Encounter gorillas in the jungles of Africa’s Pearl


Encounter gorillas in the jungles of Africa’s Pearl

Hand out-stretched, each knuckle, nail and fingerprint perfectly visible, the gentle giant that is a mountain gorilla, offers an invitation to share a brief but powerful moment of understanding. With calculations surmising that humans and gorillas share up to 98% of their DNA, it’s likely that you’ve been on dates with people you have less in common with than this calm, aware, wide-eyed individual. Watching the family of your new friends play, graze, wrestle and chill out together, was it worth trekking many jungle miles for this opportunity? Absolutely it was.

Winston Churchill coined the term ‘Pearl of Africa’ in his 1908 book discussing the beauty and diversity of the animals, birds and reptiles of Uganda. This land-locked East African nation has been through a lot in the century since then, but undoubtedly its magnificence remains a huge draw. A position over the Equator means you can expect wet and dry seasons rather than the quarterly changes that many visitors are familiar with. The driest periods June to September and December to January are the obvious choice for crowds seeking some Ugandan magic, but a low season experience results in a more intimate, you might even say more spiritual, connection with a special land and its inhabitants, both human and slightly less human.

To this end we’d recommend visiting in May or November. The early rains begin at the end of March and continue through April. They are known as the long rains, not because they last longer, but due to heavy downpours. During April, many parks close, tracks become boggy, and travellers are likely to get stuck. So, choose a date in mid-May when things are opening back up, but prices remain low. At the other end of the year, November is a good option, during the short rains, for excellent rates on accommodation and tours, less congestion in parks and a more relaxed pace to enjoy indigenous traditions while supporting communities of guides, artisans and farmers through the economic instability of seasonal swings in tourist activity.

Wild and Natural

Uganda might be best known for its gorilla and chimpanzee trekking opportunities, but with ten stunningly beautiful national parks, there are also plenty of chances to see the ‘Big Five’ – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. Professional guides advise on how to enjoy the best of Ugandan wildlife even in low season. Murchison Falls National Park is the largest of the protected areas and is home to phenomenal wildlife, over 450 bird species, and the thunderous waters themselves, known locally as Kabalega Falls. It’s here that the Nile squeezes through rocks just 7 metres apart.  Another favourite hotspot is Queen Elizabeth National Park, renowned for its tree-climbing lions, but if you really want to get off the beaten track, consider Kidepo Valley, the most isolated of the country’s reserves.

Adrenaline Junkies

On the northern shores of massive Lake Victoria, source of the River Nile, the city of Jinja is a popular centre to get your fix of exciting activities. Imagine breakfasting in a hot air balloon at sunrise, or enjoying boat trips, paddle boarding or horse riding in breath-taking scenery surrounded by colourful wildlife and birds. Or are you into something rather more exhilarating? There are plenty of professional operators offering adventurous opportunities. Try bungee jumping from a height of 40 metres into the waters of the Nile far below, white water rafting on grade 5 rapids or zip-lining through a forest filled with primates.  With constant equipment checks and continuous training, these activities might be safe, but you’ll be left feeling almost as wild as the jungles around you.

Low Season Months

Jan Feb Mar Apr
Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov

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Top Experiences

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Gorillas

It’s not called impenetrable for nothing, and is not for the faint hearted. Follow your guide through jungle as they machete their way through thick vegetation on high mist covered slopes and come respectfully close to these incredible endangered families in their own natural habitat.

Chimpanzees of Kibale National Park

Accessible from Fort Portal, in Kibale you’ll hike for hours in tropical rainforest to trek one of the dozen or so families of chimpanzees that live in this protected area. They’re not easy to keep up with, as they are never still for long, playing, hunting, and swinging high up in the trees.

Visit a Traditional Market

The hub of village life, this is where communities interact and meet with friends. Especially in low season, it’s a chance to learn about a genuine, vibrant culture. Taste some Ugandan beers or the wine made from yellow sweet bananas while enjoying the age-old music often played there.

Insider Tips

  • The Justice Tourism Foundation JFT offers a unique volunteer program from 1 to 24 weeks with integrated development experiences in local grassroots initiatives to improve the lives of those in rural or marginalised communities. Fees apply at a reasonable cost.
  • Entebbe is Uganda’s only international airport, some 25 miles from the capital Kampala. It’s known as the “Airport on the Equator” due to lying at zero degrees latitude. Another top spot to get the obligatory ‘foot in each hemisphere’ pic is the marker in Kayabwe town.
  • Lake Victoria, the largest in Africa, has a coastline in excess of 2000 miles forming a border between Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Since the mid-19th century it’s held a claim as the source of the Nile, although explorations into its tributaries to find the true source continue.

Good To Know

  • The low seasons in Uganda are the times when most animals give birth to their young. Visitors at this time can enjoy a rare chance to see baby elephants, impala, hippos, zebras, giraffes and lion cubs curiously venturing out, wobbling their way into their lush new world.
  • Taking place each November, Empango is a powerful celebration of the ascension of the current king to the throne of the Tooro Kingdom. Events last for four days with the public able to attend. The opening is marked with the Royal drum roll, heard only for this occasion.
  • Try matooke, a plantain banana typical of the area. It’s cooked in a stew to a potato-like consistency, or steamed in vine leaves with binyebwa peanut sauce. Also on the menu are white ants; rolex, a flat bread filled with eggs, cabbage and tomato; and firinda, mashed beans.

Food & Drink

Fishing Village Restaurant

Located just 10 miles from Entebbe International Airport, this local place is right on the shores of Lake Victoria. Friendly atmosphere accompanies fresh organic food and fish is of course a specialty. There’s also a pizza oven, now placed outside the premises after it set fire to the grass roof.

Banana Eco Village Restaurant

A charming rustic oasis under a canopy of trees, with plenty of birds and monkeys around, this retreat centre in the village of Nalugala Kitala, near Kampala, serves tasty local and international dishes. Don’t miss the juicy Ugandan pineapple. Also offers traditional cooking classes.

Gardens Restaurant

This popular and friendly venue in Fort Portal serves an excellent African lunch buffet which offers a great chance to try traditional African dishes. Also on offer are good burgers, curries and pizza as well as local coffee and alcohol. It’s a fab place to relax and people-watch for a while.

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