28 March 2001
I had a view-master when I was about five years old. My favourite reel was Tarzan of the Apes, featuring Johnny Weismuller and an awe-inspiring assortment of great apes. Brutal battles, excellent chest beating displays and a suitably well-proportioned Jane set the scene for my fascination with tropical jungles. Their fecund vitality, gloomy, mysterious recesses and layers of alien sounds have surpassed even my View master fantasies. Montane woodland in Malawi, the tropical Australian jungles around Apollo Bay and virgin hardwood forest in Ghana’s Kakum National Park shared their secrets with me over the years, but so far have failed to measure up to the Tarzan’s abundant View master jungles. But somehow, sitting aboard my SAA flight bound for Entebbe, I think that this time around, the forest will go really big.
A very easy arrival at Entebbe despite my lack of visa – no questions, some officialese and a quick exchange of US$30. Then it is into the landrover with my buddy Ian to bash along the hectic tarmac strip to Kampala.
The capital seems reasonably pleasant as far as African cities go, despite the slight macabre twist lent to the urban sprawl by multitudes of marabou storks perching on lamp posts and street signs. Apparently a left over from Amin and Obote years, these carrion eaters invaded the capital when residents became too scared to remove corpses from the streets. A deep tropical sleep is interrupted infrequently by heavy rolls of thunder rolling in across the surrounding city hills.
29 March 2001
A muggy dawn, to say the least. I decide to explore the city limits on a pre-breakfast run, thumping along in the sluggish rain past a variety of high walled embassies, all seemingly packed with posses of AK-toting guards. I decline the offer of a lift to Entebbe, rather opting to go the public transport route. Very straight forward: bodaboda (motor scooter) to the town square (Ush 200) and then matatu (minibus) to Entebbe for a further Ush1500.
My port of call in Entebbe is the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC). Originally the Entebbe Zoo, it now swerves as a facility that houses confiscated and orphaned animals, while aiming to educate Uganda’s younger generations as to the country’s wildlife heritage.
Two bad things happen: while I’m getting coffee and breakfast at UWEC’s snack shop, I see the newspaper headlines – 11 people gunned down in Murchison’s Falls National Park. The deceased were students and a range rout on a game drive and nobody knows who the gunmen are and why the senseless killing happened. I’m still reeling from this news when I am mugged at my table. Luckily, the second event is comical rather than serious – a vervet monkey brazenly jumps on to my table, bares his fangs at me and then nonchalantly start munching my muffin. The muffin was rather stale though, so no great loss.
The UWEC centre itself turns out to be much better than the old-style zoo I had feared it might be. Most of the metal cages have been replaced by open animal enclosures, allowing the animals relative freedom to roam. It is still quite harsh to see larger animals like lion, buffalo and kob in their confined spaces, but overall conditions are good and the mission to educate the masses seems to be bearing ample fruit.
The otters and their incredible aqua-aerobics skills are memorable, but the time I end up spending with Umungenzi and Umutama tops the visit. Under the supervision of their caretakers, a gentle lady called Helen, I am introduced to these incredibly perceptive chimpanzees and end up spending nearly an hour tickling their tummies and playing with them through the bars of the cage. They have been illegally brought in from the Congo before being confiscated and will eventually be released on Mnganda Island a few km’s off-shore on Lake Victoria.
From the chimpanzee holding facility, I stroll past the lion and spotted a hyena enclosure before happening upon the aviary. Another highlight – I get to meet the giant shoebill storks. Gargantuan grey birds with beaks the size of clogs and a mean glint to the eye. During my endeavours to get the perfect shot, I stumbled on an unlocked gate and furtively sneak in to get a bit closer. Big mistake – shoebills are territorial, stand over a metre and a half tall and this one seems to want to declare a dispute. With camera bag in tow I make it out of the enclosure with the giant beak clacking away like monster castanets millimeters away from my nether regions.
