I’m a single traveler who took a three week tour arranged by Amagara Tours in western Uganda and Rwanda in May and June 2012. I chose Amagara Tours for several reasons. First, the price they offered for an independent tour with driver and guide was outstanding. Second, they were mentioned in the guidebooks and there were a few positive things said about them on the usual travel forums. Finally, Jason Gerber, who runs Amagara Tours, has been involved in Uganda for more than a decade with the Byoona Amagara project at Lake Bunyonyi and he seemed friendly and knowledgeable by email. Still I was a little nervous when it came to committing to the trip since I could only find one trip report anywhere online so hopefully this review will be helpful to others considering Amagara Tours.
To get right to the bottom line, Amagara Tours really came through for me and made it possible for me to see and do everything I wanted to see and to do in western Uganda and Rwanda at an affordable price. I think what surprised me the most was how smoothly it all went. Only two things didn’t go according to plan. Circumstances forced the cancellation of a side trip into DRC and my first driver missed the planned, pre trip meeting in Kampala due to a miscommunication the night before the start of the tour.
Now to address the sort of details that concerned me before the trip. Amagara Tours uses three drivers that I know of, two of whom drove for me on different parts of the trip. Both were safe, professional, and courteous. I quickly learned that I could count on both of them. The English of the first driver was a little limited but it was certainly good enough to do the job. He was quite good at pointing out and identifying wildlife. He frequently asked me if everything was okay and whether I was enjoying myself. My only complaint with him was that he borrowed money from me at one point and I had to remind him to pay it back. Jason later told me his drivers are not allowed to borrow money from clients and that he would remind the driver of that rule.
The second driver was very articulate and we got along very well. One of the more memorable experiences on the trip was when he took me to meet his extended family at a market near Kabale.
I highly recommend carrying a cell phone to keep in touch with the drivers. I’m a bit of a Luddite in this respect. I do not like being connected when I travel. But this would have made things easier and would have likely prevented the angst created when I missed the driver the night before the tour. Jason kept in contact with the drivers throughout the trip to make certain things were going smoothly and a couple of times the drivers gave me their cell phones so Jason could inquire directly about my satisfaction with the trip.
Jason personally chooses the hotels and lodges and makes all the reservations. He also arranged all the permits. Although I’m sure all this requires quite a bit of time and effort on his part, I think this is how he keeps prices so low, the staff is minimal and Amagara Tours has no fancy offices. There was never a problem with any of the reservations. I was always expected wherever and whenever we arrived. I was very happy with the accommodation. It was in all cases clean and reasonably comfortable, better than what I normally choose for myself when traveling in countries like Uganda. In some cases, like the Countryside Inn in Kisoro, the accommodation was basic while in others, like the Primate Lodge and Budongo EcoLodge it bordered on luxurious. All the rooms Jason booked had a bathroom in suite.
The vehicles, in one case a Mitsubishi Pajero and the other a bigger, solid 4WD, unlike the spotless, emblazoned ones of the high end tour companies were a little dusty but always took the considerable punishment of the often-challenging African roads and got me where I needed to go on time in as much comfort as could be expected. I was impressed by the abuse those trucks handled. At one point something came loose in the undercarriage of the Pajero but the driver had it fixed after we got to the lodge. One couple I met who were also on an Amagara tour did experience a breakdown in a very remote park near the Sudan border but according to Jason that is very unusual.
I should also mention that I paid for fuel separately. The couple I mentioned above chose to have fuel included in the tour price, which I believe turned out to be more expensive. I paid a little over $500 for fuel for the entire trip spanning Kampala to Murchison Falls down to Kigali and Lake Kivu and back up to Kabale. The drivers are based in Kabale and clients are expected to pay for the fuel bill for the trip from Kabale to Kampala or Entebbe to pick them up. The only times I was bothered about paying for fuel were when the first driver presented me with the fuel bill for the pick-up in Kampala, which seemed unusually expensive, and when I filled up one vehicle the morning I went gorilla tracking and then was met by a different vehicle a couple of days later for the next leg of the tour and had to fill it up as well before we set off.
One bonus for choosing Amagara Tours is that you get to use Byoona Amagara as a base in southwestern Uganda. It is close to most of the major attractions in western Uganda, Rwanda, and eastern DRC and it is a beautiful and relaxing place to recover from the rigors of an active tour and African roads. Jason has a policy of one free night at Byoona Amagara for every three days on tour if I am remembering correctly.
I knew what I wanted to see and do in Uganda but still I’m glad I solicited Jason’s advice on the itinerary. He added some things I would have never known about or considered that turned out to be really special, among the best things I did on the trip. A noteworthy example is the day I spent with the Boomu Women’s Group touring a Ugandan village. I visited the villagers in their homes where they discussed aspects of their life and culture. It was a fantastic experience.
One piece of advice in dealing with Jason though is to contact him as early as possible before your trip. He is very busy, at least partly because he handles all the correspondence, reservations, and other logistics on his own. As a result, though he will answer all your questions sometimes he takes a week or more to respond to email messages so budget plenty of time to set things up and enable him to make the best possible arrangements for you.
I’ve included the few relatively minor rough edges of the tour to give as realistic a picture as possible but overall it is hard to imagine how it could have turned out any better. If I had it to do over I would go with Amagara Tours again.