Often described as The Pearl of Africa, Uganda is a country not only with a rich and exotic history, but also with a natural and varied beauty that is hard to beat. Honeymooners and adventure lovers alike can enjoy the finest service in first class lodges in some of Africa’s most beautiful surroundings. Colourful birds and a wide variety of primates chatter away in the ancient equatorial Bwindi rain forest, whilst below, energetic travellers trek in search of the elusive mountain gorilla. In Queen Elizabeth National Park, The Kazinga channel is home to a large variety of water birds and wildlife alike, including the prehistorical crocodile and the iridescent sunbird. Strangely, the rare and bizarre shoebill is to be found closer to the urban sprawl that is Entebbe. Murchison Falls and The Ruwenzori Mountains await the more adventurous visitor.
Stay at one of the country’s luxury lodges in Semliki whilst testing the waters in the nearby hot springs or fly north to Kidepo where you will find vast herds of buffalo as well as many other species in this remote park. Try the thrill of white water rafting on the Nile or search for chimps in the Chambora Gorge. Still largely unspoilt, Uganda will appeal to birders and safari goers alike, as well as those seeking something different from the run of the mill safari.
Location: Equatorial Africa, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Size: 235, 796 sq. km
Population: 28.2 million
Other Major towns: Gulu, Lira and Jinja
Currency: Uganda Shilling
Language: English, is the official language, spoken by most reasonably educated Ugandans. Among the country’s 33 indigenous languages, Luganda is the closest to being a lingua franca.
Religion: Christian, Islam, Hindu and Jewish, some tribes adhere to traditional animist faith.
International telephone code: +256
Time: GMT +3
Electricity: 240 volts
Uganda’s most popular areas:
Kampala, Entebbe and Environs
Although they lie only 35km apart on the northern Lake Victoria hinterland, the twin cities of Kampala and Entebbe, present and former capitals of Uganda respectively, and are two very different cities. Situated on rolling hills some 10km inland of the lake, Kampala is the archetypal African capital, more verdant than many of its counterparts, not quite so populous or chaotic as others, but essentially the familiar collocation of a bustling compact high-rise city centre rising from a leafy suburban sprawl, increasingly organic in appearance as one reaches its rustic periphery.
Entebbe by contrast, scarcely feels like a town at all. Straddling the Equator some 30 minutes’ drive south of Kampala, it is a remarkably unfocused urban centre, carved haphazardly into the tropical lakeshore jungle in such a manner that one might reasonably wonder whether most of its residents have packed up their tents and gone on holiday. Indeed, Entebbe is quite possibly the only African capital past or presents to have entered the new millennium with a golf course more expansive than its nominal city centre, or whose tallest buildings are dwarfed by the antiquated trees of the botanical garden.
With their contrasting atmospheres of modern and urban bustle and time-warped equatorial languor, Kampala and Entebbe are linked by smooth surfaced roads passing through a lush cover of broad-leafed plantations and other tropical cultivation, this makes for a fascinating introduction to Uganda.
Lake Mburo National Park
One of Uganda’s smaller national parks, Lake Mburo extends over 260sq. km of undulating territory with an altitude range from 1,220m to 1,828m above sea level. The annual rainfall figure is relatively low, but roughly 20% of the park’s surface area consists of wetland habitats. The most important is Lake Mburo, the largest of the five lakes that lie within the park boundaries. The remainder of the park mainly consists of open savannah and acacia woodland, with some of the more common trees being the Acacia hockii, Acacia gerradii, Accacia sieberiana and Acacia polycantha. In the western part of the park, the savannah is interspersed with rocky ridges and forested gorges, while patches of papyrus swamp and narrow bands of lush riparian woodland line the verges of the various lakes.