I experience further close encounters with giant birds when I meet Charlie, the marabou stork. Imagine a huge balding turkey sporting a hairy scrotum below its neck and a beak the size of a sizable sword. While tickling his back I have to endure nibbles at my ears accompanied by carrion breath and gurgles of joy sounding a bit like Darthvader succumbing to orgasmic bliss.
30 March 2001
Spent last night attending an open air performance of “A Mid-summer Night’s Dream” somewhere in central Kampala. Weird man! Lots of amateurs, overly dramatic and a total mish mash of the city’s society. Moments of White Mischief mixed with a lot of cringe comedy.
Time to catch up on more inner-city ramblings though, so off to find the bodaboda man. First stop is the Uganda museum, which sadly turns out to be closed for renovations. Twenty minutes of haggling however does gain me entrance into the rubble-razed interior to wander between and be transported to a long-ago era when explorers like Burton and Speke wandered the continents’s horizon. With the caretaker on edge it wasn’t an enjoyable visit at all and after about half an hour of wandering around, I decide to rather get to Kasubi Hills, the last resting place of tour of the Buganda Kings.
A huge straw hut and very little else, I am tempted to say. Bottom line is though, most African tourism centres have to get by with zero funding, making it extremely difficult to get by. It is therefore very difficult to raise the level of such destinations to where it would tempt jaded Western palates. I feel a bit saddened by what should have been a poignant experience, deciding to cheer myself up with a visit to the Nakasero market. Colourful and vibrant, this extended market bustles from dawn till dark in midtown Kampala while kites and marabous wheel beneath the burning sun. I get side-tracked by chicken stew and Nile Special Lager for a while, buffeted by the rank odour of a very real Africa.
31 March 2001
Big babelaas morning after a hectic night with the creme of Kampala society. The evening culminated with tequilas and table dancing around 4am, so I missed out on the opportunity to go Nile perch fishing on Lake Vic.
No worries though as we set off for Bujagali Falls, throbbing heads and all. The campsite at Bujagali is the perfect tonic: a lapa cum bar and thatched bandas overlooking the mighty Nile cutting a swathe through a series of verdant hills crowded by boradleafed, towering trees. The forests are alive with an incredibly colourful variety of birds, with anything from fish eagles, open-billed storks, as preys trying to steal the show from the smaller but brighter character such as pymy and malachite kingfishers and a variety of sunbirds.
I spend the afternoon with the Taylors, splashing about in the placid eddies in one of the river’s deep pools. Beneath the dense green curtain of foliage overhanging the water’s edge, it bustles with bird and animal life. Monitor lizards slither along the muddy bank to splash and disappear into the water and I spot both a squacco and green-backed heron stiff-legging it into the shadows.
The evening is peaceful by default. I have a chat with John Dalil, who is one of the partners in Nile River Explorers to discuss how I can do both the rafting as well as taking photographs. We eventually work out a plan and I sneak off to bed (despite feeling quite strong after a few Nile Specials).
1 April 2001
Rumours of April Fool stunts are rife as we gear up for the rafting trip. I accompany the team to the Owen Falls dam at Jinja for the safety briefing at the put-in point. Once all the danger-spots and crises possibilities has been pointed out to us, I head away from the slippery slope to go and set up my camera at the first Grade 5 rapid at Bujagali Falls. Here the river surges in via two frothy channels before plunging into a cascade of bucking waves towards the pool below. I’m basically shitting myself and I’m not even on the raft! I watch as the safety kayakers plunge into chaos disappearing completely before being spat out in an explosion of foam.
I shiver as the raft approaches and dips down into swirling turbulence and watch as it bucks over the first standing wave. Then all hell breaks loose as the second wave explodes into The Big Rubber. Through the shutter-flicker of the motor drive I watch as it flips left over right scattering occupants into a roiling wall of foam. The safety kayakers spring into motion, delivering a motley selection of drowned rats lookalikes to the relative safety of the downstream pool.
