Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Back from country number 41 and it was by far the most epic adventure we have had since Antarctica in December, 2019. At the end of last year, I promised myself that I would recommit my energy to supporting the wildlife and local communities in Africa. No better place to start than the wildest of off-grid places in Africa. The untouched Pearl of Africa - Uganda.
The Covid situation in Africa now has made traveling there a slight challenge - but I know I will be back in this continent the first opportunity I get to do so safely.
Ethical animal encounters are a big reason to venture to Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. Usually on top of this list is a wild trek to watch the mountain gorillas in the misty rainforests of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda or the Virunga Forest in DR Congo.
We chose Uganda for the simple reason that it was the safest, easiest option with all the Covid restrictions still in place.
It exceeded all our expectations. We were blown away by the endless rolling hills, the welcoming people and the lush green landscapes. When you think of Africa, people often mention wanting to see the safaris in Serengeti or Masai Mara, or drive along the surreal coast of Cape Town or even walk on the beaches in Mozambique. Unfortunately, Uganda doesn't often make it to the African "bucket list" but it should definitely be on there. It is rustic, authentic and beyond gorgeous. For the first time in many years, I sincerely wished we had more time to explore a single country.
Let's dive right into what you will need to plan a trip to this unique East African treasure!
1. You will need a negative COVID test taken 72 hours prior to your arrival in Entebee.
2. You will also need a negative COVID test to exit the country (the duration of the test will depend on the requirement for the country you are flying back to)
3. There is no quarantine in place as I write this in March!
Tests are usually done in the major towns with the swabs being sent back to the Test and Fly lab in Entebbe. You will be in and out in half hour if you are going with a tour but be sure to speak to your tour agent about your testing requirements so they can plan for it.
Flights, Visa and Vaccines
Another reason we chose Uganda over Rwanda - direct flights with Emirates from Dubai to Entebbe.
There are some countries which are exempt from visas but citizens of most countries will need one to enter. Visa can be obtained on arrival for most nationalities. I chose to apply and pay for ours online to save time at immigration. Got ours emailed in less than 48 hours. Carry it with you. Straightforward process.
You will be asked to show your YELLOW FEVER VACCINE CARD when you disembark at the airport. So get vaccinated, and if you already have the card, carry it on hand. This is mandatory.
Safety and hygiene
I was pleasantly surprised to see the health measure put in place by the Ugandan government to
welcome tourists back safely. Everyone at the airport wore a mask - also found this to be the case in Entebbe and in busier towns. Our guide wore his the whole time as well. We also had to have our temperatures checked at every national park and resort we stayed at, with lots of sanitizers placed everywhere.
It is still up to you to follow all the rules, be responsible while traveling.. and you will be able to enjoy this wonderful country without much hassle.
Best time to visit
November to March is the best time to visit. We went in mid February and it rained only for a few hours further down South in Bwindi. The climate was mostly warm and dry. Being on the equator, the weather here is pretty consistent but April to June you will get heavy rains, which would make the gorilla trekking and another activities a little tricky to enjoy. You don't want to go all the way only to find the trek being completely wiped out.
Language and People
Everyone was helpful, welcoming and fluent in English.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel and medical insurance is always recommended. USD accepted at all resorts. Carry local currency if you plan to eat or shop in smaller stores.
How long to spend in Uganda
I get asked this after every trip. Honestly, duration of a trip depends entirely on your style of travel. We are not slow travelers - we enjoy shuffling our surroundings every other day. Most of the activities I had planned was in the South Western part of Uganda. I found that a week was just enough time to cover this side of the country. If you plan to head further up north to the Rhino Park or Murchison Falls, I would recommend spending close to two weeks.
How to get around. Picking a Driver/Guide vs Self Driving
Uganda is not a very big country by size.. but I have learnt to never underestimate the driving distances in Africa. If you follow our itinerary, be prepared for early starts and to stay in the car for 4 to 5 hours a day. Heads up, you CANNOT rush in Uganda - this place deserves time. Plan for a minimum of one week.
Since we already knew the places we wanted to cover, I put together our itinerary and contacted the tour agents who where officially registered with the Ugandan Tourism Board. All of them responded on time, with tons of information. I eventually decided to go with Kazinga Tours. Absolutely loved them. The owner, Felex, was flexible, always available and was able to offer us exactly what we wanted. Our driver, Innocent, was knowledgeable and always on time. His rates were by far the most competitive. He had the right connections at the resorts I had chosen. He was also able to arrange for a doctor to meet us for our tests. The entire trip was seamless from start to finish. Could not recommend them enough.
