East African Odyssey – ‘The Pearl of Africa’

16 05 2011

Sat 9/4/2011:

13.00: Leave ‘the Shire’ bathed in unseasonal sunshine. The forecast early Spring heat-wave is now a cast iron certainty while we are away!

21.15: London Heathrow Terminal 5. Board overnight flight BA63 to Entebbe, Uganda; scene of the dramatic 1976 hostage-rescue mission carried out by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and re-enacted on celluloid in the movie ‘Raid on Entebbe’, led by Charles Bronson!

Not surprisingly it doesn’t feature on the in-flight play list and I settle instead for ‘True Grit’. The 2010 Coen brothers re-make manages to live up to the hype; Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn, for me better than ‘the Duke’s’ 1969 Oscar-winning performance, and an outstanding debut by the much feted 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld.     

Sun 10/4:

08.45: Clear blue sky, hot and sunny as we touch down on the edge of Lake Victoria, having virtually skimmed its surface on our descent. We are all set to discover something of the country Churchill dubbed the ‘Pearl of Africa’.

Stuart (a VSO colleague) greets us with his distinctive Scottish lilt and ever-present genial smile, and we are whisked away in his  Toyota Land Cruiser; a 40km drive to Kampala and the apartment he shares with wife Elisabeth.

They are on a two-year placement and have a country-wide brief to support the development of the schools’ inspectorate.

The accommodation is amazing; spacious, all mod cons and we even have exclusive use of a shower room for the duration of our stay. S & E have an ensuite!  As we lunch on the sun bathed balcony, sipping an ice cool ‘Club’ beer, overlooking a neatly tended and secure compound, they admit it is “VSO for softies!” 

After lunch it’s time for a cultural visit to Wamala Tombs; a bit of a mission to find them, and the heavens open to deliver a short sharp downpour. However by the time we leave the 19th century thatched roof tomb, of Kabaka (King) Sunna II, the sun is shining again and William, the ever so slightly inebriated “careytaker” is requesting we take a photograph of him holding Stuart’s umbrella!

Traditional culture demands that the kabuka’s palace also becomes his tomb. We are required to enter the building bare-footed, before kneeling on the ground and making an ‘offering’ to the custodian of the dead king’s spirit, so that the dead king might grant our wishes!

Not unreasonably, we request a thoroughly pleasant holiday and lots of sunshine, before being given a Ugandan coffee bean to chew on (apparently a traditional form of greeting) and retreating respectfully, backwards, from the dead kabaka’s presence.  

Apparently, the better known Kasubi Tombs have recently been burnt down in an act of wanton vandalism related to on-going tensions between newly re-elected President Museveni, ‘the man with the hat’, ( although I thought that was the man from ‘Delmonte’!) and the current kabaka (Ronald Mutebi II).

One way and another Museveni has managed to cling to power since ’86, having been instrumental in the armed rebellions leading to the demise of both his predecessors, Milton Obote in ’85 and the infamous Idi ‘Last King of Scotland’ Amin in ’79.

The kabaka belongs to the historically dominant Bugandan tribe. Museveni is not Bugandan and there are unresolved issues arising from the complex co-existence between president, prime minister and royal family that date back to the immediate post-colonial era (following independence in 1962).   

Our return to S & E’s home, in the relatively prosperous suburb of Ntinda, takes us through some pretty rundown and squalid areas as well as a first encounter with the northern bypass which is not recommended after dark due to the constant stream of pedestrians and stray cattle!

Smoke belching ‘matutus’ (overcrowded mini-buses) and kamikaze ‘boda-bodas’ (motorbike taxis) are central to the omnipresent traffic-jam chaos in downtown Kampala. The ‘New Vision’ newspaper reports that there are five deaths, daily, as a result of boda-boda accidents.

A busy but enjoyable first day is rounded off at ‘Mamba Point’, “the first and last word in genuine Italian dining in Kampala” (‘Lonely Planet – East Africa’) – excellent pizzas from a wood fired oven and a couple more ‘Club’ beers.  

Mon 11/4

07.15: Early start, as we head for ‘Backpackers’, a hostel on the Natete Rd in the Lunguja district, across the city centre to the south-west. The rush hour traffic is building up nicely, with whistle happy traffic police, clearly out of their depth and largely ignored, merely adding to the confusion.

08.45:   Our ninety minute ‘commute’ is over. We thank Stuart profusely before he heads off  into the traffic again to battle his way back across the city!

