DAY 52 SUNDAY 29th JANUARY 2017. FORT PORTAL, UGANDA
Today dawned rather late, thanks to ear plugs against the Saturday night rowdiness, and the dull, gloomy, drizzly morning. But I notice with some hope that tonight the stars are clear again and hope for African light again tomorrow.
It’s been one of those serendipitous days. The dull weather and some bike housekeeping – topping up the oil, adjusting and oiling the chain, made me start late and I made a 50 mile tour through the nearby crater lake district but the grey light makes Africa look scruffy and unkempt, small villages ugly and derelict, dust roads just greasy and dull, the thick vegetation dismal and dark. Funny how the sun makes SO much difference here, especially so close to the Equator where the searchlight beams make for attractive chiaroscuro and pleasing scenes that often make me overlook the basic griminess of it all!
It was a ride on mainly gravel roads through very hilly country peppered with small rude villages. Here and there were the small lakes, surrounded by thick trees, sharply below the road, obviously the result of volcanic upheaval. The earth was surprisingly black and grey in contrast to Africa’s mainly orangey red soils. But in the villages I was welcomed ecstatically by legions of small shouting and waving children who chased my motorbike.
After a disappointing view of the natural scenic delights of the crater lakes I found myself back on the tar road, fifty kilometres south of Fort Portal, with chill drizzle setting in. I scurried for home, now dressed in my jersey, jacket and waterproof jacket against the cool. By the time I reached the hotel, I was thoroughly chilled and in need of hot tea at least.
As I drank my tea, still cold in my bones, Simon thoughtfully brought a charcoal pot stove and set it by my chair. A large middle aged lady nearby suggested that I should eat some soup, which seemed a very attractive idea! I didn’t realise at that point that Robinah is actually the hotel owner, a capable, charming woman who eventually joined me and shared the veritable bucket of noodle soup with bacon and Chinese cabbage that the kitchen prepared. A strong, characterful face and a confident manner soon marked out Robinah as in command around here! We chatted comfortably for an hour and watched as a band of cultural dancers and singers set up at the end of the terrace where we sat, by now toasted by the stove and filled with pints of soup. There is, Robinah said, a performance every Sunday evening at her hotel by this local troupe and I’d be welcome to join in, as are any guests.
What a jolly evening it turned out to be. So cheerful that at the end even I was persuaded to join the troupe for their last extended dancing routine! Goodness! There were twelve of them and they changed costumes regularly through the evening as they danced different ethnic styles and played African drums and a couple of large home made sort of harps plucked by the thumbs. The girls sang and ululated and the rhythmical music just went on and on at a tremendous rate; the dancers athletic and energetic, bums shaking like you’ve never seen with attached colourful pompoms, and ankle shakers clacking and vibrating, and smiles that just made the evening shine! You couldn’t but be happy with such absolute joy manifest in the performances as the colours swirled and the costumes flashed, the drums beat furious tattoos and the harps plucked their fast, boisterous, tuneful tintinnabulation! The white smiles gleamed; limbs gyrated; noise pulsed. It was terrific and irresistible, a joyful outburst of sheer happiness for all the performers that communicated elation to us all for about four festive hours.
I overtook a boda-boda with a full size coffin strapped across the seat this afternoon – empty I assume… It had an odd little window in the side.
DAY 53 MONDAY 30th JANUARY 2017. BIGODI, UGANDA
Tonight finds me a mere 25 miles from Fort Portal. While there I picked up a leaflet publicising a community tourism project here at Bigodi that looked interesting. I really approve of such community ventures: the money I pay for their services goes directly back to the village, to support the secondary school, health centres, clean water supplies and help the needy. This project appears to be very successful and run without any corruption for the benefit of the people and of passing tourists interested in either the local community or the birds and wildlife in the wetland area below the village. It’s right on the border of the large national park (that would cost me at least £70 to visit) and my £9 fee bought me a fascinating three hours’ engagement with the locals.
It was gloomy and drizzly when I ate my breakfast in Fort Portal, raining as I packed the bike, wondering whether to cop out and stay and read a book all day, but only lightly spitting when I rode out of town. I knew, from a German dragon fly enthusiast I met the other day, that the road south that passes through the big national park, is newly tarred and very lightly used. Sounded a good way to go to me! The first six kilometres are still under construction; the red earth had turned to grease and ice-like conditions; trying to ride, but after that the new tar road sweeps through the hilly country of the crater lakes and then passes for a few miles through the national park with its dense growth and mature trees. Sometimes you can see wild animals on these stretches but all that I saw was the usual baboons and a couple of Colobus monkeys with their decorative black and white furry tails.
Just beyond the national park is Bigodi. The community ecotourism project is well managed and professional. Rogers, a handsome, trained local guide, introduced me to their project and offered the two tours: the wetlands or the community walk. Of course, I chose the meet the people walk!
