Published: The East African Nation media 21- 27 March 2020

I’m super excited to be staying at Via Via in Entebbe, booked by the staff at the New Court View Hotel in Masindi that’s the nearest town from the epic Murchison Falls National Park that boasts the ‘most powerful waterfall in the world’. It’s my next stop.

Reception at Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Welcome to Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Landing at sunset, the papyrus-rich shores of Entebbe on Lake Victoria are ready with local fishers setting off to fish for the night. Jumping into the taxi the drive through town is interesting. Entebbe the ‘seat’ translated from the Luganda word has morphed into a modern city with clean smooth roads and modern malls juxtaposed with colonial-era are-deco buildings. I’m amazed at the change from my last visit 20 years ago when Entebbe was coming out of Idi Amin’s lawless regime.

the epic Murchison Falls National Park that boasts the ‘most powerful waterfall in the world
The epic Murchison Falls that boasts the ‘most powerful waterfall in the world. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Suddenly we’re on a murram road in a local neighbourhood without streetlights and l’m not quite sure if l’ve made the right choice…but the attraction was the Shoebill stork from the time of the pharaohs that’s extinct in its ancient abode as the pharaohs cleared the papyrus swamps to build their magnificent pyramids.

A gate opens to Via Via and l’m charmed by its simple sophistication. The reception is filled with all the community connections around… fashion, art, jewellery, crafts, and of course the Shoebill sail to the swamp which l now read means hiring a boat and then connecting with the local community guide for a tidy sum of USD 85 because l’m all alone. Gulp!

Acomodation at Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Accommodation at Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat

A quick check-in and l’m in my room that overlooks the swamp. Maybe the Shoebill will make a special appearance…but the staff thinks that’s highly unlikely. Instead at dinner by the garden lit to show-off its lushness and boasting colourful turacos and Silvery-cheeked hornbills, we’re treated to a duet by a pair of resident owls.

“After my contract ended in Rwanda working for a Belgian development agency, we were at a loss of what to do next,” tells Lobke Vermeulen the owner. She and her partner Pieter Huybrechts took the time to explore Africa landing at Via Via in Senegal where they learned about the world of Via Via. It inspired the couple who had by now relocated to Uganda where Huybrechts sibling is married to a local Ugandan to start Via Via in Entebbe.

Garden at Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
Garden at Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“We had to come up with a business plan to convince the Via Via headquarter that our project was feasible,” tells Huybrechts.

With a go-ahead, the couple began building. “It happened organically. We built a few rooms and then more.”

The interiors are light-filled with everything locally made and a trio of tents raised on decks for ‘glamping’ by the swamp.

Breakfast at Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
Breakfast at Via Via Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Wandering around the colour-filled garden after breakfast, there’s kick-boxing going on and yoga. Residents walk out for a tour of the neighbourhood to mingle with locals.

But nobody has signed up for the Shoebill safari that would help share the cost. So l opt for the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre or simply called the zoo where l saw the Shoebill for the first time two decades ago.

Things change. On my first visit the zoo was quieter, more natural. The noise as we enter is from a bus-load of school kids having a great time in the swimming pool across the lions’ enclosure. The bored cats look like they have gotten used to the noise including being edged on by the golf course.

The path continues to the chimpanzees ‘island’ circled by water, rescued from the evil trade in exotic pets. It’s an exciting hour spent watching the antics of the great ape, our nearest relative. Two little chimps swing from the branches, tumble over each other and swing right up the trees. A mother suckles her young. With ear-shattering screeches the dominant male and his entourage appear putting on mock fights while a loner quietly pulls a branch from the water’s edge to play with.

Shoebill stork Entebbe zoo. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
Shoebill stork at Entebbe zoo. Copyright Rupi Mangat

A few metres away and I’m at the enclosure of the prehistoric bird in the company of the Grey crowned cranes – both birds on the IUCN Red List for endangered species.

At first l think the prehistoric bird is coming for me – direct. And it’s almost as tall as l am, opening and closing its beak with a ‘clump, clump’ sound. And then l see the reason why. The feeders have arrived. The young women enter the enclosure and toss the tilapia into the pond which is promptly retrieved by the Shoebill.

It’s interesting to watch it eat the fish, tossing it into its shoe-shaped bill, bringing it back out all shredded and red, then tossing it back again into the bill. I guess this was not a bad choice for l now how a Shoebill eats.

Fact File

Explore Uganda on a budget. Places like Via Via https://viavia.world/en/africa/entebbe with 17 others around the world and New Court View Hotel https://newcourtviewhotel.com/ range between USD 25 and USD 50 for a room and breakfast per night.

View from my room at New Court View Hotel i Masindi. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
View from my room at New Court View Hotel in Masindi. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Nairobi-Entebbe flight ranges USD 200 return. Kampala is an hour drive and Jinja 2 hours. A taxi from Entebbe to Masindi, via the new northern bypass (avoiding Kampala) is four hours away at USD 30. From Masindi hire a car for Murchison Falls for USD 50 and spend a day including the boat ride and climb from the bottom to the top of the falls.

Imperial Mall Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
Imperial Mall Entebbe. Copyright Rupi Mangat

You can do many excursions from Masindi such as visit Hoima the seat of the Bunyoro king and visit the royal tombs before entering Hoima where King Kabalega met Emin Pasha and the Bakers in the 18th century. Continue to Lake Albert on the great rift. You can even trek for chimps in Budongo forest at Kinyara or en route to Murchison falls. Or visit the little known Polish church built by the community settled in the forest by the British after the 2nd World War – women, children and old men.

Continue on to Fort Portal, Kasese and Queen Eliszabeth national park to Kampala. From Kampala visit Bwindi Impenetrable forest for gorillas at USD 70 (gorilla permit) for East Africans.

Ideally a group of four helps share transport and accommodation costs.

Kenyans can enter Uganda with an ID card.