Air travel remains out of reach for the average Ugandan citizen. However, in an attempt to demystify the aero plane, Vilakazi Safaris, a local tour and travel company together with Uganda Airlines, wants to change all that by taking enthusiastic local travellers on one-hour joy tours around Uganda. One such trip happened during this year’s Martyrs Day celebrations and The Independent’s Ronald Musoke accompanied 70 other travellers on the short but exciting flight to southern Uganda.
At exactly 1:45pm we were beckoned to get onto the famous medium size Uganda Airlines Bombardier plane by the respectable and elegantly dressed air hostesses in black and white. “You are welcome,” they said to each passenger as we made our way through the narrow aisle and onto our black seats.
Musician Irene Namatovu’s rendition of “Tweyanze” and Afrigo’s Ateso hit of yester year, “Emmali” played out of the overhead speakers. About an hour earlier, we had gone through all the usual rigorous security checks— the kind usually subjected to passengers exiting the country.
But we weren’t. We were just going to tour Uganda. We were going to see what Uganda looks like when observed thousands of feet off the ground.
The lighthearted jokes especially at the back of the plane were akin to the one on your typical Kampala road-to-Wandegeya taxi. The banter was only interrupted by an assuring voice of a gentleman in the cockpit.
“Ladies and gentlemen, (you’re) welcome on this joy ride. My name is Elly (Odenyo), your Captain this afternoon.”
“Initially, we take off in the southerly direction over Lake Victoria. We should be able to see the Kalangala area, turn right and head for Kasese near the Rwenzori Mountains. If it is not cloudy, we should be able to see Kazinga Channel, the Rwenzori Mountains and the Hot Springs, that is depending on the visibility,” he said, promising to get back later with more announcements.
Soon our flight was underway as the aircraft started taxiing on the runway. There were more jokes, laughter and cheers flying about. For many passengers on this flight, it was their first time ever on the plane.
At 2:07pm, the plane got off the ground. The disorienting feeling— the kind that sometimes makes passengers vomit— as the plane gains ascent excited some. Others cursed. Thankfully the discomfort was short-lived.
Within minutes, Captain Elly was back on the PA beckoning us to check out the Kalangala archipelago comprising small green parches of islands surrounded by huge expanses of water. On some of the islands, we saw human settlements of iron-roof houses emerging.
On other islands, brown winding roads snaked through the green shrubbery. Meanwhile, the Bombardier was cutting through snow white clouds as it pushed forward effortlessly. Soon, it took a right course.
“Sammy Manini,” one of Uganda’s famous tick-tokers— he of the “You mean this is a rayoni (lion)” fame— confessed to his neighbours seeing the Kampala-Masaka-Mbarara Road.
It probably was, since it was the only greyish corridor twisting around the landscape. We were probably in the Greater Masaka area at this time. About 15 more minutes later, we were in southwestern Uganda near the Rwenzori Mountains.
Again, Captain Elly turned on the PA and beckoned those seated near the windows to look out for Lake Edward and George as well as the Kazinga Channel which joins the two lakes like an umbilical cord.
The pilot also chose to use this time to read special messages for some lucky passengers onboard. The first was a birthday announcement for one, Shafique. The next was for a one Ruth, also celebrating a birthday and recent graduation from Makerere University.
There was also a newlywed couple aboard the flight and the husband declared eternal love for his wife. A mom also wished her beloved children onboard the very best of their future.
Meanwhile, the airhostesses got busy rolling their trolleys of snacks and drinks. On white sparkling trays, passengers were served sweet bananas (Bogoya), a chicken sandwich, Kenyan made Mango Juice and Wavah water. There were a few whiskeys, Uganda Waragi and Tuskers. “Enyonyi enyuma,” a lady at the back said excitedly, meaning “flying feels nice.”
Captain Elly was now changing the aircraft’s course, heading back to Entebbe Airport. At 3:05, he safely landed us at the airport. It was probably the most serene landing I have ever experienced.
But that touchdown, although quite peaceful, elicited some murmurs of discontent from the back. Many were unhappy the flight was that short. “This is such a short trip,” the lady behind my seat said.
As we disembarked, the “slayers” pulled out their Smartphones to pose for lifetime photos as the airhostesses waited patiently to bid them goodbye. But the “selfies” went beyond limit until an announcement was made for them to get off the plane.
