Monday, August 01, 2011

Travelling in Africa with Children, Irish Times, July 9 2011

Florida or Uganda for the kids?

MAGAN'S WORLD: MANCHÁN MAGAN 's tales of a travel addict

WHICH DO YOU think would make the greatest long-term impression on your children, a fortnight in Florida or the same period in Uganda? Is a family holiday in a remote region of eastern Africa even feasible?

Of course, there is the issue of vaccinations and malaria protection to consider, and on top of that there is the anxiety of the unknown. Something within us makes us wary of Africa; resistant to its allure.

I wish I could convey quite how safe and simple travel in Uganda is nowadays. The people are so hospitable that it appears as though the entire country is committed to making life as enjoyable as possible for the few tourists who make the effort to visit. There is always someone nearby willing to help, although if you don’t require their help they will leave you completely alone.

The capital, Kampala, is admittedly a bit chaotic and intimidating for first-timers, and so staying overnight near the airport in Entebbe (a charming colonial resort town on the shores of Lake Victoria) is an option.

This has the advantage of allowing a visit to the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, a vast park for animals rescued from poachers, illegal trade or accidents. It includes an island chimp sanctuary. It’s a great opportunity to get up close to rhinos, lions, hyenas and chimps in large, open-air enclosures that look identical to their natural habitat.

The community tourism projects I visited were all in the southwest of the country – the area surrounding the Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Semliki National Park, the Rwenzori National Park and the Kibali National Park – considered one of the most beautiful parts of Africa and the best area to go tracking chimpanzees and mountain gorillas.

Ucota (Uganda Community Tourism Association) has projects throughout Uganda, all designed to empower poor communities, to help them deal with the challenges of the modern world and facilitate meaningful dialogue between cultures.

The southwest region, as well as being the most beautiful, is also easiest to get to. Ucota can arrange a car for you, but much more enjoyable is to take a bus from Kampala’s central station, where buses to the two major towns, Kasese and Fort Portal, leave every 30 minutes.

It’s a fascinating four-hour journey along a good road through mud villages, papyrus swamps and tea plantations, with a feast of food and drink available right outside your window at every village you stop in – you just stick out a hand and choose from the freshest mangos, hot chapattis, roasted bananas and cold drinks.

To please your children, and as an antidote to the worthiness of community tourism, you could always make a detour to Jinja, 80km east of Kampala. It is the new centre for adventure tourism in east Africa and offers some of the best white-water rafting on the continent, as well as quad-bike safaris, zip-wire adventures over the White Nile, a bungee jump straight into the river, canoe trips on Lake Victoria and riding safaris to the source of the Nile. (See

For accommodation, even if you would never normally consider a hostel or campsite, Africa is the place to do so. There is a shortage of mid-range hotels. Most tourists are overlanders and over the years a fantastic network of hostel/campsites has developed to cater for them; many in elegant colonial homes with extensive gardens. They offer private rooms, dormitories and full camping facilities.

The best such place in Entebbe is the Backpackers Place, set in a nice 1930s colonial bungalow, and if you choose to stay in Kampala, then Backpackers is a fine choice – a large old house in beautifully landscaped gardens, with a bar and restaurant that pulses at night with young ex-pats and aid workers.

A holiday in Uganda can be everything you’d wish for – everything, that is, except Florida.