Lawrence is a traditional healer, first stop on our tour. A tall man of 65, he wore the most wonderful hat! Made of traditional tree bark cloth, made as the name suggests from beaten bark, it flopped about; was tucked behind his left ear and suggested a hippy hat of the 60s. He also wore a long brown bark cloth gown to his ankles. He was tall and skinny and showed us into a mud and stick house of three or four rooms. We sat on curious local stools that looked hideously uncomfortable but were actually great: a round bowl-like top of curled bamboo on four crossed legs of branches.
It’s such an intriguing mixture of real practical science and crazy magic and belief. But of course, if you believe in something enough, it has a tendency to work! That’s now been proved in clinical trials: if you believe you are getting good treatment, you get better quicker. So why not, if you actually BELIEVE that some leaves thrown across the threshold will prevent a wife from running away, maybe she won’t? If you believe that throwing a coiled stick under the bed when you go away, if your wife cheats on you, she and her partner will end up coiled so tightly about one another that the magic will prevent them from loosing the bonds, well maybe it works? One thing I have learned in Africa is that even some rational, sensible beings here are afraid of the black magic arts that I know – equally vehemently – to be nonsense! So far as I am concerned, the established religions of the world have used this apparent willingness – and frequently, need, to believe in myths and magic. It’s a deep set human emotion, one that even if I don’t subscribe, I do respect.
However, in conjunction with this myth and magic, goes well tried ancient knowledge of medicinal plants, herbs and ointments. Lawrence had laid out his wares on the floor, a number of different plants and roots, along with the stuff of his superstition and magic: a chimpanzee skull, the skull of a rabid dog, various animal horns filled with feathers and other oddities. He has cures for the stomach, headache, skin rashes, snake bites and various claimed aphrodisiacs. Doubtless some of them work well. This knowledge is being lost so fast in much of the world. Look back even in our own culture how fast we lost the knowledge of herbal treatments, now being ‘rediscovered’ by the alternative medicine industry… Now a majority of Africans rush to the local pharmacy to purchase white man’s magic in the form of patented drugs – some of them made from the very same plants and herbs growing in their own fields – and send the profits back to Switzerland, USA and points north and west. The evil corporations of the world depend on devaluing these old remedies and allowing the skills to be forgotten and dismissed as old fashioned things from a past unenlightened era. Lawrence is passing them on to his son, as his father did to him. I wonder, though, how much of the magic will pass into the next generation, the one that watches CNN and terrible dubbed soaps from Latin America and pays unquestioning allegiance to the established, competitive western religions? But he’s doing some service if he passes on some of his ‘medical’ knowledge at least.
From Lawrence we went to visit Paul Kassenene, whose name means that he was born in the grasshopper season, usually November. Paul claimed to be 100, but it seemed likely he might be about 85, maybe a little more, still a venerable age here in Uganda where (I repeat myself because it’s such an astonishing statistic!) 2% of the population reaches the age of 65. He lives deep down a rural lane in a large compound that Rogers assured me was so big because Paul believes in order: a room for wood, a room for maize, a room for bananas and so on. Paul tells of the rituals of birth and death in the community, some of the habits that still survive into the 21st century. The ‘outdooring’ of babies – on the third day for a girl child and the fourth for a boy; of the three days that people will gather around your compound fire after the death of a female and the four days for a male (interestingly, the same habit in Ghana, most of the continent away). Most rural Ugandans are still buried at home, usually in areas below the houses. Very few, Paul and Rogers told me, are buried in cemeteries, even today. The majority of graves remain unmarked – partly because a cemented grave slab can make it difficult to change the ownership of land, whereas a local burial will be dug over and reused three months after the funeral; the burial site returning to the fields, which seems eminently sensible to me, who hates the waste of space given over to vast public cemeteries filled with forgotten people whose relatives care no more.
Lawrence in particular, was so fascinating that I reckon Rogers cut out the third visit to an old woman in the community. But by then I had appreciated the locality and the afternoon had become unpleasantly close and humid, the sun having emerged and made for a steam bath.
“So, what are my options for accommodation round here?” I asked one of the community guides as I had a couple of mugs of spiced tea in all the disturbing racket and smell of chain saws from behind the hut where four men cut accurate planks, by hand, from big trees. Now it was after 3.30 and I knew not what was on the road in front of me if I rode on. Maybe this should just be a short riding day?
It seemed that the choices were a community-run doss house without much comfort, some hotels at $100 plus, catering for the big national park trade, or a homestay just a hundred yards away. “Let me show you, and if you don’t like, I can show you another place!” suggested Gerard, another of the community guides, and he walked with me to the Tinka family house, a rather grand establishment on two stories with pillared balconies and adequate rooms. What decided for me, though, was the warm, cheerful welcome of Bridget, a daughter of the house, but obviously the one who caters for foreign guests. Immediately, she started to clean a room and make the bed. The bathroom is new and as yet uncommissioned, so I used the outdoor shower, an ingenious place with an oil drum of gravity fed water heated by charcoal on an upper level. There are decent pit latrines, in use until the new indoor plumbing is completed. For now I have a jerry can of water for the night in my en suite! It’s about £11.50 for the night, including dinner and breakfast and several cups of lemongrass tea. It appears to be a large family: there are lots of chirpy children everywhere, but Bridget is the face of the family and the one in charge.
