It is easy to see why Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa, a surprise gem hidden, waiting to be discovered.
Often overshadowed by the more famous East African neighbour, Kenya, Uganda sometimes misses the boat when it comes to seeking an African experience. The truth is, it offers mostly everything the other African countries do, and more. You just need to know where to look.
I recently visited Uganda, and peeled back the layers to find out just what a pearl of a destination it is.
Having travelled a fair bit of Africa, I was excited to be exploring a new destination. I was warned about safety in Uganda more than any other African country. What I found was it was just as safe as any other African country I had visited, and the hype was, well just that, hype.
First and foremost, I noticed the acceptance and curiosity of the local people. They were open and friendly and happy to offer assistance when requested. I never felt I was harassed nor unsafe when wandering along the streets, browsing at local markets or seeking a place to eat. As a solo female traveller, as long as you keep your street sense, it is perfectly safe.
So if you are a first time traveller to Uganda, these are some things you need to know.
What to do
Uganda has everything to offer for the ultimate African experience, from adventure and wildlife to culture and history. You need a good 10 days in the country to really take in the best of it, as travelling between locations can take time due to poor roads and terrain. While you can take on Uganda independently, booking an organised tour can take a lot of the stress out of bartering with locals for a deal.
Possibly the biggest drawcard for the country is the mountain gorillas. The best place to access these unique primates are through Bwindi Impenetrable Forrest in the National Park. The park is inhabited by a population of about 340 individuals of Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), commonly referred to as the Bwindi population, which makes up almost half of all the mountain gorillas remaining in the world. The trek is not for the faint hearted as it is quite strenuous and can take up to 6 hours in an unforgiving heat and terrain. A Gorilla Trekking Pass will set you back USD$600, but it is well worth it. I highly recommend going with a reputable trekking company who can prepare all of your passes and arrange accommodation for pre and post trek.
Just as famous are Uganda’s Chimpanzee population, and the best place to experience these fun loving primates in the wild are at Kibale. Much easier than the gorilla trekking, the walk embarks on from the Kanyanchu Visitor center at 08.00 & 15.00 and lasts 2 to 3 hours. Chimpanzee are the most sought after primate by visitors, but you should look out for the black & white colobus, red tailed monkey or the grey cheeked mangabey. Your guides will be able to show you pittas & different bird species and will give details of the tradit of the plant species within the forest. This walk is for 6 people in a group. Advance booking is all-important especially during peak sea.
The Nile River
I was amazed to find out that Uganda is known for the ‘source of the nile’, and can be found at Jinja. Just as the local villages depend on the river for their way of life, the Nile breathes life into the country in the way of adventure. I brave the river with all her might by jumping in a raft and tackling the rapids. Described to me as the “heaviest” grade 5 rapids, I felt excited to be experiencing white water rafting for the first time on such a notorious run. After all, the trill of danger beats wildly through my veins. Little did I know just how much of a thrill I had in store. Adrift White Water Rafting took me to the extremes, and after experiencing a heart stopping ride (outside of the boat) down the middle of the largest grade 5 rapid after being thrown from the boat, I can say with full confidence this truly is a must do activity to add to your itinerary. Proceed with caution though as it is not for the faint hearted. The river also serves up a scenic launch point for a bungee jump, a gorgeous sunset river cruise and various other adventure like activities. If this is not your style, just grab a book and sit on the banks and watch the world go by.
It is always wise to be cautious when exploring the local night life, and Uganda is no different. However, this doesn’t mean you need to stick to your hotel bars. There is an array of options when hitting the town in Kamapla. Many of the bars and clubs boast an authentic African vibe, with music you will not even recognise, which makes it all the more fun. And Africans love to dance. I found the local Ugandan people are friendly and happy to chat over a few drinks. It is a great way to find out some local knowledge and even brush up on some local lingo. So grab a taxi, Uber even if you wish, and hit the town. Just be street wise and know how to get home at the end of the night.
Like any African country I have experienced, you need to be a little more prepared. Popping out to the local store for some toothpaste or topping up that local phone credit is not as easy as other destinations. So prior preparation is needed.
Moreso, that familiar saying TIA – This Is Africa, applies. Things will not always go smooth and when problems do arise, they can take some serious out of the box thinking to resolve. So make sure you pack an open mind, a whole lot of patience and a go with the flow attitude.
Here are just a few tips I cannot recommend enough:
- Kick Arse First Aid Kit
This is essential as medic support is limited. And for heaven’s sake make sure you have travel insurance. Malaria testing kits are cheap in Uganda so if you can find a chemist do stoke up for future travel. TAKE YOUR ANTI MALARIALS! I cannot stress this enough.
- Carry The Coin
ATMs are few and far between, and when you do find them, they rarely work for foreign cards. So stock up on USD in small denominations. Make sure these are no older than 2015 too, otherwise they may not be accepted.
- Live Like a Local
Grab a local SIM card for your phone if you think you will need to keep in contact with the outside world. It is dirt cheap and can be set up quite easily.
- Chicken On A Stick
This is a must try when travelling through the country. Sold on the side of the road by vendors, it truly is heaven on a stick when you are hungry on those long road trips between towns.
- Give Back
Yes, there are parts of Uganda that are very poor, so where you can, give back to the locals. It is not hard to flick a few extra dollars over for that meal, or share a lunch with someone in exchange for a bit of conversation.