Footloose in East Africa Part III (Final)
Continued from Part II
The bus reached Nairobi at about 10 pm. Luckily, the bus company had its own terminal which was well-guarded. The passengers were given vouchers for dinner and, after sometime, they were asked to board another bus bound for Uganda.
The border-crossing at Malaba was a breeze. The immigration officer fetched my passport, asked for $50 as visa fee and affixed the sticker. The bus reached Kampala at about 2 pm. Surprisingly before entering the city, every passenger had to go through security check including body search.
It took me 28 hours since Moshi. I had no local currency and asked a fellow passenger to guide me to nearby forex bureau. Finding Euro Rate most favorable, I exchanged 500 Euros into Ugandan Shillings getting a bundle of 1.931 million shillings. It made me millionaire or at worst shillingaire.
I stayed in Hotel New City Annex for $20 per night. I had a heart filled dinner and went to sleep.
In the morning, I explored the city. The hotel was quite near to the white-marbled Parliament Building. Its main gate was studded with silver crests of the large districts and tribes. Another land mark was the National Theatre, home to a number of drama artists and dance troupes. While strolling in the area, a taxi driver approached me and offered half-a-day trip for Ugs 70,000. I told him that I was not interested but kept his offer in mind. Just in the next street, I stopped a taxi and asked the driver to take me to National Mosque, Kausdi Tombs, Museum and Bahai Hall and Nakasero Market. He happily quoted Ugs 80,000 which, with a hard bargain, were brought down to Ugs 40,000. The initial glow on his face faded and was replaced by a gloom as he was barely getting a small amount over and above the cost of petrol.
The taxi negotiated through the crowded bazaars and went to a hilltop in Old Kampala. It housed a beautiful mosque. Officially it is called National Mosque but its more popular name is Gaddafi Mosque . It was said to be the largest mosque in Africa, magnificent and gigantic. One can see the most of Kampala from its courtyard.
Next were Kasubi Tombs on another hilltop. (In fact, Kampala is spread haphazardly over seven hills and reminded me of the fabulous cities of Rome and Istanbul.) The tomb is a huge dome-like structure housing remains of the former Kings. These are constructed with thatch-poles and reeds. National Museum was nearby. It had a unique collection of artifacts on hunting, agriculture, wars, witchcraft and natural history, as well as traditional musical instruments.
Bahai Temple was occupying another hill, the only temple of Bahai found in Africa. From its compound, I had a superb panoramic view of Kampala and its country side. Thereafter, the taxi moved to the City Centre for a sand-stone building made without a patch or nail. It was a Hindu Temple adorned with ornaments and symbols. The taxi dropped me in Nakasero Market and plunged me into sounds and colours of Uganda. I found fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, legumes grains and hand-made household items. The market is surrounded by a large number of shops or dukas selling hardware and electrical goods.
Kampala has a population of nearly two million. It is taking a turn for the better. Modern buildings are springing up all over the city and old dilapidated ones are slowly being renovated. The people of Kampala, and Ugandans in general, are very kind and friendly and are very approachable. It is quite safe to walk day and night. Mugging is unknown. I met a Pakistani businessman operating a fleet of buses. According to him, he walks daily in the evening with over 30 million of shillings for depositing them in the bank and never felt unsafe or threatened. This reminds of Myanmar with similar safety records.
Uganda as a country
Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962. Initial years were difficult because of Idi Amin’s atrocities and mismanagement. These years were filled with internal conflicts and tribal wars. Idi Amin was thrown out in 1982 and things started improving. Stability returned to most parts of the country and Uganda became attractive to foreign investors and tourists.
Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa. Its official language is English and Swahili. Most of the people living in cities know English well. All signposts and billboards are in English. It occupies an area of 241,139 km and has a population of about 35 million. As many as 90% are Christian of Catholic and Anglican faith. Other includes Muslims, Ahmedis and small minorities.
