Our Self Drive Uganda tips

You may have noticed from our other posts that our road trip in Uganda was a self-drive, meaning that we hired a car from Self Drive Uganda and drove ourselves around, instead of doing a guided tour. In this post, Kris, who did all the driving in Uganda, gives his tips for car rental in Uganda for anyone who is also planning a roadtrip Uganda.

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When we’re planning on driving in a foreign country I always go straight to the internet to see if there are any tips or warnings that are available from others who have done it themselves. There are loads of dangers and annoyances afoot for the unwary motorist whenever they step into a hire car in a foreign country.

Such questions arise as – which company is reputable? What documentation do I need to take? – How do petrol stations work? Do they drive on the left or the right or kind of a mixture of the two depending on mood? And of course the classic – what do flashing headlights mean from on oncoming car?

– “Be my guest, good sir! You first, I’m in no hurry”

or

“Get out of the way, I have no brakes and have no intention of easing off the gas”.

The final conundrum being particularly important to get to the bottom of quickly.

Anyway, in light of this, I’ve decided to write a blog on driving in Uganda. I haven’t done this before. Not specifically on driving. We drove in South Africa, in the USA and we did a roadtrip in Greece this May as well as some undocumented holidays (unblogged holidays?? Do these even exist??) including to North Cyprus but it struck me that the majority of people we encountered touring Uganda were doing it with a guide and driver.

Kris driving in our car rental Uganda
Driving through the countryside

So I thought I’d share some of my experiences should anyone out there be tempted to follow the ‘do-it-yourself’ route and self-drive Uganda. I hope it’s useful, or at least moderately entertaining in parts.

So here we go, fasten your seatbelts…

(…I’m sorry about that. It made me cringe too…)

Disclaimer: All the points of view expressed here are based on my own experiences and I’m sure, with only 2 weeks for our road trip in Uganda I probably got some stuff wrong! Please, don’t get annoyed if you find some inaccuracies, but please do leave a comment to correct the error. You know you want to. Everyone likes putting someone right on internet message boards…

Why self-drive Uganda?

So, if you’re going on a wildlife holiday in Uganda you’re gonna be doing some travelling. You have 2 main options – you could hire a guide and driver to transport you around in a big comfy Land Cruiser, or you could hire a car yourself. So why bother doing your roadtrip in Uganda yourself?

Row of different cars and safari vehicles including our self drive Uganda Rav 4
If you do a self-drive Uganda trip in a Toyota Rav 4, be prepared for it to look tiny next to the huge safari trucks

Well, as you might guess, first and foremost, it’s cheaper. Considerably cheaper. Our car cost us $47 per day from Self Drive Uganda. While a car with guide can cost double that. Obviously, a car with a guide has loads of benefits. You can snooze in the back, listen to music, forget about the trials and tribulations of potholes and spare tyres and you have someone who always knows the way and can tell you all about what you’re seeing. But then, let’s not forget that…

Driving is fun. It can be part of the adventure. And having your own car with no tour itinerary means you can go where you want to go, whenever you want to go.

long horned cows in the road - one of the problems with self drive Uganda
Just one of the hazards on the Ugandan roads – Ankole cattle near Lake Mburo National Park

So with the justification for our self drive Uganda plan out of the way, let’s get to the country.

Related post: How to plan an independent trip to Uganda

What kinds of car rental in Uganda are available?

Firstly, a 4WD is essential for doing a road trip in Uganda. And this seems to give you 2 options – go big and get a Toyota Land Cruiser, or go smaller and get a Toyota Rav4. Toyota seem to do well out of Ugandan motoring.

We went with the latter, there just being two of us and we went with a company called Self Drive Uganda. This is a Ugandan-owned organisation who can not only supply with a car, but also get you permits for the gorilla and chimp treks which they’ll supply to you when they hand over the car. They had good reviews on Tripadvisor so we went for them.

Read more about our gorilla trekking experience in Mgahinga National Park

White Toyota Rav 4 in Uganda
Our Toyota Rav 4

The company also provides a drop-off and pick up service direct to your hotel and we found the guys who did it to be really punctual when they did this and friendly and open to questions as well as stuff like demonstrating that all the lights worked. The Rav4 we got was certainly not new or in pristine condition; let’s say it was clearly a safari veteran. Having said that, we had no problems with the engine for the whole trip and the air con worked fine during a tsetse fly attack when we had to close the windows.

