The bus ride from Nairobi to Kampala was my least-pleasant trip to date. I keep saying this it seems. The buses in South America really set the bar unattainably high it seems. Anyway, I was wedged in the back (again a common theme) and seemed to be constantly airborne. The trip was scheduled for 12 hours but took 15 due to heavy road construction. The border crossing was very easy as I had my $50 US in hand and ready to go this time
The arid savannah-scape of Tanzania/Kenya was giving away to a more verdant jungle in Uganda.
The driving rain made for great scenery but a wet bus. It was not watertight. I got away from the dripping spot but a fellow who got on at a later stop was stuck below it for a few hours. He asked the attendant what could be done. The attendant smiled at the guy and congratulated him on receiving “so many blessings that so few people are lucky enough to have.” I thought it was funny but the blessed man was less amused and hiked his leather jacket up over his head for the rest of the trip.
Kamala has two hostels where apparently all the backpackers go. It made the late night logistics easy – I got off and had a map and flashlight in hand and was prepared to go through the directions with a cabbie. He knew instantly.
“All the white people go to Backpackers hostel”
It’s quite a nice place but is a throwback to vintage travel. By vintage I mean a place scores a great write-up in a Lonely Planet, that will not changed/updated/revised for a decade or so, so they completely stop trying. Yet, for a decrepit place on the whole it was quite a good stay and they made good pizzas.
The rafting in Uganda has a great reputation. It’s based at the source of the Nile River just north of Lake Victoria. I was about to sign up when I did some last-minute research. The New York Times had an article where the correspondent got rocked to such a degree that he lost his wedding ring. This set is class five which is the highest difficulty for runnable rapids. I decided to do it – it had great reviews and while it looked rocky at least the in the photos the screaming people all had helmets.
The trip was a lot of fun and was very safe. The company, Adrift, hires very experienced guides and even sends down kayakers to make sure that nobody has any major trouble. A friend of the kayak guy had just died in the river a few days before. He had been an expert kayaker but overconfident and had gone down with no life jacket or helmet.
Our raft ditched almost instantly. My counterpart in the front had a panic attack and dove for cover. Our Kiwi guide kept screaming at him to “Paddle! GET UP!! PADDLE!” with no success. Soon enough the raft flipped over and sent everyone flying into the river. This was a fairly common occurrence. After some of the flips, when the rapids were fairly rock-free, we could swim (well, float really) down the river which was awesome. The other two advantages to doing this in the Nile was (1) that they haven’t had any crocodile run-ins for years since they came close to a nineteen-footer a few years prior and (2) that the water is much warmer than anything in Canada.
I forgot my duct tape for this trip so I borrowed some bandages and made a really geeky headband for my sunglasses. They didn’t get lost which was great.
Kampala was an interesting city. It has a reputation for being a very safe place to visit. The markets were packed with throngs of people, motorcycles and cars. The roads were clogged; teeming masses of people and vehicles moved forward inches at a time. I got zero attention as an obvious foreigner. Vendors would rush past me to sell things to Ugandans but nobody was much interested in what I was up to. Rather the opposite of many touristy places. I came back from a trip downtown and seemed to be covered in exhaust. I had a shower and thought, wow, I must have been holding on really tight during rafting. My arm kept shaking when I extended it trying to get the right temperature. On the plus side there was hot water. On the downside the taps were electrified which was causing the shaking. So much for the holding-on-too-tight hypothesis.
I was very lucky that I did the rafting trip before I had truly experienced Kampala transit. It took me three or four days to finally get on one of the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis. They are small Honda Boxer motorcycles whose name originates from taking quickly people between the no-man’s land separating border crossings. Boarder-boarder. Prior to the bodas, I’d been mostly on the minivans that follow approximate routes. They were not flexible and cabs were very expensive, uncommon and slow because they just get mired in the gridlock. Bodas were required riding.
The boda boda time prompted me to draw up the following:
They are a terrifying way to get around. I had a similar driving concept twenty-five years ago, prior to ever riding a two-wheeled bicycle, about why they were efficient. A bike could just ride down the centre lane as it lacked training wheels or any substantial width. Such an advantage compared to a tricycle or a car! This supposed advantage from the 1980’s resurfaced with a vengeance in Kampala.
