Finding RIFT VALLEY pearls


DEO and SIMONÉ DU PLESSIS are truly living their dream at the moment, travelling through Africa’s most sought-after tourist destinations in Baloo, their trusty 2020 Toyota Land Cruiser 79. An absolute highlight on their expansive adventure was Uganda. They share their adventure.

The pearl of Africa. Travellers in Uganda are reminded of this on every t-shirt, coaster and Grey Crowned Crane fridge magnet in curio shops. Winston Churchill most likely did not realise this would become the tourism industry’s choice slogan when he penned it in his My African Journey. It is equally possible that neither locals nor visitors know exactly why the great British Bulldog likened this country to a natural gemstone. We spent a month overlanding through Uganda to discover more about this so-called pearl

We entered the country via Mutukula, a busy border post not often used by tourists but very well frequented by rather persistent money changers. The meaning of Karen Blixen’s ageold observation becomes clear at African border posts: “It helps to be willing to waste more time over a matter than (the official) does himself, only it is a difficult thing to accomplish.”

Heading into the town of Masaka, it became clear that this is a unique country. Broad-billed Rollers sit on power lines like feral pigeons. A thousand boda-bodas (the ever-present East African motorbike taxis) weave through traffic like safari ants. Exotically noisy Eastern Grey Plantain Eaters forage among suburban trees. Between the bustling little rural towns, we passed through countless banana plantations, over green hills, and through lush landscapes. A general sense of natural greenery is omnipresent, despite the dense population.

Lake Mburo National Park was our first nature-focused destination. Uganda is home to a variety of creatures that you will not find in southern Africa. In Mburo we saw Rothschild’s giraffes, topi, and Defassa waterbuck to name but a few. The large-horned Ankole cattle were also encountered inside the park – another East African signature. Bare-faced Go-away-birds and Brown Babblers babbled away and Brown-throated Wattle- eyes foraged carefully among the trees. Here, we also came to understand that a ‘dry season’ in equatorial Africa means that it rains only once a day. Were it not for the good old Max Trax, Baloo would probably still be spinning his wheels in the black cotton soil.

Travelling north, we crossed the equator – a momentous occasion for us. A bit further on is Nkima Forest Lodge, located in a patch of lush indigenous forest. Here we were awed by many of Uganda’s wonderful forest-dwelling creatures. Shy red-tailed monkeys foraged in the treetops while Great Blue Turacos and Black-and-white-casqued Hornbills raucously hopped between branches. We were even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a White-spotted Flufftail darting in the undergrowth next to our campsite.

Shoebill surprise

The nearby Mabamba swamp is a semi-protected wetland on the fringes of Lake Victoria. The big-ticket bird here is the endangered Shoebill and we headed out in a local banana boat with a community guide to look for one. Big was our surprise and excitement when we pulled up right next to one of the grey giants! This pre-historic looking bird gave us an unforgettable show of flying, prancing on floating reeds, intense focusing and even catching a lungfish for breakfast.

After navigating the infamously chaotic traffic of Kampala, we made our way to the very source of the Nile. We are not sure why it took the Royal Geographic Society so many years of frustration to locate it – we found it in a morning via a pin on iOverlander! These days the adjacent town of Jinja is a bubbling mix of Ugandan craziness and tourist traps. Here we sampled the tastiest and freshest Ugandan rolexes ever. What is this rolex, you may wonder… it’s a delight! Take a chapati (pancake-like flatbread), line it with a thin omelet, add yummy fillings like bacon and fresh veggies, roll it like wrap and enjoy!

For the most part, camping in Uganda is a more spartan affair than back home. Creature comforts like electricity, functioning and hot showers, firepits, wood and washing basinsare generally not part of the deal. However, when we arrived at The Haven campsite, where all of these are provided along with a fantastic view over the Nile, it suddenly felt like we had checked into the Ritz! Here we watched the early-morning fishermen ply their trade, adventurous (read mad) whitewater rafters take on the Grade-5 rapids and sooty Vieillot’s Black Weavers construct their nests.

