A ginger in Jinja
You’d think a ginger in Africa was a fairly rare phenomenon but we’ve met our fair share. In Sudan we met a fellow ginga who introduced us to a brilliant Tim Minchin music video which has become a bit of a theme song for our trip. It’s a song about prejudice. And gingers. It’s called Only a ginger can call another ginger “ginger”. Check it out, it’s a good laugh. Needless to say when we arrived in Jinja, the adventure capital of Uganda, we found ourselves singing the ginger/ginga/Jinja song quite a lot!
Jinja is located at the outlet of the Nile on Lake Victoria and has some legendary white water. We were there to get amongst it. As with many good things in life, the best of the rapids on the Nile are gone, buried beneath a new hydro electric dam, probably never to be rafted or kayaked again. Only one grade five rapid remains, it’s a goodie though, and it’s called the Bad Place. My sister had said we had to raft the Nile, but we weren’t allowed to raft a rapid called the Bad Place… Now a rapid’s not called the Bad Place for nothing….
The Nile is a big river, even at its source. The rafting is characterised by lots and lots and lots of gnarly white water, followed by long sections of flat water. On the bus trip to the start of the rafting we had befriended some of the crew from the Oasis overland truck at out campsite. One of the raft guides had given them a briefing about the rafting, and had told the boys to wear board shorts and the ladies would be fine in their bikinis. So we were quite bemused to find ourselves in a raft with three young ladies in string bikinis, preparing themselves for grade 5 white water rafting. Two of them complemented the look with swimming goggles! The Nile is one of those rivers where the raft guides push the boundaries so you tend to spend more time out of the raft than in it. Every time one of the girls fell out they had to do a quick check to see if their bikini bottoms were still on and there were a few occasions that we got mooned upon their return to the raft!
Here is a rather shaky video of some of the rafting liberally interspersed with Brett giggling. Unfortunately I can’t put on the official DVD of our trip as there was some fairly impressive footage, especially of the Bad Place rapid!
That night we had a great time partying and dancing on the tables with the punters from the overland truck. Their driver was enjoying himself and provided some fantastic entertainment for the evening, including a conga line up and over all the tables and along the edge of the bar, before it all turned pear-shaped and he injured himself. Not the first time at that particular bar so we were later told… The next day we were a bit worse for wear, but gritted our teeth and joined the overlanders for a booze cruise on the Nile. Their kiwi guide Malcolm was a real hard case and in true ENSOC style gave us some good advice – every time you go to the bar to get two double G & T’s. Needless to say we all got fairly pissed fairly quickly and had another cracking night at the campsite bar.
We had come to know and love a great wee Ugandan snack called a Rolex – incidentally they are great for hangovers – the perfect combination of egg, meat and carbs covered in a liberal coating of grease. The roadsides were littered with locals manning their Rolex stands, comprising a bed of coals and a blackened cast iron hotplate. A Rolex is basically a chapatti with an omelette on top (made with onions, garlic, veges and meat in it) rolled up and cut in half to make a very tasty treat indeed, and they became a staple meal during our time in Uganda.
After an overnight stop in Kampala we headed to Fort Portal in Western Uganda. Western Uganda is very beautiful with rolling hills of leaf-green tea plantations, banana palms, fields of spiky pineapples interspersed with ever decreasing patches of native forest. The hills are dotted with lakes, remnant craters of long eroded volcanoes. We spent a lovely few days camped right on the rim of Lake Nkuruba, with lofty views of the indigenous forest-filled crater, often shrouded in mist and echoing with the screeches of the 9 different species of resident monkeys. Our favourites were the black and white Colobus monkeys, easily identified by the big white fluffy pompom furball on the end of their tail hanging down below the branches.
Rumour has it there is a resident male hippo that lives in the area, dividing his time amongst all the crater lakes. Thus it was with much trepidation that we jumped in the murky waters, Brett taking great delight in diving down and grabbing my legs which as you can imagine resulted in a very loud shriek echoing around the lake!
Queen Elizabeth II National Park was next on the list and we headed down to the Hippo pools community-run campsite. QEII is unique in that there are a number of public roads that run through the National Park so you can do quite a bit of game driving without paying any park fees. There is a local village and campsite inside the National Park that is exempt from park fees so we hung out there. The campsite is set back from the lake a bit but at night the hippos come up and graze around your tent. We set up camp, grabbed a beer and set off on a walk, perhaps spotting a few too many elephants for our liking, then headed down to the lake where all the locals were risking life and limb washing their clothes and themselves in the hippo, croc and bilharzia infested waters. We were very wary about getting too close to the waters edge which they found quite amusing!
