Entebbe is the prettiest and most charming town of Lake Victoria. It is like a summer lake resort where no more business is undertaken than is absolutely necessary. The town spreads in a passive, careless way over a low down which slopes, in an equally easy fashion, to the lake. Its houses are more or less lost among the trees, for a great part of Entebbe is heavily wooded. Entebbe is even more attractive when seen close at hand than when viewed from afar. It is a picnic-suggesting haven amid a well-timbered botanical gardens park, the grass of which comes down to the water’s edge.
On reaching the high ground, Entebbe sits on a peninsula and is nearly surrounded by Lake Victoria’s waters. You can see a glimpse of Lake Victoria through a gap in trees or palisade of palm trunks from every point.
The view from the height upon which the State-House stands is unequaled for charm. It shows a broad arm of the sea, alive with islands, stretching inland to be lost among the tree-covered hills. It is a flood of blue water pouring eagerly into the great green forest. Its shores are marked by capes of palms, by creeks full of violet mist, and by gracious sand-rimmed bays of indescribable enchantment.
Sprawling along the Lake Victoria shore, some 35km south of Kampala, Entebbe exudes a tropical languor atmosphere. And particularly for those with a strong interest in natural history (and who aren’t looking for budget accommodation), it makes for an altogether more appealing introduction to Uganda than the capital, Kampala.
And even if you stay in Kampala, this pretty lakeshore town is worth a visit if only for its wonderful botanical garden, which is teeming with birds and practically guarantees close-up views of black-and-white colobus monkeys. Ngamba Chimpanzee Island on Lake Victoria, Mabamba Swamps, Ssese (Kalangala) Islands, and UWEC Zoo makes a great introduction to Uganda’s top attractions.
Spend a day or two in Entebbe before/after your countryside journey. There’s accommodation to cater to all travel styles. From budget hostels to upmarket luxury hotels, restaurants, and bars, Entebbe cuts off the crowded and noisy Kampala experience.
Getting To Entebbe & Away
Minibusses from Kampala to Entebbe leave from the old taxi park every ten minutes or so, and they take up to an hour. Entebbe is a sprawling place, and the central taxi park is in the Kitoro suburb 1km beyond the town center.
For flights out of Entebbe, Read, How To Travel To Uganda, Getting There & Away, and Domestic Flights in Uganda. You can also reach Entebbe from Masaka via the Ssese Islands or Nakiwogo Port.
Entebbe has a great selection of shopping malls within the peninsular and along the highway to Kampala.
For a more local feel, visit the Kitoro town center open market. The town is surrounded by both modern and upmarket supermarkets like Upland supermarket, Airgate, Pearl Supermarket, and Entebbe Shoppers.
Imperial Mall along the route to Botanical Gardens and UWEC also has forex shops, clothing, crafts, and the legendary Riders Restaurant and Bar.
Victoria Mall in the town along the highway gives you several shopping options, including groceries from Shoprite (a South African Brand), upmarket restaurants like Javas Cafes, fast-food restaurants like KFC, a cinema, forex exchange, banks, Kids and safari wears shop.
As you head out of Entebbe, Coinworth, Capital Shoppers, and Cynibel Supermarket, along the highway towards Kampala City, stand out as great shopping points.
Bureau such as Jetset Forex Bureau (Kampala Road & Entebbe Airport), Unimoni (Imperial Shopping Mall), and Metropolitan Forex Bureau (Victoria Mall) will change money faster and inexpensively than banks and bureaus in Kampala.
Many outbound travelers head down early to Entebbe to enjoy a pleasant afternoon rather than risking getting stuck in the Kampala traffic. Windsor Lake Victoria, Lake Heights, Hotel No.5, and Botanical Beach hotels seem happy to store luggage for day visitors who pay to use the swimming pool or take lunch.
The Lake Vic is perhaps a more pleasant setting, but the Botanical is convenient to wander down to the Botanical Garden or Wildlife Education Centre.
Map sales office Entebbe was the administrative capital of Uganda in the colonial era. Many government departments are still dotted around the residential area between the town center and Botanical Beach Hotel.
