Cradled in between dormant volcanoes and mist covered lakes, the Gorilla Highlands region is well connected to the wider world.
You can fly to one of the two international airports: Entebbe (Uganda) or Kigali (Rwanda); the latter is much closer and therefore our suggested landing point. If you plan to utilise internal flights, however, opt for Entebbe and continue to the tarmac airstrip in Kisoro. It is also possible to fly to the grass airstrip in the north of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, close to Kihihi.
The road from Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, to the mountainous southwest is mostly smooth. A brand new tarmac road takes you through the swampy marshes of Masaka and past the cattle fields of Mbarara. After 410 kilometres/255 miles you will reach Kabale.
People coming from Kampala and looking for a direct way to the north of Bwindi will skip Kabale. They will branch off after Mbarara and end their tarmac experience in Rukungiri, 390 kilometres/242 miles from Kampala. The next stretch is murram (laterite gravel road), for 82 kilometres/50 miles, until the touristy hamlet of Buhoma.
There are numerous buses doing these destinations throughout the day and night. We recommend using buses connecting the two capitals, even if the price is a little higher. They leave on time and are not overcrowded.
When to Come
As a result of climate change, seasons are not as defined as they used to be, so you can absolutely plan to come any month. Arriving in the rainy season does not automatically mean being wet all the time – it just means that it will rain as well. The weather alternates so much and so quickly that it is impossible to judge the day’s promise based on what you encounter in the morning.
Dry seasons, on the other hand, can be dusty and more challenging for photographing landscapes.
what to pack
What To Pack
To track mountain gorillas, you will have to pack good hiking shoes, long trousers and long sleeved shirts which will protect you against stinging plants. You should also bring rain gear, a hat, packed lunch and water.
However, if you are hopefully spending more time in the Gorilla Highlands, this is a complete list:
- sleeping bag –
For are a camper or a hiker, a sleeping bag is a good thing to have. Local accommodation options otherwise all have sheets and blankets.
- sunscreen –
If you can find sunscreen here, it will be expensive. Little local demand…
- insect repellent –
Insect repellents are very costly in Uganda, so it is advisable to bring them with you (containing at least 26% DEET). Make sure that you apply them on your ankles especially.
- personal hygiene items –
Just be aware that you can buy everything you may need locally too.
- trekking shoes –
It is wise to have a pair of good trekking shoes with you, due to rain and the resulting mud.
- lightweight shoes –
Lightweight shoes are useful for your everyday walks. Sandals/open shoes are handy but not considered appropriate for every occasion (some types are perceived as poor people’s footwear).
If you are wearing open toed shoes, wash your feet thoroughly at the end of the day. Little skin-boring ticks called jiggers are common throughout Uganda and can be found particularly in dust and dirt. They are not dangerous but will irritate and need to be removed by an experienced person.
- rain jacket –
You know where the expression “rainforest” comes from?
- skirt –
A long skirt is a lady’s best friend if you fancy going to church (to hear wonderful singing at least) or for any other respectable occasion.
- long trousers –
Bring at least two pairs of trousers, made of light materials.
- shorts –
Shorts are acceptable on men – but that is schoolboy fashion in the eyes of locals.
- money belt –
Few things can be paid for in foreign currency. If you use pounds or euros at home, come with them and convert them into local currency in Kampala. American dollars are tricky: nothing printed before 2001 or dirty or torn in any way will be accepted and notes smaller than USD 50 will fetch a lousy rate. If you arrive with small dollar notes, use them to pay for park entries or activities.
- first aid pack –
Pack some plasters and bandages (easily restocked), contact lens fluid if you use it, some tablets to help in case of pain, fever, diarrhoea, allergy … But rest assured: this is a very healthy environment and traveller’s health issues are not common.
- binoculars –
There are hundreds of bird species around.
- small backpack –
A day pack will be handy in many circumstances. A rust-proof lock can protect the backpack from (uncommon) petty theft and be used on lockers as well.
- batteries –
Spare batteries for any gadget, a potent investment as power is not always available.
- torch –
Power cuts are Uganda’s reality, the country does not produce enough electricity to meet demand. Away from towns, light will be scarce.
