Are you looking for an African safari destination that is inexpensive and yet full of great animal sightings? Following this Uganda self drive itinerary will put you out of your comfort zone and reward you with the adventure of a lifetime!
“Where should we go? How about somewhere in Africa?” I asked Jim one Sunday in September. After road-tripping in both Northern Africa, especially in Tunisia and Morocco, and going through much of Southern Africa hitting South Africa and Botswana. I was bitten. Not by the tse tse fly, but by traveling throughout this fascinating continent, and I couldn’t wait to do more.
Still, I was not ready for Jim’s response. His answer floored me, “Uganda.”
“Huh?” I’ll admit, it wasn’t one of my most intelligent replies, but I never even considered Uganda as a destination. Don’t ask me why, but it’s just not someplace that was on my radar…at all.
Luckily, places that aren’t on my radar once mentioned will always pique my interest, so yeah…guess where we went? You got it, Uganda! And what a trip it was!
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In this article:
- Where is Uganda
- How to Self Drive
- Uganda Road Conditions
- Rules of the Road
- Uganda Itinerary Map
- What to Pack
- Our 2 Week Itinerary – Stops
Where is Uganda?
I had to get the map out right away to see where Uganda was. Uganda is bordered by five countries, all of which have something on my list I’d love to see. Republic of the Congo where you can visit Nyiragongo Crater, Rwanda which is one of the safest countries in Africa and has fantastic wildlife, Tanzania and Kenya where I’d love to see the wildebeest migration, and South Sudan which has some of the most spectacular pyramids. Right smack dab in the middle is Uganda. I couldn’t wait to go.
As you know, we love to drive and Jim had recently read this article where the travelers had rented a four-wheel drive vehicle and driven themselves around this lesser-known East African country. The seed sprouted and we started researching all the wonderful things we could do and see.
In the end, we decided to go with Roadtrip Africa and rent a small 4X4 to drive ourselves through Uganda on a multi-day adventure. Other friends from Sidewalk Safari just booked it through a tour company who then drive you all around the country and you don’t have to do the work. If that sounds like the better choice for you, checkout this 10 day guided tour from our partners at Get Your Guide.
Taking to the road in Uganda, for the most part, was not too bad. Of course, it’s very different when you are dealing with animals and people on roads that completely vary in maintenance. However, we thoroughly enjoyed it, but it certainly helps to pay attention to some Uganda driving tips.
How to Self Drive Uganda
Most of the other travelers we met along our route had chosen a car with a driver for their trip. In fact, the only other tourists we came across who were self driving in Uganda were expats or long-term visitors. So why did we choose to drive ourselves?
Did I mention Jim loves to drive? We’ve driven ourselves through more countries than we can count. Some of our favorite road trips have been through Georgia and Armenia, our ten days exploring Morocco, and of course our epic Iceland adventure.
So after doing some research and budgeting, we decided to just do it on our own. Driving our own rental would cost about half as much as renting the car with a driver; and, as long as we didn’t rush, the driving conditions seemed to be at an acceptable risk level. Of course, our contacts at Road Trip Africa helped us out quite a bit.
For instance, they arranged our Gorilla Trekking and Chimpanzee habituation experiences so the permits were waiting for us on our arrival. They also recommended and made reservations for our lodging along our chosen route.
Oh, and they even provided us with an emergency use mobile phone so we could contact them 24 hours a day if we ran into any problems.
Uganda Road Conditions
We saw it all in our drive around Uganda, sometimes all on the same day. We had smooth sailing down asphalt highways on the route from Kampala to Lake Mburo and then on to Kisoro. However, once you leave the highway, all bets are off.
The road to Lake Mburo National Park was a fairly wide hard packed dirt. While the road to Lake Mutanda was crisscrossed with veins of rock threatening to tear our tires apart. Then the stretch to Ishasha was loose sand so deep it nearly pulled us off the road twice.
Roads within the national parks were all mostly very well-maintained hard-packed dirt. We had some rain on a few days that made the roads nearly undrivable without a four-wheel drive. Luckily, we never had any lengthy storms, and the roads would dry up within an hour or two.
