DAY 45 SUNDAY 22nd JANUARY 2017. JINJA, UGANDA
A somewhat irritable day today. It happens sometimes. I became (unusually on my travels) thoroughly curmudgeonly! What caused it? Filth – sheer bloody filth… I went to the ‘source of the Nile’, the world’s longest river, and what did I see? Plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, blowing paper, cigarette packets, cans and general decrepitude, all below signs telling me that littering carries a 10,000 Shilling fine. Huh! Sometimes the squalidness of Africa, so much of it so thoughtless, just gets to me. “Oh, the Government should do something about it!” agreed one man to whom I gave my lecture. “But the government doesn’t throw the rubbish around! People do!” I protested – completely uselessly. Of course, I’ve heard the same in Askwith when I lived there: “Yes, it’s disgusting! The Council should do something about it!” and watched my neighbours getting into their cars, stepping over rubbish outside their own houses. “But I didn’t put it there!” No, but it’d take you only a moment to pick it up and bin it… It’s just offensive visual pollution.
Several times today I have had to insist that I wanted TAP water, not a one-use plastic bottle. The water from the tap here is fine – as it is throughout most of the world, yet we dispose of billions of plastic bottles every year, most of them straight into the environment around us, and a lot into the oceans, the food chain, the soil. But the greedy Coca Cola Corporation cares not a jot, only for its profits, whatever the cost (and those profits set to increase now the appalling Trump is in office). For I often read the water bottles and even here in Africa the majority of ‘local spring water’, ‘healthy water from the glaciers of so and so’, the ‘natural waters of the such and such region’, the ‘head waters of another river’ and all the other spurious ways you can describe water that is no better than that from the municipal tap, are distributed – in very small print – by the noxious Coca Cola Corporation… It’s the ultimate marketing triumph, is bottled water – selling a natural liquid that comes for free, is treated at tax-payers’ expense and made potable just about everywhere in the world, sold at profit margins in the 1000s of percent to people who can’t afford it, for the sake of mega-rich shareholders in USA? It’s brilliant, in its twisted, cynical way. Certainly the biggest marketing con of the last century. Often, even the water they bottle has already been treated at local taxpayers’ expense, too! I am still using the water bottle I bought on day one of this trip. I fill it from the tap every morning… Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh! I despair of the capitalist ethic and the way we are so easily duped by shameful corporate business.
Sorry… It just gets to me sometimes. I admit that frequently the thought uppermost in my mind as I travel is, thank god I can come and look – and go far far far away, back to the relative calm of my privileged life.
So the Source of the Nile was not a big success! A disheartening experience shuffling through plastic detritus… Apart from the filth, there’s nothing to see. The Rippon Falls, named by Speke in 1862 In honour of the President of the Royal Geographical Society, replacing the perfectly good local names of Omugga Kiyira with customary Victorian arrogance, that tumbled the water out of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, were blown up in 1947 to make way for a dam downstream! There is nothing now but a bit of turbulent water and a lot of tawdry signs and the corporate yellow and red paint of Nile Breweries, sponsors of the grubby non-event of an attraction. The other local sight, a handful of kilometres downstream, the Bujagali Falls were similarly blown up just a few years ago, for another dam. There’s bugger all left to see at Jinja, the ‘source of the Nile’: only polluted water and rubbish!
The town of Jinja, though, is relatively attractive for an African town. Main Street at least has pavements and orderly shops beneath arcaded walkways that dissipate the heat a bit. The pavements are just about contiguous and level, rare on this continent and on Sunday the town was relaxed and quiet. There’s a very large Asian influence – in the architecture and in the business of the town. Ejected during the Idi Amin years, the East African Asians returned in the late 80s and reclaimed their pretty successful business ventures. Always the traders, they recouped their positions quite quickly. Main Street has the feel of the subcontinent, the dates on the Indian-influenced frontages from the 1920s through the mid-century. Happily, I found quite a good Asian meal for my supper tonight. (A sort of cashew korma). I also found a good coffee shop, unusual around here, in these countries that grow fine coffee and drink rubbish! I wandered quiet Main Street and slowly recovered my equilibrium from the dispiriting experiences of the morning.
There is, fortunately, still one sight to be seen in the young headwaters of the world’s longest river. There is Itanga Falls, twenty miles or so downriver in the countryside north of town. I bounced and blustered along very dusty tracks through scattered mud and zinc villages in the steamy heat of the afternoon and found a clean(-ish) site overseen by the Parks Service. “I hope this place is clean!” I demanded irritably as I paid my expensive $15 entry fee. Well, it wasn’t bad. A number of afternoon visitors, almost all of them Asians, took endless selfies and a wedding couple posed for a thousand pictures for their official photographer, the groom in a magenta floral waistcoat and black suit, his bride, the size of a barge, in acres of spangly netting and flounces. It was a nice domestic scene that brought a smile (finally) to my face. Nearby, boda-boda riders (the derelict Chinese taxi motorbikes) washed their decrepit machines in eddies of the great Nile. Behind them all thundered the river, all white spume as it cascaded between rocky islands and thick rainforest greenery. Rain clouds in the west – they’ve been gathering each afternoon, bringing high humidity but as yet not the shower that everyone someday soon expects – made a dramatic sky backdrop, for the frothing white river, the wedding album and the obsessive selfies. Thank goodness my day ended on a sight of the river in its majesty after all.