Lake Mburo is an underrated gem of a park, dominated by the eponymous lake, which with its forest fringed shores hemmed in by rolling green hills; it is scenically reminiscent of the more celebrated Lake Naivasha in the Kenyan Rift Valley. That the park has historically been bypassed by the majority of safaris and independent travellers, despite its relative accessibility, are presumably down to the low ‘big five’ count, in particular the lack of elephant and infrequent presence of lion. Even in the absence of wildlife heavyweights, however, Lake Mburo offers some excellent game viewing, and you are as likely to see as many different large mammal species over the course of the day as you would in any Ugandan national park. The profile of the park has been raised by some recent developments. Lake Mburo has long been promoted with some desperation as an ideal overnight stop along the long drive between Kampala and the national parks along the country’s western border. The number of travellers actually accepting the invitation has risen sharply since the exemplary Mihingo Lodge opened in 2007. Lake Mburo is now also the only Ugandan protected area in which visitors can view game on foot, quad bike and horseback. Lake Mburo harbours several species not easily observed elsewhere in Uganda. It is the only reserve in the country to support a population of impala, the handsome antelope for which Kampala is named and one of only three protected areas countrywide where Burchell’s zebra occur, the other two being the far less accessible Kideop and Pian Upe. Other antelope species likely to be seen by casual visitors are topi, bushbuck, common duiker, oribi, Defassa waterbuck and Bohor reedbuck, while the lake and lush fringing vegetation support healthy populations of buffalo, warthog, bush pig and hippopotamus. Roan antelope, once common, are now locally extinct but large herds of the majestic eland still move seasonally through parts of the park. The sitatunga antelope is confined to swamp interiors, and the klipspringer is occasionally observed in rocky areas. Only two diurnal primates occur at Lake Mburo: the vervet monkey and olive baboon. The eerie rising nocturnal call of the spotted hyena is often heard from the camps, and individuals are less frequently observed crossing the road shortly after dawn. Leopard, side striped jackal and various smaller predators are also present, most visibly white tailed mongoose and three otter species resident in the lakes. Lions for which Lake Mburo was famed in the 1960s were hunted to local extinction by the late 1970s though the odd pride finds its way into the park presumably from Akagera National Park in Rwanda.
Some 315 species of birds have been recorded in Lake Mburo National Park. It is probably the best place in Uganda to see acacia-associated birds, mosque swallow, black-bellied bustards, bare-faced go-away bird and Ruppell’s long tailed starling can be found. A handful of birds recoded at Lake Mburo are essentially southern species at the very northern limit of their range, for instance the southern ground hornbill, black collard and black throated barbets and green capped eremomela. Of special interest to birders are the swamps in which six papyrus endemics are resident, including the brilliantly coloured papyrus gonolek, the striking blue headed coucal and the highly localised white winged and papyrus yellow warblers, the last recorded nowhere else in Uganda.
Kigezi is perhaps the most fertile and scenic region of Uganda, a landscape of blue lakes and steep terraced slopes tumbling southwest towards the rainforest-swathed mountains of Bwindi National Park and the magnificent isolated peaks of the Virungu Volcanoes. Most visitors, whatever the scenic qualities are attached to, this hilly southwestern corner of Uganda will be secondary to the region’s outstanding attraction, which is the opportunity to track the endangered mountain gorilla in its natural habitat, arguably the most exciting wildlife encounter to be had anywhere in Africa.
The global population of at most 700 wild mountain gorillas is restricted to and is split more or less evenly between the dense mountain forest of Bwindi and the bamboo-clumped slopes of the Virungas. The most reliable locations in which to track gorillas are Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where six habituated groups now exist, and Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans. Tracking in Mgahinga is only sporadically possible since the park’s habituated group took to wandering over the volcanic watershed into neighbouring Rwanda for weeks at a time.
Mountain gorilla tracking is inevitably the most popular tourist activity in Kigezi, but the area foes have much else to offer. The slopes of the Mgahinga harbour a rich faunal diversity, and it is possible to organise guided forest walks as well as day hikes to the three volcanic peaks within the reserve. Bwindi also offers some excellent day-walking possibilities and it has possibly the richest faunal diversity of any forest in east Africa, including two dozen bird species endemic to the Albertine Rift. National parks aside the lovely island strewn Lake Bunyoni has supplanted the Ssese Islands as Uganda’s most popular beach venue, while a hottest of more obscure lakes and waterfalls form rewarding goals for more adventurous travellers.
The largest town in Kigezi and main gateway to the region is Kabale which lies 430km from Kampala and 147km from Mbarara.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
The Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest is regarded to be one of the most biologically diverse forests in Africa, largely owing to its antiquity and a broad altitude. Bwindi is a true rainforest, spread over a series of steep ridges and valleys that form the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift Valley. The national park has an average rainfall of almost 1,500mm and it is a vital catmint area, the source of five major rivers, which flow into Lake Albert.
