25 little-known Ugandan tourist destinations to visit in 2018
After a few days visiting community tourism projects in Ishasha, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Julia and I drive north through the crater lakes of Fort Portal and to the edge of Kibale Forest. We swap notes about places we want to visit. We’re usually rushing to one destination, or rushing back to Kampala, but in an ideal world, we’d travel at a more leisurely pace.
Imagine time is on our side, where should we stop? Here are a few places we drove through – and a few of our favourites from across Uganda. Feel free to add more to our list!
No. 1 – Take a dugout canoe across Lake Mutanda, South Western Uganda
Camera required! Admire the eight volcanic Virunga peaks reflected in the lake’s surface as you are paddled across the lake. Combine this with a trip to Kisoro, a hike with the Gorilla Highlands project and a stay at Chameleon Hill.
No. 2 – Fancy a cuppa cha? Stop at Igara tea factory
Strictly speaking, tea is an invasive species and the plantations were created at the expense of ancient woodlands, yet the bright green young tips of tea leaves remain alluring to this Brit (a committed tea-drinker!)
No. 3 – Zip through Mabira Forest!
Mabira Forest Canopy Super Skyway is over 200 metres of canopy zip-lines through the tops of 40 metre high trees and across the River Musamya.
Go for the day or stay at Griffin Falls Eco Campsite, Mabira. Here you can see Red Tailed Monkeys and shy Grey Cheeked Mangabeys (if you’re lucky). You can also walk or hire mountain bikes to go on the trails through the Forest. Tell Hussein the muzungu sent you 🙂
No. 4 – Climb Biharwe Hill to see the solar eclipse memorial, Mbarara
Viewing Uganda’s solar eclipse in Pokwero / Pakwach took my breath away. It was spell-binding.
Imagine if you had experienced an eclipse without expecting it? The story of Uganda’s 15th century eclipse at Biharwe changed the boundaries of traditional kingdoms.
Stretch your legs on the long drive west: take twenty minutes to climb Biharwe Hill and admire the monument (sited directly opposite Igongo).
No. 5 – Learn about the cultural significance of Ankole cows at the Igongo Cultural Centre, outside Mbarara
TIP: if you’re stopping for lunch, eat the buffet. If you order from the menu, you may have a very LONG wait … we did.
No. 6 – “Saving gorillas, one sip at a time” at the Gorilla Conservation Cafe in Entebbe
If you’re a coffee drinker like me, you’ll LOVE Gorilla Conservation Coffee and their brilliant new cafe in Entebbe! Do visit the cafe if you’re driving to the airport.
Pictured on my T-shirt is Kanyonyi, the silverback gorilla from the Mubare family who died recently. The coffee blend is named after him. Keep his memory alive by visiting the cafe or buying coffee at numerous outlets across Uganda. Profits from the sale of Gorilla Conservation Coffee support the ground-breaking work of Conservation Through Public Health.
You’ll find the cafe between Victoria Mall and the new Imperial Mall (on the right hand side of Portal Road as you drive towards the airport) on the first floor of the same building as Arthur’s. Here you can order a fresh coffee or buy coffee beans to drink at home (a great gift too!)
No. 7 – Explore the Amabere Caves outside Fort Portal
The crater lakes of Fort Portal are gorgeous.
In this same region are Amabere Ga Nyina Mwiru Caves. I’ve heard mixed reports about them so the muzungu wants to make her own mind up… (caves always sound exciting to me though).
Amabere Ga Nyina Mwiru means “the breasts of Nyina Mwiru.” The ‘breasts’ are in fact stalactites made of calcium carbonate. The white-coloured water that drips off thus called “breast milk” by the local Toro people.
Local folklore has a rather gory interpretation of the cave’s name. Enough said on that point (or two points, should I say) …
No. 8 – Look out for the Narina Trogon at Ishasha Wilderness Camp, Queen Elizabeth National Park
Thanks to Bosco and Keseloni for making sure I saw my first Narina Trogon on my last stay at the splendid Ishasha Wilderness Camp. What a fabulous bird!
(Do you love birds like I do? Read some of my birding stories here).
No. 9 – Take a guided walk from one side of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to the other
You don’t need to track the Mountain Gorillas to love Bwindi’s forest and birdlife. The first time I saw Bwindi’s rainforest, I thought I was going to cry; the place is pure magic. Did you know… Bwindi was voted no. 1 in Travel African magazine’s list of top 10 birdwatching sites?
In 2013, Robert Brierley hosted us at Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge from where we walked the 17 km Ivy River trail. The lodge is set high on Nteko Ridge between the Virunga volcanoes and the breath-takingly beautiful Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
No. 10 – Cross the Equator by boat and hang out with the chimps on Ngamba Island
The Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary tour is entertaining and educational for the whole family. Relaxing, bird watching, crossing the Equator by boat and looking out for the 50,000 fruit bats that fly overhead every evening are other unforgettable Ngamba experiences. All trips must be booked in advance. A stay at Ngamba’s luxury tented camp is highly recommended too.
