13: Uganda

Thursday 22 February

— Ishasha — UGANDA — Queen Elizabeth National Park — Bwambara (wild camp near) [97 miles]


We enter Uganda from Zaire at Ishasha. Ugandan border formalities are straightforward. We fill in the currency declaration forms. Also waiting to cross the border is Alex, an American living in Canada. She’s been travelling across East Africa, the last few weeks in Zaire, having bought a dugout canoe and paddled it down the river. She’s going back home for her brother’s wedding so needs to get to Nairobi for her flight on 1 March. We offer her a lift to Kampala. We’re planning to stay there a few days, but Alex should be able to get transport onwards to the border and then to Nairobi without too much difficulty.

Ishasha is a bad border for hitching. Since getting rid of her dugout, Alex has been using local transport, hitching a lift on trucks. She’ll be flying to Europe mid March after the wedding with the aim of spending a year or two travelling through Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East to Japan and eventually Australia.

The road, which skirts the Queen Elizabeth National Park, is extremely rough with lots of muddy ruts and pot-holes. Although we are on the edge of a major National Park, there is little wildlife to be seen; it has obviously suffered with the rest of the country’s occupants. We see a few kob, buffalo and hartebeest. There’s no sign of the tree-climbing lions we’ve heard that this region is famous for. We are told later that much of the game was butchered by Amin’s troops who used machine guns to mow down elephant herds.

We find what we at first take to be an abandoned black calf lying, scarcely breathing, in a muddy puddle. No sign of its herd, so we lift it into the back of the Series III, intending to take it to the first village we come across in the hope of finding its owner.

It isn’t until we see a herd of buffalo on the horizon that we realise that this isn’t a cow. We stop to decide on our next move. The buffalo calf looks extremely ill. It could be argued that we are interfering with nature, that we should leave it to die or to be killed by lions or scavengers.

Most of us agree, however, that having picked it up we can’t now just abandon it. Brigid improvises a teat from a rubber glove and manages to get it to suckle. We give it powdered milk. It begins to look a little less sick, even struggling to its feet.

It is obvious that we can’t take it with us. The best thing seems to try to leave it somewhere near the buffalo herd we’d passed in the hope that its mother will find it. So this is what we do. Perhaps there’s a chance it will survive.

As we continue the road gets worse and worse and our progress gets slower. After a couple of hours of this we find our way blocked by branches strewn across the road. At the improvised road block three soldiers lounge beneath a tree, empty beer bottles discarded next to the auromatic rifles at their feet. We stop to ask if we’re on the right road. They say Yes, but it gets much worse. For the next thirty miles. There are three trucks stuck a little way along the road. We asked them what are our chances of getting through. One of the soldiers shrugged, “We’ll let you through if you want. Maybe you’ll make it, maybe not….”

We passed a lorry a little way back. The driver must know the roads. We turn back and ask. He confirms that the road through the National Park is very bad now and suggests that we take a less-used road turning off a mile of so back.

It’s a narrow road, little more than a track, obviously rarely used, with grass growing down the centre. A considerable improvement on the other one though.

We’re keeping a look-out for water as we’re very low. The river looks unappetisingly muddy.

We can’t get off the road to camp. And there are animals around.

Near a village we find a track leading off to a school. There’s space at the side for us to camp. We get permission to do so. As we set up a man greets us and offers us a house for the night. We decline with thanks. He fetches us some drinking water.

The man who gave us permission to camp returns. It turns out that he is the headmaster of the nearby school — the Bwambara Primary and Secondary School. He has a gift of some popcorn for us and invites us to visit the school in the morning.

Friday 23 February

Bwambara — Rukunguri — Ruhunda — Ishaka — Busenji — (wild camp) [66 miles]

After breakfast we go to the school, first to talk to the younger pupils who sing a song for us, then to the older primary classes. To each we give a brief talk about our project.

After this we go to the secondary school on the hill behind us. The headmaster proudly points out the view across the Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Edward and the Virunga Mountains beyond.

