Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Uganda

One thing we noticed right after crossing into Uganda was that although we were still travelling up the same valley, Uganda is farmed with little plots of land and cattle rather than endless rows of tea. Our first stop was not far across the border at Lake Bunyoni where Bre and Ben had also stayed briefly.
What an amazing place! The lake was created by a volcanic eruption with a lava flow blocking off a river so it is irregularly shaped and completely surrounded by terraced hills. And I mean completely surrounded! Every square inch of land seems to be terraced or part of one of the little villages tending them. There are also 27 little islands dotting the lake in random places too. It is a popular tourist spot but since not many people actually come this far into Uganda, and it is currently the offseason, we pretty much had our little camp to ourselves. It was great and we didn't even really have rain for the 3 days we were there. Well, sort of but I'll get to that in a minute. We mostly relaxed and there was some swimming too but the water isn't all that warm because the lake is nearly 2000m up in the mountains.
One of the afternoons we opted to go on a little boat ride down to the other end of the lake to visit a little village market and hopefully see some pygmy people. It was just the 5 of us, the hotel manager as guide and the guy running the boat (more of a motorized canoe). We had to go nearly the full distance down the lake ~22km to get to the market. There really wasn't much there to see and the most interesting part was just seeing the little dugout canoes bringing people in to market from various villages along the lake. It was also nice because it wasn't touristy and people more or less ignored us. Unfortunately the pygmies (there are two villages along the lake) weren't at market that day because of a funeral. We opted to go a little further down the lake to see where they lived anyway and were hit with a thunderstorm for our troubles. We didn't really see anything and the strange thing was that back at our end of the lake it was still nice and sunny and we were pretty much dried off by the time we got back.
From Lake Bunyoni we tried to get all the way to the capital, Kampala, but because of the terrible roads we didn't make it in a day. I think we were the only ones to notice the huge potholes as everyone else was still going full speed and like crazy. Even though we were the most careful drivers on the road we managed to finally break two of the leaf springs in the truck right at the end of the day :( The following day we limped into Kampala and found a popular and busy backpackers to settle down in.
Kampala is busy. Heavy traffic, lots of pollution and we didn't like it much at all. We stuck around the camp for a few days while Kees sorted out the leaf springs. I talked to a few people working in South Sudan as aid workers. You've no doubt heard about the Somali pirates and the tanks bound for South Sudan. Well, we need some background to understand this one. Sudan had a civil war between north and south for decades. This was recently ended (and moved over to Darfur). Part of the peace agreement says that the south will get to hold a separation referendum in 2011. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that the south will vote to separate, and the north will not let them and war will restart so in the meantime there is a stockpiling of weapons....
From Kampala we headed north to Murchison Falls National Park to see some chimps, waterfalls and try our hand at fishing. The first place for chimps, just outside the park told us there were no chimps in the area and hence no tours at the moment. Not 5 minutes later driving back down the road we saw a mother chimp carrying her baby, run across the road and jump in the bushes with a bunch of others. No chimps, right. We still had to go to the more expensive chimp viewing area in the park and did see chimps, though they were 100 ft up in the trees and peeing on the group. Kees actually got crapped on so that must count for something.
Murchison Falls is an ok park I guess. There wasn't much wildlife all that long ago because of the civil war in Uganda with rebels shooting them for bush meat. Parts of the park are still considered unsafe. It took us until dark to get to the top of the waterfall where we camped but we nearly hit a buffalo and a hippo on the way there. The hippo was literally millimeters from the front bumper. The falls is supposed to be an awesome display of power as the nile rushes through a narrow gap through a gorge and falls 45m. What they don't tell you is that there is another waterfall beside it that was created by a flood in 1962 which takes a lot of the power out of the falls. It's still a beautiful area though.
At the base of the falls in the fast flowing river can be found the Nile Perch. The largest specimen caught in the area was 186kg so Kees, dad and Savannah got it in their heads that they wanted to catch one. Right. We got the gear and spent the better part of a day in the attempt. First you have to catch little bait fish of a couple inches and put them on a larger fishing line to catch the big fish. Well, apart from getting lines stuck in trees and feeding the monstrous fly population with our blood (the following day we were all covered with bites), only Kees and the guide managed to catch anything and they were just the small bait fish. No Nile Perch or electric catfish for us :( On the drive back out of the park we saw our second snake of the trip, a solid green snake of easily 2m. Not sure what it was but since most are very poisonous out here we were happy to be in the truck. Maybe the nicest part of the whole park was the road closer to the entrance where the forest growth is so dense that it feels like you are driving down a green corridor. As you head down this corridor there is a constant supply of birds of prey swooping down to fly just in front of the truck. It was something like dolphins jumping in front of a boat and some lasted for quite a while and were very close. It was a bit of a weird experience but very cool.
From Murchison Falls we drove to Jinja for our shot at the river rafting. My back was trashed from all the bumps in the truck so we took a day off to heal. And who should turn up on that day in our camp but Patrick and Sarah. We'd last seen them at home in South Africa and they've continued their trip up the east side as well. We knew they were East Africa but it was still a big surprise. They stayed only the night and then took off early to go find Ben in Nairobi (where we were supposed to be as well but were running behind schedule).
Rafting, oh yes, rafting. Bre told you the basics already. They have a cameraman the will go down the river with you and film half of the rapids and put together a little video that is played every night. We'd been there 2 nights for the video and were pretty pumped to go on our day. Kees had never rafted before so it was extra exciting for him. There were 3 boats of 6 people each including the guide so the 5 of us had our own boat. The funny thing is that our guide thought we were a little chicken and nervous to start so on the first half of the day, 8 out of 12 rapids, we went through them perfectly, got wet but nothing terribly exciting happened. The other 2 boats had flipped twice each and Kees and dad were starting to get a little pouty and disappointed with the whole thing. A few hints were dropped to the guide, who grunted noncommitally (he can't admit to intentionally trying to drown us) and then proceeded to get us flipped on the final 4 rapids that came after lunch, including going down the waterfall sideways! Wow! Is that ever a different kind of ride. One second you are in the boat, the next under it. It was awesome but at the same time exhausting and I don't know if I'd've wanted to do more than 4. 3 of the flips are on the video and it looks awesome! The sad thing is that they are currently building another dam across the river so in another year they won't be able to raft on these parts :(
We had a great last day in Uganda and left the following day to hurry off and find the others in Nairobi. Uganda is definitely one of the most beautiful and best countries in Africa.
Ammon

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