Planning an independent trip to Uganda
If you’ve read our other posts on our trip around Uganda, you’ll know that we did it independently. While most people take a tour, we did a self-drive trip so we could do an independent Uganda trip. It took quite a bit of planning, although that’s part of the fun, right? In case other people are planning an independent trip to Uganda, we put together our planning process.
Why plan an independent trip to Uganda?
As Kris’ 40th approached, I asked him what he wanted to do to celebrate. We’re not ones for big presents, preferring to spend money on trips and experiences. His past birthdays have been spent in New York (39), Myanmar (38) and Khao Yai national park in Thailand (37).
I want to see gorillas and chimps in the wild, he decided. This has been a bucket list item from being a teenager. Reading ‘The Naked Ape’ by Desmond Morris caused him to study zoology – he wanted to study apes in the wild. Ok, so he ended up studying moths, which are a bit smaller, but we met at Liverpool University where I was working with primatologists.
Anyway, a bit of research pointed to Uganda as a destination. Gorillas only exist in the wild in three countries – Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and gorilla safaris have been available in all three. Congo gorilla trekking is currently suspended due to security risks, and between Rwanda and Uganda, the latter has the cheapest gorilla permits. Uganda it was.
A bit of playing around on Google and Pinterest brought up lots of guided tours, both in groups and private. While these looked amazing, they were expensive. Having a guide would have been fantastic, and would have removed the complexity of planning the trip ourselves, but it definitely would have added to the price.
Then we started to find blogs and trip reports of people who had travelled independently, self-driving around the country. We did this in South Africa back in 2013 – another bucket list birthday trip to go cage diving with great white sharks (34th birthday!) – so we felt relatively confident with this option.
A lot of planning and preparation went into the trip, so for others who are planning an independent trip to Uganda, here’s what we did.
Obviously, you need flights to get to Uganda, whether you do a tour or an independent trip. The main airport is in Entebbe, which is just outside the capital city, Kampala. Kampala has crazy traffic while Entebbe is relatively calm, and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants in Entebbe. You don’t need to go into Kampala if you don’t want to.
We originally booked to fly from Kyiv to Entebbe with Fly Dubai, but they cancelled our flights and we rebooked with Qatar Airlines. We’ve flown with them several times and they are excellent.
Whenever we fly we use Skyscanner to find the best flight options.
Choose an itinerary
Obviously, an important stage of planning an independent trip to Uganda is the itinerary. There are many interesting places to visit in Uganda, but how much you can see depends on how long you have, of course. We initially wanted to visit Murchinson Falls National Park, but when we worked out the driving time from Entebbe to Murchinson Falls to Kibale, it meant very long driving days. If you have a driver, that’s ok because you can sleep in the back, but Kris was driving and we decided it would be too much.
In the end, we decided on:
Entebbe – Kibale National Park – Queen Elizabeth National Park – Mgahinga Gorilla National Park – Lake Mburo National Park – Entebbe.
Wondering how much an independent trip to Uganda will cost? Read our post to find our Uganda travel costs.
There is a lot of initial outlay involved with planning a Uganda trip. Permits need to be booked in advance and if, for some reason, your trip can’t happen, you need the security of knowing you’ll get your money back. Also, there’s health to consider. On an active trip, you might get injured. Not used to the food and conditions, you might get sick. It’s always best to get travel insurance.
We always use World Nomads. We first used them in 2006 when we went on our first backpacking trip because you can extend the cover while abroad. Now we use them because the policy doesn’t need to be taken out in your home country.
First thing to look at when planning your independent trip to Uganda is permits. Gorilla Trekking is done to habituated groups. This means that scientists have worked with them to get them used to people. There are currently 12 habituated groups in Uganda. 11 are in Bwindi impenetrable forest and the other is in Maghinga Gorilla National Park.
Each day 8 permits are available to visit each family. As you can imagine, these are in demand and need to be booked in advance. They cost $650 each. It’s a lot. However, the payments go to the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the money goes directly to conservation in the country, so you are paying towards the protection and survival of gorillas in Uganda.
Permits need to be booked directly with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. It is supposed to be possible to do this yourself. We couldn’t work out how to do it. To make it easier, tour operators will do it for you. We got ours through the company we hired our car from (see below). They took the payment by bank transfer and booked the permits for us. There was a fee for them to receive the money.
