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Uganda seen through the eyes of young Americans

Many tourists rely on the services of tour and travel companies, who are usually found online.

But with so many fake companies online, how does one get the right tour operator that will leave him/her with a lasting and memorable experience?

One of the most reliable websites where travellers run for travel information is Trip Advisor. The site reviews and rates tour and travel companies around the world, making recommendations to travellers. For Uganda, the website has twice ranked African Adventure Travellers as one of the best tour and travel companies in Uganda. For this reason I recently chose to go on a trip with the tour company.

I tagged along a group of American girls from Her Passion Ministries, who had been in the country for seven days doing charity work at a girls’ orphanage in Nansana. And as a way of winding up their work, they wanted to visit a national park. From Total Matugga where I waited at 7am on a Thursday morning, I could see several tourist cars heading north. I kept looking keenly not to miss the African Adventure Travellers’ cars.

Unfortunately, I still missed them because they were not branded. They drove several metres past me, before turning back to pick me. Apparently, because it was peak season, all the company’s branded cars were on safari, forcing the company to hire two silver grey Super Custom vans. I had been reserved a front seat in one where I enjoyed talking to Moses, our driver and guide. One of the girls was asleep, others were reading as we set off. From Kampala via Masindi, we had a short stopover at New Court View hotel in Masindi at 11am.

We then hit the murrum road to Kichumbanyobo gate, 90km from Masindi town. The majority of the girls were in Africa for the first time and the bumpy and narrow roads were a shocker for them.

“I had never been on such bumpy roads. For us, even the dark roads are not as bad as this,” said Alisa Malone.

But once we arrived at the Murchison Falls national park, all these memories were erased. Everyone was excited as they jumped out of the cars to take photographs, as Moses explained that this was just one of the many gates of the park.

“This is the biggest park in Uganda. The park covers an area of about 3,893 sq km,” said Moses.

Of course, the figures may not make much sense, but to demonstrate how big this park is, the distance between the gate and the ferry, where tourists cross River Nile to the northern side of the park is about 90km – think of driving from Kampala to Jinja, all on one side of the park. Shortly before reaching the ferry, we branched off to drive to the top of the Murchison falls. Time permitting, many tourists prefer to trek up the falls from a boat that drops them at the bottom of the falls.

But still, driving up was such a wonderful way to start our stay, with the girls awed by how the mighty Nile squeezes into a narrow gorge from which it explodes, cascading downstream. But given their tight schedule, the guides had to rush them along, to the disappointment of many who were still enjoying the scenery. We had to catch the 1pm ferry to cross to Paraa safari lodge for lunch and then be in time for the 2:30pm boat cruise.

Unfortunately, we still missed the ferry. Yet the next ferry was scheduled for 3pm. We had to hire a boat, leaving our cars behind with one of the guides. Fortunately, Paraa had sent cars to pick us. We had our delicious buffet quickly and were in time for the afternoon cruise. What really surprised me was the girls’ excitement to hear we were on River Nile.

“The Nile! Oh my God, this is something I just read about in the Bible, and have heard about all my life,” one of the Americans gushed.

Somehow at the falls, it had not crossed their minds that we were on the River Nile. All they had asked about was the name of the falls, which they could hardly pronounce and easily forgot. Why did we even have to change some names of our national parks? Wasn’t it because we thought these names easily related to foreign tourists?

But perhaps not! In fact, the girls were much more eager to know more about the Nile and Kabalega than about a former president of the Royal Geographic Society. But back to our safari; we had an afternoon boat cruise on the plush African Queen boat, taking three to four hours to get to the bottom of the falls. There was so much wildlife to see but the hippos were the most fascinating as they briefly came out to sunbath.

“Hippos don’t sweat, that is why they keep in the water. In the evening, they move up to 6km looking for food,” the boat cruise guide told the girls, who were seeing hippos for the first time in the wild.

The birds were plenty; the African fish eagle evoked memories of the American eagle. The African jacana bird also enjoyed the sky as we passed the Nyamisika cliffs, with their stunning and beautiful clay and sandy soil. The warthogs got everyone’s attention with the way they respect food by kneeling before eating.

The giant crocodiles scared the hell out of many that by the time we got to the bottom of the falls, all the tourists feared to get out of the boat and onto the rock in the middle of the river to take photographs. On Friday morning, we woke up at 6am for the early morning game drive, which for many of the girls was the pinnacle of the safari.

We got to see elephants crossing the road, giraffes feeding, but the highlight was finding the lions. You could think there was nothing else in the park but the lions. The two lionesses that were relaxing near Lake Albert were besieged by several safari cars, with all tourists getting out their best lenses for photo shoots.

“The safari has been awesome. I am in Africa for the first time and seeing the animals in real life, outside the zoo, is amazing,” one of the girls, Kim Powers, said.

“The driver is wonderful; very informed. You could ask him questions and he responds. He wanted us to be on time and kept us on schedule. I came here with the impression of African time but it wasn’t the case. Everything was on time.”
What was most impressive for Powers was seeing the Nile.

“Just because it is the River Nile; the fact that it is in the Bible, and it’s famous. It’s one of the seven wonders of the world that you would want to see. You see crocodiles elsewhere, but there is only one River Nile,” she noted.

Gradi Ellis, a graphic designer from Tennessee, said she had been to some water falls in the United States but “nothing is as fascinating as Murchison falls.”

“The way [the water] comes down and thrusts in the rocks, I had never seen anything like that,” she said.

The trip coordinator, Diana Goodwin, praised Uganda for its services.

“It exceeded expectations. I had never been on a safari in Uganda; only in Kenya. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect but the service was great; the transportation was very reliable,” Goodwin said.

“One of the things we look for is, can we trust the company; are they reliable and will they get us there safely? And they have exceeded all that. We have enjoyed our trip.”

On comparing Uganda with Kenya, Goodwin said: “I think Kenya is just well-known for its safaris but the service here is at par with Kenya, and Kenya doesn’t have boat cruise safaris.”

On what should be improved, Goodwin said: “I wish they had something like a book or brochure that they could give you when they pick you up at the hotel so that you read about where you are going, like about the Nile where it starts and where it ends.”

About African Adventure Travellers

Owned by Robert M Mulindwa, African Adventure Travellers began four years ago, specialising in creating exciting adventure trips.

“We have served our clients in this competitive atmosphere through our expertise of handling adventure travellers. Our trips offer Uganda’s most impressive wildlife experience,” says Mulindwa.

Mulindwa joined the tourism business in 1997 when his mother, a descendant of Mutesa I, took him to Kasubi tombs. It is then that he picked interest in the sector after seeing tour guides such as Amos Wekesa bring tourists to the site. Mulindwa went to Old Kampala SS for O-level and Nakasero SS for A-level (1997 and 1998), before joining Buganda Royal Institute for a certificate in business administration.

But before he could finish the course, he went to South Africa for a tour guides training courtesy of Mbonisa Cultural Concepts. A few months after he came back, he decided to go to the UK for kyeyo but things were not as rosy as he expected, forcing him to return home and go into tourism.

He first started a company called Mamaland Safaris, and later, African Adventure Travellers in May 2010.

“To be successful in tourism isn’t easy,” Mulindwa says. “When we started, we didn’t get a single [contract] the entire year. I was almost closing. I didn’t have money for rent and paying the office attendant.”

But with consultations, he was able to realize that it was his website failing him. He changed it and was able to start getting short safaris in his second year. Later, tourists began inquiring whether his company could do long safaris.

“My first long safari was 11 days with some American guy. It went so well that he reviewed us on Trip Advisor. That is how other tourists started trusting us,” Mulindwa says.

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