Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Home to almost half the world’s surviving mountain gorillas, it was listed among the famous national parks in East Africa by World Heritage. Seats over 331 sq. km of improbably steep mountain rainforest, the park is home to an estimated 459 mountain gorillas as of December 2019; undoubtedly Uganda’s biggest tourist attractions and the leading tourism earner.
As well as its famous primates, Bwindi contains more than 120 other species of mammal more than any of Uganda’s other national parks though sightings are less common due to the dense forest. Lucky visitors might see forest elephants, 11 species of primate (including chimpanzees and L’Hoest’s monkeys), duikers, bushbucks, African golden cats and the rare giant forest hog, as well as a host of bird and insect species. For birdwatchers, the park is one of the most exciting destinations in the country, with over 350 species, including 23 of the 24 endemic to the Albertine Rift and several endangered species, such as the African green broadbill. With a good guide, you can sight daily totals of more than 150 species of birds. On the greener side of the aisle, Bwindi harbors eight Albertine Rift endemic plants such as Red stinkwood, Newtonia, Symphonia globulifera, East African yellow wood and Strombosia scheffleri etc.
Murchison Falls National Park
Uganda’s largest national park is one of its very best; animals are in plentiful supply and the raging Murchison Falls, where the Victoria Nile crashes through the rock and descends dramatically towards Lake Albert, is an unforgettable sight. Despite a decimation of animal numbers during the war years, numbers have recovered well and you can expect to see elephants, Rothschild giraffes, lions, Ugandan kobs (antelope), waterbucks, buffaloes, hippos and crocodiles, not to mention some 460 species of bird.
Top of the Falls
Once described as the most spectacular thing to happen to the Nile along its 6700km length, the 50m wide Victoria Nile is squeezed here through a 6m gap in the rock and crashes through this narrow gorge with unbelievable power. The 45m waterfall was featured in the Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart film The African Queen. Murchison was even stronger back then, but in 1962 massive floods cut a second channel creating the smaller Uhuru Falls 200m to the north.
There’s a beautiful walking trail from the top down to the river, and the upper stretch of this path offers views of Uhuru Falls, which a boat trip will not bring you close enough to appreciate. Though it’s straightforward, a ranger guide is required. If you take the launch trip, the captain will let you off at the trailhead and a ranger will meet you there. The boat can then pick you up later if there’s an afternoon launch, or you can prearrange a car to take you out. This is also a good way for campers to get to the campsite at the top of the falls before returning to Paraa the next morning. The hike takes about 45 minutes from the bottom.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
This fabulous national park is on nearly all itineraries, and while you’ll never be far from other safari groups, you’re guaranteed to see a large range of wildlife, potentially including giraffes, lions, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, buffaloes and elephants. The famous tree-climbing lions in the remote Ishasha sector of the park are a fascinating highlight, but many people also come specifically to see some of the amazing 611 bird species that can be found here.
Back in the 1970s, with its great herds of elephants, buffaloes, kobs, waterbucks, hippos and topis, Queen Elizabeth was one of the premier safari parks in Africa. But during the troubled 1980s, Ugandan and Tanzanian troops (which occupied the country after Amin’s demise) did their ivory-grabbing, trophy-hunting best. Thankfully, animal populations have recovered since then with thanks to improved park security and an emphasis on antipoaching patrols.
Besides the usual wildlife drives, the park is well worth a visit for the wonderful boat trip on the Kazinga Channel and a walk through beautiful Kyambura (Chambura) Gorge, a little Eden brimming with chimpanzees and other primates.
Kidepo Valley National Park
Offering some of the most stunning scenery of any protected area in Uganda, Kidepo Valley National Park is hidden away in a lost valley in the extreme northeast of Uganda. The rolling, short-grass savannah of the 1442-sq-km national park is ringed by mountains and cut by rocky ridges. Kidepo is most notable for harboring a number of animals found nowhere else in Uganda, including cheetahs, bat-eared foxes, aardwolves, caracals and greater and lesser kudus.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
The smallest of Uganda’s national parks (34 sq km), Mgahinga punches well above its weight. Tropical rainforest cloaks three dramatic extinct volcanoes and, along with the contiguous Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Parc National des Virunga in the DRC, this is the home of half the world’s mountain-gorilla population. Mgahinga also serves up some challenging but rewarding treks and an interesting cave, plus golden-monkey tracking is almost as fun as hanging out with the big boys.
Gorilla tracking is the main attraction, but it’s less popular than Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, due to the one habituated family having a tendency to duck across the mountains into Rwanda or the DRC. But there’s more on offer here than just gorillas. Elephants, buffaloes and serval are rarely seen, but they’re also out there, and 115 species of bird flutter through the forests, including Rwenzori turaco and mountain black boo. All activities are booked through UWA in Kisoro, or otherwise its office in Mgahinga.
Source of the Nile River
The birthplace of the mighty Nile river (or one of them anyway…), here the water spills out of Lake Victoria on its journey to the Mediterranean flowing fast from the get-go. It’s estimated no more than 5% of water here will end up in Egypt. There’s a landmark identifying the source and a few restaurants and bars, which can make for a nice place for a sunset beer. Exploring the source by boat (per person USh50,000) is another popular option.