None of the bikes have a spare helmet for the passenger. Actually, many don’t even have one for the driver. I opted for the helmet-less drivers usually as at least we were equally exposed. I turned one down too for having a broken mirror. My theory was the mirrors, which stick out like cat’s whiskers, are key for how they scoot by gridlocked traffic with inches to spare. I didn’t want a mirrorless driver to find out he’d squeezed into too tight a space based on any part of me getting making the contact.
A two-lane road can have up to five lines of traffic in any random order. And yes, there are bodas racing at 40+ km down the centre line, on the shoulders, weaving… anything. To make matters worse the LP book reports that there have approximately five fatalities per day on the boda. To put it in perspective it’s a big city at 1.2 million, but still – five per day translates to 1825 per year and a rate of about 152 deaths per 100,000 people. Apparently the overall rate for all vehicles in the Uganda is 25 for every 100,000 people. Canada is 9 per 100,000. So – based on these numbers I think I will retire from my short-lived career hitching rides on these. Or at least hold out for a helmet.
I added fast internet on my triangular list of excitement. This let me watch the Last King of Scotland. It was really interesting look at awful Ida Amin’s dictatorship. I missed it when it came out in 2006. It was very well done.
I took had about eight boda boda rides one day when I got organized to do the gorilla trekking. This is where you hike out into the jungle and watch the gorillas in the wild. The families that are safe to do this with are all habituated.
Habituation is a multi-year process to have humans drop by for short periods. The rangers who do it don’t interact with the gorillas but hang out unobtrusively on the sidelines for an hour a day, every day, and eventually the apes come to ignore them. It sounds quite harrowing as the silverbacks roar and frequently charge. There are pros and cons to this. The upside is an adaptation of what gets measured gets done: that is to say what gets visited and researched gets protected. Further, what generates cash for cash-strapped governments gets seriously protected. The downside is diseases can spread, poachers can get close and gorillas can wander into villages. The downsides are management and policy issues. The upside is that the economic and conservation benefits of habituation is a strong step towards reversing the trend toward extinction.
Getting the permit was a bureaucratic challenge. It involved going across town to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority’s headquarters and filling out paperwork. Things would be stamped in triplicate. The majority of the permits are spoken for in advance as there are only 94 available per day.
I was lucky to get one on a drop-in basis. But the big line up was the one for the receipt – $500 US. I had wrongly assumed that they would take Visa for security reasons but that was not the case. So, it was off on a boda again to get a huge wad of cash — 1.3 million Ugandan shillings to be exact. For a brief moment it felt like I’d robbed a bank. Why else would a newly-minted millionaire with his wad of cash be racing crazily through traffic on a motorbike?
I left for Kabale the next morning. It was an 8.5 hour bus that managed to make zero bathroom stops. A few of the men at the very front could race off for the one-minute pit stops, but everyone else was out of luck. Skipping a five minute break is an interesting way to making the journey 1% faster. I can’t say I’m a convert to this Bismakan Buslines efficiency though – if I ever become a bus company CEO this will not be part of any turnaround plan.
The small stops were serviced by people selling street meat on sticks through windows. They had fruit too, but that’s too healthy for me. I sat beside a guy who wanted to chat and chat. That was fine – it might have been just a proximity thing we were six adults crammed into the five seats in the back row. I politely disengaged and then iPod’d the trip to stay sane but I got roped into the occasional conversation. I got through Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick. At one of the one-minute pit stops that seemed to be timed based of Indy 500 logic I (apparently) overpaid for some fried bread handed to me from a dude outside the window. It was the only non-meat and non-fruit product I’d seen for the prior six hours. Yet, my new best friend was absolutely incredulous. He quickly deduced that I was fabulously rich. His line of questioning went like this:
“You paid $0.60 CDN for that bread? Why? Oh, why? Why would you do that?”