- T-shirts –
T-shirts with long and short sleeves are very useful. Avoid white as it is difficult to keep such clothes clean – unless you ask a local to do it for you. Our people’s laundry skills are impressive.
- shirts –
A shirt’s collar will protect your neck if you have sensitive skin. You can buy nice second-hand clothes very cheaply at local markets.
- swimsuit –
You will be in the area with lakes that are safe for swimming, a luxury in Africa. Take advantage!
- hat, safari clothes –
Great for looking like a tourist! In your home country, do you often dress for camping when you go grocery shopping?
- socks, underwear –
Socks and underwear in plentiful supply will make your trip more comfortable. Remember, it is not always sunny and hot here, so they might take longer to dry.
- yellow fever certificate –
Although officially required, the yellow fever certificate is hardly ever checked on the border. For other recommended vaccinations consult your nearest health service provider, preferably months in advance (some vaccines must be received early or more than once).
- credit/debit card –
Only bigger establishment will accept plastic money, still, debit cards are very useful for withdrawing cash from ATMs and exchange rates are decent. In Uganda you can get money from any card but a VISA/MasterCard debit card seems to be the best option. Having both cards also makes a lot of sense, as some banks only take VISA. Caution: in Rwanda MasterCard ATMs are not available.
If you don’t have it yet, it is wise to arrange an Internet banking solution before your departure.
- photocopies of passport and flight data –
Don’t carry photocopies next to the original please…
- phone –
An unlocked mobile phone has joined travellers’ standard gear and almost every Ugandan and Rwandan has one as well. Don’t mess about with roaming, you can cheaply buy a SIM card from one of the local mobile phone providers.
- photo camera cable –
While computer services are widely available, few machines here have card readers. It is a good idea to occasionally back up your photos onto a flash disk/CD/DVD.
- electricity adapter –
Uganda uses the British three-hole socket with electricity at 240 volts, Rwanda the European two-hole one. However, if you come to Uganda with the European double plug and don’t mind a little inconvenience, pushing down into the upper hole with a non-metallic stick will remove any need for adapters.
- tablet –
Purchasing a 3G data connection card is not difficult and most areas have some coverage.
- warm sweater –
A sweater for Africa?! Oh yes! Our weather can easily become cold, rainy and “late-autumn” like.
The tourist visa for Rwanda costs USD 30, the one for Uganda USD 50. However, these are single-entry visas and if you plan a more complex itinerary better opt for the East African Tourist Visa that gives you three months of unlimited travels in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda for USD 100. Please apply online in advance in Rwanda or Uganda (see exceptions below to see if getting separate visas may be better for you). The process is normally very quick, should take a day or two, but delays do happen.
The duration of the Uganda tourist visa is in the hands of the border official, who will tend to give you only a month (although up to three are theoretically possible). Later on you can extend it, free of charge, at the regional immigration office in Mbarara, a two-hour drive from Kabale. The Kampala immigration office is busier and fussier and therefore is best avoided.
Your travel document has to be valid for a minimum of six months on the day of entry.
Uganda offers free entry to the nationals of:
- The Bahamas
- Sierra Leone
- Solomon Islands
- St Vincent and the Grenadines
Rwanda offers free entry to the nationals of:
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- Hong Kong
Nationals of the following countries do not need to apply for a Rwanda visa but still need to pay USD 30 upon arrival:
- all African countries (payment if applicable)
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- United Kingdom
- United States of America
Self-drive is possible even though most car providers prefer to add their driver for a modest surcharge. On the road, remember that the biggest vehicle always wins; buses are untouchable rockets that you should give way to. If you cause a traffic accident, do not stop until you see the next police station. Mob (in)justice can be tricky.
Travelling without a car? A combination of minibuses (called taxis), shared cars and passenger motorcycles (boda bodas in Uganda or motos in Rwanda) will easily take you to the furthest areas. For national parks you have the choice of special hires (taxis) or squeezing into the back of a pickup truck on a market day.
In Uganda, vehicles don’t leave until they are full or more than full. Multi-hour waits are the norm. In Rwanda, bus transport is more organised and timely.
Cars for rent are everywhere; their price is per vehicle and includes fuel and the driver.
