Uganda is the gem of East Africa. After gaining it’s independence from the British in 1962, Uganda’s history has been marred with conflict. In recent years, the country has been experiencing an extended period of calm, allowing people to safely marvel at it’s majestic wonder. The number of people visiting national parks has doubled in the past five years and it only looks set to increase. When a country is this beautiful, it is hard to keep it a secret forever. Uganda offers the chance of safari at a fraction of the cost of neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya, as well as in insight into how Africa should be in a perfect world. Many people have recently been attracted by the possibility of viewing mountain gorillas of which around half of the world’s remaining population live in Uganda. While I am sure that this is amazing, it is not recommended due to the $1,000 US park entrance fee. Most places in Uganda are lush and beautiful. Kampala is an exception to these generalisation and I would recommend avoiding both Kampala and the Somalian border. Uganda is one of the cheapest countries that I have ever been to and your budget will go far in this country.
I genuinely believe that Uganda is one of the most amazing countries that I have visited in my life and it is hard to convey how wonderful it is until you have tried it for yourself. One great way to visit Uganda without spending much money is to find a volunteer placement. This also gives you the opportunity to meet and interact with both local and visiting people. One of the most refreshing things about Uganda is that due to the lack of tourists, you do not get ‘special treatment’ such as increased prices or constant hassle. Instead, you will be met by baffled stares and calls of mzungu which loosely translates as aimless wonderer. In East Africa, this basically means that you are being called a foreigner.
Food and Drink in Uganda
The one piece of advice here is to stay away from Western restaurants. Go local. Look for rolex (filled chapatti) stands where you can feed yourself silly for pennies if you eat simple, or around £1 if you go for the more exotic flavours. Fruit markets offer delicious fresh fruit for a small price. Upon purchasing a pineapple, the vendor will grab a machete and peel and slice the fruit before your very eyes before handing it over. Eating out isn’t much more expensive than shopping in the stores and if you want to sit down for a meal, sit at one of the outdoor restaurants and enjoy the masses of traditional, although slightly bland food that they give you. For drinks, they will allow you to bring your warm coca-cola from the neighbouring drinks vendor or run off to find one for you.
If you want to drink alcohol, the local spirits are served in plastic bags. You won’t find them everywhere, but konyagi (a clear spirit) is often the most commonly available. The varieties of spirits are endless and I once found 15 different varieties in one wooden shack, including coffee spirit, Zap cane spirit, and simba waragi. Beckham vodka was another personal favourite. Typically beer is expensive by Ugandan standards, costing around £1 a bottle and is sometimes warm.
Accommodation in Uganda
Like everything in Uganda, accommodation is cheaper than in most countries. One of the best ways to get cheap accommodation is to look for it when you arrive at a new place because many locations have limited-to-zero internet access. The only downside with this is that there are very few places in which one can stay, meaning that if for some unusual reason they are full, you will be rather caught short. Lots of places offer camping pitches for small amounts of money and carrying a tent also gives you a great backup plan if you can’t find accommodation. I spent my time in Uganda sleeping on the floor of a church during the week and in my tent at the weekends.
Transport in Uganda
Buses are the obvious choice in Uganda. Head to the busiest area of wherever you are and start asking around. You will hear countless explanations of what is the best deal and the best thing to do, but pick the person you like, or the one offering you the best deal. Once you have decided, stick with this person and make it clear to the others that the deal is sealed. If you are travelling in a group, you can easily hire your own car or minibus for a price that is sometimes even lower.
When you are travelling within cities, hop onto the back of a boda-boda (motorcycle) and go where you like. They are cheap, quick, and a lot of fun for short ride. Watch your leg as you mount however, because boda-burn refers to searing your leg on the hot exhaust pipe that is found on one side of the bike.
What to See and Do in Uganda
Go on Safari. Although less big cats than in Kenya or Tanzania, safari in Uganda is incredibly cheap and hosts ‘the big five.’ If you want to see rhinos, you will have to head to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary as it is the only place where rhinos exist inside Uganda. Couple this with a river safari and you will be treated to crocodiles and hippos. Just watch out at night, because I found several hippos wandering through our campsite. In certain parts of the country, you can also see chimpanzees. Do not mistake these with the baboons that attempt to steal your food.
See Nature Untamed. Imagine the Nile compressed into a 7 metre gap, then forcing itself over a 43 metre drop. Not only is Murchison Falls spectacular, so too is the journey to get there. You really feel like you deserve to see something beautiful and you are well rewarded. All my disappointments of Niagara falls from several years earlier (due to urbanisation) were washed away when I set my eyes on this natural wonder.
Do as the Locals Do. Ugandans are friendly and you will be invited to try things with them. Say yes and live a little. Playing 11-a side football, street dancing during a political rally, and partying at a celebration of life (a funeral) were some of the many activities that I engaged in when in Uganda.
Lose Your Inhibitions. Sleep on the floor, drink the murky water (after it’s been treated), and don’t shower for days at a time. Eat the food, drink alcohol from plastic bags, and ride on the backs of trucks or motorbikes. Say yes. Embrace the life and you will learn to love it. Even simple things such as a stale biscuit or a warm soda suddenly become delights. If you get caught out in a storm, embrace it and wash yourself. When it rains in Uganda, it can be intense enough to shower in.
Visit Jinja. The source of the Nile, Jinja, has the opportunity for some of the most amazing white water rafting in the world. This is the one large expense that is absolutely worth it. You can also bungee jump over, play golf alongside, swim in, or go horse riding next to the Nile at this part of it. All of these activities are one off experiences that are worth taking part in, particularly as this is one of the few parts of the river without crocodiles.
Swim and Paddle. Lake Bunyonyi is one of the only lakes that is free from bilharzia and crocodiles, meaning that you can enjoy it safely. The series of islands offer backpacker accommodation, beautiful views from the outdoor showers, and the opportunity of island hopping in dugout canoes.
Walk a Chain of Waterfalls. Sippi Falls is a series of waterfalls along which one can walk (with a guide if needed). At certain points, rainbow rings appear in the spray and you can take a natural shower. The plains below the falls permit expansive and wonderful views for miles around.
Closing Remarks on Uganda
Uganda is a beautiful country and very close to my heart. It was on a whim that I chose to go, and for that decision, I will be forever grateful. I hope that one day I will return to this beautiful place and if you visit in the meantime, enjoy it, treat it well, and keep it safe for me.