Uganda: the Pearl of Africa
"Uganda will not disappoint you."
By Peter Holthusen
Within hours of arriving at The Emin Pasha Hotel in Kampala I realized that I had found my own personal slice of heaven. I was privileged to have a pair of Paradise flycatcher nesting right outside my window, with their outrageously long tail feathers streaming behind them as they fluttered in and out of the flowering shrubs and scented vines in pursuit of insects. But then, this is Uganda: the heart of Equatorial Africa.
Located as it is on the northern shores of Lake Victoria on the East African plateau, the vast, lovely and infinitely varied country of Uganda is a land of high plateau and heat-hazed lowland plain, game-filled expanses of savannah and, in the west, high mountains that, for sheer scenic enchantment, have few rivals in Africa. Other elements of the rich, natural tapestry are even more renowned.
Uganda has the widest variety of primates anywhere in Africa, including chimpanzees and the endangered mountain gorilla, while the remarkable 1008 recorded bird species provide unquestionably the richest birdlife on the continent. Much of the countryside is an extravagant, velvety green. Add the majestic River Nile, the Rwenzori 'Mountains of the Moon' and the vast expanse of Lake Victoria, and it is easy to see why Uganda is known as 'The Pearl of Africa'.
In the 1960s, Uganda was widely regarded as Africa's premier safari destination. Sadly, civil strife eclipsed the country's natural attractions for many years. Uganda has been politically stable since 1986, when the current President, Yoweri Museveni came to power. In the mid to late 1990s, he was lauded by the West as part of a new generation of African leaders, and Uganda is once again marketing itself as the ultimate eco-destination. Its gorillas represent perhaps the most powerful eco-image of them all. But there is much more to Uganda than this. With 20 national parks and reserves, Uganda arguably has a greater diversity of wildlife than any other African country, and the scenery varies from the dry savannah lands of the Kidepo Valley National Park in the north, to the rain forests of Semliki, Kabale and Bwindi in the south.
Kampala, the sprawling Ugandan capital is a most handsome city. Set among seven hills, with a wide range of comfortable hotels, 'al fresco' eating places, exciting nightlife and one of the finest public gardens in Africa, the city has enough to keep visitors with a cultural or historical interest occupied for at least a day. The Kasubi Tombs are a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site where four former Bugandan kings lie buried. The Bahai Temple, often called the 'mother temple of Africa', with its panoramic views of Kampala, is about 6km north of the city. In Buganda Road and behind the National Theatre you can buy local handicrafts in the African Craft Village. The nearby city of Entebbe is the home of Uganda's international airport and the spectacular Botanical Gardens. Approximately 23km southeast of Entebbe on Lake Victoria lies the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, while birdwatchers can make a half-day trip to Mabamba, a good site for seeking the illusive shoebill stork. The Ssese Islands in the northwestern part of the lake is an increasingly popular tourist destination.
Six hours' drive southwest of Kampala, the Semliki Valley Wildlife Reserve is in a flat crater bordered by the escarpment of the Rift Valley which rises 1,500 metres on the eastern side; the dramatic Rwenzori foothills to the south, and Lake Albert and the Congo to the north and west. Habitats here include papyrus swamps, lakes, rivers, marshes, gallery and tropical rainforest and savannah.
Semliki protects a variety of mammals such as chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, giant forest hog and leopard. There are also populations of Uganda kob, lion, elephant, buffalo, reedbuck, bushbuck, sitatunga and waterbuck. Large wildlife is fairly shy here. Semliki is the only Ugandan park where visitors can take night drives. Of particular significance to birdwatchers are 16 species of the Guinea-Congo forest belt, which reach their easternmost limit here.
In western Uganda, the Kibale Forest National Park is one of the most beautiful forest parks in Africa. Perhaps best known for its chimpanzees, it contains another 12 primate species – the greatest variety of any forest in central-eastern Africa, including the rare blue and red-tailed monkeys and grey-cheeked mangabey. Kibale protects virgin lowland tropical rainforest, montane evergreen forest and mixed tropical deciduous forest. Among the 300+ bird species present are the African grey parrot, black-billed and great blue turacos and green-breasted pitta. The guided walking trails focus on tracking habituated chimpanzees, and provide access to Kibale's different habitats, with the chance to see birds and other primates.
