A Travellerspoint blog

Beautiful Lake Bunyonyi

Day 36 - Kabale & Lake Bunyonyi

It was cold and wet when I woke this morning. Kabale is approximately 2000m above sea level and it felt as though the town had been completely encircled by clouds, cold damp air just seemed to have permeated everything.

Such an inclement outlook meant that I was in no mood to do anything or go anywhere this morning. Instead, I was quite content to find a cozy nook in the common room and just read. I had stumbled upon a copy of Camus' The Plague somewhere along the road and I was ingesting it eagerly. Do all college students go through a Camus phase, or is it just me? Anyway...

By lunch the clouds had lifted and the rain had cleared. The Canadian girls told me they were headed to Lake Buyonyi - Uganda's equivalent of an alpine lake and the main tourist attraction in the immediate region. Determined not to waste the day entirely and keen to keep hanging out with my new found friends, I decided to tag along. So we all gathered up our things, piled into a share taxi and headed down the pockmarked, puddle infested road that led to the docks.

The end goal for the afternoon was to reach an eco-hostel located on Amagara Island (one of the many islands sprinkled across the lake). One of the Canadian girls had read about it somewhere and convinced us that it was a cool place to visit. Apparently she wasn't the only person to have read that article, because there were a handful of other travellers also on their way to Amagara hanging around the docks when we arrived.

We introduced ourselves to the other travellers and soon discovered why they were stuck milling around the docks. The conundrum they (and now we) faced as we stood on the docks admiring the imposing lake, was how to reach this elusive island. Our options were laid out in front of us. 1) Pony up for a chauffeur driven ride in a little wooden boat with an outboard motor attached to it, or 2) save a couple of bucks and paddle ourselves over to the island in an open canoe. These guys might have been umming and ahhing or trying to haggle with the motor boat operator but there was never really any question of which option my group was going to choose. All of us were on pretty tight budgets whereas time was something we had plenty to spare... plus, it probably couldn't hurt to get a little upper body exercise.

Option1!

Option1!

Option 2!

Option 2!

So we paired off, climbed into our canoes and started paddling. Our enthusiasm had convinced the others that canoeing was the best option and they grabbed a paddle and joined us. We got a lot or looks from the locals as we set off - and why not? It must have looked pretty funny to see half a dozen boats full of mzungus thrashing away across the lake.

The scenery as we paddled was just stunning but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was hard to admire its beauty at times... my competitive juices got flowing towards the end and my canoe buddy and I spent the last mile in a flat out sprint as we raced to be the first to reach Amagara. Apparently I have the very unfortunate characteristic of hating to lose, even at something as trivial as a casual Ugandan, alpine lake canoe ride!

Losing ground!

Losing ground!

The chase is on!

The chase is on!



It was almost 6pm by the time we reached the island, checked in and had settled into our dorm. The sun was just beginning to set which made for incredible twilight vistas from the hostel's open air common room. In such a beautiful, peaceful place it was impossible not to relax. So my now extended group of friends and I whiled away the night chatting and playing games. We drank beers, talked and played cards/scrabble/etc till well after midnight.

Relaxing

Relaxing

Chilling

Chilling

Stunning twilight view

Stunning twilight view

More gratuitous twilight beautifulness

More gratuitous twilight beautifulness

Posted by VincitVeritas 04:58 Archived in Uganda Tagged island africa canoeing kabale uganda lake_bunyonyi amagara eco_lodge eco_hostel Comments (0)

When things go bump in the night!

Day 35 – Katunguru to Kabale

I was up and waiting by the side of the road at 5:30am. John had wanted to get an early start and that was the time we had agreed to meet.

Now I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but if its 5:30am and you ever find yourself standing by the side of the road on the edge of a town without street lights (or much electricity of any kind actually), in the middle of nowhere Uganda, you will probably notice one thing… its pretty dark. I mean, really, really dark – like so pitch black you can barely see your hand in front of your face dark.

I had navigated to my spot at the edge of town by way of my head torch but with its battery running desperately low, I was forced to sit down on my backpack in the dark and just hope that John would see my silhouette in his headlights and not just drive right on by.

Unfortunately, this left me with nothing to do but wait while my overactive imagination ran wild. I like to think that I’m not the kind of guy who scares easily but initially, every rustle in the bushes or puff of wind through the trees had the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. I kept thinking about what the Belgian couple’s guide had said about the lack of fences around the game reserve – we were at least a dozen kilometres from the park, surely the animals didn’t range that far away at night… or did they?

Nonetheless, after another 10-20 minutes I was eventually able to smother the rising fear and gather myself. Despite having sat by the side of the road in the dark for close on half an hour, I had yet to be devoured by some wild beast… maybe I would be okay after all. I finally began to relax.

Actually, I had become so relaxed that I didn’t even notice that I had been joined by a woman – a discovery that, once realised, made me decidedly unrelaxed! Where had this woman come from? How long had she been standing there? How the hell did I not notice her?!?! These were just some of the questions racing through my mind as I sat there too afraid to move or make a sound? Could she see me, did she even know I was there? Of course she could, if her sight was good enough to make it to the side of the road without a torch, she could sure as hell see me.

Although she was no more than 10m away and my eyes had almost half an hour to adjust to the darkness, I could barely make out more than the outline of her in the dark. My heart was beating out of my chest and my mind was racing, that overactive imagination which I thought I had squashed was back again. Its strange because I didn’t feel threatened, I wasn’t worried that she would harm me – she was merely standing there waiting for something – but the knowledge that someone (or something) could creep up on me like that was incredibly disconcerting.

It wasn’t until I heard a vehicle roaring through the silence of the night that I realised why this mysterious woman was standing there. She was a fellow traveller waiting for the pre-dawn minibus to god only knows where. It turns out that by complete and utter coincidence I had chosen the local ‘bus stop’ as the place to wait for John.

