My trip to Uganda & Rwanda

I was recently lucky enough to be invited on a trip to Uganda & Rwanda. Getting a better sense of the lay of the land and understanding the logistics of the region from a tourist access point of view was the reason for my trip.  But so was getting up close to the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild  – a bucket list item on my and almost everybody’s list!

Here is a summary of my trip and my (often frank) comments…

We  flew into Entebbe in Uganda and spent the night there before the start of our journey. Our trip through Uganda was all by car as we were all travel agents and it was a good way for us to gain an understanding of the lay of the land. That being said, I would recommend that clients fly.

On the afternoon of our arrival we did a sundowner cruise on Lake Victoria. My favorite part of the trip was to be able to stand on the Equator for a photo.

Hanging out with fellow Travel Agents at the Equator!

From Entebbe we started our first long drive to Murchison Falls. This was a 7 hour drive on good roads (once past Kampala). It would have been longer but we managed to go around Kampala which, even from the outskirts, does not look like a city anyone would need or want to visit. Apparently it can take up to 3 hours to get through the city so I was relieved to avoid it.

We stopped en route to enjoy a packed lunch and then continued our journey to Murchison Falls. At Murchison Falls we met up with a guide who showed us the Falls and walked us down to the Nile River where we boarded a boat that took us the rest of the way to Bakers Lodge. The Falls were impressive! Basically the Nile river flows down and converges into an 8 meter wide / 40 meter drop waterfall. I was however a little disappointed in the facilities and signage around the falls.

Cruising down the Nile and the Murchison Falls

The sundowner cruise to Bakers Lodge was lovely. Beautiful skies, lots of hippos (including one under our boat!), incredible bird life, warthogs, buffalo, antelope in abundance.

Bakers Lodge was wonderful. All of the rooms face the river. Hippos come out of the water at night and you can hear them grazing around your tent in the evenings. Uganda is ‘real Africa’. I had a large lizard and a bat in my room and another lady had a snake. All harmless but I wouldn’t recommend it to clients who are the least bit nervous.

Baker’s Lodge, Murchison Falls.

 

From Bakers Lodge there is the opportunity to do a game drive into the Murchison Falls National Park. The park is on the opposite side of the river so you need to take a pontoon across. The pontoon has set departure times. The other activity is a boat cruise along the Nile to the Nile Delta which opens into Lake Albert. The Nile Delta is where you can see the endemic Shoebill bird. The order of activities is ideally, the Delta in the morning and the game drive in the afternoon as it takes around 2 hours to get to the Delta. We saw lots of game including lion, elephants, antelope, buffalo in the National Park. We had excellent sighting of Shoebill as well as elephants, hippos and antelope on the cruise.

The Shoebill Stork is endemic to Uganda. This prehistoric looking bird is on every serious birder’s wish list.

Ellies on the Nile Delta

From Murchison Falls we travelled to Kibale. They are currently upgrading the roads but as they are now, this is not an option for any of my clients. The drive is 440km and took us 10 hours! The road is bumpy and dusty. So bumpy, in fact, that our car broke down, thankfully just 100m from our next lodge which was Primate Lodge.

Primate Lodge is situated on the edge of the Kibale Forest and about 100m from the Chimp Trekking Headquarters. It is a very basic lodge – probably one that I would only use for my budget conscious clients. The rooms are spacious and comfortable.

Kibale National Park and the Chimp Trekking Headquarters

I found the chimp trekking fairly strenuous. The trekking is through the forest and it is muddy and hot. The bridges across the particularly wet areas in the forest were in need of repair.  I was hot and exhausted by the end of our 4 hour hike and I saw one lonely chimp running along the ground. The only others I saw were so high up in the trees that I could barely see them. Like anything in nature there are no guarantees and unfortunately we were out of luck when we did it.

We saw two other lodges while in the area : Ndali Lodge and Kyaninga Lodge.

Ndali Lodge is owner run and managed. The setting is beautiful as it overlooks a crater lake.  Delicious food (and great coffee!) is grown in the farm. The pool area overlooks rolling hills and the patio terrace overlooks the lake. The rooms are basic but very colonial and quite quirky. Each room has view over the second crater lake. (the lakes are twin lakes) Guests can join the owner for yoga before breakfast. There is a lovely 1.5 hour walking trail around the lake which is also great for canoeing and swimming. Guests can visit the local village and the coffee plantation.

Ndali Lodge is definitely a lodge one could stay at for 3 days or so just to relax.

Sunset from the deck at Kyaninga Lodge, set high up above a crater lake.

Kyaninga Lodge is owner run and managed. Steve is very involved in the community and oversees numerous fundraising initiatives. Set high up and with lots of steps, the overall impression is of being in a lodge in the Swiss Alps. The setting is beautiful with views down onto a crater lake on one side and the gardens, vegetable garden, badminton court, tennis court and boules lawn to the other.  The lake is great for swimming.

Again, I would recommend staying at Kyaninga Lodge for 3 nights to just relax and totally chill out.

We departed Fort Portal and drove to the Kazinga Channel in the Queen Elizabeth National Park where we did a boat cruise. (The drive from Fort Portal is 3 hours).

