Uganda

In our regular series, Discover Africa, we introduce our readers to a different African country in each edition. In this edition we take you to Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, situated along the shores of Lake Victoria, within East Africa’s Great Rift Valley and the Nile Basin.

Truly the Pearl of Africa

By Stef Terblanche

Known as the Pearl of Africa, landlocked Uganda is a unique country full of fascinating history, cultural diversity, extraordinary scenery and wildlife, pulsating cities and unbeatable experiences. Situated along the shores of Lake Victoria, within East Africa’s Great Rift Valley and the Nile Basin, much of Uganda still represents what Africa must have looked like at its best before human progress changed much of that.

Here dense mountain jungles, adventures on rushing rivers, and the placid waters of five major lakes, will transport you away to that place where the soul finds its true nourishment. And yet you’ll find yourself never far away from one of its lovely cities and towns where traditional, colonial and modern architecture blend in a cosmopolitan display, throbbing with life and dizzying activity.

The relatively small landmass of Uganda is populated by over 44-million people made up of 9 ethnic tribes who make up around 70% of the population, while the other 30% consists of other Africans, Asians and Europeans. Together they speak over 45 languages and dialects, with Swahili and English being the official languages, while Bantu languages are spoken by a large part of the population.

Gorillas and chimps

Apart from its human population, Uganda is also home to another very unique, very special community: about half of the roughly 1,000 mountain gorillas that remain in the world, and the largest primates on earth. The rest are found in neighbouring Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Of course, as a tourist destination Uganda is probably most famous for its gorillas and chimpanzees.

Forty years ago the world’s mountain gorilla population had shrunken to a perilous 250 primates. But happily scientists have recently reported one of the world’s rare conservation successes, namely an increase in the numbers of these critically endangered animals to over a thousand.

Uganda Wildlife Authority protects the mountain areas in conjunction with local communities, and these are also home to the famous gorillas found in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. In addition to the great apes, about 11% of the world’s bird species are found in Uganda, whose voices ring loudly throughout the forests, river ravines and valleys, and in the mountains of the country. And the birds are also no strangers to the urban areas.

The only places in the world where mountain gorillas live, are in the dense vegetation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and along the dormant volcanic Virunga mountain range that stretches across Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Virunga National Park in the DRC. Tracking these giant creatures to watch them from close by as they play, feed, care for their little ones, or just lay about resting, can be a life-changing experience. To see them you’ll have to trek with a guide up to their natural habitat: the wet and misty cloud forests on the slopes of the mountains.

Equally fascinating is the tracking of chimpanzees, the slightly smaller cousins of the gorillas. Again you are allowed to come up close to watch them going about their chores as they swing from one tree to another right in front of you. The chimps can be tracked with guides supplied in the Kibale Forest National Park, Budongo Forest, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Ngamba Island Chimpanzee sanctuary and Kyambura Gorge. The best time to track chimpanzees is usually during the dry seasons.

Pulsating cities

Moving away from the jungles and the great primates for a moment, we take a look at Uganda’s cities. The largest is the capital Kampala situated on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, with a population of around 1.5-million people, and ranked as the 13th fastest growing city on the planet. A short distance away on a peninsula of Lake Victoria lies Entebbe, the country’s main airport and another fast-growing town. And surrounding the 5 boroughs of Kampala is the massive Wakiso District which includes Entebbe and is also a rapidly growing urban area whose population more than doubled between 2002 and 2014 and now stands at over 2-million.

Most of Uganda’s cities are situated in the south near Lake Victoria, an area that is also the industrial, commercial and economic hub of the country. Other major towns include Nansana and Kira, both little more than a northern extension of Kampala, Mbarara which lies some 250km southwest of Kampala, as well as towns like Mukono, Gulu and Lugazi.

The cities are alive with scooters, minibus taxis, buses and cars rushing in every direction. Modern malls and shops sit alongside old colonial buildings in front of which tailors work their sowing machines on the sidewalk. Markets and street vendors abound, selling everything under the sun.

Kampala, often called the happiest city in East Africa, is both modern and ancient. It boasts prime conference facilities, top class hotels, various well-known places of worship like Bahai Temple, Kibuli and Gadaffi Mosques, Namirembe Cathedral, Rubaga Catholic Cathedral, and the Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine. It is also home to the Kasubi Tombs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lubiri or Mengo Palace, the Makarere University, the Ndere Cultural Centre and much more. In addition there are traditional markets, modern malls, many first-class restaurants, nightclubs and pubs. The city is only about 40km away from Entebbe International Airport.

Kampala got its name from the impala antelope that used to roam here. In earlier times the Kabaka, or king, of the Kingdom of Buganda reserved the area as a hunting zone, and later Kampala developed as its capital. Upon Uganda obtaining independence from Britain in 1962, Kampala again replaced the British colonial capital of Entebbe as the country’s capital.