South of Kibale, the spectacular Queen Elizabeth National Park contains a rich diversity of ecosystems – acacia grassland, papyrus swamp, rainforest, flamingo-lined volcanic crater lakes – and magnificent scenery. It is bordered to the southwest by Lake Edward and to the northeast by Lake George, and has the greatest variety of mammals in Uganda, including sitatunga, elephant and great herds of Uganda kob. Among the primates there are black-and-white colobus, L'Hoest's, red-tailed and blue monkeys. Twenty species of predator include spotted hyena, lion and leopard. Among the 568 birds are papyrus and black-headed gonoleks, lowland akalat, swamp flycatcher and black bee-eater. The Ishasha sector, in the southern part of the park, is home to a population of tree-climbing lion, while the Maramagambo Forest contains chimpanzees and a wealth of forest birds such as the golden-breasted starling, D'Arnaud's barbet and red-billed hornbill. Further north there is excellent game- viewing around Mweya. A launch trip down the Kazinga Channel provides an opportunity to see elephant, hippo, waterbuck and many waterbirds.
On the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park – one of Uganda's UNESCO World Heritage Sites – holds roughly half of the world's remaining mountain gorillas. The rest find sanctuary in Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans. This dense jungle contains another 10 primates, notably chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus and blue monkeys. Around 80+ other mammals are present, including elephant, bush pig and various duikers. Clouds of butterflies are often seen at bush pig mud wallows near the trails. Bwindi is very rewarding for forest birding. Among the 345+ recorded species are 23 Albertine Rift endemics, with 14 found nowhere else in Uganda. Birdwatchers should stay at least two nights in Buhoma – the lower sector of the park for gorilla tracking – followed by an additional two nights at simple, well-tended accommodation in high-altitude Ruhija. The mountains of Ruhija hold localized species of bird such as the rare African green broadbill and dusky twinspot. Because gorillas are Bwindi's main attraction, lodges servicing the park are near the park office from where gorilla tracking commences daily.
The Murchison Falls National Park is the largest national park in Uganda, covering an area of nearly 4,000 sq km in the north, and offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. The park was briefly known as Kabalega Falls National Park in the early 1970s, having been renamed by President Idi Amin after the King of Bunyoro, famous for resisting attempts to colonize his kingdom. Until about 40 years ago, the waters of the Nile were forced through a narrow gap in the rocks to fall through a series of foaming, roaring cascades down a drop of about 50m, creating one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls. However, in 1961, a year of particularly heavy rains and floods in Uganda, the waterfall broke through another cleft in the rocks and there are now two breaches. The Murchison Falls are another good spot to see the rare shoebill stork and the solitary hammerkop.
Fishing for Nile perch and tilapia attracts many anglers to The Murchison Falls National Park. The fast-flowing waters above and below the falls are probably the best places from which to cast off. The king of the freshwater fish is without doubt the massive Nile perch, while the much smaller, rather bony tilapia which makes good eating, can be found on the menus of many of Kampala's finest restaurants.
The White Nile near Jinja has become known as the adventure sports capital, for the river here has several grade five rapids which offer exhilarating white-water rafting on a par with the world-renowned Zambezi Gorge. All the rapids at the Bujagali Falls are named to heighten the anticipation, for instance: 'Total Gunga', 'Silverback', 'Rib Cage' and 'Surf City'. Jinja would probably be a fairly nondescript town if it were not for its location. It is at the head of the Napoleon Gulf, on the northern edge of Lake Victoria, and lies on the east bank of the Victoria Nile. The town is perhaps best known for being the source of the Nile. Even as it leaves the lake, it is a surprisingly large river and it is a bit spooky to think of it wandering north for 4,000 miles until it reaches the Mediterranean Sea.
In southern Uganda, the Lake Mburo National Park by comparison, lies in dry acacia woodland. The 68 mammal species include topi, roan antelope and giant eland. Jackals, leopards and hyenas prey on the abundance of herbivores. A cruise on Lake Mburo may reveal crocodiles, hippos and aquatic birdlife. The park supports 310 bird species in its acacia woodlands, papyrus swamps, grasslands and on its open waters.
Uganda has a fantastic climate, an ever-changing landscape and people who are honest, polite and genuinely pleased to welcome you. Whether you want to concentrate on Uganda's primates, tick off Albertine Rift endemics, land a giant Nile perch, explore the 'Mountains of the Moon', experience the vibrancy of its people, seek adventure or observe the diversity of its game, Uganda will not disappoint you. It will leave you with a deep sense of respect for the lands and the people who safeguard its rich natural heritage.
Where to stay
An urban 'country house' hotel set in a large tropical garden with sweeping views over the hills of Kampala.
This luxury tented camp in the heart of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is the perfect base for tracking the endangered mountain gorillas.