Our region is connected by good roads and full of excellent overnight options. You can opt for anything from camping to upmarket lodges as you stay next to mountain gorillas, climbable volcanoes and staggeringly beautiful lakes that are safe for swimming.
The region is compact enough to allow for short visits chock-full of attractions but if you have a week or two at your disposal, you will get enough time to see it all and absorb the richness.
If you are not already in Uganda, it makes complete sense to fly through Rwanda’s Kigali and do a round trip; you will save at least one day on the road. You can also fly to Kisoro, Musanze, Kihihi (north of Bwindi) or Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth is the first wonderful add-on we would recommend. It brings savannah into your highlands experience, rare tree-climbing lions (at Ishasha; number 5 on the map), elephants, hippos and other wildlife and a superb boat trip with plentiful birds at Mweya (4). It does not, however, have zebras and giraffes: Rwanda’s Akagera National Park could offer you these (2).
Between Akagera and Mweya lies Kitagata Hot Springs, a cultural site with obvious health benefits (3). South of Ishasha is Buhoma (6), Uganda’s most popular gorilla destination. The dotted line that goes down from it towards southern Bwindi with Lake Mutanda (8) indicates a Gorilla Highlands Trails walking route but that part of the national park can also be accessed by car. (7) is Lake Bunyonyi where you can paddle your own dugout canoe as you take in the majesty. Finally, there is our preferred gorilla tracking and volcano climbing destination, Virunga Volcanoes (9).
If you feel like some white sandy beaches at the end of your tour, Gisenyi (10) is your place.
Numbered places roughly correspond to suggested overnights. Instead of Kitagata (3), Ntungamo should be your place to sleep. The yellow line shows the shortcut excluding Akagera/Queen Elizabth NP.
If you wish to have our help arranging a perfect tour for you, starting from Kigali, Kampala or elsewhere, please contact us.
It is hugely ironic that Europeans once taught local people to be ashamed of their nakedness and that locals now feel deeply uncomfortable when a scantily dressed European shows up. But it is a fact.
Clothes that show too much of your skin will offend and distract – no matter if you are an American tourist or a city girl from Kigali. Ladies, make sure your clothes cover your knees and that they are not too tight. Guys, a silverback’s chest looks impressive, yours unfortunately doesn’t; better put on a shirt.
Find it hard to imagine how scanty clothes could be such a problem? It’s simply a matter of what somebody is used to.
Imagine meeting somebody completely naked – would you be able to interact with such a person totally freely? (In fact, before missionaries came men would strip naked to clear their fields.)
Test yourself: are you comfortable seeing babies being breastfed? When African ladies visit Europe they can’t believe that people feel uneasy doing that in public.
Children normally love to be in your photos but others will be offended if you don’t ask first. There is a common belief that tourists sell their pictures for big money, so a request for some coins is understandable. A better alternative might be to spend some time with the person, converse, buy something from a market woman – establish a relationship. Facebook may not be the only place to obtain friends from.
After you spend some time in Africa, you will understand how impolite it is to approach somebody without a greeting. Here you cannot even ask what time it is without a prior exchange of pleasantries. (And don’t be shocked if somebody wears a broken watch – it is pure decoration.) Ugandans are informal and demand a relationship first. Do not expect to have something done simply because a person is paid to provide a service! Develop a friendship and everything will become possible.
The people are happy to touch, hold hands, put a sleepy head on a stranger’s lap; there is no concept of private space. But there must be nothing sexual or passionate about this. Friends walk hand in hand on the street, lovers never. It’s the Western world turned upside down: you can be cosy with somebody only if you are not a couple.
You will see men very close to each other. Don’t misunderstand this; homosexuality is a crime here so is best left undisclosed. Most Africans believe that it was introduced by the whites, and that foreigners come here to convert innocent people.
Women should prepare for having to reject a series of marriage proposals. Ugandan men are crazy about the idea of having a white girlfriend – they are convinced white people are honest and would offer them a financially better life. Also, the ideal form of beauty for many is opposite to the West. If you are curvy, many will prefer you to slim women. If we call you ‘fatty’ or ‘the big one’, try not to be offended, it’s a flattering compliment.
Finally, a word on tipping: not required but always welcome!
Gorilla Highlands blog essentials: