Uganda isn't exactly a typical tourist destination - but if you want to see the real Africa, it has some remote and beautiful areas to explore
Uganda is something of a rarity in this modern world. It’s a country where tourism is still rare, and in which you feel very much an intrepid explorer instead of the spoon-fed visitor. Travelling about here is far from straightforward, and to compound matters, the whole region is recovering from 20 years of brutal and horrific civil war. The area is heavily dependent on the large number of charities and NGOs that now operate here. But in a strange twist, it’s these very charities that were my key to exploring northern Uganda.
I flew into Entebbe, and then went by matatu (white minibus-taxis) the few miles into the capital, Kampala. It’s pretty typical of the larger African cities I had seen: a reasonably good infrastructure in the centre, a couple of modern shopping centres and busy commercial streets, which then gradually deteriorate to dusty ramshackle communities as you head to the outskirts. But I love such places, with their vibrant, chaotic atmosphere, where every bit of space has somebody trying to sell you something, and children follow you, smiling, shouting and laughing.
A charity called Mission Aviation Fellowship exists to help get aid workers and suchlike to the remote places that would otherwise be too dangerous or impracticable. They will also take fare-paying passengers from their small dirt runway at Kijjansi, a couple of miles outside Kampala. It’s not only a relatively inexpensive and practical way to get around the country, it is also far safer than some of the roads in the north. The other advantage is that you get to see vast tracts of the country from the air. These are small light aircraft carrying about a dozen passengers, so you are guaranteed a window seat, and as they fly much lower than commercial airliners you can easily see the countryside below.
As we flew northeast towards Kotido, I was surprised how much water was below us. In fact, more than a quarter of Uganda is water, with the major lakes and rivers of the Nile system crossing the centre of the country. Once past this natural division between north and south, the landscape changes. It’s far less green, and the generally flat plains see almost comical mountainous outcrops rising starkly at ever increasing intervals.
Kotido is a small settlement with a dirt airstrip, not far from the Kenyan border. I was here just for a day's visit, and hitched a ride with the local Oxfam staff to a tribal village a few miles from the town. It was a unique insight, as we were allowed inside the wooden palisade and shown into the straw huts where the men of the village were drinking some pretty vicious home brew. I was invited to try it, much to their amusement when my face revealed that it wasn’t quite to my taste! The female pilot of the plane had advised me that if you show an interest in the people here, they will always show you hospitality, and it certainly seemed to be the case.
Half an hour’s flight to the west took us to Kalongo, where the only hospital for many miles sits in the shadow of a small mountain. Landing on another dirt airstrip we were welcomed by, it seemed, the whole village. Often these flights bring the only outsiders they see for days at a time. The hospital was overwhelmed during the civil war, with thousands using the village as a safe haven each night. Even now, a fully armed tank stands at the gate. It’s still incredibly busy, and is run by an Italian doctor and priest. Here, I was able to use one of the guest rooms within the hospital compound. These are very basic, but do have a shower and comfortable bed, and are very cheap.
The doctor gave me a tour, and explained graphically about the terrible experiences he had witnessed throughout the atrocities. There is little else to see here, and I was grateful to him also for arranging a lift to the next town – Patongo – with one of his priests. It was an interesting journey, through small villages where children line the roadsides, selling a few home-grown fruits or vegetables. Goats and chickens wander freely, and the passing of a car is something that attracts everyone’s attention.
Patongo is a larger town, and was also formerly home to thousands of displaced people. I found a bed and hospitality with the team at Medair, a fine charity doing a lot of work locally. They are building water sanitation systems, and also helping look after child-headed homes and orphans. They are a dedicated group who were happy to let me tag along to the various different areas where they work. I found this was a great way not only to see a number of districts that just wouldn’t be possible any other way, but also to gain a valuable insight into the reality of this area.
The people are friendly, and although I attracted a lot of attention as an obvious foreigner walking around the local market, I never once felt unsafe. Children crowd around you, hoping for sweets or some other handout, while the older members of the population just offer beaming smiles and hold out a hand to shake.
This isn’t everyone’s idea of a holiday, of course, but this is the real Africa. It’s not somewhere you can pre-book either, you just have to be brave and believe you’ll find a bed each night. Despite the poverty, the suffering and the lack of modern infrastructure, I found it a thoroughly rewarding experience, and one that I certainly hope to repeat soon.
Staying over in Kampala
There are two hotels I would recommend. The nicest is the Cassia Lodge, in a beautiful hillside position overlooking Lake Victoria. Closer to the city centre is the small but very pleasant Shangri-La Hotel Kampala.
The Ekitoobero Restaurant, on the Kitante Road, does the most wonderful traditional African menus.