Lake Victoria

Uganda’s major natural geographic features, that make it such a beautiful and fascinating country, are undoubtedly its abundance of lakes, rivers and mountains of which the crown jewel is no doubt Lake Victoria, although some would say the River Nile. Falling within the Great Lakes Region, much of Uganda revolves around the massive Lake Victoria which covers an area equivalent to around one-third of Uganda’s land mass. It is Africa’s largest freshwater lake and the second largest in the world. Uganda shares the lake with Kenya and Tanzania, and controls almost half of the lake, with Tanzania controlling the other half.

The lake, especially close to Uganda’s shores, is dotted with beautiful islands, making for an almost fairy-tale-like world. The three biggest islands are Bugala Island, Kome Island, and Buvuma Island, but there are many more. These islands are home to a large number of hotels, lodges, resorts and camping sites, in varying concentrations so you can find either plenty of action, or isolated tranquillity. The islands are a key tourist attraction, with ferries connecting them with the mainland.

A typical island resort is the Pineapple Bay Resort on Bugala Island, a small island north of Kome Island 45 minutes by boat from Entebbe. The visitor’s every whim is indulged from the moment you arrive by boat. Here you will be given a massive room with a view of the lake, and you can just lounge away the time on a Lamu bed, stroll along the beach and explore the island, charter a fishing-boat to explore the surrounding waters, cool off in the resort’s pool, or accompany the chef to his organic gardens to pick out your own vegetables for lunch.

A water-rich country, Uganda has a further 27 lakes apart from Lake Victoria. The rivers, lakes and wetlands cover about 18% of Uganda’s total surface. Each lake is uniquely beautiful and offers different fascinating attractions. Some of the better-known ones are Lakes Albert, Edward, George, Bunyonyi, Bisina, Mutanda, and Nabugabo. All are scenic delights and have their own resorts and many attractions.

Lake Mutanda, for instance, is studded with emerald isles, while the Virunga Volcanoes tower around it, and gentle breezes cool off the day’s heat. Then there’s Lake Bisina which is one of Uganda’s 33 Important Bird Areas and since 2006 a Ramsar-listed wetland of international importance. Most are somewhat off the beaten track and therefore offer truly tranquil and refreshing vacation experiences, and yet there’s so much to do you’ll never be bored. These lakes range in size from around 5,000 square kilometres to a mere 60 square kilometres.

The Nile Basin and rivers

The other great dynamo behind much of the settlement and development of Uganda, is the fact that it lies almost completely within the Nile basin. The Nile has its source in Lake Victoria – a distinction still under debate, but generally accepted – and at almost 6,700km it is the longest river in the world. The Nile starts life as the Victoria Nile at Jinja, a town on the shores of Lake Victoria, before it drains into Lake Kyoga and then into Lake Albert on the DRC border, from where it continues as the White Nile flowing northwards into South Sudan and then Sudan, where it is joined by the Blue Nile, before making its way through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.

Apart from the Nile, Uganda has over twenty other major rivers. Together the rivers and lakes make Uganda an absolute paradise for action-packed water-based adventures, while unforgettable boat cruises will transport you to some of the most beautiful, unspoilt Africa. No other country can boast a boat cruise touring the Source of the Nile!

Water-based action

White water rafting at Itanda Falls in Jinja, a major rafting base on the banks of the Victoria Nile in Eastern Uganda, is very popular. It can be done every day of the year as there’s always more than enough rushing, cascading and foaming water to scoop you at dizzying speeds down the river.

There are also a number of unique and amazing water trails for breath-taking boat rides including the Source of the Nile, Kazinga channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Murchison Falls in Murchison Falls National Park, Lake Victoria and Ssese Islands. Along these trails you’ll be able to experience the scenic wonders of absolutely awesome forests, as well as fascinating rocky islands full of reptiles, wildlife, and a myriad of birdlife. It will take you back to those Tarzan movies when you were a child, but it’s really much better.

For a more tranquil drift down the river, travel to Jinja by motorboat and then float down the Nile on large inflated tyre tubes that are linked in groups and are referred to as Dream Tubes.  Along the way you’ll stop for a barbecue on the banks of the Nile and overnight in tents.  Another way to discover the peace and tranquillity of Uganda’s fabulous waterways, and see its breath-taking scenery and wildlife up close, is by travelling with guides in a traditional canoe. Canoe trips can be taken from Ssese Islands, Mabamba swamp, Lake Mutanda, Lake Bunyonyi, Semuliki Wildlife Reserve, Katonga Reserve and several places on the shores of Lake Victoria

Water-based action

White water rafting at Itanda Falls in Jinja, a major rafting base on the banks of the Victoria Nile in Eastern Uganda, is very popular. It can be done every day of the year as there’s always more than enough rushing, cascading and foaming water to scoop you at dizzying speeds down the river.

There are also a number of unique and amazing water trails for breath-taking boat rides including the Source of the Nile, Kazinga channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Murchison Falls in Murchison Falls National Park, Lake Victoria and Ssese Islands. Along these trails you’ll be able to experience the scenic wonders of absolutely awesome forests, as well as fascinating rocky islands full of reptiles, wildlife, and a myriad of birdlife. It will take you back to those Tarzan movies when you were a child, but it’s really much better.