The officials in Uganda are a breed of their own – generally with a useless, glazed-eyed, can’t-be-arsed attitude while angling for bribes and trying to extract as much money from tourists as possible. A classic example of this was organising the chimpanzee trekking. Firstly, they had just put up the National Park vehicle fee from $50 to $150 for 4WD vehicles – a pretty ridiculous fee considering it was only $4 in Kenya! We figured we didn’t need to pay a vehicle fee as we weren’t taking our car into the National Park for the chimp tracking – we were walking. No, they still wanted to charge us! Secondly, we arranged the chimp tracking on the day, but the guides failed to tell us that the chimps had skived off to the village that day to raid the fields so there was no chance we could see them. Thirdly, even though we arrived an hour early, they declined to tell us to wear long trousers, closed in shoes and long sleeves for the walk through the forest… We rock up in short shorts and singlets while everyone else was very sensibly dressed. Not long after we descended into the gorge we realised why, within minutes we had seen a green mamba, then another. Four green mambas in total. These are one of the deadliest, fastest and most dangerous snakes in the world, and here Brett and I are waltzing through with our short shorts on, tempting a juicy bite on the thigh… Even though we didn’t see any chimps it was still a pretty cool trek. Kyambura Gorge is filled to the brim with dense primeval forest and is alive with primates, elephants, hippos and snakes – its certainly a thrill to explore on foot!
At $150 park fees a pop for Rodders we weren’t that keen to go into QEII National Park, so unfortunately missed out on the boat cruise which is supposed to be pretty good. We still had a few hours of daylight left and I had a trick up my sleeve. I’d read in our book of knowledge about another couple who took the free transit road through the park towards the border with DRC. They wildcamped within the national park and had an interesting night with a herd of elephants. We’d been dicked twice by QEII, so it was time to get our own back. And boy did this sound like an adventure! Did I mention tree-climbing lions that live in the southern part of the park? I didn’t tell any of this to Brett, we just pointed the nose of our trusty steed south and headed off into the bush. The terrain was heavily forested and pretty hilly – far from ideal for wild camping. There are a few factors that need to come together for a successful wild camping experience:-
- Timing – its best to pull off the road just on sunset to avoid being seen by passersby. When wild camping illegally in a game park this is especially important as you really don’t want to get caught by any park officials! However if you leave it too late and have to use your lights you become an easy target for anyone within sight.
- Terrain – you need an easy gradient to get off the road and the ability to cover ground fairly quickly to get out of sight before anyone sees you.
- Stealth – it’s best to take into consideration what tracks you have left behind. There also needs to be enough vegetation to hide behind so you can’t be seen from the main road.
- Dangers – its best not to be too close to any towns or settlements, and watch out for wild animals!
It started to get dark and we still hadn’t found anywhere to camp. One thing about wild camping in a national park is you really don’t want to arrive too late, you don’t know what’s out there…
Finally we found a suitable spot to get off the road. I leapt out to cover our tracks, then we sneaked through the long grass with our lights off, weaving in and around clumps of bushes, dodging fallen trees and stumps until we thought we were reasonably well hidden. Brett turned the ignition off and we sat there for a few minutes listening. A car came along the road, I held my breath, surely its headlights would see us! It seemed SO close. Lucky Rodders was forest green colour and not bright red! The car went past. Phew! Time to assess our situation. It was pretty much dark, we were camping illegally in a national park renowned for its tree climbing lions and healthy herds of elephants. We were parked in long grass – not good for snakes or for stealthy predators. We were in a reasonably small clearing – how quickly could those cats run again? We were still pretty close to the road so couldn’t really use our torches. Right. Action stations then. We leapt out, quickly scanning our surroundings then getting to work. Tent buckles undone. Cover off and put in drivers seat. Inside buckles undone. Ladder unclipped and extended. Stop to check for predators. No eyes visible so continue. Any snakes? No idea. Pull down ladder to erect tent. Extend vestibule and secure. Tent done. Now dinner. What is the quickest thing we can prepare? 2 minute noodles. Cooker out and connected. Check for predators. Check for snakes. Turn on gas bottle. Get water bladder out of back seat. Fill pot with water. Chuck in all ingredients. Wait to cook. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. A veeeeeeery long two minutes. It’s nearly pitch black now. Nervous look over shoulder into the darkness. Noodles finally done. Put half in the lid, quick scan of the clearing and the ground for dangerous animals then a mad dash to the front seats to eat dinner, ears straining to hear any passing cars (or roaring lions). Quick pee beside the car, throw everything back in the boot, and dash up the ladder to the safety of the roof tent. Phew!!!! Are roof tents safe from tree-climbing lions? Probably not. Sleep with fingers crossed!
