18 February 2022

Snapshots from Ten Days in East Africa: Uganda

At the end of my last post about my recent East African adventure, which focused on my time in Kenya, we had just managed to catch our flight to Uganda, with minutes to spare. Once I'd caught my breath, I sat back to enjoy the one-hour flight with Kenya Airways, which passed over Lake Victoria before landing at the lakeside former Ugandan capital, Entebbe.


Although we'd had to take a PCR test the day before, Uganda requires all entrants to take a PCR test on arrival at the airport. You can pay for this on arrival, but it's faster if you pay for it online in advance. The whole process took about 15 minutes, and then I was able to proceed through immigration to the baggage hall. You receive your results by WhatsApp within 2–3 hours. Don't lose your stamped receipt for your PCR test as you'll be required to show it several times before leaving the airport! At the airport, I withdrew some Ugandan shillings (a local friend recommended Stanbic Bank for the best rates) and got a Ugandan sim card (the same friend recommended the MTN network for the best coverage).


Our driver met us outside and it was a smooth one-hour drive to our hotel in Kampala. My Kampala-based colleagues say that the traffic there is even worse than in Nairobi, but our hotel, Canary Hotel, wasn't right in the centre so we didn't get too caught up in the rush hour. The Canary is a small, modern boutique hotel, with compact but comfortable, quiet and well-appointed rooms. They also have a ground-floor coffee shop, which served one of the best coffees I had on my trip! Unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit Endiro Coffee, a popular speciality coffee shop and café, where the breakfast and lunch dishes are also said to be excellent.


That night, we went out for dinner with a local expat colleague at Kenji's, which was a short Uber ride away (the ten-minute journey cost about £1.50). Kenji's has tasty burgers, strong cocktails (the bright turquoise Adios, Motherf***er is not messing around!) and a great atmosphere. Only ten days earlier, Uganda had ended its two-year COVID curfew that had required everyone to return home by 7 pm, and the Kampalans were celebrating hard, with music, dancing and good times. Of course, I was also trying to watch the Man United vs Middlesborough match that was being shown on the TV!



It was a late night but another early morning, as we were making the six-hour drive to Kasese in western Uganda. We had to leave at 7 am to beat the traffic, but the hotel's lovely staff had prepared coffee and breakfast for us all to take away. Driving out of Kampala, there were many roadside food stalls, most of which offered 'rolex'. This is one of Uganda's favourite breakfast foods: a vegetable omelette wrapped in a chapati. The name is taken from 'rolled eggs', which is obvious when you think about it.


Soon, cityscapes turned into countryside as we drove through farmland, large tea plantations and forests. In both directions, we had to stop when passing through Kibale Forest National Park, as a large troop of baboons were sitting in the middle of the road. Despite the road signs, we didn't see any elephants. We stopped for lunch at Fort Portal, a town with a population of 80,000 or so that serves as a tourist hub for the national parks and many other tourist attractions in western Uganda. We met our local colleague at the Dutchess, which he proclaimed as serving the best pizza in Uganda. It was indeed very good — and yes, when the pineapple is local and super-fresh, it is totally fine to put it on top!



After lunch, we drove on another hour or so to a coffee washing station near Mubuku, at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park. It was the beginning of Uganda's fly crop season, so local producers were bringing their coffee cherries in, laying them out to dry in the sun. We had a tour of the facilities and did a cupping of some local coffees, including some naturally processed coffee from Mubuku itself, which was — naturally — my favourite, with delicious, juicy flavours. Luckily, my phone and powerbank were out of charge so I couldn't follow Wolves' disappointing FA Cup result. I was delighted to note, however, that the manager of the Dutchess recognised my shirt and told me that Wolves were his favourite English team (he too is a fan of Jiménez).



Our penultimate stop was the Kilembe Mines Golf Club for a golden-hour drink as the sun dropped behind the Rwenzori Mountains. A few of the local children have gone on to do well in tournaments thanks to the support of the golf club, and certainly, it's a beautiful destination for a round. 


The golf club is in the town of Kasese, where we were staying for the next two nights at the Sandton Hotel. The rooms at the Sandton were fairly basic, but were clean and comfortable — and unless you want to spend a lot more money on a luxury safari lodge, there aren't many other options in and around Kasese. It's also one of the best places in town for dinner — I had a 'chicken basket' (described by my local colleague as 'like KFC but much better and healthier') one night and chicken with cashew nuts the next. The menu covers almost all cuisines.


