The Ultimate Guide To Planning Your First Uganda Safari
Traveling to Uganda on safari is the most memorable and life-changing of leisure holidays. You’ll fall in love with safari life in Africa. The first time you go on a game drive, see an elephant, touch a rhino, giraffes, and watch lions climb trees, the moment will stay with you forever. The most profound of all Uganda safari experiences is the close encounter with the higher apes. That little moment you’ll spend close to a mountain gorilla or band of chimpanzees will profoundly change your relationship with nature.
We live in this giant wildlife reserve and use every leisure time we can spare to inspect this destination’s treasure trove. We have been on countless Uganda safaris and work with numerous safari lodges. We have traveled extensively through the Pearl of Africa as travel bloggers. For us, anytime is safari time because our love for the wide-open spaces, the bush, and all the beautiful creatures in it reincarnates every single day.
Planning your first Uganda safari may be a daunting experience, but with a bit of research and local expert advice, it becomes the most memorable journey you ever make. We’ve written this first-timer’s guide to making planning your holiday in Uganda a great memory.
Why Go On A Uganda Safari
Your first Uganda safari will unwrap vast horizons, open skies, emerald landscapes, and rich tropical forests. Take more days on your first-time safari for a great memorable experience. A slow safari will allow you to immerse yourself in the raw wilderness, to get up close and personal with primates, meeting people of different cultures and ways of life, and contributing to the conservation of the very places and animals you’ve come to see.
You may have seen a lion or elephant in an enclosure at a zoo or in a wildlife documentary on the National Geographic channel. But there is a profound difference when you come upon a band of chimpanzees, a herd of elephants, or a pride of lions in their natural habitat with no fences between you and no commercial breaks to interrupt the action.
A longer Uganda safari allows you a chance to experience indigenous cultures. Whether through traditional foods that might appear on the menu or perhaps interacting with local tribespeople. Uganda Safaris can leave you with a new perspective on life as you witness different ways of living in the remote villages you walk through.
Most Uganda safari holidays are eco-friendly and contribute a big chunk to the conservation of wildlife resources. Uganda’s tourism generates much-needed income to fund conservation efforts. For example, gorilla tourism ensures that the conservation and protection of the mountain gorillas and their sanctuary are well supported. Uganda safaris operators, camps, and lodges directly employ people and resources from local communities.
Going on your first Pearl of Africa safari journey will be a break from the hustle and bustle of daily modern life. It’s a change of scenery, an adventure, and maybe even a culture shock. As the sun rises over the savannah plains or sinks in the Rwenzori Mountain backdrop, you will catch your breath and embrace the silence of these moments, knowing that they will remain in your memory long after you have returned home.
When And Where To Go
Uganda is a well-endowed destination with many incredible attractions to visit, each with its own charms and attractions. The country has a warm and sunny tropical climate, mostly throughout the year. But different regions within the country experience a variety of climates and weather conditions.
When planning your first Uganda safari, the best time to travel depends very much on the destination activity you’ve chosen. Generally, it’s best to go during the dry season, when water is scarce, and animals tend to gather in places where the water hasn’t dried up.
Dirt roads are also easier to navigate during the dry season, and so you can expect to see a lot more animals during the two dry seasons of December to January and June to August.
Note, though, that since the dry season is considered peak season for Uganda safaris, it will likely come with a heftier price tag. If you’re expecting to observe the mountain gorillas in the impenetrable forest of Bwindi, be sure also to consider the availability of gorilla permits.
Here are five Uganda safari destinations for first-timers to consider:
1. Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Uganda offers outstanding gorilla jungle experiences. Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the two gorilla habitats and protects more at least half of the last mountain gorillas worldwide. The other half live on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains and is shared between Uganda’s Mgahinga, DRC’s Virunga, and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Parks.
Bwindi’s 19 habituated gorilla families at four trailheads around the park boundaries offer guaranteed mountain gorilla sightings. Gorilla trekking in Bwindi is a year-round activity.
But because gorillas live in rainforests, many trekkers will recommend that you trek during the drier and cooler months of January and February and June to September.
The reason why it’s called gorilla trekking is that there’s no way to predict where the gorillas will be on any given day. It would be best if you came prepared for anything, from a 15-minute walk in the impenetrable jungle to six hours of tortuous trekking. But in the dry season, trekking is not as difficult as in the wet season, so six hours in the jungle is not a torturous ordeal.
Mountain gorillas are foraging wild animals that cover a vast territory of the jungle on any given day. Guides have to rely on their tracking skills, not GPS tags, to find them. There are no used trails or signposts to lead you to the mountain giants. Rangers find where the gorillas built their nests to sleep last night, and from there, track their movements to their location.
