking with a long-sleeve merino wool from Unbound Merino, hiking pants (Patagonia), boots (Oboz) and a hiking pole (Black Diamond)
Gorilla trekking with a long-sleeve merino wool crew (Unbound Merino), hiking pants (Patagonia), boots (Oboz) and a hiking pole (Black Diamond). I didn’t need anything else.

And a note on packing for a Uganda safari. We were told that we needed to bring soft-sided duffels only (no wheels) and that we were limited to 15kg of luggage per person for the internal flights. Any excess weight would be charged at $3/kg. In reality only our checked bags were weighed in Entebbe, and they weren’t weighed at all in Kisaro. We weren’t charged extra. And it would have been fine to have wheeled duffels. Given that porters had to carry our bags for hours on the way to Clouds I was glad I had packed in a soft duffel, but the internal flight requirements aren’t as stringent as your tour company may tell you.

A porter carrying my luggage on his head through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Would have felt bad asking him to carry a hard-sided suitcase!
A porter carrying my luggage on his head through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Would have felt bad asking him to carry a hard-sided suitcase!

My Uganda Safari Camera Setup

The photos in this post were taken with my Canon 6D MII DSLR and an iPhone 13 Pro. I brought two lenses for the Canon – a 24-70 f/2.8 and a 70-200 f/2.8 – as well as an 1.4x extender. 60% of my pictures were with the iPhone – virtually all lodge, meal, people, plane and hiking photos. The DSLR was for animals. I used the 1.4 extender for all animal drives and for the chimp hike. We were too close to the gorillas for me to need the extender. 

Photographing elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Photographing elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Insurance

Lastly, don’t forget travel insurance! There were so many things that could have gone wrong this Uganda safari, with four of us starting in different places and meeting up in Africa: cancelled flights; missed connections; lost luggage; Covid; changing entry restrictions in Uganda; family emergencies. Luckily we had no issues at all, but I slept a lot better knowing that insurance would cover me if anything happened. I’m happy with my annual plan from G1G.

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