Uganda has the most diverse safari circuit in Africa. In a single day, you can wake up to lions feeding, see elephants and buffalo on a morning game drive, track chimpanzees in the afternoon, and stage yourself for a gorilla trek by dinnertime. The only limits are your time and budget. But unless you’re a retired millionaire, you probably need to narrow your options to the best safaris in Uganda for a short trip.
The Pearl of Africa is most famous for its large primates (and justifiably so). But it also has the Big 5, some of the world’s only tree-climbing lions, a lot of hippos, incredibly diverse birdlife, and monkeys galore. You can wildlife-watch from a traditional safari car, boat, dugout canoe, bicycle, or on foot.
I spent almost a month traveling around Uganda. I spent about half of that time on safari — some days I saw everything on my list, other days almost nothing. In this Uganda safari guide, I’ll help you choose which parks and activities are right for you!
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The all-around best safaris in Uganda
Many Uganda safaris are tailored to specific interests or activities. But these are the ones you should not miss, no matter what your interests are. They’re some of the top safaris in Africa — and in the whole world.
Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
It’s hard to describe the experience of standing a few meters away from a 350-pound silverback gorilla. Your natural instinct is to be terrified. But when you make eye contact, instead of aggression, you’ll find connection. It’s the most powerful wildlife experience on the planet. And Uganda is one of only three countries where you can do it.
A gorilla safari in Uganda will be the most expensive part of your trip. You have to pay $600 for the gorilla permit (plus commission, depending on how you arrange it). You have to pay for transportation to one of the remote sections of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Food and accommodation are more expensive here. But I promise, it’s all worth it for that magical hour with a gorilla family.
The trek itself is quite difficult. You won’t be walking on a trail — you’ll bushwhack your way through dense jungle. Thorns, fire ants, rain, mud, and elevation make it even more challenging. You could walk as little as 30 minutes or as much as half a day. It all depends on how far the gorillas are from the trailhead that day.
Once you find the gorillas, you’re allowed to walk around and get as close as seven meters to them. They won’t always obey the rules — babies sometimes interact directly with tourists, and older gorillas may walk very close to you unexpectedly. You may not eat, drink, or go to the bathroom in the vicinity of the gorillas. And if you’re sick on the day of your trek, you should cancel — humans can pass diseases on to gorillas.
Pro tip: While you may be tempted to focus on getting the best possible photographs, don’t spend the whole hour watching the gorillas through a camera lens. Snap a handful of pics and then put your camera down.
Cost: Budget $1,000 for a three-day safari
Tour or independent?: It’s far easier on a tour, but you can plan an independent gorilla trek
Need to know: Permits sell out up to six months in advance in dry season (June-August and December-January)
Boat trip in Murchison Falls National Park
Murchison Falls National Park spans the Nile River in northern Uganda. It’s one of the country’s classic savanna parks. Its distance from Kampala keeps it quiet and low-key. And it’s the best place in East Africa to see highly endangered Rothschild’s Giraffes.
The best way to see Murchison Falls’ wildlife is on a three-hour boat trip up the Nile. Trips run on double-decker boats in the morning and afternoon. Sit on the left side, upper deck for the best views.
The boats follow the left bank of the river all the way to the park’s namesake waterfall. You’ll see giraffes drinking, hippos hippo-ing, and huge herds of elephants roaming the plains. I’ve never seen so much wildlife in such a short time.
One of the highlights is pulling up to the bank below the waterfall and finding crocodiles everywhere! They wait under the falls for other animals that fall in and drown.
The boat guides are very informative and they cater to a variety of interests. On the way to the falls, they focus on large mammals. On the way back, the focus is birds.
Rating: 9/10 (you are very unlikely to see big cats)
Cost: $30-35, depending on boat operator
Tour or independent?: The boat trip is included in Red Chilli’s Murchison Falls safari. If you have your own wheels, you could do it independently.
Need to know: Bring a zoom lens for your camera and a good pair of binoculars.
The best safaris in Uganda for seeing Big 5 wildlife
If you have the opening scene of The Lion King in mind when you picture your dream safari, Uganda’s got you covered. You can choose between three parks for epic game drives and boat trips.
