Murchison to Kigali

After our downtime in Kampala we headed north to Murchison Falls. In Uganda we haven’t been able to even think about driving without being stopped by the police. As mentioned in the previous post, we were stopped almost as soon as we had arrived in the country to be asked for food, drinks and money. On our way from Jinja to Kampala we were stopped because we went past a taxi that was stopped on the side of the road. This falls under section something or other, article something else – dangerous and irresponsible use of a vehicle. When the guy eventually realised that we weren’t going to pay him his “spot fine” for doing absolutely nothing wrong he let us go. In Kampala we were stopped by a police lady who then went through every possible way to get something out of us, eventually wanting to hold the car for ransom because we had left the insurance papers back at the house. She asked for some money to help speed up the process. When that didn’t work she started asking for food, then something to drink. “Will you let us go if we give you some of our SPECIAL filtered water?”

“Yes, but you mustn’t think of it as a bribe.”

“Ok, whatever lady. Have a nice day”

Casually taking a bite out of my samosa the next day meant being stopped again. Apparently it is against the law to eat anything while you are driving in Uganda. As the police lady walked up to our window I tried a new trick that we had been taught by some seasoned travellers – speak first. “Excuse me, but do you know the way to Makindye Hill?” This resulted in a complicated explanation with lefts and rights, over the hills, left at the big tree etc. “Thank you very much. You’ve been a great help, goodbye”.

We drove slowly through some incredible scenery to a campsite outside the Murchison Falls National Park, aiming to go in first thing the next morning and make a day of it. Near the entrance to the park was the best road we have been on so far in Uganda, and we were able to drive at 60km/h consistently, even in the pouring rain with poor visibility, not taking it personally when buses went past us like we were looking for parking. With high hopes the next day, expecting to finally see our leopard and cheetah we arrived at the gates only to be told that entrance for a foreign vehicle is $150. Plus $35 each to go into the park. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you don’t want foreign tourists to come to your parks.”

Having spent a day driving to the park, and now a day driving back defeated the weather forecast in the car was “Scattered thundershowers with dark clouds and very little sunshine.” Fortunately the weather outside was hot and sunny, and with the perfect tarmac we were able to travel at 100km/h to make up some time… Until we got stopped by our friendly cops. Quick look at his radar gun – 103. “You’re stopping me for going 3km/h over the speed limit?”

It transpires that even though we hadn’t paid to go into the park, we were technically in the park as written on a very faded sign we hadn’t seen in the rain the day before. Our budget doesn’t cater for things like speeding fines and for this reason we have been sticking to the speed limit religiously. After a bit of “Ignorance of the law does not excuse you from the law” the guy accepted that we really did have no idea we were driving in the park and it turned out he was also the first Ugandan cop who wasn’t going to fish for a bribe. We were both extremely relieved.

Julie’s aunt Lizzie had arrived back from her trip to Australia and they very kindly offered to take us to see Murchison falls because Keith had to do some work in the area and Ugandan residents and their cars aren’t ripped off repeatedly by the Ugandan Wildlife Association like us foreign mazungus. The rest of the weekend was spent in absolute luxury, seeing spectacular animals, almost seeing a Shoebill Stork and being spoiled rotten. We went to the top of the Murchison Falls to see the full force of the Nile being squeezed through a gorge about 2 metres wide, and then on a boat trip below them, seeing elephants, hippos, waterbuck, loads of birds, and in my Guinness Book of Records the biggest crocodile in the world, although we were told that there is a bigger one around. Thank you!!!

After living like royalty for a weekend we went back to our gypsy lives in the tent and drove down to Lake Albert, staying at a campsite with a view of the Congo in the distance and loads of Ugandan Cob, Warthogs, Waterbuck and Kingfishers all around us. In Fort Portal we spent a night at a campsite called Whispering Palms, run by an incredibly friendly old man called Tom.

We went on to the crater lakes and stayed in a campsite run by the local catholic church at Lake Nkuruba. Jules was still feeling a bit under the weather so we stayed at the campsite for a couple of days for her to recover, setting up the hammocks and spending our days soaking in the amazing view, watching spectacular acrobatic displays by the local Colobus, Red Tail and Vervet Monkeys.

Next up the gorillas. $500 each for an hour or two. Eish. In the end we decided we couldn’t justify it, but had heard about a lodge with camping run by the local community where a family of gorillas regularly walk past, sometimes sitting in the campsite because they like one of the fruit trees.

