Uganda; the best country to rent a car and explore nature, culture and its unspoilt beauty. At the beginning of May 2015 we took our visiting friends on a self-drive safari to Lake Mburo National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Murchison Falls National Park. We reassured ourselves that self-drive safaris are the most awesome adventures to do! Driving on your own through the parks gives a great sense of adventure and excitement. Below are my tips and tricks to keep it safe and make your time in Uganda unforgettable.
Tip 1: Go camping in Ugandan bush
In my opinion, bush camping is the true safari experience. You won’t be able to get more immersed into the wild than going on a bush camp within in the National Parks. In most parks, there are two options: either use the facilities of designated UWA campsites (of varying quality / cleanliness), or find your own spot in the wilderness with the guidance of an UWA ranger.
UWA rangers for bush camping or game drives can be booked at the entrance of the parks or where they forward you. In the high season you may need to book a Ranger a day in advance. Don’t forget a good tip for the ranger if you are happy with his/her service!
The UWA, (Ugandan Wildlife Authority) is the governmental arm that protects and manages the flora and fauna in the National Parks.
Bush camping in the complete wilderness is possible with the guidance of an UWA ranger. You can arrange this at the entrance or headquarters in the parks. You need to bring your own food and water. It is polite, even expected, that the ranger can join you for the meal. The UWA ranger will help you to find a great spot to pitch your tent, make a fire, and will safeguard your tent at night. Rest assured, no toilets, shower or other guests. It’s you, a campfire and jungle. Steve Irwin, eat your heart out…
During our friends’ visit we went bush camping in Lake Mburo. Upon arrival, the hippos in the lake welcomed us with their mouths wide open, and as soon as the sun set, we could hear a cacophony of strange noises from the surrounding bushes (we were quite sure it was a leopard). After dinner, we took a good nightcap to ensure some sleep, but still we could hear the hippos standing beside the tent flapping their faeces around. Exhilarating!
Tip 2: The early bird catches the worm
If you thought that going on a safari was a good opportunity to catch some sleep, think again! Safaris are very relaxing, but ideally they require an early morning lifestyle. You will increase your chances of spotting hyenas, lions, leopards and other wildlife in any national park in Uganda if you are among the first at the gate (the parks open at 7AM). Most lodges are used to the early morning habits of their guests and serve breakfast from 5:30 AM onwards. On our safari with our friends we were lucky enough to spot five hyenas in Queen Elizabeth National park before hitting 8:00 AM.
Tip 3: Drive Slowly
‘You have no idea that you have been rushing all your life until you arrive in Uganda’… – Myself
Coming from crazy rushy London, it took some time for me to adjust to the tropical pace of life. We bazungu (foreigners) are used to rushing from one place to the next, but really during a game drive in the park, you see most if you are driving not faster than 15km/h. You hardly have to hit the gas pedal at all in my opinion. What’s the rush? And besides, when you go slowly, you have the chance to distinguish whether that brown heap in the grass is an ant hill or a lion.
Tip 4: Get yourself a Ranger Guide
Yes, just the two of you in a Landcruiser on the wide savannah plains is pretty amazing and I can surely recommend you go into the park by yourself. However, it’s advisable to also take an UWA guide with you on one of your game drives. These rangers know every corner of the parks and can lead you to the best places to spot predators such as lions. You can book an UWA ranger/guide at the entrance gate of the park, and they will accompany you in your car and guide you through the plains and bushes. They are worth every penny of the $20 fee you pay for this service.
Tip 5: Ask for the lion
Let’s be honest, that’s what you would love to see, right? Unfortunately, unlike what we may have seen in Disney’s The Lion King, in reality lions do not pose on a rock every morning enjoying the circle of life. They hunt, eat and sleep ideally somewhere hidden in the high grass and are therefore very difficult to find. Therefore don’t be shy to ask UWA staff at the entrance gates, other people at the campsite or drivers that you meet within the park if they have seen anything. Of course it also works the other way around, let others know when you have been lucky!
Tip 6: Avoid over speeding and driving off track
While on any game drive in the Ugandan game reserve, there are designed tracks or routes to follow, these tracks are in respect of eco-tourism or responsible travel, they are suit almost all the interest of travellers. The recommended driving speed in any game reserve is 30km/h
Tip 7: Respect the elephant
When we were in Queen Elizabeth National Park, we took the afternoon boat ride on the Kazinga Channel (which is amazing!). Afterwards, we drove back towards the exit of the park using the Channel Track. We were running a bit late and the sun was setting. Suddenly we saw a tree shaking in front of us, and before we realized it, a herd of 15 Elephants started to cross the road. Luckily Bram – who was driving – spotted them in time and since we were driving slowly, we could easily stop and watch them from a safe distance. When they passed, we were able to move on. But a 100 metres down the road, we ran into another herd of elephants! This time they came quite out of the blue, so we found ourselves only 10 metres away from them. When you are that close, the car suddenly feels slightly fragile compared to these huge animals.
So, safety tips are in place here: always be alert and drive as if you would expect animals around the corner. Keep an eye on heavy moving bushes and trees. Keeping distance is key. Never try to drive towards elephants intentionally. Heavy ear flapping, trumping his trunk and bluff charging are signs that he or she is a bit pissed off by your company.
When you encounter an elephant on the road, do the following: make sure you have a clear route to drive away if necessary, always leave your engine running, stay calm, keep your voices down and most of all enjoy the experience!