Uganda: Visiting Friends in Kampala

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Murchison Falls, one of the most spectacular scenes in Uganda. Manolis Androulakis photos
Murchison Falls is one of the most spectacular scenes in Uganda. Manolis Androulakis photos.

By Penelope Gkini

It was Christmas time, holidays, snow, and city lights twinkling under the rhythm of  “White Christmas.” Family dinners and woods in the …Well, not!

making bricks
Making bricks in the center of Kampala.

In the beginning, this trip seemed like an expedition. We were going to Africa during the pandemic!

The plane was full of young people and especially kids. Later we would understand that every year 1, 5 million children are born in Uganda in a total population of just under 46 million people.

The birth rate is almost 37 new births per thousand persons.  In contrast, in my native Greece, the rate is 7.3 per thousand!

A woman I met there said that contrary to European women, Ugandan women are almost depressed when they get pregnant.

Sounds of the Birds

The smooth, warm air was not as impressive as the sound of the tropical birds and monkeys waking up in the morning. Sun was rising over the equator.

The airport control, Covid-vaccinations, Covid test, and visas gave a preliminary sense of how people feel time. Patience, no hurry, not even nervous people.

VISITING GORILLAS IN UGANDA

Although this “African” pace can be shocking when coming from the neurotic West, everything was done correctly and without grumbling. Big posters welcomed us to “The Pearl of Africa” and there you smell the new senses …you are on another continent! 

Our driver was waiting for us at the exit. His name is David and he also spoke Greek!

A boda boda, or a passenger-carrying motorcycle, is how many locals get around in Uganda.
A boda-boda, or a passenger-carrying motorcycle, is how many locals get around in Uganda.

Tolls were installed on the highway to Kampala (the capital) on the 8th of January 2022, so, a transfer from the airport to the capital costs around 150000 Ugandan shillings to 200 000 UG, (about $42 US,) and you should anticipate it can take almost an hour without counting possible traffic jams.

Hopping on a Boda-Boda

So there we were, wanting to have the camera focused out the window all the time filming life on the roads of Uganda, with so many people with flip-flops, carrying things on their heads, motos called boda-boda with two or four persons riding them working as quick taxis, animals (cows, goats, rabbits, ducks, pigs) walking all over the streets.

But, be careful! Our driver suggested not to carry the mobile phone too visibly because there are risks it might get stolen. Of course, there are only dirt roads all over except the main ones in the capital or in some major cities.

In every corner, along the road, the marabou stork was trying to eat the burnt rubbish.  That’s one of the first city smells, burning plastic.

Uganda is a Christian Country

a roadside cow
Cows are common sights in Kampala Uganda.

Uganda is mainly a Christian country, with Catholics being the majority. They coexist also with Muslims and you can see scattered mosques in the towns. Kids wearing  Christmas t-shirts from the orphanage sing something like gospel songs. Father Antonios

(Orthodox) told us a story about this coexistence: he was checking a wedding list budget and at the end of the list there was some money reserved for the magician who would prevent the rain on the wedding day!

Nile river Jinja Uganda
Nile river Jinja Uganda

In and Around Kampala

One of the biggest Christian monuments in Kampala city is the Namugongo shrine in the Kira district built in commemoration of the 32 men who were martyrs of the 3d of June 1886. Every year on this day millions of Christians gather there to worship them.

Uganda Travel Tips

During the pandemic, in the past two years, schools were closed. The curfew started at 19h in Kampala so we avoided the capital even during the day because of the concentration of people walking close together.

Change money in the center of Kampala on the exchange road. You will find many stores but we preferred changing our euros in Nakasero

Buy an MTN or Airtel phone card to have internet and communicate through Whatsapp with locals. You can’t do this in any small shop on the street but in bigger official offices. Test your card when they give it to you and see if it works or not to be sure.

Transportation inside the city or intercity :

You can take a boda- boda, but at your own risk! Rides cost between 1000 mainly for locals and 5000 UG for tourists but we didn’t take any in the capital, we preferred taking one in smaller towns. That’s a whopping $1.43 per ride!

You can also take an Uber, the app works quite well in Kampala. There are minibusses that need to be full to start their itinerary. During the pandemic, we didn’t opt for that cause they were full of people. Regardless of the Covid protection you need, they are very cheap!

Private drivers are people that can suggest things to you, they can wait while you are doing something in a shop to take you to the next place.

Book your excursions with local guides. Communication with them is not always very easy and there can be misunderstandings in details about your trip. Try to ask for pictures of the car you will be traveling with and going for the safari. Sometimes you have to insist a little bit more on dealing with offers and money.

We stayed in Nageera, one of the districts in Kampala. The area was really interesting, mostly only locals, and just walking in the neighborhoods was interesting, it was fascinating watching their everyday lives in a place so much different than my home in Europe.

Spectacular Murchison Falls

We took an excursion and visited Murchison Falls, they were more affordable than the other parks, the town of Jinja and Entebbe.

