Trip report: Kampala and Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

Introduction

For several years I have been trying to visit Uganda. Okay, that sounds a bit odd, like they didn’t want me to come or I there was some other obstacle in my way. What I mean is that I have been interested in exploring Uganda for a long time and it took me a while to have both the time and the contacts to set up a trip where I could experience some of what the country has to offer.

My desire to visit only increased when I got to know a few Ugandan travel agents at trade fairs and we became very good friends – they told me more of what I was missing.

For me, Uganda meant gorillas and Idi Amin. The latter does not appear as a reason to come to Uganda but I remember his time in power, the forced expulsion of the Asian community and the terrorist incident at Entebbe airport. While “dark tourism” does bring people to the country – and is in fact an area the tourist board is embracing, albeit on a small scale – this was not my motivation.

Meeting the gorillas was, though. What would surprise me most about Uganda when I finally got there, though, was what else the country offers. Spectacular scenery like none I had ever seen, excellent wildlife sightings and some unique accommodation options just for starters.

I arranged my 10-day Uganda tour with one of the best inbound agents in the country, Great Lakes Safaris. They arranged some discounts along the way but it was high season so this was not possible at most lodges. I should point out that I paid for this trip and the flights (and the gorilla/chimp permits) from my own pocket and it was a considerable expense, but in any case I only ever provide honest opinions about my experiences whether they are self-funded or as part of a familiarisation trip.

There was a lot to see and write about, so I have split the trip report into several parts.

Now for the rest of the story…

EXTENDED REVIEWS OF THE PROPERTIES INCLUDED HERE WILL BE PUBLISHED SOON

Arrival

I flew Ethiopian Airlines as usual, transferring from Oslo to Entebbe at Addis Ababa airport and landed on time at 1025. I had not arranged an e-Visa in advance so I needed to get mine on arrival. This was an easy procedure and as a Brit it cost me USD 50.

NB: Uganda is actively trying to make all tourists apply in advance for an electronic visa (eVisa) which is an easy online process which should speed things up when you arrive. At present, and when I visited, it was still possible to get a visa on arrival (even though this was only mentioned in some very small print on the website). In the future it is likely that only eVisas will be accepted so bear this in mind.

After collecting my bag and clearing customs (also a painless process) I met Alfred, my driver/guide from Great Lakes Safaris and we went to find the vehicle we would be using for the next 10 days.

I was happy to be back in Africa, back in a Land Cruiser and in a new country for me.

I’m not sure that this is accurately conveyed in this photo, but then I am very uncomfortable taking selfies…

Our first port of call was Cassia Lodge, where I would have the rest of the day to relax before we headed off for the north early the next day.

Entebbe, where the international airport is located, is about 40km southwest of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. It is a very nice town located on a peninsula in Lake Victoria, and many tourists stay here rather than the far more frenetic Kampala. There is a decent beach here and plenty of accommodation and restaurants. And while there is a fair amount of traffic, this is absolutely nothing compared to the utter chaos of the capital, which I would experience the next day.

Cassia Lodge is in a peaceful suburb of Kampala so is also a good option outside the city centre and of course much closer if you want to go into the capital.

The journey to Kampala from Entebbe took a lot longer than 40 km would suggest, due to traffic and roadworks – the Chinese are building an expensive highway that was nearing completion but given the animosity felt by local drivers about the project in general and the toll fee in particular, I would expect many to use the old route as we did.

Just outside of Entebbe we had a classic African moment – the passing of the presidential convoy. By law, all drivers have to get to the side of the road as quickly as possible upon seeing the lead cars. The convoy drives at an insane speed so you would be smashed out of the way in any case if you didn’t. The president himself travelled in a limo in the middle of the convoy, with jeeps carrying heavily armed soldiers to the front and at the rear. It was quite an experience.

Life returned to normal after the convoy disappeared and we were back on our way again, reaching the hotel in time for a late lunch.

Cassia Lodge

What we tell people:

If you want to stay closer to Kampala than Entebbe and are looking for a peaceful place to rest your head, Cassia Lodge is an excellent choice. With comfortable rooms, a lovely little pool and great food, you can start (or finish) your Uganda trip in fine style.

Cassia Lodge is excellent value for money, too and the service is professional and friendly. The views over Lake Victoria are the icing on the cake.

I put this video together after returning from my trip, so do take a look:

Vital stats:

Cassia Lodge
Number of rooms:20

  • Single
  • Twin
  • Double
  • Triple rooms.
Opening dates: Open all year
Suggested length of stay: One night +
Getting there: The drive from Entebbe Airport usually takes about an hour.

Location, location, location?

