I’m not sure what it was in particular, but Uganda was my favourite country that I travelled through in the early ’90s. Maybe it was the unsurpassable Queen Elizabeth National Park, or happening upon Lake Victoria and all the legends (and myths) of the great explorers that it conjured up, along with our mistaken belief that we were at the source of the Nile.
It might have been the fact that we had just spent a gruelling – though thoroughly entertaining – month travelling through the Congo (then Zaire) and survived all the challenges it had thrown at us.
It could simply have been witnessing the results of the remarkable recovery the country had undergone in such a short space of time following the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. Or maybe it was simply its welcoming people – including the man who told me the world was going to end in a couple of days… and the fact it didn’t.
Whatever it was, Uganda mesmerised me. And left me with a sense of wanting to return.
A mountain to climb
As we left the border with Zaire, we wound our way along narrow, twisting, mountainous dirt tracks. The sort that caused my heart to stop every time I caught sight of the massive drop that was perilously close to our truck’s wheels, which was far too often to be healthy for a man terrified of heights – and afraid of plummeting down a cliff for that matter.
Eventually we came to rest in a small village and camped by a lake. The area reminded me of the Lake District back in the UK. It was so peaceful. Villagers fishing from log boats, others swimming; kingfishers dive-bombing for food.
Nearby was a little shed, with a couple of stools visible inside. A spray-painted sign over the door, proclaimed it to be the ‘Bar’. Next door, a very similar-looking construction had clearly employed the same sign-maker; this time the scrawled writing stated ‘Hotel’. To look at it, though, I thought camping was the more comfy option.
We adjourned to the bar and partook of a couple of bottles of the local brew.
The next day was spent driving through magnificent – but at the same time terrifying, for reasons mentioned previously – Lord of the Rings-type mountain landscapes.
We stopped for a break in the town of Kibale, which will be known forevermore as a chocolate paradise. For the first time in who-knows-how-long, bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk adorned the shelves of the ‘supermarket’. Practically orgasmic at the sight of such luxurious indulgence, I stuffed two bars down in a matter of seconds and immediately felt sick – my stomach unable to cope with such decadence after five months on the road.
Cravings satisfied, we continued on, heading for the Queen Elizabeth National Park, when the heavens opened. We scrambled to roll the sides down on our Bedford truck. However, the two front plastic windows had shredded going over bumps in Zaire and the water poured in – right on top of me. I was soon absolutely drenched. Still, it would save having to find a shower later. With the help of my companions, we managed to rig up a groundsheet to keep the worst out. A real case of the rain coming down in sheets.
On arriving at the park, my enthusiasm was anything but dampened, however. As we trundled towards the campsite, we were greeted by the sight of buffalo grazing, various antelope scampering and warthog snuffling.
Suddenly, a very large hippopotamus wobbled out in front of us, causing us to come to an abrupt halt – an unexpected, but welcome, shock. I scouted the panorama, but couldn’t see any water. What was it doing out here?
We camped at the top of a slope, looking down on one of the park’s lakes. As we settled down for the night, we could hear hippos grunting nearby.
In fact, they were congregated in the water, just 50 metres from us. Dotted around, not far from our tents, were piles of dung. We were slap bang in the middle of a hippo minefield.
A restless night ensued as I prayed we hadn’t inadvertently pitched our tents on the hippos’ path from bush to water. I’m not sure they would have thoughtfully slalomed through us. In hindsight, we would not have positioned the campsite in such a spot – but hindsight is a wonderful thing. The noises of the African bush at night are something else altogether.
The following morning was – to use a cliché – a simply fantastic day. A drive through the park threw up, at this stage in my African journey, the best game-viewing I’d ever experienced. To be honest, it has only been surpassed since by my trip to South Luangwa in Zambia a couple of years ago.
We encountered buffalo, more antelope than I care to mention, numerous warthog and no less than three separate herds of elephant. At this time, there were very few elephant – only a couple of hundred, according to our guide – left in the park, having been poached nearly to extinction in this area; while rhino had been wiped out completely. Today, following massive conservation efforts, the park’s elephant numbers are at a much healthier level – around the 2500 mark.
We watched the herds making their way across the plains, striding out in single file – a line that encompassed several generations, from the great matriarch to the tiniest (in elephant terms) infant.
Later we came across three lions stalking in the undergrowth – another rare sighting, our guide told us, because Queen Elizabeth’s lion population is normally found on the other side of the park, some 120km away.
In the afternoon, we boarded a safari boat and pottered down the Kazinga Channel, which links the lakes Edward and George. We manoeuvred between the hundreds of hippo that lined the water. God, they are ugly creatures. But to see such huge pods of river horses has to be one of the great sights of any safari.
Birds fluttered in to land on these floating brown islands, seeking refuge from the rigours of the day. Occasionally a hippo would raise its head above the water and give a great yawn, showing off its menacing looking incisors, sending birds back up into the air. We also happened across a pair of copulating hippos, which is an eye-opener to say the least!
Buffalo joined them in the water, and at one point an elephant strode to the water’s edge, sucking up trunkfuls of thirst-quenching liquid. Now and again a hippo would bob down underwater before re-emerging to spray water a few feet from our boat.
But the piece de resistance was seeing one of them marking its territory by having a poo and then whipping its tail, spraying the excrement in a wide arc, splattering everywhere. A prime example of the [poo] hitting the fan.
The end of the world
That evening, still on a complete high, we left the park behind us and camped up in a mining town at the foot of the Mountains of the Moon. We played football against some local kids. We may have lost 2-1, but it was a great effort from the lads and we were “over the (mountains of the) moon, Brian”.
The next day we crossed back over the equator, returning for a while to the northern hemisphere. An enterprising local demonstrated the fact that water swirls anti-clockwise on one side of the ‘line’ and clockwise on the other. I’ve seen it to be true with my own eyes – but, alas, this phenomenon has been proved to be a fallacy and it appears we were duped by a magic trick.
A couple of days later we arrived in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, via a look at the vast expanse of water that is Lake Victoria, long thought to be the source of the Nile. Another fact that has proved to be a misnomer.
As a few of us wandered around the city, a man accosted us, asking: “Do you know anything about telepathic communications?”
“I knew you were going to ask me that,” Martin replied.
The joke washed over him, as he continued with his sermon. He told us that the third world war was imminent and that it would start here in Uganda.
We asked him to make sure it held off until we’d left the country.
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