Uganda, Pearl of Africa.
25th November to 21th December 2005
Following the small border near Kisoro, we were in Uganda. This was not my first time in Uganda, I had spent four years living in the capital, Kampala, with my parents as a child in the 60s, but for Blanca it would be her first time.
The asphalt had finished at the border and we were now back on dirt roads. The landscape continued with the Rwandan theme, mountainous, very green, lush and cultivated but surprisingly without the population density.
After a fairly short driving day, we spent the night at Kisoro, at Hotel Virunga where we had hoped to arrange a trip to Lake Mutanda nearby, to see some of the large pythons that reside there, but unfortunately couldn’t get the guide to drop his price to anywhere near our budget. In the morning we headed off for Kabale and Lake Bunyoni, listed as the Switzerland of Uganda, it is easy to see why, mountainous, green and very pretty. We gave the recommended campsite a miss, too many “overlanders” and opted instead for Karibuni Beach, quieter and cheaper but strangely no beach! Blanca resisted the temptation to do any washing partly due to the frequent rain and due to the presence of tadpoles in the water from the lake! Despite the pond life, it was a nice quiet place to relax and write up our Rwanda story. We had planned to visit one of the islands in the lake, by dugout canoe but were foiled by the rain. We were actually quite content to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet, watching the bird life and abundant otters frolicking in the lake. For an evening meal we were persuaded to try some of the local crayfish cooked by Robert, the young manager, come chef, come everything. They were delicious with chips and a masala sauce on the side. I was very tempted just to buy the crayfish and set them free, but Robert was keen to demonstrate his culinary skills, so I had to give in.
Next we headed of for Queen Elizabeth National Park, again a place were I’d visited as a child. We decided to enter the park at Mweya – the southern sector of the park is not recommended during the rainy season.
It was hard to find anywhere to bush camp along the way to Q.E.N.P with farm land interspersed with vast tea plantations, villages and thick tropical rain forest, so when I spotted Kalinzu Forest Eco-tourism Site, just off the road with camping and forest walks – perfect! Despite the evening’s torrential downpour, we were up and ready by eight for an early morning forest walk. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of some chimps but made do with Black and White Colobus, Redtail, Blue and L’hoest monkeys instead. The forest was stunning, thick, steaming and dense, just how you would expect a tropical rain forest to be but surprisingly without the hordes of insects that we experienced on the west coast. That is not to say that they don’t exist it was just that we weren’t the menu of the day! Our guides were very knowledgeable about the abundant flora and fauna and were also very conscious about the importance of conservation and community involvement. We always try and support eco-tourism projects whenever possible. We finished our walk through the forest and following a short drive, the timing was perfect for our entry to Queen Elizabeth National Park at midday.
The park appeared far more overgrown than I remembered it with fairly dense vegetation. Apparently during the war, the retreating Ugandan forces followed by the advancing Tanzanian forces had slaughtered the then abundant wild life for trophies, ivory and food leaving nothing to keep the vegetation in check. But the wild life is now on the increase and hopefully the balance will be redressed, given time. Along the roadside large families of warthog wallowed in muddy pools left by the overnight rains. These were some of the biggest warthogs we’ve seen with very long tusks. The Uganda kobs and defassa waterbuck were also in abundance and very healthy and so they should be with all this vegetation! A short game drive to the lodge and information centre to book in to the campsite, etc. At the information centre we were met by typical African apathy, “do you have a guidebook to the park?” “No we’ve run out.” “A map then?” “No we’ve run out of them too.” I’m here just to collect the park fees and not to think. There were plenty of guide books for Murchison Falls National Park…..! I suppose when we get there we will find plenty of books on Q.E.N.P and nothing on Murchison! Still we were just in time to join a boat trip up the Kazinga Channel, which connects the Lakes Edward and George and was definitely a highlight of our stay. We were fortunate to get very close to the hippo, buffalo and elephant there along with the abundant bird life. The boat provided a whole different perspective to our usual position in Grommet and gave me a rest from driving. Back at the camp one of the staff warned us not to venture too far into the bush as a pride of lion had been spotted close by. As a precaution I lit a fire, as we were relaxing after dinner with a cold gin and tonic I became aware that we weren’t alone, a short distance away an enormous hippo was grazing. Blanca was very happy that we were sleeping in the tent on the roof but was extremely concerned about her usual nightly visit to the toilet with hippos grazing all around us! Somehow we survived the night, packed and headed off for another day’s game drive to check out the saline volcanic crater lakes and baboon cliff with its spectacular views. Then it was back down on to the plains, where some of the old grass was being burnt off to allow for new growth before heading back to camp for more hippo encounters. After surviving another night we were about to head off for another short game drive and the exit gate when Grommet – true to form – refused to start. The fuel pump wasn’t working. A check to the power feed confirmed no power to the pump so rather than interrogate the wiring loom to find the fault, I quickly set about finding an alternative source of power and we made the gate just in time to avoid having to pay for another 24 hours.
