Parks in Uganda: The Pearl of Africa
Brief Overview of Uganda
North of Lake Victoria sits Uganda, one of the fertile, sempiternal verdant and interesting countries of Eastern Africa. It is a beautiful land with grassy plains, rolling hills and dark mountains. Its best soil is of a rich red. There are hills of fine pasture, thick forests filled with big game, swamps choked with papyrus reeds in which hippos are found, and other regions where the grass is 10 feet in height. There are vast patches of meadow land, dotted with groves of beautiful trees, and dotted here and there with villages about which are thriving farms. Uganda lies almost in the middle of Africa and the Equator runs it as does in Kenya. It occupies only a small part of the continental map, about 241,037 km2 – with a north-south extent of 650 km and east-west extent of about 500 km – yet, few countries belong so vibrantly to the continent’s fertile block, where the entire area is virtually evergreen and flourishing. The first impression on the visitor to Uganda is how green everything is. Its climate, thanks to the altitude, is unexpectedly pleasant, the mean temperature rarely rising above 29 Celsius or 85 Fahrenheit. Uganda forms part of the interior plateau of Africa, with an average altitude of 1,200 m (4,000 feet). There are vast open plains in the north and flat-topped hills in the central, western and eastern regions of the country. The rise of the plateau both in the east and west creates mountains along the borders; Block Mountains of the Rwenzori, Mufumbira, Mount Elgon, Moroto, Morungole, Timu and Kadam. Excellent roads are some of the main features of Uganda. Travelling through Kampala – its largest – the scenery varies from the scenic hills of the capital to the rolling savannah of Mityani and Mubende, and then on to Fort Portal, set in much more open country, with the epic backdrop of the Mountains of the Moon, where many of its parks are cited. Among the variety of attraction in Uganda are its National Parks. Rwenzori, as a cool, moist island rising from the dry tropical plains, has encouraged the development of a unique variety of animals and plants, including many endemic species. Keen motorists who decide to drive up into Uganda from Kenya (it is 667 kms from Nairobi to Kampala) now travel on good roads all the way through fine scenery.
Map of the National Parks in Uganda
Discover the National Parks in Uganda
1. Kidepo Valley National Park
It is one of Uganda’s earliest established National Park. Kidepo Valley National Park expands over 500 km2 of the northern part of the Karamoja District, along the boundary with Sudan, and it was opened to the public in December, 1965. It is approachable from Kampala by a 210 kms drive along the tarmac to Tororo, and then an excursion of a little over 320 kms, through Mbale and Moroto. In a country that is rapidly developing, well laid with growing towns and farmlands, this region of Uganda is still untouched by development. It is a country of rich fertile valleys and vast plains, which are the kingdom of the elephant, buffalo and lion. Among the variety of attractions of the Kidepo Valley National Park is the spectacular display of wildlife which currently features almost 75 species of mammals and 470 species of birds. Its wealth of wildlife was the main reason for the area to be declared a National Park. Among the species not found in any other park in Uganda include eland, greater and lesser kudu, klipspringer, dik-dik, Bright’s gazelle, roan antelope and Chanler’s mountain reedbuck. Perhaps the outstanding vista at Kidepo Valley National Park is the self-same valley, a wide basin lying at altitude of between 3,000 feet and 4,000 feet, with the hills surrounding it rising to almost 6,000 feet and the Morongole Mountain soars up to 9,000 feet. This remarkable variation in the altitude over a small area has pieced itself as one of the most epic landscapes in Uganda. Formerly the haunt of Sudanese Didinga cattle raiders and rebels, who from time to time swooped into Uganda on cattle rustling raids, this remote typically Africa bushland has a lot to offer, both in fine scenery and in presenting nature at its least disturbed stage. The park itself gets its name from the Kidepo River, which is several yards wide in many places, mainly dry for most of the year, and is reduced to mere sand and pebbles, with only Borassus palms which line its entire length reminding the visitor that it is a great river basin. Then comes the rains, the many tributaries are quick to react, and within a few hours the basin is full and overflowing, the Kidepo is unbridgeable and the might rush of water is magical. Then within hours the water disappears into Sudan, or sinks beneath the sand and black cotton soil, leaving nothing behind but moistened sand and pebbles.
