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.
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!
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.
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.