There has been a lot of hype about Uganda over the last few months, with Lonely Planet naming the country, ‘Best in Travel’ for 2012, and we believe that Uganda is finally getting the recognition it so deserves. So, we decided to tell you the truth about Uganda and discover what gap year adventures can be had there. Our lead mapthegap.co.uk writer, who lived in the country for four years, tells us all about it.
Think of a country that is so green, that wherever you look, even across its capital city, you will see rolling carpets of jade; a country where the people are always happy to see you and willing to be your friend; and a country that is full of natural wonders and surprises.
At the moment Uganda is one of the safest and most politically stable countries in East Africa and is still relatively undiscovered by tourists, making it an ideal gap year destination. Uganda is probably best known for its mountain gorillas; and while amazing, you’ll find that the country has so much more to offer than just these gentle giants.
Most travels in Uganda will begin in its capital city, Kampala, with its compact smart modern city centre, lush greenery, bustling traffic and busy market places. Most tourists don’t stay long in the capital and head out almost straight away for the wild parts of the country, but Kampala actually has a lot to offer.
If you’re after some souvenirs to take back home, then one of the best spots to go in the entire country is the handicraft market next to the city’s National Theatre. Here you will be able to admire an array of locally made crafts, from traditional goat skin drums, to beautiful soap stone candle sticks and colourful batiks. But, if you’re after the authentic Ugandan shopping experience, then the city’s vast Owino Market is the place to be, selling everything from Top Shop fashion to cooking pots, matches and shoes. It’s crowded, dirty and full of life - the essential Kampala experience.
Another must-see spot in Kampala, which hardly any traveller knows about, not even the locals, is the Baha’i temple. The Baha’i world religion has one temple on each continent of the world, and the temple for Africa is situated on a fertile hilltop, surrounded by exotic flower gardens in Kampala. The elegant green and copper domed temple may be hard to find, so take a map to show taxi drivers where to go. Head there on Sunday mornings to hear prayers and choir singers.
Heading further afield, there are a great many sights to see which are easily accessible on day trips from the capital. Visit nearby Jinja, on the shores of Lake Victoria, to see the home of the source of the famous River Nile, stopping at the beautiful Mabira rainforest for a nature walk along the way. Or maybe you’d prefer an adventure white water rafting on the Nile at Bujagali Falls, considered by some to be one of the top white water rafting spots in the world.
Another great day trip is the beautiful Botanical Gardens at Entebbe, near the airport. All the animals here are wild and free to roam around the vast gardens. It is home to many species, including the rare black and white colobus monkeys, bright yellow weaver birds, giant black spiders and even spitting cobras.
Not many people realise that the equator runs through Uganda, and a great a fun and must-do experience is to stop at one of the country’s equator signs to put one foot in each of the world’s hemispheres.
With most tourists heading to nearby Kenya and Tanzania for their safari holidays, not many people know that Uganda is just as good, if not better for safari experiences. Uganda is home to five main safari parks, where you can see all the wildlife without the crowds.
The first and best well known is Bwindi’s Impenetrable Forest; this is place for gorilla trekking or chimpanzee spotting. One of the biggest and best parks in the country is Queen Elizabeth, located in western Uganda and a six hour drive from Kampala. Queen Elizabeth is most famous for its tree climbing lions, but is also home to elephants, leopards, buffalos and warthogs among others. Two other parks worth visiting are Murchison Falls, best for viewing hippos and crocodiles on river safaris, as well as elephants and giraffes; and Lake Mburo, a quiet park great for viewing birdlife, hundreds of types of deer, zebra, warthogs and the iconic crested crane – the national bird of Uganda.
There are many opportunities for volunteering in Uganda, whether you want to work in orphanages or AIDS clinics in Kampala, build houses in remote villages or work with wildlife. A good orphanage that organise volunteer programs and have their own attached guesthouse is Sanyu Babies’ Home. Another quality organisation is Habitat for Humanity, who organise house building projects all over the world as well as in Uganda.
So, if you’re thinking about heading to East Africa for your gap year, don’t forget to consider the beautiful country of Uganda, providing a wealth of adventures.