If you have had a chance to visit some of the biggest cities around the world, you will probably have taken a tour of such cities on their sightseeing buses. Well, Kampala recently joined the league of such cities by introducing, for the first time, a double-decker, open-top sightseeing bus.
The streets of Kampala are often crowded with people and motor vehicles, making it difficult to manoeuvre. The bus tour offers tourists an opportunity to see a bit of this and that, information that will roll you back to Uganda’s journey before, during and past colonial rule. Like changing the face of tourism in the city.
Take off point is BMK House on Wampewo Avenue in upscale Kampala. I am welcomed by Ssebulime Twaha, the lead guide. He is pleasant and vibrant. We sit upstairs on the open roof and chat about his work. This bus sits 64 passengers, but only 20 people booked the shift that I am part of.
“We follow international guidelines. Even if one person has paid for the tour, we take them and on time,” Twaha assures me when I become suspicious that the trip might be cancelled if the other passengers don’t show up.
Eventually, they all arrive; children, adults, foreigners and locals. Using a microphone, Twaha immediately starts to explain, in English, what to expect on the tour. He gives background information behind the naming of every road, monument and building along the way.
A CITY ON SEVEN HILLS
The story of Kampala is like a musical when told by someone who knows and understands it well. The kind that makes you want to sit by a bonfire or snuggle with a friend. Twaha uses the original seven hills on which the city was built as the setting for his narrative, which he tells in a lively and calculated manner. No wonder the tour is gaining popularity amongst local and foreign tourists!
As we approach Nakasero – the hill of baskets, I notice that people on the streets keep staring at the bus, some waving, others sending greetings, loudly. The place is a mix of down and uptown life, with many traders and office buildings.
By the time we arrive at Mengo – the hill of grinding stones, we have had the opportunity to learn about the various kings of Buganda and how each one’s reign made the kingdom either stronger or more susceptible to colonial rule. You will be stunned to hear the tale behind the incomplete work on Kabaka’s Lake, the largest manmade lake in Uganda, dug in 1885 -1886. There is a small entrance fee charged for the tour of the Kabaka’s palace in Mengo where, the intertwined history of Buganda and Uganda is told. Tourists are not allowed inside the palace, itself a replica of Buckingham palace in England, but there is plenty to see outside.
From the picturesque well-manicured lawn, accessorised with the remains of the vintage cars (Rolls Royce, Bentley and Cadillac) that belonged to Kabaka Muteesa the second, to the armoury that was later turned into the infamous torture chambers (reminiscent of a not-so-glorious time in Uganda’s history) by President Idi Amin.
The ensuing stories about Buganda’s clans told en route to Bulange (Parliament of Buganda), past the Ntawetwa monument, will leave you intoxicated. St. Mary’s Cathedral is the most prominent attraction on Lubaga hill – where plans are hatched. This is the home of the Roman Catholic faith in Uganda. The cathedral is built in the likeness of the Notre Dame in France and has been visited by three popes.
On the next hill (Namirembe – mother of peace) sits St. Paul’s Cathedral, the oldest Anglican Church in Uganda. An idyllic vantage point to see other sites in the outskirts of Kampala, for instance, Kasubi Royal Tombs, the burial grounds for the kings of Buganda, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Centre stage is Kampala – the hill of impalas, also commonly known as old Kampala. It is eclipsed by Gaddafi Mosque – renamed Uganda National Mosque in 2013, the second biggest mosque on the African continent (after King Hassan Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco) and the most visited site in Kampala. Yes, it is worth the hype.
Make sure to pay the entrance fee (UGX 10,000 or $3 for Ugandans and UGX 15,000 or $4 for foreigners) to enter the mosque (a convergency of many cultures from different countries) and ascend the tower. There are hundreds of stairs to brave to get to the top, as there’s no elevator, but that’s a small price to pay for the 360 degree panorama view of Kampala.
Apart from a few misplaced gendered jokes, Twaha sticks to explaining things and supplying anecdotes about every place on the itinerary, without being repetitive. I am therefore excited when he informs us that we are going to my alma mater, Makerere University, the most significant feature on Makerere hill – it’s dawn. It is however disappointing that the tour is a drive through from the western to the main gate. The guide points out a few statues and outstanding buildings, chronicling the number of East African Presidents who have been through the university. With that, he has our full attention. We want more, but it’s too late. We are already at the exit.
The conversation has shifted to other sites that we are not able to visit, such as the Baha’i temple – visible in a distance, the only one of its kind on the continent. As we go past the university town of Wandegeya to the Uganda museum, I realise that it is the perfect place to tie together all the pieces and loose ends of Uganda’s story.
Kololo – alone is the last of the seven hills. It boasts of the independence grounds, embassies, homes of dignitaries and several restaurants and night clubs. It also affords you a scenic view of the affluent parts of the city and on a sunny day, you can see Lake Victoria peeping in the eastern direction. Our tour ends where it started, five hours later.
- The bus is comfortable and shields you from the sun and rain.
- It is safe to take pictures without worrying about drifters on the streets snatching your phone or camera.
- Eating and drinking is allowed on board but your ticket will not come with a light snack, as advertised. You can carry your own or grab a coffee on the go at Café Javas on Namirembe road where they make a five minutes health break.
- Dress appropriately. Kampala’s weather changes several times in a day, without warning. Wear something light and carry a sweater, since it is often above 20 degrees.
- Ensure you have enough time to complete the tour. If you have a flight that day, plan accordingly. Even though the tour is supposed to last about four hours, it often takes longer than that, depending on how heavy the traffic is.
HOW TO BOOK A TOUR
- You can book your ticket online firstname.lastname@example.org, call +256393276488 or visit www.kampalasightseeing.com.
- The costs vary depending on nationality. East Africans pay UGX 100,000, or an equivalent of 30 dollars, whilst other nationalities pay UGX 150,000 or 40 dollars.
- There are special rates for families, students and groups.
- The bus currently runs two shifts, one at 9am and another one at 2pm.
- They also offer experiences of Kampala by the night, transportation to neighbouring towns of Entebbe and Jinja and host parties on the bus.