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Kampala to Bujumbura via Tanzania by road

My first trip from Kampala to Bujumbura was fun-filled. It was back in 2007 when I was much younger, more energetic and fun-loving. I travelled using private means, with a fun group of friends and colleagues.

 

By Gilbert Mwijuke

Travelling through Rwanda, the entire journey took us less than 18 hours. When I recently decided to take another road trip to Bujumbura, but this time via Tanzania, I was ill-prepared for the 27-hour odyssey that awaited me. On a self-driving trip, the journey from Kampala to Bujumbura via Kigali (722 kilometers) takes about 11 hours while the Tanzanian route (788 kilometers) is about 14 hours — other factors remaining constant.

 

My journey began from Namayiba Bus Park in Kampala just a few minutes before midnight. We would be in Bujumbura by 6 pm the following evening, management of Sunlait Friends bus, my means of transport on this journey, had assured me earlier. At 5 am we made it to Mutukula, the Uganda-Tanzania border post where clearance at Immigration set us back about two hours. Mutukula is located approximately 211 kilometers southwest of Uganda’s capital Kampala. As we re-boarded the bus after getting the green light from Immigration, I took notice of my neighbour for the first time, a young man who togged out in a damaged pair of jeans, a muscle-hugging white t-shirt, and a cowboy hat, with a guitar. Another stop at Nsunga, a trading centre deep inside Tanzania, increased our journey time by yet another 40 or so minutes. But our time here didn’t entirely go to waste; we used it to buy some snacks, munch on them, and generally answer nature’s call.

Vast and sparsely inhabited country

Tanzania is such a vast and sparsely inhabited country — so much that you can drive up to 100 kilometres in the middle of nowhere, without encountering a passing vehicle, without seeing any signs of human activity anywhere. It’s like driving through an Italian village during fiesta. Nothing stirred. The sun beat down. It was all quiet. But my neighbour, the Carlos Santana wannabe made sure that that wasn’t the case inside the bus: when he wasn’t talking nonstop at the top of his voice, he would either be playing some lousy music on his cheap Techno smartphone or strumming some uncoordinated patterns on his guitar. He was a true source of unwarranted noise that I felt like kicking him out of the bus. And with nothing scenic (almost only acacia trees prevail in the western plains of Tanzania), the journey was even made worse by the intermittently rickety, unpaved roads that compelled our driver to drive at a snail’s pace, further increasing our travel time.

At around 2 pm we arrived at Kobero, the one-stop Tanzania-Burundi border post, and I thought we would actually make it to Bujumbura by 6 pm like I had been promised before we left Kampala. But that was not to be the case for some reasons I couldn’t fathom.

 

Somehow, it took us up to five hours to clear with Immigration and Customs yet this is one of the least busy border posts in the region. “Burundians just don’t have respect for time,” someone told me. We left the border after 7 pm to begin on the final 236 kilometers, 6-hour stretch to Bujumbura City (the snaking roads in this hilly part of Burundi means you can’t drive fast), a journey that was maddeningly disrupted by the several (I counted up to seven) unwarranted roadblocks.

What were the police at the roadblocks looking for? “This is East Africa, they just need something ‘kidogo’ (Swahili for small),” offered Carlos Santana.

Stranded in Bujumbura’s bus park

When we arrived in Bujumbura shortly after 2 am, I was warned not to venture outside the bus park lest I got arrested or mugged. With all the tiredness and backlog of sleep, it quickly dawned on me that I was going to spend the remaining hours of the cold night on the immobile bus.   As the coldness intensified with the progressing night, I wondered why I was doing all this just in the name of adventure. What was I up to? Is this normal behaviour for someone deep in his thirties? I thought about my friends and former friends, many of them married with children and having “sensible jobs”. I wondered if I should also begin to behave with a little sophistication, if I should be acting my age. But when I saw the first rays of the sun a few hours later, I decided that I should mind my business, picked myself up, and went out to book myself a hotel room. After a much-needed relaxation, I caught up with an old friend with whom I took a walk to one of Bujumbura’s quaint beaches for a drink and a bit of camaraderie. As we looked over the calm waters of the mighty Lake Tanganyika, drinks in hand and a cool breeze engulfing us, it was such a good feeling to be back here after 12 years!