What you need to know:
- As last count, out of the 70 million tourists who come to Africa each year, only 1.5 million choose Uganda. At least 70 per cent of those came from immediate neighbours, including Tanzania, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).
- Uganda hosts about 100,000 overseas visitors per year. You have to wonder why given the country’s beauty, weather, hospitable people, geographic location and proximity with hubs like Addis Ababa, Dubai and Johannesburg.
Many visitors to Uganda transfer to west-bound Toyota Land Cruisers and helicopters as soon as they hit Entebbe, thus missing out on the fun in Kampala and elsewhere.
For one, the city of endless hills is home to an open secret: nightlife. Fun lovers come in numbers here for good times. Revellers are dressed to the nines. Some are in tight-fitting outfits and others expose lots of flesh. But who cares. The mood is good.
Such is the scene on a midweek warm night in April when a bunch of conference delegates – some on their first visit to Uganda – ends up at Mezo Noir, a lively upmarket club in central Kampala.
The club’s menu includes cool tunes and vibes and well-priced beverages. The ambience is priceless.
So, what is meant to be a 30-minute pop-in-and-go-quick-stop extends for a lot longer than anyone cares to look at the clock. Instead, the priority at this hour is to sample Kampala’s delectable nightlife. On the 1s and 2s at Mezo Noir is DJ 4BY4.
As if a magician, he keeps swaying the revellers to all four corners of the globe and back: cue Pallaso and his ilk, Davido and the Afrobeat legion, some R&B, a bit of hip-hop, throwbacks to the 1990s, and liberal helpings of Amapiano. Club anthems define the atmosphere. The dancefloor seemed to mimic Davido’s feeling of the juju and chuku chuku oh.
As any stat-spitting government official and industry player would readily note, Uganda is the capital of primates (making this the land of Big Seven, when you include gorillas and chimpanzees). This is a big deal, a catalyst for inbound tourists who in turn add millions of US dollars to the economy annually.
But, before heading to the west, home to Rwenzori and Bwindi – two of three world heritage sites in the country (the third is in Kampala) – catch a slice of Jinja. It is well-placed as the starting point for those keen to explore Uganda.
Boda-bodas and matatus, some gaudily painted, hurtle the streets of Jinja, ferrying denizens across the city, the source of the White Nile. Though relaxed, Jinja’s pulse typifies that of many other African cities in the eastern and southern parts. Easy-going and pumping at once.
Clad in black, tourism police are on standby to lend a hand. Nigerian-based destination agent Waka with Debbie calls Jinja “Africa’s bucket-list headquarters” as it boasts a host of “authentic, mind-blowing experiences.” Counting in its favour, the city is plainly affordable as a destination regardless of one’s budget bracket.
Meanwhile, the equally unpretentious Kampala remains East Africa’s capital of fun and nightlife. So, why is nightlife, for one, not sold as part of tourism?
Then there is Nyege Nyege, the region’s biggest festival of its kind that continues to catalyse local travel. That is despite jaundiced views from conservative types. Isn’t it time that Nyege Nyege’s marketing tool was promoted to drive inbound traffic?
Speaking at the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo, communications and PR specialist Sarah Kagingo, singled the festival among low-hanging fruits. So, beneath the fatigued Big Seven banner, there is more to explore.
The problem is under-funded or half-hearted marketing – partly due to poor budgets, as National Planning Authority chairperson Prof Pamela Mbabazi remarked at the same event. The dry north, a region making do with precious little in many ways, receives little incoming tourist dollars.
As last count, out of the 70 million tourists who come to Africa each year, only 1.5 million choose Uganda. At least 70% of those came from immediate neighbours, including Tanzania, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
Uganda hosts about 100,000 overseas visitors per year. You have to wonder why given the country’s beauty, weather, hospitable people, geographic location and proximity with hubs such as Addis Ababa, Dubai and Johannesburg.
If gorilla- and chimpanzee-trekking, and wildlife – bucket-list items that will cost your family thousands of US dollars – are the only tourist attractions that are sold, as religiously, modest-budget holidaymakers are left uncourted.