Uganda’s national parks have four of the five “Big Five“: lions, leopards, elephants, and buffalo. You have a good chance of seeing three of them on any safari listed below (leopards are shy). But don’t forget to appreciate the smaller wildlife: the kob grazing in open fields, the awkwardly shaped red hartebeest, the bushbuck scampering through the plains, warthogs scratching in the dirt.
Game drives in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth National Park is the most iconic safari destination in Uganda. It has open plains, red-dirt 4×4 tracks, acacia trees galore. The Rwenzori Mountains — the highest range in Africa — are the backdrop. Freshwater and salt water crater lakes dot the landscape and fuel the local economy.
But Queen Elizabeth is even more famous for its tree-climbing lions. This behavior appears in only two places on Earth — the Ishasha Sector of this park and Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park.
The ideal Queen Elizabeth safari in Uganda would involve one day of game driving on the Kasenyi Plains and Mweya Peninsula, followed by one day in Ishasha. The Plains and Peninsula have more elephants, buffalo and plains wildlife, including a massive kob breeding ground. You also have a good chance of spotting a lion kill early in the morning. Ishasha is short on plains wildlife but a must-visit for the tree climbing lions.
If you have some spare time, you can tour the salt mining operations on the shores of Lake Katwe. Alternatively, check out the viewpoint over Bunyampaka Crater Lake.
Cost: $40 park entrance fee for every 24 hours. You can hire a local driver for $100/day.
Tour or independent?: This is one of the easiest safaris in Uganda to arrange independently.
Need to know: Get to the park entrance by 5:30 am to maximize wildlife viewing and minimize crowds.
Kidepo Valley National Park
If you really want to get away from the tourist crowds, and you have a healthy budget for your Uganda safari, head to Kidepo Valley. This remote, isolated savanna park has the best game-viewing in Uganda. Unfortunately it’s a very long drive or very expensive flight away from anywhere else you might be going.
Kidepo is the only park in Uganda to have lions, giraffes, and zebras all in the same place. It’s also your best chance of seeing leopards, who are less shy around humans in this very remote region.
This is also the only Ugandan safari destination that has a huge cultural draw. On your way to the park, you’ll pass through the Karamoja region. The nomadic tribes who inhabit the area share a heritage with the Maasai. But because they are so isolated, they haven’t experienced the cultural commodification that you often find in Kenya. (You should only visit Karamoja with a culturally sensitive guide who is familiar with the region.)
Rating: 10/10 for wildlife and culture. 7/10 overall due to cost and inaccessibility.
Cost: Expect to spend upwards of $1,000 on a four-day safari
Tour or independent?: Theoretically you could make your way here on public transport. But in practice, almost everyone takes a tour.
Need to know: Northeast Uganda has had some security issues recently. While the park itself is safe, check in with the UWA office in Kidepo before traveling there by road.
Game drives in Murchison Falls National Park
Murchison Falls National Park has much more to offer than its iconic boat trip. The land-based wildlife watching in this park is a contender for one of the best safaris in Uganda.
Game drives typically traverse the savanna area on the north bank of the Nile. The circuit covers open plains where you’ll see elephants, giraffes, buffalo, lots and lots of hartebeest, and lions. Then you’ll stop along the banks of a tributary, where you can get very close to hippos. Vervet monkeys, guinea fowl and more elephants are the highlights of the second half of the loop.
Murchison Falls sees far fewer visitors than Queen Elizabeth, but far more than Kidepo Valley. You’ll probably be one of a half-dozen vehicles on any given morning. No lion-related traffic jams here!
Cost: A budget tour from Kampala costs $320 for three days.
Tour or independent?: No public transport runs to the park — take a budget tour with Red Chilli.
Need to know: Watch for giraffes lying in the shade under big acacia trees!
Kazinga Channel boat trip
If you’ve ever wanted to get within 10 feet of a buffalo in a boat that’s smaller than they are, you can fulfill that wish on the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Unlike in Murchison Falls, the Kazinga Channel boat operators use eight-seat boats for wildlife watching. A two-hour boat trip hugs the bank of the channel very closely, bringing you within a few feet of all the hippos, crocodiles, and buffalo you could ever hope for.
The wildlife on this stretch of river doesn’t compare to Murchison Falls. But you still have a decent chance of seeing elephants (albeit in smaller numbers). You’ll also see much more birdlife, including African fish eagles.
