Planning to self-drive Uganda? Good choice! In 1908 Winston Churchill declared Uganda the “Pearl of Africa” in his 1908 book, My African Journey. More than a century later, visitors still flock to find this pearl. After our road trip to Uganda, I can’t disagree with Mr. Churchill. The country is filled with birdlife, vast plains, jungle, rolling hills, and some of the friendliest people in Africa.
We entered Southern Uganda from Rwanda with low expectations for the country. Sure, they hold the world’s largest population of mountain gorillas – but what else would we find?
A road trip through Uganda was a highlight of our African road trip. Besides the endless amount of speed bumps, roads are decent, and traffic police corruption is low. It’s the perfect country to self-drive, with a rental or with your own vehicle, like us!
Here is our ideal self-drive Uganda itinerary.
An Awesome Self Drive Uganda Itinerary
Start your self-drive Uganda adventure in the capital.
Most trips to Uganda will probably involve the capital city of Kampala, although it’s worth mentioning that the international airport is actually in Entebbe. It will take you at least an hour to get to Kampala from Entebbe unless the traffic is horrendous (which it probably will be).
If you arrive by plane late at night, I would recommend staying in Entebbe for the night. We drove through Kampala at 6 pm on a Saturday night, and I have to say that it was the worst traffic I have ever been in my life (and we used to live in NYC), taking us five hours in standstill traffic to reach our destination.
I thought it may just have been a fluke night, but a few more drives through Kampala proved that wrong while we were trying to sell our truck. The traffic in Kampala is always a nightmare.
I recommend hanging out in Entebbe to escape city pollution and traffic. We spent a few days relaxing on the shores of Lake Victoria at the Protea Entebbe and found it to be a nice refuge away from the city.
If you are looking for a few days to kill in the area, I recommend heading to the Mabamba Swamp, where the famous Shoebill Storks live. Alternatively, take a boat ride out on Lake Victoria or relax in the Entebbe Botanical Gardens.
Where to stay in Entebbe?
We stayed a few days at the Protea Entebbe Hotel right on Lake Victoria. The hotel is clean, comfortable, and minutes away from the airport (free airport transport, too!).
Continue onto Jinja, the capital of adventure.
For a good reason, Jinja is dubbed “the adventure capital of East Africa.” The city of Jinja is located at the source of the Nile River. Yes, the world’s longest river starts right in Jinja, making it a hotspot for tourists in Uganda.
We spent a few days here relaxing on the great Nile River and enjoying some delicious coffee and cafe treats at The Deli. Of course, the highlight of our time in Jinja was white water rafting down the Nile.
White water rafting on the Nile is one of the most popular things to do in the country. We chose to spend our day with Nalubale Rafting and started the trip at 9 am near where we stayed – The Haven. Cameron and I were put in a group with five other daring souls from around the world.
Our local Ugandan guide was an experienced rafter and spent a good deal of time instructing us on the basics of paddling and what to do in emergencies.
I’ve been white water rafting four times now. I thought I could handle everything twice in the United States, once in Bali, and once in Croatia. One tumble out of my raft on class five rapids let me know the adventure was on. We spent the entire day dodging rapids, flipping rafts, and gulping in fresh Nile River water. This isn’t your walk in the park rafting, folks – the Nile is serious.
Yes, we all lived thanks to the experienced guys and girls of Nalubale who ensured our safety every step of the way. However, after just two flips of the raft, all seven of us in our raft were thinking the same thing.
Has anyone ever died doing this?
Rafting the Nile is extremely fun, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a real adrenaline-pumping time in Uganda. If you’re not prone to water sports, Jinja is also famed for having ATV Quadbike Safaris and bungee jumping over the Nile. Or you can say screw the whole adventure thing and opt for a brewery tour of the Nile Brewery.
Where to stay in Jinja?
Definitely, the top place to camp is The Haven. This was one of the best campsites we found in all of Africa. The bathrooms are clean, incredible view, and they even have free WiFi.
Murchison Falls National Park
Head north to Murchison Falls
It’s hard to believe that the entire Nile River squeezes itself through just a 7-meter wide gap making Murchison Falls. The waterfall is 43 meters high and makes for an impressive sight to see.
Besides the beautiful falls, Murchison National Park is the home of 76 mammals and 451 birds. It also holds Uganda’s largest population of crocodiles, so I wouldn’t recommend sunbathing along the river banks. A boat trip to the base of the falls runs visitors $30 per person.
Where to stay in Murchison?
The Red Chili Rest Camp is an excellent place to camp while visiting Murchison. They have a full restaurant and, more importantly, a full bar. Red Chili Rest Camp also organizes safaris in Murchison.
