The sweet and sad side of Uganda’s tourism sites

Posted March 21, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 5,491 views


BY ELLA RYCHLEWSKI | The Independent | When my mother announced she was coming to visit Uganda, I went into a Google search on Ugandan tourism and started asking my acquaintances what we should not miss on our one week tour.

Our circuit of Western Uganda started from Kampala, up to Murchison Falls National Park, then down to Fort Portal to visit the Amabere Caves. The next stop was Kibale for chimp tracking, then Mbarara and Lake Mburo. Murchison is probably the most recognised tourist site in Uganda. The caves sounded intriguing. Chimp tracking was the fulfilment of a dream for several people in our party; and I had heard a lot of good things about Mbarara, with Lake Mburo just nearby.

Then things became pretty difficult. The first challenge was finding information and quite naturally, I turned to the internet. Uganda is poorly represented, especially on the tourism front. Accurate and helpful travel data is hard to come. I found out, while waiting in arrivals, that the airport has a small outpost and they are quite willing to part with brochures, but these do not contain all the useful information independently travellers need about Uganda’s tourism.

Undeterred and determined that we enjoy our holiday, I proceeded on the assumption that we could just ‘wing it’. Unfortunately, it turns out that travelling independently in Uganda is a nightmare. The first major hurdle is transportation. Public transport being neither people nor tourist friendly, we decided to rent a vehicle. But we were told we also had to rent a driver. Driving on Ugandan roads is enough to give anyone grey hairs, but the option of renting a driver makes you develop goose pimples; it’s not budget friendly. But for convenience sake, we bit the bullet and found a local company to rent us a vehicle and driver.

The vehicle was roomy and comfortable and the driver negotiated the long, bouncy, dusty and difficult Ugandan roads with aplomb and kept his humour throughout the trip. But neither car nor driver had a road map. So we relied on the driver’s own knowledge of the area and route.

I perused The Eye magazine as we headed out of the capital Kampala to Murchison Falls. The Eye itself is by no means an exhaustive or complete guide to or listing of the tourist sites and facilities in Uganda.However, I chanced on an advert about the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, which lies along Gulu highway. We called ahead to book. The sanctuary is well signposted and the guides are hospitable. Soon after arrival, we headed, on foot, to meet the last and first rhinos in Uganda; the last because the last wild ones were poached during Idi Amin’s reign and the first because, donated by various countries and facilities, these are the first rhinos being reintroduced in the country, with more arrivals expected.

Meeting these powerfully built and somewhat intimidating animals just a few feet away, is both a thrilling and frightening experience. Our guide had given us dire warnings and demonstrated zigzag running, tree climbing and jumping on an ant hill, should a rhino decide to charge. It seemed funny but once you get up close and witness the mother restlessly protecting her calf, the guide’s warning makes sense. I’m not sure either my mother or I would have been up to scrambling up a tree or leaping onto an ant hill in case of a charging rhino. Luckily, we didn’t have to find out.

We reached Murchison national park at night, having gotten lost on the way because the signage in Masindi is sorely lacking. The guard at the entrance of the park, could not let us in at such a late hour without a reservation. He advised us to try Boomu, a site run by UCOTA, a Women’s Group Community Tourism Site. It offers basic accommodation and restaurant services. My mother loved the experience: sleeping in her own little round hut, trekking to the outdoor bathroom in the pitch black night, taking a cold shower in the morning and eating dinner by the light of a hurricane lamp.

But we had a frustrating morning. All the game drives were on the other side of the river and we were too late for both the morning drives and the boat ride to Murchison Falls. We decided on the early afternoon cruise, followed by a game drive. We started looking for a late breakfast/early lunch in the meantime. We suffered another setback. Sambiya River Lodge charged more for breakfast than I spend most days on all three of my meals. At Red Chilli, we were gleefully told the breakfast service ended at 10.30am and lunch would not be served until 11.30am. It was 10.45am. We were hungry. We made Plan B. We took the ferry over to Paraa Lodge. It has a monopoly as the only lodge on the north side of the river, near the starting point for the game drives. It’s also an upscale establishment.

Here too, we were told that lunch was not served until 12.30 and no food was available before then. It was past 11am. We were now trapped, having had no food since the previous night. Considering most visitors go on early morning game drives and come back, tired and hungry around 11am, it is beyond comprehension why no establishment offers sustenance at that time of day. Judging by the stampede for lunch on the dot of 12.30, and the fact that people came in clutching bags of crisps as survival rations, Murchison tourist facilities not only lack basic customer understanding and service skills, they are also missing out on revenue. Considering that it is the top tourist destination in Uganda, this sends a poor message to visitors.