2. Mount Elgon National Park
On the eastern border of Uganda – with Kenya – rises the 14,000 feet Mount Elgon, a vast extinct volcano with a base of 80 kms across. The Ugandan part of the park covers 1,110 km2 while the Kenyan part covers 169 km2. The Kenyan part of the park was gazetted in 1968, the Ugandan part in 1992. In Kenya, all the forests and the mountain section above 8,000 feet contour is protected. If the Mbale Route is used to hike Mount Elgon on the western side, in Uganda, hikers take the Soroti Road to Budadiri and the usual launching point. Climbers wishing to use Uganda or the Mbale route should contact the Mountain Club of Uganda, for latest information on the condition of the huts, porters and for hut booking. From Bumagabula a path leads in 5-6 hours to the Uganda Mountain Club Hut, Sasa Hut. From here it is a further 5-6 hours to Wagagai, the highest summit. The alternative route up Mount Elgon on the Uganda side is through Bukalisi – about 34 kms south of Budadiri. From here it is a poor steep road via the Sasa River Trail to Bumasola, almost 6 kms away. This travels over a rough underfoot. It is possible to drive to the southern edge of Bumasola and launch from there. From here the trail goes past “Wall of Death” and “Mudange Cliff” to Sasa River Camp, 5-6 hours away. The next morning the path is followed up the valley to the Mude Cave Camp passing the Jackson Springs and Jackson’s Summit and into a small valley with tarns and amazing pine flora, and Wagagai.
3. Murchison Falls National Park
As Uganda gathers up all its streams to originate River Nile, first through Lake Victoria – Africa’s largest and at 68,800 km2 almost the size Ireland – it forges the interconvertible river of Africa, in places 100m wide of rushing water with deadly rapids, that makes a brief stop at Lake Albert 99 km north of Murchison. And when the Nile reaches the Murchison Falls 370 kms north of Lake Victoria, it creates one of the most astounding and remarkable waterfalls on planet earth. The 50m river is squeezed through a 7 m kazaam, creating the most powerful waterfalls on the planet. Kabalega or Kabarega in the local dialect, it tumbles 43 m in series of three cascades, at a rate of 300,000 litres a second. Unimaginably wild and loud, creating a breathtaking spectacle and spreading sprinkles of rain when seen from the top of the fall, it is traditionally viewed via a boat ride. It is a wonder of Africa best seen to be believed. A superb genuflect and a gateway to a wild world ahead on the long stretch across the desert to the Mediterranean. Originally gazetted as the Bunyoro and Gulu Wildlife Reserve in 1926 and re-established in 1952 as Murchison Falls National Park, it is Uganda’s oldest and largest National Park. Most travellers reach it by way of a 282 kms drive north from Kampala where the park road branches off from the main Kampala-Gulu road, many making Masindi Hotel boasting of a nine-golf course the jumping-off place. It is further further 86 kms from Masindi Hotel to the parks entrance.
