Kampala to Sipi Falls, via Jinja and the source of the Nile

After a Queen Elizabeth National Park tour and a couple of days hiking in Lake Bunyonyi, it’s time to discover what lies to the east of Kampala. The first stop is Jinja to find the source of the Nile.

Yep, it’s the source of the Nile

When I was researching how to travel independently in Uganda all I could find was couples who hire a 4WD and see the country that way. While that would be amazing, and you’d definitely get to see a lot more, it’s out of my price range as a solo traveller. I found a couple of blogs about backpackers moving around Uganda using public transport and this was enough to convince me it’s possible, which as I’m discovering it certainly is!

However to backpack Uganda on public transport you need to:

Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The main form of transport is a matatu which are 16 seater mini buses – usually carrying 20 adults, 7 kids, live chickens, various sacks of vegetables, numerous wheelie suitcases… and that’s just inside the vehicle. The roof is then piled high with matoke laden branches, jeep tyres, bicycles, stacks of plastic chairs, metal beams, more sacks of vegetables…

Be happy to embrace Africa time! “Now” doesn’t mean right now in Ugandan English, although occasionally “now, now!” does. The bus leaves when it’s full or when the driver decides to leave and your guess is as good as mine as to when it’ll arrive.

Be willing to give up any Western concepts of safety. Seatbelts don’t exist. Passengers on motorbike taxis don’t wear helmets (although the riders do). The roads are more potholes than tarmac and the biggest vehicle wins.

Be prepared to constantly get on and off the bus. If you are crammed into a matatu, which stop wherever the passenger wants to disembark, there will be multiple unloading and reloading of passengers. With every seat taken and most adults having a child, wheelie suitcase or vegetable sack on their knees, the only way to get off is for half the bus to move first!

So, as long as you’re happy with all that, you can travel anywhere you like in Uganda independently!

The only difficulty is accessing the activities within the largest national parks, like Queen Elizabeth or Murchison Falls, where although you can get close to the park on public transport, it’s virtually impossible to move within it without hiring a driver.

Licensed to carry 14 passengers but usually carrying around 20…

Feeling confident? Here’s how to travel from Kampala to Sipi Falls using public transport.

I started with hailing a boda boda motorcycle taxi to head for Jinja Road, located on the outskirts of Kampala, to pick up a matatu to Jinja. They also leave from the centrally located Old Taxi Park but, if you can, it’s far better to avoid the traffic jams and choking exhaust fumes of downtown Kampala.

It’s easy enough to find where the minibuses leave from – if the boda riders don’t know, they’ll find out!

I had the usual fun price conversation with the conductor, the driver’s assistant who takes the money and organises the luggage on the roof. I’ve given up asking how much the fare is and simply tell them what I’m going to pay.

The conversation generally goes something like this:

Conductor: Where you go madam?

Me: Jinja

Conductor: Okay, 70,000.

Me: How about 15,000?

Conductor: Okay, get in

Luckily at the moment there’s a lot in the news at the moment about bus prices, as the government is trying to get the matatu drivers and bus companies to reduce prices after Christmas and the bounce back from the pandemic, so with a bit of Googling I’ve managed to get an idea of the average price ranges for the journeys I’m doing.

Safely in Jinja after a fairly quick and comfortable matatu ride, I headed out to find the infamous source of the Nile. There are two pay-to-enter parks, one on the east bank close to town and one several kilometres away on the west bank. I’d been planning to hire a bicycle to cycle over to the latter and had found a recommendation for Bikeventures, a not for profit rental and bike tour business. Unfortunately they weren’t responding to my email or whats app messages and when I walked over there on the off-chance, they were locked and shuttered. (They did respond a day later, so word to the wise, email well in advance!).

My back-up plan to wander down to the east side was nearly foiled when I discovered the entry price was 10 dollars. A shocking price considering it’s just a tumbledown boat dock, with a few souvenir stalls and wooden shack restaurants. Luckily the gateman took pity on me and halved the entry price for me.

