I don’t know about you, but I’ve always assumed that I’d need to win a large sum of money in order to be able to afford to go on safari in Africa. It was an experience I’d shortlisted for my honeymoon (if I ever got married); it certainly wasn’t something I expected to be doing on a meagre travellers’ budget as part of a spontaneously-booked last-minute backpacking adventure with a friend.
However, Uganda is actually one of the cheapest places in Africa to track gorillas (second only to Rwanda), so it makes sense that it’s also incredibly affordable to go on safari here, too.
Their price for a three-day Big Six Safari is just $530 (£402 at the current conversion rate, April 2019). This includes:
- Overnight accommodation at Red Chilli Hideaway before the trip (price includes a bed in a dorm but you can upgrade to a private room for an additional fee)
- Two nights accommodation in a twin-bed tent at Red Chilli Rest Camp in Murchison Falls National Park, with shared bathroom facilities and on-site restaurant
- All transportation in a mini van with roof hatch
- A driver and local guides
- All activities during the safari (detailed in this post).
To give you an accurate idea of exactly what you can expect, here’s my day-by-day account of the three-day Big Six Safari I took with Red Chilli.
Day One| Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary and travel to Red Chilli Rest Camp in Murchison Falls National Park
We had just enough time to grab some Weetabix and a big mug of milky coffee at Red Chilli’s café-bar (which opens at 06:45), before congregating at the reception at 07:15 in order to be ready for our departure by pop-top minibus at 07:30 hours.
We would be sharing our nine-seater minibus with four other Brits and our driver, Ronald. Because Jayne and I had arrived earlier than the others, we’d bagged the front seats, which gave us a bit more legroom and a better view out of the front of the vehicle. However, we swapped over for the return journey because we had guilt about not needing the extra legroom as much as the two (much taller) guys.
We made a couple of stops on route (these are the perfect sorts of opportunities to sample the local fast food – commonly known as a “rolex“) before arriving at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
When we’d arrived into Kampala the day beforehand, the recorded temperature was 40 degrees, and as we drove up towards Murchison Falls National Park on the first day of our Big Six Safari, it grew steadily warmer. Murchison Falls is one of the hottest places in Uganda, and therefore not somewhere you want to be wandering around in the middle of the day, in an area where there’s zero shade.
However, that’s exactly what we did at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Make sure you wear a hat and carry some water with you; you’ll need both!
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is a private, not-for-profit organisation that was established in 2005 and is working hard to protect and grow the white rhino population in Uganda. It covers a massive 70 square kilometres of land and is currently the only place in the country where you can see rhinos in the wild.
There are currently 15 white rhinos here that are closely monitored 24 hours a day to protect them from poachers, and we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of around six of them.
I must admit I was a little concerned that the park ranger who guided our trek didn’t carry a gun with him (obviously to stun the rhinos only, not to do them any harm), especially after he’d given us our little safety briefing before we began the trek. As part of this briefing, he advised us not to get closer than 7-10 metres from the rhinos, and that if one or more of them did charge, we were find the closest tree and hide behind it (or climb it if we were physically able to do so).
Fortunately though, the sun was too hot for them to consider moving anywhere.
And whilst I was really excited about seeing them, I was more than ready to get back into our air-conditioned (read: open windows and constant airflow – providing we were on the move) minibus after around an hour of walking around in the 40+ degree heat. Of course it didn’t help that I had to wear a long sleeved shirt buttoned up to the collar, due to getting ridiculously sunburnt in Entebbe just days beforehand.
After being a little disappointed with the standard of accommodation at Red Chilli Hideaway (let’s just say I’ve slept on much comfier beds and there wasn’t a single plug socket in the entire dorm room), I was overjoyed when we arrived at Red Chilli Rest Camp.
The twin-bedded tents were luxurious in comparison to our dorm, and there were clean, hot showers and a wonderful open-air (it had a roof but no walls) restaurant and chill-out area, where the staff served delicious, hearty, home-cooked meals and cold beer. We were even joined by a couple of tame warthogs every evening.
