What it's like to bird in Uganda
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
I’ve always had a very romantic view of Africa. It is a vast place with so many habitats to explore, species to view, and places to see and I knew I wanted to see it all. My Instagram feed is full of tented, glamping lodges bordering the Serengeti or Kruger National Park that bolster my need to travel there and live the life I see in those photos. I have visions of giraffes outside my window, driving past herds of zebras, and Secretarybirds hunting lizards beside the lodge pool.
Growing up in the US, I was exposed with regular images of key places like Kruger National Park, the Serengeti, Victoria Falls, the pyramids of Egypt, and markets of Marrakesh on TV, through the internet, and marketing materials. Because of this, I can easily imagine seeing elephants strolling around Kruger or smell the spices at the vendor stands in the bazaars in Morocco. When daydreaming of traveling to Africa for birds, wildlife, and more, Uganda never showed up in my Google search, Instagram feed, or Pinterest page. So, when I first met Herbert, who talked passionately about the wonders of a place I had barely heard of, I knew I had to add it to the list. Then, to my total surprise, an email showed up in my inbox inviting me to come out and experience this mystery land full of Shoebills, weavers, and much more.
About two months later, I found myself leaving the Portland International Airport en route to Entebbe, Uganda. After 41 hours of traveling, we arrived to 80F, a tree full of Village Weavers, and the rest of the group that we would be traveling with for the next two weeks. I’ve never traveled in a tour group before, and I was fortunate to be with the most agreeable group I could imagine. There were photographers, writers, tour leaders, and more that all journeyed together to explore this wonderland of wildlife that boasts over 1,080 bird species sighted in a country approximately the same size as my beloved state of Oregon…. which has about half that number on our eBird list.
Each turn in the road and park we visited was brimming with wildlife and lifer birds. It’s incredible that a small country can be filled with so much life. Of course, it is hard to summarize a life-changing two-week trip to anywhere in just a brief blog post, so please make sure to listen into our 12/30/2021, 1/13/2022, and 1/27/2022 podcast episodes for a lot more.
Food – We were fed breakfast and dinner at lodges and then usually a box lunch on the road. Breakfasts varied from place-to-place, but usually had the choice of eggs (scramble, fried, Spanish omelet), toast, sausage, a pancake, and fresh fruit. Coffee, tea, and juices were also offered. However, the thing to get is a Rolex, which I never tried because I usually forgot by the time that I ordered my breakfast. My understanding is that it is basically an omelet of sorts that are served on a soft, chapati wrap. Chapati is a popular Indian flatbread that reminds me of tortillas and can be found throughout Uganda.
Lunch boxes were pretty much all the same: your choice of sandwiches (I usually got cheese and tomato, but they usually had choices of PB&J, tuna, omelet), a piece of grilled chicken, hard-boiled egg, apple, and juice.
Dinner varied a lot and usually had several options. Most lodges had a soup as an appetizer which ranged from cream of pumpkin to cucumber soup. As for dinner, pan-friend tilapia was a common choice, spaghetti Napolitan, curry, chicken was usually on the menu. These were mostly served with a dinner roll, a vegetable, and boiled potatoes.
Most lodges had a small selection of beer, liquor, and soda. Krest was my favorite soda, it was bitter lemon flavored, but a good, old fashioned Schweppes soda water really hit the spot at the end of a long, sweltering day out in the Ugandan sun. Nile Special was our main beer choice, which is brewed in Uganda. It’s a lager and described as having “a smooth balance of sweet and bitter, trusted for its satisfying full-bodied character that carries a hint of pleasant ester”. Most of my colleagues’ drink of choice in the evening was a G&T, or gin and tonic. I am not entirely sure if this is something that is a normal drink at home… or is related to the history of the cocktail. So, malaria is prevalent in many tropical regions, like Uganda, and quinine is a traditional cure for malaria and can possibly be used to prevent the disease. Quinine was drunk in tonic water, but the bitter taste was unpleasant, so British officers in India in the 19th century added water, sugar, lime, and gin to the quinine to make it tastier and created gin and tonics. However, tonic is not an adequate cure for malaria anymore as today’s tonic has much less quinine. Regardless, many G&Ts were consumed on our trip. The most interesting part of it is all is the gin that was used, which is called: Waragi, a form of homemade gin. Its name is derived from “war gin”, which British expatriates used to refer to a particular distilled spirit known as enguli. It is distilled from either cassava, bananas, millet, or sugar cane.