Kibale National Park
Continue to Fort Portal and see the Chimps in Kibale
Bwindi may have the mountain gorillas but head to Kibale National Forest if you want to come face-to-face with our closest living relative. Located about an hour’s drive from Fort Portal, Kibale National Forest is the world’s primate capital. With 13 different species of primates, it’s no wonder where they get their name.
Visitors flock here to get an up-close encounter with our closest relative – the chimpanzee. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority can organize chimp permits. AT $200, they come in as a much cheaper alternative to gorilla trekking in Uganda.
It’s advisable to arrange your permits before getting to Uganda; however, we found that people organized their trips the day off during the low season. Finding the chimps took us less than an hour, and we observed them at a close distance once we spotted the first troop. Visitors are given an hour of observation time with the chimps, during which we saw about 20 different chimps.
The male chimps are the most habituated to humans and are the least shy group. We heard them call and interact with one another and even caught two grooming! We did see female chimps, but they tended to hang out high in the trees with their young.
It’s worth noting that Cameron and I went chimp trekking in the Nyungwe forest in Rwanda but enjoyed our time in Uganda more. The forest was easier to navigate, trekking the chimps took less time, and we could interact better with them in Uganda. That’s not to say that the experience in Rwanda wasn’t memorable, though!
Where to stay when Chimp Trekking?
We decided to park it at the Primate Lodge for a few days in the lush Ugandan forest. Nestled away from the hustle and bustle of life, The Primate Lodge is a five-minute walk away from the Kibale forest entrance. Each of the nine bandas is spread out to allow complete privacy for all guests.
All meals are fully inclusive at the Primate Lodge, and the food is delicious. The local staff is kind and attentive to all of our meal requests for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even dining in the comfort of our own room was no problem at all.
We arrived very late at night after getting completely lost in rural African villages and asked the staff if we could have our dinner in our room – at 10 pm. They happily catered to us and understood the long 10-hour drive we had to reach them. We were both so thankful for the kindness of the staff, the taste of the food, and the overall comfort of the spacious banda.
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Queen Elizabeth National Park
Go on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is 1978km in size. 95 African animals and over 600 different species of birds call the park home! Queen Elizabeth is the perfect place to head before or after you visit Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
We were expecting a long drive after our fantastic day of gorilla trekking in Uganda, but instead, we drove just two hours to the southern entrance of Queen Elizabeth. The southern region of the park is known as Ishasha. It is a great spot to search for some famous tree-climbing lions.
The tree-climbing lions only hang out in two places worldwide (Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania is the other). We went into the park just before sunset, and low and behold, 30 minutes in, we spotted her – a real tree climbing lioness.
The next day we self-drove through the park to reach the Mweya peninsula. You can self-drive on the main road through the park without paying vehicle or park fees. The whole time you stand a chance of spotting Africa’s famous wildlife.
It wasn’t until we hit the Mweya park entrance about 100 km from Ishasha that we officially entered the park and presented our park passes. We made our way to Mweya lodge for some lunch but found it overpriced and went next door to Canteen for a more affordable meal.
From there, we set out to see the crater lakes of Queen Elizabeth. The drive around the crater lakes is one of the most stunning in all of Africa. The pockmarked land with dozens of crater lakes made us feel small. Two hours on the road, we never saw anyone else in a two-hour drive along the rim of the craters.
We never managed to see much wildlife in Queen Elizabeth, but the tree-climbing lions and famous crater lakes made it all worth it.
Where to stay in Queen Elizabeth National Park?
We stayed at a campsite and lodge called @ the River. I found the price to be too high for the lodge itself, but it is one of the cheaper places to stay in Ishasha. If you plan to stay at Mweya, the Mweya campsite is adequate for a night or two. A more luxurious option is the Mweya Lodge.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
See some of the last gorillas in Bwindi.
Bwindi National Forest is famed for its population of mountain gorillas. The UWA offers the unique experience of a trek into the forest to catch a glimpse of critically endangered species. It is a highlight and draws many tourists who come to Uganda, one of Africa’s most incredible experiences.
Gorilla trekking permits are not cheap at $700 a permit; however, the experience is unforgettable. We trekked high into the Bwindi Forest to find a family of 17 gorillas. Visitors are given an hour with the gorillas to watch the group play, eat, and socialize.
Besides gorilla trekking in Bwindi National Park, visitors are provided the ability to hike to beautiful waterfalls in the area and enjoy the dense jungle.
Where to Stay when Gorilla Trekking?