In the staffroom we meet the teachers, who give us an outline of the education system. There are 350 pupils and ten teachers in the primary school, 150 pupils and eight teachers in the secondary school. The children start school at between six and eight years old. Some continue until about 25 when they go to university. Although we know we’re well off the usual traveller’s routes, it is a surprise when a teacher remarks that most of the pupils and some of the staff have never seen a European before!

We talk to each of the senior classes too. They are keen to ask questions. Brigid and Lesley are the recipients of handfuls of scraps of paper from those who want pen-friends in England.

The teacher thanks us and we bid farewells. We leave woollies, pens and writing pads.

We’re on a beautiful road winding through the foot-hills of the Virunga mountains. Halfway through the morning, after not seeing a single vehicle since mid-afternoon the previous day, we come across a British-style black and white bus stop sprouting incongruously from a bush at the roadside.

We stop at a poor village a few miles on — a group of about five huts. We leave woollies and bottles. One man is so pleased he rushes off and returns with an enormous stalk of bananas which he insists we accept.

It is noticeable how most people we meet — adults and children alike — are keen to have their photographs taken, in contrast to those in most of the places we have passed through.

Just as we are about to leave three more men from the village arrive carrying a Mobil oil drum. It contains a dirty brown liquid with unidentifiable black bits floating in it. Looks something like washing-up water that has been used to clean thirty or forty greasy frying pans. They tell us it’s banana beer and they want to share it with us.

They pass around brimming mugs-full. Apparently it is necessary to shake the oil drum until concoction foams before it can be poured out. Some of the floating black bits seem to be charcoal. The origin of others is probably best not inquired into too deeply. We ask how it’s made. It seems basically that bananas are crushed and water added. The mixture is left to stand and after a week it starts to ferment. After two weeks’ fermentation it is ready to drink. I cannot guarantee this recipe as something may have been lost in translation (where did the bits of charcoal come from?). It is certainly potent — the effect may be best described as akin to drinking a mixture of white rum and lavender floor polish while chewing a banana skin and wearing a concrete bowler hat.

Arriving in Rukunguri an hour or so later is a bit of a culture shock. It’s a thriving township with a bank, several small clean restaurants, and a video hire shop. We buy bread and top up our vehicles at the town’s petrol station. Also filling up is a United Nations Population and Housing Census Project Land Rover, the second we’ve seen today.

While we wait at the petrol station a man in ragged clothes walks around the flower bed at the roadside, collecting scraps of paper and rearranging the white stones bordering it. Around each wrist he wears several home-made ‘watches’ assembled from strips of fabric and pieces of scrap metal and plastic cut to a circular shape. After a while he enters a workshop a few yards up the road from the petrol station where someone gives him a cigarette.

We stop outside the town for lunch on a hillside overlooking rolling green countryside and a small, neat valley with grass-roofed huts dotted between squares of cultivated land, growing mainly banana trees. There are a few cows by the stream that winds through the valley. “We could almost be in the Lake District”, Richard remarks. Except for the banana trees.

There is the usual group of people watching us. Jo digs out one of her spare dresses and gives it to an old woman. She is overjoyed and improvises a short, preening dance to the delight of her friends. In a few steps she manages to communicate her pleasure and her thanks, while humorously sending herself up for wishing to wear such a dress in the first place.

We continue. At the end of the valley we pass a small brickworks. Piles of mud bricks lie under straw.

In a sparsely wooded area at the edge of a village is a group of ‘Out of Africa’ style green canvas safari tents. An elderly gentleman speaking slightly archaically phrased but beautifully articulated English explains that they are the tents of officials carrying out mapping surveys in conjunction with a census. Something to do with the UN Land Rovers we’d seen before.

Uganda is definitely in the running for the friendliest country we’ve passed through since Ghana. Smiles and waves greet us wherever we go.

We stop at a river for water, letting down a bucket on a rope from a bridge. It’s murky but should be OK for washing. We put sterilising tablets in one container for drinking in an emergency.

In a banana plantation at the side of the road stands a tiny scale model of a mud hut, about 18 in. high.