Want to hear the tsetse fly story? Read our post on Queen Elizabeth National Park

We had thought we were getting a manual diesel, but what we received was an automatic petrol. Not that this was an issue, but until I drove in the US last summer, I’d never driven an automatic and it took a little bit of getting used to. I guess the other arrangement would have been more difficult to deal with if you were an automatic driver who’d never driven a manual! Just be aware that the car you receive, as usual, can differ, so be specific about your requirements – particularly if you can’t do manual gears!

How do you find your way around on your road trip Uganda?

Unsurprisingly – Google maps, of course! It’s easy to get a local SIM card from any mobile phone shop at the start of your journey. Just take along your passport and prepare data for your trip and you’re ready to go.

Petrol stations/gas stations/ whatever you want to call them

There are a vast range of local purveyors of fuel in Uganda with some interesting names. From Kobil, apparently a Kenya-based company with logos and lettering that make it look a lot like Mobil, to the distressingly named ‘BAM!!’ with a logo seemingly depicting a fiery explosion.

Petrol station in Uganda called Bam
Would this be somewhere you’d be happy to stop and buy petrol?

We were advised by our Ugandan car rental company only to use the main international stations – Total and Shell. In fact, I think this was even in our contract. There is some fear that other less reputable companies might mix their fuel with dirty river water, ketchup or just positive thoughts. Luckily, the Total and Shell outlets were numerous on our route though allegedly less frequently encountered in the north.

Another thing to bear in mind is that you don’t have to do anything in fuel stations – the staff do everything for you. As you pull in someone will frantically wave you up to a pump – as if at any moment you might change your mind, or perhaps not understand what a petrol pump looks like and ignorantly park next to a nearby lamp post.

Once parked your friendly attendant will fill you up as much as you want. In addition, a guy will appear who will clean your windscreen. I had figured this would be a tips-based thing, but after the guy cleaned the windows he immediately walked off. If I was meant to tip the bloke and anyone reading this is horrified, I’m sorry, but it really wasn’t obvious. As I said above, leave a comment. Anyway, after refueling you pay the guy directly from the car window and he’ll give you change.

Then there are the other services. Usually, a bloke would also appear and ask me to pop the bonnet so he could check the oil and water. I always declined this offer as I checked every day myself. But a service you will need is checking the tyre pressures. Even on a short trip, after long hours on the road and all the bumps and potholes you encounter it’s a good idea to keep them in good shape and here comes one of those adventures self-drivers encounter…

Street scene in Uganda
Driving through small towns in Uganda, all the shops are painted with advertising for various companies, especially mobile phone companies

“Look. This tyre is damaged. We need to change it”

The above statement was heard a lot by us from the guys at the tyre pump. Again, as with fuel, you do not check the tyres yourself. You pull into a bay and special tyre technician will expertly test each tyre and top it up and, seemingly without fail, tell you one of the tyres needs repairing.

The first tyre fail was in Fort Portal. The news of this was broken to me by a group of 3 very grave-looking tyre techs, shaking their heads as they looked at the front right tyre. I cast my ‘expert’ eye over the offending tyre and thought ‘Hmm. I mean, it looks ok to me.‘ and figured if it went down we had a spare and I spurned their off of a repair, paid for the air and drove off with them clearly worried I was heading to my doom. Incidentally, the tyre check cost me 4000 shillings. I have no idea if this is standard or way too much. It seemed reasonable to a Brit abroad.

Days later and much safariing and no problems with the faulty tyre, I had the tyres checked again before our next big journey. This time it was the back right. The valve was leaking, I was told. He demonstrated this by pushing in the valve so it leaked air.

How about when you don’t push it in? Yeah, it doesn’t leak then. Hmm. Again, I declined the repair and the guy said okay and then showed me a massive dung beetle he’d found and wished me a safe journey. Apparently the front right tyre had healed.