The van screeched to a halt right in front of us and the woman moved forward and loaded her bag, a young baby – which I had not noticed until her full form had been revealed by the glow of the van’s headlights – was strapped to her back in the traditional fashion. I remained seated by the side of the road, making no movement towards the bus. The van’s conductor stuck his head out the window and stared at me for a long time – probably wondering what the hell I could be doing waiting with a bag on the edge of town in the pitch black darkness of pre-dawn, unless I wanted to take the bus. By this time the lady (bub, bags and all) had completely loaded herself into the van. The conductor hesitated a moment longer, scoffed at me with a mix of impertinence and confusion before banging on the passenger side door to signal for the driver to get going, which he did just as quickly as he had arrived.

Interestingly, this wouldn’t be the only time that I found myself waiting by the side of the road for a ride in the pitch black early hours in some town in the middle of nowhere. And I’ve decided that no matter where you are, its always scary as hell!

It was another half an hour before the sun finally peaked its little head up and by the time John and the others arrived it had well and truly risen. I’d lie if I said I was thrilled about having to sit by the side of the road for so long (especially in the dark!) but I was becoming more and more accustomed to what is commonly referred to as ‘Africa Time’. And besides, I was just happy for the lift and the company.

Finally... sunrise!

Finally... sunrise!

We drove in convoy, John’s friends following behind. Although Kigali (and Kabale) was in the complete opposite direction, we were headed to back towards the park. Someone had told them that they could find lions in some remote corner of the park and the group was determined to get a glimpse before the trip back to Rwanda. As for me, I was in no rush and simply happy to augment my brief safari experience from the day before.

Turning off the main road and heading for lion territory, we hadn’t gone far before we came across the sign in the middle of the road that read “Road Closed 50km Ahead”. John, with his typical Texan bravado was unperturbed by this so we drove on anyway. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, after crossing some 50km or so of shockingly poor dirt road we came across a bridge which had been washed away. There was still a continuous strip of dirt from one bank to the next but on closer inspection it became apparent that the strip was little more than a foot or so thick, underneath which was a gaping cavity of about 2 meter with a gentle stream running beneath it. We debated the next move for some time – John was all for trying it of course – before eventually resigning ourselves to the fact that we would have to turn around.

None shall pass!

None shall pass!

Yeah... but what if we drive over it really, really fast?

Yeah... but what if we drive over it really, really fast?

The backtracking over that 50km of junk road was slow going and on reaching the main road we decided to cut our losses and simply head straight for Kabale. Even despite the unnecessarily early start and the ill-fated lion excursion, I didn’t really mind. I was just grateful for the chance to chat with John and his mates, who were all involved in the same program and also seemed really interesting.

We reached Kabale around lunch time and made finding a restaurant priority number one. With no breakfast in my belly, I decided to splurge and ordered a steak. While not the best I’ve ever had, it was still a memorable experience as it was the first I’d had since touching down in Africa!

I said farewell to my new friends as they hopped back in their 4x4s and headed on to Kigali. Meanwhile, I went in search of a hostel (Edirisa) which I found easy enough thanks to my Lonely Planet guide. I checked in and was escorted to my room where I met some cool Canadian girls. After the morning’s exertions I felt like taking it easy so just spent the rest of the day hanging out around the hostel sampling the local beer and swapping ghost stories with my new Canadian buddies.

Posted by VincitVeritas 21:47 Archived in Uganda Tagged africa kabale uganda katanguru Comments (0)

Boat Safari Bliss

Day 34 – Queen Elizabeth National Park

I was up at dawn this morning and after a quick rinse from a bucket of cold water, I was out on the road. There was a taxi waiting on the edge of town but the driver wanted five times what I had just paid for my lodging to take me the measly 6 km to the nearest gate into Queen Elizabeth National Park. He was apparently in no mood to bargain either because when I bluffed that I’d rather walk than pay his exorbitant price, he called me on it.

That’s how I found myself in the unenviable position of walking down the long straight road towards the Park’s gate, not knowing if I would be able to hitch a ride or be forced to walk the whole way. It was a beautiful cloudless day and the mercury was sure to top 30C at some point but thankfully it was early enough that the sun was not bearing down directly on me just yet. I held out my thumb as each car approached but the passing vehicles were few and far between at this hour. Moreover, the first handful of cars that I spotted on the horizon merely motored past me in a spray of gravel. Eventually an overloaded sedan headed my thumb and gestured for me to climb in. However, when I acquired about the price he told me he wanted almost as much as the taxi driver back in Katanguru. By this stage I figured I was more than halfway to the gate so I waived him away and continued my march.

No end in sight!

No end in sight!

About 1km from the turnoff to the gate I was finally picked up by a Belgian couple who lived in Kigali and were visiting the Park for the weekend. They had a local guide with them who chastised me for being out on foot in the middle of a game park. Perhaps naively, I was under the impression that there were fences of some sort that kept the Park’s animals away from the main road. Apparently that was not the case and for the last hour or so I had unwittingly been exposing myself to every and any beast that may have been looking for some breakfast!

The Belgian couple were on their way to do a safari so were able to drive me all the way into the middle of the Park (instead of just dropping me off at the gate). On arriving I checked into the visitor’s centre and inquired about my options for exploring the Park. As I suspected, I couldn’t afford to do a proper jeep safari on my budget. I opted instead for the (significantly cheaper) boat safari which takes you for a lap around the Kazinga Channel, where many of the Park’s animals congregate. Unfortunately, the morning boat safari had been cancelled and although it was barely 9am, I would have to wait until 3pm to take the tour. Resigned to my fate, I planted myself in the café near the visitors centre and just read, wrote in my journal and napped as I waited. Seeing a couple of warthogs wandering through the café’s courtyard was the highlight of my morning… up until the point where I found myself unable to get the Hakuna Matata song from the Lion King out of my head!

Pumba!

Pumba!

The time actually went by fairly quickly and before long it was time to head down to the docks. The Kazinga Channel is a natural causeway between Lakes Edward and George, the banks of which are crowded with hippos, buffalo, elephants, crocodiles and a plethora of bird life. While it definitely feels more like going to the zoo than being in a game park, getting up close and personal with these extraordinary animals is still impressive.

HMAS Safari

HMAS Safari

Buffalo chillin

Buffalo chillin

Mama and her little one

Mama and her little one

Dumbo!

Dumbo!

These guys are seriously not impressed

These guys are seriously not impressed

Uh oh... here comes trouble!