It takes three months for the water – and no doubt a million plastic bottles – to reach the Mediterranean from here. In four thousand miles the river will drop by 1133 metres through South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. The last time I saw the mighty Nile was in 1972 at Luxor – before cynical corporations invented bottled water!
Further to my depressing musings on overpopulation of the other night, I found some statistics – and they do nothing to lighten my forebodings.
Uganda now has a population of over 38 million (remember, it was 9.5 million in 1969) and arguably the fastest growth rate in the world. It has the youngest population in the world, with no less than 49% of the population under 14 years old! Forty nine percent! That’s far worse than even I speculated! 78% of Ugandans are less than 30 years old. The average life expectancy is a mere 58. Only TWO PERCENT of the population is over 65! The average number of children born to each woman is even worse than I recorded: SIX children. AVERAGE!
Is there hope? I don’t think so…
39% of the country is Catholic (THAT won’t help…), 32% Anglican, 11% Pentecostal, and 14% Moslem. The other five percent aren’t mentioned, but professing to non-belief here is not really an option. This is a VERY conservative society which probably considers atheism in much the same way it looks on homosexuality, still a severe crime. Human rights don’t count for much in Uganda, a country in which individualism is not much tolerated. TV today was dominated by endless sermonising and church services. Everything is accompanied by TV of course; it blinks and blares in every hotel reception, bar and gathering place – and is usually switched on for my ‘entertainment’ in dining rooms, drinking spots and the like. I saw a good quote in the newspaper today – from some American multi-millionaire: ‘Rich people have small TVs and big libraries. Poor people have small libraries and big TVs’…
Well, I liked the quote! Maybe it accorded with my cantankerous mood.
One good outcome of the day is that the new spark plug I bought, such things being virtually unavailable in Kenya, starts the bike in the morning. I was struggling to start the machine. Tomorrow I hope to find a new rear tyre. Jinja is Uganda’s second city and I was going to wait until Kampala but I fear my mood might suffer when I hit such a big city! I realise that cities are not my favoured places now. See how contented I was in those villages with William and Alex?
DAY 46 MONDAY 23rd JANUARY 2017. BWEBAJJA, UGANDA
I’ve seen traffic. I’ve seen bad driving standards. Now I have been to Kampala! NOTHING touches Kampala for the two. The main road that crosses Uganda, passing through Jinja and Kampala is perhaps the most dangerous I have ever witnessed on my African travels. Thankfully, I am an experienced biker, trained in the fast traffic of Europe and pretty much aware of what’s around me at all times. Riding here is NOT relaxing! Oddly, in the city it is far more fun than on the main roads, where matatus and buses compete at speed and private vehicles race by a whisker away from my mirror. In the city I can just drive like an African – only better because of my training – ignoring every rule of the road and weaving about like all the other bikes. It’s quite exhilarating to be able to break every rule in the book!
Jinja, I have decided this evening, was a pleasant, relatively sleepy town; a town that felt like a real town, with old infrastructure unusual in Africa. Main Street really is almost charming with its arcaded shops, calm traffic, central reservation and colourful shopfronts. Compared with the chaos of Kampala it was almost quaint. I was quite reluctant to draw myself away, partly because I justifiably feared the road west. I took my breakfast in the hotel, joined by Ruth, a Ugandan by birth who lives and works – as a lecturer – in Windhoek, Namibia and has a Ghanaian husband. Of course, we had quite a lot to chat about. Thanks to her I find myself in Bwebajja tonight, with a bungalow to myself at the Home Sweet Home Guest House, owned by another William, a retired chap whose family seems to have a number of small bungalows to let in a compound a hundred grateful yards from the road. Thank goodness I have not had to search for a place to sleep in the nearby capital, fifteen kilometres up the road. I’m on the road south to Entebbe on Lake Victoria and MAY consider a trip to Kampala on Wednesday. May… And then maybe by public transport! Rico warned me a day or two ago in an email: ‘The way you dislike Eldoret is not boding well for a pleasant trip to or even inside Kampala. All around Kampala traffic is horrible and inside it is not much better. I can only advise you to go around Kampala on the north eastern route, unless your Suzuki has amphibious ambitions of course.’ Once again, he was right…
Parts of that road were quite scenic, if I could take my eyes off the crazy traffic antics. I passed over the dam top that wiped out the only real sight that Jinja had – the falls out of Lake Victoria – and headed west through tea and sugar cane country, rolling hills and dusty wayside towns and villages. A stretch of forest represented the place I had thought I might investigate tonight, but I was so phased by the terrible madness of speeding vehicles that I missed the Mariba Forest Reserve entrance. And the nearer to Kampala I got, the worse it all got!