The jungle terrain is slippery, uneven, dump, and misty. If it’s your first Uganda safari experience, it’s a good idea to hit the gym two hours a day for three weeks before your gorilla trekking experience in Bwindi. But it’s all worth it, as spotting a gorilla in the wild can be a life-changing experience.
While gorilla trekking permits are much cheaper than in neighboring Rwanda, Uganda is not an excellent choice for a short safari. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a 10-hour drive from Entebbe International Airport, and the trek is generally physically demanding.
Although you can take a small chartered or scheduled flight that lands 3-hours outside Bwindi, we recommend you spare at least three days to enjoy the amenities of this gorilla destination.
Where to stay in Bwindi
When is the best time to go gorilla trekking in Uganda?
July and August are right in the midst of Uganda’s dry season (June to September) are very popular for gorilla trekking because of the clear skies and sunny conditions. Keep in mind that the gorillas live in the rainforest habitat, which is very wet, and it could rain any time of the day.
In Uganda, gorilla permits are currently (2021) sold by UWA on promotion for USD 400 for non-residents. But the regular price of a Uganda gorilla permit is USD 700. So the best time to see mountain gorillas in Uganda is now. Just go!
When planning your first Uganda safari and considering gorilla trekking in Bwindi to be on your all-inclusive itinerary, many travelers who’ve been here recommend adding the savannah game drives in the nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Trending Uganda Gorilla Safaris
2. Queen Elizabeth National Park
For many travelers, Uganda safari means Queen Elizabeth National Park, the oldest and most popular park in Uganda. QENP offers a high chance of spotting Uganda’s big game animals like elephants, buffalo, lions, hippos, pushbacks, and Uganda kobs.
The Maramagambo forest at the foot of the rift valley escarpment is home to seven diurnal primates; Chimpanzee, L’hoest’s, Red-Tailed, Vervet, and Blue Monkey, Baboon, and the Black and White Colobus, plus nocturnal species such as Bushbaby And Potto.
Aside from the big game animals, Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to 95 mammal species – more than any other park in Uganda, and supports a remarkable number of bird species: the last count totaled 612 bird species.
Of animals, there is plainly no shortage. Hippos in huge numbers wheeze and wallow. Buffalo includes many ochre animals, a product of interbreeding with the forest buffalo of the Congo. Lions climb fig trees and lay in them all day keeping a sleepy eye on the antelope herds. Elephants roam the plains, although not so big or heavily armed with ivory as the Murchison variety. Topi graze in large herds under the sneaky eyes of the treed lions. The aquatic birds rival those of the Nile.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is the most popular park in Uganda. Many choose to combine a game drive in QENP to visit our foraging cousin chimpanzees in Kibale Forest or see the magnificent mountain gorillas in Bwindi.
It can be challenging to find safaris that offer enough activities for the kids while still being an easily accessible see to visit, but QENP fits the requirements perfectly. It’s a good choice for a first-time family safari in Uganda.
The area has almost entirely a warm climate, has excellent roads, and many lodges have a children’s play area, nanny service, and child-friendly activities. Besides, up-market lodges offer Junior Ranger programs where children learn to track animals.
The best time to plan for your first Uganda safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park is during the dry seasons of June to August and December to February.
3. Chimpanzee Trekking in Kibale
Suppose you are planning your first Uganda safari, and you have only one activity to choose from. In that case, it should be spending precious time with the habituated chimpanzee troops in Kibale National Park.
Kibale Forest is powerfully and mysteriously attractive to nature lovers who come to view a wide range of forest birds and track chimpanzees and other twelve primate species (the highest on the continent) that find refuge within the park.
The Park’s scenic appeal, affordable chimps tracking permits, and the rising number of safari lodges around the sanctuary make it one of the top destinations in Uganda and a great alternative to the southern gorilla destination Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The most popular activity in Kibale National Park is the guided chimpanzee tracking excursion out of Kanyanchu. Almost as popular is the guided walking trail through the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, which is probably better for general primates viewing and one of the finest birding trails in the country.
Immediately as you enter this pristine jungle, you will feel a profound sense of the freshness of the dew, the fragrances of endemic flowers, and the musty scents left behind by chimp troops in the canopy. The sounds are also alien, from the distant echoed hoot of red colobus monkeys to the exotic chirping of endemic birds.
In the distance, you may hear the sound of one of the park’s elephants plowing a path into the trees, and all-around your camp, there will be evidence of four-legged visitors, like the bushbuck and the warthogs. Gaze up, and a single scene might capture the iconic and the unique as an olive long-tailed cuckoo will fly above a small buffalo herd.
