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Published: February 4th 2010
"Outta my way"
stroppy young bull elephant on the shores of the Kazinga Channel
Water, wildlife and wilderness: exploring the jewel of Africa
I have to confess I didn’t get to know Uganda. We didn’t sit down and shoot the breeze. We didn’t travel long distances together, me and as many people as a matatu can hold, with a good few more squeezed in for luck, with or without attendant farm animals. We didn’t exchange life stories and aspirations. We didn’t sit at the side of the road and watch the world go by.
And yet I spent two weeks here. To that extent, I feel as if I cheated. My base was a backpackers in Kampala. I went on backpacker trips. Wall-to-wall muzungus. Nice and isolated from the real Uganda and real Ugandans. OK, so I arrived from Rwanda and travelled on to Kenya by public transport, enjoying the inadvertent entertainment and latent uncertainty of two more African land border crossings (you’ve got to keep a sense of humour well dusted down for these occasions), and I took myself off to Jinja one weekend, all of a hour or two from Kampala, but I didn’t really “experience” Uganda (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious).
Part of this was due to time
constraints. I only had a short fortnight to play with, and I was desperate to see wildlife, to visit at least a couple of Uganda’s national parks, and it is hard to do this by public transport or without your own vehicle. But part of it was also a desire to hide from the hard, real, raw side of Africa, at least for a while. Five weeks in Rwanda, with brief trips into the DRC and Burundi, had been an emotional rainbow… vertiginous highs, a couple of awful lows, and a scale and intensity of experience unparallelled in my travels to date. I was tired. A couple of days back at my “usual” hotel in Kigali had done something to restore my equilibrium, but when I found myself snapping at yet another well-dressed, well-fed youth asking for money from the Great White Piggy-Bank, I knew it was time for a break.
Back in backpacker land, where everything’s on tap, and answers are only a question away. There’s a homey-ness about it that I’d forgotten. When, on my first day there, I eventually crawled through to the communal area of Kampala’s Red Chilli Hideaway, having done my best to sleep
the clock round after a long and delayed bus journey from Kigali, a large group of seemingly unconnected muzungus were gathered round a TV screen showing Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”, all taking a break from Travelling for a few hours. It was surprisingly sociable in a wordless kind of way.
Kampala itself I only tackled for functional purposes. The not-very-ancient sights of the Buganda Kingdom and the rest of the city’s must-do’s could wait until another day. In the meantime, I could enjoy the luxury of using an ATM (in Rwanda, I’d been dependent on the Banque de Kigali and local forex shacks) and of dipping repeatedly into a bookshop bursting with affordable literature (English paperbacks cost around US$25 each in Kigali and, not surprisingly, the range is a touch limited). Red Chilli is several kilometres out of the centre, but regular matatus - minibuses - obligingly stop wherever there’s a chance of a fare, although it’s anyone’s guess which route they’ll take into town, and how long the journey will last; Kampala traffic is infamous for its congestion and pollution, although I was amused to see that neither of those things puts off the marabou stork population. Improbably, these
Nazgul of the avian world nest above the roar of the city’s main drag, the Kampala Road, in trees that look too delicate to bear them.
In between national parks, I spent a weekend in Jinja, aka home to “the” source of the Nile (how many places claim that distinction?!) and, more frivolously, the “adrenalin capital of East Africa”. I chose to give white water rafting a miss (a genuinely near-death experience on the Zambezi ten years’ ago has somewhat put me off this form of locomotion), decided I’d done probably enough bungee-jumping for one life-time, and settled for a leisurely bit of sightseeing.
Guidebooks downplay the attraction of the source itself, probably in an effort to re-set the expectations of those seeking fanfares and drama to mark the birthplace of one of the world’s great rivers. Admittedly, it’s not that much to look at from the shore, but from the ridge above you get a much better idea of how the currents swirl, an odd confusion of water leaving the serenity of Lake Victoria. No wonder Speke leapt to the conclusion that this must herald something bigger downstream.
By the time the Victoria Nile reaches the
Bujagali Falls a few kilometres further on, the river is fast and furious, hurling a terrifying amount of water down these rapids only inches away from mesmerised tourists. But that doesn’t stop enterprising locals from trying to earn a buck or two. “Bujagali Jumpers” will leap into the river above the first of the three main massive rapids, clinging onto an empty water container with one arm, and one-handedly propel themselves down the Falls... all for UGX5,000 (about US$2.50). One crazy soul launched himself into the water while I was there. I nearly couldn’t watch as he tackled the second two rapids, disappearing into the back-swirl of the second for what seemed like ages before the river finally spat him out to cheers from those sadistic souls who had paid him to risk his life.