In the morning, over a good latte – the only good coffee I have found in these two countries that grow the stuff – and this in a Dutch-owned cafe in Main Street, Jinja – I spotted a somewhat larger Japanese bike parked nearby and searched out the owner to ask where I could find a new rear tyre, having failed all over Jinja. “Ask at City Tyres as you enter Kampala,” he advised. Fortunately, City Tyres was big enough to spot in the bedlam and a somewhat bemused manager (of a smart business selling car tyres, not motorcycle tyres), Robert, turned up trumps to direct me through the centre of the mad city to the area that deals with motorbikes. I even managed to find it eventually! So now I have a new tyre – and not a Chinese one, which I could have had time and time again. Very little of any worth comes out of their manufacturing and I was insistent that I wanted an ‘original’ (which, in this case meant Korean). It cost £58 and another £4.50 to have Ben and Nicholas fit it for me in a filthy, oil-dribbled roadside shack in the motorbike streets. I feel more confident to have that extra rubber under me. I may go back on my way out and investigate shock absorbers, since the one fitted is getting spongier by the day. An expensive bike, for so few cubes…
Shamelessly, as always, I bargained my bungalow down from £23 down to £16! It comes naturally now. “Oh, what a pity, my budget’s only 65,000 to 70,000 per night. You see, I am travelling for four months (slight exaggeration doesn’t do any harm!) so I have to keep to a budget… Do you know anywhere else..?” William’s a decent bloke and I did feel a very small twinge of guilt (very small!), but I know he’d rather have a room let at 70,000/- than empty for nothing. I did agree to stay three nights, which won’t be any hardship in such a comfortable retreat. I want to spend a day at Entebbe on the lake shore and perhaps I’ll risk a day in the capital. I must say, everyone with whom I have dealings is very friendly and helpful. It makes even the strain of the traffic conditions better and of course asking for help or directions is so easy in a land where almost everyone speaks English as their second language. I like Uganda. Pity about the driving.
I’m tired from the short ride. Only 50 miles between Jinja and Kampala. It felt like a couple of hundred.
DAY 47 TUESDAY 24th JANUARY 2017. BWEBAJJA, UGANDA
Entebbe will always be infamous for the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane in June 1976 by German and Israeli terrorists. Non-Israeli hostages were released and the hijackers demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel, while holding hostages in the plane on the tarmac at this inconsequential airport. Idi Amin, the fat dictator who made Uganda so unfortunately famous, set about trying to negotiate his own solution but, considering he had already expelled Israeli advisers and was known to be sympathetic to the Arab causes, and had his own motives, he wasn’t a likely negotiator. Independently Israeli paratroopers, helped by Germany and Kenya, took the situation into their own hands and landed their own plane at Entebbe and drove out of it in a presidential Mercedes! It was a masterful attack. The hijackers thought the Merc held Idi Amin, returning from negotiations and were taken by complete surprise. All the hijackers were shot dead and all hostages released, except one unfortunate German woman who disappeared, having been taken to the local hospital earlier, probably killed in retaliation for Idi Amin’s utter humiliation. It’s now the stuff of legend and Hollywood and we all know Entebbe, a remote African international airport for no other reason.
The airport sits at the end of the road south from Kampala, about 20 miles distant, on a promontory into Lake Victoria, itself as large as an inland sea. At the neck of the promontory is the pleasantly green town of Entebbe, once a colonial capital, so peppered with the customary whitewashed and red clay tiled colonial buildings. Now it’s a bustling Ugandan town and a resort on the lake’s edge; a place of big hotels and sunny beach bars beneath palms and tropical trees. It’s just a slither north of the Equator, a handful of miles. A pleasant enough place to ride about for an hour before repairing to the botanical gardens and then one of those beach bars, cooled by a gentle breeze off the water.
One thing British colonials gave to the world was botanical gardens! I’ve seen so many now, always relaxingly calm retreats for a hot afternoon. This one is well kept but there’re no explanations or identifying signs, but it’s a rambling area of established hardwoods and Equatorial forest, with a shoreline that lifts it above others. The season’s very dry now so the paths are dusty like the rest of the country. There are some spectacularly huge birds, hideous storks, eagles and big, sleek herons. Uganda is said to have one of Africa’s most diverse bird species occupations, with over 1000 species. Most, I enjoyed watching troops of monkeys, habituated to humans, playing in the lower branches of the trees, swinging and leaping on one another with glee and delight. To say I could see the smiles on their faces WOULD be anthropomorphic, but their joy was manifest. I could stand and watch them from just a few feet away, throwing themselves on and off bendy boughs and grooming one another. Very entertaining. Empty plastic bottles and plastic refuse gave the usual Ugandan background colour of course.
