|Currency||Ugandan shilling (UGX)|
|Area||total: 236,040 sq km |
water: 36,330 sq km
land: 199,710 sq km
|Population||24,699,073 (July 2002 est.)|
|Language||English (official national language, taught in grade schools, used in courts of law and by most newspapers and some radio broadcasts), Ganda or Luganda (most widely used of the Niger-Congo languages, preferred for native language publications in the capital and may be taught in school), other Niger-Congo languages, Nilo-Saharan languages, Swahili, Arabic|
|Religion||Roman Catholic 33%, Protestant 33%, Muslim 16%, indigenous beliefs 18%|
Uganda is a country in Central Africa. Famously called the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill, it is home to one of the most diverse and concentrated ranges of African fauna including the highly endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and the endangered common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes).
Most of the areas of interest to travelers are in the south-west part of the country, a side branch of the famous and volcanically active Great Rift Valley, with the exception of Jinja and Murchison Falls. Gorilla tracking draws most foreign tourists, and there are several troops of gorillas that can be visited in at least three different locations. Book gorilla tracking permits well in advance (6 months or more) to avoid disappointment.
- Kampala is a bustling, dirty African city. If you like the African urban vibe, are comfortable haggling for produce or are willing to share a pack of cigarettes and chat up the locals, then you could have an interesting day of it. Sadly, though, there is not much of interest for sightseeing, but it is not a particularly dangerous place to be in the city centre around the major hotels (but see below under Stay Safe). The National Museum is interesting but rather sad and run down and the colonial architecture of various buildings (particularly in Old Kampala) is nice but unexceptional.
- Entebbe is built around the shores of Lake Victoria and is primarily active as the location of the airport, although the Ugandan Government House is set to move back here in the future. The drive to or from Kampala is about an hour. The United Nations uses Entebbe as a depot and staging area for their vehicles and heavy equipment that are part of peace keeping and other missions in the central African region. Entebbe offers a relaxed stopover alternative to Kampala on your way into or out of the country by airplane, as the air is clean, the streets are safe to walk, and the old colonial gardens and parks with the lake in the background make for a serene atmosphere. The old Botanical Gardens, while tired, will be of interest to botanists and birders unlikely to see specimens in the wild.
- Jinja is the world famous source of the Nile, and in Uganda more famously the source of Nile Beer. This is a popular destination for backpackers for its white water rafting. Three main operators work the rapids, offering a range of options, including body surfing, kayaking lessons and a video or dvd of the experience afterwards. It is possible to arrange a day trip from any travel agent in Kampala. Be sure to use sunscreen!
The national parks are beautiful and, on the whole, uncrowded. See the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) website Rwanda and the DRC. One gorilla troop can be tracked from here, but its range sometimes takes it into one of the other two countries, so may not be accessible. The Virunga Mountains are the dramatic spine of the park, recently active volcanic peaks. Much other remarkable wildlife is in this often overlooked park.
- Kabelaga National Park
- Kipedo National Park
- Murchison Falls National Park
- Queen Elizabeth National Park has several parts to it, but the main section between Lake Edward and Lake George is a more concentrated version of East African parks as far as animals are concerned, although with less splendid vistas unless the mist-shrouded Ruwenzori Mountains are visible. The Ugandan Kob is an endemic antelope (and is on the coat of arms along with the crested crane, including on currency). Worth considering is a drive among volcanic crater lakes on the south edge of the Ruwenzoris, but tsetse flies have been a problem recently, so ask before setting off.
- Kibale Forest National Park near the town of Fort Portal is famed for chimpanzee tracking and is highly recommended. Twitchers will know that some of the best birding in central Africa is here too. The Kasese Crater Lakes are in the area.
See also: African National Parks
During the bad old days of colonialism the British did not allow settlement by Europeans and as a result there are few Caucasians in Uganda. The term for whites is mdzungu, so caucasian visitors should get used to hearing it shouted out by children in every corner of the country. It is not a derogatory term per se, so smile and wave in reply (do not give out sweets or -- worse -- money. The begging by children is growing in the touristy parts near the gorillas!)
