One of the best trips I ever took was a short 10 days in Uganda and Rwanda. Compared to other parts of Africa distances are more manageable and therefore even shorter trips can work well. It is best to arrange a driver to take you everywhere and guide in safaris. There are several local tour operators you can easily locate on Trip Advisor. We used the Uganda Safari Company and they were amazing. Try not to use a tour operator in your country as all they will do is contact a local one and charge you on top. Our driver became a friend, his name is Kisseka.
Here the trip highlights and some tips to make everything work smoothly:
Gorilla tracking. This is one of the most beautiful and touching experiences you will have in your lifetime. This is not just travel it is a true spiritual experience. I recommend you do this on both sides of the border, you can see them in Uganda (Bwindi National Park) and Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park of the Virunga) separately, this will drastically lower your chances of disappointment. When I went there I saw them in both places and it was quite different: wilder in Rwanda with many trees and foliage making the sighting more thrilling, much more open spaced in Uganda with a clearer view. These wonderful animals come so close to you that you can touch them (DON’T!) and yet you feel at peace and have zero fear. If you look at their eyes you can totally recognize a similarity to humans, you almost wonder when they are going to start talking to you!
A few tips:
- Book months in advance. You need a permit to enter the national parks where gorillas live and these are restricted to few per day. These are quite expensive (600USD in Uganda, 750USD in Rwanda – per person) but all proceeds are shared among local villages so to protect the highly-endangered species from poachers
- No children. You need to be at least 15 years old to enter the park
- Wear proper tracking shoes. You need tight, ankle height shoes which will not come off if you put your foot deep in the mud. Tracking will take you through different terrain and you need to make sure your shoes stay where they should be
Dian Fossey Research Camp. Dian Fossey was an American zoologist who went to live among Gorillas in Rwanda and was eventually killed by poachers because of her protectionist efforts. She was made famous in the celebrated movie “Gorillas in the mist” starring Sigourney Weaver. You can go visit her camp if you can brave the several hours’ uphill trek. It is well worth as you will learn a lot about her life, her work and her struggles. I was very touched thinking about a woman living pretty much alone on those impenetrable mountains at that time. You also get to see the tombs of the gorillas who died there, including the famous “Digit”.
- Wear comfy clothes which will not make you too hot. The trek is long and steep.
- Bring some energy bars and plenty of water
- Make sure you get a knowledgeable guide. The camp is mostly in ruin following the Rwandan civil war and you need explanation for everything to come to life.
Safari. Uganda has several national reserves where you can enjoy a game drive. We went to Queen Elizabeth National Park and truly enjoyed our time there. Aside from the big game you expect to see, we were amazed by the incredible number of birds of all colours. In fact, we met many bird watchers while we were there. Also, the park is not as busy as the ones in Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa so you can have a more authentic experience.
Camps. While remote these countries have some of the nicest camps I have ever been to. The Gorilla Forest Camp in Bwindi was truly amazing. Luxury tents, great service and warm cookies in the morning. It is a perfect oasis after a long day tracking in the mountains. In Rwanda the Volcanoes Virunga Lodge also will not disappoint.
- I prefer tented camps. They are very luxurious and give a much more authentic experience
- Make sure not to bring food in the room, it attracts the attention of the many animals around you, you may not want it!
- Do not get out of your room at night for any reason. If you see an animal from your tent or room, make sure you do not flash it with a camera! It is simple to be safe but it is amazing how humans can do silly things at times
Towns. Both Kigali in Rwanda and Entebbe in Uganda are worth spending a few hours in if you have the time. Kigali in particular has many monuments remembering the genocide. These can be very distressing but I feel it is a due homage to the memory of the many people who died there.
Finally, some books and movies to read beforehand:
- “The Last King of Scotland” is a work of fiction but provides great insight into Ugandan history. This one is a must!
- “Shake hands with the devil” is the story told by Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian soldier who was left helpless in Rwanda by the UN. Will get you angry but what a great read.
- “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” is a journalistic story of the Rwandan genocide. Tough read but very well written
- The movie adaptation of The Last King of Scotland earned Forrest Whitaker an Oscar for his role as Idi Amin
- Hotel Rwanda, another Oscar winning movie
- Sometimes in April, a true masterpiece not to be missed. Hard to watch!
I hope this article will inspire you to visit these wonderful places, I promise you this will be much more than a simple trip for you and your loved ones!