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Uganda: The Pearl of Africa

Visit Uganda, one of the most beautiful, safe and biologically diverse countries in Africa.

 

The 2006 Academy Award-winning film, The Last King of Scotland put Uganda uncomfortably back in the public eye with Forest Whitaker’s chilling portrayal of brutal 1970s tyrant, Idi Amin. Today the staggeringly beautiful country is calm and welcoming—and it was recently gussied up to host the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in November 2007. Queen Elizabeth II attended and visited her namesake national park for the first time since 1953.

Another British notable, Winston Churchill, once visited and called Uganda “The Pearl of Africa.” The burnt-sienna soil is so fertile, it’s said that a walking stick planted at night will sprout by morning. I have been to more than 70 countries, and Uganda is one of my absolute favorites.

Kampala

We landed at Entebbe International Airport, 45 minutes outside the capital city of Kampala and the scene of the horrific 1976 Entebbe raid in which Israeli soldiers rescued hostages on a hijacked Air France flight. Former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan, was killed in the raid. Today there’s a plaque in his honor that’s a popular stop for Jewish visitors who come to pay homage to the Israeli national hero. 

The city of Kampala is one of Africa’s prettiest capitals. It’s also safe, friendly and home to the Kabaka (king) of Buganda (a Ugandan state), still in power today though his post is largely ceremonial. A visit to the thatched Tombs of the Buganda Kings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers fascinating insight into Uganda’s history. On the outskirts of the city, visit the Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine, a contemporary interpretation of a traditional African hut. It’s built on the site where 22 missionaries were burned to death for refusing to renounce their faith in 1866. Every year on June 3, the shrine is the scene of a massive Catholic pilgrimage and worshipers come from all over Africa. 

Gorillas in Bwindi

From Kampala, it’s an almost two-hour flight to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, home to the country’s major draw: the endangered mountain gorilla. En route to Bwindi, located in Uganda’s westernmost corner, the plane soared over verdant, terraced farmland. As the pilot circled until he located the barely-there airstrip, for the first time in my life I wanted to learn how to fly. It was paradoxically both thrilling and serene. For someone who once had a major fear of flying and today has ambivalence, this was unexpected, to say the least.

Half of the world’s surviving mountain gorillas live in Uganda’s highlands, and the trek to see them is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Our group stood in awe as a massive silverback bounded down a tree, stretched himself to his full height, bellowed and thumped his chest. He wasn’t threatening us, just making sure we knew who was in charge. Once assured that we’d received his message, he pulled some low-hanging leaves off a nearby tree and prepared a “resting nest.”

His rest was interrupted, though, when three toddlers bounced down a neighboring tree to say hello. One of the little guys plopped himself right onto the silverback’s stomach. The toddlers then ambled over to a log three feet in front of us for a snack, passing bits of banana back and forth. After eating and grooming each other for a while, one of the toddlers lay on his back, gently tapping on his chest, as if to say, one day, I’ll be in charge. Suddenly, a juvenile gorilla, briefly separated from his family, ran past one of the men in our group, lightly grazing the hair on his legs. It would have scared the hell out of him had it not happened so fast that it was over before he knew what happened. 

On the second day, we had to refrain from melting as an impossibly adorable 2-month-old baby gorilla tumbled and bounced between her parents. She tried to engage a juvenile who pushed her away, having no time for such nonsense. The spell was broken when a flatulent silverback passed wind for a solid 30 seconds, confidently breaking the mood. 

Before Your Gorilla Trek

The gorillas are “habituated” for at least three years before human tour groups are allowed to visit them. To habituate them, people follow the gorillas around and mimic them. For some reason, this makes them feel at ease with humans. The babies grow up seeing their parents comfortable with people and become comfortable themselves. 

There are only three groups of no more than eight visitors each allowed in per day, so make sure to reserve in advance. Treks can take anywhere from 20 minutes to eight hours, depending on where the gorillas are. On day one, we slogged up and down wet, muddy hills, bobbing, weaving and pulling small tree branches out of our hair for six hours before finding gorillas. Day two was a 20-minute stroll in the park. Children must be at least 15 years old to visit the gorillas and only people in good health can participate because a human illness as mild as a cold could wipe out the entire gorilla population. 

Big Game at Queen Elizabeth National Park

On the two- to three-hour drive from Bwindi to Queen Elizabeth National Park, we passed a tree filled with 25 curious baboons staring at us staring at them. Fortunately for them, Uganda’s famous tree-climbing lions were nowhere to be found. Uganda has magnificent game viewing at Queen Elizabeth, and while the park is not as wildlife intensive as the parks of Kenya and Tanzania, you’re often the only car there, so it’s a more intimate game experience. The park is home to elephants, lions, hippos, giraffe, water buffalo and a variety of springboks. 

Extreme Nile Adventures

One hour from Kampala, high-octane adventure travelers can go white water rafting and bungee jumping at the brilliantly named Nile High Camp, located in Jinja, known as “the source of the Nile.” Jinja is a popular weekend escape for Kampala residents. 

In the northern part of the country, you can visit Murchison Falls, one of the filming locations for The African Queen, where Humphrey Bogart encountered leeches. I didn’t see a single leech, but stay in the boat because the water is chock-a-block with crocodiles and hippos. It’s also home to more than 450 bird species making it a bird-watcher’s paradise. (I never understood the appeal of bird watching until I visited Murchison Falls. The color ranges and combinations are astounding.)

The Spirit of Uganda

Uganda will provide many memories but it’s the spirit of the people you will never forget. They have endured great tragedy and sorrow, from the ruthless cruelty of Idi Amin to more recently, the scourge of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Yet, despite these horrors, Ugandans couldn’t be warmer or sunnier. They are truly an inspiration. On our last day in Uganda, we were driving through the countryside when we passed a school where 30 children in gingham uniforms were playing outside. When they saw us approaching, they gathered around and starting singing “We Shall Meet Again.” I certainly hope so.


Destinations: Uganda, Kampala

Themes: Experiential Travel

Activities: Hiking, Rafting, Sightseeing


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