DOS & DON’TS
What to Wear
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Uganda has once again become an outpost of hope in East Africa. As it makes steady progress toward peace and works to improve its tourist facilities, travelers have returned in ever-increasing numbers to enjoy its stunning landscape—green rolling hills, lush rain forests, snowcapped mountains, majestic rivers and massive lakes—and its fascinating wildlife, including about half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Uganda has some of Africa’s major attractions. It is bordered to the west by the Rwenzori Mountains, named a World Heritage site for their eerie, craggy tips and giant vegetation, and the majestic Virunga volcanoes rise along the southwestern border with Rwanda. It is the source of the Nile that empties out of Lake Victoria—the world’s second-largest lake—at Jinja. It is home to more than 1,000 species of birds, making Uganda one of the richest birding destinations in Africa, and its richly varied savannah wildlife—large herds of elephant, tree-climbing lions, snorting buffalo and peering giraffe—is complemented by one of the highest concentrations of primates on the continent.
The country’s progress was brutally interrupted in early 1999, when Rwandan rebels murdered eight tourists in Bwindi National Park, the country’s premier gorilla-tracking destination. However, Bwindi has since been protected by the military, and nothing similar has occurred since. It may be some time before Uganda achieves its full potential, but the country once known as the pearl of Africa has regained much of its luster.
Most of Uganda is relatively flat, comprising an undulating plateau perched at altitudes of 3,280-3,936 ft/1,000-1,200 m between the eastern and western arms of the Rift Valley. But some of the continent’s most impressive mountains reside on Uganda’s borders with other countries, notably the Rwenzori, which rises to 16,761 ft/5,110 m on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Virunga volcanoes on the border with Rwanda, of which the 13,537-ft/4,127-m Muhabura is the highest of the Ugandan peaks. The eastern border with Kenya is punctuated by the 14,173-ft/4,321-m Mount Elgon, 10,116-ft/3,084-m Mount Moroto, 10,063-ft/3,068-m Mount Kadam and 9,020-ft/2,750-m Mount Morungole.
High precipitation makes the countryside far greener than elsewhere in East Africa, and lakes, rivers and other wetland habitats account for almost 25% of the surface area. The most extensive freshwater bodies that lie within Uganda or along its borders are lakes Victoria, Albert, Kyoga, Edward, Kwania and George. Of these, Lake Victoria, shared with Kenya and Tanzania, is the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. It is also the source of the White Nile, which flows out of the lake at Jinja and passes through lakes Kyoga and Albert before crossing the northern border with Sudan
Before gaining its independence in 1962, Uganda appeared to have a bright future. Kampala had a cosmopolitan atmosphere and one of the finest universities on the continent. The country’s national parks had abundant game in their lush savannah settings, with some animals found in even greater numbers than in Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa. Uganda was thought to have the best prospects for prosperity of any of the newly independent African states. But the first prime minister, Milton Obote, rewrote the constitution to concentrate power in his own hands, and nationalization of foreign assets failed to improve the country’s economy.
A 1971 coup led by Idi Amin, a former sergeant in the British colonial army, further dashed hopes of a peaceful, prosperous future. For eight years, Amin directed a reign of terror, during which hundreds of thousands of Ugandans were murdered and society collapsed. Amin miscalculated when, in 1978, he invaded Tanzania over a territorial dispute. His army was quickly defeated, and Tanzanian troops joined Uganda nationalists for a counterinvasion. By April 1979, Amin had fled the country. A civil war broke out between various ethnic groups and dragged on until 1986, when the National Resistance Army leader Yoweri Museveni was sworn in as president. Museveni brought stability and the beginnings of an economic renaissance.
Museveni was long criticized for his policy of no-partyism, a form of government that prohibited political parties and effectively kept him in undisputed power for 20 years. In January 2006, however, when Uganda held its first multiparty election, Museveni was returned to power with 59% of the vote as compared to his closest rival’s 37%.