If you are on a tight budget, you can also choose to rent a car and drive yourself. We don't prefer doing this in Africa. Having a local guide always helps. Kick back and observe the every day life of the Ugandan villages as you drive past them.
Note that YOU CANNOT GO ON A GORILLA TREK ON YOUR OWN. You will need a permit and rangers to hike up. This is not a DIY kind of trip.
Safety for Traveling Solo or as a woman
As with any country, abundance of safety is advised for travelers. Irrespective of your gender, things can always go wrong in a minute. I traveled with the hubs, so felt safe overall. Nevertheless, I would say Uganda is safe enough to backpack around for a solo traveler.
FAQ about the the Gorilla Trek
Age limit - this is not an easy trek by any means. You will be bitten by everything from giant mosquito to crawling red ants. There is also no telling how long the trek will take, it could take anywhere from an hour to five to find the gorillas. It is going to be exhausting irrespective of when you travel. I would not recommend taking any one less than the age of 13, even then it would be best if they have prior experience trekking long distances in challenging conditions.
Is this trek dangerous? How close can you get to the gorillas? Do they attack you? Are they bothered by your presence? The trek is about as dangerous as jumping out of an airplane to sky dive i.e. there are risks involved in every wild activity. You follow the rules to the T, no questions asked. Listen to your ranger and stick to the group at all times. Gorillas are incredibly gentle and mostly intelligent creatures. Yes, of course, there is always inherent danger when you approach the wild but there is no reason to be afraid. Don't panic if they get too close and DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RUN unless the ranger advises otherwise. We got real close to them and they didn't even blink an eye. Act mature and don't pretend to own the planet. Stay humble. Quietly observe their interactions and there is much you can learn from animals.
Where we stayed - Entebbe, Kibale, Bwindi, Lake Mburo
True to my travel style, I did a lot of research on the resorts. I wanted to make sure they were both comfortable, supportive of the local community and eco-friendly.
Since we were only here for a night, I chose a simple hotel with breakfast and close to the local private beach. We stayed at the 2FriendsBeachHotel but did the trick for a night. The views were wonderful, the weather perfect, the food was fresh and the coffee hot. That is all we needed.
Kibale National Park
I chose the secluded Turaco Treetops for our stay at the Kibale National Park. This is a luxury eco-lodge just outside the Kibale Forest. With unobstructed views of the Rwenzori Mountains, there is no better place to experience nature. Contemporary design, earthy wooden tones and natural materials, this rustic camp has rooms actually built on top of trees. I have always wanted to stay in a treehouse and wake up to the call of chirping birds. This is an excellent value lodge and the perfect base for your chimp trek!
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
This was easily the best resort we have stayed at in a while. Choosing a resort on an immersive trip like this was important to me. The Gorilla Forest Camp is one of the most remote and atmospheric camps in eastern Africa.
I knew the @sanctuaryretreats Gorilla Forest camp, standing inside the UNESCO World Heritage site itself, had to be an integral part of our trip to Uganda. The intimate luxurious set up combined with an accommodating team and incredible sustainable measures added to the entire experience. This camp is definitely one of the most stunning places we have splurged on. I couldn’t recommend a better to place to set base before you track gorillas. I would recommend you stay for at least two nights to make the most of everything this gorgeous camp has to offer!
Our last night was spent at the Mihingo Lodge. A solar powered lodge in Lake Mburo with the most incredible panoramic views of the lake and the savannah. The friendly staff can quickly put together a walking safari for you. You can also do a night game drive. Yet another lodge that is all about conservation and community preservation. The good folks at the Mihingo Lodge help support the cattle farms owned by the locals.
Budget and Permit Applications
If you have researched doing a trek with the chimp, you know you will need a permit to do these treks. The Gorilla permit costs $800 per person in high season and $450 in off season (in case you're wondering, permits cost $1500 per person in Rwanda). The chimp permits cost $200 per person. You can apply for these yourself by getting in touch with the people at Uganda Tourism Board. The easiest thing would be for your agent to apply for these on your behalf, which is what we did. There are lodges in all categories, so if luxury eco-friendly is not your scene, there are plenty of other options for every kind of traveler. Take your pick. My estimate for a one week trip for one person would be $1500.
Having stayed at some of the nicer lodges, vegetarian food was not an issue on this trip. All the lodges are on full board. I had an issue getting soy milk but managed with regular dairy as an exception. I really loved learning that every meal was made using local ingredients. We had a wonderful variety to choose from every night. We also tried a veggie pizza in a local restaurant on the way back to Entebbe. Wasn't the cleanest of places but no compromise in taste. Still very fresh!
