Driving to Masaka

The day started auspiciously enough…. An early morning thunderstorm swept over the city. With flash and crash it woke up all of Entebbe, rain pouring from the tin roofs, the rumble lasting until dawn. Awakened I stepped out onto the covered porch to enjoy the storm, recording some audio of the thunder and rain.

Masaka Road
A street in Masaka, Uganda

The day had a simple plan, after a minimal recovery from jet lag we would drive to Masaka and the school where we would be staying. A few hours of sleep and I was ready for the challenge of the day, and it would be a true challenge.

There would be four of us… My father, Christopher and Andrew, pastors from Zambia also attending the conference, and myself driving.

The storm had knocked out power to the city. I took a cold shower and packed my stuff by flashlight. My father’s hearing aids another issue, I gave him a charged power bank to charge these absolutely necessary bits of kit.

The lack of power seemingly no hindrance to the lodge staff as they served up a nice hot breakfast. Typically British fare…. Toast, egg, banger, a roasted tomato, and proper tea. Memories of England again coming to mind as they would so often this trip.

Sitting in the small lodge driveway was a green Toyota Land Cruiser, delivered as arranged the driver ready with paperwork for a rental. This would be our ride for ten days.

The typical Ugandan love of official paperwork…. Two rental agreements to fill out and sign, a passport and Hawaiian driver’s lisence examined, a stack of US hundred dollar bills in payment, a quick briefing about the vehicle and it was ours, at least for a time.

The first thing was getting used to left hand drive. Uganda as an ex-British colony retains this left side standard. Actually I only needed to become reacquainted with left hand drive, as living in England for three years meant I was not new to this side of the road.

The only real issue was having the turn signal and wiper controls reversed. I was forever turning the wipers on when meaning to signal a lane change. In contrast to most of the vehicles around me I was a bit foreign in insisting in using my signals, a mark of a well trained US driver.

The road conditions were not a complete surprise, the general flavor much like I had experienced in Central America, pretty much exactly as expected. A swirling free-for-all of heavy trucks and motorbikes. Fleets of motorbikes, swarms of motorbikes, I was alternately passing bikes along the side of the road, or being passed by the bikes with bigger engines or more daring drivers.

Daring they were, weaving in and out of the larger vehicles, sometimes plunging headfirst towards oncoming lorries only to swerve aside at the last moment. All I could do was try to drive steadily with no sudden maneuvers to catch a cyclist by surprise. Being extra careful anytime I moved to the left to check for a motorcycle in my blind spot alongside.

While the motorcyclists seemed to respect me, or at least respect the large Toyota Land Cruiser I was driving. I got no respect from the taxi drivers in their standard issue Toyota minivans. They pushed through hard while I was a bit more circumspect. They would pass at any slight opportunity, taking their passengers on that wild ride into oncoming traffic, motorbikes scattering out of the way.

The lack of respect from the taxis may have had something to do with the big “Tourist Vehicle” decals in the front and rear windshields of the Land Cruiser, something I suspected is required by law to mark rentals, much as the US requires student drivers to be clearly marked. It was a bit of a scarlet letter, boldly proclaiming my inexperience in Ugandan driving etiquette. I did my best to disprove that mark.

Line for the ferry at Nakiwogo, Uganda
Line for the ferry at Nakiwogo, Uganda

Starting off on the journey we attempted to take the Nakiwogo ferry across an arm of Lake Victoria. It was a very short drive from the lodge to the ferry, and the lodge staff had confirmed the ferry was a good choice. It was not to be, the line we found for the ferry was long enough to fill several runs of the seven vehicle capacity including several lorries and military vehicles. After a pleasant conversation with a local official and a military officer who were also waiting we took their advice and decided to make the hour long drive around through the outskirts of Kampala.

This detour led to the next major challenge, a set of four large city roundabouts. Here I would have to negotiate yet another massive swarm of motorbikes and correctly navigate each, choosing the correct exit every time. As it turns out four roundabouts without a single road sign indicating where anything went, not that I could take time to read any signs, my attention completely on the traffic around me.

Did I mention that Google maps is utterly fantastic? I had taken a good long look at our route through the outskirts of Kampala, carefully noting the roundabouts and counting the exits. I had also gotten a local SIM card while at the airport the night before for an old iPhone, with data access I could navigate. This worked perfectly, making the last exit I proclaimed we were on the Masaka road. Correctly as it turns out…. Victory!!

Our journey along Masaka Road would be several hours of intense driving, through small cities and towns, alternating with green swampy regions to cross, essentially branches of Lake Victoria off to the east. Huge beds of reeds with small channels reminding me of the movie African Queen. Passing motorbikes and lorries, taxis blazing past me, I adapted to the rhythm of the road, slowly figuring out some of the local etiquette.

There was a large military and police presence along this arterial road. We passed through multiple checkpoints, mostly waved through, but once being stopped. A polite and relatively friendly soldier checked my license and waved us on.

We mostly drove straight through, stopping only twice. Once for drinks and snacks and once where we crossed the equator. We chose a service station shoppette for our snack supply. A selection even more surprising inside…. A gleaming store with smartly dressed staff, a stark contrast to the usual local shops of concrete plastered in advertising with mud parking lots. A young lady trailed behind us with a basket to carry our selections, cashews and juice for dad, a package of biscuits and coke for me, fuel for the driver.

Fred and Andrew Cooper at the earth’s equator along the Masaka Road, Uganda

The equator is a major landmark along the Masaka Road. Big concrete zeros on both sides of the road mark the exact line. My phone agreed, as I stood just a few feet north of the zero Google maps showed latitude 0.0003. We took obligatory photos standing in the zero to mark the occasion, this held some significance, this being my first trip south of the equator.

It quickly became apparent that we did not have a good location for the school, our final destination. We had made it to Masaka, but where to from there? The solution was to talk to a few of the local motorcyclists hanging about on a downtown street. They seemed to be available for hire, and indeed they were, locally called boda boda, a cheaper form of taxi than the usual Toyota minivans I had been passed by all the way.

With a local guide hired we were off. I followed a bright pink helmet through the swarm of local traffic. We quickly left the city for the countryside to the south. leaving the main highway the chase became another form of wild ride along dirt roads. Rainy season was clearly eroding the road and turning bits into small swamps.

Years of driving backroads in Arizona were put to the test. The small motorbike ahead slipping though the muddy ruts and potholes with ease, our guide wearing his motorcycle as if born on it. The heavy Land Cruiser plowed through behind, my passengers a bit concerned with my speed and seeming disregard for the condition of the road. I was having fun!

Students at the Good Samaritan school near Masaka, Uganda
Students at the Good Samaritan school near Masaka, Uganda

After 35km of muddy roads we arrived successfully at the correct destination. A smiling and deserving guide well paid for his services hopped on his bike for the run back to Masaka. I pulled a mud spattered Land Cruiser onto a playground with dozens of kids, welcoming staff, and a trio of minivans. The rest of the attendees had arrived just before us, unloading luggage and talking about the drive to Masaka. I wonder if they passed me on the way.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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