In the morning, we drove south from Kasese to another washing station near Katerera. We spent a few hours at the washing station, where again, I was so excited to watch the various steps of the wet processing of coffee take place. Uganda, like Brazil, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, produces both Arabica and Robusta coffee. Passing by smallholder farms, you still see unsorted coffee cherries drying on small tarpaulin sheets outside, which produces a natural coffee called Drugar (Dry Ugandan Arabica). But there has been more of a focus recently on developing the infrastructure to produce higher-quality Arabica, which was evident from my visits around Kasese. 



Even driving around was very enjoyable: Kasese itself is surrounded by so many beautiful places, including the Rwenzori Mountains, Kibale Forest, Lakes George and Edward, and Queen Elizabeth National Park. It's also a few miles east of the border with DR Congo and we passed a fair few police checkpoints. To my excitement, Kasese also lies just north of the Equator, and there's a small monument on Katunguru Road where you can take photos. Even after we crossed the Equator about six times in one day, the novelty didn't wear off. Maybe it's because I also live so close to Greenwich!




As it was Sunday, we had the afternoon off, and first went for an excellent lunch at Marafiki Safari Lodge. The avocado salad, followed by grilled Nile perch, and then pineapple upside-down cake was one of the nicest meals of the trip. As the sun had finally come out, breaking through the oppressively humid overcast day, we were also very grateful to go for a cooling dip in the outdoor swimming pool. It would be a lovely base for a western Ugandan safari and is extremely convenient for Queen Elizabeth National Park.




Speaking of which, our afternoon activity was a safari in the national park. We transferred into our 'proper safari vehicle' and then spent three hours driving around the park in the late afternoon sunshine. Sadly, big cats once again proved elusive. As we had to leave the park at 7 pm, that only left the final hour as the period when there was some possibility of a lion or leopard sighting. We didn't mind, though, as we saw dozens of antelopes, warthogs, buffalo and hippos. And earlier in the day, we'd spotted a group of 20 or so elephants from our car. Opting for an early morning game drive gives you the best chance of spotting the cats, but, as our guide put it, 'nature is nature' and there are never any guarantees. If you venture to the other side of the park, you might even spot the famous (and sadly still threatened) tree-climbing lions of Ishasha. With more time still, I'd have loved to go gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park or chimpanzee tracking in Kibale.






After another nice dinner at the Sandton, only two of our group made it to the meeting point to the early-morning run the following day. It was a steep and humid run, but I was grateful for it after the six-hour return journey to Kampala. The baboons were waiting for us at Kibale again, but we still hadn't brought them any food. Before returning to the Canary Hotel, several of us had to stop at a clinic to get a PCR test — I didn't need one to get back into the UK, but I did need it to leave Uganda.


I very much appreciated the hot, rainfall shower at the Canary after the long day's drive, and then we all went out for dinner with some of our Kampala colleagues at an Italian restaurant called Cantine DiVino. My steak was delicious albeit way too big for me. I also had a G&T with the local Waragi gin.


On the final day of my trip, I went to the Kampala office to meet with some other colleagues and tour the coffee mill. I also got my first proper Ugandan meal at the canteen, enjoying a huge plate of matooke (steamed, mashed green banana), beef luwombo with groundnut sauce, steamed plantain, posho (maize flour porridge), beans and rice. It was all delicious and I wish I'd had more opportunities to eat local dishes.


Soon, it was time to head back to the airport, but I stopped on the way at Banana Boat — a craft shop that supports small entrepreneurs and women’s groups — to get some gifts and souvenirs, and then again at the Entebbe Botanical Gardens. The latter was a delight in the late afternoon sunshine, and I enjoyed spotting the friendly vervet monkeys — and shyer black-and-white colobus monkeys and marabou storks — and walking along the shores of Lake Victoria. It was a nice way to relax before spending the next sixteen hours in airports and planes.