Despite an economic growth rate that has averaged more than 6% during the past two decades, the majority of Ugandans still live in poverty, and the peaceful state of most of the country has been undermined by events in the far northwest, where the shadowy Lord’s Resistance Army, based across the border in Sudan, has waged a consistent war of terror against civilian peasants and their children. Nevertheless, Museveni has generally represented a major step forward after the Amin and Obote eras, and Uganda remains in considerably better shape than its war-torn neighbors.
Uganda’s main attractions are the savannah and forest wildlife (including chimpanzees and mountain gorillas) protected within its 10 national parks. Other important attractions include ethnic cultures, white-water rafting and other adventure activities, bird-watching, Murchison Falls, the lush mountain scenery of the Rwenzori, the Virungas and Mount Elgon, and the expansive Lake Victoria.
Uganda will appeal to adventurous travelers who are interested in wildlife and African scenery. The highlight of any trip to Uganda is a chance to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. To stare into the soft-brown eyes of a gorilla is an experience not easily forgotten.
Don’t go to Uganda expecting to find consistent deluxe accommodations or to have things go according to schedule, although most major attractions are serviced by at least one lodge or hotel that meets high international standards.
Uganda straddles the equator. If you are visiting one of the many Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria, you can swim across the equator. Most boat captains say they know where it is.
Uganda’s problems with rebels and widespread poverty may have obscured another tragedy in early 2000. A religious group known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God is believed to have committed a mass suicide, with more than 1,000 victims. To compare, the infamous mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, claimed 913 lives.
One result of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit to the country is that communications are improving in Uganda’s villages, and an increasing number of residents are connected to the world via phone and the Internet.
Several of the country’s many banana species are used to make a local variety of wine. The bananas are buried in their leaves to ferment, which produces a strong alcohol that should be imbibed with care.
Far more people are familiar with the name of Uganda’s airport, Entebbe, than will ever visit the country. It was the site of a dramatic commando raid in 1976 that freed the passengers of a hijacked El Al plane and reinforced the daring reputation of the Israeli military. The movieRaid on Entebbe, starring Charles Bronson, was released a year later.
It used to be said that the mainstays of the Ugandan economy were the three Cs and the three Ts—coffee, cotton, copper, tobacco, tea and tourism. The horrific policies of Idi Amin ended all that. Today, Uganda’s primary export is coffee.
A Ugandan bicycle taxi is called a boda-boda. The name literally means “border-border” and originates from the border towns where bicycle taxis are used to cross no-man’s-land between the borders. In Kampala, motorbikes are used asboda-bodas and rides can be a little scary. If you are uncomfortable with the speed, say pole-pole to your driver, which is “slowly” in Swahili.
Most Ugandans you will encounter speak English. You may find that small children will say “Good morning teacher” to you. These are the first words of English they learn at school.
Mount Margherita, the highest peak in the Ruwenzoris, towers 16,750 ft/5,109 m above sea level and is the third-tallest mountain in Africa after Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.
When it rains in Uganda, which it does a lot, everyone simply plucks a leaf off the nearest banana tree and uses it as an umbrella.
The country of Uganda includes four ancient kingdoms—Buganda, Bunyoro, Ankole and Toro—all of which have oral traditions dating back to the mysterious Batembuzi and Bacwezi kingdoms, centered around Ntusi and Mubende in the 12th century.
Uganda is a corruption of Buganda, whose people—known as the Baganda—make up more than one-fifth of the country’s population. The Baganda monarchy was dismantled in 1967 by Milton Obote, but current President Yoweri Museveni reinstated the kabaka (king) in 1993, much to the delight of his people.
Uganda is one of the top bird-watching destinations in Africa and by far the smallest of the four countries where more than 1,000 species have been recorded. Organized birding tours regularly note more than 400 species in a two-week safari. The main attraction is the possibility of seeing 100-plus forest species whose range is otherwise confined to inaccessible or dangerous parts of central/west Africa. It is also regarded as the best place to see the shoebill, a magnificently bizarre creature associated with papyrus swamps.
