There’s only one way to avoid the traffic-burdened streets of Uganda’s capital, Kampala: hop on the back of a boda boda, the city’s motorcycle taxi. The motorbikes got their name from the slang term “border border”, because back in the 1960s and 70s people took motorcycle taxis as a fast, and inexpensive way to cross the Kenya–Uganda border.
Today, boda bodas are still a cheap way locals get around much of East Africa, and in Uganda, they’re essential – except, boda boda drivers are notorious for high speeds and reckless driving, which is why Walter Wanderas began running Boda Boda Tours.
When the 30-year old became a boda boda driver to pay his way through university, he had no idea it would become a profitable full time business. Keeping speeds under control, and carrying helmets for passengers drew him a loyal customer base.
Walter’s curiosity about the sites he drove past every day in Kampala inspired him to learn as much as he could about attractions like the King’s Palace, and now, with a fleet of six boda bodas, and twenty drivers, Walter’s tours have expanded to cover national parks, safaris, and mountain biking, and touring in more traditional 4x4s for the less adventurous.
"organized chaos, or disorganized order"
Despite Walter’s infectious smile and assurances, it was with more than a bit of trepidation that I climbed on the back of his boda boda for a tour. I hate riding motorcycles, so this was a test for both of us; just how much could he calm a nervous rider, and just how much I could trust him. He’d obviously dealt with nervous riders like me. “Don’t worry, we have a spotless record – no accidents in our entire company, and we go less than 40mph,” Walter said patiently.
As we entered a busy roundabout, I looked straight ahead, over Walter’s shoulder, before we began snaking through narrow streets in a neighbourhood that’s usually unknown to tourists. “This is what we call organized chaos, or disorganized order,” Walter said with a laugh. We parked and climbed up a flight of stairs to a local billiard bar to see one of the best views over the city. If my nerves weren’t starting to ease, a sip of Ugandan banana beer would do the trick.
By the time we’d reached the Gadaffi National Mosque I’d loosened my grip, and realised this is the best way to cover so much ground. It would have been impossible on foot or by car within one day. The mosque, built in 2006, and funded by the eponymous Libyan leader, is the second largest in Africa. The entire city, with hills set against Lake Victoria to the south, is visible from the top.
"The country's dark past is still present"
Walter’s favourite rolex stand delivered a delicious typical street meal of warm chapatti, rolled with egg and tomato inside. Chapatti is a foundation of the Ugandan kitchen, thanks to the Indians, who first came in the late nineteenth century as labourers building the railway to Mombasa. Though expelled during Idi Amin’s rule, thankfully, many have returned, to serve up delicious, authentic dishes at the many Indian restaurants in Uganda.
I discovered the country’s dark past was still present at the end of a dirt path on the grounds of the King’s Palace. We descended into a bat-filled cave, where Idi Amin’s torture chambers still stand, three cement rooms, elevated on a platform.
The former president, who ruled from 1971–79, ensured the underground chambers were surrounded by electrified water, to execute enemies of the state. Walter explained that 200,000 prisoners were held in 10x10-ft rooms, crammed so tightly together, many died of asphyxiation. Others tried to escape, only to be electrocuted. There was an eeriness about the place.
We rode to a more peaceful spot, upon yet another of Kampala’s hills. Within 45 acres, sits Uganda’s Baha’i temple, the only one in Africa. Uganda’s Baha’i population has thrived since the end of Idi Amin’s reign, when they too were expelled.
"An escape from the frenetic city streets"
The day was a mixture of crowds and calm. The quiet hills offered an escape from the frenetic city streets, where we found Owino market, Africa’s largest second-hand clothing market. Mountains of colour were lorded over by scores of vendors selling clothing, shoes and electrical goods.
We finished up with a traditional Ugandan meal at a restaurant in Old Kampala. Different dishes were served on one plate, from fresh cassava and cassava bread, to pumpkin, beans, goat, and fish steamed in banana leaves. Vegetarians and carnivores are well catered for in the city.
Need to know:
Tours run for about three hours, but can go as long as six, with no extra charge. Walter tailors them to personal preferences, but we went with his most popular city tour, visiting the original seven hills of Kampala, as well as the others, which now total 23. On weekends, lounge lizards can opt for the after-dark tour of Kampala’s nightlife; the boda bodas are parked, and Walter commandeers a mini-van to cruise the city’s best bars and clubs. You can stay at the Serena Hotel Kampala.