With the sonorous sound of the plane’s engines ringing in my ears, I take a quick look out the right-hand window and gaze out over the seemingly endless vastness of Lake Victoria. The sky is bright blue, not a cloud on the horizon. I have just taken off from the airport of Entebbe, the former capital of Uganda. The first time I was here was three years ago, late at night, when I put my luggage into what I hoped was a cab and was driven to a small lodge on the outskirts of town.
From my single-engine plane, I try to recreate the route. The two-lane road from the airport north along the lake, up to the small shopping center right by the park, then behind the traffic circle – or whatever you want to call the big, round sandy square through which the traffic makes its way in chaos, but somehow successfully. So far so good. I see the swamp, where the lodge was located, from which terrace I could look onto a small pond. Slowly I reduce my altitude, still a bit shaky, and indeed: The small house with the yard is right next to me, just as in my memory.
Whereas three years ago I had first slept off the jet lag, only to get behind the wheel of the old Toyota Landcruiser (nicknamed the “Golden Wonder”) slightly overwhelmed, I don’t allow myself a break here. How could I, after all no one has taught me how to land an airplane. But that doesn’t matter for now. I try to retrace the first leg of my journey. I remember the first driving test well: After a few miles, the developed road to Kampala was closed and a hand-painted sign directed me, simply put, across the embankment onto the country’s usual dirt roads. Looking at Google Maps or the printed road map was immediately of no help here and the first small settlement of shacks, where the road forked in four directions, overwhelmed my senses and my orientation in equal measure. I had to throw all the safety concerns that the guidebook and the always cautionary website of the German Foreign Office had taught me in advance overboard after just one hour and rely on the information of a Ugandan who had taken the opportunity directly and without asking questions to sit on the back seat of the jeep. Luckily, he actually wanted to go in the same direction as I did.
From the bird’s eye view of the airplane, this detour was now much easier: The settlement was easy to find, but much more exciting was how clearly only one path could be the right one – and the other possibilities disappeared after only a few miles in a spider web of dust roads. So we continued north, towards the main road that connected the east and west of the country. Flying a country like Uganda without any understanding of the gauges and coordinates otherwise required in aviation has its advantages: The landscape is sparsely populated, there are few roads and even fewer that have at least a partial tar surface – and at the same time, the landscape and vegetation change rapidly on the route to the west. By car, it took me a good 7 hours to drive from Entebbe to Lake Mburo National Park. However, in the absence of traffic, potholes and short photo stops, this time could be casually shortened to four hours in the air.
You read correctly: I sat in front of my Xbox for four hours to recreate a real trip. Exploring Uganda as a self-driver is perhaps one of the most exciting and impressive experiences of my life. While looking at the photos brings back memories, actually being there is often hard to imagine. However, the virtual air trip did not disappoint my expectations. The sense of distance, the slowly changing landscape, the small villages along the way, the “commercial centers” – settlements of brick buildings selling goods from the surrounding area – all came back to my memory. The game’s outstanding graphics actually manage to create the feeling of photorealism surprisingly often. Even remote corners of the route I could recognize, remember place names and related situations that I had long forgotten.
THE ROAD IS ALWAYS IN SIGHT
Of course, a trip with the flight simulator can not replace a real trip. It lacks the smells, the strains, especially the encounters. But above all: there’s nowhere to arrive. The refreshing stoney (a sensational ginger soda from the Coca-Cola corporation that it inexplicably sells only in various African countries) on arrival at the lodge’s terrace overlooking the sunset and a horde of thieving baboons is rigorously replaced by a desperate crash landing that hurls me right back to the main menu. Still, those four hours were one of the most impressive gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years – and one that I can’t equate to any other moment with gamepad in a gampad in my hands.
By the way, my next trip should take me to Canada. Which route do I want to take? Maybe this time I’ll just take a look at everything beforehand in the Flight Simulator.
Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, in its 2021 re-release for PC and Xbox, is perhaps the most beautiful game currently available. Not only because the incredibly impressive engine has created a three-dimensional representation of the entire world that has never been seen before, but because you are almost constantly discovering special places – whether unforgettable vacation trips, foreign points of desire or your own home from the air.
This post is also available in: German