Tourism to Bwindi focuses on gorilla tracking at four locations: Buhoma in the northwest of the park, Ruhija in the east, Nkuringo in the southwest and Rushaga in the south. Slightly more than half the world’s mountain gorilla population is resident in Bwindi: an estimated 320 individuals living in 15 troops. Given the focus on gorillas it may come as a surprise to learn that Bwindi harbours at least 120 mammal species more than any national park except Queen Elizabeth. This list consists mainly of small mammals such as rodents and bats, but it does include 11 types of primate, including a healthy chimpanzee population and substantial numbers of L’Hoest’s red-tailed and blue monkey, as well as black and white colobus and olive baboon. Of the big five, only elephant are present, buffaloes and leopards were present until recent times, they are thought to have been hunted to extinction in the area. Six antelope species occur in the park, bushbuck and five types of forest duiker.
A total of 350 bird species have been recorded in Bwindi. Of particular interest to birders are 23 species endemic to the Albertine Rift, and at least 14 species recorded nowhere else in Uganda. In addition to its extensive bird checklist, Bwindi is also home to at least 200 butterfly species, including eight Albertine Rift endemics and dedicated butterfly watchers might hope to identify more than 50 varieties in one day.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Uganda’s most popular and accessible savannah reserve, the Queen Elizabeth National Park is bounded to the west by the Ishasha River and Lake Edward along the Congolese border, to the north by Kasese and the Rwenzori foothills, to the east by Lake George, the Kyamburu Gorge and Kalinzu Forest Reserve, and to the south by the Kigezi wildlife Reserve. QENP is primarily associated with open savannah, studded in some areas of swamp around Lake George, the extensive Maramagambo Forest in the southeast, and the forested Kyambura Gorge along the border with the Kyambua Game Reserve. At least ten crater lakes lie within the park, including a highly accessible cluster immediately north of the main road to Mweya Lodge, as does the entire Ugandan shore of Lake Edward, the northern and western shores of Lake George, and the connecting Kazinga Channel.
A total of 95 mammal species have been recorded in QENP, the highest for any Ugandan national park. Ten primate species are present, including chimpanzee, vervet, blue, red tailed and L’Hoest’s monkey, black and white colobus and olive baboon. Around 20 predators are found in the park, included side-striped jackal, spotted hyena, lion and leopard. The most common antelope species are Ugandan kob, bushbuck, topi and Defassa waterbuck. The elusive semi-aquatic sitatunga antelope occurs in papyrus swamps around Lake George, while four duiker species are primarily confined to Maramagambo Forest. Buffaloes are common and often reddish in colour due to interbreeding with the redder forest buffalo of the Congolese rainforest. The park’s elephants display affinities with the smaller and slightly hairier forest-dwelling race of elephant found in the DRC.
Protected at the Lake George and Lake Edward game reserves since the late 1920s, the present-day QENP was gazetted as the Kazinga National Park in 1952, to protect the varies landscapes of prolific wildlife on the Rift Valley floor, between Lake Edward and the Rwenzori. It was renamed QENP in 1954 to commemorate a visit by the British monarch. QENP’s prolific wildlife dropped in earlier year. Over the last 15 years the situation has improved greatly. The elephant population is today estimated at 2500, while lions, once rare and elusive are thought to number at least 200 are readily observed in the Kasenyi Plains and to lesser extent around Ishasha and Mweya.
Some 610 bird species have now been recorded in the park, a truly remarkable figure. In additional to 54 raptors, the checklist includes virtually every waterbird species resident in Uganda and a variety of woodland and forest birds, the latter largely confined to the Maramagambo Forest. Birding anywhere in the park is good, but the Mweya stands out for the myriad waterbirds on the Kazinga Channel, while the riparian forest at Ishasha is a good place to see more unusual species.
Situated in the northern foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, some 50km north of Kasese and 300km west of Kampala, Fort Portal is a likeable enough town, but of greatest interest to travellers for lying at the epicentre of a cluster of highly alluring and reasonably accessible national parks and other tourist attractions. Foremost among these is probably Kibale National Park, which is situated about 30km south of the town. It is not only the best place to track chimpanzees in Uganda and also harbours the greatest primate diversity as well as a variety of forest birds. Other popular destinations around Fort Portal include a field of several dozen crater lakes near Kibale Forest and the forested Semliki National Park and more open Semliki wildlife Reserve at the base of the northern Rwenzori foothills.
