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.
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.
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)!
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.
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.
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.