Go for a drive over rolling hills on perfectly paved roads. Surrounded by forests as far as the eye can see, and beyond. Home to some of the most exotic animals, birds and flora on the planet. The greens and the browns of the woods broken by the blues and silvers of lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Moderate temperatures all year round. The sky full of flirty clouds that come close just for a peck, occasionally coming low enough to envelope the landscape in a bear hug. And at times scattering to reveal a beaming sun and skies with hues of blues not seen elsewhere.
That’s wild Uganda for you, my idea of an ideal holiday destination. Unspoilt by mass tourism, the country seems content in its own time bubble. Rustic, yet charming. Raw, yet beautiful. At peace, yet wild. Progressive, yet leisurely. A wonder of a destination if ever there was one.
WILDLIFE IN UGANDA
Sub-Saharan Africa is teeming with wildlife across many countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia to name a few. But Uganda is where you may want to be in despite it not featuring on too many itineraries.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority is doing a great job managing over 10 national parks and I visited three of the finest ones. Join me in my game drives and plan your own itinerary accordingly.
* Murchison Falls National Park
* Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
* Queen Elizabeth National Park (drove through Ishasha wildlife sector to get here and got a good sense of this park too)
PLANNING AN ITINERARY IN UGANDA’S NATIONAL PARKS
No amount of time is enough is you really love being in the wild and close to its flora and fauna. But we all need to draw a line somewhere – do provision for at least 2-3 full days in each park. When you visit Bwindi, you can be there for just two nights – you arrive on day one, go gorilla tracking the following morning, and return the day after that.
MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF EACH NATIONAL PARK
* Murchison Falls National Park: It gets its name from falls by the same name on the Nile river. Don’t miss out on a river cruise where you can get close to the falls, its misty sprays leaving you (and your cameras) damp. The river itself is home to countless hippos and crocodiles while the park boasts an impressive line-up to include lions, leopards, elephants, hyenas, giraffes, water buffaloes and many species of birds, reptiles and other mammals. The landscape draws you in – from the crack of dawn till night falls. Magical is the word for Murchinson.
* Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: You go to Bwindi for the endangered Mountain Gorillas. They sure make you work hard for the sightings. Expect to be out all day tracking them through thick forests and slushy paths; the hilly terrain tests you, and be prepared to fall, slip and slide on your backside. A good scrub and a massage is what you will need at the end – but the sightings of gorillas will leave you glowing.
* Queen Elizabeth National Park: Another park that will leave you stunned with its virgin beauty. Elephants are to be found in abundance here – as are many other species of birds and animals. Take sunset cruises in the Kazinga channel and go up close to hippos, water buffaloes, crocs and thousands of birds hovering around you. Vast plains with pockets of thick forests make game drives a pleasure and an adventure – you never know what lurks around the corner.
HOW DO YOU TRAVEL BETWEEN NATIONAL PARKS IN UGANDA?
Most parks in Uganda are within a few hours driving distance of each other. Of course, it can take longer if you were to go directly from, say, Murchison to Bwindi. The road network in quite extensive in Uganda, and they are mostly of good quality with low traffic density. You can also book rides on small planes that land on strips inside reserves but these are more expensive than equivalent flights in countries like Kenya; lower numbers in Uganda lead to higher operating costs here.
GAME DRIVES: FOR BEST RESULTS…
SELECTING THE RIGHT GAME DRIVE VEHICLE AND GUIDE
Your experience in the jungle is largely shaped by your guides and the vehicles they use. You can choose from the comfortable closed vehicles with an opening in the roof or from those open on all sides; I prefer the latter as I can shoot from all angles and also remove the soft covers should I need angles from higher up. I always interview guides before selecting one – not only is their knowledge important, but they should have a good sense and intuition in tracking animals. Of course, no one can guarantee any sightings.
DO YOU BOOK A GAME DRIVE VEHICLE ALL FOR YOURSELF OR SHARE?
It all depends on your budget. A shared vehicle in obviously cheaper but it gives you lesser flexibility in choosing shooting positions as well as asking the guides to take you to your areas of interest. Personally, I save elsewhere but prefer to have a vehicle and guide to myself. I cherish the relative privacy too – it resonates well with the silence of the forest.
PACKING FOR GAME DRIVES
As in any forest, do ensure you wear khakis or neutral colours; bright colours attract animals and can lead to violent behaviour. Carry outdoor wear that is light, packs easily and breathes well. Do keep a light jacket and rain protection gear (including for your cameras) as weather can change anytime. Sturdy shoes, sun protection creams, hats and shades can be useful. Mosquito repellents are a good idea too – your lodge may have some though.
ANY OTHER TIPS?
Forests are our planet’s wealth and we need to respect Nature. And do our bit to conserve this treasure for future generations. When out there, do not disturb animals – let them do what comes naturally to them. Listen to and obey your guides – they say things for a reason. Have fun – but responsibly.