Ah, the Pearl of Africa. I'd paid a silly amount of money to get an extra ten days on my ticket home so I could see a bit of Uganda. There was only one thing I really wanted to do, but more than anything, I really wanted to see a little of this country I'd heard so many good things about. And in hindsight, it was totally worth it.
Uganda is an odd little country. In most people, it conjures up images of Idi Amin, gorillas and tropical diseases. I didn't experience any of them, fortunately. However, one thing I had heard about, and wanted to do, was the white water rafting in Jinja, at the mouth of Lake Victoria, which is one of the alleged sources of the Nile. Source or not, the pictures of th grade 5 rapids looked fabulously scary, so I got off the Nairobi- Kampala coach in Jinja and found myself, err, at a petrol station surrounded by fields. It didn't look much like a town. Actually, I've seen more happening cemeteries. In no time though, I was surrounded by boda-bodas- the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis which suddenly came out of nowhere and started buzzing around me like insects. Now, I've done seven of the world's ten highest bunjy jumps, cycled down the world's “most dangerous road”, rafted before doing the most dangerous river as well as the highest commercial drop, paraglided, hang glided and jumped out of an airplane at 15,000 ft. But the scariest thing I've ever done was this 3-minute boda-boda ride through Jinja to the hostel. Word of warning about Uganda- anyone who owns any form of transport there is without a doubt mad. Like mad mad.
Oh and I am scared of water. I've had a near-drowning experience, so I'm not so good with the whole being in fast-flowing, rocky water -thing. Although a fun day, I felt a bit scared at a few points, and not embarrassed of admitting it- in the first rapid, a little grade 2, our wise-arse guide tipped the boat over on purpose to show us what happens when we tip over- unfortunately, I got caught under the tip of the boat, and swallowed my body weight in bilharzia water. Oh well. But it did kind of put me on my guard for the rest of the trip. Which actually was fun. I might go again. It's like a rollercoaster ride in a water park, with the exception that you have kayakers all around you in case “you get pulled under a waterfall”. Hmm
Kampala was the first African city since Lusaka I never warmed up to. It had the negatives of Mombasa, what with being polluted, incredibly packed and with no personality, but none of the plus sides. It was mentioned as one of the safest cities in Africa, but I'd never really felt threatned in any way in Nairobi (which is meant to be the worst of the worst) and yet we got mugged in Windhoek, which is meant to be one of the safest places as well, so I've stopped paying attention to any of these stereotypes, and simply eye everyone with suspicion. One thing, however, which did get my attention, were the matatus (minibuses which are also called “shared taxis” in Uganda). Now, they are totally different to all the ones I've seen before. I stood on the side of the main road, watching hundreds of them pass, without managing to understand how people knew which one they needed to get on to. In Nairobi, matatus have numbers and routes- by far the most organised country when it comes to minibuses. In Malawi, they have little signs with the main stops written on them. In Zambia, the conductor simply hangs out of the door, shouting the name of the destination, whilst trying to pull in people who are happily walking to the opposite direction. In Uganda, there were no signs, numbers, and the conductors seemed surprisingly subdued. I decided to observe, and try to work out how it all happened. That, and the fact that I really had no idea which bus to get on to.
Twenty minutes later, and I was still rooted to the spot, and the street vendors were starting to give me funny looks. I decided to ask. A nice young man in a suit informed me (I always ask men in suits; they are usually less likely to harass me than the shabbier-looking blokes, plus men feel more inclined to help a poor white lady who is travelling on her own) that the drivers use hand signals- they usually simply point towards wherever the matatu is heading to. But of course. And I still had to get someone to show me which way the hostel was.
Besides shopping in Kampala and rafting in Jinja, I'd had my heart set on seeing some of the countryside up north, and going to Entebbe. I cannot recall why I wanted to see Entebbe; something to do with botanical gardens or suchlike. So I set off with a cheery Finnish girl, a slightly mad Dutch bloke, and looked for a minibus to Entebbe from the manic New Taxi Park. It took us 25 minutes to negotiate through the heat, buses and people, and so, by the time we got to Entebbe, we were knackered, and after realising that the gardens were really not gardens at all, we went to the pub, had some food, beer and a very fun afternoon, till we realised it was pretty much time to head back to Kampala. So my Entebbe experience included a few patches of grass, a monkey, some fried bread and beer. It was not a bad afternoon.
After a bit of faffing, I decided to go on one last splurge, and do a 2-night trip to Murchinson Falls, It is possible, with a lot of time and patience, to get up there on your own, but really, I'd left an increasingly ill-looking Rich in Nairobi and wanted to get back quite quickly. So I booked a shuttle bus (expensive) and a day trip which included both a boat trip to the bottom of the Falls, as well as a guided walking trip up to the top. My heart sank when I realised I'd be travelling with a bunch of 18 ad 19 -year old British and Dutch kids- but surprisingly, it ended up being fun.
We stopped briefly in a dusty nowhere town of Masindi, sleepy town where people play pool by the road side and sit under a tree- I've seen dozens of such little towns all over Africa, and they are all the same, but still somehow fascinating. We camped in the lush National Park, with hippos and warthogs roaming around in the surrounding bushes, and I saw the biggest crocodiles I've ever seen. An obligatory game drive was included, but apart from a few oribis, we didn't see much- elephants from a distance, and two hungry-looking lionesses. The boat cruise was nice and relaxing- Fred made a lot of friends and got to steer the boat, but the walk up to the top was breathtaking- Murchinson Falls were somehow even more impressive than the Victoria Falls- no other tourists around, no gates, entry fees or even railings- you could go in as close as you chose to. What makes the falls exciting though, is that the narrowest part is only 6 metres wide, making the flow of water incredibly powerful and intense. It was hypnotising to watch.
Back at the camp, I decided that if I couldn't beat the young people, I'd better join them. And so I played drinking games for the first time in many years, and it was an absolute hoot- it included members of the party to join an elderly Indian couple and tell them how much they love ketchup. And for two people to waltz in the middle of the restaurant, and another one to drink a shot of HP sauce. Juvenile, I know, but oh so funny. Being thirty really might not be so bad.
And so I got my little taste of Uganda. Sure, I could've easily have spent another week in the southern parts, quite happily so, but I'm more than happy to leave something for the next African trip. Especially since I only found out on the way out that Jinja has a bungy jump as well- serious lack of research from my part. In any way, Uganda was just enough off the beaten track to make it interesting, but I also managed to meet both the nicest backpackers in Africa, as well as locals. Next time, Uganda can have a lot more of my precious travel time.