2014 trip report

Goran writes:

Route travelled: Entebbe-Kampala-Fort Portal-Kasese-Kampala-Mbale-Sipi-Kampala-Murchison Falls NP-Kampala-Kabale-Kisoro-Buhoma-Butotoga-Kanunga-Kabale-Katuna-Kigali(Rwanda)

Places visited: Entebbe, Fort Portal, Crater Lake Valley, Kibale NP, Rwenzori NP, Kampala, Sipi Falls, Mount Elgon NP, Murchinson Falls NP, Lake Bunyoni, Lake Chahafi, Mgahinga NP, Lake Mutanda and Bwindi NP

 

NB: some practical info may be outdated as the report is more than a year old.

 

Travel period: Dec 2013/Jan 2014

 

Exchange rate: USD1=UGX2500

 

I came to Uganda with low expectation planning to stay not more than two weeks before proceeding to elsewhere in East Africa. Country’s natural beauty and its friendly people influenced the decision to extend the stay for two additional weeks. Thinking of Uganda as a kind of fake intro to Africa proved to be wrong fortunately; all I can say now is that Uganda, maybe together with Rwanda, would be an ideal intro to sub-Saharan Africa for those who are visiting the region for the first time.

 

People

Ugandans are kind people and they’ll enter into a friendly conversation at any opportunity given; learned a lot about Ugandan way of life from my fellow ‘seat next to mine’ passengers on public transport, long distance bus journeys in particular. One thing though, I avoided entering into conversations on religious subjects, see the Annoyances section below. Don’t hesitate to seek help with anything, e.g. with directions in countryside or when looking for something in Kampala – they’re very helpful and want nothing in return.

 

Safety

It felt quite safe pretty much everywhere. I didn’t like being on the street at night and avoided walking after dark in urban settlements even when with friends.

 

Corruption

This is a paradise comparing to some other sub-Saharan regions, Western Africa in particular. Nobody ever asked me for a pressie or donation. Their police and immigration officials at the borders didn’t bother any tourist I met on the trip. Actually, I met people who unintentionally ended up staying longer in the country than their visa allowed them but no other action than a verbal warning was used against them. The two instances of corruption I witnessed happened outside of Entebbe airport’s terminal and on our ride to Murchison Falls. More details on this in relevant sections below.

 

Ground transportation

Possible to get to most parts of the country by using public transport; those visiting Kidepo NP (for security reasons) tend to fly to somewhere from Entebbe then overground for the park visit. Overcharging takes place on all forms of ground transportation when paying on board. Get the ticket from the booking office when possible. When on board ask discretely your fellow passengers about the fare and offer to pay at around that price if asked to pay significantly more money. And don’t embarrass your source of information by saying: “oh, but he told me the fare is this or that”.

 

 

Bus

Extensive network plying along the main roads, but the quality of service varies widely. There are some companies with OK buses, but even those had issues with punctuality and breakdowns, Post Bus included. Overcrowding shouldn’t take place around urban centres as the bus company gets fined on the spot and any standing passengers thrown out. Overcrowding away from police patrol posts can be rally bad and the bus company will make sure everyone standing gets off before approaching the known police post.

 

Taxi or matatu (minibus):

They call ‘taxi’ what we call ‘minibus’. These go everywhere. Pros: readily available in urban areas, fast and depart when full. Cons: too fast and less safe than big buses. Overcharging here is rife.

 

 

Boda boda (moto taxi)

This is a great way to travel short distance and you can even take your luggage with you. Arrange the price before taking a ride. Pros: convenient, cheap and fast; especially useful in Kampala’s stationary traffic. Cons: helmet rarely provided, lottery when it comes to riding skills and knowledge on how to get to your destination. Sometimes you guide them to get where you want.

 

 

Special hire (taxi)

They call ‘taxi’ what we call ‘minibus’; ‘taxi’ in their terms is ‘special hire’. I only needed to arrange ‘special hire’ once in Uganda.

Also, bear in mind that some public transport outside of Kampala may not operate on Sundays.

 

 

Road safety, conditions and signposting

Main highways were mostly in a good state, but almost all of those had (sometimes long) stretches with roadworks. Other main roads were OK, but can be without tarmac or with big potholes. Country roads (no tarmac) fine if in flat regions; those in mountains, e.g. between Bwindi and Kabale are suitable for motorbikes or 4x4s only.

 

 

Money

Every town I visited had a working ATM. The daily maximum that can be withdrawn varies from bank to bank and even from branch to branch of the same bank. The daily max can be anything between 250k and 1 million. Barclays and Crane Bank were dispensing the largest daily amounts of UGX.

 

Cash exchange: bureau de change rates, especially in Kampala, were better than rates offered by banks.

 

 

Costs:

Accommodation, food, drinks and public transportation don’t seem to trouble an independent traveller too much. Hikes, bike hires, guides and entry fees for attractions outside of national parks don’t seem to be of a problem either. However, financing attractions and activities located within a national park is a very different story – in a word: expensive!

 

 

Accommodation

Check your room before paying. Possible to stay in dorm accommodations and have the whole room for yourself sometimes even in their high season. Had no terrible experience with accommodation in Uganda.

 

 

Food and drink

Perfectly OK to eat with locals and the cost of your dinner would rarely go above 10k; matooke was around 5k almost everywhere. Preordering food is essential in small places and you’ll often eat what the family in charge of the catering establishment eats on that day. Long waits, up to an hour, in ‘a la carte’ restaurants are not unusual. My record: 70 min for food and 30 mins for preparing an instant coffee. Coffee lovers are in trouble outside of Kampala or outside busy tourist areas. They produce coffee of the highest possible quality, but this gets exported. Consider yourself lucky to be able to have the worst instant coffee in some places. Tea widely available.

 

Annoyances

Surprisingly not many. A very, but very few beggars and no aggressive sales. Nothing major really. Sometimes you get tired of having to wave to every ‘mzungu’ call in the countryside and that’s about it. One thing that can be avoided is touching on religion when entering into a conversation. I though this is easy and tried to shake it off by saying that I’m not religious. But they translate this in a way that someone doesn’t believe in god and this can offend! I found it easier to stop entering religious conversations by telling them that my religion prohibits talking about religion. It worked not only in Uganda but in the whole region too.