I collect very little on my travels these days, except wooden spoons – which now seem to be no longer in use anywhere I travel. Only fifteen years ago I could find fine ethnic, handmade spoons all over the world. Now plastic and metal from China has replaced them all. My spoon collection will be a collection of antique artefacts! Also, I collect the toy vehicles made from scrap materials. In the community project craft shop I found just such a model, a clever pick up with charcoal sacks and people crafted with an obvious sense of humour. I was assured that this was locally made and the money I paid – about £12 – would go directly to the maker and provide school fees or other necessaries. I asked for the maker to be sent to the Tinka household if possible, and an hour later, a polite, quiet young man of 19, called John, arrived in the yard as I sat drinking lemongrass tea. He taught himself the skills, a creative young fellow. “Oh, I practiced for many years. I liked to make these models!” he told me as I took his photo and complimented him on his entrepreneurial skills. “Keep making them! You are creative. And just sometimes someone like me will come along and really like them!” So now I have to carry a bloody model of a pick up and riders…
Bridget is a remarkably smart and personable young woman, well suited to be the leading light in this homestay, which won an award for the best homestay in Uganda. The evening developed in a lovely manner. Supper was excellent, fully vegetarian and organic, from family gardens, even the pineapple. Then, after supper, Bridget said that there would now be a couple of stories, the first from her and the second from her junior 17 year old sister Fiona. Bridget’s story was a moral-filled tale, the ending being that you shouldn’t kill innocent animals. Fiona’s story, equally charming, I forget, but it was sweetly related. Then the small children of the family, all five of them, entertained me to traditional dancing! It was completely charming, from the little one, aged three, to Fiona at 17, sporting bum-tassles and the boys with leg shakers. It was beguiling and delightful, these gleeful children entertaining and learning to appreciate their own old culture. Later Bridget and I sat beside the charcoal brazier for warmth as the smaller children quietly crept away to bed.
This was such a lucky chance. Sometimes I am very privileged on my travels to meet with such good, kind and charming people. A good day.
DAY 54 TUESDAY 31st JANUARY 2017. KATWE, UGANDA
As often as I say I am not very interested in animals, there IS a real thrill when an old tusker just ambles onto the corrugated dust road 100 yards ahead and crosses unconcerned, as I fumbled to get my gloves off and failed to get a picture, except of an elephant backside disappearing into the roadside scrub! I am not immune to this excitement. For this happened a kilometre from where I am staying tonight at Katwe, a scruffy village on the shores of Lake Edward in the midst of the Queen Elizabeth National Park in south western Uganda. It appears that in Uganda I am allowed to ride in the national parks, unlike elsewhere in Africa, and entrance to this very big park is a more moderate £35 per day. I saw a lot of antelopes and some buffalo too as I rode on the public roads through the park. I might succumb to a bit of ‘game driving’ after all. Well, this IS Africa, and it’s what wazungu do.
The sun has returned and the day went along well. I awoke to the usual bloody cockerel cacophony a couple of times during an otherwise silent night and was abroad by eight with Bridget’s breakfast, an omelette rolled in a greasy chapati and lots of fruits from the gardens: jack fruit, passion fruit, baby bananas and papaya. The jack fruit is a vast spiny green thing, pendulous weights that hang from the trees bigger than rugby balls. It’s a pleasant taste but an unappealing slippery texture. Passion fruit looks awful, full of small black seeds in a gloopy mess of flesh that looks rather snot-like, but tastes terrific. Papaya, my host Tinka described as ‘soap for the stomach’, not a bad description of its odd texture. “Go back through the forest and take the crater lakes road, it’ll be much more interesting for you,” he suggested. He is involved in eco-tourism and seems to be a leading light in his area. He tells me he is travelling to Berlin in March to collect an award for the local community tourism projects. His advice was likely to be good. “If you travel south by this road, there’s nothing interesting or scenic for you.”
So I rode back through the five miles or so of the national forest with its ugly baboons grooming one another at the roadside and some colobus monkeys and turned onto a dust track that would bring me back through the pretty, convoluted landscape of the craters, onto the tracks I rode on Sunday, but today all looking more attractive with the sun shining. Stopping to photograph two of the little vaguely circular lakes below the road, I picked up an inch and a half nail in my rear tyre. My third puncture already. By good fortune, around the next dusty bend, a small village came in view and there’s almost always a tyre mender everywhere there are people, thanks to the millions of spluttering boda-bodas. Three quarters of an hour sufficed to mend the tyre, using my German patches and me supervising the struggling young mechanic. It’s great: they do the hard graft, I supply some tools and quality materials, and it costs a bit over a pound. It entertains the village too!
Soon I rode on, joining the tracks I rode on Sunday, back to the main north-south road on this side of the country. This time, instead of turning back towards Fort Portal, 25 miles to the north, I turned to the south and rode into expansive bush country with the Rwenzori Mountains hazed, as always, on the west, rising as a steep flank of rather barren slopes into the cloud that perpetually hangs about them.