The best time to visit Kibale National Park for chimpanzee trekking is during the dry seasons of December to February and June to July. Walking the trails is more accessible at this time, and the overall chimpanzee experience more enjoyable.
June to September is the most favorable dry season for gorilla and chimpanzee trekking, and most travelers consider it the peak/high season. Permits are scarce during this time, and safari lodges hike their prices to meet the demand.
4. The Roaring Murchison Falls
In 1884, Sir Samuel Baker traveling with his wife Florence on a historical Nile expedition, wrote;
“Upon rounding the corner in our canoes, a magnificent sight burst upon us…Rushing through a gap that clift the rock exactly before us, the river, contracted from a grand stream, was pent up in a narrow gorge scarcely fifty yards (50m) in width. Roaring furiously through the rock-bound pass, it plunged in a single leap of about 120 feet (40m) perpendicular into a dark abyss below.”
Murchison Falls is a roaring waterfall along the Nile that violently explodes through a narrow six-meter gorge on the edge of the Albertine Rift. The falls are the icon that gives Murchison Falls National Park its name, one of the top destinations in Uganda.
At a powerful force of over 300 cubic meters per second, the Nile pushes through the narrow ravine bouncing off igneous rocks 43 meters down before continuing on its north-bound journey. Murchison Falls is the most powerful waterfall on the continent.
Seeing this enormously impressive waterfall splashing 140 feet up and cutting the horizon against the sky is an unforgettable spectacle first-timers shouldn’t miss out on. Your first Uganda safari in Murchison will be pretty rewarding.
And that’s not all. Just below Murchison Falls, another moment-grabbing sight are the grazers that can often be found hanging in the waters of the Nile. At your tented camp at night, this hippo, a nocturnal feeder, will emerge and spend the entire evening searching for grass.
On the Nile banks, just a few meters away from the falls, hundreds of birds color the scene blending their sounds with that of the falls to create a roaring wild orchestra. This type of wildlife diversity is breathtaking. Imagine thousands of birds alongside buffalo, crocodiles, and elephants.
Murchison Falls National Park is the largest in Uganda and is also home to lions, leopards, and hundreds of birds, including the rare shoe-billed stork. Over three-quarters of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and the second-largest population of elephants in the country live in MFNP. On a game drive or boat safari, you’ll spot several other herbivores, including Jackson’s hartebeest, buffalo, oribi, waterbuck, Uganda kob antelope, and reedbuck.
Hot and dry, December, January & February are the best months to visit Murchison Falls National Park. Thirsty animals concentrate in enormous numbers on the Victoria Nile River backs. At the same time, the September, October & November summer rainy season turns the Nile Banks into a sensational bird-watching destination.
When planning your first Uganda safari, adding Murchison falls to the gorilla trekking destinations will not be easy, for the park sits a little far from the southwestern safari routes. The nearest top destination is Kibale National Park, 230 mi (9 hours drive), or Kidepo Valley 250 mi northeast. Therefore plan your journey with enough days to enjoy Uganda.
5. Island Hopping at Lake Bunyonyi
“There’s nothing like that powerful moment when the mystical scene opened up to us for the first time after arriving at Arcadia Lodge, a cottage high up on a hill with the most breathtaking panorama of Lake Bunyonyi.”Helen, notwithoutmypassport.com
Lake Bunyonyi (place of birds) is one of the Natural Wonders in Uganda. Dotted with at least 20 small islands and encircled by steep terraced hills, Bunyonyi is a magical spot. For hippies, it’s a popular day trip out of Kabale and has been for decades.
Over the past few years, the lake has further gained popularity thanks to a proliferation of budget and other campsites and resorts around the small fishing village of Rutinda (also known as Kyabahinga) and nearby islands.
Lake Bunyonyi is framed by lush, green-terraced hills that reach a height of 2,200-2,478m, but it’s the small islands of various shapes and sizes scattered across the calm waters that make it most magical — you could admire them all day.
It’s a sight that reinvents itself every hour or two with the ever-changing climate and direction of the sun. In the early morning, the islands weave through cotton candy-like streams of mist and, in the afternoon, they’re bathed in the warm glow of the sun. Later, they’re silhouetted against a dim sky as evening approaches. Occasionally in the day, the islands vanish from sight completely, hidden under a blanket of clouds. But in just an hour, they emerge from obscurity like enchanted pirate ships.
