Hi, my name is Astrid Haas. I was born and raised in South Africa, but spent 8 years living in Europe (Austria and Germany) after studying Hotel Management. My husband, Chris, and I decided to leave Europe, as we didn’t want to live there for the rest of our lives and decided rather to travel through Africa. Through our Africa trip, we ended up in Uganda and we are now managing one of the most successful lodges here. We’ve been working here for the past 20 months and we plan to be here for the next few years. Although no longer up to date, we did keep a blog of our 10-month trip through southern and eastern Africa: www.rabbitsviewofafrica.com.
What country and city do you live in?
Murchison River Lodge, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.
When did you move there?
I started living here in July, 2014, when I was 29, and I am currently still here, over a year and a half later. We love it here and plan on staying at the lodge for the near future.
Did you move with a friend or partner, or alone?
I moved here with my husband, Chris.
Why and how did you choose to live there?
We came across Murchison River Lodge on our travels through Africa. It was recommended to us by friends we’d met along the way. We’d been staying in the campsite when we met the owner of the lodge at the bar. We spent the whole night chatting to him about both his and our travels throughout the world. The next morning he came up to us and asked if we’d be interested in sending in our CV’s to him, as he was looking for new managers to run the lodge for him. We spent the next few days typing up our CV’s and resumes and sent them in. A few weeks later we had traveled on to northern Uganda, when we found out that we had gotten the job! We accepted the job and started work a few weeks later.
Did you do research before going? What resources were helpful?
Yes, a lot. The web was our greatest source, mostly private blogs written by other travelers and travel oriented sites. I googled “travel blogs for overland Africa trips”. They are surprisingly hard to find. Travel guides (esp. Bradt guides) were very useful as well, although these are quickly outdated.
Did you speak the language when you arrived? Is it necessary?
There are more than 11 languages spoken in Uganda, varying between the different tribes and whether they come from Northern, Southern, Central or Western Uganda. Even the locals from the different areas do not understand each other. In general, either Swahili or English are used if traveling further than your local district. As I speak English, it is easy to converse with most people in the area. It would be useful to speak some of the local languages, but it will only help you if you stay in that language’s district.
What 1-3 items were you most happy to have from home?
Camera equipment, binoculars & bird guide, and Kindle.
What did you wish you had? What surprised you about what you could or couldn’t find there?
I wish I had more personal items like clothing, photos, books etc, although you need surprisingly little to keep you happy in the bush. You can get almost anything you need, even down to specific brands that you’re used to (shampoo, foods etc).
Did you need to change the way you dressed when you moved to Uganda?
Yes and no. Customs are different in Uganda, and although nobody will ask you to change, people tend to dress more conservatively than they do in the western world. These days, I don’t wear shorts or dresses above the knee and I try and keep my midriff and shoulders covered. I do this as I feel that people tend to stare at you (not in a good way) if you run around in a local market wearing hot pants and a bikini top. It’s about respecting the local people and their beliefs and customs.
What are your top 3-5 tips for someone else moving there?
- Make sure that you can deal with the isolation. You need to be self reliant in almost anything, whether cooking a three-course dinner for 65 people, or fixing a generator.
- Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Everything from the extreme weather to Malaria.
- You should enjoy living in the bush. Don’t expect any luxuries such as ice cream, movies etc within easy reach.
- Take every day as it comes. If it’s quiet, then rest rest, because when it’s busy, you won’t have time to rest at all!
What do you wish you knew before you moved?
Nothing much really as we were traveling we didn’t have many expectations, which in turn meant that we simply accepted the way things are, without much thought to how it could have been otherwise.
Getting Set Up
What kind of visa or residency process did you go through?
Tourist visas are easily granted on arrival in Uganda, whether at the country’s borders, or at the airport. A 3-month tourist visa costs $100. All you need is a valid passport, as well as an up-to-date Yellow Fever certificate.
The work visa process is long, expensive ($2000 a year!) and burdensome. Firstly, as a foreigner, you have to prove to the Ugandan Government that you are better qualified for the job than any other Ugandan. As I have 10 years experience in international 5 star hotels, studied hotel management and have also traveled extensively throughout Africa, plus a few other bonuses such as speaking 3 languages etc., this was not too bad. Then comes all the bureaucracy and the paperwork, which can take up to 6 months. When we finally got our work visa, we’d already been working at the lodge for a few months. We had to extend our tourist visas a few times to ensure that we could stay in Uganda in the meantime.
Unfortunately we are not residents, as this is a process that is notoriously difficult. It is only granted after having lived and worked in the country for 14 years, and even then is not a guarantee.