Uh oh... here comes trouble!

More Trouble!

More Trouble!

Do you see what I see... I don't think that they do!

Do you see what I see... I don't think that they do!

On the cruise I got chatting to a Texan guy named John who was currently living and working in Kigali. He was actually in the midst of doing a Masters in Development Economics at the London School of Economics but was participating in some work/study program that had him assisting policy makers within the Rwandan Government. He was a really nice, interesting guy and we had a good chat as the boat shunted us around the channel. While talking, I also happened to discover that he had his own car, and more importantly, intended to pass through Kabale (my next destination) on his way back to Kigale the following day. Now I’m not exactly proud of this, but I explained to him my struggles in getting into the park in the morning and I may or may not have emphasised the fact that I had no idea how I was going to get back to Katanguru… who am I kidding, I pretty much invited myself to get a ride with him and his friends back to my guesthouse.

John was cool about the whole thing and even offered to drive me to Kabale the following day. So when the boat safari wrapped up, we drove to Katanguru where he waited while I picked up my backpack, before heading a couple miles further down the road to where he and his buddies were staying. Well, to be fair, they were staying in some luxury eco-lodge that one of their colleagues back in Kigali owned and despite how friendly they had been, I drew the line at inviting myself to crash at their pad. Instead, I had them drop me off at the no name town at the bottom of the hill beneath the eco-lodge and he agreed to swing by early the next morning and pick me up on his way back to Kigali.

I wandered around the town, asking about a guest house. A kind local directed me to a building where he said someone would be able to help. As it turned out, the person he was directing me towards was the local mayor/chief of said no name village. I introduced myself and explained that I was looking for a place to stay. This was apparently a pretty big deal - I guess they don’t get too many Mzungus stoping for the night because he insisted on giving me the royal tour. Despite the weight of my pack, I respectfully followed him as he dragged me to and fro, introducing me to numerous townsfolk. Not wanting to offend, I smiled pleasantly and followed him from one local business to another before finally making my apologies and promising to meet him again the following day but insisting I had to find my way to the town’s guest house before dark.

The guest house was hidden behind a simple shop front. You walked through a restaurant and out a back door to a sloping courtyard that was ringed by identical plain, bare, concrete floored rooms. There were probably 20 in total, each with a beat up old bed and the obligatory sagging mattress. I lay down my pack and rummaged around in it for a clean shirt. After changing and washing my face in the communal bathroom, I headed out to find somewhere to eat – the guest house’s restaurant did not look particularly appetizing. I had noticed the local Muslim restaurant during my escorted tour and that was where I headed now. I supped on delicious fish soup (no doubt caught that day in one of the ‘royal’ lakes nearby) and posho - it was just what I was looking for.

A local man dressed in a long flowing dark green thawb and knitted kufi, struck up a conversation with me as I sat digesting my meal. He asked me the usual suite of questions about why I was here and where I was from, etc. And then he suggested, oddly, that I was probably afraid of him because he was a Muslim. When I responded, pointing out that that was not the case at all and in fact that my exchanges with African Muslims had been some of the most rewarding in my travels, he seemed genuinely surprised and gave a big toothy smile.

I told him about my time exploring Fort Portal with Hamid and my theory about Islamic restaurants. He talked about his faith and what it was like to be a Muslim in Uganda. He ordered tea and we drank together as we talked. It was a great conversation and I know he enjoyed the kind words I had to say about the Muslims I had met in my travels so far. He was so pleased in fact that he insisted on paying for my tea. I know it is not a huge gesture but it still left an impression on me. Here is a man whose entire life’s wealth I will probably exceed in a single years salary, yet who wasn’t asking for anything from me, but in fact was insisting on giving me something. Experiences and exchanges like this were some of the most profound of my travels and over and over again I would find myself so humbled by the generosity of the people I met as I travelled around this amazing continent.

It was almost dark as I left my new friend and retired to my room at the guest house. There was no pool table or the like to while away the hours so I simply pulled out my book and read by the light of my torch. However, as I lay there I heard a strange sound coming from outside my room. Not a scary sound, just a sound I would not have anticipated hearing in this part of the world. I stepped out of my room and my suspicions were confirmed. A neighbour a few doors down was sitting on the concrete steps in front of his room with an old transistor radio that was tuned into some random station playing old country and western tunes. Not ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ kind of tunes but Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie kind of tunes. Lured by the curious music, I took a seat on the cold concrete steps that led to my own room and sat there listening and admiring the sea of stars in the sky overhead. It was a surreal moment, sitting there all alone, listening to “Cold, Cold Heart” floating through the night air as I scanned the sky for shooting stars and wondered about how the hell I got here. Even though I was by myself in the middle of nowhere, it was one of the most enjoyable nights I had experienced since I left Sydney.

Posted by VincitVeritas 18:14 Archived in Uganda Tagged africa uganda queen_elizabeth_national_park katanguru boat_safari Comments (0)

To the borderline and back...

DAY 33 - Fort Portal to Katunguru, Uganda

Yesterday had been so much fun that I organized to do another tour today with Hamid. We got started earlier this time (around 7am) because we would be covering considerably more kilometers than yesterday. Our main goal was the Hot Springs in Semliki National Park which abuts Democratic Republic of Congo in the very west of Uganda.

The ride to the border took us along a dirt road that weaves its way through the Semliki valley. The meandering road and undulating terrain often obscured exquisite views that lay around innocuous bends and over subtle crests. These post-card quality images, framed by the steep valley’s sides and hazy sky unexpectedly unfolded before me again and again. So, even though it took us close to three hours to reach the Hot Springs, the ride was pleasant and enjoyable from start to finish.

Semliki Valley

Semliki Valley

The winding, meandering road to DRC

The winding, meandering road to DRC

Unfortunately, when we finally reached our destination, we were told that it would cost us $30 to enter the national park and get up close to the Hot Springs. I had been told by the owner of my guesthouse that there was no charge for entering the park and I had stupidly not brought enough cash!! In addition, $30 seemed pretty steep (relatively speaking) to look at some Hot Springs for all of ten minutes. We argued and pleaded with the park staff for quite some time but it was all to no avail. Hamid and I were forced to retreat and after a short ride out of the valley, settled instead for a distant view of steam spiraling from what Hamid assured me was a Hot Spring but which I could not actually see due to the dense foliage in the park.