There are a few small shops and cafes at Entebbe Airport, and I finally got to have my rolex (I suspect the airport cafe was not the best place to try it, but it was tasty!) before taking a Kenya Airways flight back to Nairobi. I arrived at Nairobi at 10 pm and had plenty of time before my 00:10 am BA flight to London. The screens indicated that the flight was boarding at 10:30 pm, so I went straight through security to the gate area. I wish I'd stayed to get a (decaf) coffee at Java House, because we didn't board until 20 minutes after the plane was supposed to leave. There were no updates provided at all and everyone was hot and tired — I overheard one of the cabin crew saying that the problem had come because people had booked first-class tickets on a plane with no first-class cabin. Oops! The flight was otherwise fine and before I knew it, I was waking up in a chilly, grey London. It was a harsh return to winter, but what a great trip.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Entry and medical requirements 
  • You can apply for a Ugandan visa online via this website. If you are a tourist visiting Kenya and/or Rwanda as well as Uganda, you can apply for an East Africa Tourist Visa (US $100), which allows you to travel among the three countries for three months. You'll need to apply for the East Africa visa through whichever country you'll be entering first, and do make sure you get both the visa sticker and stamp in your passport on entry.
  • At the time of my trip (February 2022), COVID entry requirements were: a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure; completion of a pre-departure health form; and taking of a PCR test at the airport on arrival, ideally paid for in advance online here. Printed copies of all of these documents are very strongly preferred and you'll need to show them multiple times at the departure and arrival airports. 
  • You need to show a yellow fever vaccination certificate to gain entry into Uganda. One of our group had not done this and was able to get her vaccination on entry — at $40, this was a lot less than what I paid in London, but for peace of mind and maximum protection, it's best to have the vaccine at least 10 days before you travel. Check your country's travel health guidance (like TravelHealthPro in the UK) for any other vaccinations or medical recommendations before travelling to Uganda.
  • Mask-wearing requirements and adherence were somewhat mixed during my time. Often, you would need to wear a mask to enter a restaurant or bar but then not many people would wear one inside, even when moving around or on the dancefloor. I wore a mask when I was taking transportation or in an indoor setting when I wasn't seated.

Getting there and around
We flew into and out of Entebbe International Airport, which is about 30 miles south of Kampala. It's a relatively small airport, and thankfully, the traffic wasn't anywhere near as bad as it was getting back to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta. We had a driver to pick us up and drop us off — for ease, you may want to organise a car through your hotel or tour company.

Within Kampala, walking around is often difficult and can be unsafe but Uber is readily available and extremely cheap (I paid £1.50 for a 10-minute journey on a Friday night). If you're feeling more adventurous and are travelling light, check out the Safe Boda app to hire a motorbike taxi (boda). 

Language
Swahili and English are official languages in Uganda, but there are more than 40 living languages in the country, many of which aren't mutually comprehensible. When we were in Kasese I found out that there was one local language widely spoken in town, but a completely different language just a few miles away, across the river. Luganda is one of the most commonly spoken languages in and around Kampala — ki ('chee') is the Lugandan word for 'hi', and weebale is the word for 'thank you'. Within tourism and hospitality in particular, excellent English is spoken everywhere.

Money
The Ugandan shilling (UGX) is the currency in Uganda, with 10,000 UGX being equivalent to about £2 or about US $3. Cash is preferred almost everywhere unless you have MTN's Mobile Money — a mobile payment app similar to M-PESA in Kenya. A local colleague recommended withdrawing money from Stanbic Bank for the best rates.

Power and connectivity 
Uganda uses the 'type G' British standard plug and socket system. Some hotels may also have sockets for 'type C' European plugs, but it's worth checking first or bringing a multi-adapter. Note too that some hotel rooms may not have many working power outlets, so you may need to be strategic when recharging devices.

I bought an MTN sim card at Entebbe Airport. It cost 50,000 UGX, or about £10, for a one-week, 10 Gb card. Generally, I had pretty good service throughout Kampala and in western Uganda — usually 4G, but sometimes 3G or E in some of the more remote areas. The wifi in both hotels was, at best, flaky, so I was glad I had extra coverage with my sim card.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent write up, Bex! Sounds like you had a fabulous time.

    Brian.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for visiting Uganda 🇺🇬 next time visit mbarara city the second busiest town in Uganda after Kampala and national park
    Called lake mburo


    ReplyDelete