‘Backpackers’ – “set in lush gardens…an escape from the bustle of the city” (‘LP’) is to be the starting point for our budget, two night Murchison Falls excursion.

This was all booked via email, with no down payment, so it’s a relief that we are expected. There is to be a party of just three; we are joined by Stefan, a taciturn German anaesthetist who lives and works in Trondheim (Norway) and of course speaks perfectly enunciated English.    

09.15: We are away – on safari – with  Winnie, our tour leader and Geoffrey our driver.

Around midday our first port of call is the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, around 170km NW of the capital city. It is 70-sq-km reserve run by ‘Rhino Fund Uganda’ set up to reintroduce the species that was shot to extinction by poachers around a quarter of a century ago.  

Uganda’s total population of nine white rhino roam the savannah and visitors are taken on foot to view them. Our informative guide, cabin (who has a perfect set of glistening white teeth) slings a rifle over his shoulder, scouring the earth for footprints and hands around a piece of recent rhino dung to show we are on the right track.  

Ten minutes later we discover a mother and child, crouched in the long grass sheltering from the heat of the midday sun. Of course, Tabin knew they were there all along!  Our view is partially obscured but not to worry, a short distance away we spot a lone male standing in the shade of a tree, head erect, sniffing the air as he senses our arrival. Apparently his eyesight is so poor he wouldn’t be able to see us clearly even after a trip to ‘Specsavers’.  

So having seen a third of the total Ugandan population of rhino, it’s time for a picnic lunch that Winnie has knocked up in our absence, before moving on.

It’s late afternoon as we take a dirt road signposted, Karuma Falls Nature Reserve. We had managed to pause on the main road, for a first sight of the impressive falls; a fleeting Kodak moment, as the armed police won’t allow us to leave the vehicle and we have to keep the engine running. 

Having parked up, and following a steep descent down a muddy, wooded slope towards the thundering roar of tumbling water, we are rewarded with spectacular views of the cascade through rainbow scattered spray. 

We soon spot a group of lithesome, naked young men fishing in the churning waters, at the foot of the falls. Geoffrey hails a couple, who cover themselves as they wade ashore and dart into the trees. By the time we climb back to the top they are waiting, fully clothed, with their catch of the day.

Winnie drives a hard bargain before handing over 5000 shillings (about £1.50) for a couple of large glistening fish that will form the basis of our evening meal. Fish don’t come much fresher than that!

Just before sunset (around 7.30pm year round) we pull into the recently opened ‘camp’ where we will spend the night. We had been expecting a tent but are pleasantly surprised when Nora, the site manager, (a delightful young woman with braided hair and an enormous smile) shows us to a traditional Ugandan ‘banda’ (a round hut with a thatched roof) with a spacious double bed!

The sun sets very quickly out here but there is time to enjoy the colourful spectacle while sipping on an ice cool ‘Nile Special’ beer. Winnie comes up trumps with a traditional fish dish which she spices up with ‘Royco’, a staple ingredient in Ugandan ‘cuisine’.  

Meanwhile Nora gets a campfire underway and we finish the day in the warmth of its glow beneath panoply of stars.    

Tues 12/4:

Up before the crack this morning. It’s too early and too dark to make use of the bucket shower facility!

We’re away at first light and in only a few minutes we roll into Murchison Falls National Park, pop up roof already open for optimum wildlife viewing. During its heyday, back in the ‘60s, Murchison was home to one of the largest concentrations of animals in Africa, including 15,000 elephants!

Sadly, numerous species subsequently suffered at the hands of poachers and Idi Amin’s troops. The entire rhino was wiped out and only a few prides of lion survived.

However the wildlife is fast recovering and today we are lucky. During our morning drive we are lucky enough to encounter: Ugandan kobs (an antelope and the national animal), hartebeest, buffalo, warthogs, giraffe, impala, hippos, an African fish eagle, a pair of grey crested cranes (the national bird) and, tucked beneath a bush, a  slumbering 3-legged lion who had lost a leg in a poacher’s trap.

The River Nile runs through the park and during our afternoon boat trip we watch elephants down at the water’s edge and hippo wallowing in the shallows, before the awesome falls come into view.

Once described as the most spectacular thing to happen along the Nile’s entire 6700km length, the 45m waterfall really does give this park an extra dimension. The 50m wide river squeezes its way through a 6m gap in the rock, crashing through this narrow gorge with incredible power.