Apart from worshipping the scenic landscapes from a hilltop, there’s plenty to do here, so we recommend spending at least two or three days on Bunyonyi shores or one of the islands.
The lake is one of the few in Uganda, free of bilharzia, hippos, and crocodiles. You’ll find it a bit difficult to refrain from taking a dip. Besides swimming, you can go island hopping in a hand-made canoe, go hiking, go on a walking safari, or bird watching around the lake.
What To Expect
There are a few things you should know when planning your first Uganda safari or any other big African adventure, no matter where you’re headed;
1. The price of a Uganda Safari
A Uganda safari does not have to break the bank. There is a common misconception that Africa safaris are reserved for the big earners, retirees, or honeymooners. With careful research, you can find safari experiences that aren’t prohibitively expensive as most all-inclusive Uganda safari operators include your accommodation, meals, drinks, and guided adventures. A Uganda safari is actually of good value.
Exactly how much is a Uganda safari?
Well, you can’t estimate the cost precisely, but below are the primary costs for a Uganda safari:-
– Decent accommodation with a day’s meals – $100 – $1,500 per night
– Transport 4×4 – $100 – $300 per day
– Gorilla permit $700/$1,500 per person
– Chimpanzee Permit $150/$200 per person
– Guide walk – $30 – $50 per person
– Park entrance fee $10 – $40 per person
– Vehicle park entrance $15 – $150 per vehicle
– Camping tent $30 – $40
– Local Flights $180 – $350 between two destinations
– Any miscellanies and extra things don’t cost more than $50 a day.
– Local operators charge between 10% – 35% for ground handling.
Well, you can’t estimate the cost precisely, but these are the primary costs for a safari in Uganda:
- Decent accommodation with a day’s meals – $100 – $1,500 per night
- Transport 4×4 – $100 – $300 per day
- Gorilla permit $700/$1,500 per person
- Chimpanzee Permit $150/$200 per person
- Guide walk – $30 – $50 per person
- Park entrance fee $10 – $40 per person
- Vehicle park entrance $15 – $150 per vehicle
- Camping $30 – $40
- Local Flights $180 – $350 between two destinations
- Any miscellanies and extra things don’t cost more than $50 a day.
2. Early Rising
The early bird catches the worm, so expect to get out of bed bright and early for optimal savannah game viewing. Animals are most active at first light and again around dusk, meaning you can expect some very early starts to your game drives.
Even if you’re not a morning person, force yourself to be one for those early morning drives. You will usually be given tea or coffee and a few biscuits to start your day and will have breakfast when you return to camp after your drive.
Sundowners is a word you will happily become acquainted with on safari. These are the drinks you will enjoy during the golden hour as the sun sinks over the horizon, usually in a suitably picturesque and photogenic location.
4. Between Activities
On safari, there is always downtime. Between your morning and afternoon game drives, you will have plenty of time to soak up your surroundings, relax, nap, or read.
Dinners will often be served by the campfire — a three-course meal under the stars followed by sitting around the fire swapping safari stories.
5. Manage Your Expectations
You’re not guaranteed to see anything you have on your tick-off list. There are no guarantees when it comes to safaris. We are talking about wild animals in huge national parks, most of the time without any fences or barriers to hamper their movements.
While most animals do have a general territory that they stick to, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll see them in it. Also, leave the big game tick-off list. There are smaller animals that are interesting to watch on the plains or in the rainforest jungle.
It’s not just with the animals that you need to lower your expectations. The African atmosphere, cultures, language, food, and music are quite different from yours or what you read about. Allow the destination to surprise, teach, and wow you. At the end of your first Uganda safari, you should have new experiences that have violated your beliefs. That’s what Africa safari is all about.
How To Prepare Your First Uganda Safari
1. Passport & Visas
Nationals of most countries require a visa to enter Uganda. Visas can be bought in advance electronically online https://visas.immigration.go.ug/ (to reduce human contact) or at any Ugandan embassy or high commission abroad. Still, usually, it’s simpler to buy the visa upon arrival. On arrival is a straightforward procedure that takes a few minutes at Entebbe International Airport or any overland border.
Though some queuing and social distancing are inevitably involved, most people will still find it more convenient, not to mention cheaper, than traveling twice into the middle of London (for example) to submit and later collect their visas.
Visa rulings are prone to change, so all visitors must check the current situation with their travel agent or a Ugandan diplomatic mission before they travel.
A standard Uganda single-entry visa, valid for three months, costs USD 50. Student visas cost USD 20. Multiple-entry visa valid for 12 months, costs USD 100, 24 months visa costs USD 150, and 24-36-months visa costs USD 200.