‘Rwenzori Founders, Gallery and Coffee Shop’, said a sign, ‘1km’. Attracted by the concept of coffee, I turned off onto the dust road towards the mountains. And there I found the only decent cup of coffee I have enjoyed in Uganda, oh, except the Dutch lattes in Jinja. For a country that grows fine coffee, these people drink rubbish! I stopped again later, lulled by another ‘coffee shop’ sign – and paid MORE for bloody Nescafe served in a cafettiere! Unpleasant stuff peddled by one of the world’s nastiest corporations. The ‘founders’ weren’t, as I surmised, some original tourism venture, but founders as in foundry, for here they cast bronze artworks and sell them in a small, nicely designed gallery of bare wood posts and a roof made from attractively rusted reclaimed oil drums. Here I had GOOD coffee for a change! And delicious homemade biscuits, a luxury I haven’t had in weeks. What’s more, I had an hour of absolute peace and tranquility away from the constant pressures of Uganda’s roads and drivers.
I pressed on. After the small straggly town of Kasese, a regional centre, I soon entered the edges of the big national park with extensive savannah lands stretching to the east and Lake George appearing, a flat silver strip in the distance.
Crossing the Equator yet again – I’ve been in the northern hemisphere since before Christmas – I rolled on southwards across extensive plains dotted with trees and bush, handsome country beneath the high afternoon sun.
On a wide hill I found the National Park information centre, overlooking the inlets and bays of the lake below. A large elephant paddled in the lake far away, wandering into the water that still came only to its knees, hundreds of yards from the sandy shore. Here I spluttered at the Nescafe and found that I can ride in the park on my piki-piki. I bought a map, spotting that there are also some public roads that transit the park areas. Sometimes, you are about as likely to see animals from these roads.
It was getting to that time of day to find a place to sleep for the night. I decided on the small town of Katwe, off, it turned out, along a fourteen or fifteen mile stretch of the most awful corrugated dirt road, but a public highway, so free for me to ride. But I knew from the park office that there would be places to stay. After casting about briefly I found a ‘camp’ with wooden and bamboo, thatched huts that looked quite luxurious until I realised that there’s no running water, everything is a bit worn and ragged and ‘things’ live in the thatch, making quite a racket, but B&B is only fourteen quid (which I bet I could have bargained down if I’d known there was no running water!). Hippos groan in the night outside and sometimes wander through amongst the huts and there’s a killer rogue buffalo out there somewhere too! I know this from a very congenial companion tonight, Nima, an Iranian film student from Stockholm, where he’s spent most of his life. He’s here making a documentary about this forgotten community at the end of a rutted gravel road, clinging to life by any means possible, antagonised by the National Parks, a government body that would really like this village to disappear, and about the salt extraction that has existed here for centuries, a huge business that is little better than slavery and of which no one really knows the truth – where the money goes, who benefits, how it’s organised. We’ve sat over a couple of beers, Nima obviously happy for mzungu company in this end of the world place. On the whole, I think I’ll spend my morning investigating this community and hope to see some animals on my way. Animal spotting – game watching – from a motorbike’s not very easy on these rough park tracks, especially on my own.
It was good to have a beer in intelligent mzungu company tonight. The motorbike is, or can be, a lonely way to travel although it gives me limitless freedom. So many of my conversations are the same: where from, which football team, how many children, the condition of England, can we get a job there and make money, do I like Uganda, and so on and on…
I have realised that I have to return to civilisation tomorrow as I stupidly omitted to visit an ATM as I passed Kasese, the only town where I’d have got money. It seemed that I had plenty of money: a thick wadge of grubby notes, until I counted them and found most of them to be worth about 50p each. I have enough for tonight but not enough for a second night. Oh well, with the possibility of rain always about after the past couple of days, in my mind at least, I really don’t want to get stuck out here with fifteen horrible miles of that road back if it rains. And there’s an odd atmosphere about this place that makes me ever so slightly uncomfortable. I can’t put my finger on it: a sort of reserve and distance that’s been uncommon in friendly Uganda. Maybe it’s what Nima was hinting at, that these people are beleaguered in their own land, a poverty-stricken community existing on the fringes amongst government interference and the trappings of wealthy tourism, not that much of that comes out here; mostly it turns off a few miles back, pays its high fees and stays in luxury lodges in the government national park. I always find my instincts sharply honed on these journeys. My ‘atmosphere meter’ is swinging a bit here…
There’s a lot of activity in the thatch over my head. Vermin of some sort racing back and forth. I just got out from under the mosquito net and zipped closed my pannier bags! Otherwise, the night is totally silent, with just the deep moans of hippos reverberating from the bush around.