Uganda enjoys a tropical climate tempered by altitude. It has substantial natural resources, including fertile soils, regular rainfall, and sizable mineral deposits of copper and cobalt. It produces coffee, sugar, cotton, tea, tobacco. There are some industries like cotton, leathers, steel re-rolling and textiles mostly owned by foreign investors. In addition, the country has large untapped reserves of both crude oil and natural gas. Standard of living of the people is, however, low with per capita income of only $500.
Staple food is Matoke (green bananas), millet bread and cassava. Besides, sweet potatoes, chicken, meat and fish is also popular with middle and rich class. The national drink is a banana gin know as Waragi, strong in influence.
On 7th August, 2011, I boarded a bus for Jinja. The bus moved out of the congested roads of Kampala and ran on the highway. It passed by Nelson Mandela Stadium giving an awesome sight. Once out of the city, there was calmness and charm. The bus went through an agriculture area famous for growing as groundnuts, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, coffee and cotton.
Next town was Bweyogere which used to be a small Taxi Stage but has turned to be a busy and beautiful place. It is situated on a hill rising to a peak of 1,200 m. The higher reaches of the hill are occupied by upscale homes with manicured lawns and fenced yards.
Shortly afterwards, the bus passed by Mukono, a fast growing town blessed with favorable climate, abundant rainfall, rich and proximity to urban areas. Near the town is famous Sezibwa Fall offering a scenic view for tourists and nature lovers. Soon, the bus entered in an industrial city, Lugazi. An Indian investor,Mehta Group, has established a sugar plant in this town. Besides, some Pakistani entrepreneurs have installed steel re-rolling mills and tannery plants which are well in operation.
I got down at Jinja, about 54 km away from Kampala and checked in Hotel Bellevue. It turned out to be nice hotel owned by an Indian. I had a chance to meet many Pakistani who regularly eat there. Room rent was $20 per night.
In the evening, I strolled in the Jinja market. It had colorful shacks squeezed on top of each other selling everything from chicken hearts to motor parts. Besides, there were many operators offering horse-back tours, quad-biking, adrift rafting, bungee jumping and kayaking. They come with a complete package like camping, foods, guides and equipments. It reminds me of Pucon, an adventure capital of Chile in its earlier day.
Tourist Attractions near Jinja
Next day, I arranged with a taxi driver to take me around to touristic places for $15 in all. The taxi driver, Akello, thought for a while and then agreed.
First, we reached in about 15 minutes to Bujagali, a small tourist village, 8 km from Jinja. Near to the village are waterfalls with the same name i.e. Bujagali Falls. Not a conventional waterfall but a series large and raging rapids for about 1 km. This becomes more scenic with forested islands and startling diversity of bird life attracted by the multitude of fish.
Some local stuntmen plunge into the falls with a plastic jerry can and show a variety of summersaults. Some belong to "Bujagali Swimmers" who are real pros and have mastered a safe route through the turbulent waters.
Next was ‘Source of Nile’ where the river comes out of the Lake Victoria. There is a small memorial garden at the spot and a Hindu temple which has a bronze bust of Gandhi. Some of his ashes were scattered into the source of white Nile.
Finally, the taxi dropped me at Jinja Nile Resort. Resting on the banks of river, it offers magnificent views of the Nile. It is spread over an area of 20 acres and has 110 rooms in colonial type cottages. While charges for a single room are $165, one time meal costs a minimum of $45. This is beyond my means but I can afford a cup of tea. I selected a scenic spot and ordered a cup of tea. I got it with a freshly backed pastry as a bonus. I sipped the aromatic tea and ate pastry at leisure like a long-term guest.
I return by taking a leisurely walk and had an experience of real Uganda.
Lake Victoria and River Nile
With a surface area of 70,000 square kilometers, Lake Victoria is the largest in Africa. It is also the biggest tropical lake in the world. It is the source of the White Nile, which is the longest branch of the famous River Nile. Lake Victoria is shared by three different countries: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The shoreline is over 3,400 km long. Lake Victoria has over 3,000 islands. Despite its huge size, the murky lake is quite shallow - only 100 metres at its deepest.