 

Overcharging

Overcharging, or attempt to overcharge, takes place everywhere. It can be as insignificant as 1K extra for boda boda to doubling price for certain services and products. Ask for the price then argue if it sounds ridiculous, otherwise expect to pay the mzungu surcharge. Some foreign residents in Uganda told me that they’re regularly asked to pay more even though e.g. the market seller knows they live in Uganda. The best thing is to learn the prices and then just give them exact money without even asking how much. You can learn about the costs just by observing what locals pay when buying food/drink on a bus; how much they pay for the minibus ride etc. It gets better longer you stay and you know when someone makes a rip off attempt.

See Ground transportation section above about overcharging on buses

 

 

Language

English understood and spoken by all who went to school. Had no problems with the language even in the most remote countryside.

 

 

Travel literature

Bradt Guide to Uganda was excellent. Any guide written by Philip Briggs is guaranteed to educate, inform and entertain like no other! I remember how much I loved my Ethiopian Bradt guide.

 

 

What follows is my personal account of experiences travelling through parts of Uganda with practical information that hopefully some will find useful. It also includes recommendation on things I’d do differently if I’m to repeat the experience.

 

NB: some practical info may be outdated as I visited the country some 18 months before this travel report was written. I did a quick research on prices now and I think that some 15-20% should be added to all prices I quoted in UGX.

 

Entebbe

Arriving by air at Entebbe is pretty much straight forward. There were no queues at the immigration and no long waits for luggage collection at 4am. There should be an ATM somewhere at the arrivals hall, but I didn’t see it. You’d need to wake someone up at that time if you want cash exchanged at one of many bureau de change booths. One thing, you’ll get kicked out of the building once you collect your luggage, unhelpful to those who hope to sleep at the terminal building until the break of dawn. There are some seats outside the terminal, not sure you want to linger on those for too long; entering departures hall is reserved for those with plane tickets only. Taxi’s tend to charge bit more at this time of night, but they go back to their usual fares once the majority of arriving passengers leave the airport.

Also, the Entebbe airport was where one of two incidences witnessed on this trip of money extortion attempts by authorities took place. A tourist was smoking outside in the open and well away from the departure building when approached by a policeman who warned against smoking in the terminal and insisted on paying the fine. You see, the meaning of ‘terminal’ at Entebbe extends to the grounds around the building. The traveller just told him to go away and went inside the building.

Taxi from the airport to Entebbe town was 20k. It’s possible to continue to Kampala by minibus from Entebbe; it’s maybe around 2k one way. Not sure if there is minibus from the airport all the way to Kampala. Also, no need to go to minibus stands to catch one for Kampala as they’re picking up passengers anywhere from the main road; the minibus service connecting Entebbe and Kampala starts at around 5am.

 

 

Accommodation

I stayed at Entebbe Backpackers for the night (18k) as this was the most convenient place to get to from the airport at 4am. This was also my worse single value for money accommodation in Uganda. One more fellow traveller and I who I met in the hostel tried to book this accommodation in advance but there was no reply to our emails. The reason may be that the receptionist who happened to be there 24/7 was also playing video games 24/7. The receptionist was a miserable sod, unhelpful and unfriendly; a perfect candidate to get a totally wrong impression of Uganda – and this was not my opinion only. The rest of the staff was nice. Food service as slow as almost everywhere else.

 

 

ATMs

Plenty. Barclays was dry; Standard Bank’s daily max was 250k and Crane Bank was dispensing 680k in one go on Christmas Eve 2013.

 

Sights

Entebbe Botanical Gardens are nice, sort of well-kept urban park. Forgot how much we paid but it wasn’t expensive. Option to hire a guide at the entrance gate, we didn’t need one. The gardens open at 9am but this is already too late to see the birds. We were there at around midday, it was so hot and we saw almost no signs of animal life. Nice walks and a few glimpses of Lake Victoria. Maybe it would be a better idea to visit the gardens a couple of hours before the closing time whenever that is.

Not much to see in Entebbe, but the strolls though the town were OK. We tried to climb the hill behind the State House for views of sunset at Lake Victoria, but the views were not great. Also, careful not to take pics or even point the camera towards the State House – trouble with the army and their police guaranteed.

 

 

Kampala

Accommodation

Red Chilli Hideout

I stayed one night at Red Chilli Hideaway as this was included in our Murchison Falls excursion package. I’m not sure I liked it there. It is far from central Kampala and it resembles a youth club of the sort one encounters in Thailand with overpriced junk food and pseudo-African ambience. The place was infested with mosquitoes and the mossie nets provided above beds were totally useless when I stayed there. I remember my roommates waking up with big red mosquito bites wracking their brains on how the insects managed to bite inside the nets. On a positive note, the facilities are superb, their staff were friendly, rooms clean, have wi-fi, there was a big swimming pool and the prices were fixed and always displayed. It could be a good place to meet other travellers too.

Also, this was the only establishment in Uganda I came across which wouldn’t apply the official exchange rate when trying to pay with USD. There was a mark-up and the only way around it would’ve been by getting UGX from the ATM some boda boda distance away. The mark-up was not big, but there was one for sure.

Expect your boda boda or taxi driver not to know where Red Chilli Hideaway is. If arriving from Kampala city center ask the driver to take you to Butabika Hospital then it is second on the right – at the bottom of the lane when you pass the hospital gate. Everyone in Uganda should know this hospital as this is the largest mental health unit in the country. Taxi from Central Kampala is around 40k and boda boda 10-15k, depending upon your negotiation skills. Also, there is a free shuttle bus operating several times a day from and to Red Chilli to Nakumat shopping centre in central Kampala.

 

Aponye Hotel on William Street

This was a much better accommodation option in Kampala. They’re located right bang in the centre of the town and it’s convenient for everything: banks, private currency exchange offices, post office, post office bus, bus stations, cafes and restaurants. This was the most expensive accommodation I stayed at in Uganda and we paid 45k for their twin room. They have wi-fi.