BOATING & SAILING
Launch trips down the Nile in Murchison Falls and down Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park offer some of the best boat-based game-viewing in Africa.
HIKING & WALKING
Prime sites for hikers are the Rwenzori Mountains and Mount Elgon National Park. Also, a wide variety of forest walks include the opportunity to track gorillas and chimpanzees on foot.
The class V rapids at Bujagali Falls offer some of the world’s most exciting white-water rafting and are the centerpiece of a burgeoning adventure-sports scene.
Uganda is not known for its shopping, but some local handicrafts are available, including musical instruments, wood carvings, woven goods and pottery. The best selections are found in Kampala. If you see something you like, buy it—you may not see it again anywhere else.
Shopping Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30 am-5 pm, Saturday 8:30 am-7 pm.
Continental and East Asian cuisines are available, primarily in larger hotels. Indian food is available even in the smaller towns, thanks to Uganda’s large Indian population. Look out for a popular cheap snack—a roasted banana wrapped up in a chapatti.
The local food consists mainly of well-spiced meats served with matoke and fresh vegetables. Matoke are cooking bananas. They look like normal bananas but don’t be fooled—they are rock-hard and bright green. To cook them, the tough skin needs to be peeled like a potato, and then the bananas are boiled until soft and mashed to a pulp. The result is a fluffy porridge that is usually served with a meat sauce or tomato relish.
Uganda is one of the few African countries that grows a surplus of food, and every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable is available. At the restaurants in the national parks, wild game is often available.
Waragi is the name of a home-brewed gin from the town of Tororo, and Uganda produces a few excellent brands of beer.
Street bombings and threats against the U.S. Embassy raised questions about the safety of travelers in the late 1990s, but things have calmed down. Nevertheless, cautious travelers might want to inquire about safety conditions, including current conditions in Kampala, before planning a trip to the country. Petty crime, such as purse snatching and pickpocketing, is not unheard of in Kampala, but overall crime is less of a problem than in many African capitals.
Two major areas of insecurity in Uganda are in the north, near the border with Sudan, where the rebellion of the Lord’s Resistance Army has flickered off and on since the late 1980s, and in the west, near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the turmoil of that country might occasionally spill over. The southwest part of the country, where Bwindi National Park is located, has been safe since the murders in early 1999.
Be aware that rebel activity occasionally forces the government to close national parks, particularly Ruwenzori National Park, in the western Rift Valley. In addition, carjackings have occurred in several parts of the country, and travel by road should be considered unsafe at night. Road conditions worsen considerably during the rainy season.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency
Sanitary conditions in most restaurants in Uganda can pose problems for some travelers. Most hot, freshly cooked food should be safe (especially if it’s included on a package tour), but peel fresh fruit and raw vegetables before eating, make sure meat is cooked thoroughly, avoid local dairy products, and assume the water is unsafe (stick with prepackaged or boiled drinks).
Take along all prescription medicines needed for the trip. Hospitals in Kampala are perpetually short of supplies, and there are few medical facilities outside the capital. See your physician about obtaining malaria suppressants, and take along plenty of insect repellent. Malaria, including chloroquine-resistant strains, is present in all parts of the country. Be sure to consult your physician about polio, typhoid and hepatitis vaccinations before departure, as the diseases are present in Uganda. Cholera is also present, though vaccinations for this disease are often ineffective. Several outbreaks of the Ebola virus have been recorded, with most cases in the town of Gulu (in the northern part of the country) and Mabara and Masindi (in the western part of the country).
Be wary of local animals, including domestic cats and dogs, as rabies is a problem. More than 1 million people in the country are estimated to be HIV-positive. If you need a blood transfusion, you’ll be better off, statistically speaking, to seek a donor first among other travelers. Skin infections are common: Even the smallest wound should be disinfected and covered with a bandage. The sun can be very strong, so use sunscreen liberally and wear a hat.