We were informed, prior to going to sleep on the first night, that this wasn’t a gated camp, and therefore animals could roam freely as they wished. We were also told not to leave toiletries (or diabetes medication (!?)) inside our tents, because the monkeys had been known to break in and steal them (or rather steal the bag that they were in, and therefore everything else inside said bag) in the past. And, if we did need to use the toilet during the night, we were to take a torch with us at all times, so that we could spot an approaching animal (apparently hippos have been seen on camp beforehand) before it spotted us.
So, basically, it would’ve been impossible to get to sleep had I not packed my earplugs. Because every single noise, no matter how small, would have instantly put me on high alert. As it was, I was so half asleep when I did get up to use the toilet, that I’d completely forgotten about the tales of hippos and monkeys and warthogs the evening before.
Day Two | 4-hour game drive, Nile cruise, and a hike up to Murchison Falls
Our second day started early. We donned our head torches and wandered across camp in the direction of the on-site restaurant. Our pre-ordered breakfasts were waiting for us in brown paper bags with our names on, and we helped ourselves to warm cups of tea and coffee (surprisingly, it does actually get slightly chilly here before the sun rises) before jumping into our minibus and heading towards the south bank of the River Nile.
In order to begin our game drive, we had to make our way across to the Nile’s north bank. We did this via a vehicle and passenger ferry, and this is the incredible sunrise we were treated to on our short journey to the other side of the river. African sunrises really are something else!
I’d always anticipated that a game drive would consist of 80% driving and searching for animals and 20% animal sightings, but within 15 minutes of driving our local guide and park ranger had already spotted a small group of elephants emerging from the undergrowth, and the wildlife sightings just kept on coming.
Now, I don’t have much of a zoom lens for my DSLR. In fact, I only own one and that’s my 18-135mm lens, which I’ve found is sufficient for 95% of photographs I’ve ever needed to take. Occasionally I could do with a wider angle lens for architecture shots (I often find myself resorting to my mobile phone, because it seems to have a wider angle lens than my DSLR), but on the whole this lens does the job.
However, I was aware that it probably wouldn’t ‘do the job’ on safari, so I also packed my little compact Canon SX710 Powershot camera, which has a 30 x optical zoom (equivalent to 25-750mm). Surprisingly though, I barely used it. I couldn’t believe just how close we got to a lot of the animals (especially the giraffes), so for the majority of the time I was able to use my DSLR to get the shots I wanted.
The one exception was the lioness (or, rather, three lionesses). I have no idea how our guide spotted the initial feline; she was so well-camouflaged behind a bush on the scrubland. But I’m so glad he did. We spent the next 15-20 minutes watching her and another two females hunting some kind of antelope or deer. I’m sure our guide could’ve told us its name, but we were too busy watching the hunt to ask. Fortunately (for the hunted, at least), none of the lionesses caught their prey (maybe it was too hot to hunt with any seriousness at that time of day), but it was still an incredible activity to witness.
This is the only semi-decent photo I managed to capture, and this was taken on maximum 30 x zoom, so you can tell how far away she actually was!
By the end of the 4-hour game drive, we’d seen elephants, giraffes, lions, all manner of different antelopes and deer, warthogs, baboons, black and white colobus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, buffalo, and countless bird species. Considering this was the first time I’d ever been on safari, I’d say it was a pretty successful little jaunt.
We headed back to camp for lunch before departing for a 2-hour boat cruise up the Victoria Nile. This is an absolute must if you’re a bird lover, we saw so many colourful and unusual species along the route. We also saw plenty of hippos doing what hippos do best – basking in the shallow waters, almost completely submerged beneath the surface.
And this crocodile was so well camouflaged against the bracken and sand that we almost didn’t spot him.
Our day of activities culminated with a hike up to the top of Murchison Falls, which – as we were told by a lady we got chatting to on the boat – we were lucky to be doing later on in the afternoon, due to the stifling heat and lack of shade on the trail.