DAY 55 WEDNESDAY 1st FEBRUARY 2017. ISHAKA, UGANDA
No game driving in the end. I decided that riding the rough tracks was difficult enough without losing concentration, and the last place I really want to lose concentration is in a park full of wild animals! Riding back along that corrugated, rocky and sand-filled road from Katwe to the main road, I knew my decision was correct. With a passenger to do the spotting as I rode, it’d have been alright, but to take so much care on the roads would have meant seeing little anyway. I am always conscious (you’ll be glad to read!) that I am here in risky conditions: I’m riding a motorbike on bad roads, amongst bad traffic and even a small injury could bring disaster to my journey. If I’d gone looking for wild animals I would have been tense, for I know most of them don’t like the noise of motorbikes. I have seen the reaction when I ride near big game on public roads. This afternoon, I came upon a group of seven elephants drinking at the lake less than fifty yards from my pitted road. Of course, I was exhilarated, stopped to take a photo, and in that moment the huge ponderous matriarch of the group turned and raised her ears in warning, looking me in the eye and standing her ground, for she had young with her. It was a wonderful moment but I realised, these ARE wild animals, unpredictable, huge and fast! A few minutes later I spotted a large group of perhaps forty elephants watering on the lake shore a few hundred metres distant. Good, I’ve seen my animals!
Animals apart, I had a totally engrossing morning. Elephants may provide a momentary thrill, but people are SO fascinating! I went to Katwe Lake.
Katwe Lake is extraordinary. Nima had told me something of it last evening, for it is here that he is filming. But I had no idea that it would prove to have been worth the terrible ride on that degraded, corrugated road to see Katwe Lake – not for big game, the reason 99% of people might take that road, turning off into the park and thereby missing quite the most astonishing scene I have witnessed in this part of Africa.
It is said that they have been producing salt from the shallow Katwe Lake since the 13th century. Unlike most of the crater lakes hereabouts, it has three fresh springs feeding it but it evaporates quickly, here virtually on the Equator. It’s only about a metre and a half deep. Slabs of rock salt are mined from the centre and the shores are ringed by salt ponds with hundreds of people sloshing about in shallow black water between banks and muddy berms held up by bleached sticks and straw. It is an utterly medieval scene! I am so glad to have found it. The muddy berms meander far out into the lake, separating ponds owned by families, passed down through generations and providing an extraordinary living to many generations of local people. Sometimes one sees scenes that impress by their sheer singularity. This was one such sight; a scene I might have watched a hundred years ago, half a millennium ago, a thousand years ago – and it wouldn’t have changed, except in details of dress, the plastic bowls, some lengths of polythene sheeting and a background of small Chinese motorbikes coming and going on the dirt tracks around the perimeter of the lake. I could have been in any age. It was medieval industry in the new age. It was compelling, horrific and unforgettable – absolutely unique.
A salt pond, about 100 square metres, I would guess, is worth about five million Uganda shillings – £1200 or so, and passes down through families for generations. There’s a very complex system of responsibilities: families employ manual labourers who are paid next to nothing to wallow in the knee-deep ponds, their legs and arms covered in salt deposits; the agents are paid by the traders; traders by the transporters; transporters by the unseen, mysterious business men and so on up and down the ladders created by tradition and usage. A pond can return about a fifth of its value in a year during the two seasons: December to January and June to July.
But, my god, this is another occasion when I count my blessings! It happens often in Africa, the pure relief that I can come and look – and go away to my privileged life in which I am not destined to slop about in slimy black water mining rock salt from an ancient slurry pond in bare feet, my skin corroded and scoured by raw salt crystals, my world full of filth and discomfort.
The salt is loaded into lorries – again there’s a strict division of labour – and taken for industrial use, dying and the like, in surrounding countries and also as edible salt. The lake contains enough other minerals that the salt is relatively pure, already iodised when it is gathered. With Nima filming the operation, I watched an ancient lorry being filled with slabs of rock salt. They would load between 26 and 30 tons into that old truck, on the side of which was stencilled a wishful sign: ’12 Tons’! Everyone was universally friendly and welcoming and I was suffered to wander the muddy berms and chat and laugh with bespattered women as they floundered and wallowed in the filth; chat to the men on the further portion of the bizarre mud-scape where they stacked the slabs of lake-bottom rock salt on banks far out in the lake; to inspect the log floats that the mid-lake miners load with the slabs they prize up with iron bars from beneath their feet and witness this extraordinary scene in the sun baked hollow of an ancient crater lake that has seen generations of hard, filthy graft and suffering – that still continues in 2017.
Nima joined me on my pillion to ride round the lake shore to drink fresh water from one of the springs that issue from the hillside, so alien to the polluted, slimy filth that sits in the shallow lake nearby. Then we rode back to town to eat good tilapia and rice for a few shillings in a village cafe. I so much enjoyed Nima’s company and our conversations. He did too. I’m so happy that I can relate so directly and equally with people young enough to be my children (he’s 28). Travelling levels the field that way. Neither of us felt the generational difference, although my film school days were 40 years ago! His film school is actually run by the Swedish Red Cross, and the support he receives from his teachers is remarkable. His tutor has been here in Uganda several times to mentor Nima. A charming fellow; I gave him my card and do hope he gets in touch sometime as we had a great deal in common despite the more obvious outward differences.