Ideally you need to take a boat ride upriver to see the actual source, where the water flows out of Lake Victoria to start its long journey to the Mediterranean. The price is per boat and was too expensive for me. No doubt I could have talked my way into someone else’s boat, had there been any other tourists there! Instead I had some nice chat with the souvenir ladies and admired their goods, the usual African print sarongs and wooden earrings, before heading back into town.

Jinja town is quite pleasant, with the centre laid out on a grid system. Main Street hosts three expat style cafes and lots of souvenir shops at the southern end, before the usual clothes shops and mobile phone accessory shops begin. When dusk fell, the street food vendors started congregating at the main junctions, selling fried fish and chips, samosas filled with either peas or with rice and the ubiquitous Rolex (a chapati wrapped around an omlettee – rolled eggs, get it?!).

I picked up a couple of samosas, tomatoes and apples for a picnic dinner and that was the end of my day in Jinja!

Jinja is styled as the adventure capital or Queenstown of Uganda but I didn’t see much evidence of this. No tour agencies or big backpacker presence. The guidebooks mention white water rafting (further downriver), whitewater kayaking or SUPing and mountain biking. I’m assuming this is still possible and Nile River Explorers came up a lot in my internet research for Jinja.

Jinja to Sipi on public transport

The next day l carried on to Sipi Falls, almost to the border with Kenya and close to the Mount Elgon mountain range. Trekking is supposed to be excellent in this national park with a three day hike to reach the summit being the highlight.

The bus journey to Jinja to Sipi needs to be done in two stages, via Mbale, the last big town of any note. There were plenty of matatus from the Jinja bus park, a well-organised dusty lot opposite the market. By the time a tyre change had taken place and a roof rack had appeared out of nowhere and been installed, there were enough passengers to depart and we got on the road.

It actually took me three minibuses to get to Mbale, even though I only paid the first driver. Each time the number of passengers got too low, we pulled over and got moved onto another bus. Eventually we reached Mbale and I was pointed in the direction of the Sipi taxi park, a ten minute walk to the north of town.

Here I was expecting a couple of hours wait. There was just one passenger on the bus, it was the middle of the day and I’d read online that Sipi buses were not frequent. In the end, it just took 50 minutes and we headed off, only half full, which was a lovely treat.

Some of the fun of matatu travel is seeing what different things are being offered by the sellers who crowd around the bus each time it stops. From the bus window you can nearly always buy:

A corn on the cob (500 shillings)

A meat skewer stick

Pea or rice filled samosas (1,000 shillings for 2)

A soda or packet of biscuits chosen from the selection in the vendors cardboard box

Depending on what region you’re in, there are new items on sale. For example this was the first time, I saw bags of green bell peppers being offered.

At the last junction, turning off the main road ready for the climb up to Sipi, the bus filled up again, with people sitting on other people’s lap. I had my own luggage plus several other bags piled on my lap!

Amazingly there was not a single pothole and the road was sealed the whole way. Following the little blue GPS dot on Google Maps, I shouted for my stop, and after half the bus had moved to let me out, I was deposited on the roadside ready to find somewhere to stay and discover what Sipi had to offer.

Quick reference guide for public transport from Kampala to Sipi Falls, via Jinja

Kampala to Jinja by bus.

Matatu from Jinja Road (I used the Centenary Park taxi stand). It takes around 3 hours and cost me USh15,000. The matatu dropped me off on the outskirts after the Nile river bridge and I walked the 40 minutes into Jinja town. Although of course there are plenty of bodas.

Jinja to Mbale by bus

Pick up a matatu from the taxi stand opposite the central market. It takes around 3 hours and again I paid USh15,000. Walk across town (or take a boda) to the Sipi taxi stand (north of the Clocktower roundabout).

Mbale to Sipi by bus

The bus is headed to Kapchorwa, a few kilometres beyond Sipi. USh15,000 will get you to Sipi, likely with a stop at the junction village of Muyembe to fill up with passengers. Buy any snacks, fruits and vegetables you need here as there’s not a massive selection in Sipi.

I arrived at Jinja taxi stand at 7.30am and finally made it to Sipi around 2pm.

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