A Travellerspoint blog

Priced off the mountain

Rachel - Rwenzori foothills

The one thing that had been certain for our Uganda leg of the trip had been some sort of trek, probably the six day hike, into the Rwenzori mountains. It used to be a rival with Kilimanjaro as the mountain you had to climb in Africa, partly because of its views of the cluster of surrounding mountains and its very varied terrain. The lower slopes are forest, parts at the top are very boggy and described as “other worldly” and there’s a glacier at the summit.

But unfortunately they’ve put up their prices so much now – nearly doubled in the last two years - that we couldn’t afford to go anymore. This seems crazy to me, why price interested people out of the market like that? We were very frustrated. Soooo, we skulked off to the internet café to do some research for flights to Ethiopia which you will of course know by now are booked.

Rather than leave the mountains completely we decided to stick to part of the original plan and stay in a hostel at the start of the mountain route and maybe do a walk in the foothills at least. It was a peaceful and cute hostel but rather disorganised. We think they told us that the cheaper rooms were booked so we had to take a pricier room – or at least these mystery guests always seemed to be in town, no matter what time of night or day. And despite an extensive menu they actually had only about five ingredients available (which you’d only deduce after you’d already asked for first, second, okay how about third choice on the menu) but they could turn those ingredients into tasty meals with some ingenuity. Although they would have a conversation with you about how you would like something cooked but would then bring you something totally different, or bemusing (fish stew = a whole breadcrumbed fish and chips with the stew sauce brought on the side five minutes later anyone?), and in the morning they ran out of cooking oil so you could only have something if it was boiled eggs (but they had no bread), oh and they only had one egg left. Fortunately we were more amused than anything since what they did make was usually nice, just not what you had agreed. We often have bemusing restaurant experiences but this has been the most extreme so far so I share it with you.

Also staying at the hostel were the German “family” we’d met in Queen Elizabeth: Two retired parents, and two anthropologist aid worker friends, Annette and Eric. The parents (Eric’s) had worked in the tourist industry and had been to all the adventurous places you could name and more you hadn’t even heard of so they were able to give us loads of advice for Ethiopia.

Annette and Eric and Dave and I signed up for a hill and forest walk the next morning and had a really interesting morning hearing about the work they were doing. Annette’s husband working in renewable energy and is trying to help Uganda set up solar schemes. And Eric is working as a contractor to the UN in the refugee camps in the north of Uganda which is where Ugandan nationals who have fled the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north are now living. He is working with agronomists to train people in the camps to grow their own food again, and also with other Ugandans to learn new methods in seed selection, animal care, productivity improvements etc. After the training Eric manages the distribution of small grants which they can spend however they wish but he says in 80% of the cases they are spending it on productive materials such as cows. And in the vast majority of other cases they’re using the money for medicines or school fees. He had much to say on the failures of the large UN aid agencies but it was reassuring to know that in small scale instances like this aid really does help put damaged people back on track. My faith in the industry is restored a little.

Anyway, apart from the conversation this was a tough yet stunning walk, we had views of the glacier at the peak of the Rwenzoris (which is fading fast due to global warming – a huge concern because the seasonal melt water into the rivers powers and waters much of south west Uganda), and lots of lush forest which occasionally opened out dramatically into views of the lower slopes and towns. Oh and our guide found us another chameleon, this one had horns and its scales look like tiny coloured bubbles – they’re crazy creatures.

That evening the germans had to go back north but we were joined instead by a swiss couple who have set up a bicycle touring company and soon a bicycle sales company to sell affordable geared bikes in Rwanda. The lady was a scientist studying the gases in the lake there and generally, apart from some frustrations, they seemed to like the place. They were going to climb the mountain as his birthday present so we wished them luck, stared mournfully up at the silhouettes of the mountains against the sky and turned in for the night.

Posted by rachndave 23:34 Archived in Uganda Tagged walking companions Comments (0)

Up a tree and down a river

Rachel - Queen Elizabeth National Park

Today was a day of ups and downs. We’d wanted to hire a driver to take us from Bwindi, 60km to Queen Elizabeth National Park, via the area of the park where the tree climbing lions are for an hour or so.

Down = worried about my rash in the hospital waiting area
Up = turns out nothing to worry about
Down = battle with a cab driver who was late, was trying to overcharge us because there aren’t many drivers in this part of town, and then his car broke down
Up = managed to find a new cab driver who was being a little bit more reasonable and promised us it wasn’t too late to drive round the national park
Down = we get to the gate and the driver tells us actually the lions probably have come down from the trees by now so we shouldn’t bother going and by the way he wasn’t going to deduct the price of the game drive from our agreed price, and he also wanted to push on so he could get out of the park by dark
Up = the man on the gate said we could go into the park, for free, for half an hour or so and chance our luck
Up = we were lucky! We saw a real life, male lion - Up. A. Tree! It’s the strangest thing and slightly surreal. It made me think the lion had been picked up by a giant bird and dropped there. The park is really beautiful as well, sunny, green grassy savanna land and the first I’d seen properly in Africa. I loved it and wished we could have spent longer there – it was magical in that evening light.
Down = we arrived at our hotel/campsite, as recommended by the guidebook, to find that they haven’t had a campsite area for two years
Up = The manager kindly let us put up our tent in the very posh hotel grounds.
Up = We had a nice chat with a German family who were also planning to visit the chimps the next day.
Up = Woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the park, the hotel being perched on the edge of an overlooking escarpment we had views of the savanna for miles. I could imagine that doing a balloon ride over the parks would be like this.
Down = The guide for the chimp tracking would not go without a taxi to take them to the edge so we had to call a cab and delay
Up = The walk in the forest was very pretty, with a hairy river crossing over a tree trunk where I didn’t fall in! But…
Down = We didn’t see the chimps because tracking evidence showed that they’d left the national park boundary and there’s no refund of your $50 :( We did manage to bump into the german group to warn them but they were going to give it a try anyway.

