*Guest post by Fatema Waliji*
Uganda is an adventure junkie’s paradise and has tons to offer – from safaris to hiking to waterfall rappelling – but we were limited by time (only had 10 days!) and, after much contemplation, we decided on two things – adventure sports in Jinja and gorilla trekking in Bwindi.
How I ended up spending 10 days in Uganda
I, unexpectedly, found myself back home in Tanzania for six months in the latter half of 2013. I hadn’t lived at home since I left for university in 2008 and was nervous and excited in equal parts to move back home. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I also wanted to travel and explore as much of Tanzania and East Africa as possible. While I had holidayed in Kenya many times, I had never been to Uganda and it was right at the top of my travel list. Fortunately, it didn’t take much effort to convince my sister and a few other friends to join me on this trip.
Logistics: Getting in and around Uganda
We love road trips and decided to drive all the way: Dar es salaam (Tanzania) –> Jinja (Uganda) via Nairobi (Kenya) –> Kampala (Uganda) –> Bwindi (Uganda) –> Dar es salaam (Tanzania) via Bukoba – about 65 hours of driving in total! However, if you are short on time and don’t have much experience driving in East Africa, I would recommend flying to Kampala (closest airport is Entebbe International Airport) and hiring a tour company to take you to Jinja and Bwindi. If you do want to be adventurous and drive, here is the route we took, with overnight stops in Nairobi and Bukoba along the way.
First stop – Adventure sports at Jinja
More commonly known as the source of the Nile River, Jinja is a charming town in East Uganda (about 2 hours from the capital city, Kampala) that has recently emerged as the adventure capital of Uganda. We were psyched to try white-water rafting, quad biking, and bungee jumping during our three days in this little town. There are a lot of companies offering these activities in Jinja and after a lot of research we opted to use Adrift Adventures. They also have a campsite near the Nile river with hostel-style accommodation that worked perfectly for us.
Day 1 – We arrived in Jinja after a grueling 25 hour journey (split over two days, we stayed overnight in Nairobi to break the journey) and spent the rest of the day relaxing at Bujagali Falls. Bujagali is not an actual waterfall but rather a widespread series of large rapids and the perfect picnic spot.
Day 2 – After a relaxing first day, the second day was adrenaline-filled, with bungee jumping in the morning and quad biking in the afternoon. None of us had ever done a bungee jump before so there was a lot of excitement and nervousness in the air. The feeling is absolutely indescribable – when I look back at the first few seconds of the jump all I remember is that I was in some kind of a trance. The bungee springing back broke me from the trance and I spread my arms wide and started screaming at the top of my lungs! After an action packed morning, we headed out to try quad biking through the bumpy countryside – another fun filled activity.
Day 3 – The third day was set aside for whitewater rafting. Jinja is known for its rapids and we opted for the Grade 5 whitewater rafting package. I am a terrible swimmer and have always been terrified of extreme water sports but decided to give it a shot – mostly due to peer pressure :). The guides at Adrift are very well-trained and expertly helped us maneuver our raft through the rapids. We were also sent off with a large group of safety boats that put me at ease. What a day it was! We were surrounded by massive whirlpools and everything was loud, wet and moving fast. We paddled with all of our strength and spent the day screaming, laughing, and crying with delight.
Day 4 – After three fun-filled days in Jinja, we drove to Kampala and checked into a nice hotel for a day to recharge for the next half of the trip – gorilla trekking!
Second stop – Gorilla trekking at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
There are only 700 mountain gorillas remaining on earth. The majority live in the Virunga Mountains that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while a smaller number live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda. Gorillas have been hunted and pushed out of their natural habitat, so the forest is now heavily protected and the Ugandan government only hands out a limited number of permits annually to see the gorillas. As a result, the permits are also very costly – about $100 for East African citizens and $450 for foreigners – and you have to go through accredited travel agencies to receive them. Be wary as there are tons of fake agencies online! After hours of research and reading TripAdvisor reviews, we used African Pearl Safaris to get our permits and handle our accommodation in Bwindi. Most companies will also organize transport and local accommodation for you but we decided to drive to Bwindi on our own from Kampala.
Day 5 – Bwindi is a long 10-hour drive from Kampala. Visitors are not permitted to stay in the forest so we opted to stay in a lovely hotel, Bunyonyi Overland Resort near Lake Bunyoni (a 1.5 hr drive to the park).
Day 6 – Well rested after a good night’s sleep, we woke up at dawn and began our journey into the park. The permit stated that we should arrive at our outpost by 7:45am however we got completely lost on our way (Google maps doesn’t work as well in Bwindi!) and finally made it to the park by 10:30 AM after a lot of help from some local villagers. Thankfully, the guides were sympathetic and didn’t turn us away. After a quick security debrief (don’t touch wild animals!), we began our trek into the jungle with two park rangers.
Finding the gorillas can take anywhere from one to four hours (depending on their movements) and the terrain at Bwindi was arduous. Our group was extremely lucky as we found them within one hour. It was amazing to be inches away from such unique and strong creatures. The gorillas, especially the silverbacks, are a majestic sight! Extremely strong and bulky, they remained oblivious to us as we clicked selfies and snapped pictures of their little gorilla family. I was also amazed to see how human-like they seemed – with the kids jumping around and the mama gorilla feeding them while the silverback males lazed around. An incredible experience – I would jump at the chance of doing it again and highly recommend it to everyone!
Day 7 – We spent the next day just relaxing at our resort, and recuperating from the arduous trek!
Day 8 – We began our long 2-day journey back home to Dar es Salaam, and stopped midway at Bukoba in Tanzania, where we stayed the night, before continuing on to Dar.
I loved every minute of my time in Uganda – the adrenaline filled activities, the long drives, the lush forest, and the feeling of standing inches away from a massive silverback gorilla – and would highly recommend it to anyone contemplating visiting the Pearl of Africa. Feel free to post any questions in the comments section!
*Fatema loves all things tech and is currently a growth marketing analyst working on localising Facebook’s products in non-English speaking markets. Born and raised in Dar es salaam, she has also lived in Princeton, Boston, Singapore and now calls London home. She has travelled around the US, Africa and South East Asia, and is now looking forward to exploring Europe. Her travel highlights include a street food tour in Hanoi, skydiving in New England, watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat, a week long sailing trip in Croatia, gorilla trekking in Uganda, and horse riding in Iceland.