Arusha, Tanzania to Kampala, Uganda (bus rides from hell) 6

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After I finished my hike up Kilimanjaro, I went back to Arusha, in order to sort out my next move. I had intended on going on to Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater to do some more wildlife viewing, but changed my mind after getting a couple prices quoted. I opened up my guidebook, took a look at what sort of time I had available, and spontaneously decided to go to Uganda. I’d heard great things about how beautiful it was and I also wanted to make one last effort at securing a permit to go and see the mountain gorillas in Brindi Impenetrable National Park.

There have been a lot of long bus rides on my trip. I have gotten quite used to them, and in many respects to quite enjoy them. But this one was brutal.

Map between Arusha, Tanzania and Kampala, Uganda

Arusha, Tanzania to Kampala, Uganda

By the look of my map, the distance between Arusha, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya is less than 200 miles. The road goes around Mount Meru, the second tallest mountain in Tanzania, up to the border crossing and then straight up to Nairobi. There, the bus would drop off and pick up some passengers and proceed due west to the Uganda border and then onto Kampala, which is 660 kilometers, or about 1,050 miles.

To give you an idea of how bad the road was — using road in its most liberal definition– between Arusha and Nairobi, it took about eight hours to transverse those 180 or so miles. We made less than 25 miles an hour. Until we got to the outskirts of Nairobi, not an inch of the road was paved. Gravel. Potholed. Pretty brutal.

The bus to Nairobi was completely full. I had the good fortune of sitting on the side of the bus where there were only two seats – the other side of the aisle had three seats. I had the misfortune of sitting next to a woman that must have weighed close to 300 pounds. She boarded the bus with her dinner, a large container of fried chicken. Lest I forget to mention, there was to middle arm rest in our row for the convenience of some separation. At least she exited the bus in Nairobi.

The bus left around 5 p.m. from Arusha. It was supposed to leave at 3 p.m., so in ‘Africa time’ it wasn’t that late of a departure. As I said, mid-way on this leg of the trip, we had to go through the border formalities between Tanzania and Kenya.

Exiting Tanzania was simple. I’m likely to jinx myself, but exiting every country so far has been easy. My slight complication on entering Kenya was that I needed a double entry or multi-entry visa to Kenya. I was merely transiting through Kenya this day on my way to Uganda, then I’d be reentering Kenya a few days later to come back to Nairobi and head north from there.

When I got to the counter, I explained to the guy working there that I needed a double entry or multi-entry visa. He said that wouldn’t be a problem and that although the normal fee was $50 U.S., he’d ‘do it for twenty-five’ as a favor to me. Well, wasn’t that nice? I thanked him and he shuffled off with my passport and my $100 bill to do his paperwork.

He came back with my passport and showed me the visa that he’d pasted in there. He also handed me back $50. I said, “I thought you were only going to charge me $25?” He said, “yes, its $25 for you, but its also $25 for me.”

Now that is a guy that should be employed on Wall Street to do some creative accounting. Actually, given some of the revelations of the past few years, that is where he might have gotten his training.

The money part was fine, but I was much more worried that he’d given me the wrong visa. The visa was clearly labeled “Single Journey Visa.” I’d been clear that I needed a multi-entry visa. I asked him a couple times if this visa would allow me to enter more than once and he told me that it was a multi-entry visa and that I could enter Kenya as many times as I wanted for the three months it was valid. There was absolutely nothing on the face of this visa that indicted that – I figured that he’d just charged me the multi-entry visa price, given me a single entry visa for his internal accounting procedures, and pocketed the difference in price.

But he did it with a smile.

We got to Nairobi around midnight and shortly set off for Kampala. I had made a horrible strategic error in what I brought, or didn’t bring, on board the bus. I’d forgotten to take my sweater out of my backpack. I really don’t know what I was thinking. It was quite hot when we left Arusha, but I knew that the bus was going to be an overnight bus. I also knew that we were going to be going to higher elevations in Kenya and Uganda, which meant for cooler temperatures.

