TRAVEL / Charmed by Kenya's country cousin: The place next door: While tourists flock to Nairobi and Mombasa, the beauty and charismatic chaos of neighbouring Uganda are ignored. Simon Calder begins a new series

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AT THE airport the feeling seizes you and won't let go. 'What possessed me to come here?' kept gnawing at me as I bribed my way into Uganda. The plane had even stopped at Nairobi on the way; I could have nipped off with the other happy holidaymakers heading for Kenya. But along with a handful of aid workers, I had stayed on board.

Now the fact that I possessed no yellow fever certificate was being used against me in an airless office by a shameless official. 'We have three alternatives,' she enumerated with the air of someone trotting out a familiar routine. 'We can keep you in quarantine for 10 days to see if you develop symptoms. We could vaccinate you ourselves,' - this in a country tragically racked by Aids - 'or . . . you may buy me some wine.' I took this as the unrefusable offer it clearly was, and quickly handed over five US dollars.

Uganda was going to be a struggle, I decided, suffering from a gritted and knotted stomach. Yet the anguish lasted no more than 10 minutes - the time taken to fall into step with a bunch of kids on their way to school. They thought it a hoot that a muzungo (white person) should choose to ignore the uniformly outrageous demands for cash from the airport cab drivers, and instead start strolling to Entebbe.

The African dawn was reaching a climax of colour in a sky far bigger than I imagined possible. Blazing gold streaked across the deep blue residue of night. The earth was rich red, draped in heavy green, glistening from the morning dew. The children were leading me through a palette of primary colours.

The airport road brushes against Lake Victoria, the tranquil sea at the heart of Africa. It looked as content as I was beginning to feel. For a nation's political capital, the lakeside

town of Entebbe seemed improbably relaxed - as if Westminster and Whitehall had moved down to Brighton to shrug off their stuffiness.

I was beginning to be smitten. On all the indices of human misery, Uganda scores badly. So why was I being seduced? One reason, perhaps, is that British imperialists tried to build Uganda in their image, but got it crucially and delightfully wrong. The result is a state now more serene than has ever existed in Britain. A blue lamp dangles laconically from the most decrepit police station, Morris Minors are still the mainstay of the motoring public, and unrestrained politeness is a national trait.

You will be politely informed that Kampala, Uganda's biggest city and the 'real' capital, is 20 miles beyond Entebbe. In the always reliable speed / distance equation of Ugandan public transport, this means a 20-minute journey. A couple of dozen passengers are crammed into a minibus. This cargo is urged through the tide of human and animal life at 60 mph towards the tattered attempts at tower blocks.

Kenya's capital, Nairobi, 'is no third world city', according to my guidebook. According to my eyes, Uganda's capital emphatically is. Kampala has fallen apart and there seems little prospect of its being put back together in the near future. Do not assume, though, that this random collection of imprecise buildings strewn over seven or more hills is remotely threatening. Crime isn't a major problem, and although the bloodshed and oppression of Idi Amin's regime remain as potent memories, Uganda has enjoyed eight years of political stability under its president, Yoweri Museveni. The only flicker of anxiety I felt was when I wondered if everyone in the explosively raucous Nectarine nightclub had obeyed the 'No Firearms' rule on the door.

You can't identify the line where Kampala ends and the country begins, since each seems to trespass on the other. Ragged remnants of what must once have seemed like worthwhile experiments in town planning intrude into the crumpled green fringe, while sudden patches of what should be prime urban real estate have been overtaken by agriculture.

Only the most perverse metrophile visits Uganda for its city life; you should get out as soon as possible. Travel in any direction from Kampala, and you are entertained by scenery which is like riding through a geography textbook. Here's some East African savannah, there's a patch of West African rainforest, and wasn't that a wayward slice of Switzerland? Reinforcing the notion that you have stumbled into a virtual-reality version of the geography GCSE, you suddenly trip over the Equator. Uganda balances on the line of zero latitude, and almost any journey involves crossing from one hemisphere to the other. In the real world no actual line encircles the globe, but huge upright concrete zeroes by the roadside indicate the Equator.

The nagging comparisons with the next-door neighbour continue as you reach the first National Park, named after Queen Elizabeth. Everyone knows that Kenya equals wildlife, but Uganda's animal kingdom was overthrown as a sideline to the bloody human strife which tore the country apart for a decade in the Seventies. Yet Uganda still has the best bird life in Africa, and the mammalian heavy mob - hippopotamuses and elephants - have survived in hordes. Ambling unprotected through the grassland of the National Park, I felt fairly reassured that the chance of becoming a lion's lunch was small, so rare are the big cats.