The pool at the Windsor Lake Victoria Hotel is open to non-residents on payment of Ush20,000. The Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel has a vast in-house swimming pool that you can use for UGX15,000. Protea Hotel (just outside the airport), Lake Heights Hotel, K-Hotel, and Hotel No.5 all offer public swimming pools for UGX 15,000 per person.
What to See in Entebbe
Entebbe Botanical Garden
Daily admission to the Botanical Gardens per person is UGX 3,000, vehicle UGX 2,000
Entebbe Botanical Garden is an attractively laid-out mix of indigenous forest, boutique hotels, shopping malls, and a desirable birdwatcher’s destination. The gardens offer an excellent introduction to Uganda’s birds ranging from Lake Victoria specials such as grey kestrel, yellow-throated leaflove, slender-billed weaver, and Jackson’s golden-backed weaver to the more widespread but striking black-headed gonolek, Red-chested sunbird, grey-capped warbler, and common wattle-eye.
In addition to various shorebirds, the impressive palmnut vulture and fish eagle are common, and a pair of giant eagle owls are resident. Forest birds include the splendid Ross’s and great blue turaco, as well as the noisy black-and-white casqued hornbill.
It is said that some of the early Tarzan films were shot on location in Entebbe —a thus-far unverifiable legend that gains some plausibility when you compare the giggling of the plantain-eaters that frequent the botanical garden with the chimp noises that punctuate the old movies.
There are some mammals around — no chimps, of course — but you can be confident of seeing vervet and black-and-white colobus monkeys, as well as tree squirrels.
Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, UWEC Zoo
Daily admission to the Entebbe Zoo is UGX15,000/20,000 foreign residents/non-residents. See the table below for UWEC fees.
|General Entrance Adults||$10||$10||UGX 10,000|
|Chimp Close up Adults||$290||$200||UGX 300,000|
|Chimp Close up Kids||$150||$100||UGX 150,000|
|Behind the scenes Adults||$70||$50||UGX 50,000|
|Behind the scenes Kids||$35||$15||UGX 30,000|
|Zoo Keeper Adults||$150||$75||UGX 100,000|
|Zoo Keeper Kids||$70||$35||UGX 35,000|
KEY: FNR – Foreign Non-Residents, FR – Foreign Residents, EAC – East African Community
The Zoo was established as a sanctuary for animals that would be unable to fend for themselves in the wild, and it has played an essential role in the protection of rare and threatened animals.
Residents include a few lions (whose nocturnal vocalizations add a distinct sense of place to a night in any nearby hotel), a pair of recently reintroduced Tigers, Cheetahs, black rhinos, and a variety of smaller predators that are seldom seen in the wild.
The aviary provides the most reliable opportunity in Uganda of getting a close-up shot of the renowned shoebill.
Entebbe Golf Club
The open expanse of the 18-hole golf course sloping towards Lake Victoria is Entebbe’s most attractive feature on the drive towards the airport. A far friendlier setup than the snotty Kampala Golf Club, it’s also far more affordable: non-members pay UGX30,000; club hire costs UGX20,000.
It’s also one of few clubs worldwide where a hooked drive on the 3rd might hit a rhino (in the neighboring Wildlife Education Centre). Entebbe gets hot during the day, so head out early or take the late afternoon tour.
Day Trips Out of Entebbe
Further afield, the Mpanga Forest, Mabira Forest, Mabamba Swamp, and Entebbe Botanical Garden make for good day trips, mainly if you are interested in birds. The Nile corridor at Jinja offers a range of activities, including horse riding and white-water rafting trips, all of which are feasible as day trips from Entebbe or Kampala. Let’s look at some other options below.
Flights are offered by Ndege juu ya Africa (+ 256 772 220137, [email protected]), Air Serve (+256-414-321251/2, [email protected]), and Asante Aviation (+256 312 265 201/+256 312 515 184/5) out of Kajjansi Airfield (7.4mi/12km on Entebbe Road) over Kampala (US$175 for 30 minutes), the Ssese Islands (US$375 for 90 minutes) and Jinja/source of the Nile (US$375 for 90 minutes). Prices are for a Cessna airplane that can carry three passengers. They’ll also take you up to do acrobatics!