Natural gems under threat

We drove further down the Nile to the Murchison Falls National Park. Here the river squeezes through a gorge only 7m wide to create a misty spectacle and cauldron of ridiculously powerful undercurrents, reverse eddies and rapids. Thick riverine forests line the green valley below, the calls of rare Rock Pratincole flocks echo from rocky clefts and the early-morning surface of deep bays are broken by the swirls of enormous Nile perch.

Away from the river the park is equally special. We saw Ugandan kob, Jackson’s hartebeest, oribi and Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, with hippos grazing next to our tent at night. The oil fields in the park and along the adjacent Lake Albert pose a major threat, and we can only hope that this piece of paradise will always remain protected. The Nile perch is an amazing African predatory fish that is on the bucket list of many fly anglers, ours included. They have bass-like bucket mouths, thick dorsal fin spines, and highly reflective eyes. Unfortunately, they are also very tasty and can grow to massive sizes so they are under threat of overfishing. Fly-casting a bunch of feathers tied to a hook among the mockery of local gillnet fishermen is not easy, but in the end each of us did succeed. They were no record breakers, but we will always remember the excitement of landing these special creatures and briefly admiring them in their beautifully wild but very fragile habitat before releasing them.

Outside Masindi you will find the Budongo forest, where a few wild chimpanzees still remain. They are protected by the community as it is not part of a national park. Habitat destruction is the number one threat to chimpanzees and the fields of sugar cane we walked through next to this shrinking forest are very tangible examples. After a few hours searching in pouring rain and a dripping forest, we glimpsed our very first wild chimps! It was an amazing experience to share a few moments with these intelligent and endangered creatures in their forest home.

Coaxing Baloo up the rift valley escarpment along Lake Albert, we headed back south again and passed a variety of landscapes. The savannah woodlands gave way to populated hills of banana plantations before we passed through the Kibale National Park. Known as the primate capital of the world, this evergreen rainforest is home to 13 species of primates – the highest density in Africa. Emerging from the forest, we passed countless tea plantations for which the cold high-altitude conditions are ideal.

Fort Portal overlooks the magnificent Ruwenzori Mountain range famous for its multi-day hikes and rugged beauty. Its snow-capped peak, Mount Stanley, is third in line for Africa’s highest point. We stayed at Kluge’s Guest Farm where shy blackand- white colobus monkeys joined us in camp and African Blue Flycatchers foraged nimbly around the trees with their cute flicking tails.

Moving south, we reached the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Straddling the equator, it is known for its tree-climbing lions. Upon hearing that we wanted to camp inside the park, the gate officer laughed and simply shook her head at us crazy South Africans. Did we not know that there was nothing at the wild campsites? Apparently, our reply that that’s exactly why we want to go there was not a sensible comment either. Either way, off we went on our merry way to explore.

Camping in the park was exactly the type we love most – surrounded by no one and nothing but the bush and its creatures. A herd of elephants browsed the fringe of the campsite, a lone buffalo bull inspected Baloo, and after a heavy rain downpour we lay listening to multiple prides of lions calling from all directions in the cool night air. Morning was greeted by hippos grunting from the misty Kazinga channel and Fish Eagles proclaiming a new dawn in Africa.

The unique landscape is dominated by grasslands and euphorbia trees interspersed with large herds of Ugandan kob. We were also lucky enough to catch fleeting glimpses of two families of giant forest hogs. We saw lions on five occasions, including subadults sleeping in a massive euphorbia tree and a male lying directly underneath a game viewer, either seeking shade or inspecting the impressive Cruiser underbody. In the park we also came across another rare species in Uganda, namely self-drive overlanders. They just happened to be fellow South Africans and seemed rather surprised to be greeted by an Afrikaans couple asking for biltong.