For a more tranquil drift down the river, travel to Jinja by motorboat and then float down the Nile on large inflated tyre tubes that are linked in groups and are referred to as Dream Tubes.  Along the way you’ll stop for a barbecue on the banks of the Nile and overnight in tents.  Another way to discover the peace and tranquillity of Uganda’s fabulous waterways, and see its breath-taking scenery and wildlife up close, is by travelling with guides in a traditional canoe. Canoe trips can be taken from Ssese Islands, Mabamba swamp, Lake Mutanda, Lake Bunyonyi, Semuliki Wildlife Reserve, Katonga Reserve and several places on the shores of Lake Victoria

The mountains

The third major geographic or scenic feature of Uganda is its mountains. These are dominated by the Rwenzori Mountains ranged along the border between Uganda and DRC, of which the highest peak is Mount Stanley at 5,109 meters. These mountains support glaciers and are another source of the river Nile, with Mount Stanley being permanently snow-capped. Mount Speke is the second highest mountain in Uganda at the height of 4,890 meters. After Mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya, these are the highest mountains in Africa.

It is along the slopes of these mountains, or in close proximity to them and the western lakes, that Uganda’s major national parks are found and where the gorillas and chimpanzees live. But there is also an abundance of other wildlife, including in some more national parks that are in the east of the country.

National parks

Uganda has 10 national parks, namely Murchison Falls National Park which is the largest, Queen Elizabeth National Park being the second largest, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, the home of mountain gorillas, Kibale Forest National Park and home of chimpanzees, Lake Mburo National Park, being the smallest national park, Kidepo Valley National Park, lone of the best wildlife viewing destinations, Semuliki National Park, Mount Elgon National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Rwenzori National Park.

All of these national parks abound with a great diversity of flora and fauna. So different are they from one another, that one will be dominated by mountain gorillas, and another by ostriches and cheetahs. In the Murchison Falls National Park you’ll be able to view the Big Five. Lake Mburo National Park is known for its zebras, while Kibale National Park is home to a vast number of species of birds as well as the greatest variety and concentration of primates found anywhere in East Africa. No fewer than 13 remarkable primate species, including L’Hoests and red colobus monkeys flourish within the park. As if that is not enough, the elusive forest elephants move seasonally through this forest.

Lions are found in a number of these national parks, but the most fascinating ones are the tree-climbing lions at Ishasha in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in the Southern section near the DRC boarder.

Other attractions

There are plenty of other fascinating attractions in Uganda, ranging from historical and heritage sites, to cultural villages, museums, natural wonders, historical buildings and palaces, remnants of the old kingdoms that once flourished here, picturesque towns and villages, famous landmarks, and much more than can be covered here.

Is Uganda safe?

Foreigners often ask about safety concerns in Uganda, the atrocities of the one-time dictator Idi Amin and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency group still fresh in memory. Well, Amin is long gone and the LRA no longer active in Uganda. And none of the conflicts in the neighbouring South Sudan and Sudan have ever spilled over in to Uganda, which is separated from them by a series of large lakes and high mountains.

Statistics show that Kampala is one of the safest capitals in Africa and over 99% of visitors come and leave Uganda without an incident. Hotels, lodges, national parks, shops and malls, and most other places frequented by tourists all have excellent security. Just ask the more than 1.4-million tourists who visit this fascinating country each year.

Useful Information

Languages: Swahili, English (official) and various other indigenous languages.

 Capital:  Kampala.

 Regions: Uganda is divided into 4 administrative regions; 15 sub-regions; 121 districts; 146 counties; and one city council, thirteen municipalities, sub-counties, parishes and villages.

 Climate & Weather: Uganda has a warm tropical climate, with temperatures ranging from 25-29°C (77- 84°F), apart from in the mountainous areas, which are much cooler. There is little year-round fluctuation in temperature and no real winter or summer, the hottest months being January and February. The south has two rainy seasons: from mid-September to November and March to May. The north, including Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley, has one continuous wet season from March to November and a more obvious dry season from December to February.

 Time Zone: GMT+3.

 Currency: Ugandan shilling.

 Airports: Entebbe International Airport, plus other smaller domestic airports.

Airlines Flying To: Emirates; Brussels Airlines; RwandAir; KLM; Kenya Airways; South African Airways; Qatar Airways; Ethiopian Airlines; Turkish Airlines; EgyptAir.       .

Entry Requirements: A passport valid for at least 6 months and sufficient cash; visas for some countries – most African countries are exempt; letter of invitation if travelling on business; and a yellow fever vaccination certificate.

Useful Contact Info

Tourism Uganda / Uganda Tourism Board: Tel +256 (0) 414 342 196/7; Fax +256 (0) 414 342 188; website www.corporate.utb.go.ug; email www.corporate.utb.go.ug/form/contact-us.