The Pearl of Africa - Uganda

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Africa » Uganda
December 3rd 2018
Published: December 4th 2018
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Anyone we met travelling south that had come through Uganda only had good things to say about it, so Amy and I were both looking forward to travelling through there. Our first Ugandan experience was a good one, and unusually it involved a money changer at the border post. Normally changing money at the border involves being chased down by a handful of men waving various currencies at you, whereby you negotiate a terrible rate whilst hiding behind a lorry in a notional attempt to be out of the line of sight of any policemen (which always makes me laugh as it's not as if they don't know what's going on). On this occasion, however, we had negotiated a poor rate on our Rwandan francs and exchanged the cash, only for another changer to come over with his calculator to inform us we had been ripped off. By his calculations we should have been given 115 Ugandan Shillings (instead of the 101 we had negotiated). Bearing in mind that 120 shillings was the exact market rate, we had never expected to get anything close. Anyway the deal was done. But no, to our amazement our money changer sheepishly handed over the difference without an argument! A bizarre, but for once, pleasant, border crossing experience!

A short taxi ride took us to Kisoro, where we would have liked to have stopped to explore the local coffee region, but unfortunately our schedule wouldn't allow. So instead we found another share taxi to take us to Kabale, from where we would need to find a way to the island that we had planned to stay on in Lake Bunyonyi. A short way out of town we got stuck at a roadblock. ‘Your friends have arrived’, said our taxi driver. And sure enough, a twin propeller plane dropped out of the sky right in front of us, and several mzungus clad in varying extremes of safari-wear stepped out of the plane onto the runway (which stretched out across the road, hence the blockage). A local preacher took the opportunity to spread the gospel among the waiting crowds of motorbikes and cars, switching to English and explaining that colour didn't matter when we were spotted through the windows, much to the amusement of everyone around us. Once the plane had swung round and taken off the barriers were lifted and we were off. Airports, Africa style.

We were still in the mountains, and the road weaved and twisted through the mountain passes, past herds of the local longhorn zebu cattle, with horns so long it is amazing that they manage to keep their heads up at all. The views should have been amazing, but it was now rainy season, and today was a particularly wet day. The mist and rain closed in until only the bonnet was visible. Hopefully it wouldn't be like this for the next two weeks! We travelled past groups of labourers - men and women - manually breaking down cliff faces in improvised quarries, the loosened boulders tumbling down the steep faces to the labourers at the bottom, where using hammers and chisels they broke the rocks up into small aggregate. Backbreaking and dangerous work. A few hours later we arrived in Kabale, where we undertook the usual desperate search for an ATM that worked (and would accept our cards), and bought some local sim cards. Another taxi took us to the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, where we transferred to our final form of transportation of the day - a local dugout canoe. These are long, hollowed out tree trunks, with a couple of planks for benches and wooden oars, and are notoriously difficult to steer. Luckily for us, we had a local boatman helming, to help us avoid what is known locally as a ‘mzungu corkscrew’. We delicately transferred our bags inside and carefully got in - the boats are very narrow and don't look all that stable, but to our surprise there wasn't much of a wobble. Our destination was an eco lodge on Itambira Island, about a 45 minute paddle (as long as everyone actually paddles…). The rain had stopped, the wind had disappeared, and we stroked through the sheet glass water in silence, surrounded by the green patchwork quilt fields that gently topple down the hillsides to the lakeshore. Incredibly peaceful, and by far our favourite mode of transport so far.

Our open sided hut was built above the reeds right on the lake shore, with a huge balcony overlooking the lake and the green hills beyond. ‘Bunyonyi’ means ‘the place of many little birds’, and there really were hundreds of them - flashes of colour catching your eye as they darted between the trees and reeds. There were some big birds too - Uganda’s national bird the crested crane looking particularly magnificent with its splayed golden crest - and another unidentified bird that screeched over our hut waking us up every morning as the sun rose. It is a very peaceful place (screeching birds aside), and beautiful, even in the rain, especially watching the blue forks of lightning illuminating the lake from our bed at night-time! I think we hit a particularly cold spell, and even though Uganda lies on the equator, it's elevation coupled with the beginning of the rainy season left Amy and I wearing every layer we had available in the evenings!