Kibale Forest National Park
Kibale Forest National Park, together with the nearby Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes, are close to being an independent traveller’s dream, blessed with the tantalising combination of inexpensive accommodation, easy access, wonderful scenery and a remarkable variety of activities. The park is highly alluring to nature lovers for the opportunity to view a wide range of forest birds and track chimpanzees. Though the scenic appeal of the region remains undiminished, the rising cost of chimp tracking, and the conversion of the old budget Kanyachu River Camp to an upmarket tented camp, mean that the national park is no longer the mandatory backpacker destination it was a few years ago.
Gazetted in October 1993, the Kibale Forest National Park extends southwards from Fort Portal to form a contiguous block with the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Interspersed with patches of grassland and swamp, the dominant vegetation type is rainforest with a floral composition transitional to typical eastern Afro-montane and western lowland forest.
At least 60 mammal species are present in Kibale Forest. It is particularly rich in primates, with 13 species recorded. The Kibale Forest area is the last Ugandan stronghold of the red colobus, although small numbers still survive in Semliki National Park. Visitors who do both the forest and swamp walks can typically expect to see around five or six primate species.
Kibale Forest offers a superlative primate viewing, but it is not otherwise an easy place to see large mammals – this despite an impressive checklist which includes lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, hippo, warthog, giant forest hog, bushpig, bushbuck, sitatunga, and Peter’s red and blue duikers. The elephants found in Kibale Forest are classified as belonging to the forest race, which is smaller hairier than the more familiar savannah elephant. Elephants frequently move into the Kanyanchu area during the wet season, but they are not often seen by tourists.
Roughly 335 bird species have been recorded in Kibale Forest, including four species not recorded in any other national park: Naha’s francolin, Cassin’s spinetail, blue-headed bee-eater and masked apalis. Otherwise the checklist for Kibale includes a similar range of forest birds to Semliki National Park, with the exclusion of the 40-odd Semliki ‘specials’ and the including of a greater variety of water and grassland species. A recent first sighting of a green-breasted pitta cause some excitement in Ugandan ornithological circles, while the truly optimistic might want to look out for the Prigogine’s ground thrush, a presumably endemic species or race collected once in the 1960s and yet to be seen again. The best birdwatching spot is the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, where a four-hour trail has been laid out and experienced guides will be able to show you several localised species which you might otherwise overlook.
Semliki National Park
The Semliki National Park was gazetted in October 1993, prior to which it was more widely known as the Bwamba Forest, a name you will come across regularly in old ornithological literature about Uganda. Situated within the Albertine Rift, the national park is bounded to the northwest by the Semliki River, which runs along the Congolese border into Lake Albert, and to the east but the Fort Portal-Bundibugyo road. It protects a practically unspoilt tropical lowland forest, essentially an easterly extension of the vast Ituri Forest that stretches all the way from Uganda to the Congo River. Separated only by the Semliki River, the two forests form an ecological continuum, for which reason Semliki National Park harbours an exciting range of lowland forest species associated with the Congo Basin. At least 300 species of butterflies have been identified in the park, including 46 species of forest swallowtails, together with 235 moth species.
Considering its small size, Semliki National Park protects an extraordinary faunal diversity. It is of particular interest to birdwatchers: 435 bird species have been recorded, including a high proportion of forest birds and roughly 45 species that occur nowhere else in Uganda.
Only 53 mammal species have been recorded in Semliki, though the patchy look of the existing checklist suggest that it is far from complete. Of the listed species, 11 occur nowhere else in Uganda, including the pygmy antelope, two types of flying squirrel and six types of bat. Semliki is the only east African stronghold for the peculiar water chevrotain, a superficially duiker-like relic of an ancient ungulate family that shares several structural features with pigs and is regarded to be ancestral to all modern-day antelopes, deer’s, cows and giraffes. Persistent rumours that Semliki harbours an isolated population of eastern lowland gorilla probably have no factual foundation, but the national park does support a healthy chimpanzee population, not as yet habituated to humans, as well as seven other diurnal primates. Other large mammals recorded in the park include elephant, bushpig, buffalo, sitatunga and white-bellied duiker. Hippos and crocodiles are common along the Semliki River.