What to pack for the Gorilla Trek
Pack neutral earthy colors for all safaris and jungle treks. Insect repellant. Fedora. Poncho or rain jacket. Hiking shoes with ankle support. Waterproof hiking pants. Full sleeve shirts or active wear.
Day 1 - Entebbe
We landed in the Entebbe airport just a little after lunch time. Quick immigration and off to the hotel for the night. We were pretty tired.. the evening was spent at the lodge and the beach nearby.
Day 2 - drive from Entebbe to Kibale National Park for the chimpanzee trek
Early breakfast and drive to our first destination - the Kibale National Park. The drive was scenic.. we passed countless small villages and tea plantations along the way.
At around 1, we made it to the forest. Ready for our first trek - to see the chimpanzees. This forest offers trekkers an opportunity to see the chimp families in the wild. The hike is definitely easier than the gorilla trek but equally beautiful.
We followed our ranger deep into the forest before finding a group of active chimps high up on fig trees. This forest was no where near as dense as the Bwindi, but it still took up hiking up rickety bridges.. until there, in the middle of the red berries, you hear the loud distinct screeching and yelping. Unmissable.
Just as you enter the forest, you will also see a few colobus monkeys jumping around and across branches. I was also told that these Colobus monkeys are different to the ones I encountered in Zanzibar!
Did you know that chimps share 98% of our DNA? Though these animal encounters are a big reason to visit Uganda, what I liked most about both treks was that it gave us an opportunity for an authentic sighting. Those these chimps don't get as much buzz as their more bigger relatives, being close to these creatures is just as much as a thrill as watching gorillas - at a fraction of the cost too!
Our interactions with them were limited to observing them from a distance. Our being there doesn’t affect them negatively as long as we do the right thing. Don’t think about feeding wild animals, this can change their behavior and impact their chances of surviving on their own.
The ranger will introduce you to the alpha, the beta and the little babies (yes, they all have names). During the trek, you have to be responsible - maintain a distance of at least 8m, if they happen to cross your path just step aside gently; don’t panic or run. Don’t attempt to mimic their calls and wear the mask if they are close. Be respectful of their environment. Leave nothing but footprints behind. After all, trying to guess what they are contemplating when they look up at the trees in deep thought is half the fun eh?
Back to the resort to check in and enjoy a late lunch. The pool had some of the best views of the mountains.
The lunch was vegan delicious with a vegetable curry and bread. SO GOOD.
Of course, we also spent a lot of time making the most of our one night stay at the spacious tree top room for the night.
Look at that view. Wish I could wake up here every day.
Day 3 - drive from Kibale National Park to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
We woke up at the crack of dawn to witness this stunner of a sunrise at the resort. We left the resort at 7 a.m. to drive onwards towards Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I swear I could have lived through these misty mornings for a hundred days.
Driving long distances through the amazing green acres of tea and rolling hills was not a bother at all. In fact, I would highly recommend you account for this and take the long routes. I never could get enough of these southwestern Uganda’s green terraces hills and rolling slopes. We were anticipating one hell of an adventure driving through the Malagambo forest towards our final stop.
On the way we made a few pit stops. The first one was Lake Nyinambuga. Fun fact, this is the lake on the 20,000 Ugandan Note. We then stopped at the Lake kituruka and then later at the point where the equator crosses Uganda.
I intend to be an overachiever on every trip, trying to squeezing in every unique activity possible but of course, not everything goes to plan. I had included a trip to the Queen Elizabeth National Park enroute to Bwindi. Though this park has a lot of the larger predators, the heroes here are the tree climbing lions (they can only be found in Tanzania and Uganda). However, as we drove closer to the park, we were informed that the lions had not been spotted in three days. Tthough we traveled through the park, we did not spend any time on the game drive. Just driving through gave us a good opportunity for animal and bird sightings. We spotted a lot of vervette monkeys, waterbucks, impalas and even a lone elephant at a distance.
PRO TIP: I would not include the National Park for a safari, all my research suggested that the game drive here is very mediocre.
A little after 1 p.m. we finally made it to the beautiful Sanctuary Retreat inside the UNESCO world heritage site. After a quick refreshing drink and finishing the paper work and temperature checks, we checked in to one of the most amazing rooms. The views and moody ambiance had us wishing we never ever had to leave this place.