There’s no need to go all the way to Red Chilly for those arriving from the Murchison Falls excursion and have a bus to catch in the morning from central Kampala. Ask the driver to leave you at Logogo Shopping Mall from where boda boda ride will cost only 5k to William Street.

 

Food and drink

The best local food we had in Kampala was at Aponye Hotel’s restaurant. The best coffee in Uganda I had was at the nearby Antonio’s Grill (Dastur St x Kampala Road), cappuccino at 4k.

 

Transportation

Boda boda has to be the transportation of choice within the city as the traffic in Kampala can be stationary. Short distances within the city centre go at 2k.

Bus and mini bus stations at Qualicell/New Taxi Stand are horrible and impossible to make sense of. Luckily the people are nice and they’ll help you with finding your bus at any time of the day for they will be asking for no tips. Some bus companies have their own mini terminals scattered along Namirembe Road, but some like Elgon Flyers are in a different location of the city centre.

Post Bus departs from behind the main Post Office at Kampala Road. Possible to buy tickets in advance. Go inside the post office compound, go behind the post office building, keep walking around and it is Room 2 inside the corridor.

 

Sights

Did a few hours of self-guided walking tour starting from Nakumat shopping centre then entered Nile Avenue for a look of government buildings, Kampala Road, the city square before hiking all the way up to St Paul Church at the top of the hill for views. Nothing was too impressive, but it was nice to have a look around. Felt very safe in daylight hours. Attempted to take no pics of government buildings.

 

 

Fort Portal

Kampala to Fort Portal on Xmas day was 30k with Saviour Tours from Qualicell, was expecting to pay more to be honest. Saviour Tours bus was not brilliant but definitely not the worst I’ve had in Africa. There was no Post Bus to FP on Xmas day.

Stayed at YES Hostel for 15k per bed per night. I was the only person in the dorm and had it all to myself despite this being the peak tourist season in Uganda. They have wi-fi.

Fort Portal was OK to be based at, maybe have a coffee or meal and explore around the city. It is a pretty town for Ugandan standards, friendly and quiet. Plenty of ATMs and Barclays daily max was 1m when I withdrew the cash (I think it was 1 million).

Dined twice at Rwenzori’s Travellers Inn and it was OK. Coffee and breakfast next door (Little Rock Cafe) were significantly cheaper than at the hotel. I think the coffee at the hotel was 6k and only 2.5k in the café.

The best meal I had in Uganda was with 20 package tourists at Rwenzori View Guesthouse (35k per person – five course meal) next door to YES Hostel. The package tourists were horrified with thoughts that I’m using local, yes LOCAL, buses! The food was great and the Dutch landlady was funny and very genuine. Went there as I knew I won’t be eating properly again for the next eight days I was going to spend hiking in Rwenzoris. This is the most I’ve ever paid for the meal in Uganda. Eating well in local establishments was never more than 10k, and that would have included a beer or two.

I did the following circular day hike from FP: Fort Portal (YES Hostel)-Mountains of the Moon University-Lake Saka (viewed the lake from the roadside maybe 10min away from the university without going all the way down to the shore)-then through the countryside via two crater lakes to Amabere Caves-did the caves then to the road leading into the main asphalted road back to Fort Portal. I had to argue at that campsite/lodge place for some lunch before hitting the road back to Fort Portal, otherwise their staff were nice and friendly. The lunch was only 3k but the entrance fee was 25k. It was fine with me considering those were the only expenses I had on this hike. Yes, the entrance fee is ridiculously high but not as ridiculous as some other attractions I visited. See this on Amabere Caves:

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/africa/uganda/amabere-caves-fort-portal-tourist-trap-warning

Also, this hike would be possible to do on a good mountain bike too, just don’t forget to bother locals for directions in the countryside between the university and Amabere Caves.

Some travellers went for a bike ride to some other nearby attractions – plenty of these around FP, consult your guidebook.

Bradt Guide, page 338, ‘Fort Portal and around’ map: the scale is wrong – should read 10km and not 30km.

 

Crater Lake Valley

Don’t be too early in FP to catch the shared transportation to Crater Lake Valley. You’ll waste your time if at the stand before 9am and will have to pay significantly more than the usual 6k. They ask for 10k after 9am, but I offered 6k and 6k it was. Packed as sardines inside the shared private vehicle with 9 people in total in what was supposed to be a car carrying no more than 5 passengers. The stand for shared drive to Crater Valley Lakes is at the junction of Lugard Road and Fortportal-Kamwenge Road. Make sure you clearly state your Crater Lake Valley final destination as transportation follows either the Rwaihamba or Rweetera directions.

Crater Lake Valley was a wonderful and an inexpensive experience – a superb intro to Ugandan countryside. I stayed at the CVK resort for various reasons, but would recommend staying at Nkuruba instead and planning your excursions from there. The natural setting at Nkuruba may only be slightly more exotic than at CVK, but the facilities have to be much better than those at CVK, accommodation and bike rental services in particular.

 

CVK

Avoid. This place has seen better days. Something fishy’s going on there and information provided sometimes doesn’t seem to make a sense. E.g. their single s/c rooms were “all booked”, but there were no single visitors in sight; they deliberately avoided to mention to have the hostel style accommodation and only agreed to show this accommodation when I told them I won’t be paying for a double s/c room. Bandas are in the state of disrepair and the services in general are not good. The family which stayed for the night in two of the s/c double rooms had to upgrade for the resort next door; they told me that the rooms were in a very bad state. They still had their dinner at CVK and the food was good.

My accommodation was infested with insects. The mosquito net helped, but switching the light on and keeping it for the whole night far away from my dorm worked miracles. I have a feeling that the place is too big for the tiny numbers of visitors cannot contribute to upkeeping expenses. This place, in my opinion, is on its last legs. The owners seem to be nice people, but the old style management doesn’t seem to be appropriate to current conditions.

On a positive note, the hostel building is a 5 minutes walk from the reception area and the views of the lake, especially in the late afternoon are stunning. I had the building for myself for three nights I stayed at CVK. The owners’ daughter, Emirates Airlines’ air hostess, was really nice and helpful and CVK’s staff were kind in general.

