Travelling around Uganda is easier than you think. The main roads of the country are indeed well made, decently paved and cover a good part of Uganda. There’s a fair amount of traffic of cars, buses and boda-boda in every single town and village. And a brand new highway runs from the international airport in Entebbe to Kampala, with flowerbeds and fancy overbridges. I’m not sure of the need for it, but it surely gives a very good first impression to the ones landing in Uganda for the first time!
Obviously, as soon as you leave the main roads, there’s another kind of pavement. Unpaved, with bumps and holes, dusty (or muddy!) ways that the locals like to call “the African massage”.
As it often happens in certain countries, the conditions for travelling in Uganda are based on a simple choice:
If you pay, you can get what you want, where you want, pretty much when you want it.
If you adapt, you can get pretty much what you want, where it’s doable, when it will be possible. But at a really good price.
Let’s see what are the options for travelling around the Pearl of Africa, the beautiful Uganda.
Boda-boda: short trips
Boda-boda, the most common transportation means and winner on my personal “happiness in Uganda” list. It’s a motorcycle with the function of a taxi. It’s perfect for short trips, with a long seat that can legally host 3 persons, including the driver. Women often sit sideways, with both legs off to one side of the motorbike. They can clearly transport groups of children, entire families, goods, animals… (alive!)
It’s all about balance and practice. At the beginning I thought “how on Earth can they fit in so many on that seat?” I used to overtake slow boda-bodas, with three adults and their luggage, or with long wooden logs, buckets, chairs, dozens of children… Then one day I took a lift with another adult and a girl. The four of us, including the driver, were following another boda-boda that was taking home the brand new ceramic WC we just bought. Rare emotions.
Prices and booking
Boda-boda’s trips have pretty much fixed rates: town-town, town-out of town, one passenger, two passengers… Once you get how the prices work, you don’t even have to bargain the run. “I need to go to the market. 1000 shillings. Can you take me there?”. Usually, the drivers agree with a nod of the head without wasting much time. Sometimes they try to get something more simply because your skin colour is different from theirs. The classic tactic of walking away and asking the same question to the next motorbike makes them usually change their mind and take you where you want to go.
To get a ride, you just have to stop a random one or pick one at the “boda-station” at a corner where they stop to chit chat to each other.
But if you are staying in a small town for a few days, I suggest you stick with just one driver, asking for the phone number. Dealing with the same person over and over, there are fewer chances to be ripped off or cheated. Remember that even if you call well in advance or book your ride, your boda-boda might not be on time. African feel of time is different. If they say they will come at 10, it doesn’t mean they are going to ring your doorbell at 10 for real! They might show up at 9.45 if they are free then, or maybe at 10.20 they call saying they are coming. Maybe.
Another advantage of befriend a boda-driver is that he might think you look trustworthy enough to lend you his bike for a quick ride. The African way: without helmet, a long skirt on a dusty unpaved road.
Shared taxis: mid distances
To go from town to town, let’s say when you have more than a few kilometres to go but still not hours-long journeys, the best choice are the shared taxis. These are minibus for 12-15 persons (plus luggage) on fixed routes. You can find them in every town and village and I have no clue how to understand where each of them is going. I’ve been told that they do some kind of sign, coming close to the usual stops. But I’ve never spotted anything, it’s some kind of legend for me! Without the help of other passengers, I’ve never been able to get on one!
Every taxi is organized with a driver and a helper. This last one opens and closes the sliding door for the passengers, takes payments and deals with stop requests.
To get on a taxi, you need to signal when it’s getting closer to your stop. The prices depend on the distance. You pay, get on saying goodbye to privacy and social distancing and, if you want to get off, you try to get the helper’s attention.
It’s an experience you should try, but never if you have big luggage with you. Goats are fine, they will place them on the bus roof. No kidding.
Long journeys: private drivers and buses
So far, I haven’t talked about private cars as an option to move around. In reality, travelling in Uganda by yourself is not that complicated, as far as you stay away from Kampala traffic, one of the worst hell on earth I’ve seen.
If you don’t have your own car, for long-distance trips you can choose between private drivers and buses.
Private drivers are the most common and comfortable choice. It’s also the most expensive, obviously. You can trust a travel agency, especially if your plans include a safari in a national park or you want to see mountain gorillas or chimps.
If you simply have to travel from one town to another one, ask someone with local experience, like expats or your hotel. Try to talk directly to the driver and agree on a price. It doesn’t always work out, honestly. It did happen to me more than once that the driver didn’t show up and I have to find a last-minute solution, like the cousin of the friend that happens to have a car and he’s free right now.
Plan B (or the emergency plan!) always goes through boda-bodas: ask a random rider. He surely had a friend or a family member with a car that can come to pick you up.
For long distances, buses are the alternative to private drivers. All the main towns in Uganda have a bus station with multiple daily runs, especially from/to Kampala. In the capital there are actually two different bus stations, grouping the buses by company and by destination.
These buses are decently reliable and very cheap. Comfort is clearly not their highest quality! I tried Link Bus, which serves western Uganda, and YY Coaches, to go East. I strongly advise against this last one. There were paying passengers sitting in the middle of the aisle for hours and the ticket vendors change the prices of the tickets depending on the colour of the passenger’s skin.