Notwithstanding, our vantage point did offer us one other interesting site – the border between Uganda and DRC – which could be clearly determined from where we now stood. Its obviousness was not the result of some fence, but rather because of the incredible deforestation on the DRC side. Like a half mown lawn, the thick forest of trees came to a screeching halt at the edge of the Ugandan/National Park border and instead gave way to a barren grassland more familiar in Tanzania or Kenya than the humid, sticky heart of Africa.

Looking into DRC

Looking into DRC

The DRC - Virunga NP border: An extreme example of deforestation (Not my photo)

The DRC - Virunga NP border: An extreme example of deforestation (Not my photo)

After a few moments of contemplation gazing across the valley into Congo, Hamid and I climbed back on the bike and began making our way back to Fort Portal. The ride back seemed to pass even faster than the ride there as Hamid and I talked a lot along the way about the differences between life in Australia and life in Uganda. He a truly nice, interesting person and I had thoroughly enjoyed his company (and guidance) over the past two days. Moreover, for a guide he was exceptionally good value as these trips had only cost me $10-$15 each (plus lunch)!

Easy rider

Easy rider

We were back at Fort Portal by 2:30pm and after quickly picking up my backpack from the guest house where I had spent the past couple of nights, Hamid dropped me off at the minibus stand. There was a minibus to Kasese ready to leave, so we each hurriedly thanked the other, embraced and said our goodbyes (after I gave him a good tip of course!). Then I threw my pack in the back and squeezed in with the rest of the human cargo headed south. Arriving at Kasese, I merely hopped from one bus into another and continued down the road to Katunguru, which marks the point where the main highway crosses the Kazinga Channel. Katunguru is essentially a truck stop with a bar, a restaurant, a general store and not much else. However, it is the nearest town to the gate into the Mweya/Kasenyi Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, which I was hoping to explore tomorrow.

Kazinga Channel

Kazinga Channel

I managed to find a room in the only guesthouse in town, which was little more than a few rooms attached to the back of the bar. The room was cheap at 7,000 shillings a night (or US$2.50 at today’s exchange rate) but then you tend to get what you pay for… in this case, a bare concrete floored room with a thin mattress, a mosquito net riddled with holes and a bucket for a shower!

I was pretty hungry by this stage and while I’m sure the bar also served some kind of food, I was more inclined to eat at the muslim owned restaurant across the road – I’d discovered while traveling with Hamid that, in Uganda anyway, the muslim restaurants tended to be cleaner than others. I’m not exactly sure why and there’s probably a plethora of theories but either way, the muslim place in this town certainly looked more appetizing than anywhere else around! So, pausing to check for traffic, I scampered to the other side of the street, shuffled up the wooden steps, pushed aside the thin curtain and walked into the dark, cool restaurant. Inside I was greeted by Steven, the young, helpful proprietor of the restaurant. He offered me a seat on the balcony so I could watch the sun go down. I ordered chicken and rice and Steven kept me company as I waited for my meal. I appreciated his conversation and he was able to give me some good advice about finding transport into the park, etc. The more we spoke, the more I found myself thinking that Steven seemed pretty educated for someone living in such a small town. As it turned out, Steven was from Kampala originally and had only lived here for a few years after marrying his wife. We continued our conversation while I ate but I was tired from all the traveling I’d done today and wanted to have an early night, so with the sun barely set, I paid him for his hospitality and took my leave.

Sunset in Katunguru

Sunset in Katunguru

However, it was a Friday night and while I strolled back to my room i noticed that it seemed like the whole town was out and about. There was a posse of young many sitting on plastic furniture, drinking and joking and laughing. Making my way through the bar, I passed a group of kids hanging around an old beat up pool table. One of the locals asked why I wasn’t playing and challenged me to a game. I told him (weakly) that I was tired and had a big day tomorrow so wanted to go to bed but he just rolled his eyes and jeered me a little (in a harmless, non-offensive way). Letting my pride get the better of me, I agreed to play one round. Little did I realize what a spectacle this would prove to be… a muzungu challenging the local champ to a game of pool! People started to trickle in as we racked up the balls and by the time we were ready to break, it felt like the entire town was in the audience. I made some good shots, missed some easy ones and eventually lost but nonetheless, felt like my play had been respectable – especially with the pressure of the whole town watching me! My opponent offered to make it a best of three but I graciously denied, handed the pool cue over to somebody else and slunk away to my room.

Posted by VincitVeritas 09:21 Archived in Uganda Tagged africa uganda fort_portal katunguru drc_border semliki_national_park queen_elizabeth_national_park Comments (0)

Cruising the Crater Lakes

Day 32 - Fort Portal, Uganda

Hamid was waiting for me in front of my hotel at 9am sharp. Having become accustomed to ‘Africa Time’ I assumed 9am actually meant somewhere around 9:30am and was caught a little off guard. I quickly threw back my breakfast (an omelet and some instant coffee) and we set off on our tour of the Crater Lakes. As the name suggests, the Crater Lakes are a series of picturesque pools that sit among the rolling green hills around Fort Portal. I had no specific plan in mind (other than checking out Lake Nkuruba, which was recommended in my guide book) so I put my trust in Hamid who had promised to take me to some of the more attractive lakes and lookouts.

Hamid, my trusted guide and chauffer.

Hamid, my trusted guide and chauffer.

The tarmac road barely stretched past the handful of main streets that make up Fort Portal and we were soon bouncing along on dirt. Fortunately, the bike’s suspension was relatively soft and seemed to handle the bumps and pot holes with ease. The only irritation were the plumes of dust that the odd car that passed by kicked up. Regardless, I was too busy admiring the beautiful passing landscape with its rolling green hills, shadowed by the cloud protruding summits of the distant Rwenzori Mountains, to notice any real discomfort.

The Rwenzoris peaking through the clouds!

The Rwenzoris peaking through the clouds!

A random crater lake.

A random crater lake.