4. Toro Semliki Valley Wildlife Reserve
At the southern end of Lake Albert, north of Queen Elizabeth National Park, sits the 542 km2 Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve. This is an expanse of rolling plains, swampland, steep forested slopes, wooded rivers and an exceptional display of wildlife. The fact that the Reserve lies between the Rwenzori Mountain, Kijura Escarpment and Lake Albert, on the floor of a dramatic valley, should suggest that the landscape is as exceptional in sights as it is in ecological diversity. “The dominant vegetation type is the open acacia-combretum woodland and grassy savannah, interspersed with patches of Borassus palm forest, significant belts of riparian woodland along the main watercourses as well as an extensive swamps towards Lake Albert” – UWA. The variety of wildlife at Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve is considerable, and some unusual animals can be seen, including the pygmy elephant – the forest elephant of Congo. There are abounding numbers of the Ugandan kob as well as lion, hippo, giant forest hog, leopard and a large variety of buck and monkeys. The bird life is exceptional too, harbouring almost 440 bird species like Red-necked falcon, Black-billed Barbet and the turkey like Abyssinian Ground-hornbill. The rare Shoebill, humorously known as the most terrifying bird – a title arising from its enormous prehistoric shoe-shaped bill – can be sighted in the marshes of Lake Albert. With only an estimated 200 left in the wilds of Uganda, this endangered large stork-like bird standing about 4 feet tall clad in gray with broad wings and long legs, makes its home in the marshes about Lake Albert. Using Kampala as the starting off place, it’s about 290 km to Mubende via Fort Portal. Follow the route to Semuliki National Park from Fort Portal for the first 28 km before turning right at Karugutu trading centre. The reserve boundary is 3 km further on and the turn off to Semliki Safari Lodge is 26 km further, just beyond the bridge over the River Wasa. Branch to the right 3 km to the Lodge. Lake Albert is further on 25 km ahead at the Ntoroko village.
5. Semuliki National Park
Across from the Semliki Valley National Reserve, 64 km from Fort Portal – the jumping off place for the Rwenzoris – is the Semliki Lodge, which was opened in 1966. In a bid to attract tourists, the Uganda Government set up a series of National Parks and Reserves in the early 1990’s. The 220 km2 Semuliki Forest Reserve was established in 1932 and re-established in 1993 as a National Park. The variety of wildlife is considerable, hosting 53 mammal species and almost 400 recorded bird species. It can be reached quite easily, and game guards are usually available to take visitors to its spectacular attraction at the bottom of the Semliki Valley. Once on the valley, on the western side of the Rwenzori, the marked parkways wind and twist through the great Ituri Forest of the Congo Basin. “This is one of Africa’s most ancient and bio-diverse forests; one of the few to survive the last ice age, 12-18,000 years ago”. Semuliki’s fame lies in its plenitude of birds, its beautiful scenery and its series of fumaroles and hot springs. The water gushing forth is hot enough to be dangerous at very close quarters but creates a rather splendid natural wonder. For those patient and brave enough to navigate through its 13 km trail, with a raised boardwalk on the wetland sector of the park, there’s a good chance of sighting assorted antelopes.
6. Rwenzori Mountains National Park
Rwenzori Mountains, spectacularly titled the “Mountains of the Moon”, unlike the other lofty mountains of East Africa, are of the Fold System. Their sobriquet answers the quality of being visible from great distances, as the mist-shrouded mountains of this rugged massif tower almost 4,000 m above the Albertine Rift Valley. The Rwenzori Mountains National Park covers nearly 100,000 ha or 1,000 km2 in Kasese District in western Uganda and comprises the main part of the Rwenzori, which includes Africa’s third highest peak. This fabled chain of mountains – 120 kms long and 65 kms wide – could rightfully be christened as a miniature Alps. The highest summit is Point Margherita (5,109 metres) on the Shanley massif, and is an ice climb in which ropes and ice axes are needed. Very little of the range has been fully explored, and there is an abundance of high rocks and ice faces, which have not been touched by the climber. Impressively, the landscape is of stunning views of glaciers and snow-capped mountains just kilometres from the equator, where it is contiguous with the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The popular starting point, for the ascent of the range, is from the village of Bugoye in the Mokubu River Valley, about 56 kms south of Fort Portal, where porters can be obtained.