It was 2.30 by the time I left, back onto the rough, degraded road across the national park. As I rode out of the village I watched numerous, sinister hippo eyes and noses float just a few yards into the lake, where village women did their washing. Then, as I passed, there were those seven huge pachyderms relishing the cool lake water. Concerned that I should avoid the rogue buffalo – one of Africa’s biggest killers – (of the animal variety) Nima admonished me, “If you see a buffalo, don’t stop to take a photograph! It killed a village elder just recently…”
Bouncing and vibrating, I made my way back over the uncomfortable miles to the tar road. I passed an ugly crater lake – there are many in this district. It obviously was a region of huge volcanic activity at some time. Below me from where the road passed the rim, I could see the recent tracks of many elephants in the salty rime of the shores. A group of buffaloes ruminated further away.
Then I was back on the tar road, lulled by its smoothness for the first three or four miles to the iron bridge that spans the Kazinga Channel that connects large Lake Albert with smaller Lake George, all part to the mighty Nile system. After the bridge the road became dire; so potholed that most of the traffic uses the dusty verges. Those potholes like craters foreshadowed the next twenty ghastly miles, weaving my way tediously around deep, sharp pits and fissures as the road threaded its way across hot plains and then wound upward into handsome mountains, dotted and pitted with deep green-lined craters, a few with small lakes filling their bottoms. Then, magnificently, came tea estates! Such a feast for the eyes, especially in Africa where the greens are usually so muted. Tea just radiates its luminous, sparkling green as it paints the smooth hills, punctuated by blots of shady trees, crossed by red dust or green swards of access tracks.
At last I reached Ishaka, an untidy town on hills, the trading centre for the region, and having finally found a bank that would pay out on my credit card, set about scouting for a place to stay. I tried a large many-balconied (but none of them seemed to relate to any of the rooms!) hotel with maze-like passageways, and gloomy as a Victorian tenement on a Dickensian night and then found a place on the edge of town set in minuscule gardens that weave and fit round the rooms. My room is small but spotless (the grot does get me down sometimes!), surrounded by flowering plants and shrubs that I must duck under to find my room. It seems busy with some conference but will do very well for the night. Last night was much disturbed by constant activity up in the roof thatch by unidentified life forms. There WAS an over-riding faint odour of bat guano but it sounded more like the patter of tiny verminous feet to me. An occasional shower of dust and debris fell onto my bed despite the mosquito net. It was also steamily, oppressively hot throughout the night so my sleep was poor as I imagined hippos surrounding my frail bamboo chalet and listened to smaller but none the less terrifying wild things racing about overhead. In the deep reaches of the night in the bush, the unknown is intimidating, even if it’s probably no wilder than a few small rats! I’m not really very intrepid at all!
I’ll reach the bottom left hand corner of Uganda tomorrow, deep in the mountain fastness and punctuated by scenic lakes. Inevitably known as the Switzerland of Africa, I am getting close to Rwanda now. It strikes me as so arrogant and western-centric that Switzerland isn’t called the Rwanda of Europe..!
DAY 56 THURSDAY 2nd FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
Oh dear, I suppose I can’t be ashamed of being shameless, but I really ought to be, having blagged my way into one of the better hotels in town yet again. I really don’t like the grot any more – if I can avoid it reasonably economically! I’m sitting with my beer in a very charming garden – lawns, mature trees, irises, lilies, poinsettias (trees, not pot plants in the tropics), even tennis courts – 150 feet above the highest town in Uganda with once again that feeling of the hill stations of the Raj. I could be in Darjeeling. In my wrinkled travel gear I contrast a bit with smartly dressed locals out for a posh drink.
A couple of hours ago I arrived in the town after a relaxed ride from Ishaka on new roads and in light traffic. I must have been slowly climbing for the past day, for Katwe, on Lake Albert, sits at 913 metres and Kabale at 2000. Now I am surrounded by mountains, densely terraced and cultivated and deeply green. Not far to the west are some of Africa’s highest mountains and its most active volcanoes. Beyond them Congo, just a few miles away, stretches far, far to the west. I am at the bottom corner of Uganda now, approaching Rwanda.
I awoke to steady rain, which always puts a downer on my day. I rather live for the sunshine and light. But a slowish start over breakfast and a long chat with Fred, the guest house guard, a cheerful man with deep smile lines and round glasses and an excellent British English accent, served to allow the rain shower to dry up and the clouds to lighten. It stayed chilly for a while though as I rode southwards into crumpled mountains of grassy slopes with dark eucalyptus in the hollows and gullies. The new road swept this way and that, carved through the hillsides, through various tatty villages of the customary ribbon development of ugly single storey concrete lock up shops emblazoned in the brash colours of competing mobile phone companies – the new livery of all Africa. There was mercifully little traffic and children waved at the passing mzungu. In these conditions I can relax my guard, such a relief in Ugandan traffic, and enjoy the scenery – and the ride.
Through the mountains I approached the main East Africa Highway again with some trepidation, that which passes through Jinja and Kampala and hammers on towards Rwanda, tankers bringing fuel from Mombasa and lorries hauling goods to the landlocked countries of the interior: Rwanda and Burundi. How surprised I was – and relieved – to find this stretch empty, wide and smooth as it gently climbed towards the distant mountains.