We soon reached Lake Nkuruba and Hamid and I, led by a resident of the lodge, parked the bike and took a walk down to its shores. It was smaller than I had expected but its location, surrounded on all sides by thick jungle vegetation and accessible only by a narrow, overgrown path, lent it a sense of beautiful isolation.

Monkeys in the trees around Lake Nkuruba

Monkeys in the trees around Lake Nkuruba

Lake Nkuruba through the trees.

Lake Nkuruba through the trees.

Hamid spoke with our guide as I took a few ‘happy snaps’ of the lake and when I was down he informed me that there was apparently a beautiful waterfall just down the road. Excited to keep exploring, we eagerly headed off in the direction indicated. However, the directions given to Hamid obviously weren’t perfect because we took a wrong turn and ended up completely lost. Not to worry though, we found a local who agreed (for a small fee) to take us to the waterfall. Little did we realize, however, that the particular route he would have us take, took us down steep hills coated in loose, fertile soil, involved hacking our way through the jungle and jumping streams boarded on either side by swampy marshes (and back again)! Nonetheless, this local did (eventually) manage to lead us to the falls and although the waterfall itself was not that spectacular (especially after having seen Victoria Falls), the whole experience certainly made for a good adventure.

Fighting our way down to the falls.

Fighting our way down to the falls.

After a bite to eat at a local ‘restaurant’, we took off again for a lookout called “Top of the World” – the highest of the rolling hills in the immediate region which overlooks 3 different Crater Lakes and offers views all the way to the Rwenzoris. Buffeted by the wind, I lingered over the commanding view unsuccessfully trying to capture its impressiveness with my cheap camera. It was an extremely peaceful and humbling place, one which I am sure many travelers overlook (no pun intended) and never get to see.

Atop the world!

Atop the world!

Tearing myself away from the lookout, I climbed onto the back of the bike and Hamid and I started for home. Unfortunately, we hadn’t gone far before we ran into some bad luck – suffering two punctures. Hamid was able to fix the first one on the side of the road himself but we had to stop in at a garage to fix the second one. However, I wasn’t particularly perturbed - I had nowhere to be so it was no real drama to me. Rather, it gave me a chance to check out a local market and make friends with some kids who were hanging out near the garage.

Making friends... i think.

Making friends... i think.

Eventually, we got back on our way and though it was a long day it was in fact one of the more enjoyable days I had had since I started this adventure. It wasn’t that today was particularly eventful, it was just that today was very peaceful and relaxing but at the same time it felt like I was still exploring. Moreover, the area I was exploring was proving to be incredibly picturesque and the people particularly friendly. For this reason, Uganda is proving to be one of my favourite countries so far.

p.s. Goat again for dinner… could this day have gotten any better???

Posted by VincitVeritas 09:35 Archived in Uganda Tagged africa uganda fort_portal crater_lakes Comments (0)

An Easy Rider I Ain't!

DAY 31 – 30/4/08

I had grand ambitions of waking up early and getting on the 8am bus to Fort Portal this morning but these plans were dashed when I realised that I hadn’t set the alarm on my watch properly. This was probably a blessing in disguise though, as I woke up with a raging headache. Either my tolerance for drinking has slipped in the past month or someone was spiking my drink because although I had a fair few beers, it wasn’t any more than I normally would have on a Friday or Saturday night… maybe it has something to do with the tropical heat and dehydration or something?

Nonetheless, feeling a little worse for wear, I managed to drag myself out of bed in time to catch the 10am bus, which of course didn’t actually leave until 11am! Its only a 5 hour ride to Fort Portal but it felt far longer than that today. Besides my self-inflicted suffering, I had to contend with a distressed chicken that had been stuffed under the seat in front of me. The bloody thing wouldn’t stop clucking the entire bus ride – not what you want to deal with when you are hungover and feeling a little ‘delicate’! We reached Fort Portal (a dusty two-street town in the middle of nowhere) in the afternoon and I checked into the first guesthouse/hotel I could find. With plenty of daylight left, I took a stroll around town and went in search of the local tourist office. At the tourist office I inquired about hiring a motorbike for the day. All this riding on the back of bota-botas around Kampala had reignited my thoughts of buying a bike in Dar and cruising down the coast of Mozambique. However, not having a great deal of experience with motorbikes, I figured I should at least spend a day driving one myself to see how hard/easy it is to get around and whether this 'Easy Rider' fantasy of mine was actually realistic.

The people at the tourist office rang a guy they knew who they said would rent me his bike. I was hoping I would be able to pick up the bike tomorrow and just spend the day getting the feel for it as I went along. However, the guy wanted to see me ride before handing over his machine – which is fair enough, I suppose. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing as I had only ever ridden clutchless mopeds or quad-bikes where all you have to do is flick a lever by your foot to change gears and its impossible to stall. Unsurprisingly, I stalled straight out of the gate and even after a quick tutorial, the best I could do was bunny-hop up and down an alleyway behind the tourist office.

The bloke wasn’t looking enthusiastic about having me rent his bike but nonetheless, he offered to take me to an oval across town (where I would have more space to practice) and give me a proper lesson before definitely refusing. I did a few laps around the oval with this guy shouting instructions at me and watching nervously as I grew in confidence. I felt like I was getting the hang of things but obviously not fast enough for this guy's liking. He walked over to me shaking his head and muttering "No, no, no...". In the end, he suggested that instead of renting the bike I just let him take me around tomorrow. I was reluctant to accept (my Mozambique fantasy was crumbling in front of my eyes) but when he promised to give me a few more lessons i caved. We agreed he would come pick me up the next day and show me around the crater lakes which dot the region

In other news, I had some amazing BBQ goat for dinner that night. Never had goat before but it was positively scrumptious!

Posted by VincitVeritas 13:10 Archived in Uganda Tagged africa kampala uganda fort_portal Comments (0)

Update

Hello everyone,

I'm sorry that I haven't been posting as often as I promised. It looks like I might have bitten off more than I could chew by planning on posting daily. Seeing as though I am already well behind schedule and I have a 10 day vacation coming up in a couple of weeks (which isn't computer friendly) I've decided to forgo trying to keep up with the date of my journal entries and just post as often as I can. My goal is to post at least 3-4 times a week... hopefully that will be more manageable!

