In 1907 Winston Churchill, who was at that stage of his life an explorer travelling the world, visited Uganda and went on safari there. He was blown away. In his book My African Journey (1908), he writes: “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly ‘the Pearl of Africa.’”
Not only does the country offer excellent safaris and contain the Big Five, it also offers treks to see endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild. Further, you can visit the mighty Murchison Falls and the three-tier Sipi Falls. There’s also canoeing in dugouts on the island-dotted Lake Bunyonyi, or tubing and rafting at the source of the Nile near Jinja. You can hike in the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains to see the third highest mountain in Africa. On top of this, the people of Uganda are incredibly warm and welcoming. Ugandans have embraced tourism and love to show visitors their beautiful country and share their culture. The capital city of Kampala is a vibey hub of cultural, religious and artistic expression.
Uganda truly is a pearl – a rare and precious thing of great value. A trip to this beautiful country is a super rewarding adventure, and we hope you’ll make your way there someday soon!
Uganda’s many treasures
So what are some of the things that together make Uganda the pearl of Africa? No article could contain them all, of course, but some of the attractions that have proven time and time again to be candy to visitors are:
- Gorilla trekking
- Queen Elizabeth National Park
- Murchison Falls
- Rwenzori Mountains
- Mount Elgon and Sipi Falls
- Lake Bunyonyi
- Jinja and Lake Victoria
- Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
- Kibale National Park
- Lake Mburo National Park
But first, for those a little hazy as to where exactly Uganda is, let’s do a little World Geography 101 …
Where is Uganda?
Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa. It borders the DRC to the west, Rwanda to the southwest, Tanzania to the south (with Lake Victoria between them), Kenya to the east, and South Sudan to the north. It’s a pretty stable country, which makes it an attractive option for those wanting to visit the region. It’s also pretty poor, so tourism brings a much-needed boost to the economy.
The capital city of Kampala lies a little north of the shore of Lake Victoria, the largest of the Great Rift Valley lakes. The country’s landscape includes high, snow-capped mountains, extinct volcanoes, dense forest, savanna and vast open plains.
The population of Uganda is around 45 million and is extremely diverse. Most people speak a Central Sudanic, Nilotic or Bantu language. Helpfully for visitors, many in the tourism industry speak English as well. About 80% of the population lives in rural areas. Kampala, the largest city, has around one and a half million inhabitants.
Uganda straddles the Equator, offering anyone who wants a Walk to Remember moment where you can stand in two places at once. The Uganda Equator site is located in Lake Mburo National Park. Because it sits on the Equator, Uganda enjoys plenty of sunny days. It also receives plenty of rainfall, so rivers gush, waterfalls impress, the vegetation is exuberant, and the landscape is green.
Gorilla trekking has grown greatly in popularity in recent years. You can go gorilla trekking in either Uganda or Rwanda. Both countries have their pros and cons in this regard, and we discuss these in Gorilla trekking Rwanda. At Follow Alice we offer gorilla trekking in Uganda. One reason for this choice is that Uganda is by far the cheaper option.
Gorilla trekking in Uganda takes you into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the southwest of the country. You go on a guided hike through dense montane forest to see a gorilla troop (family) in its natural habitat. The hike itself is very special, as this is a remote forest full of wildlife and beautiful plants.
Mountain gorillas are gentle creatures, so gorilla trekking is quite safe. Further, the troops that trekkers visit have become habituated to the presence of humans. Your guides brings you within a few metres of the creatures, and you can stay for an hour with them to observe them as they play, groom themselves, and more. If you’re interested in gorilla trekking, you might like to read 20 things to know about mountain gorilla trekking.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
The Queen Elizabeth National Park in southern Uganda is a large game reserve that’s an epic safari destination. Some of the wildlife one can find there are elephants, buffaloes, hippos, leopards, lions, giant forest hogs, kob and crocodiles. The birdspotting is also fantastic, and visitors should keep their eyes peeled for the likes of martial eagles, African spoonbills, grey crowned cranes, cormorants and African skimmers.
But there are many awesome game parks and reserves in Uganda, so you might wonder why we choose to highlight Queen Elizabeth National Park (NP) and not others others? Well, this is a truly special park. Three of the things that set it apart are its:
- Tree-climbing lions
- Kyambura Gorge and chimpanzees
- Boat safaris
The lions of Queen Elizabeth NP regularly climb and lounge in the trees of the park, like acacia and sycamore fig. This is not common practice for lions. In fact, only the lions in the southern Ishasha region of Queen Elizabeth NP and those in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania are known to regularly climb in trees. If you think about it, most times that you see lions (whether in person or on screen) they’re lounging sitting in the grass or on a rock. Often they’re lolling in the shade of trees, but still, they’re under the trees. Seeing lions draped over tree branches is fairly rare. When visiting Queen Elizabeth NP, you therefore want to scour the branches of trees for lions.
Only two lion populations in the world regularly climb and sit in trees. One of these populations is in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.
