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Uganda - The author’s take
Over 20 years ago, in the introduction to the first edition of this guide, I wrote that Uganda’s attractions ‘tend towards the low-key’. Many years later, when I re-read this assertion for the first time in years, my initial reaction was – well – bemusement, unease, even embarrassment.
Meeting the eyes of a mountain gorilla on the bamboo-clumped slopes of the Virungas? Rafting Grade 5 rapids on the Nile? Following a narrow rainforest trail awhirl with the heart-stopping pant-hoot chorusing of chimpanzees? Cruising the Kazinga Channel in the shadow of the Rwenzoris while elephants drink from the nearby shore? Watching a prehistoric shoebill swoop down on a lungfish in the brooding reed beds of Mabamba Swamp? The roaring, spraying sensory overload that is standing on the tall rocks above Murchison Falls … Low-key? Goodness me – short of landing on the moon, what exactly would I have classified as a must-do or must-see attraction when I wrote that line?
Birdwatching at Budongo Forest Reserve – one of the country's key destinations for birders © Ariadne Van Zandbergen
But as I flicked through that yellowing first edition, all 150 pages of it, my unease slowly dissipated. It had not, I realised, been a reflection of any significant change in my own perceptions during the intervening decade, but rather of the remarkable strides made by Uganda in general, and its tourist industry specifically.
Uganda has changed. And how! When I first visited in 1988, Uganda’s economy, infrastructure and human spirit – every aspect of the country, really – were still tangibly shattered in the aftermath of a 15-year cycle of dictatorship and civil conflict that had claimed an estimated one million human lives. Come 1992, when
I researched the first edition of this guide, Uganda was visibly on the mend, but, a steady trickle of backpackers aside, its tourist industry remained in the doldrums. Incredible as it seems today, there was no facility to track gorillas within Uganda in 1992, no white-water rafting, no realistic opportunity to get close to chimpanzees, and the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls national parks were practically void of game. Many other tourist sites that today seem well established either didn’t exist in their present form, were off-limits or unknown to travellers, or were far less accessible than they are now.
Uganda today does not lack for accessible travel highlights. There is the opportunity to trek within metres of one of the world’s last few hundred mountain gorillas, arguably the most exciting wildlife encounter Africa has to offer – though observing chimps in the Kibale or Budongo runs it a damn close second.
There is the staggering recovery made by Uganda’s premier savannah reserves, where these days one can be almost certain of encountering lions, elephants and buffaloes, etc. There are the Rwenzoris and Mount Elgon, where one can explore East Africa’s bizarre montane vegetation without the goal-oriented approach associated with ascents of mounts Kilimanjaro or Kenya. And there is Bujagali Falls, which – with its white-water rafting, kayaking and recently introduced bungee jump – is rapidly emerging as East Africa’s answer to that more southerly ‘adrenalin capital’, Victoria Falls.
Nor does Uganda lack for tourist facilities. As recently as ten years ago, international-class hotels and restaurants were all but non-existent outside the capital. Today, by contrast, practically every major attraction along the main tourist circuits is serviced by at least one luxury lodge and/or tented camp. Trunk roads have improved beyond recognition, as has the overall standard of local tour operators, public transport, budget accommodation, restaurants and service in general. It should be noted, too, that the country’s natural attractions far exceed the opportunity to see gorillas and lions and so on. Somebody once said that if you planted a walking stick overnight in the soil of Uganda, it would take root before the morning dawned. And it is certainly true that of all Africa’s reasonably established safari destinations, Uganda is the most green, the most fertile – the most overwhelmingly tropical!
Uganda, in an ecological nutshell, is where the eastern savannah meets the west African jungle – and it really does offer visitors the best of both these fantastic worlds.
In no other African destination can one see a comparable variety of primates with so little effort – not just the great apes, but also more than ten monkey species, as well as the tiny wide-eyed bushbaby and peculiar potto. And if Uganda will have primate enthusiasts wandering around with imbecile grins, it will have birdwatchers doing cartwheels. Uganda is by far the smallest of the four African countries in which more than 1,000 bird species have been recorded, and it is particularly rich in western rainforest specialists – in practical terms, undoubtedly the finest birdwatching destination in Africa.
Red-throated bee eaters are just one of the many avian species found in Uganda © Ariadne Van Zandbergen
And yet for all that, Uganda does feel like a more intimate, unspoilt and – dare I say it? – low-key destination than its obvious peers. For starters, it has no semblance of a package tourist industry: group tours seldom exceed eight in number, and even the most popular game-viewing circuits retain a relatively untrammelled atmosphere. The country’s plethora of forested national parks and reserves remain highly accessible to independent travellers and relatively affordable to those on a limited budget, as do such off-the-beaten-track gems as the Ssese Islands, Katonga Wildlife Reserve, Sipi Falls and Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes.
Uganda has changed. Almost 40 years after Idi Amin was booted into exile, and over three decades from when President Museveni took power, the country bears few obvious scars of what came before. Today, Uganda enjoys one of the healthiest reputations of any African country when it comes to crime directed at tourists. The level of day-to-day hassle faced by independent travellers is negligible. And Ugandans as a whole – both those working within the tourist industry and the ordinary man or woman on the street – genuinely do come across as the most warm, friendly and relaxed hosts imaginable.
It’s been with growing pleasure that I’ve documented Uganda’s progress, as a country and as a tourist destination, over the course of eight editions of this guidebook. And this progress is, I hope, reflected in the evolution of the book – from its backpacker oriented earliest incarnation into this totally reworked and vastly expanded eighth edition, which provides thorough coverage of all aspects of the country for all tastes and budgets. But progress begets progress, and doubtless the next few years will see a host of new and exciting tourist developments in Uganda.
My first visit to Uganda, in late 1988, was decidedly lacking in premeditation. I’d flown from London to Nairobi with broad thoughts of travelling through Tanzania to South Africa over a few months. But on my first night in town, I had a couple of beers with an enthused Canadian who’d just bussed back from Uganda, and was persuaded to revise my plans.
My memories of that first trip reflect the decades of war and deprivation that had culminated in the coup of 1986. Bananas, bananas everywhere and nothing else to eat. Buses that took a day to cover 100km of violently pot-holed road. Heaped toilet bowls whose flush mechanism was habitually disused after years without running water. Buildings scarred with bullet holes. The pitiful war orphans who accosted me at every turn.
But there was also much to enjoy. I was enchanted by the verdant landscapes of the west, thrilled by a semi-successful gorilla track in what was then the Impenetrable Forest Reserve (heard them, could see where they were, never actually saw them – all in all, a reasonable return for an investment of US$1), and felt a growing empathy with the guarded optimism, expressed by most of the Ugandans to whom I spoke, that the dark days just might be in the past.
And, with the notable exception of the civil war in the far north, so they were. By 1992, Uganda, once a byword for the worst malaises associated with post-independence Africa, was sufficiently stable for Bradt to commission me to research and write a guidebook to the country. Since then, it’s been my privilege to watch and document Uganda as it embarked on one of the most staggering economic and political transformations of our time, to become, in the words of a recent Oxfam report, ‘an inspirational economic success story, and a symbol of a more vibrant, successful Africa’.