Unlike the day tour – in which you are separated from the chimpanzees by a high platform and an electric fence – you can have a far more intimate experience with the chimpanzees, if you sign up for the one week volunteering programme. This takes the Ngamba experience to a whole new level.
Whether it’s cleaning the cages where the chimps come to sleep at night, preparing food, collecting behavioural data, assisting in medical procedures, typing up ‘chimp diaries’, selling merchandise in the Ngamba Island shop or helping maintain the island’s facilities, volunteers on week (or longer programmes) are active members of Ngamba’s dedicated family. You have to meet the Ngamba Island team to appreciate how dedicated they are to each individual chimp…!
No.11 – Wake up among the animals in Entebbe!
Fancy a night in the wild but without the travel to the National Parks? Stay in the bandas at UWEC, the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (once known as Entebbe Zoo). You will think you are in the bush – and may wake up to the sounds of chimpanzees, monkeys – or even a lion!
You can take part in some very cool, interactive experiences at UWEC, such as feeding the animals and walking with Hamukungu Charles, the young elephant (a lot bigger than he was in this photo of six years ago!) UWEC’s Behind-the-Scenes experiences need to be booked in advance. UWEC is open daily 8.30 am – 6.30 pm. Call +256 (0)414 320520 for more information.
No. 12 – Go horse riding along the banks of the River Nile
Horseback safaris along the northern bank of the River Nile outside Jinja can be for a few hours or even a few days – it’s up to you. Nile Horseback Safaris’ professionally-run riding stables also offer riding classes. Horse riding – and a few refresher lessons! – are high on the muzungu’s travel bucket list this year!
No. 13 – Learn the history of the Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, while sitting on a lionskin on the floor of the Throne Room
The Throne Room is located in the Omukama – Traditional King’s – (very modern) Palace in Hoima. Here we were told about the “empire of traders, hunters and metalworkers, built and lost on ivory.” The cultural history was illuminating. The experience taught me that I have barely scratched the surface of the country’s history and culture. There’s so much more to touring Uganda than wildlife and adventure. I was honoured to be given the pet name Akiki at our audience with the Omukama, the traditional king of Bunyoro kingdom.
No. 14 – Track the golden monkeys (and mountain gorillas) of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
All credit to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guides who have plenty of interesting facts about these gorgeous creatures and their stunning bamboo habitat. Just like Uganda’s chimps and mountain gorillas, UWA rangers are constantly monitoring the golden monkeys, so you are (almost) guaranteed to see them.
I stayed at Mount Gahinga Lodge: a hidden gem in a divine part of the country, a few kilometres from the Rwandese border and just five minutes’ walk from the park. Did you know you can also track the gorillas in Mgahinga? Read my multi-page Ultimate Guide to Mountain Gorilla Trekking for everything gorilla!
No. 15 – En route from Kampala to Fort Portal, stop at the Nakayima Tree in Mubende
I am fascinated by traditional beliefs and customs. The Nakayima – or ‘witch’ – Tree at Mubende is estimated to be 650 years old and is named after a princess who is believed to have cured smallpox. The tree has 18 “rooms” – these being spacious gaps between the tree’s buttress roots. Read about travel writer Edgar Batte’s visit to the Nakayima Tree.
No. 16 – Follow in the footsteps of the Uganda Martyrs
Every year one million pilgrims congregate in Namugongo, east of Kampala to commemorate the several dozen Uganda Martyrs who were executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887. Pilgrims travel from across Uganda and East Africa for this event.
The Martyrs Walk across Kampala – launched in 2014 – retraces the last few hours and days of the Martyrs’ fateful journey as they were forced to walk towards their death. Embarking on the Martyrs’ Walk will give you a greater understanding of their contribution to history. The story of St Balikuddembe (namesake of Owino market) will stay in my mind forever. I revisited the Uganda Martyrs’ history when Pope Francis visited Uganda.
No. 17 – Buy some smoked fish in West Nile
This year, the Muzungu has been invited to climb Mount Wati (“what to the what?”)
No. 18 – Visit the Smallest Church in the World (apparently!)
According to some, Goli in West Nile is the location for the world’s smallest church – although my attempts to verify this have been hit and miss. I need to visit in person. It’s surely Uganda’s smallest church since it’s certainly standing room only. (What a great venue to book if you want to reduce the cost of your wedding!)
No.19 – Eat, dance, hunt – and ‘go to the bush’ with Entanda
The award-winning Entanda Traditional Hunting and Cultural Experience is a community experience like no other. We jumped off the bus in the countryside near Mityana to be greeted by loud ululating, drumming and singing. We danced as one before being invited to eat the freshest fruits straight from the gardens. Oh my, we ATE! Next, the men in our group were invited to take in part traditional hunting as we ladies were taught how to prepare a luwombo lunch and invited ‘to the bush’ (and what happens in the Bush stays in the Bush!) Oh the stories! This is authentic community tourism at its best.