Which gorilla family to trek to
When you book your permit, you need to send them an idea of the dates you want to trek and the group you want to visit. It’s a good idea to arrange permits before finalising your itinerary, as permits may be sold out on a specific day. we gave a range of dates, she told us when there were permits and to which groups.
As I’ve said, there are 12 groups to trek to. In Bwindi, the treks go from four entrances – Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. Buhoma has three families and includes the Mubare Group, the first to have been habituated. There are two families in Ruhija, five in Rushaga (due to large habituated groups splitting off into different groups), and two in Nkuringo.
Gorilla trekking in Bwindi is tough. It’s not known as Bwindi Impenetrable forest for no reason. There are no roads or tracks through the park and you have to hack your way through. Another clue to the difficulty is in the name – mountain gorilla. They live up mountains and to see them you have to climb up and then down again.
The easiest treks are to find the Buhoma groups because the terrain is not so steep. For this reason, luxury safari operators book these far in advance, to sell on to their guests. They are often sold out 18 months in advance.
8 months before our trek, only two options were available – one was Nkuringo in Bwindi, known as the most challenging group to trek to. The other option was the Nyakagazi family in Maghinga national park.
To be honest, we hadn’t heard much about the Mgahinga National Park gorillas. Mgahinga National Park stands on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and Uganda and is Uganda’s portion of the Virunga volcanos. It’s the smallest national park in Uganda at only 34 km. While one gorilla family here has been habituated for a while, between 2004 and 2012 they moved between Uganda and Rwanda, meaning trekking to find them was not reliable. Gorillas can freely move between countries but people are restricted by visas.
Since 2012, however, the Nyakagazi family has decided to permanently stay in Uganda, so they were a viable option for our trip. We asked Joy, our booking agent at Uganda Self Drive and she recommended this group over the Bwindi group. It was a good decision, for reasons you can see on our post on trekking the Nyakagazi gorilla family.
Gorilla habituation experience
An amazing sounding activity as part of your Uganda trip, if you have more money, is to go out with the researchers who are habituating other gorilla families. You can spend the day following them and four hours with them, rather than one hour with a normal gorilla trek. However, this is pricey at $1500.
You also need to get a permit to trek to see chimpanzees. These treks are half days and you can do them in three locations. Our first choice was Kibale, because this is where the most famous place is. You can also track chimps at two locations near Queen Elizabeth National Park – Kyambura Gorge and Kalinzu Ecotourism Project.
Chimp trek permits cost $150 for Kibale including National Park fees, $50 + $40 National Park fees for Kyambura Gorge and only $40 for Kalinzu. You can also do a full day chimp habituation experience for $200. We debated this but read that sometimes you don’t get very close to them, so we decided to just do the half-day trek with one hour with the chimps. You can read our experience trekking the chimps in Kibale.
Rent a vehicle
To do an independent trip to Uganda, you’ll need a vehicle. As self drive in Uganda is quite popular, there are many companies that hire cars. As with our road trip in Greece, we wanted to book with a local company to support local businesses. Tripadvisor recommended two companies, and we went with Self Drive Uganda.
They offer a range of vehicles – we chose a Rav 4 for $47 day. This included insurance. It was by no means a new vehicle and there were some niggly problems e.g. the driver’s sun visor was missing and the radio didn’t seem to work properly (well, it wouldn’t tune in, but perhaps we were using it wrong). However, it was hardy and did the job perfectly.
They have a network of mechanics around the country who can help you if you break down. You simply ring the office and they sort it out for you. We tried this out when we got a flat tyre and had to take it to the garage to be changed. Billy at Self Drive Uganda was really helpful with dealing with the staff in the garage.
Self Drive Uganda delivered our car to our accommodation in Entebbe for an extra $20 which meant Kris didn’t have to manage the Kampala traffic on the first trip out in it.
Once our Uganda itinerary was set and permits were booked, we started to arrange accommodation. We generally use booking.com for this, wherever we go, because we can get free cancellations, and read real reviews of places before we book them. As we book all the time, we are booking.com level 2 geniuses, meaning we get discounts and perks from certain properties.
We tried to book locally run hotels and guesthouses, to support the local economy, rather than big international resorts. This is, of course, also cheaper.
Another option to save money is to camp. There are campsites at many of the national parks, and many resorts have camping areas. and you can hire a tent, camping gear and even a fridge from the car hire companies.
