TEN DAYS, ONE TAPE RECORDER, AND THE PEARL OF AFRICA
If you’re intimidated by the idea of travel in Africa, Uganda is a wonderful, easy country to start with. It has a well-established tourism industry, whose highlights include breathtaking safaris, whitewater rafting on the Nile River, boating on Lake Victoria, and gorilla-viewing in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It can accommodate all tastes and budgets to boot — with hostel stays in Kampala as low as USD 15 per night, and more luxurious accommodation beginning at USD 150.
I visited Uganda twice during my time in Kenya, and managed to squeeze a little bit fun in between running around with my recorder and camera, producing travel and human interest features that would eventually be published in Kenya, Somalia, the U.K., and the U.S., and cited in articles around the world.
I highly recommend a stop in this large East African country, which has so much to offer, but is often outshone as a tourist destination by its big game competitors in Kenya, South Africa and Namibia. Try to stay of at least five days, which will give you time for a safari, some rafting, and a tour of Kampala.
Below, you’ll find a colourful description of my travel in Uganda, an unexpected run-in with kung fu action stars, and some recommendations on where to stay, what to do, and which companies to book with.
Day One: From Nairobi to Kampala
It was pitch black and 5 a.m. by the time our Easy Coach bus crossed the border from Kenya to Uganda. I picked the overnight ride on my way in, and scheduled a morning departure on the way back so I wouldn’t miss the stunning scenery between these neighbouring East African countries.
The immigration checkpoint is in Busia County, roughly eight hours northwest of Nairobi. As we lined up to have our passports stamped, we were screened for ebola by health officials trying to keep the epidemic contained to the other side of the continent.
As a resident of Kenya at the time, I didn’t need a visa to enter, and about an hour later, documents in hand, I re-boarded the bus. (Scroll to the Know Before You Go section at bottom for information on Ugandan visas). But the ease of my crossing had been too good to be true, and I was soon yanked off the bus by a Ugandan border control officer, who asked to see my newly-inked papers.
“What are you doing in Uganda?” he asked, surveying my passport in the light of his cell phone. I told him I was a tourist visiting friends in the capital. It seemed a sufficient answer until he flipped its pages and declared my Kenyan visa “illegitimate.” I showed him my residency card, but this prompted further inquiry about my business back in Nairobi. I entertained a few questions about my “ethnic background,” and he waved me back onto the coach.
TOURING THE CITY BY BODA BODA
I arrived around 9 a.m. to a sunny, humid day in Kampala. It’s a densely-populated city of 1.7 million people, just northeast of Lake Victoria, the largest tropical lake in the world. I decided to hang my journalist hat for the weekend in favour of something a little more fun: a motorcycle ride through the capital. I dropped my bags off with friends in the Kabalagala neighbourhood (an excellent neighbourhood to stay in), and hopped on the back of a boda boda for an afternoon with Walter’s Boda Boda City Tours.
Cruising on the back of the puttering bike, I noted certain similarities between Kampala and Nairobi. They are much alike in sight, smell and sound, although Kampala has slightly cleaner air and less political tension in the atmosphere. Like the Kenyan capital, its streets are lined with hawkers, beggars, livestock and crazy conductors who contribute to the city’s impermeable traffic. But fewer people in Kampala seemed bothered by the congestion, and generally speaking, fewer people bothered me. It’s a relatively easy-going place, where people are friendly and approachable, and enough English is spoken at restaurants and shops to get by without much Luganda (although a few phrases would certainly help).
WELCOME TO ‘ORGANIZED CHAOS’
Our first stop on the tour was the downtown taxi stage, which is considered a sort of tourist attraction. Our drivers took us to a restaurant whose balcony overlooks a great deal of the city, along with the organized transit chaos below. These pictures depict “quiet” Sunday afternoon traffic. In the centre is the view from my bedroom window in Kabalagala.
UGANDA NATIONAL MOSQUE (GADDAFI MOSQUE)
After a quick visit to the ‘organized chaos,’ we puttered our way to the Gaddafi Mosque. In between traffic jams, my driver, Apollo, explained that Kampala was built on seven hills. I smirked, having heard that romantic story before: about 17 cities around the world have made the historic claim, including Rome, Edinburgh, Seattle, Prague, Moscow, Asunción and Dunedin.
Yet there they were, seven hills, clearly visible from the top of the minaret: Kasubi, Mengo, Kibuli, Namirembe, Lubaga, Nsambya and Kampala.