Sited on the slopes of Buziga Hill, Cassia Lodge has great views of Lake Victoria. Cassia Lodge is 4 km from Ggaba Beach and 10 km from Kabaka’s Palace.

The room

I stayed in a Standard Double, which was spacious and nicely furnished, with light coloured walls contrasting with the typical dark and heavy African furniture. The wall-length glass doors onto the balcony let in plenty of natural light.

A full mosquito net is provided for the bed.

The room features include a portable air conditioner unit but as always I preferred to use the ceiling fan.

The balcony was the perfect place to relax and take in the marvellous view over Lake Victoria. It was a good size, too.

The bathroom was not huge but was well-planned. The shower was excellent with a cabinet that did not leak which is actually quite rare in hotels. A full range of toiletries is provided.

Food and drink

Cassia Lodge has a full restaurant service for breakfast, lunch and dinner and room service is available all day.

Usual board basis: Bed and breakfast

I ate lunch, dinner and breakfast here. Buffet breakfast was very good, with a buffet as well as hot options. Lunch was fresh and tasty, dinner was even better. Many people come to Cassia Lodge from the city just to eat here and I can understand why.

Dining arrangement: Individual tables

Dining locations: Indoor and outdoor dining

There is plenty of outdoor seating in several areas which is a real treat.

Activities

The pool is the main draw at the hotel itself, but if you use Cassia Lodge as a base then you have Kampala at your feet – almost literally. It is a bit of a way from the city centre but this is more than made up for by the elevated and peaceful location.

Service

Service was very friendly and efficient.

Conclusion:

Cassia Lodge was great and a fine place to start my Ugandan adventure. I would not hesitate to recommend staying here and we will be sending our clients to the hotel for the first night of their tours.

Travelling north

I had said to Alfred that I was interested in getting a quick look at Kampala. He warned me that the traffic would be fierce so we would need a very early start, which was fine. I figured that surely a Sunday morning couldn’t be that bad, but we headed off at 0730 anyway.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was an insane number of vehicles on the roads and the capital was basically in semi-gridlock. The city was not built for this level of traffic and it shows; the noise and pollution have transformed what must have been an elegant and attractive place into quite a hell-hole.

So I was disappointed that I could not spend any real time in Kampala, because I am sure like all Africa cities it has a different side to it, but my time was so limited that my only real memory is being stuck in queues the entire time.

It was a blessed relief when we left the worst of the traffic behind on the main road north. The four and a half hours from Cassia Lodge (it would be an hour less without the Kampala sightseeing part) gave me time to get to know Alfred and for him to tell me more about Uganda. The road was in good shape and we were able to travel at a good pace.

Before I knew it we arrived at our first stop.

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

Most travellers starting their trip in Uganda either head north for Murchison Falls National Park or west towards Fort Portal from Kampala. Our itinerary followed the former and almost everyone stops at Ziwa on the way, and with good reason.

Here’s a little background from the Ziwa website:

“Rhino Fund Uganda was formed as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in 1997. It was set up to repopulate Uganda with wild rhinos in the future. Both rhinoceros breeds, black and white, are globally endangered. In 1983, both black rhinos and northern white rhinos declared extinct throughout Uganda. Therefore, our purpose is to return rhinos, a vital aspect of both environmental and cultural heritage, back into Uganda, through our breeding and release program.

Located in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the 7,000 hectares of savannah and woodlands has provided us with land for the rhinos. Owned by Captain Joe Roy, a Ugandan citizen, a land usage license has been agreed to give us sole usage rights for thirty (renewable) years.

From this, the first six southern white rhinos were translocated in 2005/6, with four from Kenya, and two from Disney Animal Kingdom (USA). As it was northern white rhinos that once populated Uganda’s national parks, our rhinos are technically considered an exotic breed!

It was four years before the first rhino was born in March 2008. Unfortunately, Bella’s baby was a still born.

The next year – 24th June 2009 – we had a healthy male calf, making history by being the first rhino born in Uganda in approximately 30 years! He was named Obama, making history, with his mother from the United States and his father from Kenya.”

When visiting Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary the main attraction is tracking these peaceful giants on foot with a professional guide. They know the area well and it will not take long before you come upon a rhino or two and their guards, who watch over them 24 hours a day.

It is a wonderful experience to get so close to these amazing creatures and by doing so you are also contributing to their preservation. Ziwa needs a constant supply of funds to keep up its valuable work, and donations are also another way to help.

There are other activities on offer and you can also overnight here, so check out the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary website for more details.

I really enjoyed my time rhino tracking and it is also a perfect way to break up the journey north.

We set off again and made a lunch stop just up the road before heading onward to the National Park.