The Kazinga Channel boat trip is also one of the best options for a budget safari in Uganda. You can reach the launch on public transport. After your safari, walk into Katunguru and book a cheap hotel for the night.
Tour or independent?: Independent — take a matatu to Katunguru and ask to be dropped off at the bridge over the Kazinga Channel.
Need to know: Even if you don’t see any by the river, watch the top of the riverbank for elephants.
The best walking safaris in Uganda
If you’ve never experienced the thrill of approaching large wildlife on foot, Uganda is a brilliant place to try it. A huge diversity of walking safaris are available, and they’re often a lot cheaper than similar safaris in a vehicle. Just make sure you follow the guide’s instructions carefully, lest you be trampled by a large mammal!
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
Thanks to the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin, Uganda no longer has any rhinos in its national parks. But you can still see this final Big 5 mammal in Uganda — and in fact, you can see it on foot.
The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is one of East Africa’s top research and conservation projects focused on rhinos. It operates a breeding program, with the eventual hope of reintroducing white rhinos in Uganda’s national parks.
Ziwa funds its conservation efforts by welcoming tourists to track rhinos on foot. This is one of the most heart-in-throat activities I’ve ever done — it gave me more of an adrenaline rush than whitewater rafting! When the guide’s safety instructions comprise of “if they charge, duck behind a bush,” you know you’re in for an adventure. (Don’t worry, it’s safe — white rhinos are far less aggressive than their cousins, black rhinos, who will charge straight through a bush to gore you.)
The rhino trek lasts about an hour — it turns out rhinos get really cranky if humans spend too long in their presence. You have to maintain a healthy distance and stay absolutely silent when in their vicinity. The best times to go are early morning and late afternoon (like most African wildlife, rhinos nap during the day). If you’re really, really lucky, you might even see a baby!
Tour or independent?: Either — the sanctuary is a 5,000-shilling boda ride from the main road between Kampala and Masindi.
Need to know: Rhinos graze on small grasses because their heads are too heavy for them to eat from trees! How adorable is that!?
Lake Mburo National Park (outside the park gates)
Low-key Lake Mburo National Park flew under the radar for years. Visitors have only recently increased here as people want a stop between Kampala and Bwindi.
The park lacks the lions and elephants of Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls, and Kidepo. But it has buffalo, giraffes, zebras, and tons of antelope (including Uganda’s only impalas and elands). Plus, it’s one of the best birding destinations in the country, with over 350 species.
The reason this park makes the list of best safaris in Uganda is because it offers one of the cheapest ways to get close to wildlife on foot. Walking safaris outside the park gates take in zebras, impalas, warthogs, waterbuck, and maybe even a leopard for only $10. Costs are so low because you don’t have to pay park fees.
You can organize a walking safari through Leopard Rest Camp, one of the best campsites in Uganda. My guide was extremely knowledgeable. We ended up tracking a zebra herd for almost three hours, which was a fascinating way to learn about their behavior in-depth.
Rating: 6/10. No big wildlife, but lots of magical little moments with grazers.
Tour or independent?: Independent.
Need to know: You will almost certainly see Ankole cattle in this area. Their huge horns are really cool, but please respect the wishes of local ranchers and don’t take photos of their herds.
Chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest
Gorillas make all the headlines in Uganda. But don’t overlook our closest relative — chimpanzees. You can track these creatures in three Ugandan parks: Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Kibale Forest. Kibale Forest has the highest success rate (over 90%).
Tracking chimps is a very different experience than gorilla trekking. The gorillas spend most of their time lazily munching on shrubs and napping. The chimps, on the other hand — well, let’s just say you’ll probably have to run through the forest a few times to keep up with them.
Most of the rules for your chimp trek are the same as with gorillas. You have to keep a safe distance and follow the instructions of your guide at all times. But the trek itself is quite different, since the forest is flat and not as dense. You might even get to walk on trails some of the time. It’s hard to get good photos of the chimps, since they move a lot and are often in the trees. And you will usually find them in under an hour.
The highlight of chimp trekking is tapping into the guides’ incredible knowledge. Of course it’s thrilling to watch the chimps groom each other, munch on bugs, and swing through the trees. But your guide will make sure you understand why the chimps do what they do, and how it relates to their family units and territorial natures. You might even spot a nest!
