When you picture Uganda, the first thing that comes to mind is probably mountain gorillas. Next, you might think of chimpanzees or the tree-climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park. But this tiny country has plenty of off-the-beaten-path wildlife experiences to offer as well. And the best of the best is the Bigodi Swamp Walk.
The Swamp Walk runs through the Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, about 5 km from the entrance to Kibale Forest National Park. It’s one of the best places for bird-watching in Uganda, and it’s home to a huge variety of monkey species.
Better yet, the walk is part of a community tourism initiative that has transformed the lives of people in Bigodi Trading Center. It’s one of the best examples in the world of your money going to support genuine sustainable development projects. And it’s one of the most accessible wildlife tours in East Africa for backpackers on a tight budget.
In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know about doing the Bigodi Swamp Walk during your Uganda safari!
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What is the Bigodi Swamp Walk?
I know, “swamp walk” doesn’t sound super appealing. But trust me on this — visiting the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary is extremely rewarding. I promise you won’t even get muddy and gross.
The Bigodi Swamp Walk is a 5-km, three-hour tour through this protected forest on the outskirts of Bigodi Trading Center. The trail circles the swamp — you don’t actually go through the swamp itself — and through the subsistence farms around the edges.
You’ll do the walk with a very knowledgeable guide from the local community. The guide will point out the various bird and monkey species (and they all carry binoculars so you can get a good look). But they’ll also tell you about life in Bigodi, and how folks in the community coexist with some of the mischievous wildlife like chimps and baboons.
The walk is completely flat, so you don’t have to be in good shape and it’s reasonably accessible for all ages. The only thing to consider is that you’ll have to traverse a few rickety boardwalks, including one that’s more than half a kilometer long.
What types of wildlife can you expect to see in the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary?
The main reason people come to Bigodi is to see birds and monkeys. You have a small possibility of seeing antelope or other small forest wildlife as well. The plant life is also spectacular — you’ve never seen an untouched papyrus swamp like this before.
Bigodi is unique in that it sits right at the junction of central African rainforests and the East African Rift Valley. So it’s at the very far eastern end of the range of some West African bird species. Because of the complicated politics of central Africa, this is one of the only safe places in the world to see some of these species.
The prized bird of the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary is the Blue Turaco. You will almost certainly spot it and hear its distinctive call. Other common sightings include a half-dozen types of barbets, weavers, and hornbills. If you arrive very early, you may even find a papyrus gonolek — but they’re quite rare.
Even if you’re not much of a twitcher, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the guides’ excitement at adding to your bird checklist. And really, it’s impossible to travel in Uganda without developing at least a little bit of an interest in bird-watching.
Monkeys are the other main attraction. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see black and white colobus and red colobus. Red-tailed monkeys, L’Hoest’s Monkey, and mangabey are also common. Baboons are ubiquitous and while you’re very unlikely to see any, you’ll definitely spot evidence of the presence of chimpanzees.
How to get to Bigodi
The Bigodi Swamp Walk departs from the outskirts of Bigodi Trading Center, 5 km from the chimpanzee tracking trail head in Kibale National Park and about 40 km from Fort Portal.
No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll almost certainly have to pass through Fort Portal to reach Bigodi. This large town is an hour from Kasese (for Queen Elizabeth National Park), four-five hours from Kampala, and a full day of travel from Mbarara (the gateway to Lake Bunyonyi and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest). Link Bus is the most reliable bus company to get here from all of the above destinations, or you can rely on matatus.
Once you reach Fort Portal, you’ll need to take a boda (motorbike taxi) for 15,000 shillings or matatu for 5,000 shillings to reach Bigodi. Matatus take ages to fill up if you don’t leave at the crack of dawn. They depart from the local taxi park across from Mpanga Market.
If you want to reduce transport costs and travel time, you can combine a visit to Bigodi with chimpanzee tracking. This will be easiest if you stay in the area — I recommend Chimpanzee Forest Guesthouse for both campers and mid-range travelers. A boda from the guesthouse to Bigodi costs 10,000 shillings and takes about 20 minutes.
To get from Bigodi to Kanyanchu Visitor’s Center for chimp tracking, you can either walk or take a boda. The walk takes about an hour along the main road, but it requires nerves of steel to pass the large troops of baboons. A boda costs 5,000 shillings.
When you arrive in Bigodi, be sure your driver brings you to the KAFRED office (the Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development). Copycat operations with inferior guides have started operating a bit further down the road.