Murchison Falls (known as Kabalega Falls during the regime of president Idi Amin) is a waterfall between Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert on the White Nile. At the top of the falls the Nile forces its way through a seven-metre wide gorge and tumbles 43 metres into the aptly-named ‘Devil’s Cauldron.’
The 60-minute hike is not a difficult one, but there are a lot of steps to contend with. However, you’ll be far too distracted by the views to notice.
That said, you will initially find it difficult to keep your eyes off the trail. You see, large reserves of mica were once mined in Africa and the mineral still occurs naturally in the rocks around this area. The sand-like covering on the path upon which you hike contains millions of tiny mica particles, which sparkle like fairy dust at your feet.
Of course, it’s impossible to capture the effect on camera. But where there’s fairy dust, there’s also rainbows. And we did manage to successfully photograph them.
At the top of the steps the trail levelled out as we walked the final stretch across to the Devil’s Cauldron, where our hike came to an end.
There’s a small car park close to the top of the falls, where our driver met us in order to take us back to camp in time for dinner.
Day Three | Chimp tracking in Kaniyo Pabidi, Budongo Forest, return to Kampala
As it’s a bit of a drive to Budongo Forest, we set off pretty early again from Red Chilli Rest Camp (around 6:15am). We drove south through Murchison Falls National Park, witnessing an increasing amount of evidence to support what we’d been told about the oil reserves in the park the day beforehand. The roads had been widened here, construction vehicles stood stationery at regular intervals, and huge areas of forest had been burnt to the ground.
Chinese oil company ‘CNOOC’, French firm ‘Total’ and British Company ‘Tullow Oil’ have entered into a project together that could see dozens of wells drilled in one of Africa’s oldest national parks (established 1952) – one that’s home to 76 species of mammals and 451 species of birds.
It broke my heart to witness the devastation that was already occurring, and to think about the the effect it must surely be having on the habitats of the wildlife who call the park home.
We arrived at Kaniyo Pabidi at around 07:45, in time for the 08:00 departure of our 1.5-3 hour chimp trekking experience.
After Kibale Forest, this is supposed to be the best place to track chimps in Uganda (i.e you have the greatest chance of spotting them). However, we were seriously starting to doubt this after about an hour of walking along disorientating forest paths and past curiously-shaped trees, ants nests and giant spider webs, and having zero chimp action to write home about.
In fact I wasn’t entirely sure we were doing anything more than wandering around the forest in circles, because we kept bumping into the other group of tourists who entered the forest at around the same time as us but who initially wandered off in the opposite direction.
But, fortunately today was not the day that we would go home disappointed.
Just at the point that we were ready to give up hope, our guide and forest ranger beckoned for us to follow him into the undergrowth. We attempted to do this quietly, but have you tried to tiptoe across a forest floor without making a sound? It’s impossible!
Fortunately for Jayne and I, while the others bounded on ahead we happened to glance to our right and spotted this beautiful fellow – simply sitting there, chewing on the odd leaf or two and occasionally staring curiously in our direction, seemingly unconcerned by the constant clicks of our shutter buttons as we snapped photograph after photograph of him.
Most of the other chimps we were able to see were sitting high up in the trees, far from our prying eyes (and cameras!), but we were really lucky towards the end of our chimp tracking experience to witness a small group of them swinging their way down from the top of the trees to the forest floor, literally right above our heads.
Even though the majority of my photographs were too distant or too blurred to publish on here, I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to witness these creatures in their natural habitat. They’re our nearest relatives and even suffer with the same diseases as we do, so it was absolutely fascinating to have been able to see them in the wild and in the flesh, and as close as we, ultimately, did.
Once our time with the chimps came to an end, our guide walked us back to our vehicle, introducing us to a few of the forest’s plants and flowers along the way.
And once back in our minibus, we began the long journey back to Kampala, stopping for some food at a little roadside café on route.
