The pearl of Africa – Uganda

We crossed the border bridge to enter Uganda and it was busier but still very quiet. Mainly though it was men in yellow vests wandering around, the vests identified them as being part of a money changing association. They seem to be individuals that are legitimately allowed to change money. The quietness were we later today was because Rwanda and Uganda have recently had a spat and closed their borders to each other and normal use of the border has yet to return.

One of the money changers indicated to us to park outside the building but with no other vehicles there and seeing some cars parked lower down we chose to ignore him. As we got out a friendly guard told that we should park where the guy had indicated as customs will need to come out and inspect the vehicle. Super helpful he also pointed out a guy that could help us clear the vehicle if we wanted. Knowing the process here is simple we just replied with ‘thank you, but it’s ok we know who to clear it.’ Which he just happily accepted.

Parked in the right place, outside the building is a bag scanner: the guards on that helpfully told us to go in clear immigration and the vehicle and then come back and put all our luggage through the machine. They told us to leave our small bags in the vehicle but given they contain our valuables they never leave our side. We simply asked if we could scan them now as they contained our paperwork and they happily agreed and switched the machine on. It looked new and wasn’t part of the process other travellers have reported where a thorough vehicle search is done by the police. The bag scanner said ‘China Aid’ on the side.

Next outside the building doors we had to show our passports and covid vaccination proof at a table. Inside the hall it was as quiet as the Rwandan side. With no queue as the immigration a guy took our passports and e-visa documents with a smile and then him and the woman next to him swapped people they were serving and we were passed to her. We realised it was because the machines they needed were close to her.

The guy said to us ‘Welcome to Uganda’ and the woman that served us was dancing to her own beat as she stood behind the desk. She got out the ‘online visa labels’ but then got stuck so called what appeared to be the boss who came and calmly talked her through the process. The labels were scanned and then hand wrote on before being stuck in our passports. Lots of stamps and different pieces of paper later and we were in. As she handed them back to us she said to Marie, ‘I notice your birthday is soon, happy birthday in advance’ (we’d forgotten this). We liked Uganda a lot already!

At the customs window there was again no queue and just we explained we wanted to bring in a Tanzanian vehicle (figuring the officer would be less familiar with them) and said we are not sure what you need but here is the log book, the registration card, the letter from the hire company as the owner giving us permission to take the vehicle out of the country, our COMESA insurance document and our confirmed departure from Rwanda document. He only needed the registration card and depart confirmation document, typed something on his computer and then came out to inspect the vehicle. He checked the registration plate and the 3 stickers that the company had put on the window for us and back to his desk he completed our temporary import form, signed it, had us sign it and we were done. No charges again thanks to the East Africa customs rules.

Back to the vehicle the guard had changed. All he wanted to scan was big luggage, so thankfully we didn’t have to get all our random bags out, just our 2 rucksacks and we got out our bedding bag and cooking pot bag to show willing.

The money guys had kept asking us if we want to change and one in particular wasn’t buying our answer that we didn’t need to change. We needed more cash than we had got. Once though the gate we intended to try and get SIM cards and having not got fuel at all in Rwanda 1 of our 2 tanks was starting to get pretty low. We prefer to keep them they both full only for the reason of fuel isn’t cheap and fuel stations take cash not card, so a big fill would mean paying out a big wad of cash and both reinforce that we were rich foreigners but also if we were seen by anyone dubious could make us a target.

Before we left we changed US$100. At the exit gate the guard just wanted the Rwandan exit confirmation and we were free to go.

We went all of 30 yards and parked up amongst the cars and trucks by the street booths. We quickly found the phone network one and then got SIM cards. It’s a bit of a process in East Africa as rules mean you can only have 1 so you have to give your passport, and then in a first we each had to have our photo taken holding the SIM card and then we had to wait for them to be registered (which usually takes a good 10 mins). Marie stayed with the vehicle when not needed and Emma at the stall. The guy had clearly done it many times and knew exactly what to do. He also had quite a bit to say about Rwandans and not much was favourable. Marie had a number of people speak to her and some simply said ‘welcome to Uganda’ only one asked her for a bit of food or money and he wasn’t persistent.

When we finally hit the road (the left side!) we already liked the vibe of Uganda. Rwanda wasn’t our favourite, beautiful and some people are friendly and helpful but on the whole it was the people that detracted from it for us, and in Tanzania people are bored and everyone stares at you as you go past. Uganda felt much more laid back.

Our next stop was fuel. Still not having all that much cash we put 30 litres in so the low

tank was healthy again. The female pump attendants were super friendly and genuinely curious and wanting to engage. This is the Africa we know.

Before too long we hit the town of Kabale. It felt like a proper African town, busy but with people going about their business. We passed an overland truck and they waved. Knowing we’d need more cash and this was the biggest town near the border we headed to an ATM. We could literally park outside the bank. Better still on the way we saw shops that sold blankets and we’d been wanting to buy a blanket since Tanzania but not seen any. So after the ATM we drove a little further down the road and got a thin blanket for NZ$7.50.

