What no one tells you about Uganda is how green it is. The garden of Africa, it’s a shock of emerald flora. Roads are lined by mango, jackfruit and banana trees, humpy hills form shamrock-coloured tea and coffee plantations and lakes and rivers are flanked by clumps of tall elephant grass. Its tangles of dense jungle and forests lay home to some of the world’s favourite primates and its plains are decorated with acacia trees and thickets of grassland. This swathe of greenery is juxtaposed with red soil, considered among the planet’s most fertile. Compared to its neighbours, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda is a garden of fecundity. Plant something in Uganda and it can’t help itself but grow.

tropical dense cloud forest coverd in fog, Central Africa

guenterguniGetty Images

 

The list of Ugandan exports is lengthy – coffee is the biggest, followed by legumes – mangos, bananas, cassava, avocados, papaya, oranges, maize and pineapples. Tea is also a growing market, as well as cacao. There are two rainy seasons in Uganda, so water is always in abundance. Try as the country’s former political leaders might (and truly these were a special, next level brand of brutal authoritarian monster), Uganda is a prime, albeit rare example of African prosperity.

Despite its aesthetic gifts, Uganda doesn’t rank as highly with tourists as other African superstar spots, such as Kenya, Botswana or Tanzania. Even the neighbouring Rwanda is rising in the minds of international visitors, thanks to its gorilla stronghold. Although tourism is increasing – up by 32 per cent in the last two years – this south-east-African state still remains an unsung treasure of its continent. Add it to your travel inspiration list for 2020; a trip to Uganda is a trip of a lifetime.

Gorilla tracking

Gorillas are the rock stars of Uganda. A silver back has more swagger and presence than Keith Richards and Mick Jagger combined, a statement that neither could possibly argue with. Rwanda has built a name for itself as a mecca for these beautiful animals, but Uganda is home to the highest number. There are 1,007 mountain gorillas left in the world and over half of those live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, a 331-square-foot sprawling mass of jungle in the south-west of the country. Over 120 mammals and 350 bird species call this World Heritage-listed site home, but the biggest draw are the mountain gorillas. Small groups of tourists are taken by experienced guides and rangers deep into the forest every day to spend a tightly monitored hour in the company of these animals (any longer causes stress to the gorillas).

 

The treks are varying lengths according to fitness ability, so make sure you’re honest about any physical limitations before you begin, lest you end up being carried down the rocky terrain on a stretcher. The gorillas have been habituated – a sensitively handled process which takes up to a year or more – which means they are comfortable and at ease around humans. The tracking experience is an open door to seeing these primates in their natural habitat and the trek to reach them is wild enough itself; some of the flora is so dense, rangers have to cut it back with machetes. There are no footpaths or clear routes, just the rangers following their intuition as you scramble behind them.

Once you reach the gorillas, although you know it’s coming, it’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed by their presence. Gorillas share 98 per cent of their DNA with humans, so watching them is like looking in the mirror. Their behaviours and body language and routines are so much like us it’s unnerving – the baby gorillas wrestle with one another until one of them gets tired and goes to cuddle his mother. Another mother breastfeeds her infant. One of the adult males tries to sleep while the commotion goes on around him. A silver back – who is enormous in size both in height and waist – climbs up a tree to grab some food. He is the first sight we see, and – as the group grabs their phones in unison – he stares back with a mix of rightful superiority and boredom. The food is far more interesting to him. Visitors are instructed to stay seven metres away from the gorillas, yet still the close proximity is remarkable. No flash photography is permitted, and visitors are advised not to look directly at the gorillas to prevent them from becoming agitated. The hour spent with these creatures goes past in a flash, and you’ll spend the trek back through the forest feeling a mix of overwhelmed and privileged. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can’t help but move you.

Game safari

Gorilla tourism might be the main attraction in Uganda, but its range of national parks inhabit a wide range of mammals well worth seeing. The Queen Elizabeth National Park is the most popular, but even then, the numbers of jeeps carrying tourists is nominal. Hippos, elephants, and leopards all live here, but the star of the show is the tree-climbing lion. Apparently, all lions can climb trees, but most choose not to. It’s as if they realise that, on top of their numerous genetic strengths, this would just be a step too far in terms of natural born advantages. The tree-climbing lions are largely found in the Isasha sector of the park where you’ll be in with a chance of seeing them lazily draped across tree branches. Some use the shady candelabra trees as a cool sleeping spot while others take advantage of the high level as a great way of spotting potential food on the plains below. Given that lions typically sleep 20 hours a day, it’s not hard to see the appeal in resting among the wide branches of the trees here, among the sweet-smelling figs, away from the heat and the pesky tsetse flies that like to bite them at ground level.

As the game drive continues visitors are also likely to see the impressively sized hippos, who happily wallow in the rivers and lakes to keep cool. Elephants are always a spectacular sight, and they roam in abundance here. It’s not uncommon to have to stop the car so that a parade of elephants cross over in front of you. Also deserving of a mention is the crested crane, the national bird of Uganda occupying a prime position on its flag. It wears a crown of stiff golden feathers not unlike David Bowie’s orange mullet in his Starman years. Its other Bowie-shared trait is that crested cranes love to dance, which involves a lot of jumping up and down and splaying of its wings. This usually happens as a breeding ritual, but cranes aren’t averse to dancing at other times of the year too.

Arts and crafts

Arts and crafts are a mainstay of Ugandan culture and anyone who goes home with a piece made by one of the country’s numerous artisans and craftspeople not only boosts the finances of local families, but also shows an appreciation for the experiences and skills of the Ugandan people. Basket weaving is a long-standing crafts profession, and the results are exported around the world. Made using banana leaves, raffia, palm leaves, papyrus and roots of plants, the baskets – which can be purely decorative or highly functional – are then dyed naturally and without chemicals.

GodongGetty Images