Saturday, 21 February 2015

Uganda: Day 6 – The relative chaos of Kampala

February 20-21st, 2015

Hello everyone!

Our final day in Uganda was spent in and around the capital city, Kampala. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the rest of the country before we arrived but I certainly had a preconception of this place: choking with traffic, noise and pollution.

Returning to the capital from the serenity of the national parks involved driving on a road of varying quality. The main issue was had was a confrontation with a police officer, who pulled Hannah over shortly as we came over the crest of a hill and subsequently claimed we’d been caught speeding on her gun. Her gun which didn’t have any proof of it being our car, ignoring the fact that she couldn’t physically have clocked us before waving us over as she couldn’t see us.

A tense argument ensued, with me mentally calculating how long we could put forward our case without paying a bribe, before the lady decided, this time, to ‘forgive us’. This conveniently happened shortly after her traffic office partner, right in front of us, waved a car in without holding his gun up and then went through the same ‘speeding’ routine.

Driving has been a fascinating experience, often exhilarating and occasionally terrifying. The latter was certainly the case upon driving back into Kampala, where cars, bikes and buses squeeze to transform one lane into several. A large truck joined the major southern roundabout just in front of me and then proceeded to stop. On the roundabout. Pulling out from behind that truck with bikes zooming inches from the car door was slightly nervy, to say the least. The video below is a relatively calm part of our drive back to Kampala.

With a rapidly-growing population which already stands at 1.65 million, Kampala is one of the major hubs of hustle and bustle in this region of Africa. The bus station was an excellent illustration of how chaotic it can be. Somehow this chaos clicks and the buses are able to leave when they are ready. Timetables aren’t generally followed for buses; they tend to wait until they’re full before leaving. Riding in one of these minibuses, called a matatu, is a cramped and bumpy experience. As for trains…they don’t…really…have…any…

Walking around Kampala made me realise a few things. There isn’t really much to see as such here: landmarks are lacking and most colonial-era buildings have given way to the modern, generic kind or to a sprawl of shops clustered on top of one another. There are parks, yet no one is allowed inside them for ‘security reasons’.

Our final meal was fish and chips, Ugandan style. A whole fish caught in nearby Lake Victoria with very thick sweet potato chips. All for 10,000 schillings, which is a little over £2. Some foods are difficult to get here and thus expensive. Things which are locally sourced, including delicious fruits and vegetables, are filthily cheap. We were offered a whole jackfruit, which I struggled to hold, for 5,000. We took a sizeable chunk for the equivalent of 25p.

It’s hard to believe we spent less than a week in Uganda. We’ve seen so much and had some incredible experiences. It is a vastly underrated country; I imagine many tourists opt to venture around neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania instead. Those places may be fantastic as well but I somehow doubt that Uganda is in any way inferior.

The people, and there are many of them (the average age is apparently 15), are delightful. I always felt safe and the locals were calm, jovial and almost always smiling, even in the chaos of the capital.

With many of the less-travelled places, it is obvious that having friends or assistance in the destination makes a trip infinitely better. Rob and Sophie are brilliant hosts and made our time in Uganda truly special.

I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t know what to expect from Uganda. What I will return with are vivid memories of stunning and diverse landscapes, smiling faces, humungous plates of food and playful animals. Most of all, though, I will keep with me the lion, the King of the Jungle, lurking in the distance, standing proud as Mufasa would have done. To me, Uganda truly is the ‘Pearl of Africa’.

Love you all


Friday, 20 February 2015

Uganda: Day 5 - Beware! Zebra crossings!

February 19th, 2015

Hello everyone!

There are plenty of different animals to see in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). However, some of the more exciting game to witness live in other areas of the country. Mountain gorillas, for example, reside in the north of the country. As they were out of our range, both in terms of distance and price, we headed south to look for something black-and-white.

We were told that many dazzles of zebras (incredibly, that is what a group of them can be called, as well as ‘zeal’) congregate in the national park surrounding Lake Mburo in the south of Uganda. We estimated it would be a five-hour drive from QENP, so set off soon after the sun had risen spectacularly over Lake George.

This is very much the road less travelled. As you can gather from the video below, avoiding the pot holes meant that I was resorting to rally-car driving. On our map this was designated as a ‘tarmac’ road; I guess it was entirely tarmacked once upon a time…

We made a stop along the way (well, a slight detour) in the village of Kitagata to visit its hot spring. It took a while to find and an argument with a ‘guide’ to allow us to use it (reducing the price from 20,000 to 2,000 schillings).

We attracted a lot of attention, being the only muzungus around. As I entered the dark, mysterious water, I was shouted over by a group of young men. I spent a while chatting to them about the pool and learnt that not many white folk ever come to this small, sulphurous place. I also learnt that the water, at 35’C, apparently cures malaria. Apparently. With many people in the spring being topless, taking photos was strictly prohibited. The photos of the spring are from the internet.

Back on the road, we drove through a dusty town called Mbarara before closing in on Lake Mburo national park. The town, one of the most rapidly growing in Uganda, was heavily affected by traffic and noise. I can only imagine what the centre of Kampala, the capital, is like.

We arrived in the park’s outer grounds in the late afternoon. No sooner had we turned off the road, we discovered a group a black-and-white striped animals mere metres from our Pumbaa.

Zebras apparently each have a unique pattern, similar to a human fingerprint. How one keeps track of that is beyond me; nevertheless I could have spent hours gazing at their adorable striped bodies. They were smaller than I expected and bear a resemblance to a Shetland pony.