The good news was that the bus was more than half-empty on this second half of the journey, so I could use both my seats to squish in a fetal position to try to sleep. The bad news was that the windows on the bus didn’t all properly close all the way. It was cold. Not freezing cold like the air conditioned bus I took from Capetown to Windhoek (so cold on that bus that I was wearing a sweater, jeans, wool socks and boots and couldn’t sleep), but still pretty damn chilly, especially in a T-shirt.

Add to that a crazy bus driver, who apparently received some monetary bonus to drive as fast as humanly possible – much faster than the road conditions would warrant a sane man – and it wasn’t the best night I had spent on a bus.

Side note: You remember that I’ve said that one of the ways I rate a country is on how many pictures of its President adorn the walls of businesses? You can add a much, much more basic measure – the state of the roads. How the hell some of these countries think they are going to make any economic progress with roads in these conditions is beyond me.

Twice, I got thrown out of my seat. I think in an earlier blog, I’d mentioned that you generally don’t want to sit in the front of the bus, because that is the most dangerous place to be in case of a wreck. On the other hand, if the roads are really bad, you don’t want to be in the far back of the bus (where I was this time), because you are going to be right over the back axle and subject to the biggest bouncing effect. It was like a trampoline in the back of this bus.

The first time I got thrown out of my seat, I was tossed up into the air as the bus braked as hard as it could. So, I went up and the bus slowed down rapidly. Me up. Me forward. Me into the metal seat back in front of me. Then me falling to the ground between the seat in front of me and my seat. The second time, I almost made it over the seat in front of me. I managed to wake up in the middle of my unintended high jump and grab the top of the seat back in front of me, so that I didn’t vault over into my neighbor’s lap. Not sure which one of these exercises imparted the bruise that I got on my left bicep, but it was quite a nice one.

Getting tossed about occasionally was one thing, but the roads on this second part of the journey were actually much better than the first part. The ride was mostly smooth enough that you could get some sleep in occasionally – and that’s where the cold part kicked in. Like I said, it wasn’t really cold, but between the breeze coming in from the windows that wouldn’t close properly and the temperature, it was tough to sleep.

But there were some newspapers lying around the floor of the bus. Time to improvise. I’m not sure what movie I’d seen this in, but I saw the newspapers and knew it was time to pull a hobo trick. My movie addiction does have some useful purpose after all.

Time to use the newspapers for insulation. And as blankets.

So I added a couple layers of newspaper insulation under my T-shirt, laid back down, and then pulled some of the papers over me as pseudo-blankets, to partly cover up my exposed arms. They kept blowing off me, but I eventually came up with a solution that involved sleeping on my side and holding the newspaper in place between my back and the seat. If I didn’t move too much (or get tossed about because of the road), the papers would hold in place long enough to let me catch a few winks.

I got to Kampala Sunday morning, took a cab to a nice hostel mentioned in my guidebook with two things I needed: a bar and internet. I’d made the decision I was going to take 24 hours off, drink too much, and waste time on the internet. Recuperation time.

In my book, I’d deserved it.

Postscript – the Kenyan visa did end up being a multi-entry visa. I didn’t get charged again a few days later when I reentered Kenya from Uganda. Suppose I should have more faith in bureaucrats. . . well, now that I think about it. . .

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

6 thoughts on “Arusha, Tanzania to Kampala, Uganda (bus rides from hell)

  • Anonymous

    Glad that you made it to Uganda. One of my favorite African countries–even though I got pick pocketed there! That road b/t Nairobi and Kampala is terrible. I was tipped off by some expats that had just traveled it when i was in Kampala. I took a super cheap flight from Kampala to Nairobi and skipped all the bumps and and never ending road. You may have stayed at the same hostel in Kampala that I did. It was on the edge of town.Scott Lauck

  • Anonymous

    Glad that you made it to Uganda. One of my favorite African countries–even though I got pick pocketed there! That road b/t Nairobi and Kampala is terrible. I was tipped off by some expats that had just traveled it when i was in Kampala. I took a super cheap flight from Kampala to Nairobi and skipped all the bumps and and never ending road.

    You may have stayed at the same hostel in Kampala that I did. It was on the edge of town.

    Scott Lauck

  • marc

    I think it was a single entry visa, but single entry visa allows you to leave abd re-enter if you went into an eac country. So yes he did rip you off. yes

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