Having a four-wheel drive SUV meant we could take some smaller tracks in the parks. On one of these roads, we came across a water-filled pothole that was wider than our Rav 4. Out of this innocent little mudhole sprung an adult hippo who really didn’t want us there!
Rules of the Road
The written rules and regulations for driving in Uganda are pretty much what you’d expect. You need to obey the traffic signs, drive at or below the speed limit, and do nothing out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, the unwritten rules are quite a bit different.
If I had to sum up driving in Uganda I would say the number one rule is “might makes right.” Only a fool would stand up to a massive old truck barreling down the road with undoubtedly questionable brakes, no shocks, and bald tires. And, of course, the truck driver knows this and takes full advantage. Your best bet is to just get out of his way as quickly and safely as possible.
This rule doesn’t just apply to trucks, however, basically anyone with enough power and guts to bulldoze their way down the road will be doing just that. Again, just stay out of the way and take your time.
The second unspoken rule covers when to pass. Basically, if you have the authority from rule number one, then rule number two says you can pass at any time whether the road ahead is clear or not.
Again, don’t assume that the oncoming Mercedes is going to get back in his lane. Instead, start looking for a place to pull off to the left.
The final rule we should talk about is what to do when faced with a police stop. I know what you’re thinking. “I’ve followed all the written rules and traffic laws. I’m not speeding, my car is in good shape. I won’t be pulled over.”
In fact, you will be stopped at least once. There are regular checkpoints and traffic stops all around the country. When stopped, be very friendly, smile, and ask how you can help. Then let the policeman in his clean white shirt do the talking.
We were never stopped for more than a minute or two with nothing more than a friendly hello. Maybe we were lucky.
Uganda Itinerary Map
What to Pack on Your Uganda Self Drive
The type of road trip you are on has a big impact on what you’ll need to bring along on your Uganda self drive. For instance, if you’ll be camping instead of staying in lodges you’ll need more gear, even though most of the essentials are usually provided by your outfitter. On this trip, we were always staying in lodges so extra camping gear wasn’t a concern.
Tips About Clothing
- Comfortable: This is essential. There’s no graceful way to climb into the back of a Safari Land Cruiser. To get in, you literally climb up the side.
- Convenient: Choose clothing with sun protection (SPF 50 is great) and, preferably, clothing that is hand washable and quick to dry.
- Colors: Safari sites recommend wearing neutral colors like khaki and olive green and avoid light, bright, and dark colors. The issue with light colors is that they show the dirt; the issue with bright and dark colors (especially blue) is that they can attract tsetse flies.
Essentials to Take
- Fleece jacket it can get chilly in the back of an open safari 4×4 in the early morning
- Windbreaker preferably waterproof, just in case it rains
- Hat one that provides sun protection and won’t fly off while riding in an open vehicle
- Gloves sturdy garden gloves to keep the thorns out during jungle trekking
- Long-sleeved SPF 50 shirts
- Kerchief/bandana for sand and dust or to wet and wrap around your neck in hot weather
- Insect repellent or mosquito bracelets
- Soap packets for laundry
Other Things You Might Want
- Swimsuit (most lodges have a pool)
- Pants with zip-off legs that convert to shorts
Stops on our 2 Week Road Trip in Uganda
Entebbe – Day 1
A dusty little city on the shores of Lake Victoria, we didn’t spend much time in Entebbe. We did go down to the lake and watch the fisherman’s wives cutting up and selling the catch of the day amidst some huge, otherworldly storks.
Then we only walked about 200 feet to the Island Beach Cafe where they grilled that same fresh fish and served it up hot with some fried matoke (plantain). Definitely a delicious start to the trip.
Where to stay in Entebbe:
- Airport Guesthouse – This was our first night in country and the family that runs this place was friendly and full of good advice for driving in Uganda.
- Sienna Beach Hotel – Another good option in Entebbe, right on the beach and close to the Botanical Gardens.
Mburo National Park – Day 2 &3
Mburo National Park blew us away. It was green and lush; it had plenty of the gorgeous and thorny acacia trees which for me, makes for an iconic African landscape. We saw an abundance of wildlife from zebras to hippos to giraffes. It was a great place to really get our trip started.
Where to stay in/around Mburo National Park:
- Rwakobo Rock – We absolutely loved this lodge. Great food and a beautiful pool looking out over the countryside.