Thinking of elevenses – although it was probably lunchtime by then – I kept passing signs to a ‘museum and coffee shop’, both rarities here, so I pressed on, and nearing the top of the mountains and a wide pass, found a hideous ‘resort’ with great views but not much taste. They did have a coffee machine though! Not cafetieres of Nescafe this time, but real brewed Ugandan coffee. It was the museum that was so interesting, though, for there are few in Africa. Most of those that do exist were begun by colonials as Africans seldom look upon their traditions as worthy of record or preservation. So few Africans look back – or plan forward for that matter. Life in Africa is in the present, sometimes the cause of so much suffering as few plan for lean years… The past becomes largely irrelevant too, so to find a young man like Abias Kangume at the ‘Great Lakes Museum’ was intriguing. It’s a large, somewhat Soviet styled hall, empty but for a range of utilitarian but unimaginative glass-fronted cases and some worthy but ill-designed wall panels created by Abias himself. There were, of course, no visitors and I was the first to sign the visitors’ book for three days. Entry was a modest £1.20 and for that I was to get a guided tour by Abias. Intrigued on whose initiative this museum had been put together, it turned out that Abias was the self-appointed curator and collector and he had managed to find a wealthy enough sponsor in the hideous ‘resort’ to support the venture. It appeared that Abias was the sole collector of this slightly random collection of artefacts, from many local ethnic domestic items – pots, baskets, utensils, musical instruments, grain stores, implements and the like, to colonial era sewing machines and gramophones to some old mobile phones and cassette tape recorders. “For young children now, they don’t know these things! Just as we don’t know some of the old things!” It was a pragmatic approach to curating a museum that appealed to me. More strength to him in keeping his enthusiasm.
Riding on, over the top of the pass, I descended into Kabale, and seeing that the town spread up the green slopes, I knew that the first place to look for accommodation would be up on the wooded heights. It’s lovely up here on a sort of rounded plateau, with green lawns and tall, established trees, parted by quiet, parklike roads. And here are most of the mid to top end hotels and guest houses. I roved…
The White Horse Inn is one of the oldest in town, quite up-market, even if it’s a bit 1970s in its style. I rode into the car park, then realised it was not going to be within my budget and turned round to ride out. An elderly gate keeper looked at me questioningly so I paused beside him and joked, “Oh, I can see it’s too expensive for me!”
“But you haven’t asked!” he pointed out sensibly. “Maybe you can negotiate!”
“Maybe I can!” I laughed, and turned round again and stopped the bike.
David was on the reception desk, in a shiny, somewhat worn suit, but wearing a big welcoming smile. At this point I play all the charm cards! I asked the rates. “102 Shillings…” (£24 – actually surprising me as I had expected much more).
“Oh, what a shame! That’s a bit beyond my budget. I’m travelling for a long time, but you know, now I get older, I really don’t like the noisy grubby places, so I always come and ask in these nice places. I love your gardens!”
As soon as the receptionist asks my budget, I know I am in with a chance. “Seventy Shillings (just over £16)…”
“Let me consult my manager…”
And I was in! If I would add two thousand shillings (50p) for the local tax, I could have a pleasant room across the gardens, with bathroom and breakfast, for £16.75. “Well, we are a business!” said David, later introducing me to Sam, a smart, greying man, probably about my age, the General Manager, with whom David had negotiated my deal. I shook Sam warmly by the hand and expressed all my gratitude effusively with a lot of smiles! I’ll be remembered for the next few days that I stay here. Remembering names is so important in Africa.
Everything in Africa – and I suppose, in increasing amounts of the globe – is accompanied by irritating TV, playing in every bar, restaurant, cafe. Television in this quantity has to be of the lowest quality and intellectually vapid: cheap melodramatic foreign soaps dubbed expressionlessly into American; ‘reality’ (which, of course, isn’t); celebrity-worship; football; wall to wall ‘news’ (which isn’t either, being largely speculation and opinion) – or of course, in Africa, religion. How have we become so afraid of conversation – or even silence and thought?
The barman lit a fine log fire in the hearth in the bar. I am half a degree south of the Equator, but six and a half thousand feet above sea level. You know, I am so satisfied that for all those years I suffered the cheapest, most impecunious travels: eating once a day; no luxuries; the vilest, cheapest accommodations; the cheapest transport; the tightest budget. But I am infinitely more grateful that now I can sleep in a – relatively – smart, clean place with beer served by barmen in bow ties, and a restaurant next door! I can still do the grot when I have to, but I’m glad it’s so much less frequent!
Moving in to sit by the roaring fire, I was soon joined by seven delightful children, who had been enjoying the swings, seesaw and slides in the garden. They pressed into the other chairs around me and the fire and soon asked, very politely, if they could investigate my iPad. A very charming half hour followed as they looked at pictures and bits of film, quickly familiarising themselves with the technology, even though the youngest were aged about three, to the oldest who was probably about eight or nine. These were middle class children from Kampala; their father, Chris, joined us after a while. There’s an ingenuous artlessness about children here that is very attractive, polite and fresh.