The falls famously feature as a backdrop in the old Hollywood blockbuster, ‘The African Queen’, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

Another Catherine, ‘Cathy’, and Louise, both good VSO friends from Rwanda, amazingly take the same boat trip! They are on a short, out of country, break as it is Genocide Memorial week back in Rwanda and not a great time to hang around. We have promised to meet up with them again as we pass through Rwanda on the next leg of our expedition.  

Chris, Stefan and I have been given instructions to disembark close to the foot of the falls. All the other passengers are on a return trip.  A gang-plank is precariously lowered on to a riverside boulder which bears a sign, ‘Beware Crocodiles’ – now they tell us!

A large stride, an unsteady clamber and a jump takes us back on terra firma, in time to wave our audience goodbye, as the boat sails away leaving us stranded. And then a figure suddenly emerges from the shade of the trees, like a character from an espionage movie. “I am your guide, Emmanuel. Follow me I will take you to the top where Winnie is waiting with your vehicle!”

It is very hot by now and the climb is steep in parts. We make regular stops to catch our breath and admire the views. Forty minutes later we have successfully made it to the head of the falls and an altogether different perspective of their tremendous force.

A short drive later and we are in the Budongo Forest Reserve, a tract of virgin tropical forest on the southern fringes of Murchison Falls National Park.

It is dormitory accommodation tonight with running hot showers – bliss. We are the only visitors. Stefan has a dormitory to himself, Chris and I share another and Winnie and Geoffrey a third!

As we gather for a candle lit evening meal, a special curry topped with slices of boiled egg and washed down with bottles of ‘Nile’ lager, we watch fireflies and listen to the call of chimps in the surrounding woodland. We’ll be tracking them tomorrow!

Weds 13/4:

A more leisurely start today but we are up, showered, breakfasted and briefed (by our knowledgeable and smiley guide Evelyn) for 08.00. There are no guarantees that we will encounter the chimpanzees but we can hear them all around us calling to each other as we stealthily venture into the forest with its giant mahogany trees.

Ten minutes in and we encounter our first chimps crossing the track ahead of us, and some high up in the tree tops overhead. It is early morning and they are foraging for breakfast, constantly on the move.

As we continue to burrow through the undergrowth, tracking the chimps, they continue to skirt around us. They are reluctant to let us get too close at first but after 20 minutes or so seem to get used to our presence and slow down considerably. We are able to observe them at close quarters, as they ‘hang out’ in the nearby branches.

We spend just over an hour with man’s nearest relative before reluctantly leaving – it has been a fascinating experience.

With our mini safari over we head towards Kampala, nodding off en-route and arriving at ‘Backpackers’ around 17.00. Stuart kindly picks us up and taxis us ‘home’ where Elisabeth is busy preparing a tasty chilli dish.

Our hectic schedule begins to catch up with us and after a couple of glasses of wine we are ready to crawl under the mosquito net!

Thursday 14/4:

Today, Stuart is taking time off to drive us out to Jinja, famous as the source of the Nile River. It’s about a two-hour trip but first we drop Elisabeth off at work and pop in to take a look. S & E have a huge office for their sole use and a desk each. This is definitely not VSO as I know it!

Jinja has tropical feel about it, lush vegetation sloping down to the shores of Lake Victoria. The Owens Fall Dam across the Nile provides a spectacular gateway to the old colonial town but first we take the road down past the equally impressive brewery (an alternative ‘source of the Nile’ – special beer that is) to ‘the Kingfisher’ lakeside resort.

Chris and I are to take a boat trip from here while Stuart chases up his membership application at the Jinja golf club!

We have a boat to ourselves. We are barely underway before the skipper cuts the outboard motor and glides the boat up to a tiny island (complete with its own ‘gift hut’). We ‘jinja-lly’ step ashore and he points out an adjacent spot on the lake where the faster flowing water apparently indicates the birth place of the  Nile. Chris listens attentively (above) but it’s not at all spectacular!      

But the boat trip is, as we chug along, past countless egrets, cormorants and kingfishers, watching vervet monkeys sporting in the trees and local fishermen checking their nets.

Before heading off for lunch there is just time for a leisurely stroll around the Source of the Nile Gardens. It is from here, high up on the west bank, on 28th July 1862, that John Hanning Speke allegedly gazed down upon the lake and proclaimed this spot, the source.

The intrepid explorer was later to die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while out hunting in deepest Wiltshire – aged just 37!