A short distance from the park in the direction of Fort Portal, the road crosses the Equator and in Uganda this is marked by a large white concrete circle so of course we had to stop for a photo or two, much to the amusement of the passing Ugandans.
I’ve been amazed by the number of U.N. vehicles and personnel here in south west Uganda and find it slightly unnerving as though the area could become a war zone at any minute, there was even a huge U.N. helicopter at the airport in Kasese. I suppose with the borders with Congo and Rwanda close by, better the U.N. than the Ugandan Army!
Heading towards Kampala the road is a mixture of very poor, under construction and excellent asphalt but the scenery is superb but with not much in the way of bush camping opportunities. The area is comprised of either thick forest or papyrus filled swamps, rather like a vast unkempt botanical garden interspersed with tea plantations and areas of rolling hills and pasture, more reminiscent of Southern Ireland than Africa, so in the end we opted to stay in a village. Well I say stay in a village but we actually pulled onto the hard shoulder in front of the Gilman Valley Resort Hotel and asked if we could camp there. Everybody was amused by these crazy “muzungus” and their mobile house. The place reminded me a little of Spain with a TV and two bars playing completely different types of music as if in competition against each other. At last a chance to sample some really typical food from Uganda, something I’d been really looking forward to. I had often told Blanca about “matoke”, (steamed green bananas) and meat in a peanut sauce – it was delicious and just as I remembered it. Blanca wasn’t convinced and had goat stew with cassava chips which were sold buy the chip, 4 for 100 UGS, but agreed later that my stew tasted better.
Setting off the next morning we easily made Kampala by midday, but boy, oh, boy had it changed. Gone was the small quiet colonial city, now there were cars, trucks, mini busses, taxis, mopeds, bicycles and people everywhere, the road was a mix of badly potholed asphalt and dirt road, in fact absolute chaos. The house where we used to live on a small plot in the bush at Rubaga had now been swallowed up by the vast sprawling mass that is the metropolis of modern Kampala and was impossible to find. And with a little help we eventually managed to find Red Chilli backpackers, our base in Kampala. Red Chilli had been recommended by Martin, a Swiss guy we had met in Dar, who had been working in Kampala for six months for an N.G.O, and was on his way back there after a quick visit to Southern Africa. Martin was actually staying at Red Chilli when we arrived and offered to show us around. So Saturday night we teamed up with another couple and with Martin as our guide, hit the town, first stop an Indian for some food then on to an Irish pub, brought here all the way from Dublin by Nigel its owner. There, we got talking to some of the local expats who then suggested Al’s Bar which is something of a legend here. Al’s is a 24 hour place and was throbbing, the music was great, the clientele predominately African, drinks cheap, the girls beautiful and “ambitious,” the place was even busier at six the following morning, when we finally decided to call it a day and head back to Chilli’s. At least we had Sunday to recover before we hit the usual round of embassies and visas on Monday.
No problem with the Ethiopian visa but the visa for Sudan could possibly take four to six weeks so that would have to wait until Addis Ababa. So we stocked up with supplies and headed off to Murchison Falls National Park. We were planning to go to Murchison Falls and then head via the north through Karamoja and then down to Mt Elgon and in to Kenya. The Lords Resistance Army had been fairly active in the north of Uganda and had turned their attention to killing whites so we decided to give the north a miss which is a shame, but with five people dead in three weeks it wasn’t worth the risk! We had even advised against going to Murchison Falls but decided to take a chance. All the same it was a little unnerving to see the trucks close to Masindi near the park with armed guards ridding shotgun. Blanca even considered buying a Kalashnikov, the all-important Ugandan fashion accessory but has been put off by the range of colours, polished silver or black! We parked overnight in the immaculate grounds of the Masindi Hotel. It wasn’t worth risking ones life bush camping to save a few quid!
We weren’t far from the park’s entrance, so we could make the afternoon river cruise to the base of the falls. The launch was a lot smaller than the one we had taken in Queen Elizabeth but still allowed us a unprecedented view of the life along the river bank, there where some particularly fine specimens of Nile Crocodile basking with their mouths open to keep cool, a few were even nesting. By the time we had got back to the jetty, and booked in to the Red Chilly camp site there, I had been well and truly bitten by the abundant tsetse fly population. Despite wearing a thick shirt and long trousers, I was starting to resemble the Elephant Man. The game in the park is still struggling to recover after the war and the thick bush doesn’t help. We drove up to the top of the falls to see the raging waters of the River Nile squeeze through a 7m gap and then crash to the valley floor some 43m below. It was beautiful with a rainbow created in the mist above the thundering waters. I had an optimistic look around for my father’s hat and sunglasses, which he had left there on our last visit in the mid sixties. Strangely they had somehow disappeared.