Then we stopped at a fuel station and filled up the rest of the tank. A proper western service station it had a shop attached and also sold oil. A few days ago when doing our regular, every few days, vehicle check our oil looked like it had gone down a bit and in Tanzania and Rwanda we hadn’t seen any, so we bought a small bottle to carry with us and better yet the shop did coffee. Not the best coffee but given we’d had none that day it did the job. We got out of town and then pulled up by the side of the road to drink it. A couple of children walked past and started talking to us. It was a really nice engagement, eventually they asked for ‘500’ (about 20 cents NZ) but when we replied with we don’t give people money they just carried on talking anyway.

We’d identified a few options for campsites at varying distances away. The road wasn’t busy and we’re back to a normal African wide road with people and cyclists and motorbikes ceding to bigger vehicles. It was an enjoyable drive and nicely warm but not too hot. The clouds kept building until ahead we could see heavy rain. Heading straight into it we hoped our slow wipers would do the job.

It was torrential, the road turned into a stream and visibility was shite. If there had been somewhere to pull over we would but next to the road was a ditch so we carried on. We were soon through it but the clouds remained.

We had intended to go a few hours East to a lake, we expected to be there late afternoon but 2.5 hours after getting fuel and air in our tyres (via a rare modern digital compressor, having had them very manually done earlier in the day via an old school compressor when we heard more air go out than in) we decided we’d travelled far enough and around 20kms earlier we’d past the sign for a lodge that did camping. We decided to turn back.

It was just as well as another rain shower started and our windscreen wipers stopped working, and more unhelpfully they were stuck in the up position. We pulled over in a town, google told us it was likely to be either a blown fuse or a blown wiper motor. We located the fuse box in very awkward to get to place in the driver’s footwell. It didn’t match at all the fuse diagram we’d googled, at some point it has been replaced. While it rained Marie started to pull out each fuse one by one. They turned out to mostly be African fuses – already blown with fuse wire bridging the 2 wire prongs. As far as we could tell all the wire looked ok.

The plan became wipe the window, jump in quick and drive until we needed to pull over, jump out, repeat the process as many times as required. The problem was that required being able to wipe it well, we needed an improvised squeegee. We couldn’t find anything that would do a good enough job, so Marie took one of the wiper heads off, but the risk of the metal end of it cracking the windscreen on one of the bumps was too high to leave.

When at the elephant incursion camp by the Serengeti the crotch on Emma’s bed shorts fell apart. They’ve had a good life but she was sad to loose her soft cotton and have to sleep in a normal pair of travel shorts. Marie mercilessly decided they’d make great cleaning rags and set to them with a knife. Now the rags proved their usefulness as one got wrapped around the wiper arm end and tied on with string.

Thankfully after the first ‘squeegee’ the shower eased quite quickly so we got to the lodge turn off much quicker and easier than expected. A narrow and bumpy 4WD track led us up the hill, through banana plantations. Luckily at every junction it was signed.

The lodge turned out to be lovely. Set in beautiful gardens there was a main lodge building and heaps of huts to sit outside. Tiered on the hillside the small campsite area was first above the lodge and then the rooms were on the tiers behind. The toilets and showers for the camp and garden were down a level, set in the trees.

The woman that owned the place had lived in the UK so spoke perfect English. She had a mechanic she used and called him for us and booked him to come up first thing the next morning. While the hire company will sort out any vehicle issues and if the vehicle can’t be fixed will get a replacement to us within 24 hours we were hoping it was quick fix so we’re happy to pay the mechanic fee to look at it and diagnose the problem. We got coffee and then set up camp before having a lovely dinner in the garden.

It was a calm night albeit with light showers (that sounded torrential on our tent canvas) and would have been blissfully quiet if one of the neighbours across the valley didn’t decide to have a party. Not super loud it was just annoying and was still going at 4am (on a Monday night).

As we got breakfast the mechanic arrived. He quickly confirmed it was the wiper motor that had broke, so we needed another. He could get the part but when the price increased by X6 we decided it was a cost for the hire company. Super helpful and pragmatic when we called they said if you’ve got a mechanic and he can fix it we’ll just pay him to do the work. The woman from the lodge connected them and they took care of it from there. What we didn’t know though is how long it was going to take for him to get the part and replace it. We figured that by the time it was done it would be late in the day and not worth us looking to move on. We settled in for the day having decided to stay a second night.

With a bit of wifi and a small amount of phone signal we did some planning. We also sorted out some photos and tried to catch up with some blog writing.

The weather was lovely and by lunchtime we decided that we may as well take the opportunity to do all our laundry. No sooner was it all washed than the clouds started to gather and the wind picked up as they got increasingly dark. We got some lines set up in the vehicle and no sooner had we got it all in and hung up than a thunder storm started. It didn’t warm back up for the rest of the day’ leaving us with a bunch of soggy laundry. Thankfully though the rain had passed by bedtime and it was the blissfully quiet night we’d hoped for.

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