You can read more on the places we stayed in the individual posts, but in summary:
Entebbe: Carpe Diem Guesthouse – lovely place overlooking Lake Victoria. $70
Kibale: West End Motel – basic guesthouse with en suite room near the centre of Kibale. We chose this over a more expensive lodge outside the town to save money. $17
Queen Elizabeth National Park: Elephant Home – a community-run place with three rooms and a campsite supporting the nearby village $50 including breakfast
Mgahinga National Park: Amajyele Iwacu Community camp – another community-run project next to the national park entrance so perfect for trekking. basic rooms with shared bathroom $40
Lake Bunyonyi: Lake Bunyonyi View – last minute booking for a chill-out day. It has a beautiful view over the lake and en suite rooms with hot showers (we needed one by then!) $30
Lake Mburo National Park: Leopard Rest camp – Lazy tent $50
Entebbe: La Veve Bed and Breakfast $46
A trip to your local travel clinic is a good idea while planning your trip to Uganda. You need to get the basic vaccinations for third world countries if you haven’t had them before – Hepatitis A, polio and tetanus boosters and typhoid. Hep A has two doses – one before you go to protect you, then you have another a year later to give you lifetime immunity. Polio and tetanus are boosters as you will have had them in childhood. Typhoid needs renewing every four years.
You also need to have had a yellow fever vaccine to enter Uganda. A requirement of the visa is to upload your certificate. A travel health centre will be able to give you the vaccine and the certificate, which is from the World Health Organisation and states the origin and batch number of your vaccine. It costs about $80 and despite what you might read on older web entries, the WHO recently confirmed that one vaccination lasts for life. So take care of the certificate!
We’re not going to get into the antivax argument which rages on whenever the question of travel vaccinations comes up. Kris has a PhD in virology. We know people who’ve had typhoid and it wasn’t pleasant. Better to be safe than sorry.
Uganda is a high-risk area for malaria so you need protection. Malaria is no joke, it’s a horrible disease. You’ll hear people say you don’t need to take medication because ‘the medication is worse than the disease’ – rubbish, or ‘you don’t need it because I didn’t take it and I didn’t catch malaria – yeah, you weren’t killed in a car accident without wearing a seatbelt, but that doesn’t mean others weren’t.
There are several possible antimalarial drugs you can take including:
- Doxycycline stops the malarial parasite from reproducing until it dies. You start taking it the day before entering a malaria area, and then for a month afterward. It’s also an antibiotic so you might have heard it prescribed for some bacterial infections when malaria wasn’t involved!
- Malarone is more expensive, but you only have to take it for 7 days after leaving a malaria-affected area.
- Lariam has the benefit of only needing to be taken once a week, for a couple of weeks before visiting a malaria area. However, it needs to be taken for another four weeks after leaving.
It’s a good idea to get advice on what the best malarial drugs for you and where you are going from your doctor or local travel clinic.
Get a visa
For Uganda, most tourists need to get a visa in advance. If you are just visiting Uganda, you pay $50 for a tourist visa. If you are combining it with a trip to neighbouring Tanzania and/or Kenya, you can get the East African tourist visa covering all countries for $100. There are various agents who arrange visas, but we went direct with the government immigration website.
What to take to Uganda
If you are doing any kind of wildlife watching, you need a set of binoculars. We borrowed some from Kate’s parents, so ask around if anyone has a set.
While we took some good shots on our phone cameras, for wildlife viewing, a good zoom lens is needed.
My mum introduced us to Chilly bottles and we love them. They look like normal metal water bottles, but they keep water ice cold. Transfer water from the fridge to the bottle and it stays cold for 24 hours. Honestly. We took ours trekking in Thailand and it stayed cold while camping overnight. In tropical Thailand!
We now have two: a black 750ml one which is perfect for the car, and a multicoloured 500ml one that fits in my handbag. Mum has a 250 ml one too cos her bag is smaller!
It wasn’t easy to find fridges to cool water in Uganda, but the bottles served as storage and when we bought water, we put it in the bottles to stay cool.
You can drink the tap water in Ugandan cities, but in rural areas we weren’t so sure. In the past, the number of plastic bottles we got through in places we couldn’t drink the tap water upset us. We recently got a water filter and we love it. We got the Grayl, because it treats water in relatively big batches, then you can transfer this to the fridge or your Chilly bottle. With other choices, they treated the water as you drunk it, but we felt that it restricted us from not being able to store the water or keep it cold.
We were able to treat and use the water in many areas, although in some rural places, there wasn’t enough tap water available to treat. We had to buy bottled water sometimes but the Grayl reduced our plastic use.
