By Gilbert Mwijuke Entebbe. It’s a town of sunlight and bright reflections. A town of both old and new. A town of rich history and controversial global events. A town of lakeside estates and beaches that surely belong to another time, ogled by visitors and residents very much of the present. Home to State House and Uganda’s only international airport, Entebbe is a town that inspires calm and civility — disorderliness measured and controlled, glances conveying the approval of sufficiency or silently admonishing excess. The town’s calmness is akin to that of Kigali, neighbouring Rwanda’s capital city. In fact, Uganda’s one-time capital city is the direct opposite of Kampala, the country’s rumbustious chief city that is now best known in the region as East Africa’s Entertainment Capital. Yet, Entebbe is now more lively than ever before and has been tipped to regain it’s city status, probably by end of this year. Construction of the new Kampala-Entebbe Expressway is now almost complete, meaning travel time between Kampala and Entebbe will soon be cut down from about one hour to less than 20 minutes! Located on the north shore of Lake Victoria — the world’s second-largest freshwater lake — Entebbe is set on a picturesque peninsula that stretches into the lake, about 40 kilometres southwest of the capital Kampala. Its beauty co-exists with industry, the balance not only accepted but also jealously guarded.
History Before we continue, let’s go on a trip back in time. And let’s begin from the beginning: why is this town called Entebbe? Well, according to available records, Entebbe is a Luganda (local language) word that simply means ‘seat’, and has been an administrative base since the days of kings. Entebbe was the official seat of the chiefs of Buganda (the largest tribe in Uganda) centuries ago and the colonial government also used it as its official administrative and commercial base way back in 1893. The post-colonial governments continued this trend and even the current State House (official residence of the President of Uganda) is located in Entebbe town.
Entebbe in global spotlight Entebbe was first cast into the glare of global publicity when, in 1976, a group of Palestinian and German terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139 en route from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Paris, France. The terrorists forced the pilots to divert the flight to Libya, where they left some of the passengers, before continuing to Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport where they held the passengers and crew hostage and demanded a ransom of $5 million from the Israeli government. The terrorists also demanded for the release of 53 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian militants, 40 of whom were at the time jailed in Israel. The Israeli government tried to pursue diplomatic means to rescue the more than over 100 hostages in vain, so it decided to approve one of the most daring counter-terrorist hostage rescue operations in the history of mankind, which came to be known as Operation Entebbe, carried out by Sayeret Matkal, Paratroopers Brigade and Golani Brigade units of the Israeli army. The operation was successful, with the Israeli army suffering only one major casualty, Yonatan Netanyahu, the then commander of the operation and brother to Benjamin Netanyahu, who would later become Israel’s Prime Minister. Many films and documentaries have since been produced about the unfortunate event, including the 2018 Holywood action thriller, 7 Days in Entebbe, directed by José Padilha and written by Gregory Burke. Operation Entebbe aside, Entebbe International Airport is also known for another event that made it famous in Europe: It was from this airport that Queen Elizabeth II departed Africa to return to England in 1952 when she learned of her father’s death and that she was to become the Queen of the United Kingdom. And in more recent history, Entebbe played host to the final resolution talks that ended the M23 rebellion in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Attractions in Entebbe For most international travellers, Entebbe has always been off the radar, only used as a gateway into the country’s more famous attractions such as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to the world-famous mountain-dwelling gorillas. But the town also boasts some bona-fide attractions worth checking out…
Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (Entebbe Zoo) Until recently, the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) was known as Entebbe Zoo, and was mainly popular among schoolchildren seeking to learn a thing or two about the country’s flora and fauna. Located right on the waterfront, UWEC plays host to most of the wild animals, reptiles and birds that can be found in Uganda’s 10 national parks save for the mountain gorillas for they cannot survive outside their natural habitat. Set on a 72-acre piece of land, UWEC is also home to some of the rescued and rehabilitated animals that are victims of poachers or wildlife traffickers. Make sure to check it out while you are in Entebbe.
Botanical Gardens Away from UWEC, one can also visit the National Botanical Gardens of Uganda, located within walking distance from the former. Commonly known as Entebbe Botanical Gardens, they were established way back in 1898 and have since been an important attraction for those interested in botany and bird life, as more than 100 species of birds and plants can be found here. Birders can expect to see birds such as the orange tufted sunbirds, orange weaver, red chested sunbird, yellow backed weaver, northern brown floated weaver, golden backed weaver, Verreaux’s eagle owl and the black headed weaver.
Uganda Reptile village Located just about four kilometres from Entebbe town, the Uganda Reptile Village was established about 10 years ago and is home to about 20 species of reptiles. They include, among others, cobras, skinks, boomslangs, tortoises, crocodiles, chameleons, monitor lizards and the Baboon Viper, which is famous for being the most poisonous snake in Africa. Make sure you visit the Uganda Reptile Village if you are interested in learning about Uganda’s reptiles.
Beach life In Entebbe, life is a beach! Take off some time and unwind at one of the several beaches around its shoreline. In fact, most of the beaches in Uganda can be found in Entebbe including the historic Lido Beach, one of the oldest in the country, which is located just a few steps from Entebbe International Airport. Some of the other beaches in Entebbe include Aero Beach, Imperial Resort Beach and Spenah Beach, among many others.
Mabamba Swamp Birding enthusiasts will find Entebbe more rewarding than many places in Uganda as there are many places here that habour a variety of bird species. Mabamba Swamp, accessible by boat from the mainland, plays host to a wide range of birds, most notably the elusive Shoe-bill Stork. The ride from Entebbe to this papyrus swamp takes about an hour and the journey itself is as captivating as the bird life awaiting you. You will enjoy views of several birds along the way, including the Swamp flycatcher, African water rail, African purple swamp hen, Pallid Harrier, White-winged Warbler, Papyrus Gonolek, the Blue Swallow Common moorhen, African jacana, lesser jacana, Blue Breasted Bee-eater, White-faced whistling duck, African pygym Goose, Winding cisticola, Squacco heron and the Goliath Heron, among many others.