Uganda: The pearl of Africa
The Virunga volcanoes are home to the endangered mountain gorilla. (David Wall/LPI)
Uganda is a highlights reel of the African landscape. With its dense, misty forests, snow-peaked mountains, glassy lakes and sprawling savannas, it is no wonder Winston Churchill dubbed this the “pearl of Africa”.
Having stepped out of the shadows of a deep dark past under Idi Amin and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda is no longer a country to be feared; in fact is widely regarded as one of Africa’s safer destinations. Whether you are looking for mountain gorillas – the country’s primary allure -- wildlife safaris, volcano trekking, whitewater rafting or just kicking back on the beach, Uganda has the best of Africa covered. Here are four unmissable Ugandan experiences -- and where to find them:
One of the quintessential Ugandan attractions is tracking mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and nothing quite prepares you for the first glimpse of black fuzz amid the dense foliage. The adrenaline kicks in when you are up close to the imposing figure of a silverback, and it is all very Dian Fossey-like when curious babies peek through the leaves, twisting, turning and somersaulting for your entertainment. Gorilla permits will set you back a hefty $500, but do not think twice about forking out for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Keep in mind that a portion of the fee goes to the park and gorilla conservation initiatives, helping to ensure their survival.
All the animals, minus the crowds
While it lacks the recognition of its big-name neighbours like the Serengeti and Kruger Park, Uganda’s national parks have all the animals, minus the crowds. In Murchison Falls, Uganda’s largest park, follow your morning wildlife drive with a cruise down the Nile to the base of the falls. It is the perfect way to spy elephants, buffalo, crocs and loads of hippos while relaxing on the boat with a beer. Head to Queen Elizabeth National Park for a better chance of spotting the elusive leopard or its trademark tree-climbing lions. Few tourists make it as far north as Kidepo Valley, but those who do are rewarded with a fantastic selection of animals and some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. If you are hoping to tick off the Big Five, add Ziwa Sanctuary to your itinerary to get up close to white rhino, which you track on foot.
Adventure by the bucketload
Adrenaline junkies can get a fix any way they like in Uganda. With its Grade-5 rapids, the Nile is a magnet for whitewater rafting enthusiasts -- or try kayaking or a white-knuckle jet boat ride. Those who prefer a different kind of plunge can opt for bungee jumping by Bujagali Falls. Trekkers can test their endurance by tackling the Unesco World Heritage-listed Rwenzori Mountains, evocatively described as the “Mountains of the Moon”, with stunning views of the equatorial mist as a reward at the top. For more treks try Mount Elgon National Park or the dramatic Virunga volcanos where the borders of Uganda, Congo and Rwanda converge. Adrift Adventure can sort out all your whitewater needs, while Rwenzori Trekking Services will assist with your trek to the moon.
Scenery to die for
Once the safari addiction wanes and your body needs some rest from those bone-jarring bus journeys, Uganda has some beautiful spots for relaxing. Magical Lake Bunyonyi has intoxicating views, with the mist hanging low over terraced hillsides and dugout canoes gliding through still waters. Ssese Islands in the oceanic-sized Lake Victoria has some of the finest white-sand beaches and burning sunsets; it is the kind of place where you will want to seek out a hammock and bring a good book. Then there is stunning Sipi Falls in eastern Uganda, which is earning a reputation for its uninhibited views of the crashing water. Do not miss the coffee tours, where you will be shown the start-to-finish process at a local coffee plantation, all culminating with a delicious steaming cup as the sun sets over the banana plantations.