It was a relaxing day of little moment. I ate at a lakeside bar in the late afternoon, preventing the need to ride out from the guest house at night. I have a headlight that is of no use whatsoever as it points up in the air thanks to the bracket we made for it in Kitale, and anyway, riding these roads in daytime is dangerous enough, without venturing out in the dark. I am not enjoying riding in Uganda; it makes Kenya look disciplined and safe by comparison and I shall be glad to get away from the proximity of the big cities hereabouts in a couple of days. It’s not the matatus. Reckless though they undoubtedly are, at least they drive in a somewhat predictably dangerous way. It’s the drivers of private vehicles, and the bigger and more expensive the car, the worse the risks they take and dangers they cause in their arrogance and bullying tactics, especially to motorbikes… No, I like Uganda, but I won’t return here on two wheels; it’s just unpleasantly stressful and I have no faith in anyone’s ability behind the wheel. The worst drivers that I witnessed in 96 countries of the world. By far. Not fun at all. Not in these urban areas.
DAY 48 WEDNESDAY 25th JANUARY 2017. BWEBAJJA, UGANDA
My expensive little bike just got more expensive (creeping up to £2500 – for a ten year old 200cc with 73,000kms!!!) – but I have determined that whatever it takes, I will get the most out of my journey. And peace of mind helps a lot, as one of the world’s worst mechanics! So today I managed to search out a second hand shock absorber – of indeterminate age but significantly stronger than that on the bike, and invested in a new front tyre. I can’t leave these things until later as I know that Kampala is the only source of motorbike parts this side of expensive Nairobi. Finding the shocker took some time and meant some fairly big surgery to extract the old one so that a young man could take it away to look for its replacement. Meanwhile, Tony Timothy and I waited in a filthy workshop in which stood some of the only ‘proper’ motorcycles I have seen in East Africa so far, giving me a little confidence that Tony Timothy just might know what he was doing. His and my only problem seemed to be the propensity for any number of amateur mechanics to get involved and start undoing sundry nuts and leaving them scattered in odd places about the workshop and lodged around the bike. Tony Timothy did seem a little better organised and I kept a beady eye on what was going on. About two and a half hours later, I had to convey one of the fellows on my pillion to an ATM. There was no way I was going to be allowed to ride away on my own! I paid £70 for the second hand shocker and paid Tony Timothy (he really did introduce himself that way!) a fiver for his time.
Then I rode off into the crazy traffic. As I intimated before, riding in town is actually quite exhilarating if you can ride confidently – and even though I complain about the tinny little bike having no power, it HAS got more than almost all the 100cc and 125cc Chinese bikes! At least in town all traffic has to slow down just through the density of vehicles, pedestrians, carts, boda-bodas, bicycles, holes, piles of crap, abandoned cars, matatus stopped everywhere across the roads, broken gratings, and various obstacles! It’s quite fun to weave in and out, use the opposite carriageway on occasions, drive over pavements and traffic islands, down the hard shoulders, ignore traffic lights and policemen, cut between parked cars, weave round buses, scurry between market stalls and traders and be as anarchic about the regulations as everyone else! It brings out all the rebelliousness and independence in me! And as a European trained biker, I am well equipped with my observation techniques. I’m glad I ventured right into the crazy, mad, congested city centre: it broke down some of my fear. Mind you, I will still be extremely wary on the main roads, although William, the guest house owner, tells me that my road to the west will be much quieter than the main East African highway that I was forced to embrace to get here.
There is a complex system of kingdoms and chieftaincies in Uganda. Amongst the most influential of these is the Buganda Kingdom, centred around Kampala and the central part of the country. There’s still a king, King Ronald, who holds sway over about a quarter of the population – around ten million these days – and through the 54 clans of the kingdom. There’s a a Buganda parliament, although it has no executive power now (although having the control of a quarter of the people must give it some persuasive influence). The parliament meets in a large building at the opposite end of the ‘Royal Mile’ – an acknowledged nod to Edinburgh – to the Royal Palace, both of them on hills facing each other along a formal avenue, with its 54 trees of the clans. I was able to visit both sights, the palace and the parliament, the latter based on designs from Dublin, where one of the kings was exiled during various African political upheavals. Frankly, there wasn’t much to see, although my two guides tried to enhance the importance of it all. The palace isn’t where King Ronald lives any more and it was closed for renovation. The grounds – 65 acres of downtown Kampala, are scabby grazing lands for the king’s clan, and some mean housing and shred-draped washing lines had to be negotiated as we walked in the heat of the day. We visited Idi Amin’s torture chambers, built underground by Israeli contractors and in which approximately 25,000 Ugandans were murdered by electrocution, starvation and suffocation. “Don’t you want to take photos?” asked my young guide, whose name escaped me. It wasn’t anything I wanted to remember, frankly.
Half way down and up the Royal Mile, measured, I was assured, from the throne dais in parliament to the other one in the palace, I stopped for tea, gasping in the heat and dust. I have become hooked on the East African ‘mixed tea’ with spices, a most refreshing drink, the milk and tea boiled up together and spiced with cinnamon and ginger. “Make me a jug!” I demanded. “I’m THIRSTY!”