Despite being touted as one of Jinja’s premier drawcards, on the Jinja side of the river there really isn’t much to see. It’s more pleasant across the river on the western bank with the Source of the Nile Gardens and Speke Monument – a pillar commemorating where the British explorer first laid claim to the historic source of the Nile in 1858. In recent times the source has been traced anywhere from Rwanda to Burundi.
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Located 23km southeast of Entebbe in Lake Victoria, Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, or ‘Chimp Island’, is home to over 40 orphaned or rescued chimpanzees who are unable to return to the wild. Humans are confined to one of the 40 hectares while the chimps wander freely through the rest, emerging from the forest twice a day for feeding at 11am and 2.30pm. This coincides with visitor arrival times to the island, with viewings of the chimps via a raised platform.
This sanctuary in Lake Victoria is home to around 50 orphaned chimps that have been rescued from elsewhere in Uganda and are being rehabilitated as much as possible on this thickly forested island. Day trips to see the residents are superb. Plan ahead and you can join the overnight experience and a forest-walk with the chimps, who’ll climb all over you. It’s a 50-/90-minute speedboat or motorized canoe ride from Entebbe to get here.
While it can’t compare to the experience of seeing chimps in the wild, especially due to the large electrified fence that separates chimp from human, it still makes for a worthwhile excursion to observe the animals’ remarkable behavior. Guides here are informative, and there are individual profiles for each chimp, detailing both their distinct personalities and history. There are also big monitor lizards in residence and abundant birdlife.
The island is a project of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary & Wildlife Conservation Trust, which arranges bookings for day trips and accommodation.
Rates are based on a minimum group of two, though one individual can go at a higher rate. It’s cheaper with larger group sizes. The half-day trip includes entry, guide and boat transport. Two trips depart from Entebbe per day: in the morning at 9am, returning at 12.45pm, or departing at 12.45pm and returning by 4.45pm.
The CSWCT also offers an overnight experience (first night/additional nights US$539/185) in a self-contained, solar-powered safari tent. Rates include lodging, full board, transport, activities and entry, based on two guests. Check the website for add-on activities.
Arrive via speed boat (50 minutes) or motorized canoe (90 minutes) from the Entebbe dock. Those who arrive via their own transport must pay an entry fee (adult/child US$35/15).
Kibale National Park
The 795-sq-km Kibale National Park is a lush tropical rainforest, believed to have the highest density of primates in Africa. It’s most famous for being one of the best places in the world to track wild chimpanzees, with five groups habituated to human contact. It’s home to 13 primate species, with the rare red colobus and L’Hoest’s monkeys the other highlights. Larger but rarely seen residents include bushbucks, sitatungas, buffaloes, leopards and quite a few forest elephants. There are also an incredible 250 species of butterfly that live here. While on the smaller side, Kibale also has a great bird list with 372 species. The park visitor centre is at Kanyanchu, 35km southeast of Fort Portal.
Lake Mburo National Park
The 370-sq-km Lake Mburo National Park is an increasingly common stop on the safari circuit. It’s the only place in southern Uganda to see zebra and giraffe, which were recently reintroduced. It’s also the only park in the country with impala, slender mongoose and giant bush rat. You can also look for leopard, topi and eland. Some of the 325 species of bird include martial eagle, red-faced barbet, papyrus yellow warbler and African finfoot.
Mt Elgon National Park
Spread out over the slopes of a massive extinct volcano, Mt Elgon National Park is a good place to spot various primates and lots of birds, including the rare Jackson’s francolin, alpine chat and white-starred forest robin. Larger fauna, including leopard, hyena, buffalo and elephant are far harder to spot, but most visitors come for the hiking and impressive landscapes that are peppered with cliffs, caves, gorges and waterfalls.
Elgon, whose name is derived from the Maasai name, Ol Doinyo Ilgoon (‘Breast Mountain’), has five major peaks with the highest, Wagagai (4321m), rising on the Ugandan side. It’s the second-tallest mountain in Uganda (after Mt Stanley at 5109m) and the eighth in Africa, though millions of years ago it was the continent’s tallest and the views from the higher reaches still stretch way across eastern Uganda’s wide plains.
The lower slopes are clothed in tropical montane forest with extensive stands of bamboo. Above 3000m the forest fades into heath and then afro-alpine moorland, which blankets the caldera, a collapsed crater covering some 40 sq. km. The moorland is studded with rare plant species, such as giant groundsel and endemic Lobelia elgonensis, and you’ll often see duiker bounding through the long grass and endangered lammergeier vultures overhead.
Semliki Wildlife Reserve
The Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve is the oldest protected natural area in Uganda, having first been set aside in 1926. Once one of the best-stocked and most popular wildlife parks in East Africa, it suffered significant poaching during the civil-war years and after the war with Tanzania. Wildlife is recovering and you may encounter waterbucks, reedbucks, bushbucks, chimpanzees, pygmy hippos, buffaloes, leopards, elephants and hyenas. A number of lions have also recently returned to the reserve.
The Semliki Valley is a little corner of Congo poking into Uganda. The only tropical lowland rainforest in East Africa is a continuation of the huge Ituri Forest in the DRC and forms a link between the heights of East Africa and the vast, steaming jungles of central Africa. Semuliki covers 220 sq. km of the valley floor and harbors some intriguing wildlife, though sightings are difficult due to the thick vegetation. It’s most famous for its primordial hot springs.