Stuart suggests lunch at the nearby beauty spot of Bujagali Falls. Chris and I need to top up our Ugandan shillings first so we head towards the centre of Jinja. The main street is strewn with debris, there are smouldering fires at each intersection and a heavier than normal police presence. It appears we have arrived following a period of civil unrest!

We locate the ATM, which is operational, and make a speedy get away.

Bujagali Falls is a misnomer; actually they are a wide-spread series of large rapids. ‘The Black Lantern’ bar/restaurant, set beneath a traditional thatched roof affords wonderful views along the river from its elevated position.  

An extremely controversial Bujagali dam is currently under construction. It is likely to submerge the fast flowing rapids (at least to a certain extent) so now is a pretty good time to capture the view for posterity. As I saunter off to the edge of the terrace with my camera I am suddenly aware of someone trying to attract my attention.

Hearing, “Phil?”, uttered in a familiar Gallic tone, I spin around to find myself face to face with Abdel-Illah, a close VSO colleague from Kirehe district, Rwanda!

To misquote Bogart, “Of all the bars in all the towns in all the world…”    Abdel-Illah is staying here with Roisin (also a VSO friend from Galway) who arrives on the scene with a shriek of surprise and huge bear hug. They too have left Rwanda behind during Memorial Week, and are spending a few days rafting on the Nile.

Chris and Stuart can only sit mesmerised, over lunch, as Roisin brings me up to speed (at high-speed) with all the latest VSO Rwanda gossip, every sentence delivered in a thick Irish brogue and seemingly prefaced with “Oh my God…”   Well she is a good Catholic girl!

The return journey to Kampala is interspersed with texts from Elisabeth warning of possible delays en-route in the aftermath of a civil disturbance, in which the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (Kizza Besigye) has been shot (in the hand) during a walk-to-work demonstration.     

According to Stuart the traffic is no worse than usual and we are back in time for a quick shower before heading off to ‘Cayenne’ an up market bar/restaurant, catering largely for ex-pats, and with as extensive a menu as we are likely to find in Kampala.

The place is heaving but we find a poolside table and thoroughly enjoy our final evening together in Uganda. Stuart and Elisabeth have been wonderfully hosts and we are very grateful to them.

Friday 15/4:

The ‘Daily Monitor’, ‘Truth Every Day’, devotes eight pages to yesterday’s ‘running battles with protestors’  in which Besigye was shot and 45 injured, including school children attacked with teargas canisters.

Clearly ‘the man with the hat’ feels he has free rein to order a violent clamp down on protestors voicing concern about the current economic hardships. This included a ban on live media coverage of yesterday’s demonstration.

It doesn’t seem like a bad time to be leaving!

Our flight to Kigali isn’t until 16.15.

Before Stuart delivers us to the airport there is plenty of time for a morning visit to a local school, which is sponsored by VSO volunteers in Kampala.

The ‘Pride Community School’ is accessed via a narrow and muddy track between what can only be described as slum dwellings. The route, thick with flies, is garbage strewn and we have to pick our way around fetid pools of water.

The school receives no government funding and exists purely on school fees and donations.  The original buildings are little more than run down shacks, the like of which I’ve never encountered in Zambia or Rwanda. But the VSO volunteers have provided a large new brick-built teaching space and a range of recreational playground equipment.

We are greeted by a sea of smiling faces. The children are a delight, and when Chris asks a class of P3/P4 students, “What is the best thing about Uganda?” they answer, in unison and without hesitation, “Education!”

After this morning’s school visit we feel a few pangs of conscience sitting in the opulent palm fringed surroundings of Entebbe’s Lake Victoria Hotel, enjoying a farewell coke with Stuart.

This place has recently been renovated and rebranded. Its former name, ‘The Libya Hotel’ is still etched into the façade. There has been a lot of Libyan investment in Uganda, while mad, bad and dangerous to know Gadhafi remains a close ally, although it is being played down at the moment!

Our 45 minute flight is on time. There are further spectacular views over Lake Victoria as we depart and head for the welcoming hills of Rwanda. We touch down in Kigali 15 minutes before we left Entebbe!

As we descend the aircraft steps and cross the tarmac towards immigration it feels almost like coming home…




One response

17 05 2011

Fascinating travelogue. Enjoyed every step of the way. Looking forward to part two. Sorry about the results at the weekend, so near and yet so far. Keep up the good work. Will Chris start her Blog now???? Cheers.

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