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.