We hired a guide and took another dugout to explore a few of the local islands. We stopped in a village to have lunch with a local family which was a wonderful experience. Before we knew it we had four little kids clambering all over us and pulling our hair whilst the grandmother served up dishes of the local staples - matooke (mashed green bananas), posho (maize), and African sweet potato. All a bit stodgy - I had just about got through mine and was quite pleased about it when Amy nudged me and to my dismay made a face indicating that I was going to have to finish hers as well. It was nice to get to spend time with a local family and learn about their lives in this part of the country.

Lake Bunyonyi is billed as being croc, hippo and bilharzia free (bilharzia is the nasty parasitic illness that we also came across in Lake Malawi), but, the water looked cold and as I think that when they say ‘bilharzia free’ it probably means that they just don't charge for it, we decided to give swimming a miss this time.

Our original plan was to head up to the Queen Elizabeth National Park to do a river safari, then on to Fort Portal by the Rwenzori mountains, and then track over to Kampala, in what looked like an obvious route to hit some of the main sights. However, no one could tell us how to get there without either spending days on a bus or using a special hire taxi. I was sure that we'd be able to do it (there always seems to be a way to get anywhere in Africa, albeit abiding by the rules of the interrelated time-money-comfort triangle), but we were advised it might be difficult. So we opted instead to head straight to Kampala, and as an alternative try and get up to Murchison Falls as a side trip from there. So it would be our final long bus journey, a ‘7 hour’ journey (10 hours) crossing the Equator and through Mbale into Kampala. The highlight of this journey was the man selling bags of fried grasshoppers that boarded the bus at Mbale Station, who after trying to sell some to us, asked if he could purchase Amy (he rightly identified that she was wearing a fake engagement ring). I offered one million shillings (about £200) but he laughed and walked off - not even willing to negotiate! I'd obviously gone in far too high… As we drove into Kampala we began to see a lot of the marabou storks, which, as we learnt on our safari in Zambia, are part of the ‘Ugly 5’. And yes, they are pretty disgusting. They look so out of place in a city. About the size of a child with their oversized heads and pink fleshy gullets swinging around perched above their spindly long legs, these urban scavengers sift through the rubbish for their dinner (they can apparently digest plastic). We were told that just the previous week, five soldiers in the North had died when they tried to eat one of them - the meat is that toxic! They became a regular sight around the city and on the beaches, being chased away by the locals like nightmare Ugandan versions of seagulls and pigeons.

The bus arrived in Kampala at dusk and, after the relative calm of Rwanda, it was madness out there. The traffic in Asia is pretty crazy (Vietnam springs to mind) but once you understand the rules, there's a logic to it. Perhaps we just didn't understand the rules here, but I don't think there were any - there were cars, motorbikes and people everywhere, all trying to squeeze through gaps that weren't there, it was mayhem! Sometimes you just get a vibe about a city, and there was something exciting about Kampala - it is easy to see why so many expats have settled here. We spent a day or two exploring town, including the Gaddafi Mosque (started by Idi Amin in the 70s and funded by Colonel Gaddafi to become one of the world's largest mosques) with 360 degree views of the city from the top of the minaret; and the Kabaka Palace, where we were led into one of Idi Amin’s torture chambers - a grim, dank, buried concrete chamber which used to be filled with prisoners, whilst the bottom was filled with water and an electric current run through it. There are still handprints and writing on the wall from those that were tortured and killed there. Idi Amin killed 300,000 during his reign of Uganda - yet another example of atrocities committed abroad in recent times that are barely known or talked about back at home.

We eventually managed to organise a trip up to Murchison Falls. After initially thinking we would be able to do it easily by public transport (you can if you're happy to sacrifice time and comfort, which we didn't want to…), we opted to hire a driver for a couple of days to give us a bit of flexibility. As we left Kampala the rains came flooding down, turning the roads to rivers. We needed to be there by 2pm to make it in time for the river safari to the base of the waterfall, and this wasn't a good start! Eventually the rains subsided, the roads improved and we started to make good progress. There were the typical intriguing sights as we went - the religious themed shop names (the ‘Trust in Jesus Hair Salon’ being a particular favourite - when getting a haircut I'd rather trust in the hairdresser); Rolex’s for sale (not watches - actually ‘rolled eggs’ in chapati - delicious); and ‘Not for Sale’ signs on lots of buildings (apparently as people often get fake deeds made up and sell someone else's house without them knowing!). Due to a slightly longer lunch than we should have had, and some issues with US dollars at the park entrance (they can't be marked whatsoever or be issued earlier than 2013), we ended up only just making the boat from Paraa by the skin of our teeth.