Murchison Falls National Park

The main attraction in the north of the country, and the biggest national park in Uganda, Murchison Falls is most well-known for its eponymous waterfall but is also home to a variety of wildlife. If you are a box-ticker, with luck you can 4 of the big 5. And you will have seen the 5th at Ziwa, so there’s all your boxes ticked. But there is so much more to see, including the largest number of Rothschild Giraffes in East Africa.

Murchison Falls National Park measures approximately 3,893 square kilometres and is home to over 70 species of mammals as well as Uganda’s largest population of Nile crocodiles. 450 bird species have been recorded, including the rare shoe-billed stork, which is reason in itself to visit for enthusiastic birdwatchers. 

The easiest point of entry for visitors coming from Kampala/Ziwa is Kichambanyobo Gate from the town of Masindi.

You can also go chimpanzee trekking in the Budungo Forest section, which is where I would be spending the night before venturing further into the park.

Budungo Eco Lodge

What we tell people:

Budongo Eco Lodge is an excellent base for chimpanzee tracking and birdwatching. Rooms are simple and comfortable but often very hot and the lack of fans is a downside. The bathrooms definitely need an upgrade but service is good as is the food. It is also excellent value for money. Budongo is operated by Great Lakes Safaris, the tour operator who arranged my trip.

Vital stats:

Budongo Eco Lodge
Number of rooms: 10

  • 6 Log Cabins
  • 4 Dormitory rooms
Opening dates: Open all year
Suggested length of stay: One night +
Getting there: The drive from Kichambanyobo Gate usually takes about 15 minutes.

Location, location, location?

Budongo Eco Lodge is about 8km from Kichambanyobo Gate in Murchison Falls National Park.

The room

I stayed in one of the Log Cabins, which was located in the forest and very peaceful (apart from the sound of monkeys!).

The main room was sizeable and the bed was very nice.

Here is a very quick video of the room:

My main issue was the lack of a ceiling fan, and the tin roof absorbs the sunlight so the room was extremely hot during the day and even at night it would have been nice to be able to bring the temperature down a little.

There is a big focus on being environmentally friendly, which I understand, but they do have 24-hour solar electricity so it should not be difficult to power fans.

The shower room was dark, old-fashioned and in need of an upgrade; the water pressure was good though and warm water was always available during my stay.

The toilet was in a similar condition (and I am not sure the urinal right next to the toilet itself is really necessary).

The basin area was a little brighter but could also benefit from a refresh.

Food and drink

Usual board basis: Bed and breakfast

I had both dinner and breakfast at Budongo and found the food to be very good, as was the service. Dinner was a hearty affair and breakfast included both hot and cold options.

Dining arrangement: Individual tables

Dining locations: Indoor and outdoor dining

The restaurant and bar area is not huge but there is seating outside which I would always opt for unless it was raining heavily.

Activities

Budongo Eco Lodge is the base for activities in the forest area of Kaniyo Pabidi, which has Uganda’s densest population of chimpanzees as well as a huge number of birds. Thus chimp tracking and bird walks are the main activities here.

Tracking is considered a little less reliable than at Kibale Forest but the terrain is easier and the success rate is currently 80% and chimps are usually found after an hour or so. Permits cost USD 85 in advance and USD 90 on the day if available (a maximum of 36 permits are issued per day).

Organised bird walks with a specialist guide cost USD 20 for half a day or USD 35 for a full day.

Service

Service was very friendly and efficient.

Conclusion:

Budongo Eco Lodge is an excellent base for chimpanzee tracking and birdwatching. Rooms are comfortable but often very hot and the lack of fans is a downside. The bathrooms definitely need an upgrade but service is good as is the food. It is also excellent value for money and a short drive from the gate to the park, making it easily accessible the same day from Kampala.

Further into the park – the northern sector across the Victoria Nile

The next day began with a very early start – I ate breakfast before sunrise and then Alfred brought the vehicle round for our journey

As there are roadworks going on all over this area (the Chinese are building huge roads to enable the export of newly-discovered oil reserves) Alfred didn’t know how long it would take us to reach the jetty in order to catch the first crossing of the Nile and be able to have a morning game drive in the northern sector of the park.

In the event we arrived about 45 minutes before the 0700 ferry but we were far from the first passengers to do so.

Crossing the Victoria Nile using the Paraa Ferry

As you can see, there are only a limited number of crossings per day and you should always get to the jetty in good time as, well, this is Africa and things happen.

As 0700 approached, there were too many vehicles to fit on the ferry but we were not too far back in the queue.

And we’re off…

Alfred drove onboard and foot passengers followed when the ferry was full.

My first time crossing the Nile went without a hitch.