The most popular attraction in Semliki National Park is the cluster of hot springs at Sempaya, which can be reached via a short walking trail. Longer guided walks, taking the best part of a day, can also be arranged at Sempaya, as can overnight hikes deep into the forest.
Unless you are a keen bird or primate watcher, the main attraction of this national park is a visit to the hot springs.
Murchison Falls and Lake Albert
Flanking the Victoria Nile some 300km northwest of Kampala, Murchison Falls National Park is the largest protected area in Uganda and one of the most exciting. The waterfall for which the park is named is the most electrifying sight of its type in east Africa, while daily launch trips from Paraa offer the opportunity to see a profusion of hippos, crocodiles and waterbirds, including the elusive and bizarre shoebill. Terrestrial wildlife is recovering from heavy poaching in the 1980s and a wide variety of mammals including elephant and lion are now routinely sighted along the road circuit north of the Nile.
The other major established attraction in the Murchison region is the Budongo Forest, effectively a southern extension of the national park, protected within the Budongo and Kayiyo Pabidi forest reserves. The Budonga Forest harbours one of the most varied forest faunas in east Africa and is a premier site for birdwatchers as well as one of the best places to track chimpanzees in east Africa.
Murchison Falls National Park and Lake Albert
Uganda’s largest protected area, the Murchison Falls National Park lies at the core of the greater Murchison Falls Conservation Area, which also embraces the Bugungu and Karumu wildlife reserves and the Budongo Forest. Gazetted in its modern form in 1952, the national park previously formed part of the Bunyoro Game Reserve, which was proclaimed in 1910 following the evacuation of the local human population during a sleeping-sickness epidemic. During the Amin era, Murchison Falls was officially re-christened Kabarega Falls, after the former king of Bunyoro, a name that still appears on some maps of Uganda, even though it fell into official and vernacular disuse soon after Amin departed the country. But whatever one elects to call it, Murchison Falls, the wide, languid Nile being transformed into an explosive froth of thunderous white water as it funnels through a narrow cleft in the Rift Valley Escarpment, is easily the most impressive sight of its type in east Africa.
Murchison Falls National Park is low lying by Uganda standards and of those parts of the country that are regularly visited by tourists, it is the only one that regularly becomes stifling hot. The average rainfall though significantly lower than in the forests of the southwest, compares favourably to most other east African savannah ecosystems. The Victoria Nile, flowing in a westerly direction between Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert, divides the park into two roughly equal parts. North of the river the vegetation broadly consists of tall, green grassland interspersed with isolated stands of borassus palms, acacia trees and riverine woodland. South of the river, the park is characterised by denser woodland, giving way in the southeast to closed canopy forest around Rabonga Hill, the highest peak in the park.
In the 1960s Murchison Falls with its spectacular waterfall, prolific game and clutch of outstanding lodges, was universally regarded to be one of east Africa’s most compelling national parks. It was particularly renowned for its prolific elephant population. Murchison Falls remained a popular tourist draw in the early days of the Amin regime, but the gates closed in September 1972 when foreign visitors were banned from Uganda. Within a couple of years the conservation activities within the national park had practically ceased making its wildlife easy prey for commercial and subsistence poachers. In 1980 a year after Amin was ousted, aerial surveys indicated that the number of elephants and hippos had been reduced severely, while buffalo and other large mammal populations stood at half of what they had a decade earlier. During the turbulent 1980s the slaughter continued unabated as a succession of military factions occupied the park and treated it as a moving larder. By 1990 fewer than 250 elephant and 1000 buffalo survived, the hartebeest and kob herds had plummeted to around 3000 and 6000 respectively, rhinos and African hunting dogs had been hunted to local extinction; and the dwindling populations of giraffe and lion threatened to go the guerrilla activity had rendered all three of the park’s lodges inoperative.
This downward trend was reversed in the early 1990s and although wildlife populations have yet to re approach their pre Amin highs, nobody who has visited the park regularly over the past decade will be in doubt as to the steady and significant growth in the animal numbers. A recent aerial census indicated that the elephant population has risen roughly 1100 with herds of several hundred occasionally observed north of the Nile.
In total 76 mammal species have been recorded in Murchison Falls. Aside from those species already mentioned, bushbuck, Defassa waterbuck, Bohor reedbuck, oribi, warthog and side-striped jackal are frequently observed on game drives as are vervet monkey and olive baboon. Also present on the plains, but less frequently observed, are leopard, spotted hyena and the localised patas monkey. The Rabonga Forest harbours black and white colobus, chimpanzee and other forest primates.