I guess the regular price is less than $0.60 CDN. This guy was clearly upper middle class however — he had a suit and was well-educated. Yet, his assessment of my massive wealth resurfaced later. When the bus finally pulled in I had the usually touts gather around. One however was very persistent and knew all my travel logistics down to the finest detail. My buddy evidently sold him a hot tip: I’m an easy mark. What else could one conclude from the bread fiasco? He proposed to drive me out for two and a half times the going rate. 250%. His negotiation style was to go from 250% to 240% to 230%. It’s the approach you take when you think someone is really, really dumb. In retrospect I’m amazed I went with this guy but there were not many alternitives. It made for an easy bargain. I just called out “who wants to take me to Ruhija for [90% of the correct fare]?” to the crowd. It’s nearly $50 US, which is steep rate by African transportation standards but it’s owing to the two hour drive into the hills on shock-absorber-destroying potholes. Buddy was disappointed because he probably spent at least $15 buying the tip about the rich millionaire who is financially illiterate that will gladly fork over $125. He grudgingly took the $45.
Generally I try and find cabbies or drivers who are older. This guy was young. Sure enough, we had problems. He was (seemed?) sober but whatever he was drinking on the road was not apparently legal. He had to get me to hold it when the police had a checkpoint. Sucks to be him because I didn’t give it back. It might have been a blessing in disguise because in the tiny village of Ruhija there were no liquor stores. Well, or any stores at all, from what I could tell. So, the forced delayed gratification maybe just meant he had a drink for the trip home. I also commandeered his stereo in order to make the volume setting be somewhere other than full blast.
That night I stayed at a campsite called Ruhija Gorilla Friends. It had awesome views. It was also very tranquil having no internet or even power. The power was unusual apparently as the generator was broken, but I really enjoyed my time there and caught up on a lot of reading.
The view at night
The next day it was off on the trek. The guide takes a small group and some buddies with AK-47s. Some of the people looked a little worried. He explained that they are glorified noisemakers in case they run into a rogue elephant or a lone silverback. Perhaps left unsaid is that it doesn’t hurt to have some men with guns where you are so close to the failed state that is Congo.
After two hours of trekking through the heavy bush we got to where the family was hanging out. It was really cool to see. They were totally oblivious to us and we got to be up to 5 meters away from some of them.
The first gorilla we saw was a blackback who was just hanging out looking scholarly. Then we saw where the troop was spending the night. The silverback was up in the nest snoozing. But after a while he decided he was hungry so he clambered down to get back to foraging. Three babies scurried out behind him.
You are boring. I’m going back to lunch.
On the whole I was very impressed with the conservation efforts made by Uganda here. It’s a balancing act between generating the revenue for preservation efforts, building awareness and making sure that conservation is lucrative enough to not overlook. Even if there were competing interests in the area, say mining, agriculture or development – they could be more easily dismissed. The jungle has been turned into a source of profit for the government so they need not invite other revenue sources in. There are a host of valid ways to put a price tag on preserving nature like contingent valuation but they rarely amount to hard cash in hand. This does. If Uganda can punch 90 people a day though it’s $16 million US in revenue per year. Enough for the basics and then some – the country only has a $3 billion US budget annually. If gorilla treks comprise 1/200 of that total budget then all provisions to keep the animals safe will likely be taken.
So, while I thought the price was high I completely agree with the concept in principle.
I was quite fortunate on the trek. It’s not a guarantee as the gorilla move daily and may not always be found. If you don’t see any gorillas you may come back then next day, but you pay another $250. A false start that I heard about was a girl at my hostel in Kampala who had trekked into a wasp’s nest. The ensuing commotion scared off the gorillas and the whole group trudged back covered in dozens of welts. They managed to snap one photos of a black hairy blur in a bush. They only clear animal they saw was a cat at the ranger station.
