As our world becomes more urban, I often wonder if it’s possible to get a feel for a country without seeing its capital when travelling. Cities offer a different perspective on daily life, unique opportunities for entertainment, as well as a bustling and exciting environment. That being said, cities can also present a certain set of challenges and this was most evident during our trip to Kampala.
Kampala, a different kind of jungle in Uganda, with the Mosque in the background
After spending so much time in Uganda’s countryside, Philip and I thought it right to make our way to Uganda’s largest city, Kampala. We had spent our first week and a half in Uganda with a guide/driver organized by Amagara Tours and had passed through Kampala’s infamous “jam” but had otherwise not seen much of the city.
As I’ve written before, the guided tour experience comes highly recommended and Amagara offers a good quality budget option for safaris and gorilla tracking in Uganda. That being said, I do typically prefer a more DIY style of travelling so after our last stop on the tour, our driver Bosco dropped us off at a bus station and said goodbye. He seemed more nervous about leaving us than we were about leaving him which I thought was rather sweet.
His worry was well-placed as the bus did break down on the way to Kampala, just as Bosco had warned us could happen, but it only took a couple extra hours so weren’t too flustered by it.
I recalled bus stations being extremely chaotic in Bamako, so I warned Philip that we may be rushed as we stepped off and made sure to keep our belongings close as we got off the bus in Kampala. Instantly, there was a swarm around us of taxi drivers offering to drive us to the hotel which the guidebook said was just a short jaunt from the station. We enquired about prices as the swarm tried to remove our backpacks from our shoulders. One guy was asking the equivalent of $30 CAD for a trip to a hotel that we could see from the station. We dug our heals in, grabbed onto our shoulder straps and marched out of the station while trying to ignore the touts as much as possible.
Although Aponye Hotel was visible from the station, figuring out how to get there on foot proved a little more difficult. As we paused to get our bearings, a man approached us and offered to walk us there. The man made small talk while sipping a beer and then informed us owed him $5 for the escort once we reached the hotel. We hadn’t realized that he expected to be paid for this, so I handed him a 2000Ush note and walked away. Thankfully, he didn’t follow us any further.
The hotel proved to be a nice respite after the eventful bus ride and hectic station experience and the restaurant served up the best french fries that we had in Uganda. After a good night’s rest, Philip and I left the hotel to tour the city on foot, hoping that we would be able to find our way back ourselves.
Our first stop was Oweno Market, where second-hand clothes from Europe and North America are sold to Ugandans, since some believe that “used from Europe is better than new from China.” They might be on to something there. Unfortunately, while leaving the market, I felt someone tugging on my purse, I’m assuming to get at my wallet. As I turned around a young man pulled his hand back and smiled flippantly at me and I was glad that I was using a locked, Pacsafe handbag.
From there we headed toward the Gaddafi National Mosque. There are not many mosques in the world that will allow non-Muslims inside, so we were keen to check this one out. As we paid for our admission, the attendant fished through a box of headscarves to find one that matched my outfit. Once her selection was made, she helped me into it and we began our tour around the mosque.
I think she chose well
Putting aside its unscrupulous origins, the building is beautifully decorated with exquisite tiling and paintings, but the highlight is definitely the 500m climb to the top of the minaret where you can have a 360 degree view of all of Kampala.
Kampala from the top
View from another direction
Kampala from another direction
After taking in the beautiful sights from the top of the minaret, we continued our foot tour of Kampala. We checked out a few more markets and a mall before eventually making it back to Aponye for more of those awesome french fries. Sadly, they were out of potatoes so I was denied that treat. We ordered some Nile Specials to our room instead and sat on the balcony watching the city life unfold below. As we reflected on some of the challenges we had faced in Kampala such as navigating in a big, strange city, dealing with touts and almost getting mugged by the market, we couldn’t help but be moved by the tremendous kindness of most of the people we met. The attendant at the Mosque who made sure my hijab matched my skirt, the ladies who sold us our limes with a smile, and even the men who apologized to Philip when he stubbed his toe on an uneven sidewalk. As much as Kampala could be overwhelming at times, it still featured a lot of the same things we loved about Uganda.
Also, being back in a busy African city make me think back on my time in Bamako and on how much I missed the people and frenetic energy there. There were many challenges to living in Bamako, but I was there long enough to learn its vibrant rhythm and to carve out little places that felt like home to me. Kampala reminded me that you can never truly leave a place that you’ve grown to love despite the challenges.
Kampala had me feeling Bamako-sick, but then I found a little Bamako in Kampala
Kampala had similar energy to Bamako; it was lively, bustling, colourful and loud. It had its differences too, but we were only there for 2 nights so we hardly had any time to get to truly know the city. That being said, I think it’s always worthwhile to spend time in the bigger cities of the places we visit, even if the main attractions are elsewhere, because each city has its own rhythm and pulse and feeling the beat is an experience in and of itself.
Having felt Kampala’s heart beat over 2 days, we set off on a bus to Bugugali Falls where we would try whitewater kayaking for the first time which was a whole other adventure set to a different rhythm.