We buy our first Ugandan beers in the small town of Ruhunda. There are black clouds ahead, and thunder and lightning. It’s not long before we drive into torrential rain. We slip and slide on the road which has become a running stream of mud. We’re lucky only to have to get out and push once.

We drive out of the rain and into Ishaka. Street sellers surround our vehicles as soon as we stop. Jason and I share a couple of very nice vegetable samosa and one of those fried doughnut things we’ve seen on sale in just about every town we’ve passed through since West Africa.

The road from Ishaka has an excellent surface. It’s shortly to be tarred, we’re told. We continue via Busenji, where we’re able to change a little money. A man stops by our Land Rover and asks, “Why didn’t you come and sort Amin out when we needed you?”
We pass a white van which carries the legend ‘Love Carefully’ on the back. One the side it says, ‘Aids Control Programme’.

Through Busenji the road improved further. We pull off into an area of pasture and find someone who is able to give us permission to camp for the night.

We set up camp to the usual audience. This time, however, the provision of entertainment is not one-sided. After dinner a group of children, led by a confident girl of about nine or ten, sing joyous religious songs for us. They begin with a song of welcome to ‘our visitors from Zambia’ (they’d seen the Project Rhino Zambia logos on the sides of the Land Rovers). I got out our tape recorder and they were fascinated to hear themselves. It’s a cliche to talk about the African’s sense of rhythm, but you have to be impressed by the way tiny children weave in apparently freely improvised counter-rhythms to the main tune without losing a beat.

We hear drumming from a building about half a mile away. S goes to investigate. It comes from the Kitwe Pentecostal Church (no connection with Kitwe in Zambia) where a monthly get-together of churches in the area was being held. We are invited to the service, which would go on through most of the night.

After dinner some of us go to the church. The drumming is shared between a man apparently known as the ‘Chairman of the Drums’ and boy scarcely ten years old.

Thunder and lightning play in the hills around us. But other than a short shower during the night, we escape the storm.

Saturday 24 February

(wild camp) — Lyantonde — Masaka — Narake — Musuka — Kampala [203 miles]

Cattle noises wake me. I stick my head out of the tent to see cows everywhere, being driven past our camp and down the valley. We’ve chosen the day of the annual dipping to camp here. Young boys control herds of various sizes. Enormous Zebu bulls with huge horns are chivvied along by a small children with sticks.

The herds mingle as they approach the dipping area. How do they know which cow belongs to whom? I suppose they must recognise them all individually. Haven’t I read somewhere that some African tribes have a whole vocabulary of words for describing cattle markings?

Two crested cranes fly over our camp as we breakfast.

Off again on a road with the occasional stretch of tarmac. Unfortunately this quickly deteriorates into the familiar series of pot-holes and ruts so we were soon being thrown about as usual.

We get onto a proper road in Lyantonde. Half-way between there and Masaba we stop for bread. Alex, the American traveller who joined us at the border, buys us all some excellent samosas.

We’re back on a dirt road again, which is being regraded. The traffic has to weave around heavy earth-moving equipment.

We stop for lunch. A large eagle-like bird of some kind preens itself in a tree a few yards from us.

An old man stands to attention at the side of the road as we pass. He is wearing a blue tracksuit, a straw hat and a pair of wellington boots many sizes too large.

Among the banana plantations is a square of ground covered with rows of sunflowers.

Through Narake we get our first glimpse of Lake Victoria.

We’re on a good tarmac road — there are even yellow lines and telegraph poles at the roadside. On one stretch the wires are lined with thousands of small birds.

We see mangoes and bread fruit for sale at the side of the road for the first time.

About 50 km out of Musuka we cross the equator, south to north.

What look like loofahs are for sale by the road, stuck onto branches like some strange tree.

We arrive in Kampala through run-down suburbs. We drop Alex off near a couple of hotels recommended in a 1988 guide book to find they are both closed. So we head for the YMCA, which has camping facilities as well as dormitories, or so we’re told by a passerby who insists on accompanying us as guide.

