Here’s the muzungu’s guide on how to travel to Arua, 10 things to do in Arua and West Nile, all about Arua town, what to buy in Arua market – and the best times of year to travel.
This trip to the far north west of Uganda would not have been possible without the guidance of Gerard Iga. He is the ‘go to’ guide for Arua and West Nile.
Special thanks to my friend Harriet Fowler who gave me a return Eagle Air ticket to Arua!
Flight to Arua from Entebbe with Eagle Air
The Victoria Nile flows down from Lake Victoria through Lake Kyoga via Karuma Falls and thundering down over the famous Murchison Falls. Heading north, the water becomes known as the Albert Nile, and flows from Lake Albert on through South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt.
If you like aerial photos, check out the Air Photo Archive of Settlement and Agriculture, Rural Uganda 1963, created by Walter Deshler, University of Maryland.
The land below remains surprisingly green as we headed north. Superficially at least, not much seems to have changed west of Pakwach in 50 years!
I could see no brick constructions and no tarmac roads, just dirt roads as far as the eye could see and the very occasional tin roof. Not a vehicle in sight. I could make out the occasional person on a bicycle on the red dust roads.
Borassus Palms are one of the distinguishing trees of the north bank of the Nile, their seeds carried from Sudan in the stomachs of wandering elephants, and later expelled to transform the environment.
We had a very easy landing at Arua Airstrip. Watch the short clip to the end – how delightful to see the schoolchildren watching the plane land! Pretty as a picture.
About Arua – a great town!
Arua: think ‘Fort Portal without the hills’. We’re talking calm, clean and organised, with a touch of retro, thanks to the colonial architecture.
Arua is a cosmopolitan town, heavily influenced by its proximity to DRC and South Sudan. Apparently the Congolese of eastern DRC do more trade with Kampala than they do with Kinshasa, their own capital.
There are many forex shops in town. Arua also benefits from the many NGO offices, including Red Cross, Welt Hunger and others, here for humanitarian work in South Sudan.
Cars are few in Arua. You have to feel sorry for the abused vehicles: overloaded trucks carry 30 men at a time.
Gerard and Charlotte take a boda boda motorbike ride through Arua town, West Nile, Uganda from @CharlieBeau Diary of a Muzungu on Vimeo.
While the road tarmac is in good condition, you can see the poverty as you drive north, up to the South Sudan border. The road is lined with thatched huts. Mabati tin roofs are few and far between (showing how little money there is in the area).
Arua town has colonial buildings such as the Post Office style that is common to Kampala, Fort Portal and elsewhere. There is a Public Library too.
The small town has a population of 62,000, with 785,000 in the District. Apparently the late emeritus Bishop of West Nile developed many projects for the local community during his 30 years in office.
“And we should remember they produced a president!” My friend Daniel added, when we were trying to work out why Arua is such a thriving town.
West Nile has historically been isolated, both physically and politically, from the rest of Uganda. There is only one road bridge that crosses Nile (at Pakwach) to connect the region with the rest of the country although there are lesser used ferry crossings.
Former President Idi Amin was born in West Nile (his mother was from Arua and his father was from Koboko). During Amin’s reign, local people are said to have benefited but post-Amin, they were punished politically and economically.
To read more about the history of West Nile, read Dark past to glimmering future; the West Nile you never knew! One day, with an investment in facilities and itineraries, I can imagine tourists visiting the region just to learn more about this period of Uganda’s history.
10 little-known things to do in Arua
1. Take a walk to the top of Arua Hill for a panoramic view of the town
2. Eat local food
Market Street in Arua has a good number of restaurants serving goat’s meat, beef, chicken, smoked dried fish with g’nut [groundnut/peanut] sauce.
“What food will you take with it?” In Uganda, ‘food’ is specifically the starchy stuff like rice, kalo, matooke, sweet potato and chapatis. Side dishes [no jokes please] include tasty osubi, finely chopped greens, prepared with gnut sauce and rock salt.
The Still Baghdad Restaurant in Arua does a good beef pilau rice – with enough chunks of beef to satisfy a Kenyan!
3. Enjoy the live Congolese music at Club Matonge
The Congo is just a short drive from Arua, meaning the town is a great place to hear Congolose musicians perform. Club Matonge is a ‘free to enter’ outdoor bar. (The bar doesn’t serve spirits, just beer and wine from a box). We spent a couple of hours here. When the band realised we had Kenyans in our crowd, the singers launched into some classic Swahili songs. Our friends from Nairobi reminisced!
4. Go clubbing at Vino Lounge
Vino is the place to hang out, particularly on Friday nights. It gets packed! Club entrance is free.
Everyone had told us we had to check this place out. It’s a late night / all night club, with several bars. Head for Galaxy, the VIP section, on the 2nd floor to get away from (some of) the crowds. VIP entry costs 10k UGX. These guys can DRINK! OMG. We’re talking neat spirits.
5. Eat at Café Cosmo, Arua’s best café and restaurant
Open 11 to 11 every day, Café Cosmo is very affordable, has good service and a great menu of international, Indian and local African food. This popular restaurant is frequented by Indians, UGs, expats, everyone.