Another tyre check, another problem. This time around all the tyres were fine except the spare, which had a slow puncture. Again, I thanked the guy for letting me know and we left without getting it fixed. Again, the previously bust tyres were judged fine and dandy.

My feeling on the tyre check situation is that perhaps the guys saw the foreigner and just thought they’d have a go, see if I would shell out to get it fixed whether it needed to be fixed or not. I understand why they would, but I’m pretty confident in retrospect that those tyres did not need changing at that point.

Anyway, it was near the end of the holiday and our road trip in Uganda, I figured we’d made it without a puncture! But never count your chickens too early… See later.

Kris driving our hire car in Uganda

On the road.

First off, let’s consider the long drives between the different towns or national parks and first the roads themselves. This is something I found really variable in Uganda. Some stretches of highway are smooth and new and the scenery is breathtaking. In other stretches the tarmac disappears and the roads become baked red dust and in others there’s a confusing mix of the two with a thin strip of broken tarmac in the middle and dusty dirt tracks either side. Obviously this causes some competition between drivers for the tarmac and usually the smaller car (or the tourist) gives in first in this game of chicken.

yellow road on our road trip in Uganda
Some roads don’t have tarmac

Oh and let’s not forget the roadworks. These were generally okay, but the tendency to employ a person waving red and green flags to direct the traffic can be a bit confusing on country roads where the person seems to have got a little bored and is sort of twirling both varieties absent-mindedly.

Dusty road while driving in Uganda
In some parts, the roads were really dusty so it was hard to see the roadworks

Then there are the ‘traffic calming’ measures as you pass towns and villages. As all the main roads pass directly through villages I can see why this is necessary but it is something to be careful of. It seems the first measure is a series what we might call in the UK a sort of ‘rumble strip’. This is like 4 ‘small’ humps close together.

I say ‘small’ and not small, because there doesn’t seem to be a standard size. While we cruised over some with a slight vibration, for others it was necessary to slow to 10mph and bounce up and down in your seat as you passed them.

After these there is ‘the hump’. This is the big one. Just as you enter the built up area there’s a BIG hump. Usually this is marked, but on occasion they can take you by surprise and make you seriously wonder if you just took out both of your front tyres, even at 20mph (I can see the man at the Total tyre clinic tutting, shaking his head and saying ‘I told you that tyre was faulty…’). So it pays to be cautious.

Inspired to do self-drive Uganda trip and want to know how much it will cost? Find out our total Uganda trip costs.

Is driving in Uganda safe?

What about the other road users? Well, we had a few experiences that are worth mentioning.

On our first long drive of our Ugandan road trip, in the opposite lane of a country road there was a long slow line of traffic. My lane was clear and we were pootling along comfortable along a long straight stretch. Then I noticed a large SUV speeding directly towards me on the wrong side of the road with a massive shiny bullbar glinting in the sun. It was a distance off when I realised what was happening and I figured he was overtaking and about to pull in….but he just kept coming.

‘Speeding’ might be an exaggeration actually, looking back, but he was determinedly driving towards me on the wrong side of the road. Not even bothering to honk or flash his lights. Eventually, I realised I had to pull off the road onto the wasteland to let him past and then drive back onto the road. No one around us seemed at all surprised with this and we continued on our way. Admittedly, his car was bigger than mine and I take this as one of those unwritten rules on who should give way.

zebras in the road in Uganda
Another wildlife hazard – zebras in the road.

Another time we were crawling up a hill on a pitted road behind a massive, black-smoke coughing truck. Eventually, I got the opportunity to overtake and sailed past it with a sigh of relief. What I didn’t realise is that he was now out to get me on the downhill section.

I’m not sure what happened here. I wondered if basically his brakes didn’t really work. Either way, as I slowed to avoid potholes on the descent, he massively sped up and this massive truck came steaming towards me from behind, manically blaring his very impressive horn. I managed to pull aside as he roared past…..and then on the flat, settled in to crawl along behind him again, this time slightly too unnerved to overtake again in case he was treating this as a competition.

