I’ve had a love affair with the African continent for as long as I can remember, and I will forever be mesmerized by its wild and expansive landscapes. Much of the continent’s beauty is lost during flight or cannot be reached by public transportation. Passing through small villages, towns, and a diverse spectrum of microclimates and vegetation zones is unquestionably best experienced by car. I finally got to experience overland travel through part of East Africa in July 2017, when I spent 15 days exploring the major attractions and undiscovered gems of southwestern Uganda.
I left Kigali, Rwanda, for an end destination in Kampala, Uganda. I entered the country via the Cyanika border, and was met by my driver and travel companion, Lena, after two relatively straightforward bus trips. Although we had considered driving ourselves, the idea of navigating unfamiliar terrain and pothole-ridden roads was daunting. In the end, we benefited from the superior knowledge of our guide, Abasi.
Not long after we left Kisoro, a town near the Cyanika border, we found ourselves on unpaved paths that cut in and out of the dense, green hills of southwestern Uganda — a region rich in biodiversity and wildlife, plentiful with savannah, lakes, volcanoes, rainforest, and mountains. We began our ascent into the mountains, carving our way through rugged highlands and bypassing villages tucked into the cliff sides. We were met with sweeping views of lakes and volcanoes with every turn. After about an hour and a half, we stopped near the shores of Lake Mutanda to call it a night. There, accommodation came in the form of free-standing wood and canvas bandas, complete with sunset views over the lake.
Upon arrival, I opted to walk through the surrounding villages. As much as I love to travel by car, I believe that travel by foot allows for an even greater connection to the landscape you’re exploring. All of my senses were engaged. The scent of burning crops lingered in the thick, humid air as children shouted in the distance. The mountain slopes terraced with crops were intersected by rust-colored roads that wound into bodies of water in the distance. I descended deeper into the rhythm of the local farms before returning to the lake for a leisurely dip. Its cool waters provided the perfect spot from which to watch the sun’s fiery shades of ruby, rose, and gold fall over the mountains.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
The next morning, we woke before the sun. The air was fresh, and a wispy mist crept in from the volcanoes as the sun rose over the crater lakes. From Lake Mutanda, we made our way to the depths of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. After years of dreaming about it, I was finally going gorilla tracking.
We trekked through thick forest and across mossy jungle floor to find one of the mightiest mammals on Earth. We walked for over two hours, the trail beginning as a pleasant walk and gradually escalating to a strenuous hike. As we approached the area where the gorilla family lives, our guide pointed out signs that we were getting close: compressed vegetation and subtle markings in the mud. The long anticipated moment had finally arrived. Before us sat a mighty silverback gorilla, consuming leaves for breakfast. Then another emerged from the bushes.
We continued to make our way through the forest in search of the rest of the family. The brush was almost impassable by then, so I could hear the gorillas before I could see them. Time stood still as we slid down the jungle slopes and across dense vegetation to witness the morning rituals of the Kahungye gorilla group.
It felt as though I’d stepped into another world, a magical jungle in which the most extraordinary creatures roamed and fought for survival. Before I knew it, we were headed back through the jungle and into reality. As we neared the car, I thought back to the otherworldly landscape that reflected on the struggle to preserve wildlife against human destruction. The experience had been as much a personal indulgence as it was an educational one, but it only deepened my appreciation for nature’s treasures and the tireless efforts of those who work to preserve it.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
The next morning, we set off down the dusty red roads from Lake Mutanda to reach the southern entrance of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), the second largest national park in Uganda. We passed by jungle, cliffs, mountain peaks, valleys, rolling hills, and flat savannah. With Abasi’s knowledge, we learned that the park is essentially divided into two sections: the southern part located near the Ishasha River, and the northern part near the Kazinga Channel.
We opted to stay near the southern entrance of the park, most famous for its tree-climbing lions. Within a half-hour of entering the park, we spotted three lionesses taking an afternoon nap. Oblivious to their audience, the cats stretched out along the branches, rolling over and yawning lazily.