To visit the Entanda Traditional Hunting and Cultural Experience (AKA “Kojja and Senga’s retreat”) call +256(0) 772 340576 or visit the Entanda Facebook page. Entanda is near Mityana, 60 km along the Kampala to Fort Portal Road. Go visit!
No. 20 – Eat fresh fish at Kabaka’s Landing Site (KLS), Mulungu, Munyonyo, Kampala
Down at the shorefront restaurants of KLS, there are no frills, just fried whole Tilapia, Nile Perch and reasonably priced drinks beers, sodas and Uganda Waragi gin. KLS is a relaxing spot for watching the sun go down over Lake Victoria. You can also buy fresh fish – gutted and descaled – to cook at home.
It was from here, in the 1870s, that Kabaka Mutesa embarked on hippo hunting expeditions to Lake Bulingugwe and beyond. The hippos are gone, and so is the Kabaka’s fleet of canoes, but Mulungu is still known as the Royal Port.
Read my blog “Eating fish” – where to eat fish on Lake Victoria for the full lowdown on Kabaka’s Landing Site and other places you can eat fish by the lake.
No. 21 – Chimp trackers’ delight: the Bee Hive Bar and Bistro in Bigodi, Kibale
Located along the new Fort Portal to Kamwenge Road, the Bee Hive Bar & Bistro opened mid-2017. The reasonably priced menu at this great little restaurant and bar has local favourites like goat stew and rolex. Beers are just 3,500 Uganda shillings (one US dollar). This is a great stopover after tracking the chimpanzees in Kibale Forest and is located directly opposite the KAFRED project at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary. The Bee Hive also has a pool table and satellite TV (although the muzungu is happiest on the top deck gazing across Bigodi Swamp looking for primates and birds!) Click on the link above to read more about this must-visit stopover. The Bee Hive is also on Facebook. (P.S. You’ll find clean toilets here!)
No. 22 – Offer money and coffee beans at the (refurbished) Mparo Tombs of Kabelega near Hoima
Kabalega is said to be ‘the last great king of one of the greatest kingdoms in the Great Lakes region.’ His kingdom stretched well beyond the modern day borders of Uganda. The Mparo Tombs monument outside Hoima marks the spot where in 1877 Kabalega granted an audience to Emin Pasha. Read my blog On my knees again: an audience with the King of Bunyoro.
TIP: visit the Mparo Tombs in May and you can stuff your pockets full of the sweet mangoes falling from the huge trees!
No. 23 – Walk in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains
Last year I fell in love with the Rwenzoris. Read my #RwenzoriDiary series.
You don’t have to be mega fit and commit to climbing Margherita, Uganda’s highest peak – there are many peaks to choose from and many shorter routes in the foothills. It is here on the lower slopes that you find the most interesting vegetation, birds and animals. Did you know the three-horned chameleon can easily be seen in the Rwenzoris? This mountain range covers over 120 km² and has an amazing 50 lakes and several waterfalls. Keep reading for more stories from the Rwenzoris.
Sunbird Hill is a favourite destination of mine, named in honour of 18 of Uganda’s 38 sunbird species recorded here (so far). If you love nature and are looking for an authentic experience, in a relaxed homestay environment, this is it. Early mornings are filled with splendid forest birdsong. At night you often hear the PANT HOOTS of chimps from Kibale Forest. It’s magical!
If that’s not heaven enough for an amateur birder and conservationist like me, Sunbird Hill Research and Monitoring Site has an extensive reference library and a resident expert primatologist, Julia Lloyd. Read all about Turaco Treehouse, Butterfly Cottage, the Birders’ Lounge and Sunbird Hill Bird Club on my blog Love birds, butterflies and chimps? Then don’t miss Sunbird Hill, Kibale Forest edge.
No. 25 – Discover Karamoja and Kidepo Valley
Karamoja (in northeast Uganda) is now firmly on Uganda’s tourist map thanks in part to the great work done by the team at Discover Karamoja. (Crucially for tourists, the UK Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has finally cleared Karamoja as safe to travel to).
Theo Vos writes “Karamoja suffers from a negative image due to decades of isolation and insecurity. However, after peace has returned (2011), the perception of the region by fellow Ugandans and the international community hasn’t changed. The Discover Karamoja project aims to address this through positive imagery and gorgeous photography.”
Karamoja culture is like nowhere else in the #PearlofAfrica. Look at the colour! The landscapes! I’ll be visiting Karamoja very soon.
The region is also home to Kidepo Valley National Park, named one of Africa’s top 10 parks for its ‘spectacular landscapes and large herds of buffalo.’
Want to see cheetah, ostrich, Secretary birds and the Karamoja Apalis? The only place in Uganda you’ll find them is here in the north east.
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of our travel ideas.