At Nile River Lodge the situation was different. They accommodated us when we arrived after nightfall without a reservation. I was feeling unwell. They provided complimentary rapid and courteous room service. The manager came up to me at breakfast and inquired about my wellbeing.

We took our game drive. But since the last ferry crossing is at 7pm, we ran out of time to see the promised giraffes. But we did see where the park is being dug up and disfigured by the oil exploration and I wonder what repercussions that will have on tourism.

After a somewhat disappointing start in Murchison Falls National Park, there wasn’t much sense in investing another day of park entrance, ferry crossing and game drive fees, on the off chance of seeing giraffes and lions. So we headed south on a dusty bumpy road along the shore of Lake Albert the following day. It grants you a full view of the Great Rift Valley and stunning views of the lake from the higher elevations.

We arrived in Fort Portal after nightfall and set about finding a place to stay. We stayed at Rwenzori Travellers Inn. The power went out as we checked in and it took them long to turn on the generator. They have a bar on the top floor, playing music that kept us awake most of the night. Bewilderingly, hotels seem to put their expensive ‘executive’ rooms nearest to the bar, restaurant, terrace, breakfast room or reception areas, which makes them noisier and less comfortable than other rooms.

The Amabere Caves, recommended by an acquaintance from Fort Portal, are close to town, though the road is more like a river bed. We were lucky it hadn’t rained. The site is beautiful and for the entry price, you visit the caves and tour three nearby crater lakes.

The situation in Kibale National Park was not much different from Murchison Falls’. The plan was to go chimp tracking. In view of our previous experience at Murchison, we called ahead to book accommodation and tracking for the next day. We had to make contact with the Primate Lodge reservation centre in Kampala, but they were clueless. The first time we called for rates, they had two cottages available, just what we needed. But half an hour later, when we called to confirm, they only had luxury tents or a four-bed dorm room available. I chose the dorm. We were assured that, despite the late notice, our names were down for the chimp tracking the next morning.

We drove an hour and a half to the park on a dirty road. Primate Lodge, like Paraa in Murchison, is centrally located and is the departure point for park activities. And, like Paraa, they rely on this strategic positioning, rather than providing good services, to keep the place going. There were no dorm rooms and only expensive luxury tents were still available. More trouble awaited us. There was no place for the chimp tracking the next day and no record of any of our reservations.

Back to Fort Portal we drove, winding up by chance in a nice, modern hotel, the Cornerstone. The next morning we set off for Mbarara, going through Kasese and passing by Queen Elizabeth. It was the only day we travelled entirely on a tarmac road. It’s a nice drive, with the Rwenzori Mountains to one side and the agricultural landscape gradually giving way to savannah on the other.

By lunchtime we were driving up the escarpment on the southern edge of Queen Elisabeth National Park. We spotted a sign to Kyambura Game Lodge. We stopped there for lunch. The food was good, reasonably priced and the service was great. A view over Queen Elisabeth and a waterhole with elephants basking right below the terrace was spectacular sight.

In Mbarara, we faced another nightmare. The first hotel had horrible rooms and noisy surroundings. The next morning I was in a clinic, with malaria. When we booked in the quieter Palm World Hotel, shortly out of town, it was a godsend. The next morning, we headed back to Kampala

My mother returned home, a few days later, happy with the things she had seen: rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, the Rwenzoris, etc. I, on the other hand, was left frustrated by how unbalanced the experience had been and how unwilling the Ugandan tourism industry is to cater for independent travellers. It is hard to get reliable information about Uganda’s tourist sites and facilities. This kind of environment cannot open up Uganda to big segments of the tourism market.

There is huge potential, but the tourism industry needs comprehensive government support to develop sites and infrastructure and to train Ugandans to translate their natural friendliness into good customer service.

About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.

One Comment


    It seems since this article was written things have changed quite alot in terms of online information. The last few months has a seen a rise in the number of online web sites for uganda. There are now sites like and available for people looking for information on Uganda. It seems Uganda is moving with the times in forms of online exposure. I think now that more and more Ugandans have access to the internet we will see more proffessional sites representing Uganda.

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