In 1858, John Hanning Speke was the first European to cite the vast lake as the source of the White Nile. His assertion was ridiculed until H.M. Stanley proved him right in 1875
The Lake Victoria basin is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world. Its shores are dotted with cities and towns.It is a source of livelihood for approximately 30 million people.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, about 6,650 km long running through 11 countries: Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Egypt. It takes fully three months to flow northwards to the Mediterranean Sea.
Old Taxi Park
On 9th August, I moved to Masaka, about 191 km away from Jinja. First the van entered Kampala through congested streets and dragged at a snail pace. As if it was not enough, it stopped in Old Taxi Park where buses, coaches and vans were clustered in large number. There was no way to get out of it except taking a boda-boda (motor-cycle taxi) which snaked through the thick traffic and got me to New Park to board a bus for Masaka. It was a horrible experience but there was no alternative.
I stayed in a nice place, Hotel Brovad Ltd paying $ 17 per night. The place was very relaxing. The gentle hilly terrain coupled with green cover offered good opportunity for nature walk.
One day, I went on a taxi to Lake Victoria passing by little fishing villages. The road took us through wetlands with plenty of birds like egret, stork and pelican. One can buy fish very cheaply from the local fisherman specially tilapia which is a delicacy.
Next day, I went to Nabugabo Lake Resort, about 21 kms from Masaka town. It consisted of traditional cone-shaped huts in dark colors which are quite picturesque on white sandy beach. It was a popular destination and tourists were engaged in canoeing, bird watching, swimming and camping. I stayed for about two hours to unwind and relax in a peaceful outdoor resort. There were lots of monkey around begging for hand-outs.
On 12th August, 2011, I went to Entebbe and lodged in Entebbe Flight Motel which was quite near to the airport. In fact, one can see the airport from roof of the motel. This place was popular with army personnel attached with United Nation Peace Keeping Force in the neighboring country, Democratic Congo. I met many Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi on their way home.
There is not much in Entebbe. It is just known for an international airport which made the headlines in July 1976 when Flight 139, an Air France A-300B Airbus, hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Organisation landed at Entebbe Airport with 256 hostages, mostly Israelis. The PLO demanded the release of 53 prisoners. Israeli paratroopers attacked the airport and freed almost all the hostages.
There was, however, a nice zoo where the animals have been provided almost natural setting and wide areas to roam about. Popularly known as "Entebbe Zoo", it was opened in 1952 to shelter wild animals that were found as sick, injured or orphaned. Subsequently, it was converted into a traditional zoo.
Quite near to the zoo are botanical gardens with amazing green tropical trees, birds, butterflies, flowers and ants.
Last day in East Africa
Harriat Nassolo is a University student at Entebbe. She is my email friend for the past 3 years. Soon after checking in the hotel, I inform her. She met me and was surprise to find out that I had already seen much of her city. Not to be outdone, she pointed out a far off resort on the Lake Victoria. As it was 30-km away, a taxi ride would prove costly but she had a viable solution: going by public transport, dala-dala (minivan), upto a certain point and, thereafter, riding a motor cycle taxi (boda-boda) for the last 8 km. It suited me and we boarded a mini-van which dropped us some-where in between Kampala and Entebbe. I expected to be greeted by a mob of boda-boda but it seems there was none, a chance once in a blue moon. She waited for a while. I could see a smile on her face when she got only one boda-boda and suggested we two have a ride on it though she would be sandwiched between the driver and me. I had no objection to such a wonderful arrangement. The edge of backseat was discomfortable but I was compensated many many times over and enjoyed it fully well.
The resort, Serena Complex, looked like a rustic Roman Villa. It had white-terraced rose garden descending through water cascades to the shore of the lake. It had terracotta palace, white arched galleries, mosaic fresco, clock-tower, colonnades of white arches and what not.
We returned after two hours on the same boda-boda in the same way.
On 15th of August, exactly after 30 days, I went home via Dubai and was greeted by three charming grand-childs, their gracious grandmother and parents.