Travelers with a single-entry visa intending to leave and return to Uganda (e.g., to trekking gorillas in Rwanda or visiting nearby Kenya) may find it more helpful to apply for an East African Visa (cross-border joint visa).
The East African visa allows entry into all three countries (Kenya, Uganda & Rwanda) on a single visa which costs USD 100.
Recommended for you: Uganda Visa & Entry Requirements
2. Vaccinations And Medicines
Covid-19 Vaccination is essential for travel these days. Although not required for entry, make sure you have one before you travel long distances. Uganda requires that you have a valid Negative PCR Test done 72 hours before entry or exit. Although you may have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, you’ll still need a test done.
Make sure you have your shots and medications in order. You will usually need a few vaccinations as well as antimalarials and any prescriptions.
Vaccinations you will require usually include yellow fever, hepatitis A and B, and typhoid.
Some vaccinations take several weeks to take full effect, so get your shots done way in advance. For more information on destination-specific vaccines, consult the Centers for Disease Control’s destination list. Speak to your GP or a travel medicine clinic three months in advance.
3. Travel Insurance
Get travel insurance! We recommend buying full coverage, including trip cancelation insurance.
Comprehensive travel insurance is vital for an African safari. Your adventures are likely to take you off the beaten track and away from easily accessible medical care. Should something happen, it is essential to have a travel insurance plan that covers healthcare, lost or stolen luggage, and canceled or delayed flights.
Whichever option you go for, make sure it covers all activities you plan on taking part in while you are in Uganda. It is hard to know how much cover you need. As a guide, the UK’s independent consumer watchdog recommends a minimum cover level of £5,000,000 for British travelers heading worldwide. They advise that in most cases, this should be enough to cover emergency medical evacuation, any medical bills while in the country, and medical repatriation to your home country if required.
Ensuring the full cost of your first Uganda safari, some insurance companies put a maximum cost limit on the value of the trip they will insure. In the UK, this is typically around £5,000 per person. Many will offer extensions to cover the total value of trips for additional premiums.
Travel insurance providers increasingly include a cover of various forms against Covid-19. As international travel returns, we expect all major travel insurers will include Covid-19 cover in their policies.
The Covid-19 insurance may include medical cover if you are infected and cover against disruption to your trip caused by travel advice, travel bans, and quarantine requirements relating to Covid-19.
3. What To Pack for Your First Uganda Safari
Two simple rules to bear in mind when deciding what to pack on your first Uganda safari trip. Your packing list should include everything that might not be readily available when you need it and carry as minimal as possible.
Somewhat contradictory rules, you might think, and you’d be right — so the key is finding the right balance, something that probably depends on personal experience as much as anything. If it came to it, you could easily travel to Uganda with little more than a change of clothes, a few basic toiletries, and a medical kit.
For what to wear, there are a few things to consider when dressing for the African bush. Morning activities can be chilly, no matter the time of year, so pack some warm layers that you can peel off as the day starts to warm up. Avoid brightly colored clothing; stick to beige, green, and brown to blend in better to your surroundings.
Sun protection is a must, so pack a good hat and sunglasses. Long pants and boots are essential if you are planning any gorilla trekking or walking. It’s also a good idea to pack a swimsuit for the camp pool in the heat of the day.
Pack a sturdy pair of binoculars. They will make a massive difference to your trip. Pack plenty of sanitizers, facemasks, and insect repellent, and spray yourself liberally with it, especially at dusk.
Take a look at this detailed packing list to get a great picture of what you need in your bag.
4. Cameras And Photography
Be sure to bring a camera with extra memory cards, extra batteries, and/or a power pack to make sure you’ll be able to capture all the action.
A word of advice, though, leave the dedicated wildlife photography and filming to National Geographic professionals. Put the camera down occasionally and absorb your experience. It will make the photos you do take that much more memorable.
You might like reading: Uganda Safari Photography Tips
When out on a game drive, keep your voice down. Don’t be the person hollering across the vehicle when everyone else is trying to keep quiet and avoid scaring off the animals. Take a night drive if you can, but don’t expect to get good pictures (unless you bring professional equipment). Night drives are the time to put the camera away and just watch. Bring a headlamp! You will use it every time you need to walk outside after dark and maybe even read in bed.
Your first Uganda safari will be an adventure of a lifetime, exploring faraway places surrounded by unique landscapes and spectacular wildlife. There are plenty of great reasons to go on a safari. Whether you want to see the incredible mountain gorillas, get up close and personal with wildlife, take your family on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, or just relax in nature, a Uganda safari will not disappoint.