DAY 57 FRIDAY 3rd FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
Rain has come early this year, but it is so much needed in drought-wracked Africa that I cannot resent it – I suppose. But I do miss the sun… In fact, I am sitting now on the hotel terrace enjoying the last of the sun for the day, for by about lunchtime the rain eased although it’s remained cloudy most of the day. I do hope this isn’t setting in for the next weeks. Of course, in these high mountains, I should expect some changeable weather.
So I didn’t do much today. I walked down the steep hill to the noisy, traffic-clogged town below and mailed home that hand crafted model of a pick up vehicle that I bought a few days ago. People in Uganda are so helpful and friendly that I just packed it on the counter of a stationery shop, aided by the shop keeper and her tape dispenser. A sheet of paper was all she wanted to sell me: 35 pence, the assistance and smiles came for free. At the post office the transaction was simplicity itself, just some stamps; no customs forms, no bureaucracy. Terrific! Well, it will be if it arrives in Harberton. The post worker seemed confident that it would.
A breakfast I met Onesimus and his wife Betty, and was invited to join them at their table. Educated, middle class Ugandans remind me strongly of the charming Zimbabweans I met on my journeys there. Well educated, aware, intellectual and very engaging. Onesimus tells me his name means ‘socially profitable’, and he is well named. He originates from here in Kabale and they are back to visit his grandparents. He and Betty now live in one of the scruffy towns I passed through on my ride here from Katwe, somewhere up the degraded, potholed road as it climbed the steep hills from the lake valley. He works to raise awareness and assist those infected with HIV/ Aids in that small town. He went there for three months but realised that his vocation and wish was to help less fortunate people, using his own intellect to better people in that impoverished town. It’s inspiring to hear these stories. So often the stories that come out of Africa are of corrupt politicians and those who use their knowledge and intellects for their own ends, but there are so many unsung people like Onesimus. We talked also of the fact that I explained yesterday: that so few look back – or, more importantly forward. Life in the present makes for no social or material progress.
Onesimus and Betty excused themselves to attend to his grandparents. “They asked, do you only want to come to our funerals and say you were sorry you never visited us while we were alive?” he joked, the wisdom of the old Africans appealing to his humour.
There’s a coffee shop at the bottom of the hill. One of those with a real coffee machine that I look for in this Nescafe stronghold. With the rain drizzling down I sat on their covered terrace beside the street watching the boda-bodas splashing along, bizarre specially made umbrellas raised from their handlebars! It only later occurred to me that for this mounting to work, the rider has the umbrella pole right in the centre of his vision of the road! It was only when I saw one furled, with the rider peering round the fabric that I noticed. Just as well they have such weak engines and can’t go fast. It’d be like a million Mary Poppins!
I fell into conversation with another coffee drinker, a dapper fellow who lived in Kingston for twenty years and was well informed about Brexit and Trumpian politics, as well as the problems of African presidents who never leave office once elected, and do anything, however evil or corrupt, to stay in place for their own benefit and that of their families. He told stories that convince one that to be in opposition in Africa is unhealthy; of a number of alternative leaders who just ‘disappeared’, even in relatively civilised Uganda. Most African leaders have so much blood on their hands, yet are never called to justice, or if they are, just brazen it out (Trump-style… He’d go far in Africa).
By late lunchtime the rain was easing and I threw my leg over the bike and set off to see some of the area, reckoning that I might as well, as this might be the best I get – and if the sun’s out tomorrow, I can just ride the roads again if they are worth it. I rode thirty miles or so towards the corner of Uganda and the town of Kisoro. The road was magnificent – and happily pretty empty. It clambered and wound about up into the high green mountains that are as heavily and closely cultivated as any I have seen, terraces and steeply angled small fields clawing their way to the ridges and summits high above, evidence of generation after generation of hard physical graft. Even today hundreds of people, many of them women, hefted long-handled hoes over their shoulders, hacking at the grey soil as have their forefathers – and foremothers – before them. This is subsistence living, eking out a near-poverty family economy by sheer hard work, supporting and feeding those average six children that these poor women bear. Is there hope in Africa..?
At the top of the pass I must have been up over eight thousand feet, gazing across huge vistas, all so heavily cultivated and terraced. But so much African scenic beauty is so disfigured by the activity and density of the population: ugly ribbon development, rusty zinc, dereliction, muck and brashness, all stained and faded by sun and rain. Far below was Lake Bunyoni, which later I rode down to visit. It’s become something of a tourist mecca and I found it unattractive with so much ‘adventure tourism’ available. I’m here to meet the people of the country, not fellow white people and not to paddle rented wooden canoes or go on boat rides. The shores of the lake were defaced with lodges, camp sites, activity signage, and touts. But I must say, the touts were not pushy and the people were universally friendly, waving children and smiling adults all reacting to my smiles as well as I rode some of the dirt roads up the steep slopes of the lake shore and the villages hidden far above.
Preparations are taking place out on the hotel lawns for a huge plush wedding, tents and gazebos being raised, acres of frippery fabric being pinned up and huge stacks of the inevitable plastic Chinese chairs that have dominated the world these past years. I hope my room is far enough from the wedding party – presumably tomorrow! Oh well, I’m here to watch and meet the people…