Lions, waterfalls and Uganda

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Africa » Uganda » Western Region » Lake Bunyonyi
November 17th 2008
Published: February 2nd 2009
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Getting on the bus to Uganda to find it almost empty I was thrilled at the thought of a journey where I didn't need to fight for a seat and wasn't going to have someone near sit on my lap. Ten minutes on I was wondering if the missing passengers knew something we didn’t! Our driver was a mental, even by African standards, zooming along narrow winding roads, rounding blind corners in the middle of the road and turning almost everyone a nasty shade of green in the process. A young boy opposite held on tight as he struggled to throw up out the window, but his efforts were in vain and more ended up running down the inside than outside. The sole redeeming factor was that this was a relatively short journey and a few hours later we'd cleared the Ugandan border and were sat in a small boat being slowly paddled across the still blue waters of Lake Bunyonyi - peaceful and serene it was a world away from noisy, stomach churning start of the day!

At 1,962m above sea level Lake Bunyonyi is simply stunning - it's @25 km x 7 km, full of little coves, surrounded by green terraced hills and small villages and it's calm waters are punctuated by 29 islands, some inhabited, others not and one with a primary and secondary school to which children from a nearby mainland village are ferried across in paddle boats each morning. The boat took us to the small Itambira Island and Byoona Amagara where following a friend’s recommendation we’d arranged to stay in one of their ‘Geodomes’, although until we arrived I had no idea what one was. It turned out to be a thatched dome with no ‘front’ so each day we woke up to the most amazing view straight out across the lake. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great during our stay, rain, rain and more rain... giving us the perfect excuse to do nothing for a few days.

In the nearby town of Kabale we found a bus easily enough, bought a ticket and sat down. 90mins later we were still there. Finally someone bought the last ticket and the bus started it's bumpy, pothole swerving and very slow journey to Kampala. Lush green terraced hills gradually gave way to flat plains covered with banana trees and cows grazed in fields. But these were no ordinary cows - here they breed Ankole cattle which with their distinctive huge curved horns, and I mean HUGE, had us gawking almost every time we saw one. Villages were peppered with bright pink, yellow and blue houses - here as elsewhere through Africa mobile phone companies have taken to advertising by sponsoring a house - painted in the colours of the phone company, yellow for MTN, pink for Zain etc, the house is the advert. Who needs bill boards! The real frustration of the journey, apart from the fact that the driver didn't seem to want to move out of 2nd gear, was that what we'd expected to take @8 hours took nearer 12. When we finally pulled into Kampala's phrenetic bus station it was long since dark - I always find arriving in a new city by night intimidating but oddly also exciting and this was no different. Outside the roads were jammed with honking cars, moto’s and minibuses, stall holders tried to entice every passing person to buy their wares and the air was warm and thick with the smell of food, rubbish, exhaust fumes and more. Welcome to Kampala!

Kampala has a number of tourist sites but topping the backpackers list was the Aristoc Bookshop at the Garden City shopping centre. We'd only seen a few bookshops on the way up from Cape Town, the last big one being in Dar in Tanzania about 3 weeks ago - at one point we'd even been buying the Economist and New Statesmen for something to read. In Uganda I met people doing similar trips who’d all experienced the same frustrations and the one piece of info there were eager to impart... the location of the book shop!

Next stop was Entebbe, only an hour away from Kampala by minibus but a million miles away in terms of atmosphere with streets that were quiet, leafy and comparatively traffic free. We had a few days relaxing here before Helen started her journey back to New Zealand and I returned to the mayhem that is Kampala minibus station. Catching the minibus to Entebbe had been easy - there were two of us, the Entebbe stand was right by the entrance and the taxi driver had told us where to go. Now I found myself lost in a maze the size of several football pitches, squeezing through a jumble of minibuses parked at all different angles, some with signs to their destination, others with conductors shouting the destination, the majority with neither. Initially no one could help me, but perhaps that was just my pronunciation, then just as I started to consider a taxi (there was no way I was getting on a boda-boda, a motorbike taxi, on these streets!) I found a young guy who not only knew where the bus stand was but took me to it.

