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Archive for the ‘Uganda’ Category

The last couple of posts were about some of our experiences in Western and Southwestern Uganda. After the Gorillas Tracking in Mgahinga it was time to leave Uganda.  Because of our positive hitching experience in Murchison Falls and some hellrides in taxis and Matatus through Uganda and because Kisoro did not have much to offer, I didn’t want to let a good opportunity for a safe ride pass us by.  As we headed to the cars at the end of our Tracking experience I got right to the point and asked the German couple if they would give us a ride. U- and I- were leaving immediately for Kigale Rwanda.  T- was a little surprised because I didn’t even check it with her first.  She agreed right away.

We rushed to pack up our bags and tell our hotel we were leaving since we had planned to stay the night after seeing the Gorillas.  The owner let us pick the amount we thought would be fair for the late checkout, and we paid a third of the rate – 10,000 USh.

We crossed the border at Cyanika instead of the larger crossing at Katuna/Gatuna.  We had some hassle at the border because the Rwandan functionary insisted that Italians needed to apply ahead of time for a Visa to enter Rwanda.  Everything we read beforehand said we could both get Visas on arrival.  I had taken some Shillings out before we left Kisoro and that was a good thing.  We had to pay 60 USD for T- to get a Visa.  I had to change the Shillings because in Rwanda, as in Uganda, no US bills dated before 2001 are accepted anywhere.

Once we got on the road in Rwanda the difference was immediately noticeable.  The roads were better and we were driving on the right hand side of the street.  The car was setup for Uganda with the steering wheel on the right hand side of the car, but our driver did not show any signs of discomfort.

It took about three hours to get to Kigale.  We stopped on the road just outside of Kigale and took photos.  Just after entering the city, T- and I jumped out because we realized that U- and I- were going to a very expensive hotel.  We backtracked to the Okipa Hotel which had WiFi.  It did not work well but we were just dying to have Internet since it had been a week since we had checked email.

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Uganda Round-up

One reason Uganda is very memorable is because there is so much to see: Lake Victoria; the beginning of the Nile River; almost all of the “big five” game (missing rhinos); Gorillas; the western rift valley. For us it was our introduction to the African continent. For me that means we were met some nice people with a different approach to life.  For example, any verbal exchange begins with, “Hello, how are you?” And, unless you’re in a really big hurry or a clueless Muzungu, you wait to hear the answer, nod at a big smile, and usually are asked in return, “how are you?” Then and only then do you start with your request.

Other tips for Uganda:

  • If you are going to bring US Dollars make sure they are recent.  When we were there the bills had to be from 2001 or more recent.  Nobody will take older bills because the banks won’t take them.
  • If you are going to order the chicken at Ozzie’s Cafe in Jinja you need to be prepared to pluck it yourself.
  • If you see people running for shelter, motorcycles parked on the sidewalk also under shelter and the sky is grey, get inside because lots of rain is about to fall.
  • Even on the worst days when you’re in a room/tent so tiny you want to scratch your eyes out, smile because you’re in Africa, the birthplace of humanity.
  • Talk to people so they don’t have a crappy impression of “Europeans.” Even explaining the decorations on a cheesy tourist pen can be interesting conversation.
  • Don’t worry about your goofy tourist hat, the locals wear funny hats too.
  • Try it: chapati, honey and mashed up avocado.  Who knew.
  • I can assure you that hot, bubbling, lumpy, banana beer is in fact disgusting.

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We enjoyed 3 days and 2 nights at Lake Bunyonyi. It was fun and it was active and it was 2 days with no shower. The Lake was formed when a volcanic eruption blocked the exit of the valley.

On our second day, we visited Bwama island, where, in 1931, Dr Leonard Sharp, an English missionary, started a leprosy hospital. With time, Dr Sharp engaged in the construction of a church. Now in the old hospital there is a primary and a secondary boarding school. The religion that Dr. Sharp brought met with a lot of resistance and some support when it started.  It was mainly supported by the disadvantaged groups.

From Bwama island, we could see a tiny island mainly swamp where a single coconut tree lives. This island is called Bakiga and it is still known as “punishment island.” There unmarried pregnant women were left to die of starvation or drought while trying to swim back to mainland. For a while, the girl’s only hope was that a man too poor to afford a bride would paddle there and pick her up and marry her or keep her as a servant. Swimming skills are not widespread in Africa up to nowadays and one of the activities of volunteers in the region is swimming classes.