It is here that I tempt fate to join the raft. One or two of the guys are really pumped, but the girls look decidedly uncertain af their immediate future as we set course for the next obstacle, a Grade 3 by the name of Fifty-Fifty (about similar to your chances of getting through unscathed). Skipper Rob takes an easy line (apparently) and we make it through, crashing through a three metre standing wave in an impressive surge of spray.
We’re in an eddy catching our breath when Rob breaks the bad news: next up is Total Ganja. You’re got two chances with the huge Grade Fiver – “either you smoke it or it smokes you”. First you drop down a sheer greenwater cliff before entering into three white water sections where even river gods fear to tread. Getting through the first standing wave sets you up for a monster wave ride into a gulley where a triangular wave rears up to form a foaming watery pyramid by the name of The G-Spot. “Forget everything you’ve every heard and DO NOT go there”, is Rob’s advice.
If you make it through this monster, you still have to deal with a rough and shaky ride through a choppy maul before hitting still water.
And what do we do? We go and hit G-spot dead centre; for a split second I think we’re going to make it all the way to the top, but then a mass of thundering water explodes onto the raft, completely submerging us. The last thing I see as the water closes in is the blue blade of a paddle spinning backwards in the wave. A smart duck enables me to take the blow right on the upper lip, but who cares – I’ll probably drown anyway. After about ten seconds of eternity my elongated arm snaps me back to the surface next to the raft with just enough time to suck some air before hitting the next wave. And then it is all over. Back in the boat the Dutch girls are now both shaken and stirred, but we’ve survived and are totally pumped.
After a recuperation stop for some bananas and juice, we head down-river to experience the joys of Surf City. It is a mere Grade 3, but a circling lip offers excellent raft surfing. This turns out to be the job of the day as we deflate our raft and slip into the break from the side. As soon as you hit the lip, the crew has to rush to the waveside of the raft to prevent it from flipping. The force of the water then slowly turns the raft up – stream and around, necessitating a rush to the opposite side by all on board. We flip after maybe half a minute on the circling wave, but the rush is so incredible that we go back three times.
And then for the Grand Finale of all rapids – a green water express way surging like a glassy tongue between two cliffs before rearing up in a series of thundering standing waves. Our raft hovered on the edge and then dipped down as we paddled hard forward and then surged onto the aqua fastlane as the ancient forces of the river sunk its teeth into us. Nothing really prepared you for Silverback – the helter-skelter slide down the glassy chute; the exploding foam as you launch off the first wave; the deafening roar of the rapid as it thumps into you with its full, brute force. We lost the battle on the second wave as the raft buckled between the flow of the river and the force of the standing wave, ejecting the two rafters in the centre unceremoniously into the air. The rest of us manage to stay on as the current disdainfully pops us into the choppy side stream and we watch as the safety kayakers go about their business / swiftly move in to pick up the survivors.
By now Grades 2 & 3 have lost their teeth and we float under a cumulonimbus sky as East Africa goes about is business. Groups of villagers wash clothes by beating bundles on rock worn smooth by time; open-billed storks and cormorants patiently stake out the shallows in search of prey while wooden canoes transport lean fishermen along one of Africa’s most well-travelled waterways. I float and swim the last kilometre to find a spread of food fit for river gods and we tuck in to the accompaniment of the occasional Nile Special going psshh! Huge, warm drops splatter down on us as we cruise along on the back of the truck while darkness slowly settles.
2 April 2001
Sam the Aussie just won’t take no for an answer. Sure, I rafted the river yesterday, but why pass up on doubling for fun by river boarding it today? It doesn’t take too much to twist my rubber arm………after all, we don’t want any mate of Shane Warne thinking I might be scared of those boat-eating rapids.
So it came to be that I am kitted out in the gear of what you might call a water gladiator. Chest protection and flotation courtesy of a padded life jacket, a helmet to offer a buffer when head-butting rocks during manic wild water sessions and fins to speed you away from (or into) danger. We go through basic river boarding techniques on a quiet stretch of river just above Bujagali Falls, practicing ferry-gliding and how to get into, across and out of some of the smaller currents.
