Nubian culture, banana beer, and gorillas
During an 11-day whirlwind tour, we saw breathtaking scenery, observed mountain gorillas in the wild, learned about Uganda culture, and met warm, hospitable people.
In 2011 Lori started volunteering with a tourism NGO in Kampala, Community Based Tourism Initiative (COBATI). She was looking to use her web design skills for something good and COBATI was looking to redesign their website. Since then, Lori has worked with Executive Director Maria Baryamujura to launch the new website and start a Facebook page. So it was a no-brainer that Uganda would be on our world trip itinerary. Lori was so excited to meet Maria and see Uganda.
Kampala is a large, busy city – bigger and busier than we imagined (Maria had advised us about the traffic). The first day we visited COBATI’s office to meet the staff and talk a little business. We are planning to move the website to a content management system (WordPress) so the staff can maintain the content. Then we took a one hour drive to visit Bombo Village, part of COBATI’s tourism program. See the Bombo post >
The next day, we took off on a nine-day road trip through southern Uganda. Maria loaned us her four wheel drive vehicle and arranged an experienced driver, Joseph. She met us mid-way in Mbarara and introduced us to some of the families in the COBATI program. The roads in many parts of Uganda can be challenging. There are some paved highways, but many of the best places to visit are only accessible through narrow, winding, muddy, bumpy, off-road roads. When visiting remote destinations, we’ve typically taken a small plane, which you can do in Uganda. But we would have missed out on some incredible scenery and a chance to really see the southern part of the country.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
The first leg to Queen Elizabeth National Park was one of the longest. We drove west from Kampala along a paved road. After a while, the landscape changed and we saw wetlands and then large, bright green hills dotted with tea farms and villages. After a stop in the town of Fort Portal for a snack at Fort Portal Gardens Restaurant, we turned south and drove through a really scary rainstorm. As we got close, we saw our first Ugandan wildlife – an elephant family in the bushes just off the main road. As we drove through the park, we saw antelope and warthog. The approach to Mweya Safari Lodge is stunning. It is a long, narrow road that crosses over the Kazinga Channel, and then you see the lodge up on the hill.
During our stay, we went on two game drives in our vehicle with Joseph. Game drives in Uganda national parks are different than the drives we went on in Tanzania and South Africa. Visitors are not permitted to drive off road, so this limits the wildlife viewing. On the first day we barely exited the gate and saw a group of mongoose scrounging by the gas station. They were obviously used to people because Michael walked up right next to them to take photos and they didn’t seem to care. During the game drives we saw buffalo, antelope, and lion. On one drive, we ended up at a dead end by the riverbank where we saw a small village with muddy roads, makeshift homes, and free roaming livestock. On the way back, we got a close up view of an elephant family that was munching on trees and decided to cross the road right in front of us.
An evening boat ride on the Kazinga Channel between Lake Edward and Lake George gave us a different view of the wildlife. We saw crocodiles, buffalo soaking in the water, elephant, deer, hippo, monkey, a baboon family with baby, and lots of interesting birds. The guide also told us about the people who live inside the park. There were eleven fishing villages when the area was made a national park. They were allowed to say if they agreed not to fish in the channel, kill park animals, and expand the size of the village more than 20%. In exchange, the village gets a share of the park revenue.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Gorilla Trek
We were very excited about the next stop – the highly anticipated gorilla trek. The drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is mostly off road. We drove south along the border of Congo and saw baboons and other wildlife along the way. The distance was shorter than the first leg, but the drive was tougher. In the local language (Lukiga), Bwindi means impenetrable, and for good reason. This World Heritage Site is in a remote hilly area with valleys and streams and lots of vegetation.
Gorillas are an endangered species. There are roughly 750 gorillas in the wild; half are in Uganda. Gorillas live in families; each family group has a last name and each member has a first name. The Uganda Wildlife Authority controls and manages all gorilla trekking activities in Uganda. There is one trek per day to observe each family with only eight trekkers (plus staff). When the group locates the gorilla family, they may only observe for one hour. We applied for a permit several months before the trip and were assigned to the Rushegura family.
On the morning of the trek, we met at the park for orientation before setting out with the guide, two armed guards, and several porters. The hotel packs lunch and lots of water in case the trek lasts all day. You can hire a porter to carry your gear, which we highly recommend. They will also give you a hand when crossing narrow walkways over streams or going up/down steep spots. The park sends out trackers early in the morning to get things started. We hiked for one hour up steep, slick hillsides (it rained the night before) and over streams, and then we saw them. The group was close to town and feasting on a villager’s banana plantations. It seems like the gorillas are accustomed to people being nearby, and they did not pay much attention to us. But a few looked over from time to time and walked close by on the way to knock down a fresh banana tree. We saw the immense silverback, Mwirima, and adorable baby. When we left, the park staff and villagers planned to scare the gorillas away from the plantation.
We were lucky to have good weather and a short hike on our gorilla trek. There was a couple at our lodge who went the following day. It took six hours of hiking to find the gorillas, and it rained that day.
Next we headed northeast to Mbarara, which took about 3.5 hours over paved and unpaved roads. We spent two days with Maria in her home town where we met three COBATI families, visited Eden International School, checked out the Igongo Cultural Center, and learned how to make banana beer.
The first night, we stayed at Lake View Resort Hotel, one of the bigger hotels in the town. It is a full-service hotel with a restaurant, bar, pool, gym/tennis, and nice lake view. The hotel is in a very convenient location if you are passing through Mbarara on your way to / from the national parks. The next night we stayed at the newest COBATI homestead, Rwebishuri. This homestead is different than the others in that it is more like a holiday home / self-catering and you will have the house to yourself. It is a great option for families and groups because there are several bedrooms and even a separate cottage if needed. There is also a huge covered patio with a great view.