- Hyena Hill Lodge – We saw this lodge while driving around the park and thought it looked like a great alternative if Rwakobo wasn’t available.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – Day 4, 5, and 6
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was our second stop. Whenever I hear the name, I picture a jungle so dense that you have to cut your way through it, and guess what? We did.
We really did have to hack our way through the forest, machetes and all. The main attraction here is gorilla tracking, and looking into the eyes of that baby gorilla will stick with me forever.
Where to stay in/around Bwindi:
- Mutanda Lake Resort – Another one of our favorites. The food was outstanding and taking a dip in the cool lake after a day of trekking in the jungle was just the thing for our sore muscles
- Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge – This lodge is right at the Bwindi UWA meeting point, fellow trekkers that were staying there raved about the comfortable rooms
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Day 7, 8, 9, and 10
Queen Elizabeth National Park was our next stop, and the first part of it had us looking for the famous tree-climbing lions in Isasha sector. Apparently these are the only lions in the world that climb trees, an interesting phenomenon. And yep, we found them.
The next part of that trip took us to the main, more visited part of the park in the north. Here we saw elephants, and warthogs, and baboons…oh my!
Highlights here were the Lion trekking experience and the Kazinga Channel boat ride. We spent the most time in this park, and by the end of our time there, we still weren’t ready to go.
Where to stay in/around Queen Elizabeth NP (Ishasha Sector):
- Enjojo Lodge – Another favorite, we really enjoyed sitting around the campfire at night with a cool drink, chatting about lions and poachers and other African stuff with the staff and other guests.
- BullBush River Camp – Don’t let the name fool you, this “camp” has all the comfort and amenities you need in a safari lodge, an excellent choice if Enjojo is unavailable.
Where to stay in/around Queen Elizabeth NP (North Sector):
- Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge – Close to the park, great food, and a soothing swimming pool, we loved it here. With hippos and hyenas on the grounds at night, it felt like we were staying in an Animal Planet scene.
Kibale National Park – Day 11 and 2
Kibale National Park was next on our itinerary, and we were excited to see the chimpanzees. After having so much luck with the gorillas, and with wildlife viewing in all the parks, we knew that we were really going to have a great experience.
We were not disappointed. In fact, we were in the park less than an hour and we came upon a troop of chimps whom we followed around for quite awhile.
Where to stay in/around Kibale National Park:
- Kibale Guest Cottages – Very laid back lodge with comfortable cottages, only five minutes from the chimpanzee trekking meeting point, perfect for that early morning start
Semliki Wildlife Reserve – Day 13 and 14
Semliki was the last park that we visited. As far as parks go, it was a little less amazing to me, but that’s probably because by this time we’d seen and experienced so much already. I have to say, though, that I wouldn’t have missed this park for the world.
Where to stay in Semliki Wildlife Reserve:
- Semliki Safari Lodge – This is a beautiful lodge with the best food and service. Our stay included two drives, one of which was a sunset drive complete with sundowner cocktails in the bush, absolutely lovely!
Kampala – Last Day
We loved every minute in the parks, but we wanted to see at least a little of the capital city, Kampala. I have to say, it surprised me. Along the way, we’d met a few people who lived there as expats.
They couldn’t say enough about the city and how wonderful living there was, but when we drove in we were surprised. Most of it, except the real central part of downtown, looked exactly like all the other villages we’d driven through, just much, much larger.
Where to stay in Kampala:
- Forest Cottages – Not our favorite stay, but to be fair there was a lot to compete with! The grounds are gorgeous with flowing water, shade trees, and beautiful gardens, a real green haven in the middle of dusty Kampala.
And then all at once, our epic trip was over. Our Uganda self-drive was done…way too soon. It was one of those trips that both Jim and I could have spent so much more time on. We boarded the plane talking the whole time about what we are going to do next time.
It turns out that even though we hit a number of the major sights and parks, most tour companies do it in reverse order from us.
I think they want their visitors to go home with the gorilla tracking as one of their last activities. Bwindi was closer to the beginning of our trip. However, it’s an unforgettable experience, so I don’t really think it matters where it falls in your Uganda itinerary.
Have you thought about going to Uganda? Would you do a Uganda self-drive?
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.