So I’ve just spent the last 2 weeks pulling my hair out stressing about booking our Uganda trip in September. If you just want the facts, go here.
For those who follow mine and Pete’s adventures, you’ll know that we do not like to take tours or use travel agencies. Not that we have any problem against them, we just like to do it ourselves. For me, it’s the freedom and flexibility of doing it yourself, as well as the satisfaction of knowing you’ve accomplished everything through your own hard work. I also really enjoy researching the area and take great pride in organising the trip for other people. Pete also likes it when we do it ourselves, it gives us independence, no other annoying people around us and is generally miles cheaper.
So how about Uganda? Is that the same?
Well whilst browsing Google flights on my phone (one of my favourite ways to pass time), I stumbled across some pretty cheap flights to Entebbe in Uganda from Manchester with Brussels airlines. Relative to the area and considering the peak timing (in September) they were a steal at just under £350 each return with short (3 hour) stopovers. I confirmed holiday dates for work with Pete and within the day I had booked the flights. Perhaps slightly impulsively…
Since booking, many people have asked where we’re going on our next holiday. To which they then reply “Why Uganda?”
Landlocked in Central-East Africa, Uganda has a rich (and at times difficult) history and culture. It borders Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake and the largest tropical lake. Waterfalls, vast rivers and the source of the Nile are also in Uganda. There are beaches (by the lake), grassland savannas holding the ‘big 5’ that people expect in places like Kenya and Tanzania. But tourism is far smaller in Uganda compared to it’s neighboring countries. But mainly, the significant feature of Uganda, for us, is that it falls within Africa’s Great Rift Valley. A dramatic region dotted with volcanoes and canyons. In Uganda the area is covered in a thick layer of tropical rainforest.
Which brings us to possibly the main reason why most people visit Uganda; the Moutain Gorillas.
Moutain Gorillas live only in 3 countries in the World; Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. Since the kidnapping of a group tracking Gorillas in DRC, this area is now off limits and Rwanda recently put the price of their Gorilla tracking permits up to $1500 each to attract high-end tourism…
In Uganda, there are 5 places you can track Gorillas, 4 of these are located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and 1 is in Mgahinga National Park. In total over the 5 areas there are 120 permits available a day, since only 8 people are allowed to visit one Gorilla family a day. All gorilla permits are priced at $600 per person, and sadly I believe the UWA (Ugandan wildlife authority) no longer offers off-peak tickets for $450… so they’re all $600.
From what I read, Buhoma is the most accessible by road, which is apparently mostly tarmacked followed by Ruhija, Rushaga and then Nkuringo.
Accommodation seems to vary in each of the 4 regions of Bwindi that I looked at. There are lots of mid to high-end options in Buhoma and Rushaga with low to high options in Ruhija and few options in Nkuringo. However, I also found that the drive time between the adjacent sites is only around 30-40 minutes. So it is possible to stay in Rushaga and trek in Nkuringo if you wake up early and make the journey in the morning before the trek starts for example.
Generally, accommodation seems overpriced in this region, the cheaper places look to be £40-50 a night (Bwindi Backpackers Nkuringo and Hornbill Lodge Ruhija) but do look pretty tragic compared to all other places I’ve seen online… I saved up some hotels.com rewards so we could stay at more mid-range places (Ichumbi Lodge Rushaga (before) and Trackers Lodge Buhoma (after)) which were about £120-150 a night (but cost me only £15-50 with the reward).
Accessibility of the Gorillas at each site also varies. I read many reports of the Buhoma groups being close to the gate generally, with an ‘easy’ (I guess easier) trek to see them. Ruhija is a little harder, but still ok. It seems the North of Bwindi is easier to traverse. On the converse, Rushaga and especially Nkuringo are difficult treks, with Nkuringo being the most physically demanding…
All treks start at 8:30 – 9am, but you are required to be at the gate to meet the ranger at 8am for a briefing and to prepare.
You do not need to be on a tour to join a Gorilla trek. All you need is your permit for the day you plan to track the Gorillas, and to turn up at the right time. A ranger for the park takes the group of 8 out into the forest. Local people also wait at the gate to offer assistance as a porter. I’m not sure how this works really, but apparently they are cheap and it does help the economy locally, since most of the $600 conservation fee isn’t seen by the communities displaced by tourism.
So, in theory, it’s relatively easy to visit Uganda by yourself, not in a tour group. You can hire a car on arrival in Entebbe, drive the 8-9 hours to Bwindi (perhaps stopping mid-way at Mbale national park or Bunyonyi Lake – which is what we had initially planned to do), stay in Bwindi, visit the Gorillas with your permit and boom… experience of a lifetime…
Only… it’s not that easy…
- You can’t book remotely – you can only book in person at a UWA site, with cash in USD. This means you will have to contact a person in Uganda to do this for you. Hotels in the Bwindi region should be able to help. But I contacted mine and they sent a lazy email back and didn’t follow up. The second option is to use the person who you are hiring your car from. Most will do this for free if you hire a car off them. This is what I did, I used Tristar Africa Skimmer Safaris.
- There are no live updates of which permits are available – the only way to find out what permits are available is to ask your Ugandan contact to physically visit or phone the UWA to find out. Most likely, by the time they get back to you, those permits are already gone… which brings me to my next fact…
- Gorilla permits are in HIGH DEMAND! As mentioned, there are literally only 80 permits available per day. In the high season these can sell out months in advance. I had 2 occasions with my contact in Uganda where he gave me the availability, I chose a date and site, he went to reserve the ticket and by that time, they had gone… 😦
- Transferring money to Uganda is HARD! Which leads me to my final point. Most agencies require the $600 to be transferred to their account BEFORE they book the permits. This is because permits are not refundable or exchangeable. Unlike transferring money throughout Europe or other parts of the World, most banks don’t even allow transfers to Uganda – mine wouldn’t, I tried on Nationwide and via my Starling app account. Uganda doesn’t use PayPal, it uses the PesaPal equivalent, but this comes with hefty fees. The other thing to consider is that the agent wants the money in their USD account (not UGX), because they need to buy the permit in dollars. Services like Western Union, MoneyCorp and MoneyGram, would allow transfers to Uganda, but only in Ugandan Shillings and also came with ridiculous fees… In the end, and after some hassle and cancellations using Azimo, I managed to do the transfer with HiFX and it was in my contact’s account within the hour!
The advice would be to plan way in advance, and contact multiple agencies at the start. Work with the one you feel most comfortable or trusting of. I contacted 2 companies at the start, but one went above and beyond trying to find information on which permits were left available. So I transferred the money to them and booked my car with them.
Yes, booking a tour and getting them to organise everything would have alleviated the stress, worries and heartbreak (when at one point we thought we would not be able to see Gorillas at all, and even considered rearranging our flights)… BUT, this way we have saved the $500 or so extra that the tour group will charge and have the freedom and flexibility afterwards to drive where we want.
We did have to make some small compromises…. I had initially planned to drive to Rushaga gate via stops in Mburo and Bunyonyi to break up the big journey. But because of availability, we had to book the permits for the second day of our holiday. Meaning we will start our 8 day trip with a 9 hour drive on the first day. Not ideal, but a small price to pay to see Gorillas, safe in the knowledge we have full control of our own holiday 🙂
There’s just something so satisfying about self-drive holidays. I hope this guide helps others plan their own journies to Bwindi. 🙂