Exploring Uganda’s northeastern wilderness on a solo safari was the most rewarding wildlife experience of traveling alone in enthralling African destinations few tourists have been to.
It’s distressing to acknowledge that for many years I’ve lived under the illusion that only the wealthy could afford an African safari. My deep work strategy in employment still needed to pay dividends, and sometimes I’d wonder if I’d ever see a lion without paying a zoo admission fee.
Fortunately, as it turned out, I was profoundly mistaken. “Do you think Ugandans spend $2,000 a night to see an elephant?” my local safari specialist asked. She’s worked with her tour company in Uganda for over a decade and knew her stuff. “If you want the authentic class feel of Africa safari, travel like a local. Rent a cheap car and drive yourself. I bet, with airfare, it would cost less than $2,000 for a week of solo wildlife-viewing.”
“Travel like a local.” The words resounded like a revelation over my thoughts. I’d always thought Africa safaris were for retired elites who talked ‘Hemingway’ over a glass of Brandy. I did not realize there was another way—the African way.
That’s how I found myself in the town of Entebbe, a few miles outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. I’d flown into Entebbe ($750 roundtrip from Washington, D.C.) and rented the cheapest car I could find—a Toyota Landcruiser Box. Then I spent a joyful day adjusting to the left side driving (apologies to the good people of East Africa).
I planned to visit Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where my safari expert confidently informed me I’d see rhinos. From Ziwa, I would make my way through Murchison Falls National Park’s Nile River wilderness to the pure isolation of Kidepo Valley’s endless savannah. One can reliably see the storied “big five” between the two parks—the African lion, elephant, leopard, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros.
Impulsive travel, of course, is the best way to explore the world. Every traveler yearns for surprise and wonder; nothing beats following the breadcrumbs of serendipity.
However, this trip was my first time in Africa, so I availed myself of the advice of the locals. “Don’t drive at night” was the universal order. Check into your lodging by sunset and stay there. Unfortunately, you can’t ignore crime, but for those who are amenable to common sense, an 870-mile (1,400-km) self-guided safari tour should be as safe as a road trip from Washington to Florida.
It was fall in East Africa, meaning warm, sunny days and temperate evenings. Uganda is one of the world’s most biodiverse nations. As I weaved my way northeast on smooth two-lane highways, I noted the sweeping changes in the landscape that bathed my city-polluted soul with naturalness, from populated green landscapes outside Kampala to the expansive tea plantations and savanna of African lore as far as the eye can see.
Occasionally a sturdy Land Cruiser in my rearview mirror, pushing me to the shoulder—where once in a while, I scared off a warthog or some wild thing I couldn’t identify. I imagined that the four-by-fours cruising by unsteady drive were ferrying the well-heeled tourists who’d booked private luxury safari packages that take care of everything but the experience. I didn’t envy them—well, maybe a little bit, particularly when the Toyota Landcruiser went hurtling over an unexpected speed bump.
I had booked a room at Amuka Lodge outside Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, which turned out to be a lovely Unfenced chalet with an escapist feel of staying among the area’s wildlife.
After checking in, I strolled toward the sanctuary. A troupe of vervet monkeys scampered across the grass. I met my ranger and walking guide at the visitor center for a briefing before we strolled into the wilderness to find the Northern white rhino, the first of the “Big Five” I would meet during my trip.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is the only reserved wilderness in Uganda where one can see the northern white rhinos that had been extinct in the country. However, the Ugandan government collaborating with wildlife organizations, later reintroduced the massive beasts through the sanctuary’s conservation program.
“A 6.6 ft electric fence heavily protects the 27-sq-mi sanctuary. We also have at least 40 mammal and reptilian species within the reserve, including monkeys, antelopes, hippos, crocodiles, and many bird species,” narrated my walking guide, Moses, as he led me through the savannah, acacia woodlands, and cool muddy swamps. Rhino spoor and footprints were visible at every five-minute walk, and my ranger could quickly identify a female, calf, or bull’s trail and locate where they were foraging.
“The thing about rhinos,” Moses said, leaning in conspiratorially, “is that they are nearly blind. So whatever you do, do not step on a pile of rhino poo. A rhino could mistake you for another rhino and charge at you feeling challenged, which is not something you’ll want to experience out here.”