Then it was to the Buganda parliament, again not much to look at, built in 1954 and a bit worn round the edges, externally based on Dublinesque lines, internally on Westminster with it’s opposing benches and Speaker’s chair. But this parliament only discusses traditional matters, social issues and cultural concerns. It has no real power in the country.
Then I took the leap and plunged into Kampala proper! I have seldom seen so much massed humanity in one city. And I have travelled in a lot of African capitals now… A city built, or at least planned, as capital for a population of about 10,000,000 Ugandans, as there were in the whole country at the end of the sixties, it’s now the capital of a country four times more populous – and most of them seem to be in hectic, noisy, colourful, slightly decrepit, seething Kampala. Already work is short, people hit by poverty and the drought conditions that most of Africa has been suffering these last few years, probably caused by global warming and overpopulation. What of the future in this ballooning country..? I parked up at random – everyone parks at random in Kampala – and wandered for a while. I was well received and felt no tension whatsoever, but I DID begin to feel increasingly hot. It’s been a warm day, probably a bit over 30 degrees, I guess and the clamour and closeness of the city streets exacerbated the discomfort. I decided I had seen enough of Kampala. For life.
My last mechanical chore was to get Ben and Nicholas to fit a new front tyre for me to join the rear tyre they fitted on Monday, purchased back in the motorbike part of town, fortuitously on my way back towards Bwebajja on the Entebbe road south towards the lake. I wasn’t sorry to ride the final fifteen kilometres ‘home’.
On my journeys I eat to live. Today’s a case in point, a very strange diet. Two nights ago all I could get was an unremarkable pizza, not a food I enjoy (unless from the Church House Inn, Harberton!). Of course, it was FAR too big; they always are. Usually I wouldn’t consider taking the leftovers away with me for I can think of little I want less to eat than yesterday’s pizza… Happily, I asked for the uneaten half to be wrapped and brought it back to the fridge in this bungalow. I ate cold veggie pizza for breakfast, an egg sandwich for lunch and microwaved pizza for supper, with half a fresh large pineapple (pretty much straight from the field at 58 pence), a chunk of Pat Mills’ Christmas cake (steaming away in my black saddlebags for the past weeks for emergencies!) and washed down by two pints of beer. A balanced diet..? Well, you can’t say I don’t know how to live! And it did mean I didn’t have to ride out again, weary and tired from heat, people, traffic and city stress.
I can say I have visited Kampala. But once is enough… Bed at 9.00pm again. On my way west tomorrow.
DAY 49 THURSDAY 26th JANUARY 2017. FORT PORTAL, UGANDA
The tinny little bike certainly rides better with the new shocker and tyres. Just as well, as I rode no less than 300 kilometres (190 miles) and survived several more attempts on my life. I was so happy to quit the environs of Kampala. The first forty miles of my journey were ghastly, but things improved as the traffic thinned and the capital fell behind. Then I had only the killer long distance buses and the criminally insane private drivers to watch for. I honestly doubt that I can consider going back that way.
My backside is still sore three hours after dismounting and after a couple of beers! It’s an uncomfortable bike – but it got me across Uganda today.
Ruth Abankwah, whom I met in Jinja at breakfast and who recommended William’s guest house to me, was back at that same guest house last night, leaving the country from Entebbe tomorrow. We met on my terrace this morning. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet some day in Windhoek, Namibia. I was on my way there last February when the fifty degree Celsius heat finally beat me. Astonished that I can even ride from Jinja to Kampala, how amazed everyone is when I tell them that I rode from the other side of Kampala today. The concept of riding from Cape Town to Lokkichogio in the far north of Kenya, as I once did, is just beyond comprehension. When I tell people I am on my way to Rwanda they are speechless with wonder! Seems quite natural to me…
Getting out of Kampala was at once cathartic and horrible. The first miles were just constant, endless traffic in hot sun. Crazy, chaotic, undisciplined, seething traffic. With me negotiating a way through it all, intent on getting it all behind me. Just as well I have that legendary stubborn streak. I needed it this morning. I suppose it was forty or fifty miles before I could relax a bit – and even consider breakfast, which I took in a hotel in Mitayna, the first provincial town, where the traffic finally thinned, leaving me on a relatively empty road through large rolling hills, cultivated everywhere with banana, desiccated maize and subsistence crops. Seldom was I out of sight of scrappy villages and small dry, dusty towns for more than a few minutes. This is a vastly populated country, with most of the ballooning population living in a sort of mud-brick and zinc sprawl along every road, however mean.
I’d meant to stay in Mubende, the only large town between Kampala and Fort Portal, but there was nothing whatsoever arresting or attractive about the place and it was not yet two in the afternoon, so I pressed on, the stubbornness a great attribute for the second hundred miles, shifting from cheek to cheek for bum relief. At last, perhaps forty miles before Fort Portal, the road began to become much more scenic, curling into big hills and eventually into forest, always rising gently towards the western mountains. Here on the west side of Uganda are some of Africa’s highest ranges; beyond them countless miles of Congo jungle and rainforest, all the way to the Atlantic. Mount Stanley, somewhere not too far from here, is Africa’s third peak (Kilimanjaro, Kenya, Stanley and Elgon – all of them not so far from here, but I think I am right that the next one is in my wonderful, much-missed, exceptional Lesotho).