CVK can arrange their bike rental for 100k for three days, but this was terribly expensive; we agreed 40k for two days. Good thing I gave them 20k for the first day of rental as their bikes were in a sorry state. I was only able to ride it on flat roads, no way I was able to ride uphill without risking a heart attack; riding downhill was as equally challenging as the breaks weren’t working properly.

CVK can arrange a guided kind of cultural hike to Top of The World for 39k, but you can do this free of charge if you’re staying at Lake Nkuruba instead; Top of the World is only a short distance from Lake Nkuruba.

I only stayed at CVK as I didn’t want to pay too much for staying close to the Kibale NP entrance gate, but my recommendation would be to avoid the place.

Also, no wi-fi.

 

Hikes

I had to make myself fit for Rwenzoris and exercised my legs a lot prior to this; first in FP then at the Crater Lake Valley. This is what I did from my base at the CVK:

Day 1: a short hike to the Top of the World (3-4 hours hike); Day 2: bike ride to and from Kibale NP for the chimp experience and Day 3: a 30km long hike covering Nyabikere, Isunga, Rwaihamba, Kifuruka, Nyinambuga, Lyantonde, Mahoma Falls, back to Rwaihamba, Nkuruba, Top of the World, Rweetera and back to CVK at Lake Nyabikere.

I would recommend not missing the following hikes if staying at Lake Nkuruba:

One day for exploring the surroundings of Lake Nkuruba to include the visit to Top of the Word: go to the viewpoint (all the way to the hut for the view of three crater lakes) and don’t bother venturing all the way up to the posh lodges – the views from there are obscured by some tall trees. Also, on your way back pass the Australian research centre for some more stunning views of the lakes. There were some kids there with “give me money”, but nothing too bothersome.

Another day on a good mountain bike to follow this route: Nkuruba, Rweetera, CVK at Lake Nyabikere, then road to Isunga, Rwaihamba, Kifuruka, Nyinambuga, Lyantonde, Mahoma Falls, back to Rwaihamba then back to Nkuruba. Visit to Mahoma Falls is arranged through the Kifuruka campsite (15k + tip); lunch at Kifuruka campsite (vegetable fried rice) for 5k and this is the biggest single portion of food I had on my East African adventure. Mahoma Falls are OK, a nice hike through the countryside followed by a refreshing splash in the falls; you also get to see two more lakes: Rukwanzi and Mwamba. It’s possible to walk all this in a day as I did, but would definitely recommend biking it instead.

Be prepared to dismount and push your bike at some uphill sections of the route – nothing too strenuous. Also, I didn’t want to swim in any of the lakes for fear of bilharzias, but I saw both locals and mzungu bathing I met no one who complained to have caught the disease.

 

Kibale NP

My sole purpose of visiting Kibale NP was the chimp tracking. Visiting chimps doesn’t mean having to prebook; those who wish to do so can phone the park. Your accommodation hosts may offer to “book” your ticket, but this may come at a totally avoidable cost.

I went for the morning session and finding chimps wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it would be. I love hiking and I enjoy being in nature very much, but almost five hours of aimlessly wandering through the forest was exhausting. The landscapes were very repetitive with the same wood and limited wildlife – butterflies and some other monkeys can be seen. Chimps were great once they find them for you.

I’d recommend doing the PM session as your chances of reaching the colony are greatly increased – the PM guides/rangers are told by the AM rangers where the chimps are. It is rare but not impossible not to see any chimps. I still reckon that the PM session is less risky to avoiding disappointment, as the PM guides will search the areas that the AM guides were unable to cover should the AM guides failed to find chimps in the AM session.

I spoke to some people who went for the chimp habituation experience and for some USD70 extra you get to spend the whole day with the animals. Their experience was great! You’d definitely need to stay close to the entrance gate and you’d be at the chimp nests as early as 6am! Maybe consider staying for the night or two at that Safari Hotel.

 

Push bike riders beware:

Getting to Kibale NP is some 1.5 hrs on a good bike from CVK (read above about difficulties of getting a good bike at CVK) or 2-2.5 hrs from Lake Nkuruba. Those riding bikes at night should be careful on the road as tourist mini buses (Toyotas 6-8 seaters) drive like crazy rushing from the FP direction – they have to pick up tourists from the crater lake valley hotels to be on time for the chimp tracking AM session. There was a horrible accident on my way to Kibale NP when this Toyota mini bus driver lost control of his vehicle and smashed into a big tree on the steepest downhill section of the road between CVK and the park entrance gate, just after those big tea plantations and entering kind of hilly wooded patch. There were two of us pulling him from the back while three others tried to free his legs trapped by the impacted front of the vehicle. He was lucky to be alive as if the collision was any heavier the steering wheel would crash his chest and he’d die for sure. The front of my T-shirt was covered in bloodstains and I almost missed the chimp tracking session. Another inconvenience for bike riders could be the aggressive baboons sitting in the middle of the road inside Kibale NP. A youngster has been run over by car on my way back and they were angry and attacking vehicles with open windows. I had to wait for rangers to shoo them off.

 

Kasese

Nothing to see here, a dusty hot little town with good transportation links, good choice of food outlets, ATMs and a place to spend the night.

FP-Kasese was 6k on mini bus.

I stayed at Whitehouse Hotel, single at 21k with shared facilities, or 40k for s/c. I liked it there. No wi-fi, internet next door for 1.5k p/h.

Plenty of transportation to Kampala. Link’s first two departure are at 4.30 and 7am. Kalita’s first departure was at 7am. Both companies charged 30k to Kampala. Both companies’ buses depart from Shell’s petrol station right in front of Whitehouse Hotel and NOT from the main bus station. Link was OK, overcrowding took place, but they got rid of standing passengers on approach to FP.

 

Rwenzori Mountains

Kasese to Kilembe 7k on boda boda (Kilembe-Kasese was 5k – downhill). Rwenzori Trekkers hostel, run by Rwenzori Trekking Services, in Kilembe charge 20k or 25k per person per night. I was again the only person in the dorm despite this being their peak season.

