Budget Tourists Take To OVerland Busses To Explore East Africa
By Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome
Lessening demand for holidays in Eastern Africa from the main markets in Europe, suffering from economic woes has brought focus back on a group of travelers often overlooked, often ignored and often belittled by the mainstream tourism fraternity. Yet, these adventurers are very much part of the tourism scene across the region as those in closer contact with the reality from the ground up can confirm.
Overland truck tours bring in those ready to rough it and in particular local communities benefit directly from cash spent to buy food or pay camping fees for the use of community camp grounds. Backpackers, mostly young people though some older folks also appear to
take to this kind of grass root travel experience, form an integral part of the bigger tourism picture and it is well remembered, that when Uganda emerged from the doldrums of civil war the backpackers and overland trucks were the first to revive a fledgling
No statistics are available from regional tourist boards or national statistical offices how long such travelersspend in the region, but interaction with some of them suggests that many spend an entire semester break travelling across the region to explore the sights,
cultures and wildlife attractions.
Other than coming to and leaving from the region, trips by air are often prohibitively expensive for these young people travelling on a shoe string budget as are mainstream hotels and resorts, but it seems an entire industry has sprung up, making a living from providing affordable, if often not outright cheap options for those willing to forgo the butler and valet services, the concierges and silver service 4 course meals.
Backpackers and Red Chilli in Kampala are the two best known budget hangouts, offering anything between dorm style accommodation to self contained rooms, the quintessential bar and a simple menu in a restaurant which serves square meals filling a hungry stomach but never in the running for a Michelin star rating.
Red Chilli has a rest camp inside Murchisons Falls National Park and budget guest houses as far as Masindi are serving as a base for budget travelers who often put their money together, hire a driver and a minibus and do day excursions into the national park, before returning in the evening back to their out of park lodgings. At the opposite end of the country,
Kisoro too is a good example where these travelers lodge in town and then take local transport to reach the gorilla tracking sites for a day in the woods with Uganda’s prized primates.
These folks crisscross Uganda using public transport while those roaming the region have a number of options to reach neighbouring countries. Every major destination in the wider region can be reached within 12-24 hours from Kampala, be it Juba, Kigali, Bujumbura or Goma, Nairobi or Mombasa, Arusha or Dar es Salaam.
I recently undertook a trial trip to Nairobi on Easy Coach to research close up and personal the pros and cons of travel by road. This company has captured significant backpacker traffic, as it stops enroute, both directions, in Jinja, aka the Adventure Capital of East
Africa. Rafting, boating, bungee jumping, quad biking, cross country cycling and horse riding are just a few of the activities which await these folks, when they get off the bus, met by boda boda ‘riders’ willing to ferry them to the nearby Bujagali Falls. There a number of very affordable hostels and backpacker overnight options exist, some right on the river and others set back a little further. A further stop in Kisumu allows others to get off exploring the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria and pay a visit to President Obama’s paternal homestead
just a few kilometers outside the city at Kogelo, before continuing via Kericho, Kenya’s tea growing heartland to Narok.
There backpackers get off to explore the Masai Mara, again often staying outside the reserve and doing daytrips, crammed into minibuses but seeing the wildlife just the same as those able to spend thousands of dollars and having a 4×4 just for themselves.
Another quick stop at the turn off from Narok to the ‘old’ Naivasha road allows once again backpackers to get off to explore the Rift Valley lakes of Naivasha, Elementaita, Nakuru, Bogoria and Baringo allowing them to tick off Kenya’s latest additions to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and seeing the flamingos, the hotsprings and the magnificent landscapes of the Great African Rift Valley.
And finally the EASY COACH arrives in Nairobi, near the main railway station, from where dozens of taxis or boda boda’s are available to take the travel weary long distance passengers to their hostels or hotels.
The cost of a return ticket is about 50 US Dollars for the 15 hour long trip between Kampala and Nairobi which compares to a regular airfare of about 250 US Dollars return between Entebbe and Nairobi.
Agreed, my usual way to travel is by air and to stay in 5 star hotels, experience the parks in a 4×4 or see it from a hot air balloon and spend the nights in the fancied lodges and tented camps as my many articles on travel across East Africa to our fabulous parks and beaches well attest to. But there are lower cost options and while little is found about it in the mainstream media, guide books like Richard Trillo’s Rough Guide to Kenya really give a step by step explanation of how to explore our region within the resources they have.
Available printed destination guides, like The Eye in Uganda give a huge amount of information but as I was told by those I met, the best resource are the other travelers on the road and what can be learned at the Red Chilli or the Backpackers in Kampala. THERE
the latest information on road conditions, locally available transport options to the parks and the cost is at everyone’s fingertips, often spiced up by personal and very current experience, freely shared including phone, email, FB and Twitter contacts of others met on the road who could be of assistance. It is often these referrals which keep guest houses and their associated transport contacts in business and THAT is money which really percolates down to the grass root levels and provides an income to many families.
As I witnessed in Narok, backpackers were met as they had pre-arranged pick up through exactly such referrals, a sign that social media interaction actually works. with backpackers is easy as they are all keen to hear about places, especially the lesser known ones in our East African backyard. Local SIM cards keep these money wise travelers in touch via smart phone, or through their iPads and Tablets as seen throughout the trip, with instant picture
uploads and answering the questions from those left home.
Travelers are spoiled for choice, some coaches air conditioned, some offering ‘in drive entertainment’ as in music or films by DVD, some offer snacks and water to entice passengers to book with them and others simply get you to where you want to go, no frills
included. Locals are ready to share information on how safe THEY think certain bus companies are, and it is worth listening to them, as after all they are the most regular users
of these services.
Budget tourism exists and is alive in East Africa and in Uganda, and while not exactly the focus of thesis’ and dissertations nor in the cross hairs of the mainstream tourism industry, it is a niche which is doing surprisingly well and seems to bring ever more young, and even older people into the country. An entire ‘industry’ has sprung up around it to cater for their budgets and when all is said and done, their experience of Africa is just as valid and intense as is the one of the 5 star travelers, flying from park to park and staying at the top of the pops
boutique camps or lodges. It is called diversification of products, of market niches and there is not just a place for them all, they are important in their own right.
Hostels, guest houses, home stays, local restaurants and open air grill and beer joints and a transportation system the local people use day in and day out are readily available for those in search of the budget option, aided by a wide range of online blogs providing the latest information about even the remotest places across our region. It was an experience and a half but worth it any time, the very least to share my insight and perhaps encourage a few more to come to the Pearl of Africa and explore our attractions on a budget, and our neighbouring countries too of course.
My message to them, come visit, no matter the budget, because we got the places and there is no time like the present.