Cost: $150 for the permit
Tour or independent?: You can do this independently. Email UWA for a permit and take a boda to the trailhead from Fort Portal.
Need to know: You’ll hear the chimps before you see them. It starts with a “whoop” from a single chimp, then crescendos into a deafening cackle on all sides. It’s spine-tingling — especially when you look up to find a tooth-baring chimp directly above your head!
The best special-interest safaris in Uganda
Uganda’s diversity of microclimates means it’s home to many species that don’t live anywhere else or are too shy to see anywhere else. In particular, it’s a fantastic bird- and monkey-viewing destination. Its habitats range from the savanna of East Africa to the jungles of Central Africa. It even sits at the far eastern edge of some West African species.
A few Uganda safari options cater to travelers with specific interests in birds and monkeys. These are my favorites.
Bigodi Swamp Walk: Birding safari with lots of monkeys
The village of Bigodi lies 35 km west of Fort Portal, near the entrance of Kibale Forest. Most of its outskirts are wetland habitat. It has one of the largest concentrations of bird and monkey species in all of Africa.
The community set aside a chunk of its land as a wildlife sanctuary. Local guides lead tours along 4.5 km of boardwalks around the swamp. You have a chance to spot 200 bird species and 8 monkey species. Some of the birds count Bigodi as one of their last remaining habitats on Earth.
The most iconic species in the sanctuary is the Blue Turaco. Its song is unmistakable. Almost every visitor to Bigodi will see one.
When I did the Bigodi Swamp Walk, I saw 7 of the 8 monkey species (the only one I missed was blue monkeys). I saw Blue Turaco and a handful of other rare bird species, but I went a bit late in the day for birding. I got very close to a troop of baboons, and saw evidence of a chimp who passed through the night before. Additionally, I was struck by the incredible beauty of the wetlands, an ecosystem that is disappearing all over the world.
Cost: $13 if you pay in shillings, $23 if you pay in dollars
Tour or independent?: Independent
Need to know: If you’re interested in birding, you need to arrive by 6 am.
Lake Bunyonyi Canoe Safari
This is another one for the birders out there! Lake Bunyonyi, in southwest Uganda, is home to more than 200 bird species. Kingfishers feature prominently here, as do African Fish Eagles and the majestic Crested Crane.
The best way to see Lake Bunyonyi’s bird life is on a canoe trip around the lake. This will allow you to get to some of the small islands that have their own microclimates. You’ll also be able to explore the reedy areas offshore, which are a prime habitat for herons.
If you want to maximize bird sightings, consider camping on one of the islands around the lake. You’ll wake up to songs from a half-dozen different species. Go down to the docks as the sun rises and you’ll see kingfishers and crested cranes everywhere.
Cost: You can rent your own dugout canoe for as little as 5,000 shillings/hour. With a guide, it’ll cost you more like $20.
Tour or independent?: Independent
Need to know: Lake Bunyonyi is also a fascinating cultural destination. Be sure to check out “Punishment Island” and the former leper colony. One of the islands even has its own eland population.
A few other tips to make your safari in Uganda a success:
- Not sure what to pack for your safari? Check out my safari packing list!
- The key to planning a budget Uganda safari is camping instead of staying in lodges. You can usually pitch a tent for under $10/night, even in national parks.
- If you want to see large mammals, visit Uganda during the dry season: June-August or December-January. Birding is better in the rainy seasons.
- Always, always, always tip your safari guides and drivers! 10% is usually sufficient, but if they found you a leopard or a baby elephant, throw in a bit more than that. Always tip in local currency.
- You can reach most of these safari destinations on public transport, with the exception of Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley. Another way to save some money. You’ll still need to hire drivers and guides for the safaris themselves — you can’t go out into the bush alone.
- In national parks in Uganda, be very careful around water. Hippos are the most dangerous mammal in Africa, and they feel especially vulnerable when they come on land to graze.
- In forested areas, watch out for baboons, especially if you’re carrying food. Baboons aren’t aggressive by nature but they will attack if they smell your lunch in your backpack.
- You really need at least a 200 mm zoom lens in order to get good wildlife photos on safari. I use a mirrorless Sony A6000 camera with this lens. It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like — a DSLR would be better — but since I backpacked on public transport in Uganda, I didn’t want to carry heavy camera gear. This camera/lens is a good balance between quality and weight.
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