All too soon it is time to get into the Real Deal. With a touch of sadistic pleasure, Sam indicates we should move down into the Thunder Zone. This is where the river becomes pissed off – about a hundred metres above the huge Grade 5, standing waves snap along the surface in small explosions of spray. “Right, time to surf some waves,” says Sam and indicates a curling lip of foam. The major difference between an ocean and a river wave is that in the sea, the wave moves across stationary water, while river water plunges beneath the wave.
Getting into the wave may prove difficult when you are coming downstream and you have to really slow yourself down in order to get into the surf. Entry into our first wave is through an easy side eddy though, but it proves a lot more difficult than Sam makes it look. I find myself swirling down the face of the wave every time, gobbled by the current before latching onto the safety kayak and hanging on while the paddler battles the current back to the side. Finally it all clicks into place and it is brilliant – curving down the face with spray spurting in your eyes and the full flow of the Nile charging below your board.
Surfing standing waves are the controlled part of the river boarding experience, while running the rapids are tantamount to taking your life into your own hands or wrestling with a boisterous troop of mountain gorillas.
Sam shows the way and then it is me and my board matching up against the mighty Nile. Going over the drop happens so quickly that the first wave hits me completely unexpectedly and it feels as if I am swallowing buckets of river water. A split-second of recovery time and it is into the next big hit – my board pops into the air and I go ballistic. These aren’t waves, they’re absolute river monsters. Wild water sucking and surging around me while I do rubber lip extensions in order to gasp in some air. Then into a watery gat-oor-kop somersault before latching back onto my board like a very wet rat. And then the river gets tired and spits me out into still water. Fuck, what a ruck! You feel so safe, while exhilaration peaks right into the red.
We try another surf session at Fifty-Fifty, but the huge standing wave just gobbles me board and all before ejecting me without any of the usual formalities. And just when you think that you have tamed the watery beast, you get lined up right into the rock-chomping roar of Total Ganja – and you just know you are about to be smoked like the dog-end on a reefer. Water. Air. Whirling cumulus sky. Main gulp of H2O. Smashing into the next wave before cartwheeling through the mythical G-spot. And no, you do not want to find it. In this rapid anyway. And just when you think your chest cavity is about to implode, you’re in the clear. Running cool to where the pick up waits to take you back to camp. And then a bodaboda to Jinja, before joining the smiley face matatu men on the way back to Kampala.
3 April 2001
Travel, travel, travel – Africa is just so fucking huge. The seemingly impossible task today is to travel from Kampala via Mbarare to the Kibale National Park. Probably 600km’s, but I’m too lazy to look at my map right now. This time it is in a 4×3, piloted by Prof. Elissa Williams and a member of the JGI, a girl from Kent by the name of Julia. That is in the front seat. Sharing the back with me are two heel aanvallige Dutch girls, Rosemary and Eva, on their way to a 6 month internship with UCOTA (Uganda Community Tourism Association). Elissa heads up UCOTA, but right now she is driving like a maniac and swearing at the Kampala traffic that even the Dutch Girls blush. Along the way I sop to buy 2 peculiar Ugandan bowl chairs; take photos of the Equator and to buy a bag of grasshoppers. Yep, grasshoppers. Nsenene is a local delicacy and I am determined to try it.
I get the guys at the Kyojja Craft Centre (our lunchtime stopover) to guide me into their world of peculiar culinary delights, Pull off the wings and legs, wash them and fry them in their own oil in a pan over an open fire. A snap, crackle and pop later and you’re dining on something in between prawns and popcorn. Nobody else is prepared to exercise their staid European taste buds, so I end up sharing with the locals.
We reach Kibale National Park just before nightfall and move into Jungle Jules’ camp, a stunning tree house hoveing like some luddite carpenter’s spaceship project in the upper layers of the forest canopy. Two Nile Special lagers see me off to green dreamland.