The first hut above Lake Bukuju can be reached from Bugoye in a three days’ walk. This is a Mountain Club of Uganda hut and stands at an altitude of 12,600 feet, and this is the base for the ascents. There are two immediate huts, one at Ninnyabutaba, and another at Nyamalaju, at 10,600 feet, so that it is possible to reach the snows of the Rwenzori without camping. The main peaks of Stanley, Speke, Baker, Margharita and Alexandra, are served with mountain huts. For the walker, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park has many picturesque foot paths, which meander through a fascinating prehistoric world of fetching giant vegetation, forest of heather. For the non-climber, Rwenzori provide a very fine walking experience. There is a route that goes up the Mobuku River Valley to Lake Bujuku using the Mountains Club of Uganda each night. From Bujuku the route goes over the Scott-Elliot Pass to Lake Kitandara Hut. This is known as one of the most beautiful hideouts in Africa. In 1994, the landscape of Rwenzori Mountains National Park was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site owing to its impressive and pristine landscape of alpine vegetation. Because of their altitudinal range, and the nearly constant low temperatures, humidity and high isolation, the Rwenzori Mountains support the richest montane-flora in Africa.
Rwenzori Mountains: The Highest Source of the Nile
Stretching further than any other river on the planet, the mighty Nile flows for 6,650 kms from the equator across North Africa to the Mediterranean. It is to Africa what the Amazon is to South America and the Mississippi to America; an invaluable lifeline. For thousands of years the source of the Nile was a mystery to explorers. It had given rise to one of the greatest civilizations, in Egypt, and early philosophers like Ptolemy wrote of it as having its source in the legendary ‘Mountains of the Moon’. Suitably equipped and fortified, explorers, one after another, failed to find its source. The most forbidding barrier, many wrote, was the Sudd Swamp (or the Bahr al Jabal) in the mid-north area of South Sudan. Expanding over 130,000 km2 and the world’s largest freshwater wetland, in a region still largely untouched by the tourist and by civilization, it was infallibly indomitable. But undaunted, explorers would overcome the ‘Sudd’ to reach the magnificent Rwenzori Mountains: The highest source of River Nile. Extending north–south for almost 110 km and east–west for about 65 km along the border between western Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, the Rwenzoris are made up of six separate mountains rising over 4,500 m asl – Stanley (5,109 m), Speke (4,889 m), Baker (4,842 m), Gessi (4,715 m), Emin (4,791 m) and Luigi di Savoia (4,626 m). Over millions of years, they have been sculpted by the growth of glaciers, resulting in many lakes, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Rising gradually from the highland plains of Uganda, the mountains fall steeply on the west to the Semliki River, the outflow of Lake Edward and an important tributary of Lake Albert, one of the sources of the White Nile. The heavy rainfall together with the melting of glaciers from the peaks provides a major source of water into the Nile River. Accordingly, the range is often claimed to be the most important source of the Nile. The Victoria Nile and Lake Victoria contribute far more water than the Rwenzoris, and the tributaries of the Kagera River, which flows into Lake Victoria, reach considerably further south from the mouth of the Nile. Other important freshwater bodies in the White Nile drainage include Lakes Kyoga, Albert, Edward and George. Yet, the Rwenzoris are certainly the highest source of the great Nile River, and, in all respects, the most spectacular.
7. Kibale National Park and Reserve
The Kibale National Park is 795 km2 in extent, comprising one of the largest and best-kept tropical forests in Uganda as well as some grassland sections and riverine, and is within easy reach of Queen Elizabeth National Park, Semliki Valley Wildlife Reserve and Semuliki National Park. It is connected to Queen Elizabeth National Park in the south via a long and narrowed 180 kms long wildlife corridor – between Ishasha, the remote southern location of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Sebitoli in the north of Kibale National Park – that is demarcated as the Kibale National Reserve. Originally gazetted as a forest reserve in 1932 and upgraded in 1993 to National Park status, it contains the high-standing chimpanzees of Uganda that are the biggest crowd pullers of the thirteen primate species thriving here. Kibale is also home to about 70 other mammals and over 350 bird species. 351 tree species have been recorded in the park, some rise to over 55m and are over 200 years old. Were it not for the huge vistas that can only be Africa, the high diversity of the Kibale Forest would be difficult to equate with the tropics. The crispness and coolness of bright days, the rolling morning mist and drizzle on others, seem much more a product of the temperate zone. The Park is highest on the northern tip, at 1,590m (5,216 feet), falling southerly to the lowest point at 1,100m (3,608 feet) on the floor of the Albertine Rift Valley, south. Having offered the chimpanzee trekking tours, other activities at the Park include: The Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kihingami Wetland; exploring the crater lake; and cultural passages into the tribal villages.