The boat slowly makes its way up the Nile, hugging the bank, with the guide pointing out various wildlife along the way. There were plenty of crocs and hippos about, and we also saw some giraffe and a huge herd of buffalo on the bank, which was great to see. It was a great experience to do the safari by boat, very different to our other safaris in Zambia, and well recommended. As the boat slowly approached the base of the falls you could feel the humidity increase - the spray from the waterfall puts so much moisture into the surrounding air. The entire Nile goes through a very narrow gap in the rocks, plunging 40 metres in a huge thundering white explosion to the base, where the water swirls and churns and organises itself back into something resembling a river. The pure whiteness of the waterfall is a beautiful contrast against the lush green forest that surrounds it. The sheer power is immense - it is apparently the most powerful waterfall in the world, but I have no idea who or how they measured that! We opted to get off the boat at the base of the falls and walk up the trail to the top, which gives some great views. The humidity and spray is so encompassing that we were drenched by the time we reached the top. It has to be one of the natural wonders of the world.

We stayed the night at a nearby lodge, getting up the next morning to make our way back down to Kampala. Amy, for the second time in this trip, went to put her foot into her trainer only to discover a frog inside, which sent her screaming out the tent. We're both very careful now to tip our shoes upside down before we put our feet in them! As we were making our way out of the park we saw some baboons by the side of the road, and got talking about how much we had wanted to see the chimpanzees (it hadn't worked out for us due to permits and the cost etc.). Our driver piped up to say that he knew a bridge that was only a 25km diversion where the chimpanzees all hang out, even sometimes sitting on the cars! No permits, no fees! Well, that sounded like an opportunity not to be missed, so we decided to take the diversion. 80km and about an hour and a half later, we arrived at the bridge to find...some more baboons. Of course, it turned out to be too good to be true and just a mistranslation! A bit disappointing, but nevertheless, the baboons put on a show, jumping at the windows and on top of the car to try and get the bananas that they'd spotted inside. These weren't small guys either, it was quite frightening when they were trying to get in through the windows, even our driver was screaming!

Something I haven't talked about yet in these blogs is the dust in Africa. When the roads are dry, the red dust gets everywhere. If there is a window open, by the end of the journey you are covered in a fine film of red dust. If you are unlucky enough to be walking down a busy road, you will end up with the ‘Cardiff on a Saturday night’ look, sporting a lovely orange glow. The trip back was no exception, and was in fact probably the worst we had seen so far. There had been no rain here for a long time and so it was particularly bad - so bad in fact that you could barely see the front of the car. The poor people walking along the road or on their bikes were getting absolutely caked in it! On the way back we stopped off at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. They are trying to reintroduce the white rhino back into Uganda, and have a breeding program at this particular park. We drove off into the bush with our guides, and when we weren't too far off the rhinos we got out to track them for the section not accessible in our vehicles. Rhino's have very poor eyesight but incredible hearing, so we crept through the bush until we came close to a mother and her calf. They are huge and really quite imposing, and it was thrilling to be silently creeping through the trees and bushes to get a good view of them. Their ears are constantly moving, like two satellites - even the snap of a twig is enough to attract their attention. We stayed with them for about 45 minutes before heading back to the vehicles. Each rhino has two guards that monitor them 24/7 - there has been a huge problem with poachers throughout Africa trying to get the horns so that they can be used in all sorts of nonsense medicine in Asia. The sad thing is that a rhino's horn will grow back if cut in the right place, but the poachers in their drive to get out of there quickly will instead cut the horn off lower down, and let them bleed to death. It's tragic that this is still going on, so it is great to see them being reintroduced and protected like this.