After freshening up, we settled in for a late lunch. A little after 3, we saw incredible rain clouds leering above our tents. Thanks to the new iPhone 12 max wide lens, the sky really stood out in all these shots!
My favorite mood to click pictures. The rain arrived a little after 5 p.m. just in time for an early dinner.
We turned in early, All excited and set for our magical adventure the next day.
P.S. the Sanctuary retreat resorts have these beautiful wooden walking poles for you to borrow - I highly recommend you pick these up before starting the trek! :)
Day 4 - Gorilla Trekking
We woke up at 6 a.m.; we were too enthused to get any sleep anyway. How could we not be as we prepare to hike Africa’s most dense, lush and untouched rainforest? We decided to go easy on the breakfast. The resort had plenty of water and our lunch boxes ready to go for us - has everything you will need for sustenance from nuts to chocolate, juice, and a light vegan hummus sandwich. We reached the entrance of the national park (just a five minute drive from our resort inside the forest) at around 8 a.m.
PRO TIPS: Forget your gowns and pretty caps at home. I cannot stress enough the importance of dressing appropriately for a long trek and tiring day ahead. Wear full sleeve shirts/jackets and waterproof trek pants. Ankle length hiking boots. No exceptions if you want to enjoy the trek without worrying about injuries. Hydrate hydrate hydrate!
After the usual formalities of temperate and permit checks, we were taken inside for a long 45 minute briefing on the dos and don'ts during the trek; with some added pointers for Covid times. You are then assigned your rangers and split in groups of 6-8. Each group is assigned a family of gorillas; every group has a limit and can only spend an hour after you find the family. We were going to visit the oldest family in the forest - the Mubare family. We also had only one other German couple with us on the group, so felt like a pretty private experience. Once we introduced ourselves to our fellow group members, we were asked to sanitize our feet in disinfectant before driving for about 15 minutes to our starting point.
Welcome to the jungle! Even this early in the day, the sun was beating down on our backs... we could already sense this trek was not going to be a breeze.
If you have issues carrying a heavy backpack, you can always hire a porter from the community (we didn't do this but the other couple with us did).
This is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, home to some of the largest assortment of tree species in East Africa.
Visiting the forest is an experience in itself. As someone who is obsessed with green, I found it to be incredibly fascinating.. it’s no wonder it often makes it to the list of most amazing forests to visit in this lifetime. You can remove the mask at higher altitudes and if you are more than 5m away from the others. Before long, you will be hiking up steep narrow paths, even with breaks it is a challenge (proof, my beet red face after just one hour!).
On hindsight, the difficult trek elevated the whole experience for me.
Again, it is real hard work to reach the gorillas. You will be required to navigate uphill slopes through thick tangles of vines and thousands of thorny bushes. It is also only accessible by foot. No path and no directions - this is why the rangers carry machetes. Completing the trek is half the achievement.
After about 90 minutes into the hike, we could sense something was moving behind the thick thick bamboo vibes and lo behold - we had spotted our first lone gorilla after about an hour and half. *Chills* We continued upwards until we found the rest of the family. There is a simple (albeit smelly) science - the trackers follow the gorilla poop to figure out the path taken by the apes.
These beloved primates cannot survive for long in captivity. The only way to get close to them is to trek through the misty rainforests in Uganda, Rwanda or DR Congo. The trek itself is highly regulated; maximum of 8 people can visit a single family in a day.
I actually liked that the whole process is strictly monitored- the number of available permits are controlled which helps reduce the number of tourists and ensures the fragile ecosystem and wildlife are protected.
Imagine you’re in a jeep watching elephant families, cautiously eyeing a pack of cheetah hunting or just staring in awe at herds of Zebra grazing on the open Savannah.. an African safari is unlike any other experience you will have. Now imagine a whole different “safari” setting. Set on the foothills of volcanoes, the Impenetrable forest of Bwindi has an absurd diversity of flora and fauna - throw in few hundred mountain gorillas and you will have yourself a truly wild experience second to none. When you realize that what you’re about to witness is otherworldly in a sense, given that there are less than 1000 gorillas in existence on the planet, it will dawn on you that there is no other activity that can match the allure of battling these wild vines to catch just a short glimpse of these gentle giants in their natural habitat.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no chest pounding or excessive show of aggression when you encounter the mountain gorillas. The family is mostly calm, the silverbacks were almost bored by our presence. The young ones were naughty and curious, playing with each other and showing off. We were required to maintain a distance but it wasn’t very easy in the bushy forest. However, there just seemed to be a silent mutual respect between human and animal - we didn’t get too close to them and they didn’t bother us either. If only enough people realized that this harmony isn't very complicated. We would not have had to live through a pandemic with just a little bit of love!
