If you’re planning your Uganda safari and hope to rent a 4×4 car to drive yourself, we have put together a comprehensive guide to self-drive in Uganda. So go ahead and start planning your once-in-a-lifetime Pearl of Africa expedition with Self Drive East Africa.
With time to experience Uganda, the smiley countryside, and the vistas of the Kabale highway, a self-drive along the country’s western roads is the definitive road Uganda safari road trip. Then for the ultimate finish, the drive culminates with a few days on safari.
For wildlife lovers, there are the Big Five, primates the endless list of mammals and birds to see in the Pearl of Africa. For lovers of cultures, there are country homes, communities, and villages untouched by modernity for the best cultural experience. There are stretches of road that pass sweeping plantations and travel over dramatic mountain passes for those who love driving through the open countryside.
1. The Road Network
By East African standards, Uganda’s major roads are generally in good condition. Surfaced roads diverge out from Kampala, running east to Jinja, Busia, Malaba, Tororo, Mbale, and Soroti, south to Entebbe, southwest to Masaka, Mbarara, and Kabale, west to Fort Portal, northwest to Hoima, north to Gulu, northeast to Gayaza and Kayunga (and on to Jinja).
Other surfaced roads connect Karuma Falls to Arua, Mbale to Sipi Falls, Masaka to the Tanzanian border, Mbarara to Ibanda, and Ntungamo to Rukungiri. Standards of highway maintenance have improved with a major road works program since 2011.
Getting to the edge of Kampala is not difficult, though insane traffic volume, including trucks, inevitably slows speeds as you approach the metropolis during peak hours.
The long and bothersome process of getting from one side of the city to the other eased in October 2008 with a 15km Northern Bypass opening. The Bypass links the Fort Portal and Mbarara roads, in the west, to Jinja roads in the east. In June 2019, the opening of a 51km Entebbe Express Highway, linking Kampala and the Northern Bypass to Entebbe International Airport.
For instance, most other roads in Uganda, from Fort Portal or Masindi to Hoima and Masindi to Murchison Falls — are newly surfaced.
Other roads like Kisoro to Bwindi trailheads are not surfaced. However, unsurfaced roads tend to vary from one season to the next, with conditions likely to be most tricky during the rains and least so towards the end of the dry season. Even within this generalization, an isolated downpour can do significant damage to a road that was in excellent condition a day earlier. At the same time, the arrival of a grader can transform a pot-holed 4×4 track into a road navigable by any saloon car.
The type of soil is also a significant factor in how prone any given road is to deterioration. In wet conditions, one should always be conscious that firm soil or gravel can give way abruptly to a mushy depression or a black cotton-soil quagmire.
Put simply, advice in this guide regarding road conditions is of necessity a snapshot of conditions today and should not be taken as gospel. When in doubt, ask local advice — if minibus-taxis are getting through, so should any 4×4, so the taxi station is always an excellent place to seek on-the-ground information.
2. Self-drive obstacles on Ugandan roads
- Other drivers
The main hazard on Ugandan roads, aside from unexpected pot-holes, is other drivers. Minibus-taxi drivers, in particular, have long been given to overtaking on blind corners, and speed limits are universally ignored except when enforced by road conditions.
As significant a threat as minibus-taxis these days are the spanking new coaches that bully their way along highway routes at up to 120km/h — keep an eye in your rear-view mirror and, if necessary, pull off the road in advance to let the loony pass. The coaches are, in reality, just a heavyweight manifestation of a more widespread road-hog mentality that characterizes Ugandan drivers.
Larger vehicles show little compunction when it comes to overtaking smaller ones so tightly that they are practically forced off the road. Vehicles passing in the opposite direction will often stray across the central white line forcing oncoming traffic to cut onto the verge.
Bearing the above in mind, a coasting speed of 80km/h in the open road would be comfortable without being over-cautious, and it’s not a bad idea to slow down and cover the brake in the face of oncoming traffic.
