One of the biggest challenges backpackers have in Africa is that life is super cheap, but activities are insanely expensive. And at the top of the list of pricey activities are safaris. This is because you can’t go on safari without having someone drive you around. And private drivers = lots of money. Luckily, Uganda has a couple of parks you can reach on public transport — including its headline safari park, Queen Elizabeth. Because you can take public transport to Queen Elizabeth National Park, it’s one of the best destinations on the continent for a budget safari!
You can reach Queen Elizabeth by bus from any destination in southwest Uganda, or from Kampala, in less than a day. Your destination is the mid-sized town of Katunguru. The town straddles the Kazinga Channel less than 5 km away from the epic Kasenyi Plains game-viewing circuit. You may even spot buffalo on the bus as you arrive!
Once you reach Queen Elizabeth National Park on public transport, you’ll still need to hire a driver to take you around the park. Still, this comes at a total cost of around $100 for the day for your group — instead of $350+ per person for a 3-day safari out of Kampala.
In this post, I’ll cover the step-by-step instructions to travel to Queen Elizabeth National Park without a tour. Keep reading to save hundreds on your Uganda safari!
One note on terminology: In this post, I’m following Ugandan convention and using the terms “taxi” and “matatu” interchangeably. Both refer to 14-seat minivans with blue bands around them (rather than private vehicles that you hire for a specific trip). I also referred to the stations that these vehicles leave from as the “taxi park,” and alternative departure points as “taxi stages” — no one in Uganda will understand you if you ask for a “matatu station” or “bus stop.”
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Public transport to Queen Elizabeth National Park from Kampala
Queen Elizabeth National Park is a great first stop on any Uganda travel itinerary after leaving the capital. This is going to be a long travel day — 7-8 hours — but it’s also the easiest option for reaching the park.
Step One: Go to the Link Bus terminal in Kampala
If you’re staying in Kampala on a budget, chances are you’re at one of the handful of backpacker hostels. While the city has some great cheap digs (like Red Chilli Hideaway), none of them are particularly close to the bus stations. So the first thing you’ll need to do is get to the city center.
It’s pretty easy to get into the city on a matatu from any of the backpackers. Simply head to the main trunk route (your accommodation can point you there) and flag down any passing matatu. Most of them drop passengers in the giant [email protected]# that is the taxi and bus park area in downtown Kampala.
Alternatively, brave the streets on a boda (motorcycle taxi). This isn’t for the faint of heart. Kampala’s traffic is insane, and boda drivers are even more insane. But if you call a driver through the Safe Boda initiative, it’s a reasonably reliable bet.
Regardless of how you get there, tell the driver that your destination is the Link Bus terminal. It’s on Namirembe Rd., next to the Kisenyi Bus Terminal, more or less across the street from the New Taxi Park. (This entire area is a nightmare of overlapping bus stations and taxi parks — just look for the big green-and-yellow “Link Bus” signs.)
Step two: Buy your ticket and get on the bus
Walk up to the ticket window and tell the staff that you’re going to Katunguru. They’ll sell you a ticket for 30,000 shillings.
Pay close attention to which bus they tell you to get on. Most Link Buses departing from Kampala go to Kasese via Fort Portal. You need one of the handful that takes the southern route through Mbarara. If you get on the wrong bus, you’ll need to change in Kasese — where you’ll probably get stuck for the night.
Once you’re on the bus, it’s an easy 7-8 hour ride to Katunguru. The bus attendant will tell you when you arrive in Katunguru.
Getting to Queen Elizabeth from Kabale or Lake Mburo
If you’re not trying to take public transport to Queen Elizabeth all the way from Kampala, you’re going to need to change vehicles in either Mbarara or Ishaka. You’ll be stuck with taxis/matatus in this case. So leave as early as possible to reduce wait time.