Also, hope you are enjoying things so far. If you are, please feel free to write a comment and let me know!

Alex

Posted by VincitVeritas 13:03 Comments (0)

A City of Seven Hills

DAY 30 - Kampala, Uganda

I took it pretty easy during the day today, I guess I was physically and emotionally exhausted after my conversation with Alisa the night before. Nonetheless, in the late afternoon I decided to do a little exploring. I started making my way up the hill behind where I was staying. Fascinated by a red-brick colonial building that stood on top of the hill (which I had first spotted when I was further down in the valley), I was determined to find out more about it. The climb to the top of the hill was no easy task in the equatorial heat but the view back over the city made the effort well worth it.

St Paul's Cathedral (Not my photo)

St Paul's Cathedral (Not my photo)

View from Namirembe Hill (Not my photo)

View from Namirembe Hill (Not my photo)

Kampala is actually quite a large city (in terms of both geography and population) and is built on several rolling hills, something that had alluded me from the perspective of my lodgings down in one of the city’s valleys. In fact, Kampala has sometimes been compared with Rome as both cities are said to have been built on seven hills. While Kampala may lack some of the culture and monuments that make Rome such an amazing city, I can tell you that in that moment and from where I stood – on the top of this particular hill, looking back over the city as it lay basking in the glow of the setting sun – Kampala was as beautiful a city as any I have ever seen. It also probably helped that for the first time since I had arrived I had found a tranquil place removed from the rumble of engines and blaring of horns!

I rested on a retaining wall just underneath the red-brick building while I soaked up the view. The sun setting over the hills had me captivated and my trance was only broken when a slim, young local with a big smile named Grace interrupted me and asked (somewhat out of the blue) if I was lonely. Perhaps if he had asked me that same question yesterday I would have given him a different answer but having spoken with Alisa last night, I assured him that I was just fine. Seemingly relieved that I was feeling ok, he introduced himself and offered to give me a tour of the building above. Impressed by his forwardness and the generosity of his offer, I was happy to indulge.

Grace escorted me up the stairs that led to the red-brick building – it turns out the building is a cathedral (St Paul's) and it sits atop Namirembe Hill. On the lawn in front of the cathedral I was introduced to Elijah, who was the leader of a group called the Boys and Girls Brass Brigade. Elijah was in the middle of conducting a troop of Ugandan children of various ages who were (attempting) to play a set of battered instruments but was kind enough to pause proceedings for a minute in order to talk with me. Elijah explained that the Brigade is designed to be a way of giving street children a creative outlet for their spare time and energy. The program encourages kids of all ages and backgrounds, but especially kids who can't afford to go to school, to learn an instrument and be part of something good and productive. Elijah was an enigmatic and enthusiastic talker who spoke with considerable passion about the program, which he said he had been involved with for the over 12 years. Listening to Elijah speak, I couldn’t help but see a correlation between the intentions behind the brigade in front of me and the CYA Program at the Sir David Martin Foundation that I had been helping out with over the past few years. It was really amazing to see two communities that couldn’t be further apart or more different but which had both realised the incredible potential for music to be a positive influence for troubled youths.

Grace and I let Elijah get back to conducting the band and continued our tour. Not long after, we ran into a group of British medical students who were involved in an 8 week exchange program with the hospital attached to the cathedral. I introduced myself and they were obliging enough to invite Grace and I into their quarters for a cup of tea. We all got talking in the way that so often happens when you are travelling – over the course of a cup of tea you go from being a complete stranger to one of the gang. Before you know it, you feel like you have known everyone for years – and, as it turned out, it was someone’s birthdays and they were all heading out to celebrate. Considering that we were all now best friends, without any hesitation they asked if Grace and I wanted to come along.

So before I knew what was going on, I found myself flying down one of Kampala’s seven hills on the back of a bota-bota with Grace squished awkwardly between the driver and I. Speaking of the driver, he was an absolute maniac and he had us weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds and slotting through gaps that were barely open for a nanosecond before being fiercely sealed by a merging vehicle or fellow bota-bota. Miraculously, we all arrived at our destination (a Chinese restaurant called Fong Fong) in one piece. The restaurant was a poxy expat place, which was expensive and atmosphere-less (not that I was about to say anything). Nonetheless, I still had an enjoyable dinner with my new friends and to be fair the food was pretty good. Afterwards we went in search of a place to watch the football – Manchester United and Barcelona were playing in one of the UEFA Cup semi-finals.

The gang finally settled on a place called The Steak Out which seemed like a pretty cool joint. It was busy (even though it was a Tuesday night) because of the game and everyone, expats and locals combined, was glued to the TV screen. Funnily enough though, instead of putting on the commentary from the game the bar had set up a couple of huge speakers either side of the TV which were blaring old-school hip-hop the entire time. I’m not the biggest soccer fan but I do like my sports and will watch anything as long as it is a good contest. It turned out to be a pretty exhilarating game so I found myself really getting into it by the end. I’d also had quite a few beers and was feeling a little tipsy which probably better explains my (somewhat out of character) enthusiasm. For the record, Man U ended up winning 1-0 but it was close to the very end.

After the game, I vaguely remember chewing some Ugandan law student’s ear off about how people don’t appreciate the fact that the criminal justice system has more to do with due process than it does with putting away bad guys – Errrr, I hate getting stuck talking to guys like me when they start babbling on about pretentious crap like that! Anyway, I finally said goodbye to the Brits around 1:30am before walking outside and flagging down a bota-bota to take me back to my hotel.

Posted by VincitVeritas 12:44 Archived in Uganda Tagged cathedral africa kampala uganda uefa_cup seven_hills Comments (0)

To those of you I have offended...

It has been brought to my attention by one of the Travellerspoint moderators that some of you have taken offense at my use of the term ‘Dark Continent’ in the subheading of my blog. While I understand how my use of this term may be misconstrued, I would like to take this opportunity to explain my reasoning behind using the term and outline why its use was in no way designed to offend or inflame people’s sensibilities.