Following the spectacle of the falls we headed for Kaniyo Pabidi Ecotourism Site in the Budongo Forest hopping to do some chimpanzee tracking. We were in luck, the guide had just returned from the chimps and if we were quick we could catch them before they moved on. In contrast to our last chimp trek, the Budongo forest was dry and not quite as hilly so it didn’t take long to arrive at the group. Fortunately they were still where the guide had left them, high in the trees resting, the youngsters playing around, swinging about the trees. The big males chilled out on the ground forming an ambush for any unfortunate creature that should pass by. Chimps, unlike Gorillas, like to supplement their vegetarian diet with some meat occasionally and are particularly fond of Colobus Monkey. So when the chimps are about, everything else keeps clear. It was amazing to see them chilling in the trees. At one point we thought it was raining but quickly realised that the chimps were all urinating together and we managed to get out of the way just in time. The chimp visit was fantastic, just us, our guide and the chimps really close up and personal. After an hour or so with the chimps we headed back and set up camp for the night. We had finished dinner and were relaxing when I heard a rustling near by, I expected to see a giant forest hog which are supposed to be quite common but turning on the torch illuminated an African Civet foraging just three meters away!
We had a great night’s sleep, you just can’t beat the sounds of the forest to lull you gently to sleep.
Because we couldn’t take the northern route, we had no other choice but to head back to Kampala and Red Chillis. As we were mobile and had some time we decided to try our luck and see if we could find the first house I had lived in, on Kololo hill. We found Ridgeway Drive but at first I didn’t recognise anything but as we turned the corner there was the familiar sight of the servants quarters, would the old house still be there? Sure enough there it was, well at least the half that we had lived in, the other was now a huge mansion. I felt like I had come home, something familiar in an unfamiliar city, we hung around and took some photos before going on our way.
Back at Chilli’s everybody was still there, Martin still waiting for his flight home, the two American medical tourists Laura and Colleen were busy checking on the sick, while their friend Susie, a photo-journalist searched for a story.
Next trip down memory lane was a visit to Entebbe, the venue for many family picnics. We decided the best/cheapest option was a local mini bus there and back so for the price of a couple a litre of fuel we set off. The local mini busses or matatus, are not for the faint hearted, most have just survived the crusher before being exported to Africa and then converted to carry as many people and as much luggage as is physically possible. Still they are one of the quickest and cheapest ways of getting about, apart from our favourite the boda-boda, a 50cc moped or if you are lucky 100 or 125cc on which you can fit two or even three passengers in addition to the driver. The boda-boda is best taken as transport between bars and clubs after copious amounts of alcohol so that the lack of brakes and lights doesn’t cause concern.
Anyway we sped out of Kampala and very quickly arrived in Entebbe, it made a change to be a passenger and get the chance to check out the scenery despite the white-knuckle ride and a very numb bum! We paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens there, it was quite “African” and full of kids camping there for the weekend – I can’t imagine that sort of thing happening in Kew Gardens. After we managed to escape from all the “guides” we walked down to the shore of Lake Victoria, gone were all the small fish drying on racks in the sun, a result of over fishing and the jetty where I use to try and fish was now a “military zone, no entry!” So we headed back up to Entebbe and a matatu back to town.
It was time to leave Kampala and head towards Kenya but we had to make a few stops along the way. First was a visit to Jinja, Colleen had talked me in to going rafting with her. We pitched up at the Adrift Nile High Resort, which was under construction but had a small shady spot for us to park and a great view of the Nile below. Blanca on seeing the first grade 2 rapid decided that rafting was not for her and opted to spend the day in the calmer waters of the swimming pool at the hotel next door and chill out with Susie and Laura. I’d not done any white water rafting before but not being one to shy away from high adrenalin sports decided to give it a try and since the source of the Nile is one of the most awesome rafting destinations in the world why not! It was an early start and a short boda-boda ride in to town and breakfast at Nile River Explorers office, Colleen was late, but arrived just in the nick of time before we set off, some problem with her taxi driver over sleeping. After a safety chat it was time to hit the water and practice getting in and out of the raft and the first rapid, a grade 2, was taken floating on our backs so that we knew what to expect latter. As it turned out, for the first few rapids we were to spend more time in the water than we did in the boat as we hit the huge walls of water of the grade 3 and 4 rapids and were propelled from the raft. But there was always a safety kayak close at hand to tow you back to the raft in time for the next adrenaline rush. In between rapids were some long stretches of calm water so we could relax, sunbathe, swim and take a snack lunch drifting down the Nile, towards Egypt, watching the Kayaks doing stunts. Then it was back to business for the next rapid – would we – or could we – stay in the raft……..? On the river there are a number of grade 6 rapids which we couldn’t do for safety reasons and because the water level was low, here the raft was taken out and carried or our guide Henry would go it alone! Our last rapid of the day, Bujagali Falls an awesome torrent of water and a grade 6, the raft was carried to a small section of calm water were we rejoined it before a grade 5. Here contrary to all the previous rapids, Henry told us if the raft flips don’t hang on let go! We were doing very well and had managed to stay aboard for the first few torrents where the other raft flipped, when we hit a huge wall of water side on the raft shot in to the air ejecting us in to the boiling waters like a cannon. But before you know it you are back on the surface, surfing down the rapid on your back to be rescued by one of the waiting Kayaks to rejoin the raft. We were so high with the buzz we all wanted to do it all again but were lured away with cold beers and a superb spread of food. Colleen and I rejoined the girls, pink from their day by the pool, still high from the days rafting. The next day we all chilled by the pool, the girls left early for Kampala to Christmas shop before their flights back to the States.