4 April 2001
Off to trawl the emerald forest for elusive chimpanzees today. After the rebel attacks in Murchisons of the previous week, we have two bearers of Ak47 rifles in tow – plus a Swiss / UIC couple, a mumbling Belgian, our guide Silver, Julia and myself.
We hear the chimps as we set off out of the camp – “about twenty minutes away,” according to the experts. My arse – three hours later and the …………. chimp community are still eluding us. Shiny, metallic, fluttering butterflies, towering hardwoods and flashes of brilliantly coloured birds had satisfied my deep forest cravings so far, but I am starting to believe that early morning ranger parties had gone out to scatter strategic piles of chimp shit.
Heigh-ho Silver! I see a brown blob deep in the shadows, but Silver sees a chimpanzee and soon the forest is reverberating with their hoarse hee-haw calls and the occasional slamming buttress-beat (part of their noise making involves slapping tree trunks). Probably to prove their virility, I suppose. We try to keep up with the troop (actually known as communities). This specific community is known as Jules’ Boys and consist of adults and young.
Today they’re not in the mood for tourists though and they lope off into the thick bottom layer growth, but this does not discourage Silver. So we all set off in tow, tripping over vines and getting entangled in thorn bushes. We sight the chimps three more times, but photographs are impossible in the tangle of medio-tropical rainforests and the extremely low light. This however does not detract from the feeling of absolute magic of seeing these cousins of the homosapiens as they move magically through the emerald gloom. Fleeting glimpses of wizened faces peering through the foliage and gnarled hands deftly breaking young shoots in my mind long after we leave the forest. After more than four and a half hours of emerald trekking we re-emerge into sunlight land after a magical mystery tour.
No rest for the wicked though, as Elissa has arranged a swamp walk near Bigodi Village. This is another UCOTA project and income generated are used to fund the village school and numerous other community projects.
Eva, Rosemary and myself join up with Edison to trawl through two storey high papyrus stands in search of great blue touracous, grey plantain-eaters, swamp mongoose and maybe, just maybe, a glimpse of the very shy sitatunga. Birding in Uganda blows my mind; in less than three hours, I see 23 bird species I have never seen before. Touraco, coucal, waxbill and kingfisher varieties abound, not to mention broad-billed roller, crested shrike flycatcher, blue cardinal and crimson-breasted sunbird. A rain shower nearly spoils our fun and the walkway might be a bit rickety, but Edison is a birdman de luxe. A split-second glimpse of a wing shape or bird whisperings from the papyrus beds – his identification is spot-on every time. I could have just as well left the bird book at home.
At sunset I surrender myself to a bush shower after a day of being notably smelly. I lug a bucket of warm water up to the deck and soap up my body, standing naked in the upper forest canopy while a chorus of primate and bird calls resonate into the dusk. It is like a magical shroud of sound suspended between earth and sky, so densely layered and minutely textured that it makes me believe Pan and the forest gods are out there in the shadows, surrendering to this forest symphony.
Later on that night I carry my mattress out onto the deck and lie there staring up at the clouds charging past a three-quarter moon. I end up spinning into the night sky to lodge between the stars, just one more pinprick of happy light between billions of others.
5 April 2001
More travelling – chased inside the treehouse by a tropical storm at 5am, so a bit grumpy on the way to Fort Portal. Soon put right by the beauty of the towering Ruwenzori mountains however. Verdant green tea plantations, a sighting of La Hoeiste monkeys, silhouettes of pink-backed pelicans on a crater lake, the jagged blue peaks against the Congo skyline – I dare you to try and stay grumpy.
Mission today is as follows: get to Kazingo outpost on the Ruwenzori National Park border and bid Elissa and Jungle Jules goodbye; met up with Azoli Batoki?, my guide for the day; climb the foothills until you reach an altitude of approximately two and a half thousand metres and, finally, meet with a witch doctor. So said, so done.