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Standard day visits cost upwards of US$88 per person, depending on timing and group numbers. Visits can be arranged through most tour operators in Kampala or direct through the exclusive operator, G&C Tours (0772 502155; [email protected]).
Situated 23km southeast of Entebbe, the 50ha Ngamba Island forms part of the Kome archipelago, a group of about 15 islands and islets separated from Lake Victoria’s northern shore 10km-wide Damba Channel.
Ngamba was established as a chimpanzee sanctuary in 1998 when 19 orphaned chimps were relocated there from the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) in Entebbe and the smaller Isinga Island in Queen Elizabeth National Park. These chimpanzees were saved from a life in captivity or a laboratory when Ugandan authorities confiscated them and brought them to UWEC for care and rehabilitation. Some chimps were released onto Isinga in the mid-1990s.
An electric fence divides the island into two unequal parts. On one side of the wall, the visitors’ and staff center extends over an area of about 1ha on a partially cleared stretch of northwestern shore, notable for the immense weaver colonies it supports. The rest of the island is reserved more or less exclusively for the chimps and their attendants, the exception being tourists who opt to do the chimpanzee wall.
In late 2002, an upmarket tented camp sleeping up to eight was established on the island by G&C Tours/Wild Frontiers and later upgraded into an Eco-lodge with four permanent luxury cottages, ten standard camping tents, and five standard camping tents.
Ngamba was chosen as a sanctuary because it was formerly uninhabited. Its rainforest environment is almost identical to that of wild chimpanzees, with more than 50 plant species known to be utilized by free-ranging chimps in Uganda. There is plenty of room for the chimps to roam. Still, the forest isn’t large enough to sustain the entire community — indeed, its area corresponds roughly to the natural range of one chimpanzee — so the chimps are fed a porridge-like mixture for breakfast and then fruits and vegetables twice during the day.
Caretakers fed the chimps fruits from a viewing platform that provides an opportunity for visitors to observe and photograph them through a fence. The chimps choose to stay in the forest overnight or return to a holding facility built to enhance social integration and veterinary management, with sleeping platforms and hammocks, and grass for nest building.
The sanctuary exists to provide the best facilities and care to captive chimpanzees, for which reason the management has elected not to allow the chimps to breed. All sexually mature females on the island are given a contraceptive implant, which doesn’t disrupt the community’s normal sexual behavior but does prevent pregnancy in the same way as the human contraceptive pill.
Since 1998, UWEC has received an influx of orphaned chimpanzees, most of which were captured illegally in the DRC forests and smuggled across Uganda for trade. Today (2021), 49 orphaned chimpanzees are residents on Ngamba Island.
Workers on the island are constantly involved in helping the newly arrived orphans integrate into the original community, which spans an age range of two to 19 years old, with an almost equal balance of males and females.
Ngamba Island is the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s flagship project, jointly established in 1997 by the Born Free Foundation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Jane Goodall Institute, UWEC, and the Zoological Board of New South Wales (Australia). It is part of an integrated chimpanzee conservation program that includes an ongoing census study of wild chimpanzee populations in Uganda, two snare removal programs, chimpanzee habituation for ecotourism, and education and outreach initiatives in local communities.
Proceeds from tourist visits go directly back into the sanctuary’s maintenance and the organization’s other chimpanzee-related projects.
Day trips to the island intentionally coincide with the pre-arranged supplementary feeding times of 11.00 and 14.30, when the chimpanzees come to within meters of a raised walkway, offering an excellent opportunity to observe and photograph one of our closest animal relatives.
Half-day trips by motorboat leave Entebbe at 09.30 and 13.00 daily by prior arrangement. Overnight accommodation in stylish self-contained tented accommodation with solar lighting costs US$248 full board: resident rates available. These enable access to two daytime chimpanzee feedings from the visitors’ platform, plus the early morning feeding in the holding facility Kayaks are available to explore the island bays searching for monitor lizards, otters, and some of the 154 recorded bird species. In contrast, other optional activities for overnight visitors include a visit to a local fishing village, a sunset cruise, and fishing.