From then on though it was all “Up”s. We were camping for the night within the park and planned to go on a river trip. While we were waiting for the trip to begin we stopped in a local pub which had it’s own pub warthog sleeping on the porch, and a humongous stork swooped in for a potter about as well, while we sat in the garden and watched the crocodiles in the river far below.

The river trip was very relaxing, as river trips always are, and we saw some buffalo, monitor lizards, elephants, crocodiles, hippos (including some squeal inducing baby hippos), pelicans and lots and lots of different birds - some of them really pretty which we’d have missed if we didn’t have the guide on board. I think we might be evolving into birdwatchers due to an enthusiastic guide. The guides also managed to pick out a lion lurking under a bush which we could just about make out with binoculars, so heaven knows how they spotted it.

We fortunately had an uneventful night in the campsite, uneventful in the sense that we heard lions calling in the night and there were reports of them in the campsite in the night. Thank heavens we didn’t need the toilet! When we woke up there were dozens of warthogs snuffling in the grass outside our tent and some antelope things. We love warthogs. Particularly how they run – they trot in a way that makes me think that they’ve just called out in a camp voice – “I’m coming!”

Our final “up” is that we managed to hitch out of the park with an overland truck from the campsite which saved us lots of bother and cash. I’ve not been in a touring overland truck before. They have quite an impressive set up with all the cooking equipment and tents and comfy seats. But their schedule sounds relentless. Nice group though and we had a nice hour together in the bus…and they even gave us some pancakes and a cup of tea for breakfast. Good to finish on an “up”.

Posted by rachndave 23:26 Tagged animals boats transportation Comments (0)

Inpenatrable? pah

Rachel - Bwindi

Bwindi Forest National Park is one of Uganda’s main tourist destinations for the INPENATRABLE FOREST and the mountain gorillas that live inside. But because few local people want to go there there is no public transport. But we managed to make a deal with a pickup truck (matatu) driver to take us to a nearby town with everyone else, but continue to Bwindi with just us for a smallish fee.

The matatu drivers are like the cab drivers in that they will pack more people and goods than you can imagine possible onto the back and everyone is made to wait until he’s satisfied. In this case we had several layers of bags of flour and cement which made for comfortable seating at least. Bags and jerry cans were strapped to the side of the truck and with 7 people hanging over the edge on each side, 5 or so at the back, 4 standing up at the front and a wobbling conga line of 5 men in the centre we set off.

Being this close to your fellow travelers you tend to build up some rapport, especially when you’re effectively saving the life of your neighbours by hanging on to them at every corner :) As we got close to the end of the line the crowds thinned out a little, the bottle of banana wine got passed around and everyone was laughing at the man who no matter where he sat or stood for the whole journey ended up sitting on someone’s toes (usually Dave’s). While my job for the journey was to try and keep the cheeky young drivers assistant from bothering the sweet young girl next to me by resting his head on her lap at every opportunity. At one point we had to push the truck up a hill which was also quite bonding. It was a long dusty, bumpy journey but we had a great time.

The forest in Bwindi managed to survive the ice age which wiped out most of Africa’s other rainforest so it’s Old, dense and the vegetation is very diverse. One of the reasons to see gorillas here is that you have a chance to push into the jungle on your way to find them. Dave and I had to settle for a rather more tame 3 hour’s waterfall walk but we still had a flavour of the terrain. Little shards of light can penetrate the canopy and light up the moss covered vines and tangles of ferns and monkeys and bird call from the super tall trees. It’s an atmospheric place for sure.

The last time we were pushing through forest I think I must have been brushed by a plant which left me with a painful blistering purple rash on my neck. At the time I wasn’t really sure what it was and wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious like a spider bite (shudder). Fortunately there was a district hospital within walking distance so I made the trip the next day and was seen by a young English lady doctor who gave me some cream and then we chatted abut the Rwenzori mountains. There are only four doctors serving 60,000 people in five districts which sounds like a phenomenal effort. The most amazing thing is that the hospital was founded by one doctor who raised some funds to build the first clinic and ward and has slowly been built on over the years and now they have a midwifery ward, 2 surgical theatres, a men’s, a women’s and a children’s ward. But still only four doctors. Even so it was a calm and organized place. Even not so nice things like rashes can throw you into some interesting places. (by the way, it’s cleared up now – thank you lady doctor)