The Gaddafi Mosque lies at the peak of Kampala Hill in the old part of the city. Completed in 2006, it has space for nearly 20,000 worshipers across its floor, gallery and terrace, which are decorated with a wonderful mixture of Arabic, Ugandan and European themes. The mosque was a gift to Uganda from former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and was officially opened in June 2007.
The cost of entry, USh 10,000 (about CAD 3.50) is not included in the boda boda tour, but comes with a guide and a headscarf for women. Don’t sweat the fee — if you’re not impressed by the mosque’s remarkable interior, you will certainly be impressed by the view from the minaret.
MENGO PALACE (LUBIRI)
Things took a dark turn after the mosque at Mengo Palace, the official residence of the King of Buganda. It was built in 1922, when it was customary for the new king to choose a new hill on which to build his home. This one lies at the end of a ceremonial drive in the Lubaga Division of Kampala, and has been empty since 1966 — when Ugandan Prime Minister Milton Obote ordered an attack that would oust Kabaka Mutesa II, who was president at the time.
The coup was led by the forces of military veteran Idi Amin, and resulted in Mutesa’s exile. Amin, who converted the palace into army barracks, would later rise as an infamous and cruel dictator — the self-declared president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. His murderous rule was notorious for extreme human rights abuses, ethnic persecution, corruption, political repression and extrajudicial killings. Between 100,000 and 500,000 people were killed while he was in power.
It’s forbidden to enter Mengo Palace today, but Idi Amin’s prison and torture chambers, located in the adjacent building, are open to the public. Inside, you’ll find the red dirt handprints of prisoners’ vain attempts at escape, and the last words of several captives, scribbled in charcoal.
UGANDA NATIONAL MUSEUM
Just a short distance away on Old Kampala Hill lies the Uganda Museum, the largest and oldest museum in East Africa. It was the last stop on our boda boda trip, which had so far cost us less than 100,000 Uganda shillings (about CAD 35). The museum was built in 1908 at the behest of U.S. Governor George Wilson, who ordered that “all articles of interest” on Uganda should be procured. Today, it’s home to more than 3,000 historical maps, periodicals and photographs covering the country’s history, colonization, and more.
It has over 100,000 artifacts, including pottery, tools, instruments, hunting equipment and jewelry as well; I wished I had more time to see them, but Apollo was eager to beat the 5 p.m. traffic back to Kabalagala. I bought a banana leaf fibre painting from an artist who was working near the museum exit, and wrapped it carefully in brown paper for the journey home. I paid USh 80,000 for the one-of-a-kind piece, which has since been framed, and placed in a position of prominence on my living room wall.
Day Two: Rafting the Nile River
I rose the next morning around 5 a.m. to catch a shuttle from Kampala to the town of Jinja. The sky was bright pink as we started the journey, two hours east toward Kenya. I was joined by friends from Nairobi, who had arrived in Uganda by bus the previous day. When we got to the Nalubale Rafting headquarters, breakfast was ready: coffee, tea, juice and Rolex — a delicious Ugandan snack made from fried egg, rolled up in chapati. In Uganda, it is appropriate to eat Rolex anytime of day, and you’ll find many vendors frying them up on the streets of Kampala until 5 a.m. Make sure you try one before you go — you can usually snag one for Ush 2,000 (ask for the kind with onions!).
FIVE HOURS OF GRADE 5 RAPIDS
My heart was pounding with excitement as we suited up in life jackets and helmets, about to step foot in one of the world’s most famous bodies of water. Uganda’s Lake Victoria is the source of the great Nile River, but Jinja is where the rapids begin. From Jinja, the Nile flows north through South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia before reaching Egypt.
Our group of eight agreed to take the most thrilling route the Nile had to offer, and our guide talked us through safety and technique as we packed onto a jeep with our paddles. In whitewater rafting, there are only 6 grades of difficulty, and we had chosen a path through 26 kilometres of Grade 5 rapids, characterized as “extremely difficult.” In the end, it was excellent decision: for five hours, we battled the Nile’s fast-moving water, and were shown little mercy as it toppled our raft and sent us all swirling through underwater currents.
We were joined in our adventure by all of the Nile’s critters: egrets, herons and African snake birds, who chewed on reeds and fish as we floated by. Hippos and crocodiles were removed from this portion of the Nile long ago. When the waters were calm, I hopped out of the raft to let the current take me down the river. Lunch and a beer were included in our USD 125 package, but we each pitched in to access photos by the company’s photographer, who followed us in a kayak. Everyone had tremendous fun, and by the end, each of one us could say that we had officially drunk from the Nile.
