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African beats: Wheelchair adventure holiday in South-West Uganda

by Lieke Scheewe

Lieke with the Ugandan Rwenzori Mountains in the background

Hi, I'm Lieke. I'm 21, live in Holland and in March 2008 I travelled to Uganda for a holiday. It was quite an adventure as I have a muscular condition that means I am unable to walk and have reduced strength in my arms. I use a Quickie2 MSA manual wheelchair (66 x 83 x 93 cm) and this is the story of my adventure and information about my experiences as a wheelchair traveller.

Accessbility

Back in The Netherlands after three weeks of traveling in Uganda, the smells of burning firewood, the sounds of African beats, the images of beautiful landscapes and of the people in the streets seem to stick with me. Not easily accessible with the wheelchair, but definitely worth every single bump and hurdle.

Though it is not entirely uncommon to see a Ugandan in a wheelchair, the notion of wheelchair accessibility is practically non-existent in Uganda. This also counts for tourist activities and accommodation. While indicating that you have special needs, mentioning the word wheelchair doesn't always ring a bell until people have actually seen your chair. For tips and tricks on how to make your stay in Uganda most pleasurable, let me share with you some of my experiences. In any case, if you're planning to travel to Uganda, you're bound to have an unforgettable trip!

Airport

Entebbe Airport is very small, but a narrow aisle chair was available, and many helpful staff were around to carry me down the aircraft stairs where my own wheelchair was waiting for me.

Transportation

Boat at Queen Elizabeth National Park

The main means of public transportation are (overcrowded) taxi mini-buses, boda bodas (taxi scooters), or the bus for longer distances. None of these are really fit for anyone in a wheelchair, though I haven't personally tried traveling by bus. Renting a car or hiring taxis, unfortunately at much higher cost, seem to be the best options. Make sure it's a four-wheel drive, because roads are bumpy (where there are no potholes, which is rarely the case, there are humps) and can be muddy after heavy rainfall.

Kampala and surroundings

The capital Kampala has many interesting activities to offer which are quite wheelchair accessible, such as visiting the Kasubi Tombs, the Uganda Museum, and the National Theatre, seeing the dance performance of the famous Ndere Troupe, dining at nice restaurants, and experiencing Kampala's nightlife. The advantage of traveling in a developing country is that you will not find many high buildings with stairs and most things are on ground level, but on the other hand don't expect to find facilitated toilets anywhere. The one wheelchair accessible toilet I have encountered was at the Sheraton Hotel, the second most fancy hotel in town, though when I wanted to use it, it was out of order. The crafts market across National Theatre is on the grass and again very bumpy but still the best place to buy your souvenirs if you have some help available (otherwise shopping malls are generally well accessible but more expensive).

In Entebbe, south of Kampala, you can have a nice lunch at the beach of Lake Victoria, visit the botanical gardens and the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. This is a small zoo with rescued animals; very bumpy paths, but with some help it's do-able and still nice to see (a good place to interact with little monkeys running around freely, which is more difficult in the wild).

Jinja, east of Kampala, is where you can see the source of the Nile and make a really beautiful trip to the Bujagali waterfalls; all well accessible with the car.

Lake Buyonyi

Bujagali Falls

Beautiful views over an even more amazing landscape are guaranteed. Accessible accommodation, however, is not. We stayed at Buyonyi Overland Camp; the room was good, the bathroom small but OK, the way to the room very steep and bumpy. Driving around in this hilly landscape with the wheelchair is difficult and likely to attract an audience, but also very nice to do with the car.

Lake Mburo

Without really being able to judge from experience, accommodation and such seemed less well organized in Lake Mburo National Park than in Queen Elizabeth. The game drive and boat trip were very worthwhile though! The boat was small, with a steep path down and no pier to get on; I had to be carried inside (tip: make sure your wheelchair faces the shore because there is no room to turn once you're on board).

Queen Elizabeth National Park

A hippo in the backyard! Mweya Lodge, Queen Elizabeth

The true safari experience! The one and only handicapped parking spot we've seen was at Mweya Logde in Queen Elizabeth, a top of the range hotel (possibly with wheelchair accessible rooms, but I haven't seen them from the inside). We stayed at the cheaper hostel next-door, with shared bathrooms. Toilets there were not spacious enough but the bathrooms were big; these are the times you'll need to improvise as a budget traveler! For the boat trip I had to be carried on top, where there was space for the wheelchair.

Kibale Forest and the Crater Lakes

Very different and at least as breath taking was Kibale Forest. It's difficult to really go into the forest with the wheelchair, but going over the main roads you can also have a great forest experience. Very helpful and friendly people at the visitors' center informed us that the forest walks are really not accessible, but chimp tracking is an option with which they have experience of taking people in a wheelchair. The crater lakes are difficult to access, even with the car; Ndali Lodge gives a great view though and the camp we stayed, CVK, provided proximity to another beautiful crater lake and a forest with monkeys (be it over steep and bumpy paths).

Ssesse Islands

Relaxing underneath the palm trees … Buggala Island is the only island you can reach with the car (by taking the ship from Entebbe or the ferry close to Masaka). The beach is rather accessible at Ssesse Palm Beach Resort. Otherwise driving around on the island with the wheelchair is not easy (through forest and over sandy roads), but can also be done with the car.

Doorway to the accommodation at Ssesse Palm Beach Resort - the wheelchair only just fit through the door

General Uganda Travel Tips

Everywhere you go … always take a toilet with you!

Toilets or bathrooms with grab handles, roll-under sinks and roll-in showers are practically nowhere to be found. In most places, however, you will be able to find a toilet / bathroom which is spacious enough to move around in with the wheelchair. Then, either be prepared to be lifted or be creative … There are various options available, for both men and women, with which you won't have to move out of your chair (e.g. the Uribag or other medical care products).

Pillows in any accommodation are usually very thick and hard. If that doesn't work for you, it would be good to think of what you need to bring in order to sleep comfortably.

Your wheelchair should preferably be light and small, meaning that it should fit through narrow doors and should be easy to carry. In addition, your wheelchair should be fit for rough and dusty terrain (e.g. with somewhat larger front wheels it is easier getting over the bumps in the roads).

Take the necessary precautions if the humps and potholes in the roads are somehow a problem for you while sitting in the car (e.g. pressure relieving pillow), because they are many and really unavoidable.

Footnote

This article was first published on Able Travel Accessible Adventures whose purpose is "to make adventure travel - whether for holiday, work or study - easier for people with disabilities, seniors and those with temporary limited mobility". The site's author, Gordon Rattray, has just completed a new travel guidebook, to be published in August 2009, titled "ACCESS AFRICA - Safaris for People with Limited Mobility". This new Bradt title covers the six most visited countries south of the Sahara. It describes access in hotels, lodges and tented camps, allowing the reader to decide if what they offer suits their needs. Tips are given about everything from itinerary planning and preparation to coping with temperature differences and making the most of interactions with the local people. Procedures in airports and during the flight are thoroughly explained and the different methods of transport available in Africa are explored, with emphasis on their suitability to less mobile travellers. For more information, visit Access Africa

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