Gorillas in the mist

Our next stop was the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi. A natural high-altitude lake formed by a volcanic crater, it is exceptionally deep and the lush and terraced surrounding hills did well to relax our senses after a long day on the road. Not far from the lake, we bumped our way along a treacherous little mountain road to our last destination in Uganda – the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Here we had an appointment scheduled with those enigmatic woolly residents that still take refuge in this rainforest – mountain gorillas.

Tracking gorillas is a regulated affair requiring you to plan months in advance and smash that pink piggy bank to smithereens. However, when you finally arrive at the edge of the misty dark forest and peer into its mysterious world known as one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, you sense that all the preparations were indeed worthwhile. Being less than fit after months on the road, we sweated like suckling pigs in a Finnish sauna as we climbed the near-vertical Bwindi slopes while tracking the great apes. It is not called impenetrable without reason. But then… there they were.

The big silverback leader sat silently over to one side, lazily stuffing his face with fresh leaves. Females and younger males browsed around, inquisitively investigating us while babies played in the ultimate jungle gym, entertaining both themselves and us. When our allowed time with the group was up, we left with a mixed sense of sadness and immense joy. These endangered, but utterly remarkable creatures are slowly increasing in numbers and we hope that they will always remain protected in their mountainous strongholds.

As we reminisce over our adventures in Uganda, we think of the variety of wonders we experienced. Moist rainforests, euphorbia-studded plains, broad rivers, snowcapped mountains, powerful waterfalls and massive lakes. Shoebills, gorillas, lions, rare birds, chimpanzees, forest hogs, rare fish. It is a country that provides adventure in abundance to those willing to explore. Considering the lesser-known other half of his quote, we couldn’t agree more with Mr Churchill: “For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life – I say Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.”

Travel Guide


• South Africans need a visa for Uganda. You can apply online before arriving and it takes two days to process:

• Consider getting the East African Tourist Visa if you plan on visiting Rwanda or Kenya before or after Uganda.

• A temporary import permit for your vehicle can be obtained at the border (a CDP is not required).

National Parks

• A daily permit for you and your vehicle lasts 24 hours from the time you enter, so plan your visit accordingly.

• Uganda’s park fees are not cheap, so budget well in advance. For the latest information, check out

• Most national parks have wild unfenced camp sites that can be booked at the gate.

Recommended campsites:

• Masaka: Villa Katwe

• Near Lake Mburo National Park: Leopard Camp

• Mabamba Swamp: Nkima Forest Lodge

• Jinja: The Haven

• Budongo Forest: Masindi Hotel

• Near Murchison Falls National Park: Yebo Camp

• Fort Portal: Kluge’s Guest Farm

• Near Queen Elizabeth National Park: Songbird Campsite

• Lake Bunyonyi: Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort

• Near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park: Rushaga Gorilla Camp

Gorilla encounters:

• Gorilla tracking permits are expensive and need to booked a few months in advance for an exact date. Uganda’s permits are still about half the price of those in Rwanda.

• The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park has four different base points from where various gorilla groups can be tracked – plan a location that works for your route.

• You cannot book your permits directly with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. A tour operator must make the booking on your behalf and will add a small handling fee. A list of these can be found on the UWA website.

• Tracking gorillas in Bwindi is physically tough as the mountain forests are very steep and dense. Take enough water, snacks and rain-proof gear!

DIY logistics

• The major towns and national parks are linked by very good tarred roads, but the roads inside the parks and off the beaten track are bumpy and often washed away. Things can also get very muddy in the rain and as such, a high-clearance 4×4 is recommended.

• Although street food is great and inexpensive, you can stock up in any town. Buy fresh produce from the side of the road and tinned items at mini supermarkets. Good meat is scarce, with frozen mince or sausages being a staple.

• Good quality fuel is readily available from reputable filling stations.

About the authors

Deo and Simoné du Plessis are currently travelling overland throughout Africa in their Land Cruiser, Baloo, seeking wonder in this beautiful world and sharing it with like-minded people to encourage them to do the same!


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