Kyambura Gorge and chimpanzee tracking
The gorgeous Kyambura Gorge on the edge of the Queen Elizabeth NP is a fantastic place for chimpanzees tracking (trekking). Chimps live in large troops of about 30 to 80 individuals. They spend most of the day on the ground and most of the night in trees. There’s also a good concentration of other primates in Kyambura Gorge to look out for, namely baboons, black-and-white colobuses, red-tailed monkeys and vervet monkeys.
Another must while on a Queen Elizabeth NP visit is taking a boat cruise. At Follow Alice, our Uganda trip includes a two days at Queen Elizabeth NP, with two nights at Baboon Safari Resort. We go on a boat tour on the park’s Kazinga Channel. The 32 km-long channel is a naturally occurring waterway that connects Lakes George and Edward. It has one of the world’s largest concentrations of hippos, and you can also spot Nile crocs, elephants and buffaloes, among other animals. It’s an incredible boat ride full of exciting sightings!
Murchison Falls National Park in the northwest of Uganda is yet another stellar park that we can’t recommend enough. Also known as Kabalega Falls, Murchison is arguably the most spectacular waterfall in East Africa. It sits on the Victoria Nile, which is a tributary of the White Nile. It’s a monster of a waterfall, in the best possible way; it sends water surging through a 7 m-wide gap in the rocks and then down 43 m into the gorge. You can (and should!) take a boat cruise for the best view of the falls.
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park in west Uganda is a massive reserve that deserves to be more famous than it is. That said, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so there are plenty who know its worth. This gorgeous park boasts snow-capped mountains and glaciers, even though it sits on the Equator. But it’s the height of the mountains that bring in the cold; in fact, Rwenzori contains Africa’s third highest mountain, Margherita Peak. Part of Mount Stanley, Margherita Peak sits 5,109 m (16,763 ft) above sea level.
But the park isn’t only snowy mountains – it also contains thickly forested, V-shaped valleys, spectacular waterfalls and rushing rivers, and clear blue lakes. Importantly, Rwenzori also has the richest montane flora in all Africa. You can see giant lobelias, groundsels and beautiful ground heathers, among other stunners. The lower portion of the park has a network of low-lying boardwalks that have you one moment standing amid wetland grasses double your height to the next being surrounded by heather with sharp mountain peaks towering above you.
It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that the Rwenzori Mountains are a hiker’s paradise. You can do anything from a short, half-day hike to a multi-day trek that takes you up into the mountains proper. Other activities on offer within the park include:
- paddling in the streams
- chilling in the hot springs
- going on a community coffee tour
- waterfall hikes
- mountain biking
Mount Elgon and Sipi Falls
If you decide to travel to the eastern region of the Pearl of Africa, one place to definitely visit is the gorgeous Mount Elgon National Park. The park’s eponymous Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano that sits on the border between Uganda and Kenya. More specifically, Mt Elgon is a caldera, which is a massive crater formed when a volcano collapses in on itself. Many hike up Mt Elgon, and they often start at Sipi Falls.
Sipi Falls is a high waterfall that’s incredibly picturesque. The waterfall’s longest drop is 100 m (328 ft). If you hike the trail around the waterfalls you’re rewarded with fantastic views of Mt Elgon as well as the Karamoja plains and Lake Kyoga. You can also go abseiling or rock climbing alongside the waterfall for an adrenalin injection!
Visitors to Uganda usually fly into the country via Entebbe International Airport just outside of Kampala. (The airport’s name might ring a bell with anyone who watched the 2018 film 7 Days in Entebbe.) Kampala is the cultural hub of Uganda, being the country’s largest urban area.
A key site to visit while in Kampala is the National Museum. It’s a fascinating place that covers topics as diverse as archaeology, palaeontology, ethnography, science, transport and communication. There’s also an exciting living village showcasing the cultures and lifestyles of the various peoples of Uganda.
Ndere Cultural Centre
The Ndere Cultural Centre is a beautifully maintained complex with lovely green grounds that offers fascinating insights into the numerous cultures of the Ugandan people. The Ndere Troupe performs dances showcasing the music and traditions of various Ugandan societies. There are also various traditional crafts and artworks on display at the centre. At Follow Alice we like to take our clients to Ndere Cultural Centre for a farewell buffet dinner and a chance to watch live shows and explore the centre’s treasures.
Another hotspot for tourists is Kabaka’s Lake, an urban lake built in the 1980s that’s the largest excavated lake in Africa. It was originally intended to stretch as far as Lake Victoria to offer an escape route should the British attack, but its construction was interrupted. The lake creates a unique urban scene and is great for a picnic stop.
Uganda is a country of various faiths and there are consequently many beautiful buildings of both religious and historical significance to visit in Kampala. We’re thinking, for instance, of:
- The domed Baha’i Temple, Africa’s mother temple, which offers tours
- Uganda National Mosque, the largest mosque in Africa, which has a gorgeous and intricately decorated dome and lets you enjoy a 360° view of the city from its minaret
- The twin-towered Rubaga Cathedral with its beautiful stained glass windows
- The Namugongo Martyrs Shrine honouring the Christians murdered in the 1980s by Kabaka Mwanga (and yes, that’s the same Kabaka that gave us the lovely Kabaka’s Lake; like so many leaders, Kabaka has a mixed legacy)
Lake Bunyonyi in southwest Uganda is a special place. One might even be tempted to say it’s a pearl within the Pearl of Africa, if only the logic of that metaphor wasn’t completely troubled! The lake is framed by lush, green-terraced hills, but it’s the 29 islands of various shapes and sizes scattered across the water that make it so magical. The word bunyonyi in the local language means ‘birds’ and, yes, you guessed it – the lake is so named because it’s home to an extremely broad range of bird species.