In urban situations, particularly downtown Kampala, right of way essentially belongs to those prepared to force the issue — a considered blend of defensive driving tempered by outright assertiveness is required to get through safely without becoming too bogged down in the traffic.
- Speed bumps
A peculiarly African road hazard — one frequently taken to unnecessary extremes in Uganda — is the giant sleeping traffic man or ‘speed bump’ or hump as it’s known locally. A lethal bump might be signposted in advance, it might be painted in black-and-white stripes, or it might simply rear like a macadamized wave a full 30cm or so above the road without warning.
It would be best if you assumed that the odd stray bump would exist on any stretch of a major road that passes through a town or village, so slow down at any looming hint of urbanization.
- Other Regular Obstacles
Other regular obstacles include bicycles laden with banana clusters, which can often force traffic to leave its lane, as well as livestock and pedestrians wandering around blithely in the middle of the road.
Be aware that piles of foliage placed in the road at a few meters interval warn of a broken-down vehicle. Local drivers don’t use red warning triangles since thieves usually steal them; however, the triangles are helpful to show at police checks if crossing into Rwanda.
Indicator lights, according to local custom, are not only there to signal an intent to turn. But also, they are switched on only in the face of oncoming traffic with the intention of warning following drivers not to attempt to overtake.
Ugandans, like many Africans, display a solid and inexplicable aversion to switching on their headlights except in genuine darkness — switch them on at any other time, and every passing vehicle will blink its lights back at you in bemusement.
In rainy, misty, or twilight conditions, it would be optimistic to think that you’ll be alerted to oncoming traffic by headlights. Or, for that matter, to expect the more demented element among Ugandan drivers to avoid overtaking or speeding because they cannot see more than ten meters ahead.
We strongly recommend that you avoid driving at night on main highways outside towns. It is evident that a significant proportion of vehicles either lack a full complement of functional headlights (never assume a single glow indicates a motorcycle) or keep their lights permanently on blinding full beam!
Another genuine danger is unlit trucks that, invariably overloaded, have broken down in the middle of the road. Check engine, oil, tires, Jake, spanner, etc
3. Checks before you hire a self-drive vehicle for your trip
If you decide to rent a self-drive car for your trip around Uganda, check it over carefully and ask to take it for a test drive. Even if you’re not knowledgeable about the working of engines, a few minutes on the road should be sufficient to establish whether it has any seriously disturbing creaks, rattles, or other noises.
Check the condition of the tires (bald is beautiful might be the national motto in this regard) and that there is at least one spare, better two, both in a condition to be used should the need present itself. If the tires are tubeless, an inner tube of the correct size can help repair the required upcountry.
Ask to be shown the wheel spanner, jack, and the thing for raising the jack. If the vehicle is a high-clearance 4×4, ensure that the jack can lift the wheel high enough to change the wheel. Ask also to be shown filling points for oil, water, and petrol and check that all the keys do what they are supposed to do — don’t leave the city with a car you’ll later discover cannot be locked!
Once on the road trip, check oil and water regularly in the early stages of your Uganda safari journey to ensure no existing leaks. See self-drive dos and don’ts in Uganda, post, for further survival tips.
4. Fuel, documents, and what else?
Fuel is expensive in Uganda — the equivalent of around US$1.09 per liter for petrol and slightly less for diesel. If you are arriving overland, it is worth stocking up before you enter the country.
While self-driving in Uganda, the following documentation is required at all times:
- the vehicle registration book (a photocopy is acceptable; ensure it is a recent one with the most recent vehicle license entry recorded on the back page);
- the vehicle certificate of insurance (traffic offices impose heavy fines for driving an uninsured vehicle); and
- a driving license. Your domestic permit is acceptable for up to three months.
Despite some loosely on occasions, Ugandans follow the British custom of driving on the left side of the road. The gaffer speed limit on the open road is 80km/h and 30km/h in built-up areas unless otherwise indicated.