To get there we drove on a main road through the Queen Elizabeth Park, not having to pay an entrance fee, but getting to see Elephant, Buffalo and mating baboons along the way. We stayed next to a village called Bahoma, bordering the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, with views of amazing trees and incredible birds, even being treated to regular sightings of the Great Blue Turaco. Unfortunately no gorillas. I went on a guided birding walk seeing some spectacular birds that I’ll never remember the names of, but definitely with a better understanding of what makes bird watchers tick/twitch.

Realising that our chances of seeing the gorillas was going to be slim to nothing we moved on to Lake Bunyoni, our last stop before heading into Rwanda. To get there we had two options. A more direct route that was on Tracks for Africa, but not on our paper Michelin Map, or a slightly longer route that was on both. If it is on the Michelin Map it can’t be that bad. This route involved going into Low Range Four By Four Mode regularly, with steep drop-offs into the fields and forests below, muddy potholes, rocks and all sorts of other things people in Europe with 4x4s pay to drive through, in heavy rain – finally some adventure! I made a comment about how sooner or later a clapped-out Toyota Corolla with shot suspension and 10 passengers will come past without any problems. For my next trick I will predict the winner of the Zimbabwe elections.

We bumped into the three bikers, who were waiting for a part for one of their bikes to be shipped from the UK and had caught a bus down to see the gorillas and then spend some time at the lake while they waited. They were extremely happy to find a small tin of concentrated tomato paste at the local supermarket, because a half-used bigger tin is a bit of a mission to cart around on your bike for tomorrow’s meal of “Red”.

While at the lake Jules and I read a book called “An Ordinary Man”, written by Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. In 1994 Jules was still in primary school and I was 14, having pretty much ended my school cricket career by dropping an easy catch and having to have my nose reconstructed. During this time there were boys younger than me running around with machetes butchering people. According to the book 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days. Over 5 people a minute and the rest of the world let it happen.

Having read the book, I think I had a strange relationship with Rwanda before we entered it. I don’t know if maybe I think too much, but when we drove past people on the side of the road I couldn’t stop myself from wondering whether or not they once went around hacking people to death. Anybody walking with a limp immediately makes me start questioning the reason for the limp. We went to the genocide memorial, having just about prepared ourselves, but there came a time when it was all too much and neither of us could walk through a room with photographs of babies, toddlers and children with captions containing their names, favourite songs, hobbies and how they were killed. I wonder how it works here – do you start off with the gorillas and move onto the horror of the genocide memorial, or try to end your trip on a high from seeing the gorillas, when you aren’t really in the mood? It isn’t tourism, but I think places like this and Dachau in Germany and the Apartheid museum in South Africa need to be visited by every person who lives in the country, and every visitor to the country needs to go and spend some time there so that there are a few more people who understand the meaning of “Never Again” and one day it won’t sound hollow.

Rwanda is an incredibly clean place. Plastic bags are illegal and once a month everybody picks up litter – the president and his cabinet included. If you make little things like that important hopefully the more heinous ones won’t even be considered. I think every country should have this law – although why should it be a law – to quote a Project Management acronym – JFDI (Just Do It). The people have generally been quite friendly and we have felt safe driving and walking around Kigali. There aren’t many options when it comes to camping, as Rwanda mainly caters for NGO high flyers or tourists who can afford the $750 for the gorillas. In Kigali we stayed at the only campsite we could find, a place called One Love, run by a Japanese NGO, which has a workshop to make and train people to make prosthetic limbs for people maimed during the genocide.

Kigali is very similar to some of the suburbs in Johannesburg and Pretoria, with Jacarandas lining the streets. I keep being reminded how lucky we are that South Africa hasn’t recently had that sort of bloodshed – God knows there are plenty of reasons why it could have happened. The world desperately needs more leaders like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Rwanda was always going to be a whistle-stop tour, as it is a small country, and quite expensive. We will be moving on to Tanzania, hopefully to finally see our Leopards and Cheetahs and hopefully not have to see too many of their infamous traffic cops.

Sipi to Kampala

Another border crossing and more fixers. I don’t know why they are called that because they definitely don’t fix anything. Collectively known as a manure of fixers, although “fixer” should be replaced with another word that also starts with F. As the car is in Jules’ name, she is the one who always has the pleasant task of getting the carnet stamped while I get to do other exciting things like stand in line for passports, or guard the car and fend off people trying to sell us stuff we don’t want. “Would you like to buy some water?”