After the hospital was installed, Dr Sharp would ask people to keep an eye on the island, so if a girl was left, at night they would go there to rescue her. The girls were provided with boarding and some education and were trained to help at the hospital. Many would become nurses. There are stories of family members that were brought to the hospital later and found themselves in bed under care of a sister, daughter or niece that they left at the island. The practice was then abandoned but it is said that some of these survivors are still around.

Dr Sharp would also keep his ears open for other stories of punishment in the forest and when a site was identified, he would work to get a small church built at the site.

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During our canoe trek, we heard some folk tales, some true stories of the region and some that fall in the probably true but exaggerated category. Some I will try to remember and write-up here. The one below, I read in “The Invisible Weevil” and I thought of it during our trek.

On the second day of the canoe trek, we walked about 20 kilometers, up and down hills. The landscape was really nice. The region is known as the Nepal of Africa and one of the most beautiful lakes in Africa. Up to that point we had paddled our canoe among the 29 islands in Lake Bunyonyi. Then we started the trek that would lead to some nice views of extinct volcanoes and to our home stay. There was not much wildlife on our way, but indeed a lot of small birds that are the reason the lake was named “Place of many little birds”.

Our first stop on the hike was to visit a small group from the Batwa tribe, also known as Pygmies (although the term is not considered polite). There was some uneasiness to the encounter as the situation was rather “artificial.” It was not as if the encounter just naturally happened.  Instead, they left their settlement to meet us on a small road that led to Rwanda.

The Batwas are in a rough spot. They were among the first inhabitants of the Lake Region in Africa. But their subsistence was mainly due to hunting and as the National Parks started to be created, the Batwas were displaced from the Parks and kept from hunting. Now, they are suffering cultural changes, prejudice and poverty. Tourism can be a way out, but as it is, it does have a “human safari” feeling to it that made us very uncomfortable.

After some awkward silence, they gathered to sing and dance. The performance was short, but nice. I was glad to have seen them, but wished the circumstances were different.

After that, we went uphill. As I panted my way up, we passed barefoot women with baskets on their heads and babies on their back going up and down without sweating. And so we gathered a large number of underage followers. At first they would scream, “Hello,” and then what would become a mantra, “Give me money”. We gave none. I’ll justify myself later. They still followed us around for hours.

At some point we met a small group of kids and a 12 year-old carrying her baby sister. The baby panicked when she got too close to me and the older kids would tease her by pushing her closer to me. She looked scared and fascinated at the same time and then we learned two things:

1. Older kids tell their younger siblings that white people (Muzungus) will kidnap them;

2. Adults tell the kids not to tease, rob or provoke Muzungus because, we travel armed. As if that was what we have in our backpacks: cameras and guns.

Which is why this post is named as it is. The story in the “Invisible Weevil” goes like this.  When the first Muzungu (white person/explorer) was spotted near a village in the west of Uganda, a teenage girl saw him and ran back to the village in shock and told everyone that she saw a man without skin. Nobody believed her, but a couple of days later a boy come back from the river saying that he saw the man. The tribe gathered together and went to site of the spotting, at first they saw nothing and then later they all panicked and screamed and ran when they all saw the man without skin and he smiled.

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When we were there, more than half of the world’s gorilla population were around the Virunga Volcanoes. The other half were in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which, as the name suggests, is very tough trekking. Bwindi has a beautiful landscape and very old forest dating to before the last Ice Age. But to track gorillas at Bwindi you need to book in advance, be prepared for hard climbing and not very good views due to dense vegetation. The “not good views” is subjective. The view may be fine but the photos may not be.

The Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in the Virunga Preserve was the place for us because they don’t take advance reservations.  Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is Uganda’s smallest National Park just at the tri-border of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The park encompasses three volcanoes: Mount Muhavura “the guide” (4127m), Mount Mgahinga “small piles of stone” (3474m) and Mount Sabyinyo “old’s man’s teeth” (3669m), all part of the Albertine Rift Valley.

