What most distinguishes Uganda from any other Africa safari destination is simply its relatively high proportion of closed canopy forest. This embraces Afro-montane forest such as that found on Mount Elgon, which has strong affinities to similar habitats on mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya, as well as Semliki National Park, effectively an easterly extension of the lowland rainforest that blankets the Congolese Basin and west Africa.
Uganda harbors a wide variety of vertebrate and other species absent elsewhere in east and southern Africa, and the accessibility of its major forests by comparison to those in west Africa makes it an unbeatable destination for viewing African forest creatures — from mountain gorillas and chimpanzees to a colorful array of butterflies and birds — in their natural habitat.
When it comes to more conventional game viewing, Uganda is not an Africa safari destination to bear comparison with Tanzania or Kenya, or for that matter the majority of countries in southern Africa. It is too small to have any reserves on the grand scale of Tanzania’s Selous or Serengeti, or the Luangwa, Chobe, Hwange and Kruger national parks further south.
Nevertheless, its savanna reserves have gradually recovered from the heavy poaching during the 70s and 80’s civil war and political unrest. Today, Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls national parks offer as good a chance of encountering perennial Africa safari favorites such as lion, elephant, buffalo, giraffe and even leopard as many more celebrated game reserves — with the added bonus of lying on a circuit that also offers some of the best forest primate viewing in Africa.
For leisure travelers on a limited budget, these two parks are also among the most accessible and affordable, comparably worthwhile savanna reserves anywhere in Africa.
A striking feature of the Ugandan landscape, with the exception of the semi-desert and dry acacia woodland of the far north, is its relatively moist climate. A high precipitation level makes the countryside greener and more fertile than elsewhere in east Africa, while lakes, rivers and other wetland habitats account for almost 25% of the country’s surface area.
The most extensive freshwater bodies that lie within Uganda or along its borders are, in descending order, lakes Victoria, Albert, Kyoga, Edward, Kwania and George. Lesser expanses include Lake Wamala near Mityana, lakes Bunyonyi and Mutanda in Kigezi, lakes Bisina and Opeta in the east, and almost 100 small crater lakes dotted around the Rwenzori foothills.
Of particular interest to birdwatchers are the half-dozen species associated exclusively with papyrus swamps — most notably the exquisite papyrus gonolek and eagerly sought-after shoebill, the latter seen more easily in Uganda than anywhere else.
Although most of Uganda is topographically relatively undramatic — essentially an undulating plateau perched at altitudes of 1,000-1,200 meters between the eastern and western arms of the Rift Valley — it is bordered by some of the continent’s most impressive mountains. Foremost among these are the Rwenzori Mountains, which follow the Congolese border and are topped by the third-highest point in Africa, the 5,109m Margherita Peak on Mount Stanley.
Other major mountains include Elgon (4,321m) on the Kenyan border, the Virungas on the Rwandan border (with Muhabura at 4,127m the highest of the Ugandan peaks), and Moroto (3,084m), Kadam (3,068m) and Morungole (2,750m) on the Kenyan border north of Elgon.
Rising in solitude from the surrounding plains, these high mountains all support isolated micro-habitats of forest and high grassland. The higher reaches of the Rwenzori, Elgon and to a lesser extent the Virungas, are covered in Afro-alpine moorland, a fascinating and somewhat other-worldly habitat noted for gigantism among plants such as lobelias, heather, groundsel, as well as habitat-specific creatures such as the dazzling scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird.