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Gorillas in the .. er .. missed


Dirt road through UgandaAs with Kenyans, Ugandans speak good English almost without exception. So, the policemen at their station that I asked to camp next to welcomed me, brought a bucket of water, insisted I “sluice away” my “heavy grime”, and warned me of the baboons.

The screaming of these pests woke me from the tree branches over my tent and I rode onward in the cool morning, reaching Jinja just as the afternoon heat was peaking. I pitched up at busy campsite with a lawn overlooking the adolescent stretch of the White Nile shortly after it spills out of Lake Victoria. The waters idling downstream here are the same ones that I drank copiously and straight from the murky, silty river in Sudan to quench my thirst in the desert heat months ago.

The hostel was largely full of twenty-something American missionaries. Uganda attracts large numbers of short-term (university holidays) messengers of Christ. It’s a pleasant country to visit on holiday and if the collection plate is able to part-fund a trip then it would be hard to refuse. Uganda is a stable, beautiful and (sometimes-shockingly) conservatively Christian country. Last year’s Anti Homosexuality Bill (also known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”) narrowly avoided instituting the death penalty for homosexual acts but did however prescribe life imprisonment and included a clause in which Ugandans in same-sex relationships overseas should be extradited home for punishment.

The crowd of 50 or so mostly-Texan missionaries were almost universally female, overweight, sporting recently-braided hair and suffering from sunburned seams of scalp between their braids. Loud and apparently unaware of others, they filled the bar and some even performed hilariously laboured aerobics on the lawn to 1990s hits by the Spice Girls and the Venga Boys. I heard one (indeed, her volume was impossible to ignore) yell across the bar to her friend engaged in conversation with a stranger: “Hey Michelle! Are you flirtin’ or convertin’ over there?”

Needless to say, I stayed only one night.

Ugandan tea plantation

The following morning saw me across the river, over rolling hills neatly contoured by tea plantations, through the virgin greenness of the Mabera forest and towards Kampala. I bought avocadoes and short manzano bananas (known locally as “little fingers”) from roadside villagers and sat with the vendors while eating my fruit salad. A matatu (minibus) narrowly missed me when it veered off the road to avoid an oncoming truck overtaking on a blind corner.

In Kampala I met my friend Archie who has worked there for a coffee exporter for the last two years. We enjoyed an indulgent few days catching up after three years, playing squash, eating well and drinking the odd beer. Kampala is a sprawl of development creeping over seven hills and has now more than picked itself up after suffering as merciless Amin’s luckless plaything in the 1970s. The Asian traders have returned, westerners poured in, business boomed and modernity arrived in spades.

Swampy, humid air slowed my departure from the city. The grotesque maribu stork – an ugly bird over a meter tall – haunted the rubbish tips on the outskirts and wheeled casually overhead with its three meter wingspan. The well-surfaced road led through a corridor of almost continuous habitation and I followed it, ignoring the omnipresent shouts of “mzungu, MZUNGU!” (white man) from village children. Another police station served as a campsite before the route became hillier and a little less thickly populated. The surly chief eyed me suspiciously as I pitched my tent, probably influenced by the headline screamed across the front page of the paper he was reading: “MZUNGU TYCOON GRABS MP’S WIFE!” The all-night bender that he and his colleagues partook in seemed to wipe his memory and he shook my hand gravely, bleary-eyed and reeking of liquor, when I left at dawn.

Through thick mist and under darkening clouds I made my way into Fort Portal close to Uganda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ducking into a hostel in the nick of time, I avoided a tumultuous rainstorm heralding the arrival of the rainy season. Here I caught up with the Scottish Motorcyclists who I’d met in Egypt, Ethiopia and then Kenya. We had a birthday to celebrate so were carried into town with four of us on one motorbike (three seated and myself piggybacked on the hindmost rider) and danced to an awful selection of East Africa’s largely-dismal pop music.

We made an excursion to a volcanic crater lake not far from Fort Portal for a couple of nights. Lake Nkuruba was simply stunning: about 100m across, surrounded by steep-sided, dense forest, and empty but for us and a couple of troops of vervet and colobus monkeys. Sadly, this short and enjoyable break from cycling had to end and I saddled up again for a fast ride south.

A night camped in Queen Elizabeth National Park hoping its famous tree-climbing lions were sleepy; children chorusing “how are you!” repeatedly – more a mantra than a question; buffalo grazing near the road; baboons swaggering territorially back and forth across the tarmac; a mud track short cut with vast banana plantations – a sea of massive, drooping leaves; camping in a nunnery during a great thunder storm; looking out over the forest mountains wallowing languidly in lugubrious morning mist; my Made-in-Kenya tire blowing out after a little less than 1,000 miles; far-reaching views of terraced hills reminding me of cycling with friends in Nepal what seems like a lifetime ago.

The small city of Kabale is the jumping off point for mountain gorilla trekking. Regretfully, the $500-per-hour price tag caused me to settle for a rest day on nearby Lake Bunyonyi instead. A tortuously steep mud track up and over a pass deposited me at the lakeside. Sitting at almost 2,000m above sea level, thought to be 900m deep, and home to numerous inlets and islands, Bunyonyi is a startlingly beautiful spot. It attracts most of the overland truck tours that ply the route from Nairobi (or even Cairo) to Cape Town with their captive passengers whisked brusquely from one place of interest to the next. Obviously, I have chosen a slightly different mode of transport to these pacey, money-spinning tours and my ethos of travel probably differs too. However, I finally noticed something I’ve been slowly grasping for a while. When people see me and learn what I’m doing, tourists and local people alike, they tend to react quizzically. It’s no longer so often: “that’s exciting…sounds like fun…I’m so jealous.” It’s now more often: “what did you say? How many years now? Why on earth? What could have possibly possessed you? A whole year to go, really? Don’t you have any friends?”

All the same, my stubbornness props me up and my devotion to a self-imposed task bears me on. So, on I went…past the 30,000-mile mark and towards Rwanda.

Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.

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