While at the campsite I got talking to some of the kids employed on the building site. Child labour is a fact of life here in Africa from children toiling in the fields to breaking rocks by the road side for aggregate. For them there is no escape, many are too poor or orphaned so are not fortunate to go to school, combined with the fact that there is very little infrastructure to absorb the few well educated people that there are. One of the “builders”, Joel, wrote us a letter requesting sponsorship for his education. He earns less than £0.35 a day, with which he has to feed himself and contribute to the family income, where are the N.G.O’s and charities set up to help these kids? Well of course they are all in the cities and towns like Kampala, all around Africa driving around in there huge expensive Toyota 4x4’s, the cost of which could finance the education of hundreds of kids like Joel. When I think of all the kids in Europe who take their education for granted, playing truant when there are kids throughout the world who are desperate for an education to free them from the poverty trap. Just a little something to think about as “you” over indulge this Christmas!
We left Jinja, which incidentally reminded me a lot of the Kampala that I knew as a child growing up there in the sixties, and headed off to Sipi Falls in the foothills of Mt Elgon. After some very poor asphalt we took a short cut which proved to be an excellent new road. At Sipi we checked out “The Crows Nest,” great views if you take a cabin but us campers are relegated as is often the case to an out of the way corner. We opted instead for Moses Camp Site, very “African” but with spectacular views of the falls and the plains of Karamoja. Unable to find Tom we settled for one of the guides from the camp, for a half-day trek taking in the three falls and a cave. An hour into the trek Blanca was already complaining. So I think a three to five day trek to the top of Mt Elgon quickly lost its romantic appeal in a similar way that Kilimanjaro did. Still we persevered and it was well worth it, we both felt like the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings setting out from the “Shire” for Mordor, climbing up through banana and coffee plantations, pasture and scrub. Above one of the falls is what our guide referred to as a swimming pool but was little more than a pond. To prove a point he quickly striped down to his swimming trunks and jumped in, giving us a great display of “river style” swimming, which entails a lot of splashing but little direction! I asked how deep and was told very deep, 15 metres, so I too stripped off and jumped in my feet hitting the bottom, 5 metres max. I don’t know what was worse, the shock of hitting the bottom or the icy cold water! The best bit about having a guide is being able to wander around through the tiny villages and past houses without being besieged by hordes of children screaming “muzungoo.”
Once back at Moses there was time to chill and a quick hot bucket shower before a little treat at The Volcanoes Safaris Rest Camp for dinner, a 3 course meal for two (we were the only guests) for £12 including drinks and a tip and the food was superb.
13km beyond Sipi Village the asphalt ends and we were back on very dusty, rocky, bad murram road but the scenery was incredible with stunning views as the road runs along the top of the escarpment.
When we finally reached the border with Kenya I was tempted to ask for a refund for the road fund tax as Uganda has to have some of the worse roads in East Africa so far!
I had come to Uganda to try and find something I had lost back in 1968 when we left Africa for England, but instead found fragments of a faded memory in a bustling modern metropolis, like missing pieces from a puzzle long since discarded.
No bush camping!
Cray fish prep
A Cray fish
Kalinzu Rain Forest
See You Later
Where are the animals!
Crossing the Equator
“Bush Camping Uganda Style”
Don’t do it that way
Check out the horns!
Just look at the camera
Murchison Falls Top
Budongo Forest Camping
Servants Quarters Kololo
House on Kololo Hill
White water rafting
With the Americans
Multi story bush hut!
Boy that’s cold
Way to success!
Our Beloved President