The bird checklist of 460 confirmed and 19 unconfirmed species is headed in desirability by the shoebill, most common along the stretch of river between Nile Safari Camp and the estuary into Lake Albert. Many other water-associated birds are prolific along the river, while raptors make a strong showing on the checklist with 53 species recorded.
Paraa, situated alongside the Nile a few kilometres downriver of Murchison Falls, is the focal point of tourist activities in the national park. All access roads leading into the park converge at Paraa, where a regular motor ferry provides the only means of crossing between the northern and southern banks of the Nile within the park. The popular launch trip to the base of the falls departs from Paraa, as does the main game-viewing circuit north of the river.
Kidepo Valley National Park
This remote national park lies in the far northeast of Uganda, isolated from the rest of the country by the sparsely populated arid badlands of Karamoja region.
Seldom visited by tourists due to the expense and difficulty getting there, Kidepo is nevertheless one of the most alluring destinations in the country, boasting a strong wilderness atmosphere, rugged mountain scenery and exceptional game viewing and birdwatching.
The highest point in the park in Mount Morungole on the southeastern border, the slightly higher Mount Lutoke, lies just within the Sudanese border, is visible from several points in the park. The mountainous terrain is broken by the Narus Valley in the southwest and the Kidepo Valley in the northeast. The dominant habitat is riparian woodland, thick miombo woodland, borassus palms and rocky koppies.
Kidepo protects one of the most exciting faunas of any Ugandan national park, although its total of 86 mammal species has been reduced to 77 after a rash of local extinctions in recent years. The bird checklist of 463 confirmed and 26 unconfirmed species is second only to Queen Elizabeth National Park, and more than 60 of the birds listed have been recorded in no other Ugandan national park. That said, the variety of butterflies and other smaller creatures is far less than in the forested national parks of western Uganda.
Five primate species have been recorded in Kidepo, including the localised patas monkey. Predators are particularly well represented with 20 species resident. Of these, the back backed jackal, bat eared fox, and aardwolf, cheetah and caracal are found in no other Ugandan national park. Other predators recorded in Kidepo are the side striped jackal, spotted hyena, leopard, lion and a variety of mustelids, genets, mongooses and small cats. Twelve antelope species occur in Kidepo of which the greater kudu, lesser kudu, Guenther’s dik-dik and mountain reedbuck occur nowhere else in Uganda. Other antelope species hound in Kidepo are Jackson’s hartebeest, eland, bushbuck, common duiker, klipspringer, oribi, Defassa waterbuck, and Bohor reedbuck. Kidepo also supports populations of elephant, Burchell’s zebra, warthog, bushpig and buffalo. The black rhino recently became extinct in Kidepo, but giraffes have been saved from local extinction by the translocation of several animals from Kenya. Kidepo’s long bird checklist is made even more impressive by the relatively small six of the park and the fact that as many as 100 of the birds listed are either dry-country species, which within Uganda are practically confined to Kidepo, or else northern or eastern species, which have been noted elsewhere only in the north of Murchison Falls National Park or in the Mount Elgon area. Raptors are particularly well represented. Other birds which must be regarded as Kidepo specials, at least within Uganda, include the ostrich, kori bustard, fox and white eared kestrels, white bellied go-away bird, carmine, little green and red throated bee eaters, Abyssinian roller, Abyssinian scimitarbill, d’Arnauds, red and yellow and black breasted barbets, red billed, yellow billed and Jackson’s hornbill, Karamoja apalis, rufous chatterer, northern brownbul, golden pipit, chestnut weaver, red billed and white headed buffalo weavers, and purple grenadier to not only a few of the more colourful species.
It is wonderful to visit Tropical Island that boasts some of the finest cuisine. An island that offers many of the best golf courses this side of paradise. We could tell you that the reason you’ll visit the seven hundred and eighty square mile volcanic island for the breathtaking mountainous backdrop that can be explored on horseback, 4X4 or on foot. But we know that the real reason thousands of visitors flock to Mauritius is of course for the sandy white beaches, the warm azure sea and what lies below. After achieving independence in 1968, Mauritius has quickly earned its place as one of the top tropical island destinations for honeymooners as well as families. Little wonder, with sunny days that seem to last forever, the world’s third largest coral reef, 5 start hotels and a selection of private villas. And because the island is malaria free, it’s an ideal destination for the whole family.