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Do bargain if you go to the Nakasero Market in central Kampala.
Don’t take photographs of the military or any government buildings, as your camera may be confiscated. There have been problems with this in central Kampala.
Do take a bird-identification book for East Africa. Uganda has one of the highest concentrations of birds in the world.
Do stop at all police roadblocks on the highways and show your passport or visa if requested.
Do stop at the equator sign on the road between Kampala and Masaka to take a souvenir photograph.
Don’t swim in freshwater lakes or rivers, as they may contain bilharzia, a liver-destroying parasite. Don’t forget a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
Don’t balk at the price of a gorilla permit. They are expensive, but the money paid to the Uganda Wildlife Authority is used to protect these gentle apes.
Don’t use the mail service for valuables—it’s considered highly unreliable.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Passports and visas are required for Australian, Canadian, U.K. and U.S. citizens, but these now can be bought with minimal fuss upon arrival at Entebbe Internal Airport or any overland border. Reconfirm travel documentation requirements with carrier before departure.
Languages: English, Luganda, Swahili..
Predominant Religions: Christian, Islamic, traditional.. Voltage Requirements: 240 volts at 50Hz.
Telephone Codes: 256, country code; 41,Kampala city code;
Uganda’s currency is the Uganda shilling. Exchange rates have been reasonably steady against the U.S. dollar, U.K. pound and euro in recent years. Don’t count on using credit cards in Uganda except at the upmarket hotels, and outside of Kampala there are very few ATMs. Traveler’s checks are accepted in some banks, provided that you carry proof of purchase, but not at private exchange bureaus. When changing cash, small dollar bills attract a lower exchange rate than larger ones. Don’t be tempted to deal in the black market. It is illegal, and there is the danger of being ripped off.
Look closely at what you’re given when you change money. Many counterfeit U.S. banknotes, printed on plain paper, are circulating in Uganda. Because of this, Ugandan banks and wildlife authorities do not accept pre-2002 U.S. banknotes. Gorilla permits cost US$500 and are paid for in U.S. cash.
Monday-Friday 8:30 am-2 pm.
Each guest needs to bring $100 USD cash which will be collected by the Happy Ambassador on the last day and distributed to all the guides. For those doing the gorilla trek hike, we recommend tipping the guide from the trek $20 USD per person. Have $2-3 USD per person for the porters and they will carry your bags during the trek. Budget $140 USD per person to bring on this trip for mandatory tips. At restaurants, it is recommended to tip 10%. You can also tip the airport transfer $3 per person since it is a short 15 minute drive.
The best times to visit are December-March and June-September. It can be somewhat rainy then, but not as rainy as in the rainy season, March-June. December-February and June-July are the driest times, when things can even be a bit dusty. Although the country lies astride the equator, most of Uganda is on a plateau 3,600-6,000 ft/900-1,830 m above sea level, and it can get cool in the evenings.
What to Wear
Light, casual clothing is the order of the day on safari, and it’s advisable to carry at least one change of shirt and underwear per day as there are few opportunities to have laundry done while you are on the move. Shorts and a T-shirt are fine by day, but you might want to cover up at night (long trousers and sleeves, socks and shoes) to minimize mosquito bites. A light sweater will come in useful in the highlands, as will a waterproof jacket during the rainy season.
Solid walking shoes and thick trousers (jeans or similar) are a must for tracking gorillas and chimps through the nettle-strewn forest undergrowth. Shorts on men are acceptable in informal circumstances, but many Ugandans consider them inappropriate for men whose schooldays are long past. Women should avoid skimpy attire, especially in towns and villages, where it may give offense.
Uganda’s landline telephone system, although reasonably efficient, has been marginalized by an upsurge of mobile satellite telephones, with main providers being Mango, Celtel and the South African company MTN. The MTN satellite network grid is the widest and includes large parts of Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls national parks. Most safari drivers and guides will carry a mobile phone on safari and on game drives, although they may not always have airtime in an emergency. Self-drive visitors with compatible phones can buy a local SIM card very cheaply, giving them their own number in Uganda. Airtime is very inexpensive.