Possible to organise with two companies and I went with Rwenzori Trekking Services – I didn’t regret making this choice. Excellent correspondence preceding the trek, superb guides (Richard and Edson), friendly porters (Vincent and Jessica)/cooks and decent enough accommodation facilities. Overall, the best value for money trekking experience in East Africa (I had a quite few of those).

One thing though: you definitely have to be fit for this trek. An active person who did maybe some intense long hiking and cycling prior to the trek would enjoy Rwenzoris a lot! See above what I did in preparation to the hike in the Crater Lakes Valley area.

There were three of us in the group and we paid something around USD1050 for hiking fees plus USD35 per night (or 24 hrs) for NP fees. I did the trek (incl. climbing Mt Stanley) in eight days/seven nights, but I’m a fast trekker. I would recommend doing the same trek but in 9-10 days instead and adding a day or two extra if you want to go up to Mount Speke. The only curious bit that I noticed on their website recently is VAT which comes as 18% extra – I don’t remember being asked to pay this.

I would recommend hiring the sleeping bag USD15 as well as some rainproof gear, also USD15 – this can be done from their hostel in Kilembe. The military sleeping bag we had was of the highest quality possible; it really made a difference high up in the mountains as some of the huts are not totally windproof. Wear trousers you don’t mind throwing after the hike and take plenty of socks.

Also, the most exciting views of the mountains, Rwenzori’s central massif, can be first glimpsed from Bamwanjara Pass which is some 3-4 days trekking away from the trailhead. I would definitely discourage a day, two days or even three days treks to Rwenzoris as you only get to see the high altitude tropical forest without ever setting eyes on Rwenzori’s most exciting landscapes. The minimum trek I would recommend would be to climbing Weismann Peak (4-5 days trek) where, weather permitting, the views of the central massif should be spectacular.

I was often asked how this trek compares to climbing Kilimanjaro. These are two different climbs in many ways. The landscapes of Rwenzori’s after Day 3 are breathtaking compared to those of Kilimanjaro. At Kilimanjaro you’re battling with altitude (ascending 1000m per day is highly controversial and potentially very dangeous) but you don’t have this problem with hiking Rwenzoris – you always sleep 400-600m higher than the night before after reaching 2500m altitude. It’s rare to develop symptoms of altitude sickness by ascending 500m in a day – you may actually ascend as high as 1000m in a day, but you always sleep at 400-600m higher than the night before and this is very important. Btw, my Rwenzori’s trekking guide has never seen anyone developing symptoms of altitude sickness that would require medical attention or evacuation. Kilimanjaro climb is a hike, maybe a difficult hike in its last stages, but reaching Margherita Peak is definitely more technical and it requires higher levels of fitness. Nevertheless, only two out of eleven of us failed to make it to the peak that day. Those two did make an attempt but failed to reach the top were too rewarded with spectacular views from where they had to abandon their attempt.

Hiking Rwenzoris up to Margherita Peak was best thing I did on my East African trip. Click on the link below on what to expect:

http://www.rwenzoritrekking.com/trektomagheritap.html

Expect the following in addition to what it says on the website if you’re trekking in Dec/Jan:

Day 1: like in all tropical forest there is a limited sighting of wildlife; you hear animals but difficult to see them. Rain possible in the forest, in the afternoon in particular. It can be sticky and humid at times in the forest – plenty of river crossings to get refreshed.

Day 2: high altitude rainforest again, getting boring, then into bamboo forest – super dull! Then the landscape changes dramatically after Kalalama Camp and the excitement proper begins. Now the mud is your worst enemy for 3-4 days.

I was the only one to go up Mutinda Lookout with my guide. Kind of semi hard hike, more of a climb in places, wet and muddy along the way. The visibility up there was not more than 20m and I saw no Kassese or Lake George. Never mind, the hike was great and the sense of achievement was there too. Saw many malachite sun birds – beautiful!

 

Day 3:

Mud mud mud, but the landscapes were amazing. You learn the new skill of the tussock hopping; tussock: a grass stump protruding from the mud strong enough to sustain person’s weight; missing the tussock often means stepping into a knee deep mud and the mud goes inside your rubber boots. Just follow the footsteps of your guide and you’ll be fine.

It was cold at Bugata Camp at night, beautiful big starry sky. I realised that one has to be definitely fit for this trek and I was glad I spent time my time preparing for it in the Crater Lake Valley beforehand.

 

Day 4:

The best day landscapes-wise! More mud until Bamwanjara Pass, followed with some best views of the trek at the pass itself. Relatively easy trek down to Hanwick Camp. The camp was nice in wonderful natural settings, but very windy at night – earplugs essential!

Day 5: very little mud, only at the beginning of the day trek. Less oxygen, spectacular vistas and very cold overnight at Margherita Camp. Go up to the other trekking company’s campsite above Camp Margherita for even more spectacular sights if you get bored in the afternoon. Also, expect Rwenzori Trekkers to run out of instant coffee – no coffee until the end of the trek for 3 groups totalling to 11 people.

Here you can add a day or two if you want to climb Mt Speke before attempting the Margherita Peak climb. Those who did Mt Speke loved it!

Day 6: the summiting day! 4am start, pretty hard going, ascending with ropes, descending with ropes, slippery stones, climbing utilising all four limbs, crampons traversing two glaciers. Everything gets better after daybreak. Slow and technical last hour of the climb, but we were definitely in good hands. Only two out of 11 of us failed to make it right to the top. Wonderful experience, great views not only from Margherita Peak but from every stage of the climb on Day 6.

Back to Margherita Camp for lunch (and a little nap if you arrive there before the majority) then back to Hanwick Camp. Long day, but amazing adventure.

 

Day 7:

Hunwick Camp up to Bamwanjara Pass – really hard going, I think I was tired from the day before. Bamwanjara Pass to Bugata Camp was easy.

Everyone chose to stay for the night in Bugata, but I decided to continue down with my guide.

Now you have a choice: go back the same way back to Kilembe or do what I did: Bugata Camp to Kihoro. This trail follows the ridge of Nyamwamba River and it is much rougher than the trail following the ridge of Kamsoni River, but I was glad I did it, a change of scenery. Night at Kihoro. It was great at the camp – suddenly so much oxygen, wildlife and hyrax shrieking at night.