This channel is 40km long and connects Lake Edward to Lake George. It is quite fascinating seeing a fishing village literally in the middle of all of the wildlife. This included elephants, buffalo, antelope and hippo!

Animals we saw on the banks of the Kazinga ChannelThere is only one lodge at the Kazinga Channel… Mweya Safari Lodge.

After the boat cruise we drove the rest of the way to Ishasha. This drive is 4 hours along very bad roads. Ishasha is in the Southern Sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. En route we crossed the equator and of course had to stop for another photo opportunity!

Another Equator landmark! This time in the Queen Elizabeth National Park

This area is known for their tree climbing lions – which we saw on arrival and also on departure. It is pretty amazing seeing such huge beasts up in the trees. They climb the trees to escape the heat and insects and presumably to keep an eye on the prey below.

I was lucky enough to see the famous Tree Climbing Lions!

Some of the other animals we saw were elephants, buffalo, kob and koppie.

As we got nearer to Ishasha Wilderness Lodge we stopped for a surprise sundowner. What a beautiful setting! The landscape in general in the area is very picturesque.

The long and dusty drive to Ishasha was forgotten as we enjoyed a surprise sundowner stop en route

We were treated to a beautiful surprise sundowner picnic

Ishasha Wilderness Lodge is a tented camp with bucket showers. The tents are very spacious and although basic, are comfortable. The setting is on the banks of a fast flowing river.

We departed Ishasha and drove to Bwindi. This wasn’t as bad a drive because some of it was through the park and then the rest of the way was on a decent road.

Bwindi is a very busy little town with loads of curio shops and very friendly people.

We stayed at Buhoma Lodge which is one of the closest lodges to the Gorilla Trekking Headquarters.

Buhoma Lodge also has that Swiss Alps chalet feel with lots of steps.  It too is a basic but comfortable accommodation option nice and close to the gorilla trekking departure point. Standouts were the lovely hot showers,  the free massage and the great picnic lunch they packed for us to enjoy while trekking on the mountain.

Another perk is the trekking gear that they lend their guests : gators, gloves and daypacks.

Buhoma Lodge is basic but comfortable and perfectly situated close to the gorilla trekking departure point.

The gorilla trekking was just out of this world. We trekked for around 2 hours before we found them. I didn’t find the trek tough at all but I had trained for a race that I did just before we went so maybe I was slightly fitter than usual. You can hire a porter to help you up the mountain, they can push and pull you and also carry your backpack with your water and food. (You need a lot of water!). I hired a porter because in doing so you pay them a salary that they otherwise wouldn’t have an in turn they are happy to help protect the land and hence the gorillas. Without the work as a porter they would probably start to cultivate the land to make money. Some of the people I was with used their porter both up and down the mountain and they said that they couldn’t have done it without them.

See my selfie with a gorilla. This is how close we got to them!

When you find the gorilla’s you are given the time, we found them at 10:44. At 11:39 we were given 5 minutes and at 11:44 we were taken away from the gorillas. They are extremely strict and I was happy with that. It felt professional and organized.

While based at Buhoma Lodge,  we visited these other properties:

Bwindi Lodge –  There are 8 lovely rooms which give you the impression of being right in the forest. The main area has uninterrupted views over the forest. There are lots of steps!

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp –  There are 8 tented rooms each with a bath and a shower. The decor of the main area is quite modern.  Guests have the opportunity for community interaction with the local Batwa Pygmies.

From Buhoma we drove to Kisoro Border post. It was a 4.5 hour drive some of which is on a mountain pass. It was very beautiful and clearly showed the obvious divide between the forest and cultivated land.

To summarise Uganda:

There is a wide range of amazing places to visit and experiences to be had. But it is a big country with vast distances and so I would highly recommend flying between destinations.

Uganda is a beautiful country.

The border crossing was simple and not too time consuming.

Crossing the border from Uganda into Rwanda

Rwanda

Rwanda roads are perfect, the country is spotless and every piece of land cultivated. On the last Saturday of every month the whole country shuts down and the population spends the morning cleaning up their streets and picking up litter. They are not permitted on the roads (on their bikes or in vehicles) and are not allowed to open their businesses. Even the president is known to join them. We were there on the last Saturday and it really is true!

While in Rwanda we visited the Volcanoes National Park. There are 6 volcanoes in Rwanda and this is where the gorillas live. There are also incredibly picturesque crater lakes. The vegetation,  like in Uganda, is lush and green. It almost feels like you could be in Asia.

We did not go gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

Unfortunately we were only able to visit the Volcanoes National Park and then we drove to Kigali and flew home.

To summarise Rwanda:

(Bearing in mind that we only visited Volcanoes National Park):

  •  Rwanda is a great option for quick in and out. Quite a lot of the itineraries that we put together have our clients flying directly into Rwanda, going on a gorilla trek, and then flying onto Kenya or Tanzania.
  • Drive from Kigali to the VNP is 2.5 hours on very good roads.
  • Unfortunately the trekking permits are expensive but well worth it.

If your’e considering an East Africa trip, I can highly recommend combining going on safari in Kenya or Tanzania and seeing the gorillas in Rwanda.  Contact me and I’ll gladly put together an itinerary to suit your budget and expectations.  camille@southerndestinations.com