Obviously these are just anecdotes of scary incidents. More common every day heart-quickeners were cars, trucks and particularly buses, happy to throw caution to the wind and overtake on blind bends. And then, of course, there was the driver who, on the sparkly new and virtually deserted highway out of Entebbe, managed to not only almost miss his exit, but make an emergency maneuvre straight across the path of the only other car on the road to get to it (i.e. mine).

Busy road in Uganda
City driving in Uganda – this road is in Fort Portal

Read about our chimp trekking from Fort Portal to Kibale National Park

But that last one could happen anywhere, right? Before I go any further I want to point out that in general, the roads in Uganda weren’t as scary as people might think. People did not all drive like maniacs, so I don’t want to paint a picture of such excitement. But there’re things to watch out for. And as much as I hate internet lists….here’s a list of things to be careful of in Ugandan traffic…..

  1. You’re on a beautiful open country road with a great surface. Although the other lane, coming in the opposite direction, is busy with a line of traffic, your lane is empty for you to accelerate into the distance……but be careful. At some point someone in the oncoming traffic line might decide to overtake and lurch into your lane and drive at you. They may flash their lights to considerately tell you to slow down. You probably should.
  2. There’s a bus behind you. A bus. They go slower than the average car, right? Hmm. Maybe not. Has it got a battering ram on the front? Move over a little when it wants to overtake on a blind bend, otherwise it will tailgate you in a quite unnerving way so that you’re quite scared of braking in case it hits you.
  3. Watch out for people overtaking you because you carry some of the responsibility for them. Well, I kinda felt I did. If a car is overtaking you and another vehicle is oncoming you need to slow down to let them slot back in, or at least move over a little to the left.
  4. Outside a town and faced with motorbikes? Motorbikes in Uganda don’t qualify as the same level of vehicle as a car or truck or bus. They occupy the bit of the road nearest the verge and rarely go as fast as a car. We’re not talking the sports bikes zooming past you in the outside lane on the motorway. Generally, bikes will move over to let a car past. Be careful though, they’re often loaded with people or goods and might zig zag a bit as you pass.
  5. Inside a town and faced with motorbikes? Okay, different rules apply. Motorbikes will keep pace and swarm around your car. Watch your mirrors before you make any sudden movements and go slow. Also, a good tip is when making a turn across a busy lane of oncoming traffic, you can’t really wait for a decent gap, you’ll be there all day. Slooooowllly, slooooowly make the turn. The bikes will go around you (a similar thing happens in Vietnam). Eventually, most of the bikes are going behind your car and you can make your turn.

I think they’re the main points. As I said before, I don’t want to paint too negative an image here of driving in Uganda. What I would like to say is that everyone was pretty chilled, despite the chaos seen through the eyes of a bloke from England. No one got pissed off at my ‘foreigner’ driving. No one honked at me other than to tell me they were passing. No one even seemed to mind that I was slow to overtake because I was waiting ‘until it is safe to do so’ (The Highway Code).

Driving off the road (often in national parks)

Now technically, I didn’t drive off-road. I was always on a road…but I think if it was a road in England it would be an off-road road. I actually found these really fun to drive on as it was my first time in a 4WD. The plus point here was the traffic was exceptionally light, but the massive holes and ruts and were more frequent. Go slow and try not to run over a python (as I almost did).

Road in Lake Mburo National Park on our Ugandan road trip
Road on the way to the gate for Lake Mburo National Park

Finally, a real tyre problem

So we were doing so well….and then we were one day from driving back to Entebbe after nearly two weeks of our road trip in Uganda, driving around Lake Mburo National Park with a guide we’d hired from the National Park Office.

We pulled up by another car by a watering hole and the guide spoke to the guy in the other car who told him our front left tyre was looking a bit low pressure. Yes, one of the tyres no one had told us was a problem. Okay, I agreed I’d check the pressures when I got out of the park and we went back to our lodge at Leopard Rest Camp for lunch.

After a leisurely lunch, we went back to the car for an afternoon safari drive….but it wasn’t to be. The tyre was completely flat. So we dragged out the jack and settled down to change the tyre…

Well, we would have changed the tyre. But I couldn’t loosen the nuts and I fell at the first hurdle. I jumped on the tyre iron and kicked it, but it wouldn’t budge. So I swallowed my pride and did what any gentleman would do…..and sent Kate to ask for help.