Bathrooms – So, I know this is the key question I get asked a lot. Squat toilets, pit latrines, Turkish toilets, etc. there’s a lot of names for it and if you visit Uganda, chances are you’ll have to use one. Although I’ve had the opportunity to use them many times, I had only had to use one once before in Istanbul. They varied in cleanliness and style… but all had the same result. A couple of “bush toilets” were utilized too. You might consider bringing toilet paper along too, as it's not always available.
All the lodges had nice facilities with sitting toilets. Most had hot water on demand or by request. The very first lodge we stayed at, Mantana Tented Camp, was more of a glamping situation and they had porters that carried heated water over to a trough that connected to a showerhead, which was neat. Water in bathrooms was not potable, so make sure to only use bottled water for toothbrushing unless you are explicitly told otherwise.
Birds – Uganda has over 1,080 bird species that have been sighted within its borders, which is an incredible number for birders to drool over. There are large species like Shoebills, Goliath Herons, and Gray-crowned Cranes for anyone to get excited about and then many small, LBJs to sink your teeth into. The camaropteras and cisticolas are enough to spend days studying. Our group ended up seeing about 400 species over 18 days – and we really were only birding at 85%. Erik and I first started birding at our hotel in Entebbe as we quarantined while waiting for our COVID test results and just from that stationary list, we had 28 species, most of which were lifers. That kicked off our journey of over 350 lifers in the short time we were there.
Uganda is at the very heart of East Africa and is considered the Pearl of Africa. Some of the best birds to go after are ones that are endemic to the Albertine Rift, meaning that they are usually confined to montane habitats that are associated with the Rift Valley escarpment that runs between Lake Albert and Lake Tanganyika. There are 37 birds that are considered Albertine Rift endemics, and 24 of these occur in Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, which is one of must-do hotspots in Uganda. There are a few other sites that fall within the Albertine Rift, including Rwenzori Mountains, Virungas, Kibale, and Echuya Forest.
Besides those endemics, there are many, many birds you can see in Uganda. Many distinct types of habitats to explore from savannahs to forests to swamps and lakes. There are endless ways to experience this unique spot.
Other Wildlife – Even more impressive than the birds is all the other wildlife you don’t see every day. I wasn’t really prepared for what seeing real life elephants, giraffe, and zebras would mean to me. Honestly, I still can’t believe they were wild animals and not in a zoo.
We first saw a zebra in a field by a highway just outside Lake Mburo National Park with some cows and antelope. The next day, we spotted our first giraffe and then enjoyed a sunset just beside the bus with a dozen giraffes a safe distance away. A few days later we saw an elephant about 5 miles off from the Engazi Lodge deck and I had resigned myself that it would be the only elephants I would see. The next day, while driving through Queen Elizabeth National Park, I could almost feel the ground move as an elephant walked the earth near me.
The biggest highlight for me was the boat ride from the Nyarutegura River Mouth…where we saw our lifer hippopotamuses! All my Disney’s Jungle Cruise skipper jokes kicked in: “it’s the ones in the trees you have to watch out for”, “you can tell they are going to charge the boat when they wiggle their ears and blow bubbles” …much to my chagrin, no one got it except for Erik, oh well. This body of water also happens to be the spot to look for the mysterious African Finfoot and several dozen Pied Kingfishers. It’s a pretty calm ride and we were on a large boat that had an upper deck, which was great for photographing African Fish-Eagles that gazed at us from their perch. But the African Finfoot requires you to be on the lower deck, basically on the water level, and scour the roots and branches for any movement that would give the bird away. Besides birds, the water was filled with lounging hippos, sunning Nile Crocodiles, and a Water Buffalo adorned with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers.