We stayed at the Bwindi Lodge, a ten-minute walk away from the park headquarters in Buhoma. If you want to treat yourself, I highly recommend checking out Volcanoes Safaris. Visitors should look at the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge or Buhoma Community Campsite for a more budget-friendly option.
Continue down to the Rwanda border and check out Lake Bunyoni
It has been said that Lake Bunyoni may be one of Africa’s most beautiful lakes. Now that is debatable, but it is a lovely lake that is perfect to relax on for a few days. Lake Bunyoni was our first stop as we drove up from Rwanda. From the Cyanika border, it took us about three hours through rolling hills to reach our destination by car.
Lake Bunyoni is said to be the “place of many birds,” so if you are even slightly into birding, I recommend stopping here.
A popular thing to do on Lake Bunyoni is to take a small boat around to visit the various islands that occupy the tiny lake. Akampene, Bushara, Kyahugye, Bucuranuka, Bwama, and Njuyeera are some of the more popular islands to visit.
Lake Bunyoni is the perfect place if you just don’t want to do anything at all. We found great joy in just sitting with a coffee while overlooking the peacefulness of our surroundings.
You can either drive into Rwanda and continue your overland trip or return to the capital, completing your self-drive Uganda road trip.
Consider adding on Kidepo Valley National Park
Kidepo is almost a 10-hour drive from Kampala, so you may not have time to drive there. It’s almost as far north in Uganda as you can get as it borders South Sudan. However, it would be a great place to add on if you have the time.
We never had the chance to visit Kidepo, but I feel I should give it a special mention as just about every Ugandan we spoke to absolutely loves the park. Kidepo is about as far north as you can get in Uganda and lies right next to Sudan and Kenya. It takes about ten hours to get to Kampala, isolating the park.
Its isolation is what many visitors dream as they will have almost the entire park to themselves to see some of the 77 different species of mammals. The park is best visited during the dry season when animals flock to the few watering holes near Apoka.
Where to stay in Kidepo?
Our Best Uganda Travel Tips
- If you’re brave, try taking a boda boda around Uganda. They are essentially motorcycle taxis best used for short distances. We took them a handful of times just to go short distances, but be warned that they aren’t for the faint of heart. Drivers drive fast and squeeze in and out of traffic. We saw three boda-boda crashes in Kampala – no one was seriously hurt those times.
- The National Bird of Uganda is the crested crane and can be found on the nation’s flag.
- Make sure to try a Rolex. A rolex is a rolled-up Chapati with whipped egg and various vegetables inside. You can find this on any Ugandan street corner for less than 5000 Shilling.
- Visas: Americans traveling to Uganda can expect to pay $50 USD, cash only, for a single entry visa. If you have plans to visit Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, visitors can obtain an East Africa multiple entry visa for $100 cash at the border. Be sure to apply for this visa three days before entry online.
- The Ugandans are friendly people that avoid conflict. No wonder Uganda was named one of the friendliest countries in the world.
- We never felt threatened in Uganda. Even after sitting in standstill traffic in downtown Kampala at night. However, it is still a developing nation so be sure to use common sense.
- The national Park Costs for foreign registered cars are insanely high. Non-residents can expect to pay $40 per day for park entry and $150 per vehicle per day.
- The Ugandan Shilling is the national currency. ATMs can only be found in large towns. Always make sure to carry enough cash on you, as credit cards are rarely accepted outside of Kampala.
- We experienced absolutely no hassle from the police in Uganda. Unlike the constant police encounters we had in Tanzania.
- Guess what? We sold our car in Entebbe! Read here to see what that experience was like.
Plan Your Trip to Africa
- Travel Insurance: We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen while traveling so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Travel Waterbottle: When we’re uncertain about the water supply we use our Grayl Purifier. It’s come in exceptionally handy around Africa.
- Camera Gear: Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Africa. We love the Sony RX100V for a pocket-size camera and the Fujifilm XT-4 for a professional camera. Check out our favorite cameras for Africa.
- Safari Clothes: Lightweight, beige, and moisture-wicking clothing are great for traveling Africa. See our favorite safari clothing here.
- Safari Hat: A good hat is both stylish and functional.
- Safari Bag: A durable bag is ideal for traveling around Africa.
- Safari Pants: We recommend neutral-colored pants as they’re great at hiding dirt and can match most shirt colors.
- Safari Shirt: Shirts like these are lightweight and keep the bugs away!
- Boots: While you don’t need to wear sturdy shoes every day, at least one pair of safari boots will make your trip nicer!
- Travel Adapter: You’ll need a special travel adapter for traveling Africa. Get one before you get there so you don’t pay a premium on the ground.