After about a 20-minute walk, while I was still in awe of my surroundings, we bumped into the mother and calf we had been tracking, taking a break from foraging under a tree shade. I didn’t expect coming close to these evolutionary beasts would emotionally move me as it did. I squatted a few feet away and let the moment rub on me while Moses’ voice sailed away with the evening wind like charming whispers.
The colors began to melt across the sky, with flaring streaks of crimson merging into a darkening blue void. As we walked back to the visitor’s center, we met a lone-rhino bull and another mother and child pair.
I sat by my cottage window; the orange, red, pink, and yellow hues of the dying sun grudgingly painted the evening, welcoming in the star-lit African night. At that moment, I needed nothing but myself, there!
The following day, on a self-drive through Murchison Falls, I would encounter elephants, herds of Cape buffalo, and God knows how many other creatures. Was I ready to drive through the park on my own?
“So what do I do if I encounter an elephant inside the park?” I inquired. I was speaking with Cathy, my safari expert who helped me plan this solo safari through Uganda’s wild grasslands.
“You should back away slowly, particularly if it’s a male elephant in musth,” she said. That seemed sensible advice, but would I be calm enough to back away, or would I abandon my truck and trust my mobility speed? I had stayed up late the previous night bingeing on YouTube’s elephant encounters with cars and humans.
Murchison Falls National Park features some of the country’s most dramatic scenery bisected by the Victoria Nile that dramatically exits the park with powerful waterfalls on the edge of the escarpment. It lies at the northern end of the Albertine Rift Valley, where bounding escarpments fade into north Uganda’s surreal wilderness expanses.
Not more than a dozen other safari vehicles shared my experience on the park’s meandering game trails—an occasional safari truck full of camera-laden tourists and a couple of antipoaching ranger pickup trucks. As I slowly drove in, the first critter I encountered was a baby waterbuck suckling at its mother’s teat. Aww, I thought, it’s like a Disney movie.
That’s when the snake appeared. It slithered across the narrow, two-lane road. Sadly, I cannot tell you what kind of snake it was—was it a black mamba? A spitting cobra?—I have an intense fear of snakes that I had to pull to the side of the road, take a few deep breaths, and go to my safe place.
In Murchison Falls National Park, one can reliably see the storied “big five”—the African elephant, the cape buffalo, the leopard, the lion, and the rhino a few miles outside the park in Ziwa Sanctuary.
The park’s northern section is a stunning grassland wilderness sandwiched between the snaking Nile River with panoramic views of the rift valley escarpment. I encountered lots of extraordinary animals—giraffes and antelopes, and elephants. I saw warthogs and baboons and Pata’s monkeys. And then, through a clearing about 50 yards distant, I spotted two leopards. I joined a public boat ride to the bottom of the falls and got even closer to elephants and hippos. In the river mashes, I spotted a giant grotesque bird with a shoe-like beak that looked like it from a Lucas alien movie.
Back on the game tracks, I paused, selecting a spot clear of animal droppings of any kind, rejoicing that I had found another of the Big Five, and then drove onward to Fort Murchison Lodge. Often booked months in advance for its accommodations, Fort Murchison Lodge hosted colonial explorers who led expeditions into the backcountry searching for the source of the Nile. Alas, standing in my way on the narrow road was a herd of Cape buffalo, and they seemed in no hurry to mosey on. Retreat and adapt became my safari motto.
More. Give me more is what I heard from my neurotransmitters. Once you’ve seen something as magnificent as an African elephant, you can’t help but yearn for sightings of Africa’s other charismatic megafauna. I headed through the last bits of the park, snacking on the wheel like a three-year-old. I arrived at Fort Murchison in time for the golden sunset flashing over the Nile River. I sat on the rooftop terrace with a cold Nile bear that had become my favorite.
I was up early and drove to the northern gate by 6 am to pick up a ranger who would guide me through the park’s tracks. Early morning game drives are great for catching animals that prefer seeing early meals in the morning dew. For somebody on a self-guided safari, it made spotting otherwise reclusive animals almost painfully easy. Elephants and giraffes walked among umbrella-thorn trees. Wild dogs sheltered in the nook of a marula tree. A leopard cast a furtive glance from across the river. Hippos did hippo things while enormous crocodiles sunned themselves on the rocks.