Step One: Get to Mbarara
If you’re coming from Lake Mburo National Park or Kabale (for Lake Bunyonyi or Bwindi Impenetrable Forest), your first step will be to reach Mbarara. The city is a major route junction halfway between the Rwandan border and Kampala.
Frequent matatus depart from the Lake Mburo area to Mbarara. You can catch them along the main Masaka-Mbarara road. They pass every 10 minutes in the morning and take less than an hour. Theoretically they cost 1,000 shillings, but you’ll probably pay twice that. Make sure the matatu takes you all the way to the taxi park.
If you’re coming from Kabale, you can take a big bus to Mbarara (which is better for safety reasons). Gateway is the most common company. Unfortunately it has a horrible reputation among Ugandans, but I used them and didn’t have any issues. It costs 15,000 shillings and takes around three hours. Buses drop you at the Shell station a 5-minute walk from the bus park — walk toward the roundabout with the Ankole cow statue, take a left up the hill, and turn left across from the shopping mall.
Step Two: Locate a Katunguru-bound matatu
Now is the ~fun~ part of transport to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The Mbarara taxi park is one of the worst places in Uganda. And you need to navigate the chaos in order to change vehicles.
As soon as you step into the taxi park, you’ll be completely surrounded by touts and fixers trying to convince you to take their van. They might grab you, yell in your face, try to take your bags away from you, or otherwise massively invade your personal space. And if you allow them to “help” you, they’ll demand an extortionate tip.
Stay calm, walk around on your own for a few minutes, and try to get your bearings. Then you can ask someone for a vehicle bound for Katunguru.
You’ll buy a ticket from a conductor hanging around outside your vehicle — you should pay 15,000 shillings but they may demand more. Then, hop in the taxi and wait for it to fill up. This can take an hour or more. Try to entertain yourself by chatting with others in the van or looking at the random trinkets people sell out the windows.
Step three: Buy some bus snacks and brace yourself for a bumpy five hours
The Mbarara-Katunguru road used to be one of the better roads in Uganda. Unfortunately, as of August 2019, it’s undergoing a massive resurfacing project that’s turning the whole thing into a mess. What was once a 3-hour journey now takes five hours or longer.
You’ll definitely want some bus snacks for this trip. I recommend buying a couple of the chapati that people sell in the Mbarara taxi park for 1,000 shillings apiece. Skip the drinks though — it’s not fun having to pee while trapped in a crowded taxi flying down pot-holed roads at 110 km/hour!
The second half of the journey is painfully slow and bumpy. Try not to sit all the way at the back of the vehicle or you’ll hit your head every two minutes. And keep the windows closed — it cannot be healthy to inhale all that dust.
Finally, you’ll drive down a steep plateau and reach an open savanna — the entrance to Queen Elizabeth Park. Remind your driver which lodge you’re heading to and he’ll drop you at the entrance.
Alternative: Change vehicles in Ishaka instead of Mbarara
If you’re coming from the south and want to avoid Mbarara, you can change vehicles in Ishaka instead.
The advantage of this route is you can use an alternative taxi stage so you don’t need to wait for your second vehicle to fill up. Ishaka is also less scammy and chaotic than Mbarara.
The disadvantage is if you’re coming from Kabale, you’ll need to use a taxi instead of a big bus to reach Ishaka. This comes with additional discomfort and safety risks, and costs a bit more (probably 20,000 shillings).
I’d recommend traveling via Ishaka if you get a late start from Kabale — like after 9 am. Transport to Katunguru from Ishaka is more frequent and you’ll be closer to begin with. But before 9 am, it’s worth the diversion to Mbarara for safety reasons.
Transport to Queen Elizabeth National Park from Fort Portal/Kasese
If you’ve been chimp tracking in Kibale Forest, hiking in the Toro Crater Lakes region or the Rwenzori range, or just enjoying the laid-back atmosphere of Fort Portal, you’re in store for an easy and painless trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park. This is by far the quickest access point to the park and you may not even have to change vehicles.