But the main attraction of Uganda for me was the chance to see wildlife again. The unbroken patchwork of cultivation in Rwanda had become exhausting, and I was begging for wilderness. Within the first hour of crossing the border, the ruthlessness of Rwandan agrarian practices was already abating. Soon after, I realised we were driving through acacia scrub, with pinnacles of euphorbia breaking through
the surrounding vegetation, and passing vehicles were throwing up dust - I grinned happily: I was back in my kind of Africa. Now it only remained to lose the improbably long-horned cattle and find some wild animals…
Murchison Falls National Park is a short day’s drive away from Kampala. By lunchtime you are turning off the main road, and winding along dirt tracks up to the Park’s entrance. The next few hours are a little frustrating: the surrounding vegetation is so dense, several herds of elephant could be only feet away and you’d be none the wiser. For now, you have to console yourself with the occasional troop of olive baboons… until you reach the river. Most of the Park’s wildlife is on the Buligi peninsula between the Victoria and Albert Niles. Decimated during the Amin and Obote years, it’s making a good recovery. We crossed with the first ferry of the day - not quite the ramshackle Kazangula ferry between Botswana and Zambia, but not too far removed - to drive through the gently undulating hills of the peninsula down to the marshy delta area, and were soon encountering our first wildlife, an extremely muddy collection of buffalo
with attendant egrets performing their customary insect-removal services. “New-to-me” here were two species of buck, the delicate and shy oribi and the prolific but pretty Ugandan kob. There are no zebra here, but the giraffe population included the darkest animal I have ever seen, his patches black-brown in colour and only separated by the narrowest of pale lines. We saw a trio of lions stalking off to hunt in the distance, and then nearly ran over a gorgeous young tawny female with her sole surviving, still-spotty cub. After a brief scenery/birdlife stop, we found our first elephants of the trip, an old pair of bulls standing dozily under a tree doing what old bulls do for so many of their waking hours: diddly-squat.
In the afternoon, we puttered up the Victoria Nile to check out the Falls from below. No evident shortage of hippo here, nor of crocodiles. Just short of the Falls, there’s a calm patch of water into which fish are often spat out by the maelstrom of currents and eddies at the base of the Falls. On the banks here an army of crocodiles lie in wait, basking deceptively innocuously in the sunshine. Approach just a
little too close, the gaping mouths snap shut and powerful legs manoeuvre heavy bodies surprisingly quickly into the water. The bush comes alive as more and more of the ancient creatures appear - we must have seen a couple of dozen, of which less than half were visible on our first sighting. Take a rain-check on that swimming idea… From above, the Falls are remarkable for the sheer volume of water exploding through the narrowest of gaps in a final surge before calming down in time to meet the placid waters of Lake Albert. Two concrete pillars are all that remain of an attempt to bridge the Falls in the early 1960s. The bridge lasted only a year or two. Now the nearer pillar makes a great lookout point, giving stunning views down the gorge and over to the frothed waters of the Victoria Nile beyond, with this vast power of water roaring just below… until you remember the river’s unpredictability, and return to a safer, drier spot on the banks, to the audible relief of your guide.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is a little further away, making for a long day’s drive in each direction. However, this also
means it is less visited and, for the most part, we were untroubled by fellow tourists on our game drives and during our boat trip up the Kazinga Channel. Here again there was a profusion of wildlife, particularly on the shores of the Channel which links the DRC-bordering Lake Edward and the smaller mid-plains puddle of Lake George. With the exception of the time I drove into the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti (literally), I’m not sure I have ever seen a greater volume of wildlife in one place at one time. Seeing elephants playing in the water, watching the interaction between elephants, buffalo and hippo, and seeing them all in such profusion were fascinating, particularly after the last few years’ watching elephants in the dry, less-populated expanses of Kaokoland. One young bull treated us to an extensive range of trumpeting as he got himself worked up over the presence of a hippo (and probably us as well) in his bathing area. On a wet early-morning game drive, we even saw some cats: first, a leopard stalking past a bush only to lie down in the long grasses and tantalise us with momentary glimpses of spots as she washed herself;
later, lions looking damp in the drizzle, a pair of lionesses, a young male and a couple of cubs.
The scenery in and around Queen Elizabeth National Park is out of this world. The first afternoon we explored the mysterious Amabeere Caves with their curious limestone stalactites and stalagmites still growing at an infinitesimal rate, and continued our drive south in the shadow of the Rwenzoris lit by sun-shafted storm clouds. Driving round the perfectly formed “explosion” or “crater” lakes which pepper the hills the next afternoon also gave us fabulous “African” views across the vast acacia-dotted plain between the Rwenzoris and the eastern edge of this limb of the Rift Valley. We drove past flamingos and pelicans on salt flats, encountered red-tailed and colobus monkeys in the Maramagambo Forest, and peaked over the edge of the solidly-wooded gash of the Kyambura Gorge, though caught no sight of the resident chimpanzees. It’s no wonder that this area is home to so many species of flora and fauna; we barely scraped its surface.
There were birds in profusion in both Parks, most colourfully the red-throated bee-eaters digging out nest-burrows in the sandstone cliffs above the Victoria Nile. Fish eagles,
their haunting cry echoing around us, flew down to the river-bank as if keeping an eye on the local hippo population. Grey-crowned cranes stalked majestically across the plains; Abyssinian ground hornbills aspired to their grace. African skimmers mixed with grey-headed gulls as a young elephant’s meanderings caused them all to take flight. In the shallows, shoebill and open-billed storks, egrets, stilts and lapwings. In the forest, bee-eaters, sunbirds and a profusion of other birds, only fleetingly spied through the foliage. Of the larger raptors, palm-nut and white-backed vultures, martial and long-crested eagles. The 1,978 square kilometres of Queen Elizabeth National Park are home to something like 610 species of bird, both migratory and resident, more than the entirety of the British Isles, twice the number found in the USA: a twitcher’s paradise and then some.
So that was two months in East Africa.
Well, not quite. I went on to Kenya and stayed a few days with a friend near Nakuru, but managed to make even less of Kenya’s acquaintance than I did Uganda’s, so I won’t trouble you with a blog on my few days’ indolence. Reading, writing, photo-sorting and snuffling (I’d picked up a cold somewhere
along the line) pretty much sums it up, plus the odd dog-walk, occasional glass of much-missed wine and lots of delightful conversation with the first friend I’d encountered since leaving Namibia. All very therapeutic, drawing breath before the social whirl of Australia…
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