The Katanywa family hosts travelers for day and overnight visits at their home. They own a herd of Ankole long horned cow and have preserved the family’s traditional milk hut, platform, and milk pots (ebyanzi). The milk hut is the ladies’ place – it is the location where they make yogurt and clean the milk pots by smoking them. We got to try the fresh milk and yogurt from their cows. Michael loved the smoky flavor from the milk pots and thinks the milk would be great for cooking. It was really interesting to learn about this aspect of Ugandan culture.
We received an incredible welcome at the Kahima home! When we drove up, we were greeted by singers from the Masheruka Women’s Drama and Craft Group. After a welcome drink made from millet, called obushera, Betty gave Lori two homemade necklaces, which she loved. We toured the homestead, which includes a new house, the old house (where adult kids have rooms), in-laws old house (where villagers now live), and Betty’s clinic. The family grows sugar cane, coffee, avocado and has chickens, pigs, and cows. They compost cow dung to make gas for cooking.
Betty offers valuable medical services to the local women, especially those with HIV because they still face a stigma in the community. She started the clinic in 1985 after retiring and it has grown from one room in her home to a separate multi room facility. Some women make appointments and some just come by. Betty offers family planning, medical, and midwife services (she does five deliveries per month).
During our visit, Betty took us to a nearby banana plantation where we met beer maker Olive Kasande. The ladies from the Masheruka Women’s Drama and Craft Group came along and sang wonderful songs as we watched the process to make banana beer. See video and photos in the post, Banana beer making in Uganda >
We also had a big buffet lunch and relaxed for a while. Before we left, Betty presented us with another gift – a handmade basket with our names woven into the pattern!
Eden International School
Maria’s brother started the school in 2005 and Maria sits on the board of directors. Eden is a private boarding school for boys and girls age 12 – 18 on a beautiful campus. The students come from Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania. The school provides classroom education, a computer lab, sports, and extra-curricular clubs.
Dick Kajugira and his wife Diana host travelers for day and overnight visits at their home. Dick is a retired army captain, Diana does beautiful handcrafts, and they have six adult children. The family has lived in their home for 40 years, and rebuilt house two years ago. They have cows, from which they sell milk, and goats at another location that is better for grazing. Dick showed us their milk hut, which had a collection of family pots and beaded sticks used to carry pots (people were traditionally nomads). Diana uses the space to do crafts and will give beading lessons to visitors.
From Mbarara, we drove east for several hours to reach Lake Mburo National Park where we had a short, accidental game drive and overnight at a lodge with an awesome view. The reason for the accidental game drive is that we thought the hotel was inside the park and spent time driving around looking for it, when it was actually a few miles outside the park gate. When we explained the error, the park would not refund the entrance fees we had just paid… But we did get to see some beautiful zebra. Due to an early departure the following morning, we didn’t have time to see the lake or enjoy the park. This is a spot where we should have stayed longer.
Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
The final stop was Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe (Entebbe is near Kampala and is the location of the international airport). We left Lake Mburu early and drove east for five hours over paved roads. After a quick lunch, we were treated to a private tour of the Centre and then we stayed overnight at one of the guest bandas. We really liked Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, but wish we had another day there. By the time we arrived, we were tired from the drive and our flight to South Africa was very early the following morning. Read the post about all of the cool animals we met at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre >
Wanna see some photos?
Where we Stayed
- Kampala: Sheraton
- Queen Elizabeth National Park: Mweya Safari Lodge
- Bwindi National Park: Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp
- Mbarara: Lake View Resort Hotel and COBATI homestead Rwebishuri
- Lake Mburo: Rwakobo Rock
- Entebbe: Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
Uganda Travel Tips
Visa: Check the Visa requirements for your country. At the time of our visit, U.S. citizens needed a visa.
Health: Speak with a medical provider about vaccines and disease prevention, e.g., malaria.
Money: Cash in all leftover Shillings before you leave! We didn’t; and had a tough time exchanging them. In South Africa, we could not find a bank or change bureau that bought shillings. On the layover in Nairobi when we left South Africa en route to Europe, we were able to change the money. But we got scammed. The change bureau would not change Uganda Shillings to Euros. They would only change Uganda Shillings to Kenya Shillings and then change the Kenya Shillings to Euros. Of course, this involved a fee for each conversion. We lost a lot of money in the transactions – what a rip off! Had we gone home directly from Africa, we would have waited and tried to convert there, but we still had several months left in the trip.
Gorilla Trek Tips
Fitness: You don’t have to be an athlete, but you do need to be able to walk for an extended period up and down steep hills and over narrow stream crossings.
Planning: According to the staff at Sanctuary, the best months for a gorilla trek are July, August, and November. You must purchase a gorilla trek permit in advance and it is pricey (the cost is lower during the rainy season). You can get a permit from a tour operator or lodge.
Getting there: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is in southwestern Uganda, on the border of Rwanda – 530 kilometers from Kampala. You can get there by road (long drive on tough, but very scenic roads – four wheel vehicle necessary) or air (fly from Entebbe to Kisoro).
What to wear: Hiking shoes, long pants that you can walk up and down steep hills in, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt or jacket, hat (optional). In the rainy season: lightweight raincoat / poncho. Our lodge advised us to bring gloves, which they loaned us, but we didn’t need them.
Health: If you appear to be ill on the morning of the trek, the park staff will not let you go. This is to protect the health of the gorillas.