How did you set up a bank account?
By using our valid work permit as a proof of residence and a valid photo ID (passport).
How did you set up phone service?
SIM cards are readily available and just need to be registered. Registration is done on site by filling in the required paperwork, showing valid ID (passport) and by providing a passport-sized photo.
How do you like the food there?
Ugandan food is really good. Various stews (meat or vegetarian) are generally well spiced and flavorful and the staple starch (Matoke/Plantain) is really delicious, especially if served with a freshly made peanut sauce.
What kind of people have you met? How do you socialize?
Working at a lodge you meet a lot of people, especially tourists, but also other expats who live in Uganda and East Africa. Our friends generally consist of other expats living and working in Uganda, whether in our area (neighboring lodges) or in Jinja and Kampala, who we either met through our travels in Uganda, or because we work with them. Our social life up at the lodge consists of meeting at someone’s house and watching sports on TV (rugby), getting together for dinner or lunch at someone’s house/lodge, or going out together to go camping, on a game drive, fishing etc. There are no pubs, clubs etc to go to.
What is the most difficult thing about living there?
Being away from my family back home in South Africa. I have limited communication with them and my friends because of the difficulty of either telephone or Internet connections.
What are some of the biggest challenges of your job at the Lodge?
Logistics: The closest town to buy milk (and not much more) is a two-hour drive in one direction. To keep the lodge supplied, without running the risk of running out of items such as bacon, is a full time job in itself. To resupply the lodge, we have to shop in Kampala, which is a 5-hour drive in one direction.
HR: We have 55 permanent staff. Managing all the HR, the payroll and all the leave and off days fairly for everyone is extremely difficult.
Unforeseen problems: Depending on the season, we have to deal with the threat of bush fires, flooding, wild animals and the extreme weather. All of these can be planned and prepared for, but once in a while things go wrong and you have to deal with the situation on hand. There is no one else to call in the area (no fire brigade etc), so you have to fix whatever problem you’ve got with whatever and whoever is available.
On a scale of 1-10, how safe did you feel there? Why?
8, generally quite safe. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell how people will react to a certain event and as a woman; you don’t generally get much to say or much respect from the locals. It’s unsettling, as women here have little or no say in their lives and have few means of protecting themselves.
What do you do to stay safe?
Be respectful of others, and try and not be too openly feminist in your dealings with the locals…
What places in Uganda have you visited? What are your favorite and least favorite places?
We’ve traveled throughout most of Uganda and seen almost everything whether National Parks, cities or remote areas. Kampala is probably my least favorite place, simply because it’s a very large city, with incredible traffic etc. One of my favorite spots is Jinja town and its surrounds. It’s quiet, has everything you need (including milk shakes!) and a lot of our friends live there. Jinja surrounds are also beautiful, varied and easy to get to, including the Hairy Lemon Island (organic farm on an island in the Nile river), which is one of the best places I’ve ever been to.
What are the top 3-5 things someone who is visiting Murchinson Falls State Park should do?
- Game Drive
- Visit the “Top of the Murchison Falls”. The Nile River is 400-500m wide at this point, but all the water gets squeezed through a gap only 7m wide. The waterfall and the resulting gorge are truly awe inspiring.
- Fishing for Nile Perch
- Relax and enjoy the bush. Watch and listen to the life around you, whether birdlife or larger mammals like elephants.
What are the top 3-5 things someone visiting Uganda should do throughout the country?
We’ve been all over Uganda. We haven’t seen everything yet, but we’re working on it. Some of the top places one should see while in Uganda:
1. Safari in Murchison Falls National Park, and visiting the Top of the Falls
2. Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – fantastic birding as well by the way!
3. Climb the Rwenzori Mountains “Mountains of the Moon”
4. Visit the “Source of the Nile” in Jinja: go grade 5 white water rafting on the Nile, spend some time chillaxing on the Hairy Lemon island, go shopping for locally made arts & crafts on Main street.
Why do you feel living abroad is important?
It broadens your mind (cliché, I know), but it teaches you a lot about yourself, which in your “home” environment you’d never be confronted with. You learn to be more understanding and learn to be aware of the differences between people. Whether you choose to learn from these differences or not, is each person’s own prerogative. It also gives you the chance to experience life differently and thus to make a more informed decision for your life – you are the master of your own destiny.
Any final tips?
Enjoy traveling or new experiences. Although initially intimidating, things tend to work out right. There’s also very little that humans can’t adapt to, given time.
All photos from Astrid, her blog http://www.rabbitsviewofafrica.com, or the Murchison River Lodge website
Interview conducted by Evy Bround