NIGHTLIFE IN KAMPALA
Back in Kampala and wiped from exertion, I was ready to pack it in for the night — until my friends announced we were going out. I couldn’t believe anyone had the energy to leave the house, let alone go dancing, but of course I caved. We had an incredible dinner of Ethiopian food and pizza at Fuego Restaurant, just a short boda boda ride from where we were staying. If you’re looking for a party, there’s no need to leave Kabalalaga, whose main road is crawling with pubs, bars, and holes in the wall that serve Nile Beer till the wee hours of the morning. De Posh Bar and Restaurant is a good place to start if you’re into live music.
We ended up at a club called Venom, which to my understanding, is no longer open. But it was a riot while we were there — Navio, one of Uganda’s most famous and successful rappers — was hosting a party, and to my disbelief, my friends and I had somehow secured last-minute access to the VIP section. We spent the night dancing and getting to the friendly rap star, who is part of the award-winning hip hop group that introduced the term ‘Ugaflow,’ which describes Uganda’s hip hop scene.
Another good choice for evening entertainment in Kampala is the National Theatre, which hosts free nightly outdoor events, along with quality ticketed film screenings, dances and theatrical performances. On another night, my friends and I paid USh 40,000 for entrance to an evening of interpretative hip hop dance, hosted by one of Uganda’s top slam poets.
Day Three and Four: Kung and Craps
I spent the next few days absorbed in journalism, scouring Kampala for a few good stories. My hunt took me all over the city, from Namuwongo to Wakaliga; from Kisenyi to Katwe. Earlier in the week, I had noticed that in Kabalagala, there’s a sports betting hall every couple of metres on Kabalagala Road, and advertisements for help with gambling addiction postered in between them. I had never seen such a concentration of slot machines, Premier League charts and craps tables, so I investigated: what’s with Kampala’s addiction to gambling?
BETTING INTO A MICRO BANK
Kabalagala is the city’s unofficial gambling capital. In 2012, gambling was named a “new driver of chronic poverty” among the country’s youth by ActionAid International Uganda, Development Research and Training, and the NGO Board of Uganda. It earns the government nearly USD 5 million a year in taxes, which may not sound like much, but about 40 per cent of Uganda’s population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Said one young gambler named Araphatt Promice:
I can console myself. I can lose 10 times, but on the 11th time, maybe I can win.
After speaking with a number of self-admitted gambling addicts and counsellors, in a slum called Namuwongo, I found a group of men who had a solution to the craps conundrum: betting as a micro bank. Each member of the Namuwongo Bukasa Games Association pays a small, annual fee in addition to the ante for each game, and the winner of each round takes home all but 20 per cent. That cash is added to the annual fees in an end-of-year pot, which is distributed to the group members who need it most. In the past, the pot has been used to pay for funeral fees, medical treatments, home repairs, and interest-free loans to those undergoing temporary financial hardship. All members, explained Christopher Othieno, must be sober and employed to play. Read the full feature here:
In One Uganda Slum, Gambling is a Prudent Financial Investment
“In the next four or five years we won’t have a poor member,” said Othieno. “There is no man who will cry for a problem.”
UGANDA’S KUNG FU ACTION STARS
In another slum called Wakaliga, I found a second unexpected story of creativity and success in a group of children who practice kung fu. They practice not to defend themselves, however, but to star in the country’s burgeoning action film industry. They call themselves the Wakastarz, and together with Isaac Nabwana, director of Ramon Film Productions, they’re producing the country’s very first martial arts films. It’s an operation born and raised in Wakaliga, bootstrapped to the very core: each movie is produced on a budget of less than USD 200, using a homemade computer, self-taught animation skills, and props made from trash found in the dumpster. The kids are trained by kung fu master Bukenya Charles, who was taught by martial artists visiting Uganda from China.
“If you see Western movies, it’s full of action which is dominating now here in Africa,” said Nabwana. “Martial arts are rising and everyone now is trying to do what I’m doing because they see I’m doing something that is unique and is loved.”
The reality is, Uganda is in the midst of a kung-fu craze: advertisements for martial arts training are plastered on the sides of buildings, while hand-painted images of UFC fighters and Jackie Chan decorate homes, windows and gyms. The country’s film industry is called Ugawood, and there more than a dozen active Ugawood film companies today. Nearly all of them were founded between 2000 and 2014, and aspire to topple their competitor, Nollywood (Nigeria’s film industry), in economic success and renown.
