First impressions Uganda

Incredibly friendly people, and incredibly different way of living. Shops and houses are fairly basic rectangular blocks (once you get out of town there are some groups of round huts with thatched roofs). There are no paved footpaths, just wide dusty areas, making everything look dry and dusty. The shopping areas all seem more like huge markets, with goods such as double beds and armchairs on display in front of the shops. I don’t know what they do when it rains. I think they just get wet.

All those photos of Africa with people pedalling bicycles overloaded with anything from bananas (typically three large bunches to a bike) to timber are commonplace, along with carrying loads on their head.

First look at Kampala from the taxi from Entebbe airport

The bikes are all just basic two wheelers – no fancy gears here. Many people simply walk along the road. Dress ranges from very attractive to the more bizarre with odd looking ultra high puffed sleeves in bright colours – typically bright yellow

Other than an agreed preference to drive on the left there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of road rules. The generally accepted technique seems to be to give a blast on the horm which is  signal for anything smaller ahead to get out of the way. Because of the numerous potholes (or maybe just because it feels good), straddling the centre line of a two way road is not uncommon – (to be fair, there was no oncoming traffic at the time.) People commonly travel in the back of open trucks, or even sitting on the top of a truck. This includes guards, police and whatever else they have in some sort of uniform.

Food is very cheap – for $3 you can buy a huge plate of stew and rice. Water is about $1.50 a bottle for 1.5 litres.

Murchison Falls.

It ended up there were two minivans headed from Red Chilli accomodation centre to Murchison Falls.  The six others in the van with me were great company, including two medical students who had taken up an option to do a three month prac work outside UK – they chose Zanzibar, and were now doing some travel after it. Everyone in the group had been travelling in Africa for a while, so it made it easier for me to start finding my way around in a different culture.

Safari group - all from UK except me

African time (at least in Uganda) is about it will take as long as it takes, and it will happen when it happens. Priorities are an afterthought if they exist at all. So our trip got off to a slowish start while a puncture was repaired. (There was a nail in the tyre). Then after lunch wait some more while the punctured tyre was replaced. (Fixing it while we were having lunch was appparently never considered.) Another delay later on while workmen worked on the single lane dirt road road to Murchison Falls, digging a big ditch (probably for a pipe) right across the road. We waited while enough of the ditch was filled in by the workmen with their shovels for the van to squeeze past the roadworks.

Road works

Not that it mattered in the long run as day 1 of the tour was basically getting to the campsite near Murchison Falls. There were groups of baboons along the way, but since our driver Isaac regards baboons as pests we didn’t slow down to look a them.

The campsite had permanent tents with comfy beds, though no power as the generators were turned off at night.  Each tent was provided with the alternative lighting of a kerosene lamp outside each tent.

Day 2
It rained quite heavily during the night, which resulted a in a couple of traffic jams the next day with vechiles bogged

gluggy roads meant bogged vans

The more the merrier

on the one lane dirt track. Isaac seemed to be adept at making his way through the gluggy bits without getting bogged, though it did make for an exciting ride as the van slid around on its way through

Then we started seeing animals galore. Far more than I expected, and much closer than I expected. Impala, giraffes,


and two male

lions.  The lions were only about 15 metres from the road (and us).  We continued on a little further to see some hippos, and then quickly backtracked to find a lioness with three cubs that had been located by another group. (The guides pass information along to each other with mobile phones. ) Actually seeing the animals in the wild was a surprising buzz – it was over too soon.

The afternoon was the boat cruise up the Nile towards Murchison Falls, with crocodiles, water buffalo, birds, impala and of course more hippos. We drank our stubbies of Nile beer on the Nile River as close to the Murchison Falls as the boat could safely get.

Drinking Nile brand beer on the Nile

Day 3
Walking around the falls. The falls aren’t particularly high, so it was relatively easy to view them from the top and the bottom. What makes them impressive is the volume of water, which throws up clouds of spray as it hits the wall of the narrow gorge on it way down to joining the Nile. Then returned to Kampala. On the way back we stopped for some unknown reason in what seemed to be a small village, where a group of about 20 children on the side of the street looked at as curiously.

We were parked behind a large truck with many people on board, and saw some sort of altercation. One guy seemed to be getting thrown off the truck. Others in his group started punching and kicking him. This continued even though the guy didn’t make any attempt to defend himself. Then a machete came out. By this time I was in ostrich mode – sitting in the van with my head down on my knees pretending that if I didn’t look nothing was happening and feeling terrible. Eventually the machete was put away, and the guy was tied up with a thick rope into a little ball with his knees tucked up under his chin. Then they picked up their bound human parcel, threw it back on the truck, and took off. Our driver Isaac saw some of it and then walked away. I asked him later what it was all about – he just shrugged and said he didn’t know.

After the truck went on its way the children (who saw the whole incident) resumed as though nothing had happened and gathered around looking at us looking at them. One of our group had balloons, which we blew up and gave away. They were very excited by them, though more interested in hanging on to them than playing with them.  Good fun.