Azoli is right on time to meet me at Kazingo and we plan our assault on the Mountains of the Moon forthwith. Ruwenzori means the “Place of Rain” and I soon see why – we barely step out the door when the heavens open up. But, as Azoli (apparently the son of a Bakhonzo King) says, a little rain never stopped his mountain people from walking these slopes. He bounds up the slippery slopes like a klipspringer with me and my camera equipment wheezing along in his wake. We reach the witch doctor with mist veiling in along the slopes and thunder rolling ominously in from the eastern spur of the mountain. The door to the sangomas hut creaks open ominously to reveal a wizened, one-toothed wonder and a cross-eyed guy who looks both bedraggled and quite drunk. I decide to take some photos anyway and after a bit of bartering we decide on a price (I don’t bargain too hard, afraid that The Great Piss Artist might turn me into a lowland pygmy person).
With the photos done we head further into the Ruwenzories, but after about two hours of scrambling along muddy tracks in mist as thick as a seafood gumbo, I call a halt. Azoli gives in once I promise to return as soon as the park opens to do the 12 day traverse that the local community is planning for future tourists.
Bumpy bodaboda ride to Fort Portal, home of the statue with the eternal erection. Short and sharp bargaining with a special hire before telling them to fuck off. Back to the rickety but faithful matatu along the tarmac strip to Kasese in the south. Long and complicated conversations with a political science lecturer at Makerere University while a chicken pecks away at my calf under the front seat. It has been pissing it down in the mountains and where we pass over bridges, roiling rivers black with mud try to snap and surge at our passing wheels. One near miss on the wet road when a truck sideswipes into our lane. I bite back on the bitter bile of fear rising at the back of my throat and close my eyes.
Get into Kasese by 4pm with two hours to get to Mweya Lodge before the gates to the Queen Elizabeth National Park closes. By five I am still in the taxi to Katungurru, waiting for more passengers before we can start our journey. This calls for drastic actions, so I start a bidding war between two rival companies. Skinhead folds before Rasta does and ferries me to the park for USH 30 000 (about US$18). A stiff one indeed, but I drive in style with the whole taxi to myself and arrive in time to enjoy a hot shower before dinner.
6 April 2001
Brothers and sisters of The Union of Sweaty-arsed Backpackers, I do confess. I have strayed off the path less travelled (albeit for a short while). I am at present ensconced in the lap of luxury at Mweya Lodge, sipping on a cold one. Below me, hippos are grunting and in the distance lightning dances in the sky above the Burundi mountains. As we speak, my laundry is being pressed and a cordon bleu chef is delicately stuffing my tilapia menieur with groundnuts
and fragrant rice. I am a complacent bastard and if I could afford a Havana, I would blow smoke in your face. And I’m not paying a cent. For anything except the large amounts of beer I am ordering from the bar. Or the Havana I will have delivered to my table as soon as I get too vrot to remember what coal tar does to your lungs. And I hope I have enough money to pay for all this shit when I eventually get kicked out of this heavenly joint.
Got up at 5h30 to get onto the game drive bandwagon only to nearly perish in an incident involving our Landy and a happy hippo. Lies actually, just trying to make this sound interesting. Did see hippos though. Lots. And many kob. Big, fat, red, furry fuckers grazing on the plains. And woolly waterbuck and gnarly warthog too. Saw a swamp mongoose as the sun came up and tipped my cap to a Cape buffalo bull on a green-brown spear grass plain. European bee eaters ate bees while lilac-breasted rollers rolled along and a white-backed vulture shat on a termite mound. And then without warning our driver careens onto the swampy marsh ground to lurch to a halt. And points out the window at a yawning, tawny King of the Beast. Hold Beelzebub, ten metres away from us, like giant ginger Cheshire cats licking their chops. What can I say, it was just one of those magical mornings.