Contrary to what many believe, the term ‘Dark Continent’ was not coined in reference to the complexion of most of Africa’s inhabitants. Rather, it was intended to evoke Africa’s vast, unexplored territory. To westerners in the mid 19th centaury, Sub-Saharan Africa represented one of the earth’s last great unknown tracts of land. Bordered by deserts, much of its interior covered by untamed rainforest and jungle (and the tropical diseases that come with them) and full of fast flowing rivers choked by rapids, exploration in Africa was extremely difficult. In a time when very few people in the West could say with any certainty what lay beyond the impenetrable deserts and jungles, Africa gained notoriety as an obscured, opaque and impermeable (hence ‘dark’) place.

Clearly, this image of Africa is outdated today. Thanks to the wonders of technology and the marvels of modern medicine, all of Africa has been mapped and most of us now have a much clearer understanding of it and its people. Nonetheless, I purposely chose to use the term ‘Dark Continent’ in my blog’s title because I felt that this archaic reference to an unexplored territory most accurately represents my image of Africa before I left Australia. Despite everything I may have seen or read before I left, I still perceived Africa as a mysterious and mystifying place. I was conscious of the fact that I essentially knew nothing about it. Sure, I could tell you the names of the countries and roughly where they were on the map and I had been taught about colinisation and decolinisation at school, but all this was only superficial. Africa still represented the great unknown to me, much like it did to Stanley and Livingstone.

I was ignorant of so much but conscious enough of my ignorance that I determined to enter this once in a lifetime experience with an open mind. I chose to immerse myself in this continent, leave all my prejudices and preconceptions behind and just try and see as much and as many things as possible. I wanted to mimic the explorers of old by diving into this ‘unknown’ head first. I wanted to know the sensation that Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness when he writes "The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness." I wanted to put myself in a situation where I wouldn’t know what lay around the bend but where I was being drawn further and further down the river by the magical things I had already discovered and the enticing possibility of what wondrous things I was still yet to see and learn.

And I did come to know that sensation on a couple of occasions. There were moments when I found myself in over my head, with nowhere to turn but from which I somehow managed to escape and that only fuelled my desire to push on and experience more. And that is the reason why I chose to use an outdated term like the ‘Dark Continent’. Not because my thinking is bigoted or outdated but because I wanted to pay tribute to the generation of explorers whose footsteps I was retracing. I left my friends and family behind just like they did, not knowing what I would find or who I would be when I came out the other side.

Africa is no longer a ‘Dark Continent’ in my mind because what was once a place that I readily associated with war, disease, famine, dictators and AIDS has become an adjective to me for hope, optimism and potential. I learnt so much about the culture and attitude of the African people and in particular, their generosity and kindness. I also saw people working hard to make a better life for themselves and their family and it was these kind of interactions that give me confidence that, although there is still plenty to be done, many more Africans will soon know political stability, personal wealth and genuine happiness.

Some people travel to Africa to volunteer and in fact I met many such people during my travels. I didn’t choose to do this, but instead am now hoping to give back to the people of this continent in a different way. I am hoping that by recounting my experiences I will motivate others to travel to this wonderful part of the world, meet these amazing people and maybe spend a little of their money their while they are at it. I am trying to encourage people to confront their prejudices and overcome the stereotypes that exist by traveling to Africa and seeing what it is like for themselves. I am certainly not trying to offend anyone or promote intolerant views.

Finally, regardless of what I write here I am sure there will be some of you who will continue to find the term ‘Dark Continent’ offensive and who remain unsatisfied by the explanation I have given for using it. That is your prerogative. I believe that we interpret everything we read through the filter of our experiences. That is to say, the life I have lived up until now will affect the way I perceive a word, sentence, essay or even a blog. The word ‘dark’ has multiple meanings. I actually looked the word up in the Merrian-Webster dictionary today and found a definition which describes ‘dark’ as “Not known or explored because of remoteness. As in, the darkest reaches of the continent”. I’d say that that definition sums up my argument pretty succinctly. However, in the interests of full disclosure I should point out that there were a couple of alternative definitions for the word ‘dark’ just above that particular definition. According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, ‘dark’ can also mean “Lacking knowledge or culture: unenlightened.”; “Relating to grim or depressing circumstances”; and of course, it also means “Not fair in complexion : swarthy”. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide which of the above meanings I was trying to convey by including the words ‘Dark Continent’ in the title of my blog.

Please feel free to share your feelings on the above by leaving a comment below, especially if you feel strongly about this issue or even if you just want to discredit my argument.

Kind regards,

AD

Posted by VincitVeritas 19:40 Tagged explanation dark_continent offensive_post Comments (1)

All Kinds of Chaos in Kampala!

DAY 29 - Kampala, Uganda

I had hoped to wake up early enough to see the sun rising over Lake Victoria but evidently my bunk was just too comfortable and by the time I got up, dawn had already broken. We reached Port Bell (which sits on the outskirts of Kampala) at around 10:30am. Unsurprisingly, there is very little difference between the port in Mwanza and Port Bell. In fact, the only distinguishing features between the two are the different dilapidated ships that sit rusting in the sun just off to the side of the docks.

Mwanza's Port

Mwanza's Port

Port Bell... hard to tell the difference isn't it!

Port Bell... hard to tell the difference isn't it!

There were a couple of slight hiccups as I passed through Ugandan immigration. First, according to my guidebook the cost of a Ugandan visa was supposed to be $20 but when I asked for my visa the immigration officer told me I had to pay $50. I thought he was trying to pull a fast one on me so I objected… clearly not a smart move on my part because at the first utterance of protest, the officer’s nostrils flared and he started screaming at me that if I didn’t pay I wasn’t going to be able to enter the country – I subsequently discovered that the price of a visa had recently gone up and that my guidebook was simply out of date… eek!