Clouds rolled in and tempered the extreme heat of the Equatorial sun, making my ride surprisingly comfortable without that searchlight blast from almost vertically overhead. I rode on. In the final miles to Fort Portal, I passed through fine scenery with thick, preserved forests and satisfyingly tidy, carpeted tea estates clothing the mountains.
Fort Portal spread-eagles over slopes and hills, the Rwenzori Mountains, as a distant western backdrop. By now I was tired, but still had to face the trial of every day – finding a suitable place to sleep. But the bike is a great help in this, for I can tour the streets, ride about town, assess the options and then begin to negotiate with the most likely places. It’s all part of the joys and pains of my travels… I tried a couple of quite dingy places a little away from the town centre and finally settled on a three storey hotel in the heart of town. I have a decent enough room (by my not too discerning standards!) on the first floor, overlooking the town. I’ve an ensuite with warm water (when the lad on the reception remembers to switch it on – just as well a cold shower was refreshing and anyway I doubt I could have cared by then!). The cost of all this is less than twelve quid, with breakfast. There’s a bar on the top, overlooking the street, with old country music playing – ‘Darlin’, save the laaast dance for me…’ – and a restaurant down below. My bike’s in the car park, moved, I notice, to a quiet corner, but there’ll be a guard on the gate and now I’m waiting for my dinner: orange chicken with cinnamon..! It was a combination I’d never considered. (Not bad… Not memorable… On the whole, probably not to be repeated…). Lovely staff, though. Daphne, who served my supper, seems quite excited that I will be here again tomorrow! How nice it is to be able to please people just by being smiling and friendly. It really IS the advantage of older age travelling! An ‘old man’, as I am doubtless perceived by most in a country in which only an average of 2% make it to my age, riding a motorbike across the land is a matter of indulgent head shaking. As a ‘pensioneer’ (Africa-speak) can get away with so much with a smile; much more than I ever could as a youth! Haha.
A tiring day, but now I will relax for a few days as there’s plenty of fine scenery and natural attractions to keep me entertained.
DAY 50 FRIDAY 27th JANUARY 2017. FORT PORTAL, UGANDA
THAT’S better! You may have read between the lines of the last few days that I have been a bit dull and unenthusiastic. Today the smile’s back on my face. Quite simply: give me some mountains, a rural area and friendly people and all’s right with the world again. Just seeing those mountains on the horizon as I rode westwards yesterday lifted my spirits. For several hours I rode into, around and then over them and now I am happy once more.
Fifty-odd miles took me through several climatic zones and vegetations. Here, near the Equator, this is dependent on altitude. Fort Portal sits at 1580 metres (5100 feet) amongst mixed conifers and deciduous woodlands. A few tens of miles north I dropped into the Rift Valley again, at 683 metres (2220 feet), and here the vegetation turned to bush country, dry dusty landscapes dotted with mango trees and acacias. Ten miles further on and I had climbed back to about 950 metres (3000 feet above sea level) and I was in tropical, Equatorial forest, abundant, thick and densely green. The road was excellent, sweeping around the contours and dropping into the great valley. The road is quite new and hasn’t deteriorated into customary African conditions yet. It now circles the end of the range of steep mountains and curls back into the next parallel valley on its way to the border with DRC – the Democratic Republic of Congo – a gross misnomer if there ever was one. I rode to the border post, gazed over at the Congo as I chatted to a policeman, probably the closest I will get to that wild, lawless, embattled land.
Beside me the mountain slopes rose dramatically beneath the hot Equatorial sky. On the other side the land dropped away into an apparently endless lowland of thick forest that stretched as far as the eye could see into the remote mists of the extreme distance. Thick forest crowded the roadside where it was preserved by the state; disfigured by local agriculture and mud brick dwellings everywhere else. At least the Uganda National Roads Authority everywhere keeps a wide boundary at the roadside, at least five to ten metres on either side, so no private projects impinge too closely. It did seem odd that the majority of the firewood collection takes place, evidenced by large piles of branch bundles at roadside villages, in the bushland areas where wood is most scarce.
Uganda ends at Lamia Bridge, a place of little note beyond the main small local town of Bundibugyo. At the police post I turned about and headed back to investigate the National Park and the Batwa Community. The latter, which, perhaps fortuitously, I failed to find, is a village of the indigenous pigmy people, known to us all, but now largely displaced from their traditional lands by the imposition of national parks, wildlife preservation and tourism. I admit I’d have liked to see some pigmy people but I always feel very uncomfortable at these faked-up tourist sites, where as soon as you arrive, the people begin a meaningless ‘traditional’ dance in your favour, clamour for sales of ‘cultural’ souvenirs and create a sense of unpleasant voyeurism. On the whole, I was content that I missed the turn to their ‘cultural village’. Of course, for them, it’s probably the only way their culture can survive, but maybe this ersatz touristic culture is best lost anyway?