Enjoy water sports such as parasailing, explore the multi coloured coral reef on an underwater walk, in a submarine or a semi-submersible scooter. Climb Le Pouce (The Thumb) at 812m and take in the spectacular 360 degree view of Port Louis. Bargain and barter your way around the city’s market where you can find everything from souvenirs to high end fashion. Swim on the northern beaches, shaded by casuarinas. Dive off the west coast with sharks, turtles and a myriad of multi coloured fish.
Location: In the Indian Ocean, south of the Equator and just north of the Tropic of Capricorn
History: Discovered by Arabs then the Portuguese, Mauritius was first settled by the Dutch in 1598. It was claimed by the French in 1715 as Ile de France and captured by the British in 1810. It was a British colony until 1968 when it became an independent member of the Commonwealth. It became a republic in 1992.
Climate: Hot summers ( November to April) with average coastal temperature of 30°C and warm winters ( May to October), averaging 24°C. Interiors are 3-5°C lower. The rainy season is January to May with the possibility of a stray cyclone from January to March.
Nature: Mountainous with plateaux; flowers, forests and crops; rare wildlife and nothing dangerous; fine beaches within coral reefs.
Visitors: Tourists come all the year around; November to January and August most popular months; May to October most pleasant.
Population: 1,206,000 of Indian, African, European and Chinese origin
Capital: Port Louis
Economy: Based on industry and agricultural exports, tourim and financial services.
Currency: The Mauritian rupee (Rs), which is divided into 100 cents (cs). The international exchange rate fluctuates daily, linked to a basket of currencies.
Language: The official language is English but creole is the most widely used. Most people speak (and read) French, with Hindi, Tamil and Chinese as the main alternatives.
Religion: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, and also Confucianism and Buddhism.
International telephone code: +230
Time: GMT +4
Electricity: 220 volts
Mauritius’s most popular areas
Port Louis looks best from the sea. It is a booming city that combines new buildings with old, contrasting with the spires and peaks of the threadbare mountain range behind. In the centre is Pouce, poking 811m into the sky like Jack Horner’s thumb. On its left is Pieter Both, a peak named after a Dutch notable who drowned in the bay, distinguished by the boulder balanced precariously on its tip. To the right the city’s boundary extends along a switchback of daunting crags: Snail Rock, Goat Rock, Spear Grass Peak and Quoin Bluff. The sheer sides of Signal Mountain (323m) dominate the western flank of the town.
Solid Victorian warehouses and modern concrete towers, like sawn-off skyscrapers, crowd the flat expanse of the city. Houses claim the land right up to the foothills of Pouce Valley, leaving open spaces only on the plain of the Champ de Mars and the isolated 86m-high hill in the middle of the city, on which perches the battered vulture of a fort called the Citadel. Tall royal palms have somehow survived the city’s growth to form an avenue of greenery leading from the waterfront up the centre of the Place d’Armes to Government House.
It is a city of boundless charm and has preserved a village soul, perhaps because the crowds of people who descend from the plateau towns during the day to work leave the city alone at night. Its streets are empty then, echoing with the sound of recorded music from wedding parties in upstairs halls, the click of dominoes from Chinese club rooms, or the call of the muezzin.
Northern Mauritius is divided into two districts: Pamplemousses in the west and Riviere du Rempart in the east. The coast of Pamplemousses is largely given to tourism and includes the lively resort of Grand Baie. Its boundary is the mountain range encircling Port Louis, with Creve Coeur, behind Pieter Both, as its southernmost village. It cuts through the sugar plantations east of Pamplemousses town and runs northwards to the coast at Pointe aux Canonniers.
Riviere du Rempart is a compact district of contrasts, encompassing the tourist hot spots to the east of Grande Baie, the industrial/agricultural area of Goodlands and the rugged northeast coast around Poudre d’Or. The town of Riviere du Rempart is in the east of the district, originally named Rampart River for its steep banks.
The importance of sugar in the north of Mauritius gave rise to the construction of the island’s first railway line in 1864. The Northern Line, which connected Port Louis to Pamplemousses and Placq, was used to transport sugar to Port Louis. It stopped carrying passengers in 1956 and was closed down completely in 1964.
