While not as well known or as frequently visited as Kenya or Tanzania, Uganda is a fantastic country for wildlife lovers. With a stunning diversity of landscapes, from volcanic mountains and crater lakes to lush forests and open savanna and reserves that offer bucket-list animal encounters, Uganda is one of Africa’s best-kept secrets.
Uganda’s main draw is mountain gorilla tracking, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and one of the greatest wildlife experiences on the planet. The critically endangered great apes are only found in three countries in the world – Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
In Uganda there is a human-habituated gorilla group in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the country’s smallest reserve, in its far southwest corner. This group sometimes moves over into Rwanda, which means Mgahinga is not the best choice for gorilla tracking.
The better option is nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which conserves half of the world’s wild mountain gorilla population. The park is a day’s drive from Kampala, and a magical world of lush, hillyforest in 50 shades of green.
Gorilla tracking can take anywhere from an hour or two to the whole day, depending on where the gorilla group is. It can be tough going: the high altitude can make it difficult to breathe, and you have to trek up and down steep, slippery hills. It’s incredibly rewarding though — there’s nothing that quite comes close to the face-to-face encounter with a giant, gentle silverback. Once you’ve reached your gorilla group, you spend an hour with them to observe their very humanlike behavior. You’re unlikely to see much other wildlife in the park but if you’re lucky you could spot elusive forest elephants.
To the north of Bwindi, the flat acacia-dotted savannas of Queen Elizabeth National Park look like the Africa you see on the National Geographic Channel. This is Uganda’s most visited park, a landscape of grassy plains, crater lakes and forested gorges, famous for its tree-climbing lions (only found in one other place in the world), which can be spotted in the Ishasha section. Though the Ugandan-Tanzanian war in the late 1970s wiped out a good number of the park’s animals, many species have since recovered and on game drives you’re likely spot lots of elephants as well as buffalo and antelope such as the Ugandan kob. At sunset take a boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel between Lake George and Lake Edward, to spot loads of hippos, crocodiles and some of the 600 bird species.
Just outside of Queen Elizabeth National Park is the Karinzu Forest Reserve, a small reserve that’s home to L’Hoest, black and white colobus, blue, and redtail monkeys, plus Anubis baboons, leopards and antelope. Its most famous inhabitant is the chimpanzee – our closest relative. Buy a permit to go chimp tracking (there’s an 80% chance you’ll find them) with an experienced guide who will lead you to one of two habituated groups in the forest. Chimps can be harder to track than gorillas because they move fast through the trees, but it’s a thrilling experience to trek your way through the forest to find them, getting swatted by vines and clambering over fallen trees. You also don’t get as close to them as you do gorillas (who are happy to sit close to you and carry on with their daily business), as they tend to stay up in the tall trees.
Kibale Forest National Park is Uganda’s most famous chimpanzee tracking park, with over 1000 of the great apes. The Kanyachu chimp group, which has been habituated to humans for more than 20 years, is the group you’ll track on a three-hour walk. You can also do a full-day chimp habituation experience, which allows you to visit a chimp group undergoing habituation from when they wake up in the morning until they make their overnight nests. In addition to chimps, the lush rainforest, which is interspersed with patches of swamp and grassland, has an incredible diversity of primates, with 12 other species, including grey cheeked mangabey, olive baboons, red colobus and vervet monkeys (the greatest concentration of species in Uganda, and the world). The park forms a continuous forest with Queen Elizabeth National Park (which is half a day’s drive from Kibale) and provides an important 100-mile-long wildlife corridor, to allow for the movement of animals. The area around Kibale is almost worth a trip on its own. The park borders on the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes, which is a gorgeous otherworldly landscape of ancient volcanic lakes.
A four-hour drive north of Kampala, Murchison Falls National Park is not often visited by tourists as it’s quite far from Uganda’s other parks, but making the journey is worth it: Visitors are rewarded with fantastic wildlife viewing, beautiful savannah and woodland and no crowds. Go on game drives to spot herds of giraffe (which are only found in two of Uganda’s parks), elephants, buffalo, lion and over 400 species of birds. Don’t miss taking a boat cruise along the Nile River, which runs through the park, to see Murchison Falls, a spectacular waterfall gushing through a six-meter wide gorge. There’s another five-hour boat trip downstream to the point at which the river enters Lake Albert, where you’ll have a good chance of spotting the rare and endangered shoebill stork. You can also go chimp tracking (for less than it costs at Kibale and Karinzu) in the nearby Budongo Forest Reserve, to the south of the park, which is home to 800 chimpanzees and offers fantastic birding and butterfly spotting.