Organizing your tour of the wetlands sanctuary
The Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary opens at 7:30 am every day, and tours run until 5 pm. You do not need to book in advance — you can just show up and you’ll depart as soon as a guide is available.
If you want to maximize bird sightings, you should aim to arrive as early as possible. Serious bird-watchers can even arrange an earlier start time by contacting KAFRED in advance. If you’re mostly interested in seeing the swamp and/or the monkeys, your start time is less important.
Upon arrival at the Bigodi Swamp Walk office, you’ll meet your guide and pay your admission fee. You can pay in dollars or shillings, but if you pay in dollars it’s $10 more expensive — $23 vs. 50,000 shillings. You can use cash or mobile money (no card) and the nearest ATM is in Fort Portal, so come prepared. Be sure to bring at least 10,000 shillings to tip your guide as well.
Your guide will offer you the opportunity to rent gumboots (around $3) or borrow a pair of binoculars as well. Then, you’ll get a brief overview of the community tourism project before departing for your tour.
My Bigodi Swamp Walk Experience
I arrived in Bigodi around 8 am and immediately departed for the walk with my guide, John. We entered the forest and spotted a Blue Turaco within minutes.
For the first 15 minutes, we meandered through the swamp. In between listening for bird calls, John told me about life in Bigodi and how the Swamp Walk had transformed it from a very poor rural community into a healthy middle-class trading center. With no access to post-secondary education, John probably would’ve been a subsistence farmer. But when he had the opportunity to learn more about the wildlife in his community and become a guide, he jumped at the chance. He’s now able to support his family and give back to his neighbors in a way he’d never imagined while growing up.
After a short time, we came across our first monkeys — a huge troop of baboons. As terrifying as these monkeys can be, in Bigodi, it’s actually safe to get quite close to them. The community is religious about not feeding them, and the guides enforce that rule with tourists as well. So instead of seeing humans as a source of food they simply see us as another factor in their habitat.
The baboons barely seemed to pay attention as we came within inches of them. They were far more concerned with each other. John joked that baboon families spend at least half their time getting into fights with their own relatives — and we definitely saw a few examples of that!
We proceeded along the trail and found a couple other baboon families. Then, we came to the 1-km-long boardwalk running through the papyrus swamp. This was where the bulk of the birdlife was, and we spent awhile standing still and watching the forest come to life around us.
We continued on the path and soon reached the prime monkey territory. Within minutes, we spotted at least seven different species. We even got some great close-up views of a baby black-and-white colobus.
We walked through an agricultural area next, where John explained the signs of recent chimpanzee presences. The farmers in the area dread chimps almost as much as they hate baboons. The chimps steal their crops and destroy their fences. One woman we met complained that the previous night, every single one of her jackfruits had been stolen by a chimp.
Finally, we looped back around the side of the swamp. Here, we found lots of red-tailed monkeys swinging in the trees, and a few more colobus. The tour ended with John bringing me into the trading center to find the best Rolex in town.
What to wear and pack for the Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary tour
The Bigodi Swamp Walk runs through dense rainforest. You’ll be on a trail the whole time, but you’ll encounter the usual jungle obstacles like downed logs, mosquitoes, and safari ants.
So you’ll be most comfortable if you wear long sleeves, long pants, socks you can tuck your pants into, and decent hiking boots or trainers. This area also gets tons of rain — even in dry season — so pack a rain jacket.
Even though you’re covering your limbs, you’ll want extra protection from the bugs. I always use this high-DEET bug repellent. Make sure you take your antimalarials as well.
Most of the walk is under the cover of the forest, but you will spend some time in clearings. Bring sunscreen and a hat.
The forest environment makes photography really tricky. You’ll encounter high-contrast lighting environments and lots of camera-destroying water. Your best bet is to bring a camera with a good zoom lens, set the ISO high from the get-go, and accept that you aren’t going to get your best safari photos on this walk.
The single most important thing to maximize your enjoyment of the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary is a pair of binoculars. You can bring your own or rent/borrow them from the tour office.
Finally, bring plenty of water for your swamp walk. You could be hiking for as long as four hours in the warm sun, and there’s nowhere to fill your bottle or buy extra along the way.
The Bigodi Swamp Walk was one of my favorite wildlife experiences in Uganda. I really enjoyed learning about the community from my guide and seeing such a huge variety of monkey species and birds. Plus, the sense of adventure that you get from tramping through a Congolese-style jungle is unparalleled. Chimp tracking may be the main draw to this part of the country, but don’t miss out on the chance to explore Bigodi at the same time!
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