What went through my mind when I encountered my first mountain gorilla? Was I spellbound watching these giants pull down vines effortlessly? Was I astounded by the sheer size and power of the massive silverback? Did I have chills because we now were now the privileged few who had the luxury of being so close to these mysterious creatures?
All I know is it was soul stirring. Those eyes shot straight through my heart. It was almost like I could sense a flicker of recognition behind the soulful eyes of the brute. How anyone could think of hurting them is beyond me. Which is why I took heart in learning that the high permit costs lure an upscale crowd, which in turn generate funds that will help sustain these beautiful endangered apes!
The entire experience is hard to sum up in words. It is a high of being so close to these creatures. Being able to walk along side the people who have committed to the protection and conservation of this species is something special. It has been just over a month since we did this trek and I still can’t believe it. It is humbling and makes you realize that we share this world with thousands of incredible creatures just like this one. May we never forget that. May we learn to protect and cherish them like we do our own!
Please note that we made the effort to get tested a day before this trek, so the ranger told us it was ok for us to remove our masks for a few minutes! Also, the red cap on my water bottle is an eye sore but it is a reminder to please carry your own reusable bottles on every trip.
The entire trek took us about 4 hours up hill and 3.5 hours downhill. We got back to the resort at about 4 p.m...and the first thing we did was get a celebratory lemon soda. So pleased with our certificates. Still counting all our stars for having been on yet another surreal wildlife journey!
The best part was that the wonderful folks at the resort had drawn up a warm bubble bath for us complete with candles. It was just what we needed to soothe our sore muscles. I swear I am not into fancy resort stays but some times I feel so thrilled because it is these little sweet & thoughtful gestures that you pay for. We also found that we were the only guests on the entire property - the good people decided to surprise us by setting up a special dinner for us out in the garden. I also recommend giving their fabulous African massage a try - you will thank me later!
Our hearts were full.. all we needed was a delicious four course meal and thunderous rains to relive the unforgettable and glorious moments of the raw and powerful nature we had witnessed earlier that day!
Day 5 - drive from Bwindi to Lake Mburo
We needed this lazy morning and late start.. we had lots of time to soak in all the cozy vibes this morning. We were going to miss it so much.
At around 9 a.m. we set off on the drive towards our final stop on the trip - Lake Mburo. The drive took us about 7 hours. We headed straight to the resort to check in and freshen up before heading out for a game drive. We tried looking for the giraffe but we had no luck that day. Spotted a few smaller ones though.
This park is nearly free of predators (there are rumors of rare leopard sightings though). That doesn’t mean that Lake Mburo is Big-five free. You can see herds of buffaloes. Plenty of warthogs big & small, waterbucks and skinny impalas. We were also lucky enough to see the eland, the continent’s largest antelope. The real heroes here are these herds of watchful zebras. I have always loved photographing their bold stripes against the plush green African savannah. A sight to behold!
Just in time for afternoon team time, we made it back to the room. I really loved that this hotel sits on a rock out known as the kopje and the rooms face the valley below. The highlight of our room was an unobstructed view of a watering hole where we saw impalas and waterbucks coming in to quench their thirst.
Apart from being completely solar powered, I also loved learning that this lodge trains and employs people from the local communities and sometimes has even supported the local cattle farmers by building fences. I am thoroughly impressed by how these lodges in Uganda have managed to have minimal impact on the environment. Talk about being truly sustainable.
Some much needed R&R as we waiting for the outstanding sunset. It did not disappoint. Africa is such a delight. Pure love!
Day 6 - Lake Mburo
Our last morning. Yet another early start to the day for a beautiful bush walk or walking safari.
When I was deciding on the last leg of our trip to Uganda, I was torn between choosing Lake Bunyoni and Lake Mburo. I eventually went with Mburo since this park would give us an opportunity to do a sunrise bush walk.
If you are looking for this to be your first African safari, look elsewhere. You are not going to find any cheetahs, elephants or lions here. However, there is still plenty of life in these vast plains and it starts well before dawn. Birds screeching. Impalas leaping over bushes. Zebras grazing every few miles. I can’t think of a better way to welcome a new morning.
We could have spent hours walking here.. but we had to leave for the airport. You can tell your ranger how much time you want to spend, so he can decide the path you take.
Finally back to the room for breakfast but still not ready to bid adieu to this magnificent country.