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Trip Report 3 weeks in Uganda - Our Experience

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In August 2011, we visited the string of National Parks in western Uganda, starting with Lake Byunyonyi, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Queen Elisabeth National Park including the Ishasha Sector, Kibale Rain Forest, Semliki National Park, Murchison Falls National Park including Budongo Forest and last but not least Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. This journey can leisurely be done in two weeks. Kidepo National Park in the north east we skipped, too remote and too expensive.
The third week, we crashed at the fabulous 2Friends Guesthouse in Jinja and used it as a base for numerous activities and outings, like walking to the source of the Nile, marveling at soon to - disappear Bujagali Falls and volunteering at Soft Power Education. Last but not least, we did some serious rafting over grade 5 Rapids on the Nile.
More Information: http://www.oneyearoff.net/countries-visited/africa/uganda/report/article/3-weeks-in-uganda-summary/

Tour operator, car rental or public transport?
All major cities in Uganda are connected by frequent bus services that travel mostly on paved roads, but this is not where and how the “Mzungos” travel. Reaching most Nationals Parks in reasonable time and above all, travelling within them requires private transport.
Would we use again the service of a tour operator to visit the National Parks in western Uganda? Probably not, but rent a car with a driver instead. Of course a tour operator gets better rates at the really expensive lodges in the National Parks, organizes your permits, knows the best lodges, no time is wasted with decision making and the drivers are very experienced.
But we simply missed the flexibility to stay and stop and yes, weigh the pros and cons of doing so. No matter how well you plan, some things pop along the road, like the fishing village of Butiaba or the Salt Garden at Kibero. It always seemed an annoyance to ask for these changes and extra miles. At times, it was simply impossible.
Worried about permits? Any company can get you a gorilla permit for an extra 50 USD fee (on top of the 500 USD, of course). On a short notice this might be challenging in the high season, but for one or two persons it is not impossible. Chimpanzee permits are much easier to get and can even be arranged at the park itself, without notice.
And of course, travelling during the high season requires a certain amount of planning unless you do not mind pitching a tent at the many camp sites, if certain lodges are booked.

Our tour operator - Katona Tours
As mentioned above, the trip itself went just smoothly. Communication while planning the trip was fast and seemed reliable. Their offer, 2.900 USD pp for a 14 day tailored private tour was the cheapest: 20% cheaper than the second best offer, Kazinga Tour. Actually Heidi used the later to get her gorilla permit in Rwanda - An extremely reliable company: we transferred too much money and it was sent back in no time.
As for other offers, some of the high end companies asked for no less than 6.500 USD for the same itinerary, often even shorter.
So we considered Katona as a good choice. But a few things really teed us off!
We had agreed on making a down payment of 1.500 USD and the rest to be paid by credit card in their Kampala office. Three days before we left for Uganda, they asked to bring the money in cash!
Once we had left Kampala, our driver presented an updated version of the itinerary. Without any explanation, one of the two planned game drives in the Ishasha Sector of Queen Elisabeth National Park was cancelled. Well, we did not see the Tree Climbing Lions…
At the end of the tour, they asked for an extra 23 USD for a detour of 50 (!) kilometers to a hospital to get Gilles eye checked. So very ungracious after paying a total of 5.800 USD for the whole tour.

Budget
Uganda, one of the poorest countries, is NOT cheap... IF you live and move in the tourist bubble that is difficult to avoid when visiting the National Parks in a reasonable time!
We chose the cheapest of the expensive options, a two week private tour for 2.900 USD per person for two weeks, including pretty much everything (transport, accommodation, three meals, all permits, park fees).
What makes such a trip so costly? Permits and park fees are a big chunk (gorilla permit 500 USD p.p., two Chimpanzee permits at 100 USD p.p. each, National Park fees 30 USD p.p. per day). Accommodation in the national parks is absurdly expensive or rock bottom. On top of that, distances are long and a gas sucking 4WD is necessary for many areas. The price for gasoline was 1.5 USD per liter at that time and yes, you burn an embarrassing lot.
If you throw in a day of rafting plus a photo CD, add another 150 USD, a few nights in the cozy 2 Friends Guesthouse in Jinja for 110 USD per night and you get the whole picture...
It never felt as if we were deliberately throwing money around, it just burned at an unbelievable pace! So we end up spending around 4.000 USD per person for 3 weeks, plus 1.000 USD for the flight. That makes it the most expensive trip we ever did.

Can you do it differently? Of course!
Concentrate on a few highlights near or on main bus routes, like Murchison Falls National Park, Budongo Forest for Chimp tracking or the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Then use local transport, like motor-bike taxis, for the final leg. No matter what, do not skip the mountain gorillas, they are too unique!
There are a few hostels / backpacker options around the main attractions, like Red Chilli in Kampala and Murchison Falls National Park or the Explorer Backpackers in Jinja.

When thinking of Uganda, this will always stay in our minds…
* Gentle and welcoming - The people of Uganda
* Relaxed - Nobody is pushing his wares and trying to sell you something at any cost. A simple “thank you” or gesture is enough.
* Pleasant - The weather and the fact that you have (almost) no mosquitoes. It was delightful!
* Delighted - Children getting excited over every “Mzungo” (foreigner / westerner) waving and screaming “Howareyou, howareyou?”
* Green - The landscape is so unbelievably green and lush.
* Rainy - We travelled in August, but there was not a single day or night without some kind of downpour.
* Skilled - Many crafts we saw are simply unbelievable. Several times we joked about filling a container and sending it home
* Overcrowded public transport - Up to 5 people on a motorbike, up to 11 people in a normal car, and we stopped counting on mini buses.
* Crazy - The traffic / pollution in Kampala and the way people generally drive.
* Mystical - Landscapes wrapped in the morning fog, then even Kampala displays a certain charm.

The highlights of the trip where:
* Mountain Gorillas in Biwindi Impenetrable National Park: spending one hour with the Habinyanja family and Makara, their silver backed master.
* Two year old Obama, the first White Rhinoceros born in Uganda after 26 years at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
* Fighting hippos and giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park.
* Chimpanzees, active and lazy at Kibale & Budongo Forest
* Strolling Bigodi Wetlands near Kibale
The boat ride along Lake Bunyonyi to visit the Batwa people
* The frontier town-feel in the fishing village of Butiaba
* Relaxing at the 2 Friends Guesthouse in Jinja
* Tumbling through grade 5 rapids on the Nile

A few things we would do differently:
* Pack warmer clothes! Travelling near the Equator we expected hot humid weather… Very wrong!
* Semliki - we did not see the point of driving 5 hours to see a few monkeys from the distance and a few butterflies…
* See a specialist doctor next time we have a medical problem. Gilles’ eye was successfully treated by the only ophthalmologist within 200 kilometres, but waiting for 60 hours and relying on general practitioners without the proper equipment could have cost Gilles’ left eye!
* Get a Ugandan mobile phone or SIM card for organising spontaneous excursions and reconnect with people you meet along the way. We were the only tourists without one! They are very easy to organise and extremely cheap. Ugandans are addicted to it!

Conclusion?
Uganda is an incredibly pleasant country, for its people, the wildlife and the evergreen landscape. It is the ninth country we have visited in Africa, and we would recommend it with all our heart, because it is so relaxed and easy to travel, except the completely overloaded vehicles used in rural areas.

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