Western Uganda hosts throngs from across Africa and abroad. Just listen for accents: Chinese, French, German, Indian and Kenyan. It is all protean but the North American inflection stands out.
According to WTTC data, the US is Uganda’s third-largest source market behind Rwanda and Kenya. Six Dutch youths in Mbarara, en route to Bwindi, cannot wait to realise their lifelong dream of gorilla-trekking. Add the stunning Rwenzori to the mix. Its environs’ “glaciers, waterfalls and lakes make it one of Africa’s most beautiful alpine areas”, remarks Unesco.
Heaving a dizzying 5,100m above sea level, Africa’s third-tallest mountain, snow-kissed Rwenzori is a photographers’ delight.
For her part, nature guide Abia Atukwatse highlights the region’s plentiful bird species. For one, Kibale, which my group of 12 gets a chance to explore this cloudy Sunday, is home to many species, no less the pretty green-breasted pitta. Birdsong colours the moments here: so sweet and soothing.
Birdwatchers rate the green-breasted creature highly on their bucket lists, says Abia the guide who fell in love with feathered creatures during her childhood in these climes.
The road from Kampala to Kibale stretches for six hours to Fort Portal behind which is the beckoning Rwenzori, hiding the sprawling DR Congo. At this point, a short distance across the Tooro Kingdom Palace, the road to Kibale branches to the left.
Heading in a southerly direction, the hills and valleys turn more and more verdant. Lush banana fields, maize fields and other fields come in and out of sight.
Craters, mostly deep-green, shyly start to materialise, so do lakes of varying sizes. In the midst of it all, as if to remind you that this is the capital of primates, apes – some with babies – fill the frame: small groups and large bands. They gambol, run and groom each other hereabouts. Yet, some swagger as they cross the road.
In Kibale District
Here, hairier mammals outnumber their 5,000-strong human population. The Kibale National Park sprawls for nearly 800km² – its landmass is equivalent to that of Addis and Nairobi. Dwarfing Kampala City of almost 200km², Kibale is home to 1,500 chimpanzees, hundreds of elephants among other mammals. Birds are innumerable.
So are trees and other plants in this thick forest. Kibale might be so far removed from Kampala and its dancefloors, but the music plays on. This time the singing is sonorous: a red-chested cuckoo starts the verse and the rest of the feather come in.
Many other mini-concerts are on the go. Not to be outdone, Escort’s call solicits a chorus of shrills from fellow chimpanzees. For my trekking party, his shrill was as good as a vocal GPS.
Trekking takes no more than three hours, preceded by a 20-minute guest briefing session attended by some 80 other people who then get split into smaller groups.
Trekking which ends after almost an hour of sighting the first group of chimps in the company of wannabe alpha-male named Escort – takes in posturing, courting, pecking order, preying on low-ranked members and mating (said to happen about 30 times a day).
This mimics a study in biology and politics. The dynamics in the jungle – as explained by Bosco Bwambale, a ranger and guide – reflect the realm of office in concrete jungles where meanness abounds.
The return leg to Kampala exposes a terrain blanketed in green: awesome scenery of craters and crater lakes, lakes of different shapes, valleys and hills.
The north-easterly route to Mbarara and beyond leads to herds of Ankole cattle (it was Nkore before colonialism). Here, men swear by cattle and plantations. The area is home to the Biharwe Eclipse Monument – a tribute to the total eclipse of 1520, a story for another day.
Six hours on, after a short stop at the Equator, for insta, the city lights of the hilly Kampala materialise. Hello nightlife!
Did you know?
As last count, out of the 70 million tourists who come to Africa each year, only 1.5 million choose Uganda.
At least 70 per cent of those came from immediate neighbours, including Tanzania, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).
Uganda hosts about 100,000 overseas visitors per year. You have to wonder why given the country’s beauty, weather, hospitable people, geographic location and proximity with hubs like Addis Ababa, Dubai and Johannesburg.
The writer is a South African freelance writer/editor .