So along came Dennis, our wildlife guide from the previous evening, and a friend of his. To my relief they struggled to loosen the nuts too. It took both of them to turn the iron and then they settled down to take over the whole tyre changing process. “No, no.” I mumbled, “I’ll take it from here…” …but they insisted.

Then the second problem occurred. With both of them turning the crank they still couldn’t get the jack high enough to lift the car. They resorted to sticking planks of wood under and eventually the tyre was changed. I thanked them and also paid them for helping. It was really nice of them.

Obviously, having seen the problems with the jack and the nuts I was just thankful it had happened where it had and not in a national park with lions or on a steep hill climb in the middle of nowhere.

Our car in Lake Mburo National Park
You wouldn’t want to get a flat tyre out here

So, what next? Back to the tyre centre. We needed the original tyre repairing and putting back on and after calling Self Drive Uganda, our rental company we agreed we’d head to the nearest garage.

Well, the guys at the tyre centre were very helpful. They sorted the wheel and had a chat to us about our travels and football. But guess what? Two other tyres also needed repairing. A full set of valves were needed apparently.

Now, I was fine getting the burst tyre fixed, but I wasn’t happy to get all tyres serviced. We called the rental company, who were very suspicious about the whole situation. Eventually, Eddie at our car rental company said not to do anything yet, but to wait for his local mechanic to come and help. He was already on his way.

Within a surprisingly swift 5 minutes, a car pulled into the forecourt and 2 guys jumped out of it smiling. They shook us both by the hand and then went to speak to the tyre techs. A brief period of discussion followed while our new visitors walked around the car. Then, one of them came back to smile and say ‘It’s okay now, everything seems fine. You can go’. The tyre techs looked sheepish.

We asked if we needed to pay for the first repair. We were told everything was taken care of. So off we went… with no further tyre issues. Another case of sudden ‘tourist problems’? Maybe. It seems this time though, our Ugandan car rental company had our backs and I was impressed by how fast they got someone to us in a far off town, a long way from Kampala.

Just one more thing to consider…

Three vehicles in a Ugandan national park while we were on a Ugandan self drive trip
People on guided tours in Uganda had these huge vehicles with pop up tops, but we still got great views in our little Rav 4

The old bill

Now, obviously I entirely respect the police force anywhere in the world, but I had heard stories about cops stopping you, taking your driving licence and saying you’d have to collect it from a local station several days later. Not very helpful when you’re on a strict schedule. So I was a bit wary.

This wariness wasn’t helped by the numerous police checkpoints on the roads throughout our route. Sometimes these seemed to involve single blokes in white uniforms standing by the side of the road. On other occasions it involved a few cops similarly attired and a few others carrying machineguns.

Then there were the heavy – duty checkpoints with big spiked tyre-wrecking contraptions and a similar consignment of officers as the last one mentioned. Usually, I passed through unhindered, hoping I wasn’t waved over, but on a few occasions, I think they may have gestured for me to stop. This was usually when there were no other cars on the road and I was an open target. As we drew near, a police officer standing on the road verge would raise their hand. That’s all.

Did that mean stop..? I didn’t and nothing happened. There was no high speed pursuit, no one opened fire and I was allowed to leave the country at the end of the holiday. I really don’t know if I broke the law there or not. Obviously, had the police officer stepped into the road and halted me I would have pulled over, but it wasn’t that clear. I was hoping if they pulled me over later I would plead ignorance.

If any Ugandan cops are reading this now and thinking ‘I remember you!!!’, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise for my lawlessness, but the outcome wasn’t really Smoky and the Bandit.

As a side note, I was carrying a photocopy of my licence too in the hope that I could fob any cops off with it if I was stopped. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if a gentle wave from a man with a gun means ‘please pull over’ or ‘Hello! Enjoy your holiday!’

So that just about sums it up. If you choose to do a self-drive in Uganda I would say you’ll have a fun time. Don’t go too fast. Keep your wits about you. Enjoy the scenery, but watch the road and keep an eye on your tyres.

Have you done a self drive Uganda trip? How was your experience? Tell us in the comments

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Read more of our posts on our Uganda road trip.

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