Back to the hotel for a civilized breakfast (with all the trimmings), a dip in the pool on the deck build overlooking Lake Albert and the Kazinga Channel. A long chat to the manager later and I am all set up for an afternoon of crater cruising. I doubt that you actually want to hear about this – it is the stuff journalistic hyperbole is made of: you crest at Baboon Cliff to overlook a vast and ancient grassland crater stretching away so green that it makes your eyes water. Behind it the Ruwenzories punch their snowy, blue peaks into veils of trailing mist. To the right the savanna plains and flat-topped acacias stretch away as far as Africa is big. A huge tusker slowly flaps his ears and trumpets his beautiful call of the wild into the shimmering afternoon mirage. You’re all along on Planet Earth. The last survivor. Or maybe the first cognisant being. And not another tourist as far as the eye can see. Why? Because they think all Ugandans are Idi Amin clones? Or that they are not tough enough to travel in East Africa? I don’t know, maybe they just did not want to miss an Egoli episode. I’m glad they’re not here right now. But in a way I am sad that they will never experience the beauty of what good old drunk Churchill wisely called the Pearl of Africa.
Back at the lodge a pompous fart asks the waiter to please not serve him “African” tea. I think of the backpack in room No.9 and know it is time to make peace with the matatu’s again. I know when I leave I will shake the hands of Solomon and Vincent and Chris and all the others who mean what they say whenever they greet you with “You are most welcome!” I will miss them, but I know that right now life is beautiful.
7 April 2001
Chalk up another beautiful dawn to Africa. Red sun bleeding through a rainstorm in the east, reflecting off the Kazinga channel where hippos grunt contentedly. Meet with Sarah Hodge, the mongoose girl to take photos of her banded mongoose tribe. We’re up earlier than them and watch as they slink out of their burrow, yawning and stretching. Then the beetle hunting starts in all earnest and I follow the tail-up brigade as they sniff and scratch their way around Mweya. It is a really shit morning for rhinoceros beetles though and I watch as the little furries snuffle out and ferociously munch through the carapaces of the giant insects.
An early breakfast means I have enough time to sneak in a bird walk before heading back to Kampala via Mbarara. An overweight but very nice ranger by the name of Morris guides me from Mweya along the Lake Edward peninsula through lakeshore sedge and stands of prickly euphorbia where waterbuck and warthog teem. A herd of Cape buffalo keeps a beady eye on our passing, occasionally emitting a derisory snort. Crimson-breasted sunbird, black-headed bush shrike, purple starling and an excellent, close-up sighting of a Klaas cuckoo sets the scene. Then we descend to the bird hide on the Kasinga channel to spot water dikkop, wattled and spurwing plover, goliath and black-headed heron, greater white egret, great white pelican, fish eagle and yellow billed stork.
On the way back to the lodge we bump into a huge forest hog waddling from its mud wallow and a reasonably pissed-off hippo giving me the eye. No hassles though as I rattle for a few quick frames in between checking out possible escape route options.
Time to hit the backpack road again, so I score a lift to the main road and a little shithole by the name of Katunguru. From here the bus routes back to Kampala via Kasese and Mbarara – probably about a 4-5 hour journey.
Or so I thought. never-ever make any assumptions in Africa. Especially when it comes to travelling. At around 1pm, a rainbird called on the plains above Katunguru, announcing the official start to the rainy season. The heavens opened up and solid sheets of rain come down to drown that little bitch of a town. Plus all the roads serving her. Which left me stranded like bull in rutting season, patrolling the route and flagging down anything bigger than a bicycle. An hour later it was still bucketing down, but I got a floundering matatu to stop by barricading the road (I think I must have been occupant 23, and had to sit on a Big Mama’s lap.
Mbarara sloshed into view after 5pm. Decision time – do I push for Masaka and try a late night special hire to Lake Nabugabo or give myself over to this non-decript little slum and search for a rest house? What the hell. Go for broke; I mean it can’t really get any worse. Another common mistake by travellers on this pitbull of a continent. Because it can and will savage you on occasion. My Mbarara – Masaka connection trawls the main drag for the next hour and a half, cajoling passerby and raggamuffin fuckwits to board what is fast beginning to resemble something out of Midnight Express. The driver and a passenger launches into an argument which culminates in a flurry of blows. This while driving in the dark on a road held together by 183km’s of potholes. When the odd man next to me smile fatalistically and opens a Bells Lager with his panga, I know we’re in for a long night.