Uganda is accessible and affordable, but not up to the high tourism standards of more mature destinations such as Kenya or Tanzania, much less South Africa. This gives it more edge, more authenticity and less predictability. This does not mean danger (but see Stay Safe section below), rather greater opportunities for delight -- and frustration. This is real Africa, the dirty urban bustle of Kampala bursting at the seams then giving way to lush subsistence farming and small villages. Roads are rough, people are friendly, everything seems to have a smell all its own, and not everything moves according to schedule or to plan.
Most travelers visit for the gorillas, but other major draws are the chimpanzees, birding, trekking the Ruwenzoris, and visiting the source of the Nile River.
Entebbe Airport is the hub for Ugandan air travel. Many flights to cities in Africa take place from here. Direct flights to and from Johannesburg run three days a week on South African Airways. Direct flights to and from London run every other day on British Air.
The best way to get around Kampala and the neighboring towns is by using minibus-type taxis called matatus. This is the most efficient and cost-effective method of transportation in urban areas, but try not to get ripped off by the conductors as they sometimes try to overcharge tourists.
The roads in Uganda are simply appalling. A brief stretch of tarred road west of Kampala toward Mbarara is passable, but otherwise strap yourself in for a bumpy, slow ride. Commercial drivers of buses and trucks compound the danger, as do pedestrians, livestock, cyclists, dogs, and the odd police roadblock. Plan on 60km/hr as a typical rate of travel (speed will vary, though!). Untarred roads, if wet, may be unpassable in the mountainous regions of the south-west.
Expect to pay a lot to hire a vehicle. A sensible choice is to hire a 4x4 with a driver given that you will need local language assistance and expertise should something happen on the roads. Most places have accommodation and meals for drivers as this is common among travelers. This will cost upwards of USD100.00 per day (not including fuel) with the cheapest vehicles typically having no windows, a canvas roof, an assembly date in the 1970's and so on. You get what you pay for. A cheap option is likely to leave you stranded somewhere remote and that can mean days of your itinerary lost. (Caveat emptor for those hiring from Walter Egger in Jinja for just this reason!) Unless you are comfortable paying cash in advance without a signed contract and no network to help you get out of a breakdown, go to one of the major agencies.
Domestic bus travel is reasonable and cheap between major centres, and is a good choice for backpackers with time, but may not run reliably on schedule.
Taxis, called special hire taxis, are available in most every decent sized town. Fares are negotiable over long distances.
In Kampala and some other towns, the boda-boda is a good way to get from place to place. These are small mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles or scooters with cushions on the back and are cheap transport as used by locals.
English is widely spoken as the lingua franca, but Swahili will come in handy in places. Dozens of African languages are spoken in Uganda, the most common being Luganda.
Money can be complicated to deal with, as there are only a few ATMs in Kampala (and in Mbarara) and credit cards are only rarely accepted. Even cashing travelers checks can be difficult. Best to take US Dollars or Euros, which can be spent directly at fair exchange rates in most places (you'll get shillings as change), and exchanging notes is possible in the larger towns if you need Ugandan Shillings. Note that there are better rates for exchanging larger notes (100 dollars/euros or more), so do it in big chunks if you need to. Try to have all this arranged before leaving Kampala if you can.
The cost of food and other goods and sevices will blow you away because Uganda is extremely cheap. Make sure you bargain for everything you buy around town except in the bigger stores and malls. Do not ever pay face value when buying from the local vendors around town. Hotels can be costly so, if you are a student it would be a good idea to look for a hostel in Kampala.
Coffee! The best place to find this wonderful but hard-to-find product is in Kampala at the 1000 Cups Coffee Shop on Buganda Road. They have many Ugandan and other African varieties freshly roasted and at reasonable prices to take with you.
Unfortunately, food prepared for tourists tends to be overcooked, bland imitations of English dishes (or, just as bad, continental cuisine). Soup from a packet, meat and potatoes, with a sweet dessert is typical. Toasted sandwiches can be found in some places. If this does not appeal, it is best (and far more interesting) to stop at roadside stands or in markets to purchase fresh produce -- fruits and vegetables abound and are cheap cheap, to say nothing of the roasted mealies and roasted chicken.
See the Fang Fang Hotel below for good Chinese food in Kampala.
In Entebbe, try the Boma Guesthouse on Gowers Rd. See below under Sleep.