Internet cafes are prolific in Kampala and can be found in other towns such as Jinja, Mbale, Masaka, Mbarara, Fort Portal, Kasese and Kabale. Wi-Fi isn’t widely available, and you can’t rely on Internet access at all while on safari, although satellite links are sometimes available.
Mail & Package Services
International post is slow and unreliable. Postcards and letters will almost always get through, although it may be several weeks before this happens. It’s advisable to courier valuables or bulkier items through DHL or a similar service.
Newspapers & Magazines
Uganda has a good English-language press. The dailies New Vision and Monitor offer good international coverage alongside juicy local news, while a Kenyan weekly called The East African has excellent regional coverage.
Major international carriers serve Entebbe National Airport (EBB), which is 2 mi/4 km from Entebbe and 25 mi/40 km southwest of Kampala. There are taxis outside to take you to both. Immigration procedures there are usually straightforward, and visas can be purchased on arrival with a valid passport.
The airport is reasonably modern, but there is a large presence of patrolling soldiers, presumably a throwback to the 1976 hostage incident. The old El Al jet can still be seen parked up on the perimeter of the runway. Uganda Airlines also offers service within the country, and it is now possible to fly to Bwindi National Park with charter companies.
Passenger rail service is available from Nairobi, Kenya, and the journey from there to Kampala takes all day. Escorted tours are offered by local companies. If you’re renting a car, be sure to hire a driver as well. The local bus system is undependable and, for most Westerners, unsuitable. Heavy rains sometimes disable an already poor road system, though the road between Kampala and Entebbe is paved. Check current conditions and allow extra time before venturing into the countryside. Traffic moves on the left.
Taxis can be found outside the arrivals area of the airport. The average trip to the city takes 25 minutes. Pay at the counter before leaving the arrival hall.
For More Information
Uganda: Uganda Tourist Board, P.O. Box 7211, Kampala. Phone 256-414-342-196 or -197. http://www.visituganda.com.
Uganda does not have tourist offices in Australia, Canada, the U.K. or the U.S., though some tourist information is available from the local embassy or high commission. http://uganda.embassyhomepage.com
Canada: Uganda High Commission, 231 Cobourg St., Ottawa, ON K1N 8J2. Phone 613-789-7797.
U.K.: Uganda High Commission, 58/59 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX. Phone 20-7839-5783. http://uganda.embassyhomepage.com.
U.S.: Embassy of Uganda, 5911 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20011. Phone 202-726-7100. http://www.ugandaembassy.com.
Uganda does not have diplomatic representation in Australia.
Embassies in Uganda
Australia is represented by its high commission in Kenya: Australian High Commission, Riverside Drive, Nairobi (mail address: P.O. Box 39341, Nairobi, Kenya). Phone 254-20-444-5034.
Canadian Consulate, Upper Ground Floor, Jubilee Insurance Center, 14 Parliament Ave., Kampala (mail address: P.O. Box 20115, Kampala, Uganda). Phone 256-414-258-141.
British High Commission, 4 Windsor Loop, Kampala (mail address: P.O. Box 7070, Kampala, Uganda). Phone 256-414-312-000.
U.S. Embassy, Ggaba Road, Kansanga, Kampala. Phone 256-414-259-791.
Uganda by Phillip Briggs (Bradt Travel Guides). The most in-depth guidebook to the whole country.
Uganda’s Rift Valley by Andrew Roberts. Only available in Uganda, this gives a detailed background and overview
to Uganda’s most significant geographic feature and the history of tourist attractions therein.
Sowing the Mustard Seed by Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni may be hard to find outside Uganda, but it should be available in the country. The autobiography tells the story of Museveni’s rise from cattle farmer to guerrilla fighter to president.
Journey through Uganda by David Pluth and Philip Briggs (Camerapix). A colorful, coffee-table overview of Uganda.