 

Day 8:

Rough trail between Kiharo and Samalira camps, beautiful vistas on approaching Samalira. Saw two little red antelopes, five Rwenzori turacos and different varieties of sunbird.

Then three hours of down down down; repetitive bamboo forest giving way to repetitive tropical forest.

We were at the entrance gate before 1pmand nobody asked me to pay USD35 for the eight day; well they shouldn’t have as there were 7×24 hours I stayed in the park so the saved USD helped towards tipping the guide and porters.

Lunch at the hostel in Kilembe; 5k for boda boda to Kisoro; night at Whitehouse Hotel – see info on Kasese above.

 

Sipi and Mount Elgon

Kampala-Mbale 4.5hrs for UGX15000 (15k) with Elgon Flyers – their booking office/bus stand is just around the corner from the parliament building, 10 min walk from Nakumat shopping centre – no need to endure Qualicel bus station for a change; five departures per day (7am, 10am, 1pm for sure); good road all way to Mbale.

Plenty of places to eat in Mbale; try the food in catering establishments on the street where Crane and Barclays banks are. BTW, Barclay’s Bank doesn’t feature in Bradt – it’s opposite of Crane Bank.

Mbale-Sipi less than one hour for 9k (negotiations necessary) on shared transportation; paved road throughout.

Accommodation at Crow’s Nest for 40k (based on two people sharing a cabin) with the beautiful views of two (or three?) waterfalls. Food at Crow’s Nest, really great matooke for less than 10k p/p. Laundry at UGX500 per piece.

Crow’s Nest can arrange the three waterfalls 4 hours hike guide for 30k per party. Afternoons for better photography, otherwise early mornings to avoid the heat – take pics of the falls from the hotel in the afternoon – highly recommended hike. Ask for Malisha the guide if he’s available. You’ll learn about the countryside and rural existence in Uganda, studying in Kampala and life in general. He was happy with our tip.

Mount Elgon NP entrance gate is 12km uphill from Sipi; we paid 10k for boda boda for both of us on one bike; Mount Elgon entrance fee is USD35 p/p + USD30 p/p for nature walk (go for the longest one, maybe 7km, and it will still take less than two hours to complete) – Mount Elgon daily fee of USD90 p/p isn’t applicable to day trippers. Also, get there by boda boda and come back by taking the shortcut on foot – mind you, this will involve asking locals for directions and possible backtracking. It’s worth it as the countryside is really beautiful around there.

Mount Elgon note: not sure this nature walk is a good value for money – you just get to see some high altitude rainforest, maybe a slightly drier variant of the forest than elsewhere; you’d be lucky to see any wildlife. I’d recommend skipping the day trip to the park if you’re going to visit the forest somewhere else on your trip through Uganda. I haven’t hiked up to the peak, i.e., didn’t do multiple days hike, but I heard this hike is great, should take 4-5 days. Will do Mt Elgon from the Keynan side one day hopefully.

Going back from Sipi to Kampala via Mbale was easy. Don’t let anyone help you with transportation from Sipi to Mbale and don’t believe the timetable you’d be told. Just get on the side of the road beneath Crow’s Nest then stop any decent vehicle and offer, maybe 20k for two of you and see if they’ll take you to Mbale. We had a choice of getting onto a truck or sharing back seats on 4×4 – naturally, 4×4 won our hearts. They took us straight to Mbale’s bus station where we waited less than 30mins for Elgon Flyers bus to Kampala.

No need to go all the way to Elgon Flyer offices in Kampala if you’re staying at Red Chilli’s; alight at Lugogo Mall then it’s 7k to Red Chilli on boda boda. Or, it’s 5k on boda boda from the mall to Central Kampala if you’re staying in city center.

 

Murchison Falls NP

This exceeded my expectations, possibly because I’ve never been on a game ride before. The falls are great too, especially when seen (and heard) from viewpoints directly above it. Amazing how much water passes through the 6m gap between rocks.

A pain free way to arrange the visit is via Red Chilli Hideaway in Kampala. It was USD320p/p inclusive of everything but meals and drinks. It went up by USD40 on 1st Jan 2014 mainly due to increased park fees. Meals and drinks at Red Chilli Murchison Falls are reasonably priced.

BTW, the second instance of corruption was the incidence with traffic police when speeding quoted as an offence (the radar gun wasn’t functional). The police was clearly targeting the mini bus full of mzungus and the driver has to pay the negotiated reduced penalty charge or he’d been taken to a police station.

You get to see the falls from up close and personal on Day 1; Day 2 is the early morning game drive, lunch then the afternoon boat ride on Victoria Nile (the best part of the tour by far esp. the return from the falls back to Para); Day 3 consists of another early morning drive, a quick visit to Karuma Falls then back to Kampala. See this on what to expect: http://redchillihideaway.com/tours-2/murchison-falls-game-safari-only-280-pp/

It’s possible to get independently to Para, but no idea how you do this. I’m glad I went on a tour after experiencing the roads after Masindi. Also, no idea how you could independently arrange the game drives or the visit to the viewpoint above the falls from Para.

Tips to those who decide to do it as a tour package from Red Chilli:

Book in advance

Your night accommodation at Red Chilli Hideaway preceding the tour should be included in the price. See above on how to get to Red Chilli Kampala

Protect your luggage against dust

Don’t preorder any packed lunch from Red Chilli on the night before, but ask the driver to take you to a local catering establishment in Masindi instead. You get to stop at Masindi anyway

The boat ride at Day 2 ends at around 4.30pm. See if you can get onto another late afternoon/early evening boat ride further down towards Lake Albert as this has to be the bird watching paradise at that time of the day. Wish I knew about this beforehand

Don’t let the driver take you to Kabalega Diner for Day 3 lunch – we went in, checked the prices and asked the driver to get us out of there. This restaurant caters exclusively for busloads of mzungus and you’re expected to pay 24k for a beef stew and western capitals’ prices for a glass of juice. You get a good matooke, polenta, rice and beef for 6k only 15-20 mins drive in place catering for locals

Once back in Kampala, no need to go all the way to Red Chilli’s if e.g. you have a bus to catch in the morning; alight at Lugogo Mall then it’s 5k to the centre on boda boda. See above on where to stay in Central Kampala

 

Kabale

We used Post Bus from Kampala to Kabale; possible to book in advance – see the Kampala section above on how to do this. The AM bus departures in Jan 2014 were at 7 and 8 o’clock. Our 7ambus broke down just outside Kampala and we were picked up by the 8am one. It’s c.8 hours to Kabale.