I'd returned to Kampala to start a 3 day tour to Murchison Falls and joined 2 other Brits, a couple of an Aussie's and 2 Scandinavians. The journey there took much of the day and was especially long for the Aussie who managed to get food poisoning from lunch. When we finally reached a toilet he rushed in, a snake slithered in after, he ran out with his pants round his ankles and made a nice mess of his trousers.... but he saw the funny side!

We had a couple of great days here, walking at the top of the falls where water plunges 43m to a frothing pool and approaching their base by boat with the most enthusiastic guides ever. We went on a game drive, were lucky enough to see a group of four teenager lions and had another posh jeep with its arrogant loud clients not been there we might have seen a kill too. We watched on excitedly as the lions spotted two antelope a short distance away that, unaware of the danger, were busy munching grass. The lion’s behaviour changed completely, from lazy and playful to alert and stealthy as they silently stalked their prey, noses and shoulders forward, tails down. Unfortunately the noisy tourists spooked the antelope and the opportunity was gone but we went on to see a huge herd of buffalo, giraffe grazing in the distance and at the edge of a natural pond the huge but rather evil looking shoebill stork - adults weigh up to 7kg and are up to 150cm high and they have HUGE beaks. I was here just after the rainy season and it made me appreciate why we'd been right to do the other safaris around the dry season - vegetation was plentiful but the grass was so high that unless you were standing up peering out of the open roof most of the wildlife was hidden.

Having spent the first 3 weeks of this trip camping and freezing at night the idea of sleeping in a tent again was not filling me with joy. This however was posh camping - the tent was already up and came with a proper bed, sheets and a blanket! Now that I could get used to! The only downside of the trip was the evil horseflies. They're large, you feel their bite and they make mosquito's seem nice. In this region they seemed to be everywhere and preferring not to be bitten to death we kept the windows wound up and, slowly cooking inside the ensuing minivan sauna, watched swarms of them buzzing around loudly outside, frustrated at being kept away from a tasty feed.

We also stopped at a breeding centre for the endangered White Rhino. Today there are only 8 White Rhinos in the Uganda, 2 in the zoo at Entebbe, the rest here. Once home to many Black and White Rhinos the population in Uganda was all but wiped out by poachers during the civil unrest in the 70s. The last 'wild' rhino was seen here in 1982. Heavy rain had turned the track into a mud bath and our minibus driver didn't fancy his chances but fortunately the park wardens came to our rescue, we all piled in the back of their pickup truck and slid and bounced the 5km to the end of the trail. Continuing on foot, we fought our way through head high grass, stepping waist high to get through it and in my case disappearing down the occasional pothole that I couldn't see, with a girlie yelp. The Rhinos though when we did find them were amazing, 5 of them under a tree, some standing, others lying down, some watching us, others more interested in eating. They don't do much though... just, stand, lie, eat and watch. There are no big or fast movements, everything is very pole, pole, slowly, slowly. Much like the rest of Africa really.

Back in Kampala there was no water at the hostel... no showers, no flushing toilets, no washing, noooo... so the next day I left on the bus to Jinja, a pretty town on the shores of Lake Victoria with wide streets and large houses in leafy plots and then on to Sipi Falls. A small village where the coffee crop had just been harvested, the streets were strewn with beans drying in the sun and the town was being drunk dry as the men celebrated having money by buying beer. The three waterfalls here are stunning - if you’re hardcore you can walk round them in a single day or, if you’ve got more time, do one fall a day as I did. My hostel was at the base of the second falls, so close that the noise of the water was loud enough to hear in bed at night. The path to the top was steep and slippery but from the top there were amazing views down along the green valley and back to the 3rd falls in the distance. I hadn’t come prepared to go further, rather just sit at the top and read my book for a while. A sweet local guy I met on the way up had other plans though and insisted on helping me cross the river to find the path down. When he pointed out the ‘bridge’ I looked on in disbelief... the water at the top of the falls was fast flowing and high - a half submerged log that didn’t even stretch part way across was not what I called a bridge!!!! I think the look on my face said it all so we took another path, through a small village hidden by banana trees and reached the second ‘bridge’ - a serious of stepping stones which only required a few small jumps.