The trip starts with a ride crossing the country toward the north, to the National Park of the Murchison Falls, it’s 305 km away from Kampala.

We organized the tour with an individual guide so there would be nothing to worry about. He took care of the car, the entrance fees etc.

On our way we took some pit stops for fruits (4 pineapples for 5000 UG!!  half price than the capital!), some lunch like Rolex (omelet in a chapati-a kind of roti bread), some meat sticks or grilled cassava, a root that they enjoy eating, like a potato. 

We needed almost half a day to arrive at Masindi City. A city outside the borders of the park (80 km) where we slept at the Country-Inn hotel.

We visited the marketplace, hang around playing volleyball with locals on the grass, and just walked in these open-space dirt roads.

The next day in the morning, we had an early departure for  Murchison Falls Park, which used to be called Kabalega Park. The exact time when your arrival is registered is your deadline for the day you will leave. So, a small stop at the entrance for the registration, and a baboon reception committee welcomed us. 

After driving through the Budongo Forest where we observed some monkeys on the trees, our first stop walking 5 min from the parking was the Murchison Falls. They are not the biggest but they are the most powerful falls on earth, so don’t try to swim there.

Staying at the Red chill rest camp was quite an adventure with all the animals crossing by between the tents. While dining, a hippo was wandering around, and in the middle of the day a warthog was running away from someone we never saw.

Najjeera Neighborhood
Najjeera Neighborhood

There are beautiful sunsets in the savanna, with lonely trees in the middle of the golden herbs, with lions resting on them. Game rides were very interesting, especially, when it’s the first time you have ever seen all this wildlife, although they seemed to me as a western-white thing activity.

We saw all the big five except the leopard: hippo, lion, buffalo, elephant. Giraffes would be running like an almost slow-motion film, we saw Nile crocodiles on the coast of the Victoria Nile and beautiful colored birds on the sausage tree or in the cliffs in the savanna.

market road in Uganda
Market road in Uganda.

Visting Jinja

On the northern shores of Victoria lake lies an easygoing town called Jinja, some three hours from Kampala, around 80 km. You can take buses there for 5000 to 10000 UG or go with a driver so he can wait for you on your way while you discover the Mabira rain forest.

pile of bananas

Jinja was the coolest town we visited in Uganda. Bars on the Nile river coast like The Bourbon offer a nice New year’s Eve party and some beers while enjoying the serenity of the Nile river. We also played some pool there and visited the market building and the metal market.

The smell of the paints and the sound of iron forged into the fire were a journey to our roots. Tourist souvenirs can be found on the Main Street, near the Madhuani house, a colonial British house like many others in this town.

Many restaurants feature Indian cuisine near the coast or beside the lake and a breakdancing event in the scout’s campground entertained us. Visiting the Nile sources isn’t really worth it, but a walk to the river shores certainly is.

In Jinja, Yolanda, our Greek friend who has lived there for 14 years, showed up and explained many things about the town and people’s attitudes.

Bugongo rain forest
Bugongo rain forest

Visiting the city of Entebbe

Entebbe for our last day was perfect. The botanical garden there isn’t something so prestigious but just for a walk to relax so you can then walk down to Berkeley road with the artists and the Manyago road, one of the most beautiful because of the small houses, makes a nice itinerary.

We took a boda-boda to the Kasenyi fishing village and understood why it inspires so many paintings. For dinner, just continue to the Kintu road and you‘ll find many options. The Entebbe crafts village was also interesting but if we had more time I guess we would have walked from Kitoro towards Nakiwogo. Our short walk before the sunset in the Bugonga village was impressive.

Visas, Vaccinations, and Other Requirements for Uganda

Vaccination requirements checked in our international hygiene booklet, passports and our visa application had to be done almost a month earlier. For the visa information, you can apply online on this website. 

Guide in the Mabira rainforest in Uganda
Guide in the Mabira rainforest in Uganda

You can see the options you have but for our 13-day trip, we just got the tourist permit.

There is no other need for documents just to fill this health form or else no check-in is possible https://arrivals.healthdesk.go.ug/ because every passenger entering Uganda must do a Covid test upon arrival (in addition, a PCR test is also needed to travel).

If you are interested in learning two-three words of “luganda”, the language they speak in the Kampala region you can check this site. They also organize cultural tours but for my friends and me, 100 dollars per day was a little bit too expensive.

You need to have your Covid certification and your PCR test printed on paper! So try doing it at your accommodation.

Additional Uganda Links

The Uganda museum in Kampala is worth a look.

The SINA (Social Innovation association) if you are interested in activities for young people in Uganda.

Visit ceramics or instruments workshops, art galleries like Umoja

Penelope GkiniPenelope Gkini is an interpretive guide of cultural and natural heritage based in Crete, Greece. She leads groups in the Greek mountains and islands. She likes traveling and wondering without any purpose and loves to meet people and do new projects. She designed the “Postman’s path” in Crete https://postmansfakia.eu/ and some group games in https://www.petassostravel.com/en