The township of Kisoro only has about 18,000 inhabitants living in the town proper, but there are more than a quarter of a million in its district, mostly eking out a living as subsistence farmers on low incomes. It’s the last sizeable settlement in Western Uganda, hard up against the borders of both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
Many foreign visitors to Uganda find that this is one of the nicest areas to spend time in with beautiful montagne scenery, smooth roads, and hard-working people eager to please and offer hospitality. However, the main attraction for many is the opportunity to get close with a troupe of habituated gorillas.
At an elevation of 1,900 m (6230 ft), visitors from cooler climes will probably get a good night’s sleep in the cool, clean and invigorating air of Kisoro.
The volcanic Mufumbiro Mountains dominate local views with Mount Karisimbi at 4,507 m (14,787 ft) being the highest volcano in this range. Immediately to the south of the township of Kisoro, Mount Muhabura, whose extinct volcanic peak delineates the border between Uganda and Rwanda at this point, is 4,127 m (13,540 ft) high.
Many foreign visitors come to view the mountain gorillas, critically endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, disease, and war. The Karisoke Research Center, founded by Dian Fossey to observe gorillas in their native habitat, is between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke.
In November 2013, about 1,500 fighters of the M23 Congolese rebellious faction, together with their leader, Sultani Makenga, surrendered in Mgahinga National Park a few kilometres to the south and were held on the local football pitch in Kisoro until being moved much further east to Chakwanze.
From Kampala the road via Masaka to Mbarara is well surfaced (apart from verge damage) and reasonably wide so 100 km/h can be maintained. Light traffic once you leave the traffic mayhem and fumes of the capital, means you’re likely to take just less than 5 hours for this part of the journey. However, just after leaving Mbarara the road surface disintegrates and is badly potholed reducing speeds to 10-25 km/h for about 20 km until just before Ntungamo where road works were completed in Feb 2014. Once you leave Kabale the road narrows considerably but the tarmac surface is brand new and billiard table smooth but very winding and scenic.
- The Postbus, operated reliably and punctually by Uganda Post, departs M-Sa at 07:00 from the central Kampala post office in Kampala Road and arrives 10 hours later in Kisoro for USh30,000 one way. It seats 67 and you are guaranteed a seat if you book in advance (enter the post office as if you were buying stamps, take the first exit to the outside courtyard on your left, go round the corner of the building you just left, take the first door on your right, go down the corridor and enter Room 2 on your right. You can also get a ticket on the day of departure or from the conductor anywhere en route if you flag the bus down – it’s huge and bright red).
- 1 Baby Coaches, ☎+256 772 422 451. Returning to Kampala, you may want to take the night bus for USh25,000 which leaves Kisoro at 19:15 and is scheduled to arrive in the capital at 06:00. Contrary to what you might expect from their name, they operate full size, 67 seat Isuzu buses, typically screening Nigerian TV soap-operas to keep you entertained. Apart from the middle of the back row (excessively bumpy) and seat number 6 (aisle seat in row of 3 immediately behind the driver) legroom is very restricted for what may be 10 hours plus.
- 1 Gateway Bus Service, ☎+256 703 555 075. Travels the same route as the Postbus between Kisoro and Kampala. Two night bus services to Kampala for USh20,000: the first leaves Kisoro at 17:00 and is scheduled to arrive in the capital at 04:00; the second service leaves Kisoro at 20:00 and is scheduled to arrive in the capital at 07:00. Operate full size, 67 seat Isuzu buses and a big advantage for some is that they do not screen Nigerian TV soap-operas or allow smoking and have 2-3 toilet stops on the way. Limited legroom and cleanliness.
From Bunagana, DRC, climb the rutted apology for a “road” that is alternately gloopy with mud or whipped into a duststorm until you see the barriers of the Ugandan border post. Here bodo-bodos will be waiting. There are also sometimes large buses, but their schedules are sporadic and whimsical. Tarmac is then smooth and peaceful until you arrive in Kisoro 14 km later. Fuel is available on the left, 6 km after the border.
From Busengo, DRC the road is lightly trafficked to the Ugandan border barrier and consequently is not as rutted as some more heavily used roads in the DRC. Gradients are as steep as 1 in 5 and typically the road does not allow two trucks to pass. Travellers need to be aware that the border crossing Busengo/Busanza is only legal if you cross using a passport from either the DRC or one of the countries of the East African Community (ie Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania or Uganda). Travellers bearing passports from other countries may physically be able to cross into Uganda here, but the officials at 1 Busanza Uganda Police Post should turn you back to the DRC. If you have a really good story, the immigration officer may allow you to continue to the crossing point at Bunagana 38 km further and obtain the necessary entry stamps and visa there, but that would be an act of exceptional kindness. In the hamlet of Busanza, they were not connected to the electric grid in June 2014 but the high tension cables have already been installed and they are expecting connection in the next 3 months.
Once you’ve crossed the (completely non-marked) border the road widens so two trucks can pass, the dirt surface is less rutted and gradients diminish to about 1 in 7. In May-June 2014 this was assessed as an all weather road. Watch out for stray mud bricks/blocks in the road, though, because many mud quarries and brick works are on this road. From the border it’s about 27 km until you hit tarmac, but the road is good enough to cruise at 25-35 km/h on a motorcycle.
From Ruhengeri, Rwanda, the road has been good for a while now and once you’re through the quick and relaxed Ugandan immigration the tarmac gets even smoother and the carriageway is about 10m wide with gradual bends. As of June 2014, there were no painted lines or reflectors on this new tarmac so you might want to drive this stretch during daylight – especially as the scenery is so attractive.