The Bus Trip From Kampala (Uganda) to Kigali (Rwanda)

Friday night and still no visa for Rwanda, and in spite of my efforts to contact a bus company, still no booked bus seat for trip to Kigali. There was a brief moment of joy when I got a phone call at about 8:00 pm on my mobile with its Ugandan sim card and an african gentlemen calling from Rwanda told me my visa had been approved and been emailed to me, but it didn’t arrive. He said he would resend it, but it still never arrived.

I still had no idea how to get a bus to Kigali, and thought I would end up wasting Saturday to find out, and then travel Sunday. That would have meant getting to Kigali late Sunday, and missing the informal introductions part of the conference on Sunday afternoon and evening. Not the end of the world, but disappointing. Plan B was hatched by my co-travellers from the Murchison Falls safari. Two of them were catching a 5:30 am bus to Kabale, which is close to the border of Uganda and Rwanda. They had a taxi already booked to take them to the bus station. I could join them for the 6 hour Kampara-Kabale leg and it would probably be fairly easy to find a way to complete the trip from there (another 3 hours on top of the 6 hours to get to Kabale)

My phone alarm for the early start didn’t go off for some reason, although correctly set, so it was sheer luck that I woke with nine minutes to grab my prebacked bags and sprint to where the others were wating for the taxi at4:45am. The bus station was chaotic, and it turned out that the intended 5:30am bus wasn’t happening – Saturday was Uganda’s independence day, and the bus that would normally do that trip was booked for the day’s festivities. No-one had thought to mention that when the trip was being organised on Friday. Off in the taxi to another even more chaotic bus station and purchase tickets for 3 on a bus leaving at maybe 7:00am, maybe 7:30. No chance for the desired option of luxury class bus travel – our bus was going to be an un-airconditioned basic crowded coach. Maybe we could have a cup of coffee somewhere while waiting for the bus? “No – get on the bus and grab a seat, because there will not be enough seats for everyone on the bus. Vendors will come and sell things through the windows later.” So we sat and we watched and we waited, and bought more water and some things that were like large fried scones for breakfast from the window vendors.

There was plenty of activity around us, so the watching was actually quite interesting. A little after 7:30 and the news was that we had to change buses, as there was a problem with our bus. Sophie’s small backpack was stored in the rack above her seat, but simply disappeared before she could retrieve it. In the delay of trying to find it she missed out on a seat in the next bus, so we had two seats for the three of us. Sophie stood for a while in the bus stairwell. Someone asked her why she didn’t get on early enough to get a seat, and when she explained what had happened someone produced a small three legged stool for her with a small cushion on top and put it at the front of the bus right beside the driver (and us – we were right behind the driver)

Sophie's stool. The cardboard underneath was already there to reduce the heat from the engine

And so we travelled and read and dozed (Sofie eventually upgraded to a seat beside us when some passengers got off) and watched the African version of countdown on a wonky TV, which seemed to be divided into four vertical panels, with the third panel completely white instead of displaying an image.

It turns out that Kabale is 20km from the border – the only way to get there is by taxi. Once at the border there is a bus to Kigali. In the general discussion with the taxi driver I learned that his four children go to private school, because the standard of teaching at the free public schools is not very good. In the schools all lessons are held in English – the problem apparently is that in the free schools the teachers themselves often don’t speak english very well.  Was school expensive? Yes very expensive – 400,000 shillings a year. (Remember the 700,000 I withdrew for the safari plus food and another night’s accomoodation when I first arrived in Uganda for my cheap 3 day safari?)

At the border I was directed to an office where I had to produce my passport and have it stamped – all without a hassle. I was
celebrating how easy it all was when I found I needed to produce my passport again for entering Rwanda. Moment
of truth and trepidation. “Where is my letter of introduction?” I produced the first one with the wrong dates on it. “Yes, that is
what I need. You pay me $60.”  I don’t think he even looked at the dates on it. The bus to Kibali was already at the bus station right beside the immigration office. The official put my passport and money down on the desk and looked after other customers. Eventually he passed my passport to another section. I waited and watched the bus anxiously. Eventually I asked when I would get my passport back, as I wanted to catch the bus. “You wait. Be patient” I waited
as patiently as I could, figuring that debating with officials is probably not a wise policy. I was still patient when the bus left. “No problem – you walk to next check point, it will be there.” I walked with a very insistent tout who wanted to help carry my bags. The bus wasn’t there. Back to the first checkpoint again, and directed to a derilect minibus (like a maxitaxi with four rows of seats in it) that is going to Kigali. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to squeeze 19 people onto a van, but it can be done, and apparently here it is considered normal. I was sitting alongside a window – I swear I could feel the sides of the minibus flexing and bulging as people moved around.  The ride cost 1.5 francs – there are 600 francs to the dollar.

So it was a crowded trip to Kigali, but through beautiful country. The early part of the trip was a wide dirt road that that tested the suspension of our overloaded van to the max, and probably a little beyond. After that it was paved highway on well made roads that could be Maleny/Montville. Very scenic countryside – lush green, lightly forrested, and very hilly.  Another taxi ride from the depot in Kigali and finally with considerable relief I checked into a basic but comfortable enough hotel room where the conference is being held. Made it!