From Fort Portal: Take a Link Bus to Kasese
If you’re starting out from Fort Portal, you could theoretically find a Kampala-bound bus taking the long route through Mbarara. This would allow you to hop off in Katunguru without changing vehicles.
However, those buses don’t depart very frequently. Since you don’t have to travel very far in this direction — the whole trip is under four hours — it may be faster to change vehicles in Kasese.
Step one is to go to Fort Portal’s Link Bus terminal (take a boda to get there). Buy a ticket to Kasese on one of the half-hourly buses for 15,000 shillings. The length of this trip very much depends on road conditions. When I visited in August 2019, the road around Kasese was a mess and it took four hours. But normally it should only take about 90 minutes.
From Kasese: Take a matatu or informal transport to Katunguru
Kasese may be one of Uganda’s larger towns, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Even the main road has a surprisingly sleepy vibe. So this is a low-key, easy place to change vehicles for the final leg of your trip to Katunguru.
Taxis run throughout the day along the main Kasese-Ishaka road that passes through Katunguru. Ideally, you should ask locals for an alternative taxi stage and catch one of the frequent vehicles that is already full. But if no one can point you to one, go to the taxi park, where you may wait 2+ hours for one to fill up.
The good news is once you’re on the road from Kasese, it’s smooth sailing. This is one of the best roads in Uganda. And the trip to Katunguru only takes about an hour.
The Kasese-Katunguru route is also served by a lot of informal public transport. If you ask around for a ride, you may find yourself in the back of a newspaper delivery van, a farm truck, or some guy’s car. These options are widely considered safe in this part of Uganda, although you should pay the comparable taxi fare (5,000 shillings).
Arriving in Katunguru and getting to your Queen Elizabeth accommodation
The public transport to Queen Elizabeth National Park stays on the main road between Kasese and Ishaka. So you’ll either need to choose a lodge on the main road, or arrange additional transport once you arrive.
If you’re staying in one of the hotels in town or at Irungu Forest Safari Lodge, you can ask your driver to drop you at your accommodation. These options are all short, safe walks from the main road.
Most other lodges in the Katunguru area, and all lodges on the Mweya Peninsula, are too far afield to walk. You could risk it for some lodges in Katunguru along the Kazinga Channel — but do check with your lodge ahead of time on the likelihood of encountering hippos.
If you can’t walk, you can take a boda to lodges in Katunguru off the main road. There are two places where you can find drivers — in the village itself (on the east end of town near the channel), or right outside the gate of Irungu Forest Safari Lodge. Expect to pay 5,000 shillings to your lodge a few kilometers away.
If you’re staying on the Mweya Peninsula, your only option is a special hire (private taxi). Don’t even think about taking a boda along the Channel Drive, where you’ll encounter elephants, buffalo, and possibly even lions. And remember you need to pay your park fees ($40) at the Katunguru headquarters before heading to your accommodation. A special hire costs $10-$20.
Leaving Queen Elizabeth National Park by bus or matatu
After your Queen Elizabeth National Park safari, you’ll be ready to head to your next destination in Uganda. Luckily onward transport is even easier than getting here.
All you have to do is head to the main road and flag any matatu heading in the direction you’re going (east for Kampala, Mbarara, Kabale, or Lake Mburo/west for Kasese or Fort Portal). You won’t have to wait more than 10 minutes.
Regardless of your final destination, you’ll probably have to change vehicles in Kasese, Ishaka or Mbarara. This is because a taxi to those destinations is much more likely to stop for you than one going all the way to Kampala or Fort Portal. So get as early of a start as you can stomach.
And that’s it! As you can see, taking public transport to Queen Elizabeth National Park couldn’t be easier. And once you get there, you’re in for a treat — it’s one of the best safari destinations in Africa. Since you didn’t blow all your money on a driver to get there, you can hopefully even afford to splurge on game drives and boat trips!
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