On the trek I met an American couple who were heading back to Kampala the following day. They were really kind in letting me hitch a ride in their Land Rover. I was shockingly relieved. I was dreading the trip back which would have been most likely in the 14 to 16 hour range. Plus, I had no bus booked so it would have been iffy at best even getting out of town. And my choices for the two hour trip from the hills in Ruhija to Kabale were likely going to be either the drunken idiot who took me there or a nice guy on a boda boda. Two hours on the back of a motorcycle racing over potholes while holding my 50 pounds of gear was not something I was looking forward to. I wanted to pitch in for the cost, secretly worried they’d call ‘halfers’ for a private hire that was likely in the $600 range but they wouldn’t accept any money. It worked out great for their Ugandan driver though because I diverted most the money I’d planned to chip in to him and managed to beat everyone to the lunch bill with the rest.
That day I went past Kampala to Entebbe. This is where the airport is. It was an interesting place for accommodation. I had three different places in two nights. The first, Skyway, was appalling: they sent me packing down a dark road. I actually hadn’t had seen my email in days so I assumed that my reservation didn’t go though. Disappointing, but no big deal. Later that night it turned out that it did go through and they confirmed that I had a reservation. That really got pretty annoyed but the management has since gotten in touch and wants to atone so I can’t fault them much. They seem to be taking steps to correct this sort of thing from happening again too which is good.
I ended up roaming Entebbe in the dark on the back of a boda boda that night. I found a place I’d read some bad reviews on prior to. It was a called Entebbe Backpackers. There were some security complaints on TripAdvisor and sure enough I just walked in announced through an unlocked gate at 9:30 pm. This is extremely uncommon in Africa – there are armed security guards everywhere it seems. Anyway, this place had nice staff who checked me into a dorm with no reservation. The room was a little rowdy with some partying hipsters who were drinking hard and chain smoking right outside. It sort of comes with the territory, but again a loud iPod helped me get to sleep.
At midnight I was woken up by the clerk from the desk. He wanted to know if I had the key to the dorm. It was the first I had heard of it so I shrugged and decided to go back to sleep. But the light stayed on and there was all kinds of commotion that I was in no mood for. As much as the trip in the Land Rover was relaxing, it was the last 35 kilometers in a tiny claustrophobic minivan that took 90 minutes that did me in. As I was trying to get back to sleep I caught some key words: “chase,” “robber” and “bag.”
The clerk was describing to a Canadian girl how a man had walked into the dorm from the street, a distance of maybe 80 meters, passed around the holding to the back, walked into the dorm, picked up her 70L backpack then lumbered off with it into the night. The robber then got scared as he saw the one of the drunken hipsters staggering in the yard. He fled, without the bag. I got up to and put a chain on my bag but now the girl wanted to keep the light on and was quite disturbed. It was a good use of my special brand of cut-proof duct tape. I gave her some lengths to tape her bag to a bed post. I’m not sure if my blatant lie about it being cut-proof worked, especially since I just tore some off and passed it over, but it was still my ticket to getting the light turned back off getting back to sleep.
The following day I flew out of Entebbe International Airport. I arrived at 5:00 am the morning so was too dark to look around for the bullet holes in the control tower. These apparently are still there from Operation Entebbe in 1976. I had not heard of this before and it’s fascinating how Israeli commandos came it and rescued hostages who were being held there under Ida Amin’s rule.
I also forgot to take my Swiss Army knife out of my carry-on bag which kicked off a struggle to get it back into my checked bag. The South African Airways (SAA) staff were very helpful and I almost got the knife into by check bag before some security guy stole it. He was quite pleased and smirked away while being as condescending as possible. The knife, well fair enough, that’s a mistake on my end. But he was being abusive to the SAA guy who was helping me too. This got me going so dropped a bunch of thinly veiled accusations of bribe solicitation and theft, then started up the talk about taking names for the formal letters of complaint. Then I just figured it would be better to find a place that sold coffee and relax. Morning flights are not my favourite. After laying into the security guy – mostly because he made no secret of how pleased he was with his newly-acquired loot – I got an upgrade to business class on the transfer from Johannesburg to Cape town. SAA apparently reclaimed it from the Lord of the Airport and might mail it to me which would be great. After all, it’s 100% my fault and I have not a leg to stand on, so I’ve been amazed how accommodating they have been. Ethics will dictate that letter-writing scenario changes to be me commending the gang who went to all the trouble to reclaim this for me.
I haven’t seen the movie yet but it is on the list.