“No thanks, I have water”

“This water is ice-cold”

“So is my water – I have a fridge in my car that keeps the water cold for me”

“Ok, would you like to buy another bottle so that you have a spare water?”

“No thanks, I have over 40 litres of water”

“Ok, would you like to buy a soda?”

“No thanks, I don’t drink soda” (this is a little white lie)

Next water salesman. This is where I wish I was back at work so that I could write a program that just loops through each person that approaches and automatically says “No thank you”. Instead I have to deal with it the old fashioned way. “My friend, you approached me at the same time as the guy I have just spoken to, with exactly the same products for sale. You already know that I have more than enough water already, and it is cold because as you are aware, I have a fridge in my car and might I add I am extremely fond of it – did I mention that I had ice in my water in Sudan? No thank you, I do not want to buy a soda because for the second time I don’t drink soda” (white lie again).

After a smooth border crossing without the use of any fixers we were in Uganda. Jules was stamped out of the country instead of being stamped in and had to get that sorted out – fortunately not a problem unless you don’t notice stuff like this at the time. Within 10 minutes of driving in Uganda we were stopped by our first Ugandan policeman. “Don’t you maybe have some food or drink for me or some little dollars for a present?” Time to update “Nay Sayer 1.0” to handle corrupt police as well – in the IT world this could be classified as “Scope Creep” and might require a “Change Request”. Oh, do some of you guys who are reading this blog deal with things like this daily? Sorry – didn’t mean to remind you that you have jobs.

When hairdressers start their businesses I wonder if they go through a “this is bloody awful, I know it is physically possible to call my company this name, but should I?” phase, even if they invariably do end up calling themselves “Curl Up And Dye”. I occasionally face the same dilemma, but as you might have noticed I generally just go for it, even if it does mean a complete loss of pride and respect, followed by a “Have you no shame?”, so in light of this, and with a heavy heart, Jules and I had ummed and ahhed about seeing them, but in the end we decided that we couldn’t miss the Sipi falls.

We stayed at a campsite called Moses’s Camp, run by a local family, with abysmal ablutions, a mediocre restaurant and warm beer. For this you pay 7,000 Ugandan Shillings each per night. That works out to under £2, where you are camping with a view of the Sipi falls from your tent. Look a bit to your left and it looks like you can see the curvature of the earth in the distance, with plains and lakes, and a valley of coffee and banana plantations below. You can forgive them for the ablutions and bland food and are almost willing to overlook the warm beer. We have never seen a view like that, and after a few snaps we put away our cameras and sat mesmerised as we watched a storm move across the plains in the distance.

The next day we went for a guided walk to the falls, among coffee and banana trees. For some strange reason our guide was obsessed with circumcision. “I have been circumcised” Announced the guide proudly.

“Uh… Ok” Said Chris.

“With NO painkillers” Exclaimed the guide.

“Uh… OK” Sighed Julie politely.

“Before you get circumcised you have to do a test. A fire is lit in the cave and there is lots of smoke and you have to walk into the smoky cave with your eyes wide open. Then a knife is put in the fire and gets really hot and it is placed on your foreskin and you aren’t allowed to cry.
Then if you have passed the test the next day you get circumcised with NO painkillers and there is a big party and people drink lots of beer. After that you can go and get some paracetemol” Explained the guide vehemently.

“Uh… OK” Said Chris and Julie disinterestedly.

“Women used to be circumcised because the husbands would be out hunting for days at a time and they didn’t want their women to play while they were away. After they have been circumcised there is no feeling. Now only the men are circumcised because the government has made it illegal to circumcise women” Described the guide.

“Those rotten scoundrels” Agreed Chris and Julie.

We also went on a coffee tour at one of the local’s houses with a Dutch couple we had met at Moses camp, Tom and Simone. This basically took us through the whole process of making coffee, from germination to the finished product, with a couple of cups of coffee thrown in. A young lady who lives in the house brought the coffee beans and prepared the fire to roast the beans while we all took turns grinding them with a pestle and mortar. She couldn’t speak a word of English, but kept looking at each of us and smiling constantly. “She has been circumcised” Said the guide conspiratorially.

