Of our five trips to Africa, none has begun as well as this one.
The flight was on time, and during the final descent, I devoured the sight of the landscape as it emerged in the growing light of dawn. Green, very green, with low hills but few visible roads. This was my first look at equatorial Africa, and it excited me as much as John Wesley Powell must have been felt at his maiden encounter with the Colorado river.
A slight glitch in our pick-up from the airport was recitified quickly, and within minutes we were riding to our guesthouse. I had braced myself to inhale the stew of jungle funk and burning garbage I’ve grown to associate with the developing world. But instead, the morning smelled fresh. In the course of the short ride, I was struck repeatedly by what was missing: garbage, graffiti, any obvious signs of poverty. The town looks rural. Few streets are paved, and even those that are sealed are dusted with the brick-red earth. Scattered pedestrians and an occasional cow strolled down wide byways lined with huge trees and bushes bending with the weight of their flowers. From time to time, we glimpsed verdant, gentle hills and expanses of Lake Victoria, the largest body of fresh water in Africa.
I fell instantly in love with the guesthouse, a large compound composed of cottages and service facilities built around a beautiful central garden. Because it was so early, our room wasn’t quite ready, but we consumed delicious papaya, pineapple, and tiny bananas, then watched the giant resident Rottweiler (Simba) romping with his German master.
Before long, though, we had settled into our spotless cottage and set off to explore the town on foot. The neighborhood ATM spat out 500,000 Ugandan shillings (less than $200) and a jaunty guy in a mobile phone stall put both our cell phones in service and stocked them with 60 minutes for about $17. In the hours that followed, I felt surges of gratitude that we hadn’t raced off to Kampala, Uganda’s reportedly charmless nearby capital, noted for its noisy, often traffic-gridlocked streets. Our map was pathetic, so we got lost, but found our way to an outdoor cafe where we drank passionflower smoothies and ate a bacon and avocado salad, a cheese/tomato sandwich, and good fries. We walked and didn’t glimpse a single other white person. The byways weren’t exactly thronged with Ugandans either, but everyone we chatted with was gracious and welcoming (and spoke English! — long ago the place used to be a British “protectorate.”)
Eventually we found our way to the 5 star (almost deserted) Imperial Hotel overlooking the almost-mystical lake (source of the Nile?), and we wandered through Entebbe’s more-thn-100-year-old botanical garden, a splendid primeval preserve. After rambling for more than six hours, we were too beat to tackle the local wildlife center; the end of the afternoon evaporated in a cloud of showers, email, and cocktails.
Dinner was served at 6:30 on tables out in the garden, and it was wonderful: pumpkin soup and more flavorful avocados, grilled beef and fish fresh from the lake, tasty rice and chapattis and delicate green beans, capped off with fruit crumble still warm from the oven. At another long table, a group of student and teacher midwives from British Columbia celebrated in advance of setting off the next day for six weeks of work and study. We’d chatted briefly earlier in the day with their leader, a decisive looking woman who was here in Uganda for her tenth visit. “This is the best guesthouse in the country!” she’d declared, more than once. That’s easy to believe. Tomorrow Steve and I will depart for Kibale National Park to track chimpanzees and hike in a swamp. But having at least sampled Entebbe, I wish everyone’s first taste of Africa started out as well.