Sufficiently convinced that there was no way around having to cough up the extra $30, I then tried to pay with a grimy $20 note that I had been struggling to offload for the past few weeks. nb. The dominant black-market currency of East Africa is the USD and you will often be able to pay in dollars when you are out of the local currency. However, many local banks/traders are reluctant to take old, wrinkled or dirty looking notes and on several occasions over the past few weeks people had refused to take the $20 bill in question. However, the immigration officer didn’t want to have anything to do with it either. I feigned not having any other cash on me in the hope that he would be forced to take it but he wasn't unimpressed and simply said that unless I could find some other cash right here and now, he was not going to stamp me into the country. Of course, I actually had a bundle of crisp twenties on me but I now had to go through this big charade whereby I pretended to ask one of my fellow travelers (a guy named Alfaz) to give me $20 and tell him that I would pay him back when we got into town (while actually just handing over one of my own, cleaner notes) so that I didn't look like I just lied to a government official!

Thankfully, my passport was finally stamped and I could enter the country. What is more, it turned out that Alfaz was a pretty nice guy and he even helped me find a place to stay once we arrived in downtown Kampala - something I was extremely grateful for once we reached the Kampala bus depot. Kampala is, in a word, absolute chaos! Organised chaos perhaps, but chaos nonetheless. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people in the one place. People were moving frantically in every direction, most with boxes or bags of something on their head. Minibuses were pervasive, clogging the streets and fighting against the sea of pedestrians and people on motorbikes for the slightest patch of space. Most of the bikes are actually moto-taxis (called bota-botas) and their drivers weave fearlessly in and out of the traffic and around the swarms of pedestrians. I would count the Kampala bota-bota drivers as second only to those of Cotonou in terms of courage, craziness and shear pervasiveness!

Kampala's Taxi Park (Not my photo)

Kampala's Taxi Park (Not my photo)

Alfaz led me to place called Taj Hotel which was conveniently located on a hill that overlooked the bus depot. Most of the hostels in my Lonely Planet were a couple of kms outside of town, so i figured it made more sense to fork out a little extra on accommodation in order to be closer to the action. And what action there was! I have never felt as much energy coming from a city as I did when I looked back at the depot and its surrounding market from my vantage point on the hill above. Buzzing with life and full of sights, sounds and smells I had never experienced before… I was filled with both excitement and apprehension. I couldn’t wait to drop my things and go out and explore this place!

I dived right in, fighting with the locals for my inch of sidewalk and seemingly swimming upstream against a sea of people. I walked the streets for hours, strolled through the market and shuffled around in the various stores that sold everything from second-hand books to electronics. The whole experience was surreal and I guess I must have been too busy soaking it all up because as I fought my way down some overflowing, inner-city street a shirtless man with the body of an Olympic athlete and a 100kg bag of rice spread across his broad shoulders hissed at me to move out of his way. In my haste to make room, I jumped into the muddy gutter and was almost cleaned up by a passing truck. The vehicle missed me by a matter of inches and left me with my heart in my mouth and my pulse racing. It was at that point that I decided I needed to find somewhere to escape the chaos and so headed for a coffee shop called 1000 Cups, which was recommended in my lonely planet.

Just as an aside, I was saddened to read the other day that there were demonstrations in the streets of Kampala and that the government has been accused of violently repressing protests over the high price of food. It is also scary to think that this kind of violence can erupt so spontaneously and that I could have so easily been caught in the midst of it all if I was writing a true travel blog and not just recounting my experiences from a few years ago!

1000 Cups wasn’t cheap but it was the closest I’d come to a real cup of coffee since I’d left home. While I was there I had a brief chat with some Americans from DC and some others from the South who now own an orphanage in Jinja. I recounted my near death experience to them and they suggested I head to Garden City with them if I was interested in a more tranquil setting. Having never heard of this Garden City place, but with my mind throwing up images of some horticultural oasis in the middle of the city, I said sure and we all piled into a cab. I was soon to discover that Garden City was not actually a garden but in fact is essentially just a shopping mall. However, it did have a proper cinema (and Uganda's only escalator, apparently) – something I hadn’t seen since I arrived in Africa – so I figured I would take advantage of it and I bought a ticket to some Keanu Reeves movie that I had never heard of. I spent the 20min I had to kill before the movie started standing outside the Ugandan equivalent of Harvey Norman/Best Buy watching the end of an IPL cricket game. I had never seen an IPL game before and so was blown away to be standing in a Ugandan mall, watching Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey killing it for some team called the Chenai Superkings!?!?!

The movie was pretty ordinary although it did get me thinking about Alisa again – she has a certain fondness for Keanu! I had received a reply from her when my phone finally picked up signal again in the morning. Her response was a simple “Who is this?”, to which I replied (somewhat cornily) “Just someone who is thinking of you”. I knew I probably wouldn’t hear back from her for most of the day because of the time difference between here and New York but it was now mid-afternoon her time and I still hadn’t heard anything. I was dying to know what she was thinking but I didn’t want to be too pushy so I resisted the urge to send a follow up message.

I eventually left Garden City on the back of a bota-bota. The driver had originally asked for 4000 shillings but I had managed to haggle him down to 1700, which (secretly) made me pretty happy with myself. By the time I got back to the hotel it was close to 1am and I was ready to hit the hay when all of a sudden I received a text from Alisa. I nervously replied and we texted back and forth a couple more times, both of us holding back a little and just feeling the other person out. However, just as I was preparing to open up and really tell her how I felt… I ran out of credit!! So at 1:30am I had to go downstairs and run around the streets of Kampala looking for somewhere open that would sell me some phone credit. I finally found a place and raced back to the hotel to top-up my phone but of course, I had a Tanzanian phone chip and this was Ugandan credit, so even though the credit was from the same phone provider, it wouldn’t work! All this was taking up precious time and all I could think about was Alisa sitting at home in New York wondering why I wasn’t writing anything back… what if she thought I was avoiding her or had been offended by her last text??

In the end, I figured out how to put a free call through to the phone provider’s customer service line and they were able to transfer my Ugandan credit into Tanzanian credit (or something like that) and I finally got my phone credit topped up. By this stage I thought it best to try and put in a call to Alisa instead of just texting back after such a long pause. Alisa didn’t pick up on my first try so I left her an awkward and embarrassing voicemail message which asked her to call me back “but only if she wanted to”. Thankfully she did and we ended up talking and catching up for hours… in fact, it was almost 5am and the sun was coming up by the time we finally said goodnight.

Posted by VincitVeritas 13:29 Archived in Uganda Tagged africa visa kampala uganda Comments (1)

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