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Safari so good in wild Uganda; As Uganda prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence, DIANA PILKINGTON finds out why this east African country is a 'must'' for safari enthusiasts.

GINGERLY stepping off the ferry, I''m not sure where to look first. An elephant is grazing freely in the long grass behind me, while a cluster of warthogs busily bury their snouts in the ground nearby.

Meanwhile, undaunted by this fresh boatload of tourists, a family of baboons paw at a discarded apple at my feet.

I have arrived in the heart of Murchison Falls National Park, known for its varied wildlife -but I wasn''t expecting such a face-to-face introduction with the animals.

Don''t worry, they won''t bite, a ranger reassures me as I nervously back away from the hungry primates.

His words are swiftly followed by a shriek of disbelief, as he receives a call informing him that his car has been burgled by a baboon.

Over at his jeep, a window gapes open, while the offending creature tears into a packet of biscuits from his position of safety halfway up a tree. There goes my lunch, the ranger says, laughing, and I feel grateful for the buffet awaiting at my safari lodge.

I have always enjoyed marvelling at exotic wildlife and love visiting zoos, but nothing beats seeing animals in their own habitat, and Uganda offers this in spades.

Decades of civil war and dictatorships, most famously the brutal reign of Idi Amin, have kept the country largely off the tourist trail for many years, but it''s emerging as a popular holiday destination, topping the Lonely Planet''s list of places to visit in 2012. Amin''s troops helped devastate the wildlife at Murchison Falls in the Seventies, but numbers are recovering and most large African animals can be spotted here.

Covering nearly 4,000km, the park is home to some 76 species of mammal and more than 450 types of bird, not to mention one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world.

My journey into the park, which lies a five-hour drive from the capital, Kampala, begins with a jeep drive through baboon-strewn woodland before we cross the river to a small clearing on the north bank of the Nile.

Afterwards, we are deposited safely at our accommodation. Decorated with colonial touches, the Paraa Safari Lodge has a charmingly rustic feel without scrimping on comfort.

A dip in the curvy pool, complete with pool bar, is a great way to take in the sunset, while the simple but cosy rooms have views out over the river. There are numerous ways to take in the wildlife at the park, and after a hearty buffet at the lodge I embark on a three-hour cruise on the Victoria Nile, as the river above the falls is known.

My hopes are modest but expectations are far exceeded by sighting of hippos a-plenty, water buffaloes, crocodiles and kingfishers. The main event doesn''t disappoint either - we take it in turns to clamber onto a rock and pose for a photo with the spectacular Murchison Falls crashing into the Nile in the background. The next day, we swap water for dry land and set out on a game drive through the grassland. With the Blue Mountains of the Congo providing a misty backdrop to the rolling savannah, we are spoilt by the sheer numbers of animals that come within metres of our car - giraffes, buffalo and antelope - and, best of all - a young male lion. Our third wildlife-spotting trip is a visit to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary at Nakasongola, a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Kampala. As well as the animal adventures and stunning scenery on offer in the rest of the country, there are worthy sights to be found in capital city of Kampala.

A walk through the teeming streets is an eye-opening experience. Maribou storks circle overhead, while stony-faced guards wield AK47s at the entrances to shops and hotels.

Street vendors vie with coffee house and elegant restaurants.

The Ugandan government has high hopes for tourism in the country, and aims to push the number of passengers travelling through Entebbe international airport up from around 1 million to 10 million a year.

Travel Facts...

Qatar Airways'' flight from Doha to Entebbe, with return economy class flights ex-Heathrow from pounds 611.99 in October 2012, and from pounds 620 54 ex-Manchester (www.qatarairways.com) Rooms at Sheraton Kampala start at $155 a night B&B ( www.sheratonkampala.com) Paraa Safari Lodge $125 B&B ( w w w.paraalodge.com) Explore Tailormade's, 15-day Unforgettable Uganda itinerary costs from pounds 3,840 (land only) or pounds 4,505 (including flights).

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* OPEN WIDE: Ahippolooksboredbut the Murchison Falls, above: are a spectacular highlight, while wildlife sightings are almost guaranteed on safari drives with Paraa Safari Lodge, opposite page
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Sep 8, 2012
Words:772
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