My own lunch, like every meal the visitor is likely to have, was unpredictable in its timing and contents; when it eventually arrived, it was a tasty and effusively served plateful of beef and fresh vegetables, washed down with hot, sweet chai. (To make this at home, just boil up implausible quantities of tea, milk and sugar all together.) Restaurants, like every other institution in Uganda, lend weight to the notion that Uganda is merely an approximation of the way a country is usually run - but that is part of the charm of this electrifying shambles.

The suspicion that you have stumbled into a huge experiment into the mathematical theory of chaos is reinforced when you seek transport around the country. The map shows a railway line running east from Kampala to the Kenyan border, but the nation's main station - down a side street in the capital - is more a dead-end than a terminus. Rusting tracks extending in vaguely the direction of Nairobi suggest that rail travel was once a possibility. The Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable lends support to this theory, but the total absence of staff, passengers and trains indicates that the age of the train has long passed.

At the other end of town, travellers are being shoe-horned into anything that moves. The Central Bus Station is a huge natural arena into which have been poured hundreds of much- pranged minibuses and thousands of prospective passengers. Enter this melee at your peril: the hordes of competing touts will ensure your only way out is to be swept away aboard a seething, swaying and entertainingly overcrowded minibus, whose high velocity relative to its mass appears to contradict most known laws of physics.

Though man seems to be having a bit of trouble organising society in Uganda, nature has no problem instilling order and grace upon the country. If there is such a thing as a dull view in Uganda, then it eluded me in 600 miles of travel through the heart of Africa - and not just because a miscellaneous collection of fellow passengers' limbs were obscuring my vision.

Every landscape is a picture: the background invariably a handsome range of hills, the foreground splashed with farmscapes and fallow land. Around Kabale, centre of the lushest hills in Uganda, a gentle hike rewards you with an endlessly unravelling canvas of exquisite scenery. The vision of peace ends abruptly near the horizon, at the frontier with Rwanda.

While war erupts across the border, a local Ugandan newspaper, The Economy, is getting worked up about something rather closer to home. 'Lift fails to operate' is the front-page banner

headline, and the paper goes on to report how the Maltese head of state was stranded in the guest lift at the Nile Hotel.

'Known for his great patience,' the story continues, 'the President waited for a while to see something done in such an emergency, but all in vain. President Museveni finally lost Cool and released a volley of criticisms to some of the managers around who were clad in Immaculate Suits looking on helplessly as a cloud of shame cast its shadow on such an occasion of great esteem.' The head of state then demanded to see the managing director, who 'having got wind of the mess', reportedly 'panicked and went into hiding'.

One more comparison remains to be checked. What about a swim? The beach-hungry visitor to Kenya can just head for Mombasa and plunge into the Indian Ocean. If you're in landlocked Uganda and you fancy a dip, avoid Lake Victoria: it is infested with the parasites that cause the disease bilharzia. Instead, ascend into the mountains. Mount Kenya may be taller, but it stands alone; Uganda boasts the highest proper range in Africa. The Ruwenzori mountains are close to the sun but capped by snow. Halfway to the sky, at Kilembe, the road straggles to a conclusion at the edge of an impeccably cool mountain stream. Splashing beneath the equatorial sun, I reached a conclusion too: Uganda is the most perfectly imperfect place under that huge African sky.-


GETTING THERE: Kenya Airways (071-409 0185) flies non-stop from London Heathrow to Entebbe once a week; a return ticket costs pounds 415 through Quest Worldwide (081- 547 3322). British Airways (0345 222111) flies twice weekly from London via Nairobi.

VISAS: British visitors need a tourist visa, which costs pounds 20 and takes two working days to obtain from the Ugandan High Commission, 58 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX (071-839 5783). Irish visitors do not require a visa.

HEALTH: The only compulsory vaccination is against yellow fever, but protection against hepatitis is also recommended. Ugandan mosquitoes are voracious; use a repellent, and take malaria tablets during your stay and for six weeks afterwards. Some risk of contracting the Aids virus exists from medical treatment using contaminated equipment; travellers should carry an 'Aids pack' of needles and catheters in case an injection, drip or transfusion is required. The Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad can provide a health brief on up to six countries through its premium-rate telephone service, 0891 224100; a typical call costs around pounds 2.

WHERE TO STAY: The government-run Uganda Hotel Corporation operates a network of comfortable lodges. Prices are around pounds 15 single/ pounds 20 double per night, including tea and toast.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Philip Briggs's new Guide to Uganda (Bradt Publications) is a cheerful and accessible guide to the country.