After the beautiful scenery of Sipi we headed off to Jinja to go white water rafting on the Nile. Julie’s cousin Tim used to be a river guide and when we were waiting to be assigned our rafts there was a “Which of you is Tim’s cousin? Tim said I must look after you.” Death sentence as pictured. White water rafting is definitely the most fun you can have with a blow-up something. Walking around London being humiliated while hand-cuffed to a blow-up something else and wearing a dress on your stag do is apparently the second most fun you can have if you can remember any of it.

Following the rafting we all got skwank (drunk as a skwank) at the pub. This involved having my first funnel since my friend Gavin and I threw a shebeen party when we were at university, which started at about 7 and finished at about 11 because everybody had drunk too much too quickly and peaked too soon. At that particular party one of our guests who shall remain nameless thought she had B.O and used the Strawberries and Cream toilet spray as a deodorant, and I had to climb onto the neighbours roof the next morning at about 8:30 in a hell of a state because one of our other esteemed guests had thrown a beer bottle onto the roof leaving broken glass in the gutters. The night in Jinja after the rafting had some similarities – madness. The driver of one of the overland trucks came in brandishing a panga and threatening one of the barmen about something and had to be forcefully removed from the premises. The naked ninja appeared – one of the regulars who once went to circus school removes his clothes, wraps his t-shirt around his head and then climbs up one side of the pub roof and down the other side. Later on somebody drove his motorbike into the pub and onto the deck that overlooks the Nile. For some bizarre reason I had to pull the gay overland tour guide’s nipple ring because I had commented on the tattoo that covers his entire torso, and Jules for some bizarre reason behaved herself. You’re quite right Nan and Granny – we don’t condone this sort of behaviour either!

The next day was supposed to be a recovery day, but Jules had made plans to meet up with Tim in Kampala because he had missed a flight to Nairobi due to a fire that had burned down the airport. This was not good news for Chris, who was quite comfortable dying in the tent until it got too hot and then went to find some shade under a tree to die in. After the slowest “packing up camp” so far, Jules drove us to Kampala – her first time driving since Turkana. My job as chief navigator was to hold my seat belt away from my neck to reduce the chance of vomiting in the car. I could never be a “mature student” – hangovers seem to grow exponentially as you get older.

That night to my horror and Jules’ delight there was a bottle of champagne from her aunt Lizzie in the fridge. Unfortunately we missed Lizzie as she has been in Australia, but we had an amazing time with Julie’s uncle Keith, who took us on a tour of Kampala, and then to their house on an island on Lake Victoria for the weekend. We went fishing and Jules with plenty of deserved smugness caught a 15kg Nile Perch. I lost my lure, but it is ok, because I drank a Gin and Tonic for the first time, and I am not that bitter.

After a great weekend with Keith and almost ready for the next leg of the trip, Jules decided to catch Malaria. This involved a trip to a clinic to get tested, a couple of days of medication, and a trip to the hospital at 10 at night after she collapsed in the bathroom. The only advantage of malaria is that Jules hasn’t had the energy to veto my shopping trolley. Two trips to the local butcher returning with fillet steak both times, and also able to sneak in a couple of T-bones! Other than that, each day of the past week has been a rehash of the previous day – lying on the couch watching movies. We don’t have the same taste in movies, so other than watching every season of “Breaking Bad”, we had to reach a compromise – I would watch Spud if Jules watched Star Wars. “Why are we starting with Episode 4? That doesn’t make any sense?”

“I can’t watch any more – those stupid robots make me feel tense – the one doesn’t speak, it just beeps, and then the other one answers it. And Chewbacca annoys me too. How do I know his name? Because there was a girl at work that everybody used to call Chewbacca behind her back.”

Star Wars finished and now we watch Spud, a movie about a bunch of boys going to a school called Michaelhouse in South Africa. It even has John Cleese in it, balanced by some horrendous South African actors. I have 2 brother’s-in-law, Julie’s cousin, and a bunch of friends who “schooled there”. One of my friends refers to himself as a Michaelhusian. Julie’s cousin is apparently even in a scene in the movie, although we failed to find him. There is an old saying about Michaelhouse that the movie seems to confirm but I’m not brave enough to quote in full – I’ll start and leave it for somebody else to finish in a comment if he chooses to at his discretion. “You know what they say about Michaelhouse…”

After a week in civilisation with regular things called baths and showers and beds, 3 malaria tests and some cabin fever, it is time to move back into the beast and bumpy roads.