I maneuvered the Landcruiser onto the dirt roads that extend like tributaries throughout the park. I was beginning to feel at ease in my car. Perhaps too at ease. It could be Patrick, my ranger guide’s presence, that assured me of not getting lost on the meandering game tracks that gave me confidence. I enjoyed his exciting stories and deep-bellied laughs the entire morning.
“It’s a lion,” Patrick pointed enthusiastically to the plains. “There. Right there!” Yes. Yes, finally. I reached for the field glasses. A short distance across the river was a lion, a male with a rock-star mane that suddenly perked up at the sight of us. “You might want to get back inside your car,” Patrick said as I jumped back into the cruiser. I didn’t care knowing how I got out but being inside seemed prudent. As I settled into the Landcruiser, I felt fanciful. I have seen an African lion in the wild.
I patted the steering wheel. Thank you, Africa. It was about midday when I drove back into Fort Murchison Lodge and stayed in for the afternoon, swimming and gazing out on the savannah from my room.
By 8:00 am, my Landcruiser was raising dust off the dirt road from my safari lodge, joining the Gulu-Arua highway at Pakwach, where I refueled my car. My next destination was Kidepo National Park, 214 miles (346 km), via Gulu Town through Uganda’s poorest region that has previously suffered gruesome civil wars. Although the region is now peaceful and recovering, I could tell that the people of this region had not enjoyed peace and development like the southerly towns I had driven through in the early days of my solo safari in Uganda.
With a stop in Gulu for lunch, coffee, and banana cake packed for snacking, and another in Kitgum Town to fill up my gas tank, I checked in at Kidepo Savannah Lodge by sundown. I was impressed with how I always checked into my lodgings in time to catch the golden African sunset throughout my solo safari trip.
Kidepo Savannah Lodge sits above the game park’s Narus Valley with gorgeous vistas. As I drove up through the savannah, I stopped to admire the patas monkeys; their reddish-brown coats glowed as they sprang through the lattice of tall grass. A male waterbuck was standing just outside the clearing, his eyes liquid and glowing in the dappled sunlight, heart-shaped nose moist, luxuriant coat soft and shaggy.
The lodge staff stood beside the reception house, and there were broad smiles and applause as one helped me down from my cruiser. I ate my lunch under the tree, surrounded by the rustle and call of birds and the flash of scarlet wings as a pair of black-breasted barbet clicked and shuttled through the branches in search of food.
Cathy had assured me of Kidepo’s unraveled wilderness gifts while planning my solo safari through Uganda. She didn’t sell it short. Kidepo Valley National Park is as you might imagine Africa’s wilderness would be, but only better. Raw, remote, unspoiled, and almost unvisited. In the past, native tribal wars and terrible roads kept the park isolated and unvisited. Fortunately, the access roads have been built, peace restored, and Kidepo remains a lost Eden, a place every travel specialist recommends but where few have been.
Driving across the plains the following morning with the wind singing its ancient song through the long grass, passing herds of wild animals brought back childhood memories on grandpa’s farm. It was like how I had imagined Africa.
A male ostrich raced away from the vehicle, stepping high, his plumage black and glittering. In the cloudless expanse of sky, a Bateleur eagle made effortless circles, and a pair of klipspringers slotted into a thicket on tiny, fragile legs.
With Sam, my hired ranger, we set out across the veld, following the heard of plains game, stopping to watch a family of warthogs rolling in a mud bath. In the short grass, a secretary bird attacked a snake with unyielding ferocity, swallowing it, and then continued his walk with precise, mincing steps. Resplendent in his trim black and grey and white plumage as though he were going to his club.
On a whim, I decided that I should turn back – and that’s when we saw them, two big boys crouched behind a small bush. I had driven within a few meters of them earlier, entirely unaware.
Sam asked me not to expose my head outside the truck as one of the lions got up on his haunches. The big boy was eying us with an intensity of a predator ready to launch if we turned out untrustworthy. I was now prey and nothing but a bit of African savannah; only the truck’s iron body and the whim of a cat stood between me and being shredded to death. It was terrifying.