Posted by rachndave 02:52 Archived in Uganda Tagged forests Comments (1)

A dome from home

Rachel - Lake Bunyoni

After all that hiking up and down steep hills our muscles were sore and our knees were creaking so we headed to Lake Bunyoni for some R&R (and clothes washing). We were told about a place (hi Dean and Layni!) on one of the islands in the middle of the lake which had open fronted “geodomes” (domed structure made of wood beams and covered outside with grass thatch) that looked out onto the lake which sounded ideal. And because we’d be back down at a lower altitude we might have a chance to warm up a little too – Lots of Uganda is at high altitude so it’s actually pretty chilly here. The domes were cool little structures and we woke up with birds fluttering round in our room (where else could you birdwatch from bed) and an uninterrupted view of the dawn.

The scenery around the lake is beautiful with small but steep rounded, tree covered hills all around. We arrived and immediately went for a swim and it’s probably the nicest surrounding view for a swim I’ve ever experienced. Dave went for a walk round the island (and met some children who caught them some fresh crayfish which is abundant in the lake) but I stayed back to stare some more at the water and catch up with my notes for this blog but ended up instead chatting to two visiting Israeli doctors who were working in Uganda. It sounds like a tough job and quite frustrating to put it mildly.

There were quite a few people staying in the same place which was also a lovely change because we’d been starved of company for a few days, so we played games into the night. The food at this place was delicious and interesting (crayfish stuffed artichokes, pizza with actual cheese, goulash and burrito wraps) so much so that we decided to stay an extra day and so made a plan to take out the canoes the next day with some new friends.

Our plan was to paddle out to another one of the other little islands called “Punishment Island”, so called because unmarried pregnant girls would be taken there by their discraced family and left to die (were there no convents in Africa?). Unless they were lucky enough to be rescued by a man looking for a wife and who couldn’t otherwise afford the bride prices. What a fate eh? We passed some really cool dead trees, one which was covered with large menacing looking birds which against the background of gathering storm clouds looked awesome, but unfortunately we had been warned of rain so we hadn’t brought out the camera. Lucky we didn’t really because it absolutely threw it down on the journey back – it felt a bit hairy out in the middle of a passing storm in a little canoe but as soon as we sighted shore the sun came out to congratulate us for making it.

That night was another real treat because they had a little cinema screen and hundreds of films to choose from so we randomly selected African Queen, grabbed some blankets and wine and settled down in the snug. I really miss films actually, especially when you want to do something but you’re too tired to go out. I’m writing this on boxing day and all of us here could do with a nice James Bond or something…instead we’re boozing again.

Anyway, I think we could happily have stayed another day here but now our muscles were rested we heard the call of the INPENATRABLE FOREST which was too hard to resist.

Posted by rachndave 02:48 Archived in Uganda Tagged lodging Comments (0)

Q. How do you fit eleven people in a Ford Escort

Rachel - Ugandan Border

The Tanzania/Uganda border in the south is a small hut by the side of the dirt road with a very friendly man inside. I think it would have been possible to walk straight across because noone checked our passports when we walked round the simple road barrier.

After the usual border rituals of changing money, dodging a very persistent tout and finding out about transport we decided to take a shared taxi to the next town rather than wait for an hour for the bus. Shared taxis here, as in the other countries we’ve been, leave when they’re full and the car already contained one young man so we thought we’d be off pretty soon – we only needed one more person after all. But we sat waiting for about an hour while they crammed person after person, and their luggage, into every nook and cranny of this averagely sized car. To answer the question raised in the title of this entry you fit eleven people in a car by squeezing seven people in the back sitting on each other’s knees, and four side by side in the front with the driver driving at an angle. We thought this was perhaps because we were in at a border but this is actually the norm in Uganda although we haven’t beaten eleven people yet – the average is about eight passengers. I now try to make sure I sit in the front of taxis because there’s usually two or three people in the front but you get a little bit more air.

All the action in Uganda is focused in the south eastern corner so we left the cab in a buzzy shopping town of Masaka. We had read in the guide book that during the rainy season the place is inundated with grasshoppers which the locals catch and eat. The rainy season was over so we thought we’d miss this treat but by the side of the street people were selling de-legged-and-winged grasshoppers by the bucket load. Not knowing whether they were cooked or not we left them be but luckily in the bus station there was a lady frying them and so we managed to taste a few. They’re crunchy and kind of sweet – not bad at all. I was a bit put off because I didn’t realize they were cooked while still alive - they’re sold in the street without wings and legs because they don’t want them to get away but actually they’re still alive and the lady selling them in the station had a fresh batch so she chucked them into the hot oil with legs and all and they were jumping around in the pan…..eesh. :(

We’d been traveling non stop for over 24 hours now: first the ferry, then a taxi, a minibus, taxi, minibus, sitting on the back of a motorcycle taxi and finally the coach. Not a bad set. Long day, but we forced ourselves out for a beer and a game of pool with some Swedes we’d met on the coach to finish the day with something pleasant. Pooped.

Posted by rachndave 02:46 Archived in Uganda Tagged food transportation Comments (0)

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