Masake blurs into focus through the cracked windscreen after 11 o’clock. Transport to Nabugabo is impossible due to rebel curfews, says one driver. Bullshit. It’s Saturday night and everybody must get stoned. So basically it translates to “fuck you, muzungu, do not waste my drinking time”. A kindly soul points me in the direction of a rest house and I lug my pack cursing into the dysfunctional night. On the way to my lodgings, I hurl into the gutter, puking out some food my body obviously needs to get out of my system. Sooner rather than later, I dream shivery dreams of ebola monkeys lurking beyond the dirty mosquito net, their red eyes pulsing in the dark.
8 April 2001
Still a bit woozy and another near-puke as I try to stomach breakfast, so decide to make straight for Kampala. Another hour-long wait for the matatu to fill up, but keep myself amused by reading the Sunday papers. Eventually set off on a jerky, stop-start ride back to the capital, trying not to look while we pass an accident scene where a bus didn’t make it through a corner and shattered into a matooki field. We seem to slow down for five minutes, but then it is back to as-fast-as-you-bloody-can.
Arrive in one piece. As usual, but bearing a few scars. My chest and neck looks as if I have been exposed to nuclear radiation, but according to the local experts, it is just a severe case of Nairobi eye. Sounds Twilight Zonish, but actually just a non-decrypt flying bug that sprays you with acid upon contact. Nice. Apply calamine lotion and it should go away in a few days. And endure the Oh My God, he’s a leper stares while the affliction lasts. Succumb to the need to check email and have a cappuccino, so head to the Kampala City Centre for a last wonder. Tomorrow it is back to the S of A.
9 April 2001
Gotta have one final fix, so decide to get up at dawn and head for Mabira Forest on the
. Getting there is a slight mission: easy out of Kampala in Ian’s 4×4, but then followed up by two taxi transfers along a multitude of stops.
The forest itself is cool, although a bit steeply priced. USh 6000 entrance plus an additional Ush 10 000 to hire a mountain bike. But that might be irrelevant if you are earning a strong First World currency. The hurt in my pocket disappears as soon as I am sucked in by the beauty of the forest. Mabira is probably the most accessible little section of primary rainforest in Uganda, offering Kampala residents and tourists more than 200km2 of tangled undergrowth to explore.
From the forest centre, it is a steep 2km crank along a mud-sucking track slushing through stands of yam, cassava and matooki before you bear left to descend into the cool forest shade. I scatter a litter of village piglets who shriek their way into the under storey. Within seconds the village kids’ radar has picked up the presence of a muzungu and for the next kay or so I am pursued by the flailing limbs and high pitched squeals of a gaggle of pre-teens in full voice. How are you / How are you / How are you seem to be the war cry of choice. But soon I am again swallowed by the emerald shimmer and 500m the only sounds are of those of gray checked mangabeys and barefaced go-away birds. A Ross’ Touraco flaps ahead of me through shafts of sunlight, scattering sparkling turquoise, purple and blue reflections into the forest haze. I stop in a clearing and sit in the cool of the shade to reflect on this country which is so rich and yet so poor. Such incredible diversity. Awesome natural splendour. A welcoming “jambo” waiting on everybody’s lips and then the flipside. A Rift Valley torn apart by regional wars. Corruption and mismanagement, seemingly one of the continent’s most popular past times. An infrastructure balanced between boomtime and bombtime.
And what can I do? One poor muzungu in love with a continent so great it sometimes threatens to tear his heart apart. I can take photos and write a few articles. I can hope that other tourists will be touched, as I was, by lying awake at 2am while a tropical storm thunders into the quiet night outside the thin walls of your tent. Any maybe if everyone of them believed for a short while in the beauty of it all, the beast will retreat into the dark recesses of a history long gone.