We were lucky that the rain took a break and we got a nice day for tracking. We got a special hire to take us to the park and back.  We were briefed in the surprisingly cold morning along with two couples also tracking that day; one couple from Germany and the other from UK. The UK couple worked in the tourism industry, one for STA and the other in luxury travel.  The guy from STA gave us the thumbs up on our travel style.

When we were there, there was just one group of habituated gorillas at Mgahinga – the Nyakagyezi. The group had 2 silverbacks, 3 adult females, 4 juveniles and 2 babies. They were mobile and often crossed the borders. Tracking them could take from 3 to 8 hours. Our walk was short (1hr or less) and we got to walk through farms, bush land recovery form old crops and then mountain woodland. If the gorillas had been higher up then we would hiked through the bamboo zone and then the Ericaceous zone, ending at alpine zone at over 3,000m high.

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Our first sign that we were getting close was the fresh poop on the trail. Soon, our guide started to make noises and grunts and from far we could hear the reply from the silverbacks. Because they were habituated, the gorillas were not aggressive with us, though they can still be aggressive sometimes.  A mother and her baby were up in the trees when we arrived.  The mom was very gassy.  We soon learned that they have no bowel control whatsoever.  It is one reason that each gorilla, after a certain age, builds its own sleeping shelter every night.  We watched as a young male nearby tore down trees while laying on his back like he was just lazily pulling the plate closer. Many of the other gorillas were already full and were just napping.  The mother and baby came down to the ground and sat three meters from us and gave us and inspection.  The silverbacks, the current or previous dominant males of the group kept their distance from us so we didn’t see them well.

We did not spot other mammals such as elephants, leopards or buffaloes, although we had an armed ranger with us in case of an encounter with a buffalo.  The vegetation kept us from taking lots of photos of the panoramic views. After the tracking we hitched a ride to Rwanda with the German couple.

To get a glimpse of what the experience is like watch: Gorillas at the Mist.

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Kabale to Kisoro

We left for Kisoro the same afternoon that we returned from the canoe trek. We wanted a bus but there were none at that time of day. Mbabazi offered to help us get a taxi or hire a car. We should have let him help us but we were stubborn. We walked all the way from the Home of Edirisa to the bus stop, with our bags on our backs, and then back to the taxi park right next to the Home of Edirisa. So we were irritable, hot, and tired by the time we found a taxi going to Kisoro – a Toyota Corolla. Our bags went in the trunk and we got in the back seat with two women. I had the window and was T- next to me. There were the usual three people in the front as well as the driver.

Happily, we took off quickly for Kisoro. Unhappily, we realized quickly that one of the women in the back seat with us – the woman at the other window – had some sort of terrible sickness that caused her to vomit and spit up every few minutes. Thais and I covered our mouths and noses thinking it may help us not to breath in any germs in the air.

I was not happy but was resigned to our mistake. T- was less accepting. We had the driver stop and insisted to be dropped off. He wouldn’t open the trunk to give us our bags. We said we wouldn’t pay. Eventually he put us in the front seat and had two others move to the back. Things didn’t get too much better though.

While our instincts told us to cover our noses and mouths, the Africans used a different strategy. Every one in the back seat spit every few seconds. I for one felt very awkward covering my face. The people we passed by on the road could only assume that we were racist snobs and were turning our noses up because we didn’t like being so near to Africans. They had no way to know that we were only scared of catching some unknown but very real virus. The people we passed generally berated us with the former interpretation.

Needless to say it was a stressful ride to Kisoro. The sick woman was the first to get out and she immediately lay out on the ground. We got out soon after and began the usual search for a decent place to stay.

The next order of business was to go to the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park office in town and reserve places for the next day to go Gorilla tracking.

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We spent a couple of days in Kabale trying to use the Internet and thinking about what we wanted to do next. The plan we settled on was to go on a Canoe Trek around Lake Bunyonyi and then move on to Kisoro and try to see some gorillas.

The canoe trek was great because of the guide (Mbabazi – I have to write his whole name because it is so cool) and because of the wonderful scenery. The canoes we paddled around in were the dugout trunks of eucalyptus trees. One of the days consisted of a good long hike. Well, long by our standards; 20 km. Now, we’ve been putting up some really long blog posts lately. We took a lot of photos during the trek, so here they are.

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