Is Going to Western Uganda a Good Idea?

Generally, I would say that the answer is “yes”, but there are a few things you will need to be mindful of.  A few weeks ago, I traveled to western Uganda to climb Mt. Stanley in the Ruwenzori Mountains.  Traveling around western Uganda can be challenging.  Uganda is just starting to rebrand itself as a beautiful tourist destination (true) after decades of violent strife, including the Congo Wars, several separatist movements, and Idi Amin.  On the whole, the country is welcoming toward tourists despite a general lack of exposure to them when compared with its neighbors, like Kenya and Tanzania.  However, xenophobia can be a real issue.  The north and the west have had very little exposure to friendly outsiders, and how people act towards you reflects this.  If you go, you will have to be patient as people will generally be hostile towards you and they will usually try to overcharge you.

Physical safety in Kasese and western Uganda is no more of a problem than it would be elsewhere in Uganda.  Follow normal commonsense travel rules, like avoiding traveling alone and being out after dark.  If you travel to the Ruwenzori Mountains National Park or one of the other parks in the area, ensure that you have a ride waiting for you at the park gates.  Walking the roads out of the parks can be unsafe, though the area itself is generally not.  The border parks have soldiers patrolling them to keep the tourists safe because of the ongoing violence in the neighboring North Kivu province of the DRC.  However, actual Congolese incursions across the border are very rare.

Transportation to and around western Uganda is pretty straightforward.  Uganda has a good road system.  The country’s Link Bus system, which you can easily find in downtown Kampala, takes you directly Kasese, the last major town in Uganda and the launching point for most adventures in western Uganda.  You will have to arrange private transportation from Kasese to the parks, however.  You can also hire private transportation from Kampala to the parks with some guiding services.

One final thing that you should be aware of when adventuring in western Uganda is the park service itself.  The local guiding firm, Ruwenzori Mountain Services, is required for trips to the summit of Mt. Stanley.  The porters and other staff are not very good and constantly demand tips under the threat of dumping your gear and stopping their work.  You have to keep telling them that you will settle the tip at the very end of the trip to prevent this from happening.  It is a problem that you can deal with, however.  It is more of a ploy to get a generous tip than it is a sincere threat.  Also, the local guides and park service personnel can pile on new and hidden fees.  Right now, park fees and rules across eastern Africa are rapidly changing, so you will have to be sure that you are completely up-to-date before coming to avoid surprises.  Bring extra cash in both USD and Ugandan Shillings (UGX), as the parks often only take USD while the servicepeople will need local currency, or you will likely run out in an area with limited banking services.

I assure you, though western Uganda may come with some extra issues that you will need to deal with, it is extraordinarily beautiful and well worth the trouble.

Jeremy Dixon