It was hot and increasingly humid by the time I stopped to investigate the small national park. Most of it is across the border in Congo, but on this side are a series of hot pools and springs and it’s possible to take walks in the tropical forest with a ranger guide. Well, it would be if you are stupid enough to part with the scandalous fee for a foreigner of US$65! Fifty three pounds Sterling to look at some hot springs and wander the forest paths for a couple of hours? This government exploitation of tourists will eventually kill the golden goose (I frankly hope!). “Huh!” I exclaimed, “I’ve seen the world’s best hot springs for nothing in Iceland anyway. And if you went to Iceland, you’d be charged the same as the Icelanders! Anyway, I’d rather spend my time talking to you people than looking at animals or hot water!”
“Maybe we should charge you for our conversation!” suggested one of the rangers, in jest. “Yes,” I agreed, “and I’ll charge you for the information about the Icelandic hot springs!” At least in Uganda I can joke with the people.
Just to the south of here, in the corner of Uganda and Rwanda is the largest remaining population of mountain gorillas. You can book to go on a trek to see them, only six people per group and limited groups per day. The charge for this is now an astronomical $600 (£490)!!! You get a maximum of an hour with any gorilla group you find (and, cynically, I wonder if they are by now chipped so their whereabouts are known on GPS?) – and you can’t even ask the gorilla how it feels about being ‘habituated’ to humans and visited daily, not unlike in a zoo it seems to me. Well, each to their own, I suppose, but I really WOULD rather chat to Simon, the waiter at this hotel, a charming lad who’s studying engineering in Kampala and earning his keep here in the holidays, than visit a gorilla. Oh well, it’ll keep my costs down!
On the pictorial map I bought yesterday of Fort Portal area, I spotted ‘the old road’ over the mountains – the Buranga Pass – from the national park entrance back to the road on the other side of the mountain range. Here, on the most wonderful, scenic and beautiful curling, corkscrewing, serpentine, earth and grass road, I got my forest experience for nothing except a bit of muscular energy and pain in my now not well covered bum, with the bones poking out as usual. How I enjoyed that ten mile ride! The views down to the incredible, extensive forested plains below were terrific. The forest enclosed the winding track on both sides. The grass had grown back over what must have been – in a derelict matutu especially, a terrifying trip. The track was wide enough most of the way for one vehicle with dramatic plunging drops to the side and trees draped in vines hanging out over the trail. This road was, I realised as I wound my way up into the mountain fastness, undoubtedly hacked from the mountain by hand. Tracks like this make my travels worthwhile. It was SO satisfying. For the first ten kilometres I met no one, then I came across a group of men armed with machetes and one with a fine seven foot spear like a real African hunter, the effect somewhat spoiled for this romantic tourist, by a Uganda football tee shirt and a pair of torn and filthy jeans. Later I met two fellows loading a small Chinese motorbike with two vast sacks of produce that they were probably going to ride – the two of them on top – down the frightening, twisting, curling track. It rather humbled my imagination of the intrepid nature of my own ride! At the top of the pass I met a boda-boda rider on his tiny Chinese bike, three up, and decided that what I was doing wasn’t in the least adventurous after all! But I DID enjoy that ride, one of the best I have had in days.
I’m sitting on the hotel balcony with a beer as I write. The sun’s just about gone now at 7.30. It’s not the quietest hotel to have chosen, but it IS friendly and inexpensive. My room is acceptable (with ear plugs) even if I have to have cold showers. “Oh, use the right tap, the one with the blue spot! (Cold, to you and me),” said the lad on reception when I asked if I could get some warm water today. Later, I told him I had taken another stone cold shower (not so difficult in this warmth). “Oh, we will fix it! The engineer is working on it! (Like hell!). Tomorrow we bring hot water!” At that moment a woman brought a gallon container of hot water she had heated for me. I had cold showered fifteen minutes before. But, you know, in Africa, it’s the thought that counts and I really was grateful for that! How kind. The water heater is defunct, so you go away and heat water on a gas stove – or it could be, even in this working hotel, on charcoal – for your mzungu customer! You have to smile. Well, I do.
And that’s the best thing that happened today: my smile came back.
Sitting here on the balcony overlooking the street, I have become aware that everyone, but everyone, switches off their engine to freewheel down the hill past the hotel to the roundabout at the town centre – small motorbikes, three and four up, cars, lorries… All of them out of control; no engine braking; accidents awaiting to happen – as they do in this country. The driving is absolutely APPALLING! I’ve been watching for the last couple of hours. I admit I’m not good at parking my car (almost 40 years’ reliance on motorbikes) but even I can do better than anyone I have seen here. And as for observation, road safety, courtesy, machine control…
Now I have to go down to the ‘restaurant’ and see if Daphne is as excited to serve me again as she intimated!