8. Lake Mburo National Park
In area, this is about 370 km2. Lake Mburo National Park is situated in the lake district of Uganda on altitudes between 1,220 and 1,820 m above sea level, and almost one fifth of the park is considered wetland. The fact that the park lies on the highway that connects Kampala to the highland region in the southwestern makes this a useful stop for travellers. It sits astride a complex of swamplands and Lake Mburo suggest that wildlife is thriving in the area. “Together with 13 other lakes in the area, Lake Mburo forms part of a 50 km-long wetland system linked by attractive swamps. Five of these lakes lie within the park’s borders. Once covered largely by open savanna, Lake Mburo National Park now contains much woodland as there are no elephants to tame the thriving vegetation. In the western part of the park, the savanna is interspersed with rocky ridges and forested gorges while patches of papyrus swamp and narrow bands of calico lush riparian woodland line many lakes” – UWA. At Mbarara, on the road from Kampala, Entebbe and Masaka, just 50 kms from the entrance to Lake Mburo National Park, there is a choice of three roads, running southerly to Kigezi, west to Bunyenyi then north to the Queen Elizabeth National Park, and northerly through Ibanda and Kamwenge to Kibale National Park. If you follow the road toward Kigezi region en route Kabale you will find yourself climbing towards Kigezi. 10 kms before Kikagati, there is a unique attraction. On an island in the middle of the Kagera River, there is a long-standing lodge with superb garden, which attracts ornithologists, anthropologists and fishermen from the world over. The island itself, reached by a bucket lift across the river, is sacred to the Ankole Tribe. It was there that the legendary kings took refuge in time of war against the Batoro, and there that they hid their sacred regalia and mementos including sacred drums which were symbols of kingship. On the way to Kikigati, and onwards to the plains of the Western Ankole, the climb gets steeper, it gets cooler and greener and the scenery is rather spectacular, the road switching back through pine forest. Nearby is Lake Bunyonyi. Kigezi is, of course, home of the Birunga Range and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where the amazing mountain gorilla can be sighted. This region is also home to the Lake District of Uganda where travellers would be interested to visit Lakes Edward and George.
Is the smallest of Uganda’s savannah national parks and underlain by ancient Precambrian metamorphic rocks which date back more than 500 million years. It is home to 350 bird species as well as zebra, impala, eland, buffalo, oribi, Defassa waterbuck, leopard, hippo, hyena and topi.
9. Queen Elizabeth National Park
One of the popular National Parks in Uganda is the Queen Elizabeth National Park on the western border of Uganda, which includes large portions of Lakes Edward and George, and the picturesque chain of crater lakes which lie beneath the slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park. Along the shores of Lake Edward are to be seen significant herds of elephant, buffalo and scores of hippo, wallowing in the shallows. In the southern quarter of the park is also an equally impressive display of wildlife, among them topi, in their thousands, Ugandan Kob, and the famous tree climbing lions of Uganda – who use the low and leafy branches of the fig trees for shade during the heat of the day, and as a lookout over their hunting domain. At the southern corner of the Park, bordering the littorals of Lakes George and Edward, connected by the Kazinga Channel, is an explosion of birdlife and an enormous concentration of hippo. In this part of the Park, visitors pass through Maramagambo Forest, which is a chimpanzee sanctuary, and also contains a variety of other primates including baboons and colobus monkeys. At the western side of the Park, among the foothills of the Rwenzoris, are picturesque volcanic craters. Queen Elizabeth National Park is a 437 kms drive from Kampala via Masaka and Mbarara. Visitors may stay at the Mweya Safari Lodge, Engiri Game Lodge and Campsite, Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, Engazi Game Lodge, among numerous well cited establishments nearby.
10. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
This park, one of the smallest in the country, covers an area of some 331 km2 of the vast dense forests at Northern Kigezi, which is found between the developed region of southern Kigezi and Queen Elizabeth National Park. It lies 480 kms southwest of Kampala, and part of it runs fairly near Virunga National Park and the boundary with the Democratic Republic of Congo at the southwest corner of Uganda. A quicker alternative is by flying into Kigali in Rwanda then motoring four hours northerly to Kasese District in Uganda. Bwindi has been made from highland montane forests brought about during the formation of the western branch of the Rift Valley (the Albertine Rift) where high trees – over 30 meters – completely block the sunlight from reaching the ground. Although the edges of the forest have many bushes, the inner sections do not contain these bushes because there’s no sunlight. The present park was gazetted in 1991, and is being actively developed. Originally before becoming a park, it was a popular hunting area, and is still one of the best wildlife areas in East Africa. It was inscribed in 1993 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional biodiversity, with more than 160 species of trees and over 100 species of ferns. Many varieties of birds and butterflies can also be found here, as well as endangered species, like the mountain gorilla. It is the gorilla trekking expeditions that are the biggest attraction. According to a 2011 census, Bwindi has over 400 mountain gorillas, which visitors to the park can sight for an hour by way of trekking through the forests. It costs USD 600 for the gorilla tracking expedition. In addition, for the devoted conservationist, one can take part in the extended Gorilla Habituation, joining the researchers on a four hours expedition, that costs USD 1,500. Other wildlife in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park include almost 120 mammal species, 360 bird species and 200 butterfly species. The forests itself has almost 300 species of trees. Some of the accommodation options include the Rushaga Gorilla Camp, Gorilla Mist Camp, Nshongi Camp and the Matana Tented Camp.
11. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
A short drive from Kabale, the main township in the southern area of Uganda, brings one to the Kanaba’s Gap, 8,000 ft. above sea level. From this point the view is breathtaking. At one’s feet a steep slope falls away into the valley and in the distance the giant volcanic peaks with tuneful names, Muhavura, Mgahinga and Sabinyo, rise 13,000 ft. sheer out of the green plain and limpid blue lakes. At the southwestern corner of Uganda bordering the DRC, along the footslopes of Muhavura (4,127 m), Mgahinga (3,474 m) and Sabinyo (3,645 m) mountains, sits the 33 km2 Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and the smallest in the country. This Park is a part of the Virunga Conservation Area that spreads over Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is perhaps the most beautiful of all the parks in Uganda, against the backdrop of the the pleasing conical mountains, and almost a guaranteed success for those wishing to spot the rare mountain gorilla. In the flat terrain on the way to the forests, these great volcanic bumps have a certain aura of romance about them, making this area more scenic than faunal and a memorable goal for long afternoon’s hiking expedition. The trail up the higher reaches of the park, to find the epic gorillas hardly deters the anxious travellers. The walking is amazing provided in good weather, and there are several low level beauty spots to visit, such as waterfalls. It gets steeper, but it is worth it as the scenery and views are superb. The trail passes through thick forest containing gigantic trees before ending up in the health, and with some anxiety mixed with trepidation it’s a look out for the gem of the forest – the mountain gorilla. Named ‘Sokwe’ in Swahili, the mountain gorilla is the world’s largest ape, represented in East Africa by a few families which inhabit south-west Uganda. Led by a male who will weigh about 200 kgs, these small groups roam over the higher slopes feeding mainly on wild celery and bamboo. Though terribly powerful they are peaceful and retiring by nature.