As the lion slowly waved his tail, Sam told me to switch off the engine and hold steady. “He is deciding whether or not to charge,” he said as my heart pounded in my belly. “He’s about 50m away and could close this distance in less than two seconds.” I had never felt so exposed staring down one of the greatest predators in the animal kingdom. I didn’t trust that being in that safari Land Cruiser would me from his ferocious attack. Even worse, seeing his brother lying beside him, shaking to the tune of his breathing.
“Look at those muscles. Look at those claws,” Sam told me in hushed tones. “He’s a pure killing machine.” After a few minutes – maybe 5, 15 – it was time to go, and the lion didn’t charge. While dusting back to camp, adrenaline coursing through my veins made me feel alive like never before, a natural high that I will never forget. In the rosy glow of that rush, I felt eternally fortunate. Happy to have had such a fantastic experience. And lucky to be alive.
I edged the Land Cruiser slowly onto a rutted track. I turned onto a wider dirt track along the river, picking up speed across the plain toward my lodge. The night was streaming down, silhouetting the fuzzy outlines of fig trees. The dying sun painted the plains savannah shades of rose gold. Flocks of francolin scattered in front of the cruiser, flapping out of the dust to roost in the thorn-spiked thickets beyond the beam of the headlights. A set of eyes would glow and vanish from time to time as the car bounced off the rugged path, and Sam cracked his local jokes to lighten the mood with deep belly laughs.
The evening had been eventful, and I had captured the last of the afternoon’s observations on my Canon D70. We had met a group of elephants headed for a bend in the river to join the main herd. Sam and I watched as they greeted each other, rumbling, and trumpeting, and touching trunks, and the younger ones began to spar and play chasing games. Even the adults took to this frivolous behavior at times.
I laughed as huge metrons galloped like teenagers, swinging their trunks and flapping their ears, barging into their companions like giant dodgems in a funfair. There was something utterly endearing about such enormous, stately creatures abandoning themselves to the exuberance of life. I was still smiling as I turned the vehicle away from them and headed to my lodge.
On the seventh day of my solo safari through Uganda’s wild northeast, I left the Kidepo Savannah Lodge in the late morning, driving five hours south to Moroto, breaking the journey for a bear, a snack, and studying my position on the route map. I made brief stops for petrol and snack supplies, admired the vast dry, and rugged Karamoja region, and stared at the uniqueness of the region’s unexplored cultures.
I was to spend two nights with one of the most prized cultural tribes of Uganda, left to the ancient practices of nomadism. I drove passed colorfully attired nomads grazing scattered herds of cattle and goats. Vast fields of sunflowers, sorghum, and corn raced by my window and faded in the dust trailing my cruiser into Moroto Town. I spent an hour walking in Moroto streets before driving to my lodging at Kara-Tunga Guesthouse to be welcomed by Ivan and his cheerful team.
When to go
Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley National Parks in Uganda’s northern region are best for a solo safari in the dry seasons of December to January and June to August. During then, you will see newborn animals, and it’s driest—vegetation is thinner, and visibility is better. Plus, it’s easier to drive the game tracks alone.
Where to stay
I recommend you make reservations at the safari lodges just outside the parks. Accommodations range from camping to luxury lodging, but I stayed at mid-range accommodations, including;
Papyrus Guesthouse Entebbe
It is a quaint property a few-minute drive from the international airport with decent meals and will give you free airport transfers for a room price of $110.
Amuka Lodge is the best accommodation at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the only place you can see the endangered rhinos in Uganda. For $197 a night, you get all meals plus a spacious cottage with an ensuite and wooded surroundings.
Fort Murchison Lodge sits on the eastern banks of the snaky Nile River outside the Murchison Falls National Park’s northern gate. The lodge arouses the remnants of a nineteenth-century isolated Arab traders’ outpost, with a massive tower, earth-colored walls, and pretty impressive Swahili-inspired style and decor. A room for a solo traveler is about $150 a night with meals.
Kidepo Savannah Lodge
Located a stone’s throw from the Kidepo Valley National Park entrance, Kidepo Savannah Lodge will give that classic Hemingway feel of safari travel without breaking the bank. The rooms a tented and look into the park’s valley plains dotted with incredible wildlife as far as the eye can see. A solo safari room is $135 a night with meals.
Where to get the car
Road Trip Uganda