DAY 51 SATURDAY 28th JANUARY 2017. FORT PORTAL, UGANDA
It’s something of a shock to witness rain – and it’s gone COLD with it! Oh well, at least the bike got washed out in the hotel car park. I’m wearing my long trousers, jersey and fleece jerkin. I am at 5100 feet, I suppose, and it will lay the dust a bit. I just hope the sun comes back in the morning.
There was thick cloud cover when I looked out soon after eight, wondering why the room wasn’t full of sunlight. Soon after there was a shower. I waited for the sun, for it’s never long in returning in Africa. By 10.30 the cool air was drying and I set off, back a few kilometres along the Kampala road to the area in which tea carpets the hills in glorious green profusion. I’d intended to visit one of the estates until I discovered that the fleece-the-foreigner habit even extends to the mzungu-owned tea estates. It’s really not worth £25 to look at tea drying, something I have seen before anyway. I regret this policy of extortion in these countries. It makes a bad impression for visitors – a three hour walk in the nearby national forest would have cost me almost £60! Locals pay something over a fiver. For £60 I can stay five nights in this hotel.
I rode off without asking – or paying – around some of the tea estate tracks between the gloriously green tea bushes, low-lying and cropped regularly for the top, brilliantly green leaves, which makes for such a regular, orderly scene. Red dust lanes curl between the expansive verdant fields that cloak the gentle hills. Here and there graceful trees have been left to flourish amongst the green-flocked slopes, providing dappled shade. It’s one of the most beautiful crops to see and I remember with the greatest pleasure my days, half a lifetime ago, sitting on the steps of the wooden trains in the highlands of Sri Lanka, one of the finest landscapes I ever saw, trundling along at not much above walking pace, twisting and rumbling between the beauty of the vast tea estates, pickers in brilliant, vivid, floating saris tossing the new green leaves into baskets on their backs.
Returning to town, I pulled into the local botanical gardens and enjoyed a delightful walk with Andrew, informed and entrepreneurial. ‘Breakfast with Birds’ is a clever initiative he brought to the gardens for bird watchers, for bird life is diverse and spectacular in these parts of Africa. Astonishingly, considering the wild profusion, these gardens are only fifteen years old. Given sufficient water – the sunlight is unquestionable less than a degree from the Equator – plants and trees thrive. There are about 90 acres of the gardens, right on the edge of the town centre, used as a research station, medicinal plant supplier, nursery and recreational space. There’s even a tree house for bird watching mounted high in a mature giant fig tree.
It struck me today that over the past few weeks I have seen tens of thousands of small bodo-bodas, the smelly 100 and 150cc Chinese motorbike taxis that have infested this continent. There is seldom, at any time or place, not one in view, usually dozens. They are Africa’s new pack animals and individual small time business. Vastly overloaded, they puff and struggle, the rider sitting on the front of the tank with anything up to four passengers behind, women often side-saddle, or huge loads of sacks, crates, firewood, baulks of timber, festoons of jerry cans, doors, bed frames, fence posts, other motorbikes, bicycles, dangling flocks of live chickens, trussed goats and sheep, tables, chairs, suitcases, milk churns, oxygen bottles, boxes, bags, wheels, fabric bolts, piles of men’s suits, car parts, whole families – and anything else your imagination can conjure. The most extreme loads I have seen, apart from ten foot timbers reaching five feet each side of the bike, have been a double two foot six high pile of fresh eggs in cardboard trays (how many reached their destination?) and a four foot square mirror in a wooden frame, held across the bike behind the driver – on quite a breezy day – by the passenger staring at his own reflection and the receding road behind.
What really made me think of the small motorbikes though, is that of the tens of thousands I have seen in over seven weeks I have seen not one – NOT ONE – ridden by a woman…
Daphne, the waitress, back tonight, having, she tells me, washed clothes all day (an arduous activity done by hand) is disappointed in me tonight I think! Asking me whether I was going to church tomorrow, I told her I was a non-believer. Well, sometimes you have to open people’s minds to new concepts! She stopped in her tracks, stunned by my revelation – the first person she ever met who doesn’t believe and wont be going to church. Or maybe just the first one who told her so… Religion is so powerful in Africa – generally unthinking and indoctrinated from the earliest years thanks to educational institutions being largely religion based. But I bet my ‘Christian’ principles are probably wider, more accepting and compassionate than most in her church. Uganda is particularly conservative in its attitudes. As I wrote the other night, atheism and devil worship probably occupy the same parts of most Ugandans’ opinions, along with homosexuality and women priests! Not an enlightened, free thinking country. (Rather like Trump’s New America. Hitler and Judaism come to mind today with news coming out of that country. But enough of that depressing subject.)
The Rwenzori Travellers’ Inn isn’t the quietest place to stay, right on the main street through town. But it’s cheap and the staff cheerful. The electricity has been off all day and the next building, in a yard below my first floor room, has had a thundering generator roaring so it could play the English football games to its patrons. Football – the biggest export of my country. Football unites all Africans, perhaps the only thing that does. The constant first question I am asked is, “Which team do you support?”
I fear I am sometimes a gross disappointment to my African acquaintances, no kids, no football, no god..!