By Johannes Sæbøe
Ah, Entebbe! Lakeside paradise of tropical animals, Sunday outings and high-end retail therapy, but also home to Uganda’s international airport, a traffic hub that just keeps growing.
Never shy for attention, the airport has been known for international incidents, major UN-led regional operations, and a great starting point for flying safaris. Over the years, Entebbe has grown into what we see today – an airport that handled more than 1.5 million passengers in 2015.
The expansion programme that was started in that same year, is set to not only expand the operational capacity of the hub to as much as 100,000 flight operations a year, but also to make Uganda a serious competitor for a larger chunk of the market of travellers seeking to experience all the wonders of East Africa.
As anyone who has travelled out of the international terminal at the airport knows, you could be forgiven for believing you had been teleported to one of Old Kampala’s smaller shopping malls and not the international departures area of an airport.
The two cafeterias airside are not bad, and Crane Cafeteria does offer a good hamburger, but the prices can only be described as high – the last time I checked, a local beer set me back 9K Uganda Shillings.
Not at all a fitting farewell. If you prefer a coffee (and fewer people), please make your way straight ahead as you pass through immigration. The smaller coffee shop there is still over priced, though.
Lately, I have taken to happily paying $35 to the very agreeable persons running the Karibuni. The lounge is situated at the very end of the departures hall, and is well worth the visit, if you can make it past all the souvenir shops, the throng of the food-court-cum-pre-departure kafunda and the pre-boarding security lines at the gates. Come down to this end of the hall, and all of this calms down.
As soon as you pass through the lounge’s doors, the faint feeling of air conditioning strikes you – as something you didn’t know you were missing. Much like the humming of a generator suddenly going quiet.
The reception desk at the Karibuni Lounge is usually manned by very welcoming and polite staff. They will accept your cash for entry, or – if you are lucky enough to be travelling in business class – the lounge invitation you were given at check-in.
They do not recognize all frequent flyer cards, so do make sure to get your invitation as you drop off your luggage. Behind the desk, you can marvel at the large collection of promotional aircraft models the lounge has accumulated over the years. Most airlines serving Entebbe are represented – as well as some that aren’t.
With your entry secured, you turn to face the lounge proper, and are greeted by a full-size pool table. What a nice touch! Having visited lounges in many airports, I can safely say pool tables are a rarity. Everything about the table seems in order, and I get the impression that this is a point of pride for the lounge, something that is taken good care of.
I’ve never seen anyone play at the pool table, though. I hope they at least use it for company lock-ins! Other amenities at the Karibuni Lounge are somewhat scarce, but they do offer a complementary massage chair, as well as computers and a meeting room – great for those power meetings with the people you are going to spend the next 5-10 hours with next to on the plane.
Even if you don’t have a meeting or other business to attend to, there are plenty of places to sit in the lounge. The colour scheme is red, yellow and black, and the seats are comfortable. Secure yourself a seat by the windows, and you will get the best views of the apron and runway anywhere in the airport. From the large, north-facing windows at the far end, I have myself witnessed a lot of exciting traffic of the kind you just can’t see in Europe anymore: TurboLETs, DC-3s and a host of smaller piston engines and turboprops. Most times, the traffic pattern at Entebbe opens for landings from the north, which means you will always see your aircraft arriving, giving you ample time to pack up your stuff before heading to the gate. Not that you should ever need to – gate personell usualy comes to pick you once boarding is under way.
While spending time at the lounge, make sure you have a nibble at some of the food on offer. While the selection is lacklustre at best, they do offer warm samosas that are to die for. Cold sandwiches, warm pies and nuts, as well as fresh fruit, round out the food offerings. If you’re more in the market for drinks, the choices improve slightly: Whether you want a soda, wine, beer, spirits or plain water, there is always a bottle waiting for you.
For a completely different type of refreshment, step into the complementary shower. There is one in each of the restrooms, and the staff will be happy to provide you with towels. While showering in an airport may seem a little awkward the first time, nothing beats the feeling of stepping aboard your flight refreshed like that. The restrooms are placed behind the largest feature in the lounge, namely the massive waterfall that contributes to the freshness of the air and the constant sound of running water.
As soon as you return to the departures hall, you’ll realize the subtle effect the air conditioning has had on you, and the joy of being in silence. Noise levels in the main hall are significantly higher than in the Karibuni Lounge, as well as on the aircraft. You’ll be happy you had this time to brace yourself for the trek to your next destination, especially if you’re travelling in the back of the plane
Is Karibuni Lounge worth the cost, though?
This writer would say yes. You can certainly get the same food and drinks at the Crane Cafeteria, and almost always end up using the airport’s free WiFi. But the better seating, free food and drinks and cleaner lavatories, as well as the peace and quiet, make it worth the price. Would I use it at twice the price? No.
With the expansion going on at Entebbe, the prospect of more lounges being added is great news for all lounge hounds. Hopefully, the increased competition will drive prices down and make the Karibuni Lounge even better than it already is.
The writer is the managing director of East African Records