Sham the chef’s ‘Cosmo Bites’ include the freshest beef samosas ever. Indian dishes include tandoori and a scrumptious chicken tikka. ‘Afro favourites’ include goat stew and chicken pilao. Fridays and Saturdays, Cosmo make pizzas including a tikka paneer one! I’ll try that on my next trip 🙂
The mixed garden salad is a (filling) bargain at 10k UGX. The very friendly Martin recommends C.F.C. the ‘Cosmo Fried Chicken’ [geddit?] Other items include burgers, Tilapia, fillet steak, chicken dishes and fish sizzler (skewer). Beers cost 4k UGX and tots of UG (Uganda Waragi to the unitiated) at a very drinkable 2k UGX only. Café Cosmo do takeaways and deliveries. They are also a party venue (and do not charge for venue hire).
Café Cosmo is opposite the URA building on Pakwach Road. Tel +256 794116699 / +256 756335577 firstname.lastname@example.org HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
6. Oasis 247 bar and restaurant is open every day
Karaoke nights, quiz nights and pool competitions make this a popular hang-out. Oasis is a good bar for beer promotions and music videos.
7. Walk round the back streets of Arua to see the Hindu Temple
8. Visit Arua’s markets. The muzungu’s shopping suggestions
- Kitenge material from the Congo
- Termite mushrooms – click here for A Kitchen in Uganda’s Curry Termite Mushroom Soup recipe!
- Groundnuts in their shells
- Shea butter (locally farmed)
- Sim sim sesame seeds
- Jackfruit (peeled into bitesize pieces)
- Pineapple (chopped into long chunks)
- Dried enswa white ants – don’t forget to ask for the recipe!
- Salt-dried Angara fish
- Wooden mortar and pestle
- … and bucket after bucket of dried beans of different colours
9. Visit Miriadua Falls along the Arua – Koboko road
Gerard Iga writes: “I have a personal attachment to this one since it was my very own uncle that named the falls after himself. He was the county chief of Maracha in colonial times. When he went to visit this place, he asked the locals what the falls were called and they said “Iyi Kuru” which literally means “rough flowing waters”. Since all over Lugbara land, such falls are called iyi kuru, he decided to name them after himself and that is the name by which the place is known everywhere else except the locality. There, people still call it iyi kuru.”
Miriadua Falls are a 20 minute journey outside Arua Town.
10. Enter inside Uganda’s smallest church! Near Goli, Nebbi
Imagine … a church that “can only accommodate three people, including the preacher.” What a great place to get married (and keep down the cost of your wedding!)
I’d heard rumours that this is “the smallest church in the world” but I can’t seem to verify it – it certainly is petite though, according to my travel writer friend Solomon Oleny. The muzungu failed to reach… the church on Biku Hill is near Nebbi, a good hour’s travel from Arua.
How to get to Arua, West Nile
Fly to Arua
Currently, Eagle Air is the only operator to fly scheduled flights to Arua. They fly 3 times a week between Entebbe and Arua.
A new web site is being developed but their Kampala office staff say the 2014 timetable is still correct. They are efficient in person e.g. at Kampala office in Portal Avenue. Tel +256 (0)414 344292 / +256 (0)772 777338/7 and +256 (0)752 793860.
The new airstrip should be a real boon for trade with the DRC. Will commercial flights open up West Nile to tourism too? I heard rumours of Kenya Airways and RwandAir… let’s see!
Take the bus to Arua
A number of bus companies supply Arua with daily services. Generally, the standard daytime bus costs 30k UGX and the executive (overnight) bus costs 50k. They all depart from Arua Park, downtown Kampala.
Contacts in Arua recommend the executive Gaaga bus which runs overnight and has reclining seats. KKT are ‘more reliable than Gaaga’ according to another source. California bus company started up last year. Nile Coach is an old school provider that ‘overpacks vehicles.’
If your bus (or car) stops at Kafu, en route to Arua, think twice before you eat the roasted ‘muchomo’ meat!
How to get around Arua town
Bodas in Arua are cheap and everywhere. Expect to pay 1,000 – 1,500 UGX (less than 50 US cents) for town journeys. If you don’t have the right money, you won’t have to argue to get your change. Refreshing. (I am constantly overcharged in Kampala!)
The 4km taxi journey from the airport cost me 10,000 ugx. By boda, it cost me just 2,000 UGX.
When to visit Arua
Arua is at an altitude of 1,200 metres meaning nights can be cooler than in most places in Uganda.
April to June – lighter rains; August – cold, day and night; August to October – heavier rains;
December to Feb / March – cold mornings, very hot in the day, warm at night.
A few words of Lugbara, one of the local languages
Mi efu ngoni – good morning [mifun-GO-ney]
Mi ngoni – how are you? [min-GO-ney]
Awadifo – thanks [awad-if-O]
I love exploring new parts of Uganda and learning a few words of local language. But in West Nile, as soon as I got the hang of greeting somebody in Lugbara, I was told that we were in a different district where a whole range of other languages and dialects are spoken!
I was drawn to the northern region of West Nile and Arua town by the lure of a tourism ‘familiarisation’ trip with Inside West Nile. I really had a great time.
Thanks to Kampala House Harriers (KH3) for finally getting me to Arua – an invitation I most definitely could not ignore! My Arua trip included three days of fun supplied by KH3. Read that story here “Nagawa – you cowardised!” A detour via the Congo.
A big thank you to Dolorence Were of USDC Uganda Society for Disabled Children for letting me transfer the Eagle Air ticket (that my friend won in the USDC fundraiser raffle) into my name.