The district of Flacq occupies most of the east of the island, which for our purposes extends from the Roches Noires in the northeast down to Bois des Amourettes in the southeast.
Much of eastern Mauritius was covered with ebony forest when the dutch settled here in the 17th century, but it didn’t take them long to start felling the trees to make a road northwards from their settlement at Grand Port. The French continued attacking the forests, using the timber to build ships and houses. The land is now primarily devoted to agriculture and the area boasts two of the island’s largest sugar estates.
The beaches around Belle Mare are glorious, and have attracted swarms of upmarket hotels. Nevertheless, there is sufficient mid-range and budget accommodation in the area.
The uninhabited Ile aux Crefs, off Trou d’Eau Douce, is one of the best-known tourist attractions of the east, with its miles of beaches, new championship golf course and copious water sports facilities. The area south of Trou d’Eau Douce is largely undeveloped owing to the lack of beaches. Driving along this coast is a real pleasure, with the road sandwiched between the sea and unspoilt fishing villages.
The south extends from historic Vieux Grand Port in the southeast to Baie du Cap River, on the border between the districts of Savanne and Black River, in the southwest.
Saved by a lack of beaches, the south of Mauritius has avoided much of the tourist development that has taken place elsewhere. The southeast is most visitors’ first experience of the island, having arrived at the international airport at Plaisance. Many simply pass through the area, returning only to catch another flight, yet there is so much for the visitor to see.
The ruins and monuments around Vieux Grand Port attests to its dramatic past: the first landing of the Dutch in 1598 and the naval battle between the English and French in 1810. Nearby is the south’s main town, Mahebourg, a sleepy fishing community crammed with colourful houses.
There is a small beach resort around Pointe d’Esny and Blue Bay, with a good selection of accommodation. Just off the coast here is Ile aux Aigrettes, a nature reserve run by the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, which is well worth a visit.
Savanne is the southernmost district of Mauritius, stretching westwards from the sugar-growing villages of Savannah along a coast that is the island’s most rugged.
Cane Fields interspersed with fishing villages dominate the coast, while the interior around Grand Bois is tea-growing country. In 2004, this area changed foe ever when the Bel Ombre Sugar Estate, prompted by the downturn in the sugar industry, allowed three upmarket hotels to be built on some of its coastal land. Thankfully the hotels were built in such a way as to minimise any negative impact on the local area and the community. For visitors looking for tranquillity, the area now offers a peaceful alternative to the north and east coast.
The district of Black River covers the west coast of Mauritius, extending from the southwest, by Baie du Cap, northwards to the boundary of Port Louis. It was called Zwarte River by the Dutch and Riviere Noire by the French, who created the district in 1768. The river itself is not black, so the name probably refers to the black rocks of its bed and banks.
Black River is mostly mountainous and sparsely populated, its inhabitants employed in fishing tourism and sugar. It has no towns, only village communities, and is the most ‘African’ part of the island. Creole lifestyle dominates, with Catholic churches rather than Hindu temples providing the focal point for communities. The region is also famed for its sega music and dancing.
The Black River Gorges National Park is by far the island’s largest nature reserve. For walkers and nature lovers, the park offers spectacular scenery and wildlife.
The west is the driest and sunniest of the island’s coasts and it boasts dramatic sunsets. Its climate, combined with some superb beaches, makes this a popular weekend escape for Mauritians. There is also plenty of accommodation for visitors, particularly around Flic en Flac.
The west is the best coast for deep-sea fishing. This is particularly so around the area of Grande Riviere Noire, where the ocean floor drops away to a great depth, attracting large predators to feed on smaller fish.
Two districts make up central Mauritius: Plaines Wilhems to the south and west of centre and Moka to the north and east.
At around 600m above sea level, the centre of the island is noticeably cooler and wetter than the coast. Temperatures are generally 3-5°C lower so a visit to the centre can be a welcome break from the heat of the beaches.
The central plateau is characterised by extinct volcanic craters, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Some of the island’s most spectacular scenery lies within the Black River Gorges National Park, which protects Mauritius’s remaining forest and offers good opportunities for hiking.
Another attraction which draws tourists to the centre is the abundance of discount clothing and souvenir shops in the plateau towns. These towns are largely residential, linked to each other and to Port Louis by the motorway that cuts through the centre of the island.