The next day I walked to the first falls. Actually I was quite happy reading my book but the guide at the hostel decided I wasn’t allowed to be that lazy. These are the largest of the 3 falls and quite stunning - at the base the mist created a beautiful rainbow whilst the vegetation overhanging rock crevices had an almost Jurassic look. The walk however nearly killed me. As we descended the steep path from the cliff top to the base of the falls I eyed up the equally steep cliff walls on the opposite side - I knew we were going back a different way and sincerely hoped that wasn't it. Unfortunately... lots of breaks and several near heart attacks later I finally crawled over the edge of that cliff, red faced and gasping for breath.

The journey from Uganda to Nairobi wasn’t quite the easy end to my Africa journey that I'd wanted, but it was perhaps typical of what I should have expected... we left an hour late, cleared immigration OK but were flagged down by the police 20 mins later. In the dark and pouring rain with the path underfoot becoming increasingly like a mud bath we all had to get out and line up with our bags, one queue for women and another for men. Quite what they were looking for I don’t know but everyone’s passports were checked, some bags were searched and eventually we were allowed back on. The journey continued well enough until just after midnight when we stopped for what I assumed was a toilet break. Or maybe it was a food break because time was passing and the expected toot toot to signal it was time to go just never came.It transpired that we had not 1 but 2 flat tires! The driver called bus company HQ and their response... we'll send another bus in the morning. Huh? You mean we sleep on the bus?? Not a popular option those that could were soon busy flagging down minibuses to take them the rest of the way. Those with another 6 hours to go settled in for a long wait. Then HQ got back on the phone, there’d be another bus passing in a few hours and it has 20 free seats. Fantastic. Except there were still @ 30 of us. When it finally arrived I grabbed my bags, ran and managed to get a seat which was just as well because those that didn't were only given a lift to the next town where, at @3am, they were expected to wait until the next bus left at 7am.

I'd been worried about getting to Nairobi - I'd heard all the 'Nairobbery' stories and hadn't been overly reassured when an expat had told me not to worry about arriving at 5am as there was a tea room above the bus company offices. And anyway there were armed guards at the end of the street who controlled which taxi's were allowed in and stopped anyone running off with your bag. Sorry, we need armed guards on the street? You'll be fine he said, just don't walk out of the street!! Oh great. As it turned out we arrived late and I got a taxi straight to the hostel but I have to say I actually quite liked Nairobi and to be honest didn't feel any less safe there than elsewhere in Africa.

I had an amazing time in Africa and was extremely lucky with the wildlife encounters we had, although perhaps being chased by Buffalo and stalked by a killer elephant are ones we might have opted out of! When I arrived this time I felt very white, odd since it wasn't something that had bothered me last time I was here, and the safety concerns always had me feeling on edge - after 3 months I'd long since stopped feeling the whiteness and the safety factor, well thinking twice about getting my camera out had become habit, as had not walking anywhere after dark, talking my valuables to the bathroom and generally being very aware of who was around. The whole pole, pole, slowly, slowly attitude exasperated me but you have no choice and I guess you know you've been in Africa too long when having to wait 2 hours for a bus to fill up or watching your 4 hour journey become 8 as the bus crawls along just doesn't bother you anymore. It's Africa.
Next up India!

Additional photos below
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4th February 2009

ooo, lucky thing, you got to see Shoebill storks in the wild AND lots of white rhino! Brilliant. Your bustrip to nairobi sounds like the stop and searches we had going from Peru to Ecuador so you might get it again!
25th February 2011
Not my idea of a 'bridge'

Safari reference
Some brilliant pictures here, especially the scene

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