Staying in these areas can hit your wallet fairly hard. We had to negotiate with a luxurious lodge to be allowed to stay in a tent. We offered to use our own tent but were told that we could use their purpose-built monster tents for $10 each, the same price as pitching your own. As you can see, the view from it was fairly spectacular, as is usual with these rather elaborate and expensive Ugandan lodges.

In the meantime, there were plenty of animals to observe. Warthogs rolling around in the filthy mud. Zebra bounding across the dirt track. Impala tending to their families.

Lake Mburo is named after an unfortunate character from a Ugandan legend. The story goes that two brothers lived in the area eons ago: Kigarama and Mburo. A great flood was forecast. Kigarama fled and strongly urged his brother to follow suit: refusal followed. From up in the hills, Kigarama watched his brother perish. The body of flood water was named after Mburo, with the nearby hill being named after Kigarama.

Not that the current animals care for these tales, of course. They care for water to drink, which is provided by the shimmering lake. On our return from the lake we drove off the beaten path, trying to be mindful and respectful of the animals in the process. Windows up near the baboons, for example. Let the impala wander off the track of their own accord. It is their home, after all.

So another day, another national park. Another set of wild, wonderful animals crossing our paths. Another unforgettable chapter in an incredible week.

Love you all


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Uganda: Day 4 - What’s that lion down there?

February 18th, 2015

Hello everyone!

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…

Our boat ride through the Kazinga Channel was a great success. We saw so many different animals and birds that I've lost track of how many of each type we saw. I imagine that the volume of fauna would have been drastically reduced had the archetypal King of the park been thirsty: the lion.

Luckily for all those water buffalo, the lion population of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) prefer to doze during the day, doing their dirty work when the sun is out of the sky. There are rumoured to be 200 or so of them in the park. The chances of seeing a lion on your game drive are certainly not guaranteed; our friends Sophie and Rob are yet to see one after six months in Uganda and more than one attempt at finding them in the park.

The best time to catch them is very shortly after the sunrise, before they camouflage themselves in the park’s long, dense and yellowing grass. This meant leaving our base camp shortly before 6:30 in the morning. Driving in Uganda is interesting enough; adding darkness into the equation just makes it unnecessarily tense.

We were told that the chances of spotting a pride of lions are greatly enhanced if you take a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guide along with you. We collected a young, smiling man called Robert, headed across the Equator back into the southern hemisphere and into the Kazengi section of QENP.

As darkness transformed into light, we witnessed possible evidence that lions had been around in the past in the form of numerous bones and skeletons dotted around on the bare, dry floor.

We also saw a plethora of a lion’s main prey in this area: the Ugandan kob. This type of antelope, which appears on the nation’s currency, bounces around the savannah on its spindly legs. Robert told us that the males have their own territory of only 10 to 50 yards and that this can be lost in the time it takes a kob to go to the water and drink.

We drove around fruitlessly for about forty-five minutes until we soon found another 4x4 stopped and motioning us over. Quiet as a mouse, our car Pumbaa rolled up alongside and we peered anxiously out of our dusty windows.

What we saw was…well, nothing originally. The passengers of the other car were pointing at a dip in the land about ten metres away. Suddenly, a movement. A rustle in the grass. Are they ears?

It is very difficult for the pictures to do justice to what our eyes gazed upon. We had found a lion lying mere metres away from us. Admittedly, all we could see was the back of the top of its head, but a lion nonetheless. Very exciting.

After about ten minutes of waiting, hoping for the lion to show itself more clearly, Robert asked if we wanted to move on. Pumbaa drove off down a different track, in a different direction to the other jeeps on Robert’s advice. We drove for another thirty minutes before I was told to slam on the brakes. Something was in the distance.

What we could see, even from hundreds of metres away, was a male lion standing proudly, its shaggy mane golden in the ever-rising sunshine. The king of the jungle.

Remarkably, this was shortly followed by two female lions strutting past the male, presumably off to hunt.

I would have been content with seeing the head of a lion. To see three moving around and interacting was simply a dream. Hannah even saw the male lion roll over and start flailing his legs playfully in the air. An incredible experience.

This was the zenith of our lion tracking: no more were to be found. Later on, however, we came across a sad-looking elephant stood on the edge of our dirt track. We rolled to within a couple of metres of him and quickly discovered that he didn't have a fully-formed tail or tusks. Robert explained that the tail may have been a natural problem. As for the tusks…I dread to think. It is terrible to think that poaching and stealing of ivory still occurs, even in a protected national park like Queen Elizabeth.

Robert was a fantastic guide. It was he who found the pride of lions and spread the word to the point that we were joined by five other vehicles watching in awe. He was very knowledgeable and passionate about the animals, and definitely improved our game drive experience.

The amazing thing about this was that we were back at base by 10am. Though admittedly very tired, we still had the rest of the day! We used this time to drive and walk through some of the mountain towns, where shouts of, “Hello muzungu how are you!” were once again popular amongst the schoolchildren. Both Hannah and I love their bright uniforms, particularly the lilac colours.

Once again, the day had been searingly hot. One way of the climate rewriting itself in this part of the world is to respond with a rapid and violent thunderstorm. What we experienced on this night – with power fluctuating on and off with each fork of lightning – was something I have seldom witnessed before.

The storm was still raging six hours later, waking me at 2am with windows rattling in our hut. It was thus with heavy eyelids as well as a heavy heart that we left base outside QENP, Wild Tracks, the next morning. Teddy, the owner, was a fantastic, bullish and funny person to return to with stories from our animalistic adventures. Plus she prayed for us to see lions: I'm delighted that she did.

Love you all