Solid shampoo and conditioner
Speaking of reducing plastic use, we have a lot of hair and use a lot of shampoo and conditioner, but large bottles of shampoo and conditioner are heavy and small ones produce a lot of rubbish. We’ve been using solid shampoo and conditioner since January 2019 and it’s great. it takes a bit of getting used to, especially the conditioner as it doesn’t really lather, but it cleans our hair great.
We use Lush solid shampoo and conditioner from the Funky soap company.
You’ll be using Googlemaps a lot during your self-drive in Uganda and it can decharge your phone. A good idea is to take a car adapter, that fits into a cigarette lighter, so you can keep your phone plugged in
Small safari camps have limited access to electricity and few plug sockets so a multi charger is useful. We have one with four USB sockets that plugs into one mains socket. This is doubly useful in rooms with only one socket.
We’d say this is an essential buy. In small places we stayed like Elephant Home in Queen Elizabeth National Park, there wasn’t electricity to the rooms so it was hard to charge phones. During long car journeys, you need access to Googlemaps so its added security yo be able to use a power bank to charge your phone.
Reading about what clothes to take to Uganda, we felt like we needed a whole new wardrobe. As well as trekking clothes, we read that we should avoid wearing blue and, black, or bright colours because they attract Tsetse flies, big flies that spread sleeping sickness. If you’ve met us, you’ll realise that many of our clothes are black and blue. It said we needed hats to protect us from the sun (we don’t wear hats in summer, just to keep our heads warm in winter) and long-sleeved tops.
During our trip, it appeared that this wasn’t true. We came across Tetse flies in one area of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and in Lake Mburo. Otherwise, the colour of our clothes didn’t seem to matter. Guides and locals wore black, blue, florescent colours….
We also didn’t bother buying a hat and it was never sunny enough to need one.
This is what we did need:
Even though Uganda is on the Equator, the altitude means that its cold at night and early in the morning in some places like Mgahinga National Park and Lake Bunyoni. It’s good to have a lightweight fleece with you. We have fleeces, but they are black, so we bought new ones in green and grey. The black ones would have been fine. Living in Ukraine, however, we’ll wear the new ones and have the added benefit of blending into rocks and trees….
Trekking to find gorillas, chimps and for birdwatching needs comfortable durable trousers. We got a couple of pairs of trekking trousers from discount outdoor shops.
There are insects in the jungle, if not lots of tsetse flies, plus plants with thorns, so a couple of long-sleeved tops is a good idea.
Other than this, bring whatever clothes you are comfortable in, particularly if you are driving long distances. You don’t have to wear lots of breathable fabrics in muted colours, a quick-dry safari shirt and a broad-rimmed hat and remember Doctor Livingstone. Don’t go out and especially buy lots of safari clothes. If you want to, go for it though.
You’ll need a small rucksack for treks to carry your camera, food, water etc. For gorilla treks you can pay local porters to carry it for you.
We didn’t see much for sale, so bring them with you. We personally don’t like DEET products at all, and use natural citronella based insect repellent. We like the one from Boots the Chemist in the UK, Thailand and some other countries, or a similar one. they are generally in yellow bottles.
Useful information for your trip to Uganda
Time in Uganda
Uganda is at GMT+3, as it is in the East African time zone. Oddly, in the summer, this is the same time as Ukraine (where we currently live).
Money in Uganda
Uganda uses the Ugandan shilling, which have both notes and coins. They have beautiful pictures of local wildlife on them, so it’s nice to take a couple home (small bills, of course!).
Exchanges rates are around 3,500 to the USD. Most notes you see are 1,000 – 50,000. We changed USD in banks very easily with our passport. In banks in tourist areas, we were automatically given 50,000 notes, but in smaller areas we were given 20,000 notes at first (only about $6-7) but when we asked for bigger bills, they were happy to oblige.
There are ATMs in most big towns you will visit. In terms of credit cards, it’s best to take Visa as well as Mastercard to ensure that one or the other is accepted.
Ready to take your independent trip to Uganda?
Ok, so you’ve booked flights and accommodation, rented a car, got permits for your treks, got your health sorted and bought everything you need.
Looks like you are ready to go. Enjoy your independent trip to Uganda. We had a fantastic two weeks there and would love to go back. Hope this post has been useful.
If you have tips to add to people planning a trip to Uganda, please write a comment below.
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