Kabale is just another nondescript Ugandan town, but it has everything you need.

Edirisa Museum was interesting; a guided tour costs 10k. Also, they have a good coffee there. Edirisa’s management can help with arranging the Batwa Trail tour. We paid 190p/p – transportation included and the pick up arranged from our accommodation at Lake Bunyoni.

 

Kabale – Bunyoni 6k on boda boda.

We didn’t sleep in Kabale on our way to Lake Bunyoni, but I did spend one night there at later date before continuing to Rwanda. I stayed at New Shade Tree hotel (opp. Crane Bank) for 10k single with shared facilities. 5k for beef stew matooke in their restaurant. No wi-fi.

It’s easy to travel to Rwanda from Kabale. Kabale – Katuna border crossing was 10k on boda boda then I think it was RWF1000 (it was cheap) for the local mini bus to Kigali. It departs from the junction 5 min walk from the RW immigration post.

The big Jaguar bus serving the Kampala – Kigali route is an option too, but you’d need to know when it’s exactly passing through Kabale. You’ll be paying the full Kampala-Kigali fare providing there’s a seat for you on the bus.

 

Lake Bunyonyi

Beautiful lake with shorelines specific to dammed rivers, lava dammed in this case. Plenty to do there.

We were the only sleeping guests at Crater Bay Cottages; 20k p/p shared facilities. Their staff was very helpful and never failed to deliver: hot water, assistance with organising activities, making us feel welcome and safe in general. No wi-fi. Takes up to 1hr to get your food. Their local meals were tasty.

Kabale to Crater Bay Cottages at Bunyoni for 6k on boda boda.

Sit for a few hours in Crater Bay Cottages garden with covered and seated space overlooking the bay and all sorts of birds will come to you.

There are many viewpoints offering spectacular vistas of the lake. We walked long way up (along the main road) to Arcadia Cottages; the views are great. Lunch at Arcadia Cottages – mzungu prices. Went back to Crater Bay Cottages via countryside shortcut, ask at Arcadia Cottages for directions then bother villagers seeking directions on your way down.

Another great view is from Lake View Coffee House. Western fast food for lunch – mzungu prices. They have wi-fi.

Half day dugout canoe excursion arranged through Crater Bay Cottages to two islands, you can visit more if you can be bothered to paddle bit longer, was USD13 p/p. We were away for more than three hours in the late afternoon. Would recommend doing this either very early in the morning or late in the afternoon – not sure how enjoyable the experience would be if you have to paddle in midday sun.

Half day tour to Batwa Community in Echuya Forest was arranged through Edirisa in Kabale. Great experience to learn about Batwa and see them sing and dance. Also, the landscapes on the way to their villages are stunning with the early morning mist rising from Lake Bunyoni.

Lake Bunyoni to Kabale was 6k on boda boda arranged through Crater Bay Cottages.

 

Kisoro

Stayed at Kisoro so we could arrange the Mt Sabinyo climb, and Nkuringo Walking Safari (Kisoro-Lake Mutanda-Nkuringo-Bwindi-Buhoma). Visited Lake Chahafi too.

Kibale-Kisoro is 13k on shared transportation (shared car). It took 2 hours to fill the car with passengers at Kibale.

Country Guest House hotel was maybe 55k p/n for twin s/c accommodation. They didn’t let us view the shared facilities rooms despite being the only guests for those two nights. Breakfast included. No wi-fi. Lovely staff.

Gorilla Junction Café acts as an agent for Nkuringo Walking Safaris and this is where we sorted our trips out of Kisoro. They serve western fast food food at mzungu prices and their coffee was great. They have wi-fi.

Heritage Inn hotel’s restaurant serves food at Ugandan prices. Imperial supermarket should have everything you need.

 

Lake Chahafi

18k on boda boda including two hours wait. The lake was OK but the villages and countryside in general on the way there were really nice. I had a drink at that resort right on the lake shore and saw 4 crested crane. The lake is nice to encounter a several more bird species, so don’t forget your binoculars.

 

Mount Sabinyo

Hiking up Mt Sabinyo – the only rugged-top of all Virunga’s volcanos – right up the point where three countries meet, is great; the views of three countries from the top, weather permitting are great too.

In theory, Mt Sabinyo in Mgahinga Gorilla NP could be done independently, but the NP fees would still apply. Also, getting to the trailhead from Kisoro involves some preparation at least one day in advance. There is a choice of getting there by 4×4 and this, of course, would be easy to arrange from Gorilla Junction Café and the likes. The cost would be anything between USD70-100 per 4×4 (drop off and pick up) or UGX90k for ordinary vehicle, but don’t consider the latter option as the road is very bad at sections. Another option is boda boda, but arranging this independently would not be easy as many factors would need to be taken into consideration: you’d have to rely that your driver really knows the way to the trailhead (they’ll say they know it for sure, but don’t get surprised if they get lost); they’ll have to be at your hotel in Kisoro at 6am; they’ll have to have be good drivers as the roads to the trailhead are only second worst I’ve been on in Uganda; and you’ll have to hope they turn up at time of pick up. I’m not saying it’s next to impossible to make sure that all of the above are going to be taken care of, but my experience tells me that urban boda boda drivers unintentionally underestimate how difficult it is to meet all these. It would be a different story if it’s possible to stay somewhere close to the NP entrance gate (the trailhead) sparing yourself from the discomfort of getting there, but I’m not sure there is any accommodation near to the park entrance.