My feature on the Wakastarz and Ramon Film Production was wildly popular and cited in articles all over the world. It was among the most-read pieces ever published by Roads and Kingdoms, an affiliate of Slate:
Everybody in Uganda is Kung Fu Fighting — Roads and Kingdoms
This story in fact, brought me back to Uganda in March 2015; Highlife magazine, the on-board magazine of British Airways, asked me to write a similar piece, but focussed on Ugawood, rather than strictly martial arts. I was thrilled to return to Uganda to see my friends, Isaac, Bukenya and the Wakastarz, and together, these two stories helped launch ‘Wakaliwood’ to international fame. Isaac and his young kung fu artists have been interviewed dozens of times since then and invited to international film festivals. They have become their very own tourist attraction in Uganda, and often grant visitors small cameos in whatever they’re filming at the time. I’m still in touch with all of them, and hear one of the youngsters has become a successful pop star.
Day Five: Kampala to Mbarara
After the high of meeting the Wakastarz and gambling gurus of Namuwongo, I linked up with a friend I made while rafting the Nile to go on a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We were in no rush to get there, and took our time driving the countryside in a rental vehicle. We stopped along the way to buy fried crickets and chicken from vendors on the road in between Kampala and Masaka, where I insisted on pulling over for a cheesy, quintessential photo at the Ugandan equator line.
From there, we drove west through lush green forests, grassy hillsides and sparkling crater lakes. We zipped past tea and rice farms, dodged potholes and swerved past herds of ankole cattle. It’s a bumpy road to Mbarara, a trade and transit hub in western Uganda, and during our commute, we were surprised to see a daring young driver attempt them on a motorbike with a small cow straddled over his lap. To date, this remains among the most outrageous things I have seen on public transit in Africa (although it’s tough to top a woman balancing a queen-sized mattress on her head with kids in each arm on a bike in Sierra Leone).
We checked into the Hotel Kash off Mbarara Road, tucked in to a dinner of rice, plantain and chicken, and called it a night.
Day Six: Mbarara to Queen Elizabeth
The following afternoon, we unloaded at a beautiful campsite bordering the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s most-visited natural reserve. My canvas tent was a first-class establishment, complete with a patio, table and reading lamp. After settling in and arranging candlelight outdoor dinner plans (for less than USh 60,000 per person) I hung my clothes up to dry in the wake of a peach juice explosion in my backpack. At this point, after enduring the bumpy road from Kampala to the park, our truck had just about had it. Brendan and a park officer did about two hours of meatball surgery on the engine with tweezers and copper wires before it was up and running again, and ready for a game drive.
Queen Elizabeth park is massive, spanning four entire districts in Uganda: Kasese, Kamwenge, Bushenyi and Rukungiri. We were starting to lose the light, so we kept our drive short. Only 10 kilometres in, we struck gold: a herd of Uganda’s famous tree-climbing lions were snoozing off a food coma. They woke up on our arrival, and curious, one of the lionesses inspected our truck. The rest remained in the grass, bloated and lazy.
Day Seven and Eight: The Game Drive
The next two days would bring more jaw-dropping animal encounters: waterbok, kob and impalas dotted the park’s yellow plains for miles, monitor lizards basked in the sun, and herds of water buffalo crowded the river banks. We got up close and personal with a couple of elephants, having accidentally driven into their bush feeding grounds, while avoiding the baboons, who had a tendency toward aggression.
HIPPOS UNDER THE STARS
Around 3 a.m. in the morning on Day Eight, I awoke in my tent to a strange, wet squishing sound. Spidey senses tingling, I peered out of the window with my flashlight to find myself surrounded by a herd of hippos and hippo babies. My nerves were well-founded: these impressive mammals weigh between two and three tonnes each and are responsible for more human deaths per year than any other animal in Africa. I had two options — turn the flashlight back off and pull up the covers, or unzip the tent entrance, sit on the patio and watch them. I risked the latter, and spent an hour in silence, observing their grazing by moonlight. I’m sure they were accustomed to humans at the campsite, which I suspect is one of their regular food sources, but it was still incredible to be within arm’s reach of such spectacular, powerful beasts. They munched and munched, and grunted to one another in conversation. When they left, I lingered a just a little longer beneath the stars.