A few hours later from the sanctuary of our rooftent we heard something outside. Branches breaking, trees getting pushed over. It was an inky, moonless night so no point having a look – we were too scared anyway. Next we heard an intense, deep rumbling sound, rolling ripples of reverberation washing over us. What sort of an animal was this? It was loud and sounded very close. Brett and I huddled together, putting our trust in Rodders to keep us safe. A shrill trumpet erupted from the bush nearby. An elephant! A feisty one at that. He kept us company all night, pushing over trees, grumbling and trumpeting, doing his best to instill the fear of god in us and keep sleep at bay.
We woke before dawn hoping to sneak out of our hidey-hole and back onto the main road unseen. Before Brett went down the ladder I decided to have a quick check outside the tent for any danger. I was about to give the all clear when a huge grey beast lumbered past about 20m from the tent. Eeeeek! Lucky we checked! We both shot down the ladder, packed up the rooftent in record time, leapt in the car and sneaked back to the main road, just in time for a man on a bike to cruise past. Wildcamping in a National Park is not for the faint hearted!
The drive south took us past lush tea plantations and over a mountain pass through the heart of Bwindi National Park, one of the last remaining strongholds of the Mountain Gorilla who make their home in these forest-cloaked slopes, aptly named the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The uneven juxtaposition of humans and wildlife is keenly felt here with some of Uganda’s poorest people living adjacent to this Unesco World Heritage site, with populations of 300 people/km2 trying to scrape an existence from subsistence agriculture on the overworked, eroded terraces clinging to the steep mountains. These communities place considerable pressure on the National Park with many locals utilising the resources in the park to survive. We were saddened to see many smoking charcoal furnaces along the roadside, full of illegally logged native timber from within the park. These people are desperate and are barely surviving, but it’s at the expense of Africa’s remaining forests, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Once again we came to the conclusion that there are simply too many people in this world, and the current rate of consumption of the world’s resources is simply not sustainable. Something needs to be done urgently in Africa to curb population growth and resulting environmental degradation and resource depletion. There are people doing some good stuff along sustainability / grass-roots / community based projects lines but many of the aid programmes and NGOs are actually doing more trouble than good by creating a hand-out culture where people just get handed everything on a plate. One cool initiative we did see was to introduce rocket stoves, which are simply really efficient wood-burning stoves for cooking – a simple idea but one with far reaching benefits.
The impenetrable forest was magnificent and our lunch stop was simply idyllic. We parked up next to a river within the National Park and ate our vegemite crackers surrounded by thousands of butterflies, watching the monkeys leap through the canapy overhead. Alas we didn’t see any gorillas, but it wasn’t through lack of trying!
That night we made it to Lake Bunyonyi and set up camp under the palm trees on the lake’s edge. It’s such a tranquil spot and we enjoyed a few days chilling out, swimming in the lake, trying to paddle in a straight line in the dug-out canoes, birdwatching, trying to sneak up on otters and unpacking our entire truck and cleaning out all the dust that had accumulated since Kenya. The campsite had a tiny jumping platform perched at the top of a rickety tree overhanging the lake which I utilised to entertain the other campers with daring leaps into the lake below accompanied by blood-curdling screams. We woke up one morning to the sound of a squealing pig and then a splash… Yep, there was some pig tossing going on on the other side of the bay. Very amusing!
We met some lovely people in Uganda but one of the most memorable, friendly, positive forward thinkers we met was Jackson. Jackson helps run the Lake Mutanda Eco Community Centre and campsite and looked after us when we were there. There are many of these Community based initiatives in Uganda, and the locals are definitely keen to help themselves which is great to see! It’s a lovely spot to relax for a few days – we pitched our tent right on the lake front, swam, read our books, cooked a lasagne on the fire and chatted to Jackson about life in Uganda while he questioned us about nearly everything else. Despite his friendly demeanour, Jackson didn’t manage to persuade us to visit the 10m long python that lived in the area.
Our trip through Uganda ended with a visit to the local market in Kisoro where we stocked up on tasty pineapples, passionfruit, bananas, mangos, tomatoes, cabbages, beetroot and other tasty treats, all for £1.45! Highly recommended! And the pineapples in Uganda are the best in all of Africa!!