Lake Mburo National Park Without a Tour: The Cheapest Safari in Africa

One of the little-known Lake Mburo National Park facts is that you can see zebras without paying the park entrance fee.

Around 6 am, the savanna comes to life. Warthogs scratch in the dirt. A huge variety of bird species welcome the new day with their unique calls. An impala leaps across the road. Bush bucks rustle in the shrubs. A herd of zebras keeps a watchful eye for the leopard that supposedly inhabits the area. You can see all this and more in Lake Mburo National Park in Uganda — home to the best-value safari in Africa.

Long overlooked due to pricey accommodation and a lack of traditional “Big 5” wildlife, Lake Mburo is finally starting to attract budget travelers. A new camp just outside the park gates offers some of the cheapest wildlife experiences on the continent. You can get here by public transport. And its location halfway between Kampala and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest makes it a logical stop before or after gorilla trekking.

In this post, I’ll give you everything you need to know to plan a safari in Lake Mburo National Park Uganda on a budget. You may not see lions or elephants, but it’s still a pretty great way to get up close to African wildlife!

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What types of wildlife can you expect to see in Lake Mburo National Park?

Unlike Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth, zebras are plentiful in Lake Mburo.
There may not be any lions in Lake Mburo National Park, but there are tons of zebras!

If you came to Africa to see nothing but lions and elephants, a safari in Lake Mburo National Park might not be for you. Neither of these iconic species lives in the park. And of course, since rhinos have been wiped out of all Ugandan parks, you won’t see any of those either.

But Lake Mburo isn’t totally Big 5-free. You’ll still see buffalo galore. And if you get really lucky, you might see a leopard. When I visited in September 2019, the resident leopard by Nshara Gate even had a cub!

For most people, the biggest draw to this park is the plains wildlife. It’s one of the only places in Uganda where you can see zebras (along with Kidepo Valley National Park). It’s the only place in the country where you can see elands, the continent’s largest antelope. And you’ll see impala and warthogs galore, as well as some giraffes and hippos. Waterbuck, bushbuck, and oribi are also common. Around dusk you’ll spot hyenas, and baboons are everywhere.

Additionally, Lake Mburo is a fantastic bird-watching destination. Over 350 species inhabit the park (find a checklist of birds in Lake Mburo National Park here).

Finally, Lake Mburo is in the Ankole Kingdom. That makes it the best place in Uganda to spot the unique Ankole cow. I know, you didn’t come all the way to Africa to see livestock, but this species of cattle has a fascinating backstory and is deeply linked to the culture of the region. And it may vanish within a decade.

Park Entrance Fees

The bird life in Uganda is incredible -- the Ankole region has over 350 species.
Fees for foreign non-residents are $40 for the day, but you can see plenty of wildlife outside the park.

The Lake Mburo National Park entrance fee structure is the same as all other major national parks in Uganda. You have to pay for a permit granting you access for 24 hours, plus a vehicle fee that covers your entire stay.

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In 2019, the park entrance fee for Lake Mburo National Park is $40 for foreign non-residents. The vehicle fee is 30,000 shillings.

You can pay the fees at either of the park gates in dollars or shillings.

Activities in Lake Mburo National Park

The cheapest safari in Africa is a walking safari in Uganda, where you can get up close to impala
You could never get this close to impalas in a vehicle — one reason why a walking safari is so great.

One of the things that makes Lake Mburo National Park such a great safari destination is the variety of wildlife experiences on offer.

You can, of course, do a traditional game drive. The game tracks running north from the lake offer the best wildlife viewing. If you have your own vehicle, the only cost is park entry. You can also hire a Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger to ride with you (which helps immensely with spotting) for $20. Most camps in the area will let you use a rental vehicle for $100 a day, including driver and petrol.

You can also do a boat trip on the namesake lake. You have a good chance of spotting hippos on this trip, and you might see giraffes bending their legs awkwardly to get a drink. The price is $30 plus park entrance, and you need a vehicle to get to the boat launch.

Another unique activity in this Ugandan national park is the opportunity to do a horseback safari. This can only be arranged through Mihingo Lodge. It costs $60 for a one-hour ride, plus park entrance. Discounts are available if you’re staying at the lodge.

But for travelers on a budget, Lake Mburo offers two exceptional-value safaris: a bush walk and a cycling safari. The big advantage to these activities is you can do them outside the park — avoiding park entrance fees. The bush walk costs just $10 for a three-hour walk, while the cycling safari costs $25. And you’ll see almost all the same wildlife — the only animals inside the park that you won’t see outside are buffalo and giraffes.

You can book all activities at either park entrance gate, or through your camp or lodge nearby.

The cheapest safari in Africa: What to expect on a bush walk

If you do a walking safari, cycling safari, or horseback safari in Lake Mburo National Park, listen to your guide's instructions -- even warthogs can be dangerous!
Warthogs sniffing in the dirt — they look innocent, but they can break your leg if they charge you.

When I found out I could see zebras for just $10 outside Lake Mburo National Park, I jumped at the chance. I organized a guide through my camp and made arrangements to set off at 6 am, when wildlife would be active.

My guide John and I headed out of the camp down a small dirt trail. Birds were chirping all around us — John immediately pointed out six different species.

We’d been walking for about five minutes when we spotted our first herd of zebras. There were a dozen of them, grazing in the early morning light. They paid absolutely no attention to us as we approached within ten meters. John spent a few minutes telling me all about zebra behavior. Did you know they can kill a lion with a single kick!?