Other key species to see are the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. The price may seem steep, but it’s for a good cause. At this point in history, the survival of the Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi is inextricably linked to tourism. It is on many people’s bucket list to see this amazing species, so they are willing to pay for that experience, which helps fund conservation and management of the parks and helps the local communities. The locals have come to see the value that these animals have and actively work to protect them. They benefit with the sale of products, lodging, and even as porters helping you to reach the gorillas (in my case, I got A LOT of help from the porters who basically carried me up the mountain). The steep price of permits ($700 USD) to see the gorillas translates into $25 million a year which rolls back into communities and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It was a humbling experience to visit the Mountain Gorillas, but also to see this community that relies so heavily on their existence and meet the people who were able to put food on the table that day because of my presence.
Lodging - There are many types of unique places that I have always wanted to stay in, like overwater bungalows, treehouses, historic B&B’s, and of course, tented camps. We stayed at a few several types of lodging. Mantana Tented Camp and Engazi Lodge were both glamping camps, while Ride 4 A Woman and Home Bliss Hotel were more traditionally western-preferred hotels. Each property provided everything we needed with comfortable lodging, meals, and beautiful views and birds.
I highly recommend Ride 4 A Woman hotel near the Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, the place to find mountain gorillas. I have little experience visiting and supporting a non-profit organization like Ride 4 A Woman whose sole existence is to support local women struggling at home with issues like HIV, domestic violence, and poverty. As far as I am aware – there is no other place like it. Not only is it a wonderful place to visit for the community aspect, but it is also an amazing hotel with beautiful rooms and part of the proceeds from your stay go to supporting the community.
Roads – Our bus driver, Alex, called the drive between lodges “a Ugandan massage”. Most roads are not paved and are rocky and bouncy. Many of the paved roads have lots of speed bumps… so driving around Uganda can be slow. You’ll want to consider where you sit in the vehicle if you are prone to carsickness or achiness. The Chinese government has invested significantly in Uganda roads and are building them in places like Murchison Falls National Park, which has a nice, beautiful, paved road from which to bird. So, on the horizon travel should improve.
Weather – Uganda borders the equator, we passed by the north/south division line without any fanfare like that of Ecuador. So, the weather is fairly temperate year-round, and Uganda is subject to more of a wet season (Sept-Nov, March-May), dry season (Nov-March, May-Sept). When we visited in Nov/Dec, it was high 80’s everyday and somewhat cooler in the evenings. We rarely needed jackets but were very comfortable in shorts and short-sleeved shirts.
Safety and Health – COVID-19 was still raging when we visited, and we had two tests prior to starting our trip and one when returning home. We really weren’t around too many people besides those in our group, so I felt very comfortable with the COVID situation. Most places required masks when indoors. I had no illnesses nor injury while traveling, so I am not sure how those situations are resolved, but I do feel as if our guide could easily handle anything.
As far as traveling in crowds anywhere I go, I am usually jumpy and constantly need to be touching my phone and wallet to feel comfortable. I never felt in danger while traveling in Uganda and it seems that everyone knows that Ugandans are famously hospitable. Before going, I read that if you compliment a Ugandan on their watch, clothes, whatever, they will offer it to you as a gift.
Overall, I most heartedly recommend Uganda as a birding location to add to your list. After birding in a new or well-loved spot, Erik and I debrief about what went well, what we could have done better, and how we would do it next time. And one thing that was glaring from this trip is that we could not have done it alone, Uganda is definitely a place where you would benefit from a guide. Besides knowing where to go, they also coordinate driving, places to stay, and local customs, which we feel unprepared to do ourselves even after spending two weeks there.