What we did was to ask Asgario from Nkuringo Walking Safari to act as our guide and sort out the issues of transportation. His service fee of USD30 per party included: the night before briefing, arranging two boda boda drop off and pick ups for UGX20k p/p and hiking for the whole day with us up and down Mt Sabinyo – this has to be the best value guide fee on my trip in East Africa. Asgario got now his own company now, see this: http://www.nkuringotours.wix.com/nkuringotours He’s also available at asigariyo@hotmail.com or by writing to Nkuringo Walking Safaris if you’re thinking of doing what I did with them. BTW, Asgario’s now one of the most popular guides in the area; saw him on Al Jazeera the other day acting in capacity of Bwindi specialist. And he’s a great guy.

The road to the NP entrance gate is bad and at sections I’d advise getting off the motorbike and footing it for a minute or two. Or be prepared to jump off when the motorbike gets out of control on steep ascends.

The entrance fee and nature walk fee are USD60 in total and you get a ranger to spend the whole day with you. The ranger should be tipped at the end of your hike.

The climb itself is great, but it gets hard after Peak 1, hard between Peaks 1 and 2, and very hard between Peaks 2 and 3. It’s not technical, but it’s physically exhausting, especially the ladder business. And I was reasonably fit from my 8 day Rwenzori hike. And spare a thought for those who did it by climbing the old ladders, the skeletal remains are still visible running parallel to the new ones. It took us 4.5 hours up to Peak 3, we rested for an hour up there, then 3.5 hours down. This was a very long, but super satisfying achievement-wise day. And no other tourist in sight, nobody, just our four men party.

Would recommend climbing to Peak 1 and, in my opinion, anyone able bodied and healthy can do it. Feel free to say no if you think you can’t make it to Peaks 2 or 3. The views from either of the peaks are nice.

 

Nkuringo Walking Safari: Kisoro-Lake Mutanda-Lake Mutanda countryside-Nkuringo-Bwindi-Buhoma

This has to be one of the nicest outdoors experiences I had on the entire trip: super exciting forest, isolation, stunning countryside and amazing lake. I stumbled upon this option accidentally in Bradt, but went for it only after my mate’s recommendation. One thing I’d do differently is to start the trek from Buhoma for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s easier to reach Buhoma from Kampala than having to travel from Buhoma to any destination other than Kampala. Also, this trek would ideally be combined with the gorilla tracking for those thinking of seeing gorillas. It didn’t matter to me where to start as I went to visit gorillas in Rwanda. The cost of the trek is USD335 for two. There is a little opportunity for saving, but do ask to stay in tented accommodation (even this was far too luxurious for us) instead of the room at Nkuringo Gorilla Camp. We did so and invested our savings towards the guide fees for our Mt Sabinyo climb (see above).

See this on what to expect on the trek:

http://www.nkuringowalkingsafaris.com/itinerary.html

Expect also the following in addition to what it’s written on their web pages:

 

Day 1: the canoe Mutanda crossing is indeed beautiful, but it is also very long. Have something waterproof in case of rain – there’s really nowhere to hide in case you get caught out by the shower whilst on the lake. It started raining in buckets luckily just as we crossed the lake and we had to seek shelter in the nearby village for 30 mins or so. The weather was fine afterwards. Also, the hike up to Nkuringo from the Lake Mutanda shores is not less than 20km, but again, the countryside is really picturesque and the hike isn’t hard.

I’m not sure I enjoyed Nkuringo Gorilla Camp too much. Very touristy and far too luxurious for my liking even though the accommodation facilities and food quality were superb.

Day 2: Bwindi is really nice and you get to see why it’s called ‘impenetrable’. Definitely the most exciting tropical forest of the trip. Another thing, it’s not unusual to stumble upon gorillas when in Bwindi. This didn’t happen when we were there, but what happened was something much more extraordinary – we got to see the wild chimps in action! According to our guide and rangers, they always get to hear them, but only once every other year they get to see them. These chimps were anything but nice and tranquil when compared to those habituated ones in Kibale NP – they were shrieking hysterically and jumping from branches like possessed, quite intimidating to be honest.

 

Buhoma-Kabale

This can be a bit of a nightmare if you want to do it on a cheapie. Buhoma to Butotoga is 10k on boda boda. Butotoga – Kanunga is 20k on a shared transportation. The first mini bus leaving Butotoga to Kanunga is at 9am and the last one at 1pm – no public transportation after this time leaves Butotoga. The only public transportation leaving Kanunga for Kabale is at 3am, yes 3 in the morning and it arrives in Kabale at 8am. It’s something around 20k. So, the total cost is something around 50k, but the amount of time wasted is phenomenal especially if you arrive at Butotoga after 1pm. This is not to mention discomfort of being driven in vehicles totally unsuitable for one of the worst roads I’ve ever been on. BTW, I’ve heard that road to Kabale via Ruhija is in even worse condition compared to one via Kanunga. Spectacular vistas though, that is, if you’re travelling in daylight.

 

The options of reaching Kabale from Buhoma that I would recommend are:

Prebook yourself 4×4 if there is more than one person if you can afford it

Hang around the entrance to Bwindi NP at Buhoma and check if other tourists’ 4×4 is willing to take you for a fee or

Get onto boda boda all the way to Kabale

The option of spending too much money on 4×4 was totally unappealing so I opted for boda boda. Warning: have to be careful here and make sure that the driver is a good English speaker, the bike is good and in roadworthy condition and hopefully they have experience of driving outside of their local areas. Polito(pronounced ‘Porito’), my driver was a really nice guy and a good driver who helped me realise this most unexpected of adventures. He charges 70k from Butotoga to Kabale or 80k from Buhoma. The road is horrible at sections and very dusty. A hat, scarf, sunglasses and backpack protection is must-take! The driver had my small rucksack on his chest and I had my big one on my back. It does get uncomfortable, but you can ask to have breaks as often as you like. Again, there are some amazing views on the way to Kabale especially when you’re high in the mountains. It took us six hours to reach Kabale, I was covered in dust and tired, but I had an adventure and happy for not wasting two days of my holidays. Also, very glad for not taking the mini bus on those roads – the level of discomfort travelling in the dark hours of the morning has to be exceptional.

 

 

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