We continued along the path and a few minutes later, we spotted some impala. Impala are rare in Uganda, and they’re shy, so we were quite lucky to find a pod of bachelors. They let us get about 20 meters away before they darted off into the bushes.

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Next, we picked up a different herd of zebras and followed them through the bush. It was fascinating to see their movements and how they interacted with the environment. We watched them form a line to walk, with the babies in the middle for protection.

It wasn’t long before we came across the most dangerous animal on a walking safari in Lake Mburo — a mother warthog (and her babies). Warthogs’ tusks are sharp and they’re surprisingly strong animals. If they charge a human, they can break bones!

The walk continued for a total of three hours. We also saw bushbuck and oribi, and at least 30 different bird species. Finally, right as we were walking back to camp, a family of baboons in a tree threw some fruits at us! We arrived back at camp around 9:30 am, just in time for breakfast.

While I certainly wouldn’t compare my bush walk to the thrills of seeing lions or elephants, it was a totally unique experience to get that close to the animals on foot. They were much less nervous around us than in a car or a boat (presumably we were a lot quieter!). And it was great to have a private tour with just my guide, and no other tourists around — I could ask as many questions as I wanted, and didn’t have to compete for the best photo spots.

How to get to Lake Mburo National Park on public transport

Classic savanna landscape in Uganda
The best Lake Mburo accommodation is near the park gate, a 30-minute boda ride from Akageti Trading Center.

The vast majority of visitors to Lake Mburo get here on a private tour — usually on the way to trekking with gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It’s about a three-hour drive from Kampala or a four-hour drive from Kabale.

However, if you’re traveling in Uganda on a budget, Lake Mburo is one of the parks you can visit without private transport. You just need to leave early and employ a lot of patience.

Coming from the north, pick up an Mbarara-bound bus or matatu. It should cost around 10,000 shillings from Kampala or 5,000 from Masaka. Tell the driver you’re going to Akageti Trading Center.

Coming from the south, your first destination is Mbarara. Uganda’s second-largest city is a major route junction, so you’ll need to change vehicles here if you’re coming from Queen Elizabeth National Park or Kabale. The bus will either drop you off at the bus/taxi park or on the main road half a kilometer away at a Shell station (walk toward the Ankole cow statue in the roundabout and take the road branching left up the hill to reach the taxi park).

The Mbarara taxi park is one of the more unpleasant places in Uganda — chaotic, hot, and it takes ages for an onward matatu to fill. As soon as you walk in, people will surround you to ask where you’re going. Stay calm and ask for a Masaka-bound vehicle. Tell the ticket salesman that you’re going to Akageti. It should cost 1,000 shillings, but drivers in Mbarara relentlessly overcharge and you’ll probably have to pay at least 3,000.

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From Akageti, you can pick up a boda (motorbike taxi) the final 8 km to Nshara Gate, where there are a number of budget camps. This costs 5,000 shillings. It’s a dirt road that is quite rough after it rains — keep an eye out for zebras and creepy, prehistoric-looking, ginormous Maribou storks on the way.

When you’re ready to leave Lake Mburo, your camp can call you a body back to the main road. You can flag matatus heading to Mbarara or Masaka/Kampala every 10 minutes or so.

Where to stay and eat: Leopard Tail Rest Camp

The dining area at Leopard Tail Rest Camp, one of the best budget camps in Uganda
My favorite Lake Mburo National Park accommodation is Leopard Tail Rest Camp, thanks to its awesome two-story dining area.

If you’re a budget traveler in Africa, you probably have some serious accommodation envy. While you rough it, eating Rolex and camping in the yards of lodges day in and day out, your fellow travelers are staying in gorgeous thatch-roof bandas with open-air restaurants overlooking the bush.

Well I have good news for you: you can get some of that luxury safari experience on a backpacker budget. The incredible budget accommodation in Lake Mburo National Park, Leopard Tail Rest Camp, knows exactly what overlanders and broke travelers need, and it delivers. (I swear I didn’t get a free stay or any compensation for writing this; I just loved staying there!)

Choose from pitching your own tent, “lazy camping” (camping with rented gear), budget safari tents or all-out glamping luxury. Rates start at just $10 a night, and even the self-camping area offers a remarkable level of privacy.

Everyone uses shared but very clean outdoor toilets and showers. You can get hot water at 7 am and 7 pm.

But the best part of Leopard Tail Rest Camp is its dining area. The restaurant is on the second floor of an open-air banda, with spectacular views of the savanna on all sides. It’s the perfect spot for a sundowner.

The food is quite good and very plentiful — my breakfast came with literally an entire plate of fruit. For each meal you can choose between one daily veggie option or one meat option. Full board costs $25 a night. There is nowhere else to eat in the area, so unless your prepared to self-cater (beware of baboons!), you’ll be eating at the lodge.

With no WiFi or electricity, Leopard Tail Rest Camp offers a legitimate bush experience at a wallet-friendly price. And you can book all your activities through them.

If you have room if your budget for a splurge, the best Lake Mburo lodge is Mihingo Lodge.

Overall, Lake Mburo may not be the once-in-a-lifetime safari destination that you’ll find elsewhere in Uganda and East Africa. But it’s a worthwhile stop on your way south. Plus, who can pass up the chance to see zebras? And it’s easily the best place to do a safari on a budget on the entire continent, with easy access on public transport and bush walks costing just $10. Who says Africa needs to be expensive?

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Looking for a budget safari destination in Africa? Look no further than Lake Mburo National Park in Uganda! See zebras, impalas, warthogs, giraffes, and more on a walking safari or cycling safari. #africa #travel

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