Coffee is one of the best products from Uganda, but the British hooked the locals on tea, so finding a decent cup of native joe is nearly impossible, especially outside of Kampala. In Kampala, try the coffee house 1000 Cups on Buganda Road. You can also buy coffee beans there (see above under Buy).
Chai tea is available widely, and is best in the rural areas near the tea plantations. You will see signs posted on shops and kiosks where it can be purchased. Sadly, ordinary black tea is likely to be Five Roses imported from South Africa, not the local tea.
Lower-end South African wine can be had in some restaurants, but stick with the beer. Any of the four major brands are acceptable, but the Pilsner brand is the only one made without added corn sugar for those who care about such things.
Bottled water only!
The accommodations provided in the national parks by UWA are generally of a good standard and are quite inexpensive compared to alternatives. They vary in amenities and price, and the cheapest can be as little as USD5.00 or less per person per night.
Few moderately priced options are available, and the high end, while expensive, are substandard compared to the high end options of Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and other mature tourist destinations in Africa. Unfortunately, few alternatives are available. There are some notable exceptions, but best to go either highest end or stay in the UWA budget accommodations and spend more on a better vehicle!
- Mgahinga Safari Lodge is on Lake Mutare between Kisoro and Nkuringo and makes a good base for tracking gorillas in the latter location. Too far for Mgahinga. The location is on a peninsula out in the stunningly beautiful lake, with the Virunga Mountains as another dramatic vista. Great value for money, good food by Ugandan standards, clean, good staff, etc.
- Treehouse in Kibale Forest is part of the UWA accommodations at Kibale and is literally on poles some ten metres up overlooking a mud wallow and seasonal watering hole. Great opportunity to see rare forest elephants. Secluded. If you are willing to climb the ladder to the room, this is a real treat.
- Fang Fang Hotel on Ssezibwa Road in Kampala has clean rooms, air-con available, hot running water, a great Chinese restaurant on the premises (with nice garden seating), and is not overpriced. Recommended. Centrally located near UWA offices.
- Boma Guesthouse on Gowers Road. They have excellent food, good service, and a friendly atmosphere. Phone: +256-(0)77 467929/256-(0)78 430723 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Uganda has been home to some of the more gruesome atrocities in modern African history since its independence in 1960, particularly under the heinous dictator Idi Amin, but in the years since 1997 things have consistently improved. Today, in 2005, the single party state is relatively stable after 19 years of stereotypically 'strong man' rule by Yoweri Museveni who seems torn between embracing more enlightened government and clinging to power (by amending the constitution to allow himself to serve a third ten-year term). A major concern for travelers in the northern part of the country, however, is the Lord's Resistance Army, who have been making the Acholi, Lango and Teso districts lawless and dangerous since 2002, although they have been active insurgents since 1989.
Travel north to Murchison Falls is safe, but the north and east of the country are particularly volatile, so one is well advised to get the latest news updates before traveling there. Note that overlanders from Tanzania and Kenya regularly make the trip routing through Jinja, so the danger is nothing like travel in southern Sudan or the DRC.
As in any urban area, Kampala can be dodgy. One is well advised to remain in tourist areas, but sensibly garbed visitors not dangling the latest cameras, flashy jewelry or bulging bags with the hottest brand names will not be threatened. However, any caucasians walking about are likely to be stared at openly, which may cause discomfort to those unaccustomed to travel in Africa. What little begging exists is some of the most polite and inoffensive to be found in African cities. Small children are sadly becoming a nuisance in some rural spots frequented by tourists doling out sweets and coins, but nowhere near the swarming throng one can attract in many cities around the world.
In the gorilla tracking region of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest near the border with the DRC there was one incident in the late 1990's in which bandits attacked a group of tourists and killed several people. Since then there have been no incidents and all groups now go out with armed guards (which was not the case before). There is a visible security presence in the region, but this is a preventative measure rather than a response to anything specific.
As in all African countries, AIDS/HIV infection rate is very high. Do not risk unprotected sex.
Take precautions against malaria!
Cell phone coverage is not bad over all, but geography can make trouble in the mountainous regions. SIM cards are cheaply available everywhere in 'starter packs'.
Internet cafes can be readily found in Kampala and Jinja, but otherwise access to the internet can be difficult to find.
- Uganda travel directory (http://www.aboutuganda.com)