I soaked up the expansive savannah and watching as various antelopes grazed on grass and ran through the fields in the intense July sun. The wind swept through the grass and revealed a spectrum of colors. Simply listening to the sounds and observing the sights made me feel an intimate part of the wild.
The next day, we drove from the southern section of QENP to the northern section. Along the way, we saw a family of elephants emerge from the trees. They approached us steadily, taking graceful yet heavy steps as their trunks swung from side to side beneath the curve of their ivory tusks. While Lena and I were completely in awe of the grandeur of these creatures, Abasi quickly drove away, as he was all too knowledgeable of the potential danger elephants could pose if provoked or startled.
The drive itself took about two hours and offered breathtaking views of buffalo, elephants, and rhinos bathing in the nearby river. After arriving and settling in for the night, we awoke before dawn and set out in hopes of catching the best of the day’s game-viewing. Not long after, we came across a few stopped vehicles — which are always a sign of a big game-sighting.
Sure enough, a young lion and lioness were resting on the hillside, watching as another lioness quietly stalked her chosen prey in the valley below. Her golden coat blended into the parched grass as she sat patiently, calculating her approach toward her morning kill. The lone antelope slept beneath a tree in the distance, ignorant to its approaching predator. But before the lioness got much closer, the antelope noticed her and swiftly escaped. The lioness was then accompanied by another companion, and joined the other two lions playing spectator to the hunt. We watched as the four of them playfully greeted one another and walked along the canyon ridge into the rising sun.
Once more, we made our way north, but this time we were headed toward Kilembe, a small mining town at the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. This area borders Uganda and the Dominican Republic of the Congo, and is also called the Mountains of the Moon because it’s known for its diverse and otherworldly vegetation. There, we decided to book a three-day hike through the varied wilderness of the park.
We started our hike from the center of Kilembe, and our ascent took us through small villages scattered on the green hillsides dotted with coffee bushes. From there, we ended up in the tropical rainforest. Small waterfalls cascaded through the jungle as we traversed rocky rivers via haphazardly-constructed bridges. Our camp for the evening was just a short walk away from a hidden waterfall. For being in a tropical landscape, we were unexpectedly freezing. We huddled around the fire to keep warm and were ushered to bed by the rain that fell not long after sunset.
The second day of the hike consisted of a much more rigorous elevation gain, oftentimes requiring vertical steps up to the next escarpment. Our shoes sunk deep into the muddy slopes, but we soon left the rainforest behind and entered the bamboo zone. The change in vegetation was sudden and drastic, and soon after, we entered our fourth zone, situated at the highest point of the trek — heather forest. We reached just over 3,500 meters and were enveloped in a thick blanket of fog as we entered the dark, eerie forest. The hills were lined with desiccated trees, which had been dead for over 20 years and were delicately draped in a pale-green moss. As we descended toward our camp for the evening, the sun shone down across the low-lying marshy valley where other-worldly cacti and flowers grew.
On the third day, the skies opened, making for a challenging and slippery hike. In a single day, we passed through heather forest, bamboo, rainforest, savannah grasslands, and coffee plantations. Finishing as we started, reveling in the grandeur of the mighty Mountain of the Moon, I was reminded of how small we are in comparison to nature’s expanse.
Kampala and Beyond
After an idyllic and lovely night at the Papaya Lake Lodge outside of Fort Portal and a far too short two weeks of driving through the wilderness of southwestern Uganda, the time came to head north to our final destination: Kampala.
As we left Papaya Lake Lodge, we passed through tea fields and small towns decorated in anticipation of the arrival of the regional king. We bid farewell to the unpaved paths as we merged onto the main highway and slowly made our way back into the heart of civilization. Traffic jams, pollution, the chaos of markets, butcher shops, bicyclists, and overall city life soon woke us from our nature-driven trance.
No longer in the wild, we discovered a sense of culture shock as we entered Kampala. Although the city offered a variety of cultures and traditions, I would choose nature any day.
Over the span of two weeks, we explored just a corner of Uganda, leaving its other wonders for another time. There is a magic deeply embedded in the lush vegetation, in the expanse of the wilderness, and in the free spirited-nature of locals that beckons you to return to Uganda time and again.