Aside from the fact that I wasn’t particularly impressed with the standard of accommodation at Red Chilli Hideaway in Kampala (although it was sufficient for one night), and that I would have preferred NOT to track rhinos in the heat of the 1pm sun (although I accept that there wasn’t really much room for manoeuvre in the itinerary), I honestly couldn’t fault our 3-day Big Six Safari with Red Chilli.
The accommodation at Red Chilli Rest Camp was fantastic, the food was delicious, our driver was friendly and accommodating, the guides were knowledgeable and interesting, the itinerary was varied and well-organised, and the whole package represented outstanding value for money.
If you’d like to book the same trip (or browse alternatives), you can do so on the Red Chilli Tours and Safaris website.
The price I’ve quoted in this post was correct at date of publication (11 April 2019).
I’ve published two other posts about my time in Uganda:
Alternatively, if you’d like to purchase the guidebook I used for my research and planning then here is the link to it on Amazon:
What will I need for a safari in Uganda?
What I didn’t realise before going on safari is that you have to be so careful with the colours of clothes that you wear there. Bright, bold colours will apparently scare the animals away and blues and blacks are also a no-go because they attract the tsetse fly, whose bite can give you African sleeping sickness.
So, basically it’s neutral colours all the way – beige, browns and khaki/olive greens. You definitely won’t be the height of fashion, but personally I’d rather that than come home with some kind of tropical disease.
Clothes-wise I’d recommend packing at least one long sleeve shirt as well as a few pairs of quick-drying full-length trousers. Craghoppers do a ‘Nosilife’ range, which is meant to have insect repellent permanently woven into the fabric. I’m not sure how convinced I was by that claim, but seeing as though mosquitoes love me more than I love blueberries, I was willing to give it a try.
These are the two products I purchased for my trip:
Craghoppers Women’s NosiLife Adventure Long Sleeve Shirt (in mushroom)
Craghoppers Women’s Nat Geo Nosilife Trousers (in café au lait)
Other products you shouldn’t leave home without are:
- Malaria tablets. You can pick these up following a short consultation with your local pharmacist. I was advised that Malarone are the best option for Uganda. They also have fewer side effects than others like doxycycline (although I’ve never had any problems with doxy) and Lariam. Incidentally you will also need proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination to enter Uganda.
- Antihistamines. They won’t stop you getting bitten but will reduce the degree to which your body reacts to bites (in my personal experience).
- High Factor Sunscreen (factor 30+ (factor 50+ if you’re fair-skinned and susceptible to sunburn)). Because you’re right on the equator and the African sun is hot!
- Aftersun. Because if you’re fair-skinned (like I am), you probably will get caught out and sunburn hurts a lot!
- Hat. I’ve got this Fat Face Train Driver Hat, because it’s the only peaked cap I could find that actually suits me. Straw/floppy/beach hats just look ridiculous on me.
- Sunglasses. These are very much down to personal taste so I’m not going to link to any here, but make sure they offer sufficient protection as well as just looking good.
- Walking shoes or hiking boots (as some activities require you to wear closed footwear). The ones I’ve linked to are both KEEN products that I own myself. I find KEEN footwear is the perfect blend of comfort and style. I actually own four pairs of KEEN footwear altogether; as well as these I have the KEEN Elsa pumps and KEEN Fremont boots.
- Mosquito Repellent. I’ve tried all sort of different mosquito repellent sprays, pumps, creams and roll-ons, and I’ve never found one that keeps the mosquitoes away completely. I prefer to use natural repellents, given the choice, and I don’t find that they are any less effective.
- A good quality, comfortable day-pack. We were able to leave our big packs in storage at Red Chilli Hideaway in Kampala free of charge, so we just took day-packs with us on the safari. I’ve used the Osprey Tempest 20 for the last few years and it’s the most comfortable day-pack I’ve ever owned! It’s a perfect size for a 3-4 day hike, or in this instance – a 3-day safari.
- Earplugs and a sleep mask. Because all those weird and wonderful sounds around camp will keep you awake all night otherwise.
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