Also, one-hour chimpanzee walks are available with a group of infant chimpanzees through their forest habitat, either in the late afternoon or very early morning. A maximum of three visitors are allowed in the forest for each walk, always accompanied by trained staff. Even so, the chimpanzees are used to human contact, and they will often play-bite visitors, climb on them, grab their glasses or pull their hair — or even just walk along holding their hand. This activity is limited to people between 18 and 65 years of age.
Visitors are also required to be free of any flu-like disease or herpes (cold sores) COVID-19 or any other outbreak at the time of their visit. Anybody thinking of booking on the chimpanzee walk should make advance contact with G&C Tours or check out their website for current medical requirements, which at the time of writing includes a valid proof of negative PCR test for COVID-19, a current vaccination against hepatitis A and B, measles, meningococcal meningitis, polio, tetanus, yellow fever, as well as a negative TB test within the past six months.
This small (100 acre) patch of the remnant forest lies a couple of hundred meters off the Kampala—Entebbe road at Kisubi, 14mi (23km) from Kampala. If you’ve insufficient time to visit larger and better-known forests or are short of money, a visit to Zika provides a cheap and convenient taste of a tropical forest.
Owned by the Entebbe-based Uganda Virus Research Institute, it contains a unique (in Uganda) four-story metal tower used to ascertain what sort of bugs inhabit which strata of forest vegetation. You’ll also find a forearm-burning ascent of a narrow metal ladder, which will elevate you into open skies above the trees to enjoy a bird’s- and monkey’s-eye view of the forest canopy. A small trail network also explores the forest at ground level.
From Kampala, turn right just beyond a ‘Kampala 23km’ sign (immediately before Mivule Primary School on the right and the Uganda Martyrs’ University on the left) and then follow a left turn behind the school after 50m. A caretaker will have you sign a book and pay a quasi-official fee of Ush3,000.
No more than 15km west of Entebbe as the crow flies, the Mabamba Swamp extends across more than 38 sq mi (100 sq km) from a shallow, marshy bay on Lake Victoria’s northern shore.
Listed as an Important Bird Area, Mabamba harbors an excellent selection of water-associated species and is possibly now the most reliable place anywhere in the country for shoebill sightings. The villagers at the small lakeshore village of Mabamba offer dugout trip into the swamp for around Ush40,000 per head (the unit cost is lower for larger groups) and are usually capable of locating shoebills within a few minutes.
Even if you’re out of luck on that score, it’s a lovely and mellow boat trip. Other localized birds you’re likely to see include pygmy goose, lesser jacana, gull-billed tern, blue-breasted bee-eater, and the papyrus-specific Carruthers’s cisticola and white-winged warbler.
Despite their close geographical proximity, Entebbe and Mabamba lie at least 25mi (40km) apart by road, and the trip there takes about one hour. The most direct route out of Entebbe involves following the surfaced Kampala Road roughly 7mi (12km) north as far as Kisubi, then turning left along a dirt side road to Nakauka, where another left turn leads to the small town of Kasanje, dominated by an outsized roundabout. Turn left at the roundabout, and then shortly after, turn right at a large tree (if you go straight on, you’ll reach a ferry landing where an intermittent service connects to Entebbe’s Nakiwogo Port on the other side of Waiya Bay).
After about 6mi (10km), you’ll reach the Mabamba jetty from where the dugouts leave. Coming from Kampala, a better route is to follow the Masaka Road out of town for 19mi (30km), then to turn left along a side road signposted for Buyege, shortly before Mpigi Town. After 7mi (12km), this road reaches Kasanje, where you go straight across the roundabout and turn right by the large tree.
The route from Entebbe is an excellent place to look out for flocks of great blue turaco. In contrast, the road from Kampala passes through a large swamp about 6km before Kasanje, where papyrus gonolek is resident, and you could easily combine it with a visit to the Mpanga Forest Reserve.
Travelers dependent on public transport should have no problem getting to Kasanje, from where they will probably have to charter a boda-boda or taxi to get to the swamp.