Lake Bunyonyi is fantastic for visitors to Uganda who want to get active. The lake and its surrounds offers the perfect location for:
- hiking (there are various trails around the lake, and you can also do village community walks)
- quad biking (bring on the adrenaline!)
- bird watching (okay, this one might be stretching the word ‘active’ a little far)
- canoeing (you can rent traditional dugouts and row to an island for a picturesque picnic lunch)
- swimming (the lake has no crocs, unlike most other Ugandan waters, so swim, float … relax)
Jinja and Lake Victoria
Jinja, a town in southern Uganda on the north shore of Lake Victoria, is a fantastic destination for sporty types and adventure lovers. Particularly popular is white water rafting on the White Nile near Itanda Falls. The river wends its way through an incredibly picturesque, forested landscape, so rafters get to enjoy unique and breathtaking views of the region.
While in Jinja you might also like to visit the garden at Coronation Park, which celebrates the source of the River Nile. Basically this spot is the start of the Victoria Nile, which flows out of Lake Victoria. The Victoria Nile is the start of the White Nile, which is considered the main source of the famous River Nile. The search for the source of the Nile is the stuff of legend, having sparked numerous expeditions over the centuries. Today we can simply pop on over and smugly stand in the place others only dreamed to find!
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
As you likely well know, rhino populations everywhere are under serious threat as a result of illegal poaching. In fact, poaching in Uganda led to the extermination in the 1980 of its two indigenous rhino species: the northern white rhino and the black rhino. This is why you cannot spot rhinos on safari in Uganda.
You can, however, see white rhinos at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, which was established in 2005. The sanctuary imported southern white rhinos and is working to grow the population. Visitors are welcome.
Kibale National Park
Kibale National Park in west Uganda is a moist evergreen rainforest and another of the reasons why Churchill was justified in calling this country the Pearl of Africa. The park sits alongside Queen Elizabeth National Park, forming a continuous forest and ecosystem for its diverse inhabitants. These inhabitants include various primate species like the chimpanzee, red colobus, back-and-white colobus, blue monkey (diademed monkey), Uganda mangabey, and red-tailed monkey. It also contains the rare, white-bearded l’Hoest’s monkey (also known as the mountain monkey).
Given their proximity, many who visit Queen Elizabeth NP also pay a visit to Kibale to go chimpanzee tracking and see its various other primates. The park also offers safaris and one can spot animals like elephants, leopards, African golden cats, lions, servals, bushpigs, warthogs, marshbucks, red and blue duikers, mongooses and otters.
Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary
Adjacent to Kibale National Park is Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, another fantastic attraction also home to various primates as well as beautiful birds like the Great Blue Turaco. If you choose to visit Kibale NP, we highly recommend adding in a stop at Bigodi.
Lake Mburo National Park
We love Lake Mburo National Park at Follow Alice and always recommend to our clients that they include a visit there in their itinerary. The park, found in the southwest of the country, is mostly open savanna and offers excellent safaris. One can find the usual safari favourites, like lions, leopards, zebras, buffaloes, baboons, hyenas, hippos, crocs and giraffes. Also exciting is the great antelope population, which includes the topi, duiker, oribi, Bohor reedbuck, Defassa waterbuck, bushbuck and klipspringer.
Apart from going on safari, Lake Mburo NP offers various other exciting and rewarding activities, such as:
- boat safaris
- bicycling safaris
- horse riding
- hiking and nature trails
- salt lick guided tour
- guided bird walk in Rubanga Forest
Igongo Cultural Centre
The park’s Igongo Cultural Centre is not to be missed. The centre showcases the history and culture of the Bantu-speaking Banyakitara people of western and southwestern Uganda. There are several traditional grass huts within the centre and visitors can go on a guided tour to learn about the lifestyles of the various Banyakitara peoples.
Further reading on the Pearl of Africa
So what do you think – is it fair to call Uganda the Pearl of Africa? And are you keen to visit this corner of the world? If you’d like to know more about Uganda, here’s some further reading you might find interesting and worthwhile:
- Top 20 things to do in Uganda
- Gorilla trekking in Uganda
- 20 things to know about mountain gorilla trekking
Please also feel free to give us a shout if you have any questions about Uganda you’d like answered. We’re happy to chat via email or WhatsApp, or we can even set up a Skype convo. Having explored Uganda ourselves, we’re keen to share our experiences with others. We encourage you to take the plunge and book a trip to the Pearl of Africa – it’s a beautiful and exciting country that’s calling to anyone with the heart of an explorer!