Day Nine and 10: Kampala to Nairobi
They have a saying in Uganda, “Familiarity is like the sea that killed the fisherman.” I can’t remember when and where on my trip I heard it, but the message resonated after 10 days of adventure on the road. The proverb encourages us to step out of our comfort zones and be cautious about complacency.
Familiarity is like the sea that killed the fisherman.
I spent my last 48 hours in Uganda decompressing with friends in Kabalagala. We smoked shisha, swapped stories, drank Nile Beer, and ate wildebeest and crocodile at The Lawns Wild Game & Barbecue Restaurant in Kololo (highly recommended and reasonably priced).
I didn’t know at the time that I’d be back in just a few months, reporting once again from the makeshift film studio in Wakaliga. Apart from my new friendship with the Wakastarz, the highlight of the trip was the driving — there’s nothing like a rolled down window, the smell of tea farms, and an endless sea of savannah, jungle and water to clear the mind. It was a wonderful trip personally and professionally, and as I made the 13-hour bus journey back to Kenya, not even the arrest and detention of our bus driver could dampen my happy mood. I’ve been craving a Rolex ever since.
Know Before You Go
- If you’re visiting East Africa, I highly recommend purchasing a three-month, multiple entry visa for USD 100 that grants access to Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, which have a communal travel agreement.
- If you’re coming from Kenya, Easy Coach is a reliable transportation option that departs regularly from the railway station in downtown Nairobi. Tickets should be purchased in advance (especially if you want to choose your seat), and the 13-hour ride to Kampala costs about KSh 2000 (CAD 25). The buses are air conditioned and relatively comfortable, but watch your belongings and sit close to the driver. It is not uncommon for foreigners to travel by bus between Kenya and Uganda.
- The Easy Coach will drop you off at a station on a hill in central Kampala. If you can’t find a boda boda or cab from there, walk down the hill and turn left toward the strip mall. You’ll find some there.
- Expect to pay between USh 4,000 and USh 6,000 for a short boda boda ride, and USh 8,000 to USh 10,000 for a longer one. Prices are negotiable, so bargain hard. Be cautious taking boda bodas alone at night.
- If catching a boda boda concerns you, try the Pineapple Express, which offers shuttles in between Jinja, Kampala and Entebbe. It picks up and drops off at most of the major hostels and shopping malls, and offers safe, air-conditioned transportation with room for luggage. Rides start at USD 10 and must be book in advanced due to space limitations.
- Buy a SIM card on arrival in Uganda, and be prepared to show your passport. Many of drivers, tour companies and hotels may not have websites, so texting and calling is a great way to make reservations and plans. Having access to data and a GPS is also extremely helpful, in the event you choose to travel by road.
Who to Book With
- Walter’s Boda Boda City Tours is a safe, reliable motorbike tour company that can take you to all of Kampala’s top sites for USh 80,000 and provide a friendly, English-speaking driver.
- Nalubale Rafting is a world-famous Nile River tour operator that has expert whitewater rafting guides, and all-inclusive day excursions starting at USD 125. Group rates are available, book in advance, and articulate your pick up and drop off needs clearly if you’re staying in Kampala.
- Uganda’s Gorilla Tours offers private, three-day, all-inclusive gorilla treks in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, starting at USD 1,044 per person. Reserve in advance.
- If you’re keen on Lake Victoria, and willing to spend a bit of cash, Augur Tours offers three-day tours of the exotic archipelago and Ssese Islands, including a sunset cruise through the rainforests and visits to pineapple farms and fishing villages for USD 500.
Where to Stay
- Bush Lodge is an excellent option at the park’s Nature Lodges, with comfortable canvas tents and beds starting at USD 35 per night. It overlooks the stunning Kazinga Channel and has a restaurant and bathrooms on site.
- If you’re looking for cheap accommodations in Kampala, the Fat Cat has an excellent central location, friendly staff, Internet access and dorm beds starting at USD 15 per night.
- For something a little more luxurious, try Le Petit Village in Kabalagala, whose rustic “Safari chic” design, palm trees, cobblestone pathways and bright blue swimming pool offer beautiful escape from the chaos of the city. Single rooms start at USD 150 inclusive of breakfast.
- The Sheraton Kampala Hotel is another upscale centrally-located option, within walking distance of the National Theatre, shopping centres and the Uganda Golf Course. Single rooms start at USD 203 per night. Even if you don’t stay here, I highly recommend stopping by for a meal at its sumptuous Seven Seas Restaurant or Paradise Grill.