There was already a queue of vehicles waiting to make the journey in the opposite direction. And a warthog keeping watch – and perhaps thinking of hitching a ride…

Once off the ferry, we were off and among the first vehicles in this part of the park which is generally a lot more rewarding than south of the river in terms of wildlife. And this proved to be the case for us…

The first animals we saw were these Jackson’s hartebeest. Somewhat strange looking, this animal.

Impala! You are probably thinking. Or probably not. In any case, these are in fact Ugandan kob and bizarrely the two species are not related. Kob dominate the north of Uganda, but Impala can be found in Lake Mburo National Park much further south.

It didn’t take long for us to encounter a lion, either. Or in this case, a lioness prowling the grassland.

She took refuge from the sun in a nearby bush and kept her eyes on us until we moved on.

A short while later, we spotted these giraffe in the distance.

A few minutes later three of them posed for us under a tree, too.

I was excited when Alfred spotted this kob carcass in a tree as it was clearly a leopard kill. Leopards are my favourite safari animal at the moment and I was hoping we’d be in luck and find one but alas this time we didn’t manage to find the cat.

We stopped for a snack by the river, which was as usual populated by grunting hippos. I also got to sample an enormous Ugandan pineapple thanks to the generosity of another guide and can confirm that the locals have every right to believe theirs are the best fruit in the world.

It was starting to get extremely hot at this point so we ended out game drive and crossed back over the Nile and drove a few kilometres along the southern side of the river to Baker’s Lodge.

Baker’s Lodge

What we tell people:

Baker’s Lodge is about as perfect as a safari lodge can be and one of my all-time favourites. The individual thatched safari suites have everything you could wish for as well as their own decks overlooking the river. I only stayed one night – probably the biggest regret I had from my tour of Uganda.

Vital stats:

Baker’s Lodge
Number of rooms: 10
Opening dates: Open all year
Suggested length of stay: Two nights +
Getting there: The lodge is approximately 66 km from Kichambanyobo Gate takes about an hour and a half.

Location, location, location?

Baker’s Lodge is situated on the South bank of the River Nile and around 300 km from Kampala, 66 km from Kichambanyobo Gate and about 5 km from the Paraa Ferry crossing.

The room

I spent the night in a chalet, which felt more like a small house. The design was beautiful with a terrace overlooking the river.

Mine was a twin room, and the bed was extremely comfortable.

River views from the bed is a nice touch and the hippos will serenade you in the evening.

The terrace is a lovely place to relax with a drink.

The bathroom has a great shower, double handbasins and all the toiletries you will need.

Check out my video of the chalet:

Food and drink

Usual board basis: Full Board including 3 multiple-course meals per day, all hot beverages and bar snacks, house drinks, and other camp services provided at Bakers Lodge

I was lucky enough to have lunch, dinner and breakfast here, and the food was just superb. The presentation was fantastic and it felt like eating in a gourmet restaurant in the bush.

Dining arrangement: Individual tables

Dining locations: Indoor and outdoor dining

The restaurant has tables both inside and out, with plenty of space if you wish to eat in private.

The lounge and bar area has comfy sofas and armchairs for that pre-dinner drink.

Activities

Baker’s Lodge can arrange a number of activities in Murchison Falls National Park. The on-site jetty offers access to our fleet of water craft that can take guests on a number of excursions unique to this park, such as to the base of Murchison Falls, the Nile Delta on Lake Albert, sunset/sunrise cruises or sport fishing.

The lodge has its own vehicles that can be reserved for safari drives on the Northern Bank, to the top of the falls, or to nearby Budongo Forest to track wild chimpanzees.

The swimming pool area offers a welcome option to cool off from the day’s activities and enjoy the sunset views.

Service

Service was extremely efficient and professional as well as very friendly.

Conclusion:

One night will definitely not be enough at this wonderful riverside lodge. The food is fantastic, the pool is inviting and the range of activities on offer could keep you occupied for several days if you wish. I cannot wait to return…

Boat cruise to the Murchison Falls

We had arranged a boat cruise to the Murchison Falls with a different company, so late in the afternoon we drove back to the Paraa jetty area where several boats were waiting in a separate area.

Once onboard we began our leisurely cruise and just a few minutes downriver we encountered elephants on the bank.

We also saw some lovely birds, including the carmine bee-eater pictured here.

We also found this pregnant Nile crocodile, taking it easy but looking as deadly as ever.

And of course there were plenty of hippos.

Finally the Falls themselves came into view.

This was as close as you can get, and to see the masses of water thundering through a 6 metre gap in the rocks is a memorable experience.

Here is a video of the boat trip:


After the cruise we returned to Baker’s Lodge for dinner.

The next day we headed off down south and the next article will cover my further adventures in Uganda.

If this has made you want to visit the Pearl of Africa, contact me to arrange your dream trip! For an example tour, click here.