Introduction to Fort Portal
Fort Portal - often referred to as the garden city - is one of Uganda's most beautiful cities. It sits at about 1,500 meters above sea level and is surrounded by lush rolling hills, rocky crater lakes, and tea plantations. On a cloudless day, the snow-capped summits of the Rwenzori mountains peak out.
Fort Portal's superb location in western Uganda ensures that you are never too far away from your chosen adventure. The city is conveniently positioned as a half-way point between the north and south.
Whether you are travelling up to Lake Albert and Murchison Falls National Park, planning a trek in the Rwenzoris or heading south for chimp tracking in Kibale, a safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park or Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Fort Portal is the gateway city.
It was named after Sir Gerald Portal, the British Consul General of Zanzibar and the fort that was constructed in the late 1800s as a way to protect the Tooro Kingdom from King Kabalega of Bunyoro and his persistent guerrilla raids.
Today, the fort no longer stands, but this newly anointed city's rich history is still very much present, which you can experience with a visit to the Tooro Palace.
Things to Do
The Tooro Gardens were established in 2001 to help conserve at-risk trees and plant life in western Uganda.
Today, the garden sprawls over 100 acres and is an important site for conservation, scientific research and education.
Nature walks with knowledgeable guides are a fantastic way to learn about Uganda's indigenous flora. There are many trails to choose from, including tree nurseries, butterfly breeding grounds, and the stone gardens.
The gardens are a birdwatchers haven, and several bird species have made their home here, so be sure to pack your binoculars.
Perched on a Karuzika hill, overlooking Fort Portal, the Tooro Palace offers 360-degree panoramic views of the city.
The palace was built in 1963, but the circular structure fell into ruin after Idi Amin abolished Uganda's kingdom system.
It was refurbished to its former glory with money sent by General Gaddafi in 2001 after he visited the palace.
Chimpanzee Tracking in Kibale Forest
Home to approximately 1,500 chimpanzees, the chances of seeing these highly intelligent and playful creatures is around 90%.
The tracking excursions depart twice a day at 08:00 and 14:00. The morning excursions are likely busier since several itineraries combine it with an afternoon visit to the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary.
Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary
Just under an hour from Fort Portal, nestled on the fringes of Kibale Forest, Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary is a great spot for birders, and those interested in primates.
Make your way through the swamp on wooden walkways, spotting all the birds and animals you may have missed earlier in the day while your full attention was (understandably) on the chimps.
The Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary pairs well with chimp trekking, as both can be done as half-day activities in Kibale Forest.
Day Trip in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Day trips to Queen Elizabeth National Park can be organised, as the park is located just over an hour away.
Excursions often depart at 6 am and return to Fort Portal at 8 pm.
Once in the park, you will likely spend the morning on a game drive, observing the several species of wildlife present in the park, including lions, elephants, and buffalo.
Enjoy a picnic lunch under the shade of an Acacia. Then at 2 pm, you can take to the Kazinga Channel waters with a boat cruise and view many of the park's aquatic and semi-aquatic animals like hippos and crocodiles.
The Kazinga Channel attracts animals from all around the park especially in the dry season, when water is more scarce in the park.
Semliki Wildlife Reserve
Semliki Wildlife Reserve is Uganda's oldest wildlife reserve, and just under an hour from Fort Portal.
A little off the beaten track, Semliki is a much quieter reserve than most, and visitors can likely enjoy the reserve's wildlife without contending with other safari vehicles.
The reserve is home to many animals, including elephants, buffalo, waterbuck, crocodile, warthog and Uganda kob. Also watch for pygmy hippo, leopards and noisy bush babies.
Semliki Safari Lodge runs boat cruises on Lake Albert to see the elusive and critically endangered shoebill stork.
Chimpanzee walks are also popular here. These chimps are less habituated than those in the Kibale, Budongo or Kyambura forests. However, it is still a brilliant opportunity to view and learn about these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat.
Hiking and Guided Nature Walks
Fort Portal is a situated in the Crater Lake District and is surrounded by lush green rolling hills which are fantastic for hiking and trekking.
The hike to the Amabere Caves and Nyamiska Waterfalls is one of the most popular trails. The Amabere caves have appeared in many ancient Ugandan folklore tales.
There are several Colobus monkeys and a variety of wonderful birdlife to observe, so make sure you pack your binoculars.
Guided nature hikes can take place at any time of day, but earlier is better to avoid the hot daytime sun. Make sure that you have plenty of water, good shoes, insect repellent, sunscreen and long trousers.
Places to Stay
Situated in a quiet neighbourhood close to Fort Portal's centre, the Duchess is a tranquil oasis best known for its delicious food.
Perfect for those who want a personal touch, this boutique hotel offers five rooms: three luxury, one mid-range and one budget. All rooms are en-suite, with mosquito nets and Wi-Fi included. The more luxurious rooms also have televisions.
The restaurant uses fresh local ingredients and serves a blend of international and local dishes. A highlight on the menu is their authentic Italian pizza and home-made ice cream.
Kyaninga Eco Cottages
Kyaninga Eco Cottages is a fantastic retreat for the eco-conscious traveller. The lodge boasts a zero-carbon footprint and is fully powered by solar energy.
In construction, they sourced the materials and workforce locally, and they re-planted a tree for every one they used.
Alongside preserving nature, the cottages have uninterpreted views of Lake Kyaninga and the snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains.
They offer eight affordable en-suite thatched-roof cottages, perfect for singles, couples and families.
Kluges Guest House Farm
Kluges Guest House Farm is a sustainable paradise. Set in a lush green garden are ten self-contained bungalows with private terraces, which allow you to enjoy the beautiful surroundings in peace.
If you're looking for family-style hospitality, home-grown food and a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, Kluges Guest House is perfect for you.
Swimming pool, a shaded outside seating area, and a restaurant and bar serving an à la carte menu, are the perfect ways to wind down on a hot Ugandan afternoon.
When To Visit
The best time to visit Fort Portal is during the dry season from December to February and then again from late June to October.
This is considered the best time to visit for nearby activities like chimp trekking and nature walks because they are less likely to be affected by rainfall which can cause the paths becoming inaccessible or too slippery for excursions.
Visiting in the dry season can also increase your chances of seeing more wildlife if you plan on visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park, as they will be in search of water and more likely to congregate around watering holes.
Fort Portal is 311 Km by road from Kampala and takes about 4 hours to arrive.
From Mbarara, it is a shorter 146 Km and takes 2-3 hours to drive.
By air, there are daily flights from Kajjansi Airfield, near Kampala and from Entebbe International Airport.
The flight takes an hour and a half from Entebbe International Airport and just over two from Kajjansi Airfield, Kampala.
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