Joe always wanted to see the Mountain Gorillas and Laura’s internship in Uganda was the perfect opportunity to check that off his bucket list.
But we didn’t want to go on an organized tour of Uganda. We decided we wanted to do this on our own. So we rented a RAV 4 from Omega Car Rental.
They brought the car to us, at the guesthouse we were staying. And from Entebbe we hit the road.
10 TIPS ABOUT SELF-DRIVING IN UGANDA
1. DO NOT RENT A FANCY CAR
The car we got had scratches all over, and that’s what we wanted. When you drive your car in a safari, you will definitely add a few scratches to it, as you sometimes have to drive really close to some bushes.
2. RENT A 4X4
Our RAV 4 was a 4 x 4 which is a must on some Ugandan roads, and especially on a safari. But if we had to do this again, we would also pay a little more to have a bigger and higher car to feel more comfortable on those bumpy roads.
Make sure you ask the person who brings you your car how to put on the four wheel drive and how to turn on the head lights.
Avoid driving in the rain/immediately after the rain on dirt roads because it becomes muddy. We had a rough experience in Bwindi as our car just slid off the road twice because we had no grip whatsoever. The good news is, the mud drives up pretty fast after the rain, so it’s just a matter of time before the roads become okay to drive on again.
Drive slow to avoid a flat, because the roads are not always paved.
3. LOCK YOUR DOORS
Keep the doors of your car locked at all times. Obviously when you park, lock your doors and don’t leave any belongings inside. But also when you are driving. It happened that some kids were running behind our car and some tried to open the door. It’s dangerous for them to try to open a door and to try to get in while you’re driving!
Also, we did come across a bunch of monkeys on the road. They can definitely open your door, so keep them locked!
4. POLICE CHECK POINTS
There are many police check points on the road. Most of the time, there’s a sign that tells you a police check point is coming up. Slow down, but don’t stop unless the officer waves at you and tells you to stop. Sometimes, they’re not announced and they are actually looking for speeding car. Be aware of the speed limit (it goes from 50 km/h in the village to either 80 km/h or 100 km/h) and don’t go over it. It’s also for your own safety… some roads are not paved and going over the limit increases your risk of losing control and/or of getting a flat tire.
5. TANK UP
We always made sure our tank was full before heading into the National Parks. For example, there aren’t any gas station inside Bwindi.
When you stop for gas, always keep an eye on your car. We had a bad experience where someone put a nail under our tire at a gas station to then ask us to pay him to repair it (actually it was 2 tires with a nail in each!) In general, people are very nice, honest and welcoming, but there are some dishonest people all over the world.
6. CHECK YOUR US DOLLAR BILLS
Most places accept Shillings and US dollars. But we had some issues with some of the dollar bills we had brought with us from Canada. Make sure there are no markings on your bills and no tear. Also, most dollar bills older than 2013 are not accepted. The reason is that the banks won’t exchange them for shillings.
Also, if you’re bringing US money to Uganda in order to exchange them at a local exchange office for Ugandan shillings, make sure you bring 50 and 100$ bills. The smaller bills will get you a worse exchange rate.
7. SELF DRIVE SAFARI
Self driving through a safari has its advantages. You are not on a schedule, you go at your own rhythm and you can stop for as long as you want (that’s what allowed us to wait 20 minutes and see a herd of elephants cross right in front of our car!)
But when you have a driver, he communicates with other drivers and rangers in the park. Therefore, he can bring you where a lion has been spotted.
To compensate for that, make sure you ask every car you come across if they’ve seen anything interesting. We would roll down our window and ask every car if they had seen a lion. And that’s how we saw lions on two occasions!
8. DO NOT DRIVE AFTER SUNSET
Most rental companies will even write it in their contract that the car can only be driven between 6:30 am and 7 pm. And you should respect those hours because there are no lights on the road, the roads are super bumpy and dangerous to drive on if you can’t see the holes ahead of time. Plus, animals can cross the road at any time, which you can be dangerous if you don’t see them coming in the dark.
9. HAVE A LOCAL SIM CARD
Because Laura was in Uganda for over a month, she bought a MTN SIM card. The card costs 3000 shillings (1 $ USD) and the data and airtime is really cheap.
Make sure you have some airtime (We bought 100 minutes for 5000 shillings) We’re glad we didn’t have any major issues on the road, but in case you need help, whether it’s because you can’t find your hotel or you’re lost or you had an accident, you want to be able to reach out to someone.
We recommend you save the phone numbers of your hotels on your phone, as well as the number of your embassy.
Google map comes in handy on the road and it’s surprisingly very precise, with certain exceptions. Having data on your phone is useful.
10. ENJOY THE ADVENTURE
If you’re more of the type who likes to seat back and relax and not have to worry about anything on a trip, you’re better off with a driver. He will get you to your different points of interest hassle free and can make the detours you request. If you’re lucky to have a good driver/guide, he will also provide you with information about Uganda and life as a local as well as the animals you see on your safari.
But since Laura had done the guided safari experience already and worked in a rural area where she got to learn a lot about the local culture, we didn’t miss not having a driver/guide.
At times, driving in Uganda was challenging, but it was also a great experience, helped us build some good couple communication skills and gave us a sense of pride for being able to do this, when a lot of people had told us we were crazy to self drive!
We definitely recommend it if you’re not scared of getting out of your comfort zone!