Entebbe is mostly remembered for a dramatic hijacking in the days of Idi Amin. Now it’s a sleepy backwater, writes Ben West…
When you mention the word Entebbe, most Brits who’ve heard of it can only think of the 1976 hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of an Air France aeroplane. The dramatic rescuing by Israeli soldiers of more than 100 mainly Jewish passengers resulted in the deaths of more than 40 Ugandan soldiers. Uganda was at that time mired in terror, the country governed by notorious dictator Idi Amin. He complicated the rescue due to his support for the hijackers.
Things are rather quieter in Entebbe now. Indeed, it’s a great spot for a blissful few days, and far too many travellers rush through it, not realising what a great place it is to visit. It’s a tranquil backwater built on the shores of Lake Victoria that’s so different from the colourful, chaotic, traffic-choked capital, Kampala, just 37 kilometres away. The air is clean, the streets are safe to walk, and the old colonial gardens and parks help create a peaceful atmosphere.
(By the way, if you fancy a change of scene and want to visit the big smoke, a minibus ticket to Kampala will set you back around 2400 Ugandan shillings, or 48p. For that you’ll get a glimpse of a mind bogglingly lively African capital city. It’s about an hour away in light traffic, two when very busy, although a new expressway between the two cities, which opened in June, should reduce the average journey time to around 30 minutes).
If you’re flying to East Africa there’s a good chance of you ending up at Entebbe as it’s a sizeable regional hub as well as home to Uganda’s only international airport. The Entebbe of today is best described as a friendly, sleepy town with a smattering of low key sights. It has a lovely mid range hotel, the Boma Guesthouse, perfect for getting your bearings after a long flight and before you embark on safaris, gorilla watching and all the other typical tourism fare Uganda is known for. It’s not sort of the place to be if you want wild nightlife, a gastronomic odyssey or high-end shopping.
The town once served as Uganda’s capital city during the early years of the British protectorate. It sits on the shores of Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest body of fresh water.
It has a handful of hotels also include The Karibu, a pleasant boutique property about a ten minute drive from the airport. But almost certainly the most delightful is the 16 bedroom Boma also near the airport, a charming, characterful, tastefully-restored colonial homestead. It has a comfortable guest lounge, a good poolside restaurant and leafy, relaxing grounds with an exotic array of birds.
Borrow a bike from the hotel to cycle to the nearby Ugandan Wildlife Conservation Education Centre. Operating both as a zoo and animal refuge, most of the animals you can see, including chimpanzees, lions, zebras, crocodiles, giraffes, hyenas, southern white rhinos, leopards, a young elephant, serval cats, and aviaries with fish eagles, weaver birds and shoebill storks, were either recovered from traffickers and poachers, or were once injured.
You can sign up to be a zookeeper for the day (US$150 adult, US$70 child), take a behind-the-scenes tour (US$70, US$35 children) where you can enter some enclosures and meet the animals, or sign up for a chimp encounter (US$290, health clearance required), and there’s on site accommodation: bandas (circular, thatched-roofed huts), serviced apartments, and dormitory and camping options.
You can stroll around the nearby Entebbe Botanical Gardens amongst the chatter of birdsong (such as hornbills and Marabou storks) and vervet and colobus monkeys. The Gardens were laid out in 1898, and the rainforest section featured as a backdrop to scenes from the 1940s Tarzan films featuring Johnny Weissmuller. Botanists will be disappointed that few signs labelling the contents remain here, but for everyone else it’s a pleasant diversion to walk amongst flora, having the place probably to yourself, against a soundtrack of exotic birdsong and if you’re lucky, weird transparent and black butterflies will surround you for company.
There’s a colourful Saturday market, and a small reptile park, which although keeping the animals in captivity, encourages locals to bring live captured snakes instead of killing them, and catches snakes that may be causing a nuisance locally. There’s also a golf course, East Africa’s oldest. Ok, none of these attractions can compete with the likes of The Great Wall of China or the Grand Canyon, but that’s the whole point of Entebbe.
The nightlife, a handful of lively bars and clubs, is surprisingly boisterous for such a sleepy town, probably due to the relatively large ex-pat population, ever-changing coterie of travellers and wealthy locals. You can take a cruise along Lake Victoria and watch the fishermen in canoes bring in the catch of the day. You can’t swim in the lake because of a presence of bilharzia.
However, it has several inviting beaches, most with white powdery sand. One, Aero Beach, features some aeroplane wrecks, which certainly is a change from the usual. Further information Boma Guesthouse (+256 772 467929; boma.co.ug); Karibu Hotel (+256 777 044984; karibuguesthouse.com); Ugandan Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (+256 414 320520; uwec.ug; entrance US$15 adults, US$10 children); Entebbe Botanical Gardens (+256 414 320638)
Note: fellow BGTW member Hilary Bradt found herself in Entebbe, during the hijacking in 1976. Her account of her experiences is at: https://hilarybradt.com