He takes us to an unprepossessing building that looks rather like a multi-storey car park. But it does have showers. Three, we discover later, although two of them don’t work for much of the time. And the third has a door that won’t close. But the place is fairly central and seems reasonably secure. Alex books a space in the dormitory. We set up camp on a rise overlooking a main road opposite a block of flats.

After dinner Alex joins us and suggests we go to a nearby bar where there’s music. Five of us accompany her. It’s a tiny bar which, with twelve existing occupants, including three musicians: guitar, drums and shaker, is full. But we borrow a couple of benches from the shop next door and sit outside the bar on the footpath. This in fact turns out to be the road and the evening is punctuated by us getting up and moving the benches to one side every time a car wants to pass. This is accepted with good humour by the occupants of the cars, most of whom have a bottle of beer in one hand. Including the drivers.

After a while one of the men from the bar picks up his bench and puts it alongside ours. When the next car comes along he refuses to move. The driver shunts backwards and forwards several times, but the man won’t be intimidated and holds his ground. Eventually the driver gets out, supporting himself on his car and breathing beer fumes and bonhomie. He shares a drink with the occupier of the obstructing bench, who then agrees to move. The driver climbs unsteadily back into his car and drives off at high speed, in a much straighter line than he was able to walk.

Passers-by stop and talk to us, including a man who knows Sheffield. During our conversation we discover he studied law at Warwick University.

Some time after one o’clock everything is still going strong but we decide to walk back along the unlit streets to our camp.

Sunday 25 February

Alex left early this morning to catch a matatu to the border. It rained during the night. The morning is cool and overcast. It is drizzling intermittently. Not too good a day to catch up on washing — the overlander’s constant bugbear.

Families arrive in their Sunday best for the morning-long service being held in the YMCA.

We meet the YMCA secretary, Franco Njambi-Ssettuba, who is interested to hear of our project. He says he will take us to meet the Ugandan Minister of Tourism and Wildlife. He doesn’t know him, but he is sure he will be pleased to meet us.

Monday 26 February


Franco takes a group of us into town to meet the Minister. He’s out when we arrive so we wait. After a few minutes he arrives. Franco introduces us and he invites us up to his office.

The EEC is funding a census of the wildlife population. In Queen Elizabeth Park anti-poaching work has been stepped up, although there is still more to do. There are unconfirmed reports of rhino sightings in Kadopo.

The Southern region of Uganda is completely safe now but there are still problems with roaming bands of guerillas in the North.

Gorilla tourism is starting again soon — working in close association with biologists. There are two gorilla families permanently in Uganda, others migrate. There a more groups in Bwindi (impenetrable) Forest. It is estimated that could be as many as 400 animals in total in Uganda.

At a recent conference at Makere University on the balance between economics and conservation it was proposed that 20% of park entrance fees go to local communities.

One adviser we met mentioned that there have been experiments in treating buffalo horn so that it can be turned into an acceptable substitute for rhino horn. Despite much work currently going on it is considered unlikely that a substitute will be accepted. Certainly not plastics. Many conservationists don’t really understand what rhino horn means in Yemen — culturally the most important symbol of manhood. One the severest punishments a court can inflict is to deprive man of his dagger.

The authorities here believe it is important to involve local people. Hence the Wildlife Clubs of Uganda (WCU), set up in 1975, which play an important educational role. This is a voluntary, non-government organisation but is supported by the Ministry.

While waiting in an outer office we read a notice: ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’

The aims of the Wildlife Clubs of Uganda are:

1 Build up the wildlife population.

2 Have a presence in primary and secondary schools and other organisations. Set up meetings to impart knowledge, change attitudes (to snakes, for example).

3 Encourage people to use their skills and resources to improve the environment.

The WCU intends to introduce an interdisciplinary approach to conservation education, stressing the interrelation between conservation, politics and economics. There is considerable interest in politics and economics in Uganda, but many still don’t realise the importance of conservation. The patron of the WCU is the Minister of Tourism and Wildlife. Members of the governing council, responsible for policy making include the heads of game departments.

The WCU General Secretary tells us that there are 620 Wildlife Clubs throughout Uganda, in schools and colleges, run by teachers and students. The average membership is 100. Club membership is limited to keep them at a manageable size.