The final stop on our trip in Uganda was in the Ssese Islands, in particular Bugala Island - a three hour ferry ride from Entebbe, just outside Kampala. Expecting another dodgy ferry we were prepared for the worst, but were surprised to find a half decent ferry, even with table service! The only disconcerting thing being that there were several policeman on board, who were, for some reason or other, all armed with two rifles each. It's not very nice but we've become quite accustomed to seeing guns in Africa - they are everywhere! To our dismay when we docked we found ourselves in yet another swarm of the tiny lake flies that we had last come across in Lake Malawi. And they were everywhere! You couldn't walk without getting a mouth full of them. We had decided to come here for our last few days to relax before we headed back to a busy week in the UK, but it wouldn't be very relaxing if these flies stuck around! We arrived at our hotel - which was pretty average but at least on the lakeshore - and bumped into a couple of English guys that we had met on the ferry across. One had a Ugandan wife and was doing some market research for starting up a tourism business, and they were travelling with some Ugandan friends. They invited us to join them on a night out at the local bars, which turned out to be one of the weirder experiences on the trip. After driving around the island for a bit, we found a club literally in the middle of nowhere. Hoping for a bit of African dancing, we were led inside and instead found rows of chairs in front of a makeshift stage. A grubby checkerboard shower curtain partitioned off the backstage area, and as we took our seats the tension was killing us, waiting for whatever would emerge from behind it. After a while we were beginning to worry that we might have inadvertently entered the local strip club, so it was with a bit of relief when two guys jumped out onto the stage and started some fairly poor miming of some rap songs. What followed was a bit of a variety show. The rappers turned into a bit of a comedy double act, of which we had no idea what was going on other than that we were the butt of most of the jokes, as the only word we understood was ‘mzungu’ at which point the entire audience would turn around and laugh! Following that was a bit of dancing from some girls in skimpy outfits, and then back to one of the comedians, who began with some Westlife and other boyband covers. I thought this was a joke at first but unfortunately it turned out to be serious! Before I knew it the microphone was in my face with the entire club looking at me to fill in the blanks of whatever song was being played - I froze, panicked, and then tried to make up some African sounding words with a bit of tune behind it, which only led to roars of laughter from the room. I'm glad that at least we managed to provide a bit of entertainment!

The next day we decided to check out the luxury resort next door, and managed to negotiate a very cheap price to stay full board in by far the nicest hotel I have ever stayed in; I'm talking turn down service in a huge ensuite room with balcony, waiters apologising for serving you from the left, and free room service with a pool on the beach, kind of nice. The flies died off and we basically spent the next few days stuffing our faces, sitting by the pool in the sun and having bonfires on the beach in the evening.

We headed back to Entebbe for our flight back to the UK, spending the remainder of our time checking out the Botanical Garden (where apparently the first Tarzan film was made), and buying a few souvenirs at the various craft markets. We had a fantastic time in Uganda, but feel that we didn't even scratch the surface. It seems to have everything - jungle (including what must be the most intriguingly named forest - the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest), mountains (the Rwenzoris, aka the Mountains of the Moon), islands and savannahs. If you are in need of a holiday somewhere varied and adventurous, Uganda is the place!

Landing back at Heathrow felt very strange. The stark difference of modernity and wealth (and not to mention obsession with Christmas) was all the more apparent after spending just a few months away from it all, in countries that are at the other end of the economic spectrum. What has struck us most on this trip is how there are many, many people in Africa who have very, very little. And very few who have wealth comparable to any of us back at home. Yet what we saw everywhere was smiles and laughter, and people making the best of what they have. Reflecting back on our lives before this trip - where every week several parcels would arrive for us from Amazon because some advert somewhere had convinced us that we needed their product and we wouldn't be happy until we had it - I felt a bit ashamed. I think there's something for us to learn there, and I hope that I’ll try not to fall back into the consumerist trap when we return - perhaps much easier said than done when it is so ingrained within our culture. Something to think about at least.

Our next stop is 10 days back in the UK to switch all our summer clothes for our ski gear, before heading out to Japan for the next step on our tour - a ski season in what is dubbed to be one of the best places to ski in the world!

Additional photos below
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4th December 2018

Cardiff on a saturday night
Ah the black waters of Lake Bunyonyi. So terrific. I eondered what lurked below the surface. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I loved Uganda, even crazy Kampala. Wished I had gone out to islands. A must to return and go to Bwendi and the savannah so, both very cool.
5th December 2018

Yes I think we will be going back there at some point, so much to see!!

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