Rhino trekking at Ziwa Sanctuary – travelling Uganda on a budget

At the end of a three week backpacking itinerary in Uganda, I decided I had just enough time to squeeze in a quick dash to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, a few hours outside Kampala.

I wanted to have one last wild animal experience before leaving. And when I woke to find two enormous rhinos, taller than me, grazing outside my window, I got exactly that!

How to visit Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary independently

After three weeks of travelling around Uganda by public bus or matatu minibus, it was very easy to make the three hour trip to Nakitoma, the nearest village to the Sanctuary.

I chose to take the Link bus, one of the few large coach companies in Uganda. Their terminal is in downtown Kampala next to several other bus and “taxi” parks. Taxis in Uganda are actually public minibuses, which run both long distances (although they stop anywhere and everywhere) as well as short hops around town.

I had no idea what time the Link bus left but arrived around 9.30am to buy a ticket hoping for a 10am departure. There were already several passengers on board so I got on and found a good seat. We eventually left at 12pm!

Nakitoma is a small place, just a few buildings by the side of the road with nothing else but grassy plains in sight. Very few people were around but I loitered by the sign to the Rhino Sanctuary (7km away down a dirt track) looking hopefully around and of course a boda boda rider appeared out of nowhere. For a moment I thought I might be walking! Not really a problem for me, apart from the 36 white rhinos roaming free within the 70km square kilometre electric fence. And the odd hippo I later discovered.

I hopped onto the back of the motorbike taxi and off we went bumping down the sandy track. We reached the main gate (and electric fence) after 2km, where I signed in and they took the numberplate of the boda rider. Off we went again, with me keeping a keen eye out for rhinos! None were ready to show themselves but as we approached the camp, plenty of bushbuck and waterbuck antelope were roaming around as well as a few warthogs.

Prices for Activities at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

This is one of the few examples of a Uganda tourist attraction which has a very good website and an email address which is actually monitored. I’d found the accommodation pricelist on their website and emailed asking for an activity pricelist.

Entry to sanctuary: US$20

Rhino Trekking: US$30

Shoebill tracking (with canoe trip) US$25

Transport to Shoebill tour (if needed) US$10

I did all these, plus a US$25 stay in a dorm room (which I had to myself), bringing my bill to US$110 not including food! The rhinos had better be worth it…

Ziwa Rhino Trekking – is it worth it?

Yes is the answer! (Although probably not the shoebill tour – see below for more information). Having had a delayed departure from Kampala, I didn’t arrive until 4pm. But it turned out that this was perfect timing. Rhinos are in the pachyderm family, which means like hippos, they can’t regulate their body temperature by sweating. Their hide is 2inches thick! So they sleep through the hottest part of the day, then graze all night (with another short snooze). A rhino trek then is best to do just before sunset when the rhinos are active after their siesta and usually on the hunt for water.

I met Derrick, my chatty and very welcoming guide, who gave me a quick safety briefing (hide behind a tree or bush if the rhinos head straight for us! Their sight is worse than their hearing and sense of smell) before we headed off on a scrambler motorbike to get closer to the rhinos.

There’s 36 rhinos in the Ziwa sanctuary but as solitary animals they split off into smaller groups. All the rhino groups are tracked day and night by two rangers per group, to keep them safe from predators (mainly humans) and to monitor them. If a rhino is ill (for example, one rhino suffered a broken leg after a fight over dominance with another male), the Sanctuary intervenes to try to save it. However at all other times, there is a minimum distance of 30metres maintained, so the rhinos are habituated to humans but not comfortable with them.

We quickly found a mother and one-month old baby, not yet weaned and very playful. We followed them at a distance for ten minutes before they met up with another mother and her older juvenile son. The four of them said formal hellos, touching their horns, before carrying on together, Derrick said heading for water. We continued to follow them, while Derrick gave me lots more information about the sanctuary. Sadly rhinos in Uganda were poached to extinction during the war years and the last sighting of a rhino in the wild was in the 80s.

In the early 2000s Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was formed, the land donated by a cattle farmer, after the area was deemed perfect rhino terrain. Two rhinos were bought from Kenya and two from America. The first baby rhino born in Uganda had mixed Kenyan and American heritage and so was amusingly called Obama after the US former president!

I spent about an hour and a quarter watching the rhinos, although Derrick said in high season when there’s a lot of demand it would be a lot shorter than that. Later that evening, at the restaurant building, there was great excitement when a large male rhino ambled slowly past the terrace where myself and a group of Spanish tourists were eating dinner. Needless to say, a ranger escorted us to our accommodation buildings later!

Shoebill tour at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

For some reason I’d been expecting a one hour leisurely canoe trip with lots of bird sightings and hopefully a shoebill or two. Shoebills are an endangered or vulnerable category of birds, with only around 4,000 left in the wild.

Unfortunately, the tour was a bit if a disappointment. It started with a 30 minute car journey (which is charged at an extra US$10 if you don’t have your own car), then a short walk through the swamp (gum boots provided) to try and find a shoebill. There’s an 80% sighting rate apparently. Luckily, we found one quickly, although it was only visible through the binoculars. They are pretty cool birds though not being an avid birder myself, it didn’t hold my attention for that long. Jeremiah, my guide, pointed out a few other birds around but there wasn’t that much to see. I’ve seen a far greater selection on my various independent hikes in Uganda (having to Google them later!).

We then hopped back in the car for a ten minute trip and had a far too brief (maybe 20 minutes) canoe trip through the papyrus reeds, where we saw pretty much nothing and Jeremiah spent most of the time on his phone. There’s also a massive bridge being built right where the canoe trip is, so it’s not exactly picturesque! I did enjoy it and it was nice to see the sunrise on my last full day in Uganda but I feel I would have been just as happy having a relaxing breakfast at the camp instead, watching the monkeys and antelopes and keeping my eyes peeled for a rogue rhino.

Getting back to Kampala was very simple and if you’re headed for Entebbe, as I was (ready for my flight back to the UK the next day), there’s actually no need to go into Kampala itself. After getting a boda back to the main road (the Ziwa reception will call one for you), I just waited 20 minutes for a bus to come along, which happened to be a Link bus. I got to practice my Ugandan bus hailing – palm flat down, patting the air. If they have space, they’ll stop for you.

After an uneventful three hours the conductor let me off at the Northern Highway (the ring road) on the edge of Kampala, where I picked up the grandly named “Entebbe Express”. It’s not particularly express but it goes direct to Entebbe without going through the city. It still stopped every time someone wants to get on or off though, even if it’s just a few metres on!

Finally, after three weeks on the road, visiting

Enjoyed reading this blog about backpacking in Uganda on public transport?

Check out my other Uganda blogs:

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Lake Bunyonyi on a budget

How to travel to Sipi Falls via Jinja independently

Fort Portal from Kampala on public transport


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