Once in Kigali, apart from negroes being more common then caucasian, it could be any clean modern Australian town. While Uganda was cultural shock territory, here in Kigali I have difficulty remembering it is Africa and not home. There are paved footpaths, modern buildings and houses, lawns and gardens with hibiscus and other plants that we grow at home, and plastic bags are forbidden.

First day at Kigali

The good news is that the hotel has wifi and a huge satelite dish on the roof. The bad news is that although I can get the wifi connection, even with 4 bars out of 5 it doesn’t actually connect to the internet. Mostly I’m writing in anticipation of finding a connection that works later on. It is frustrating though not to have any way of letting people know I’ve safely arrived. My international SIM card says it’s out of money even though I’ve only made two short calls to what turned out to be wrong numbers. I can’t recharge it without going on the net, and I can’t get on the net, so all I can do is hope that internet connection improves.

My room has an ensuite, floor tiled with 15 inch offwhite tiles, a cupboard with two wire coathangers, a wall mounted TV and a very elegant computer desk, but no chair.  There is a two drawer chest of drawers which contains a Gideon’s bible in German, French and English, and two packets of condoms (four in each packet – what a night!).

Breakfast is supposed to be provided with the room, so at 7:30 I wandered out to see what I could find. There was an american looking gentleman I would guess in his early eighties sitting on the verandah with his laptop, so I asked if he had an internet connection. He said yes, and I said I couldn’t get on, would he mind helping me and went back to get my laptop. Returned to the verandah with the laptop and continue the introductions – yes he was here for the OLE conference, and it turned out his connection wasn’t good enough for email either. More smalltalk and we went down for breakfast together. The voice was vaguely familiar enough to have me checking my appalling memory for faces – I began to suspect that I was having breakfast with the guy who is the creator of OLE. Curiosity got the better of politeness – “are you the guy in the video?” “Yes I am.”  So we had a leisurely breakfast discussing all sorts of things from American politics and its current economy (well mostly I professed ignorance and listened for that one), Marx and Mandela, and what would be the ideal education system.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such an interesting breakfast.


  1. Paul Heff says:

    Thanks for the fascinating post. What an adventure you are having! Overloaded broken down buses, boggy roads, machetes, beautiful wild animals, corrupt officials at borders? What next?! What a lovely end to your story, meeting up with the creator of OLE. Nice one!

  2. Sue says:

    Wow, Marg – I can’t believe this is all happening to you – so different from the lives we live – much of it has sounded very beautiful – the rest rather scary. I trust the conference is rewarding and that you continue your adventure and it’s great story safely. XX

  3. Marg says:

    I can’t believe it’s happening either. I think I’ll leave my return back to Uganda to the last possible day, so I can be picked up by Herman, my contact from the volunteer teaching crowd. This time I’ll be able to get a good bus that goes all the way in one go. I’ve had quite enough adventure for the moment and I think my overworked guardian angel is entitled to a break.

  4. Cath says:

    Goodness! This trips sounds craaaaaaazy and bloody wonderful at the same time.
    And I don’t mind admitting I was quite relieved to hear from you after a couple of days silence!

  5. Diana says:

    Hi Marg – am thoroughly enjoying and loving reading your expert descriptive writing of your African adventure. It is really good so try and keep it going and will be a very sophisticated story by the time you return. I can picture so much of it all. Traveling in Africa is unique – I laughed at the idea of having a coffee when waiting for the bus! Anyway, it sounds wonderful and as I didn’t even know you were contemplating such a trip, am still having trouble with its reality!!! Well done and am looking forward to where it will take you. Sounds as though you may have found a niche for yourself. Take care. Keep writing and don’t drink the water (I know you know that). I was warned to double check seals on bottled water to ensure they were not refilled bottles. Love Diana

  6. Jenny Hefford says:

    Hi Grandma!
    I like all of your photos! I think they are great! My favourite is the Giraffe. Have you seen a Tiger? I love you. Goodbye Grandma. Love Liam xxooxxooxxooxxooxxoo

  7. Marg says:

    Hi Liam,

    No I haven’t seen a tiger – I don’t think they have tigers in Africa, but I have seen two father lions that were very close to the road and to us. The we saw a mother lion with three of her children. I tried to add the photos to the blog but it was too hard to do. I will email them to you.



  8. Jenny Hefford says:

    Hi Grandma,
    I love all of your photos. My favourite one is the elephant! Have you seen a Cheetah? Did you ride on one of the trucks that you sit on top of? Is it hot in Africa?
    Love from Lori xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

  9. Marg says:

    Hi Lori,
    I think it would be huge fun to sit on top of a truck but it’s probably also dangerous, so no I haven’t been sitting on of a truck.

    No cheetahs. We did see some more elephants today, you might be able to read some of the story for yourself. Mummy will show you where to find the story.

    Today we saw some more children. They don’t have very many toys to play with, but they still have lots of fun.

    Lots of love,

  10. Jenny Hefford says:

    Hi Grandma. I can’t do it Mum. Nothing else. Love Lucy! xxoo 🙂

  11. Marg says:

    Hi Lucy,

    I’m sure you can do it if you try. Why don’t you have another go?

    There are lots and lots of big animals over here.

    Lots of love,

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