They reluctantly did but still took more photos on the tarmac with the Bombardier giving them a beautiful backdrop. Soon we got cleared by immigration and boarded our bus back to Kampala. For many, it was one of the best experiences of their lives.
First time flyers’ experiences
“Before you travel, you are told lots of lies. One of them is the take off, landing and ‘floating’ experience,” Sula Ssenyonga said. “I came to discover this by myself and demystify lies about the aero plane.” “Experiencing it by yourself is the best; no one has to tell you; you need to feel it.”
For Mary Kasule, 65, it was the first time she was travelling on an aero plane. In fact the farthest she had travelled in Uganda was to the islands of Kalangala in Lake Victoria. “I have been waiting forever. Life is too short. Get time and travel,” she said.
Jovia Nabuduwa also took her first flight on the Bombardier. She told The Independent that it was her community she serves in Bukelele in Mukono District that returned a favour by buying her the Shs 550,000 economy class air ticket. “I had fun,” she said, “I always stop at departure lounge but this time I was happy I entered the airport, got checked and got onto the plane.”
Anthony Namuso, a first time flyer too told The Independent that flying was something he had wanted to experience. “I always wanted to see how it feels like when the aero plane is taking off. I loved the manouevres.”
“The landing was smooth; not those things we usually hear about. I think the Uganda Airlines pilot is highly experienced.” Namuso told The Independent that he is already planning for his next flight, this time, outside Uganda.
Judith Komukama said she used to ask herself what it feels like “when one is up there looking down like a bird.” “It really felt good. My dream has come true,” she said.
Isaac Andrwale, a bus driver at Makerere College School, has flown before but on smaller aircraft. He too found the Bombardier experience “wonderful.” “I have flown before and it is always on smaller planes flying to my home region of West Nile in northwestern Uganda. This was the longest flight I had been onto using a bigger plane.”
For Harriet Laker, a Rotarian based in the northern Uganda city of Gulu, the joy trip was “great.” “I mean I have done flights; long flights for work but the fact that I could just leave home and fly for the sake of it was a good experience.”
Demystifying air travel
The proprietor of Vilakazi Safaris explained to The Independent why he came up with the idea of inland air tours.
“For a long time, air transport has been kept for moving to international destinations or even local aerodromes and not for scenic flights,” he said, “This is an opportunity that we are happy to take on.”
“It is important for those Ugandans who don’t have a destination to fly to; board a plane, see wider places than they could see in a vehicle and come back and have a memory of a life time.” But he told The Independent that he also had other sentimental reasons.
He said he lost his mother some time back. Before she died, she really wanted to fly, he said. “At the time, the only destination available to the family was London but the distance was not good for her health. So she passed on without ever boarding a plane.”
There was also another incident on Valentine’s Day when Vilakazi Safaris flew guests to Dubai. One of the guests tested positive for COVID-19 five times. He ended up staying in Dubai for a month. The guest had only flown to Dubai because he had all his life wanted to fly but ended up stuck there.
“He was crying everyday because his wedding was due. So I was liaising with Uganda Airlines everyday to secure his release.” It was during this time that it occurred to me that Vilakazi Safaris could actually do flights for those who don’t have to get out of Uganda’s borders.
“We sent our proposal to Uganda Airlines and the airline accepted and we did our first joy flight on May 1. This is our second trip and we have booked four more trips. The next one is on Oct.09.”
“Another one is scheduled for December 15 targeting those in vacation and we also want to try the New Year Crossover in the sky on the Bombardier,” he said. This particular one will fly around Kampala for the fireworks experience. “Next year, we hope to do a Valentine on the Bombardier and then Easter.”
Christine Lokaala, the Acting Manager at Vilakazi Safaris Ltd told The Independent that passengers pay Shs 750,000 for Business Class while those who prefer Economy Class part with Shs 550,000 for the joy ride on the Bombardier.
Will Vilakazi Safaris’ initiative help kick-start a sector which is slowly picking up following two years of COVID-19 lockdowns. Vianney Luggya, the manager public affairs at the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) told The Independent recently that domestic passenger traffic was adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the airport handled 7,809 passengers from January to April of 2019, over 3,800 domestic passengers were handled in the same period of January to April 2022, thereby representing a recovery of 48.7%.
Vilakazi Safaris management is convinced their initiative will promote local tourism. “The Maamas on the flight had never travelled, they had never been on a plane and they had never ventured to western Uganda. So, they are going to share photos and key memories for a life time.”