Their efforts are not just limited to Wildlife Parks, but conservation in homes and gardens, and awareness of the relationship with local environment — helping to install water systems, soil maintenance, etc.

A very comprehensive programme is being undertaken. The training of teachers and student leaders ios undertaken at National Parks via one-week courses.

There is much enthusiasm, but more facilities are needed. They have no transport. They need vehicles, also computers, etc. Printed material, including a magazine, is produced when funds are available. The hope is that children will contribute articles. Each child has a membership card that gives them free entry to National Parks.

Much of this information is from a meeting with the adviser on Tourism and Wildlife, Vivian Craddock Williams. While we talk a stork sits on the lamp standard outside the office window.

Franco (the YMCA secretary) insists on waiving the camp fees as a contribution to our cause. We made up a package of medical supplies for a clinic he supports.

I buy a Nairobi Sunday paper which reports the death of a government minister.

Tuesday 27 February

Kampala — Jinja (Owen Falls Dam on Nile) — Iganga — Tororo — Katimba — KENYA — Malaba (camp near) [149 miles]

We make our farewells to Franco and his colleagues at the YMCA, including a group of school children wearing red shirts or dresses, and set off for the Kenya border.

By the road on the edge of the city, an outdoor metal workshops. About 35 men sit cross-legged hammering out bowls, trunks, etc.

Much of Kampala seems very run down. There are several half-finished buildings, started before the civil war, others damaged in the fighting. Some still with smashed windows. A sign reads: ‘Beware of falling crumps’. But everyone we speak to seems optimistic about their country’s future.

The shops are hardly overstocked with goods, but we do note some familiar trade names, such as Cadburys, mainly on products imported from Kenya.

It’s a good road out of town, tarmac and with markings. We drive through banana plantations and small villages, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables at the roadside.

Now we are in a more wooded region. We see a sign: ‘Mabira Forest Reserve’. We’re still on tarmac, although the road markings have now gone.

After the forest, we drive through a tea plantation.

We cross the Nile at Owen Falls Dam and pull off to look at the river. Water gushing from the sluice gates dwarfs a lone man fishing with a simple line. A little way down the road we’re flagged down at a police check-point, “Why did you stop and look at the dam?” We explain that we are tourists. An argument ensues; the police are concerned that we are involved in some form of espionage. They eventually let us continue, after demanding another road toll. In Jinja it starts to rain.

At the side of the road a ring-necked cobra well over six feet long lifts its head at our approach then slides into the bushes.

In Katimba there are rice fields. A small group of buildings bears the sign: ‘Chinese Expert Team’.

We pass lines of children walking from school, most chewing on sticks of sugar cane.

For the first time in Uganda we are asked for a ‘present’ at a police check. There’s no problem when we say we haven’t got any.

It has been raining on and off, sometimes quite heavily, for most of the afternoon.

By a group of large modern buildings a sign reads ‘Sleeping Sickness Research Laboratories’.

There are no major problems at Ugandan customs, apart from some confusion over the carnet. Uganda is not mentioned on it. When we entered the country the customs officials said it didn’t need stamping. Now we’re leaving Uganda the customs officer says it has to be stamped. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt on our journey so far, it’s that our paperwork must be above reproach. There are too many petty officials who seize on the slightest excuse, real or imagined, to hamper our progress through a border, usually with the ultimate aim of extracting a bribe as the price for overlooking the infringement.

The officer says that he must stamp our carnet or we will not be allowed through the barrier a few yards up the road from his officer. I ask him if it would not be possible for him to accompany us for these few yards and tell the guards to let us pass. He sighs heavily. Unfortunately this would not be possible as he is extremely busy, he explains, waving his hand at the door of his office as it is about to be stormed by waiting travellers. The only person waiting is an old woman with a large basket of vegetables. She was sitting in the same position she occupied when we arrived.

Eventually we persuade him to stamp a scrap of paper to present to the border guards. The regulations having been satisfied, the customs officer smiles, shakes my hand and waves us cheerily on our way.


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