Below is the final, and very long blog of this trip. It might be a bit to get through, I wanted to finish before our trip ended, but if you read through it you’ll find my insights to Ugandan culture, being charged by wild Rhinos while on foot, the most powerful waterfall in the world, nearly escaping a bee swarm, and being surrounded by enraged chimpanzees. So here you go:
We woke up to darkness in Bukoba, Tanzania. It was a very early bus that was to take us across the border into Uganda. The ever persistent fog of flies zipped wildly around the multi-colored signs outside the hotel. In Tanzania the signs of nearly every single place of business are sponsored by either alcohol, soda, cellular service, or banks; sometimes all of the above. I assume businesses receive these signs for free because even this tiny beach hotel has no fewer than five lit, bug covered signs displaying the Spice Beach Hotel name along with Tusker Beer, Coca-Cola, and MTN Mobile Money.
This I pondered with my half-awake brain while waiting for our early taxi to the bus station. Once at the station, a very eccentric man proceeded to wrap our backpacks with black plastic trash bags. He somehow convinced us this was necessary to prevent them getting wet and dirty while in storage on the bus. Why we didn’t stop him sooner is beyond me, because when he then asked for an exorbitant fee, which we were far from willing to pay, we then had to remove the plastic wrapping and give it all back to him. This was silly and altogether unnecessary.
The Tanzanian-Ugandan border came upon us quickly amidst a small dusty town. We paid our $50 entry fee in a $100 bill from 1999. Why am I telling you the date you might ask? Because not five minutes later the customs official comes running out of the immigration office explaining the bill was too old and he needed one past 2006. We have read about this phenomenon and were preparedly able to produce a newer bill. The logic for this is completely beyond us. A 1999 bill and a 2006 bill are both in the same series of printed $100′s, but for some reason East Africans (including banks as we would later discover) have some unexplainable belief that a 2006 bill is unforgeable, while a 1999 bill is as good as monopoly money.
As soon as we crossed the border we met the single friendliest police officer I have ever come across. He guaranteed us that our stay in Uganda would be fantastic, gave some advice on what we should see, and expressed jealousy that we were able to do such a great trip in his country. His massive grin, friendly demeanor, and near flawless English was a good indicator of things to come.
Soon we were dropped off at a crossroads in a city called Masaka. Declining an offer to ride in a van full of bricks we hopped on a bus where we would stand in the aisle for the next two hours. At least in the brick van we would have had seats, just more bricks.
While our tickets assured us that our journey would take us to the very distant city of Kabale, the bus stopped at a city halfway, Mbarara, and everyone exited. This left us confused as we were under the distinct impression that we had many more miles to go.
The series of events that followed still confuse us; they involve a man taking our tickets and giving us half our money back, 10,000 Ugandan Shillings, then getting thrown into a Matatu, the new Ugandan word for Dala-Dala, which in English is “cramped-ass Chinese-built minivan”. Jessica satiated a begging, drugged-out local man through the window with a cookie and we were on our way.
From here things were somehow more confusing. Lots of yelling in an even more foreign language, our driver disappearing randomly in a fit of rage, and replaced by a man in a leather jacket (in this heat?) who was either drunk, sick, or both; this did not bode well. But we just rolled with it, because hell, what else are we going to do?
The next six, that’s right six hours, sucked. Dusty dirt roads under construction caused mad congestion, plus the Matatu driver (I’m pretty sure those are just sick hiccups) stopping every ten minutes to drop someone off, pick someone up, or buy onions, apples, or bananas from street vendors. Each time he changes gears the stick shift rubs roughly against my leg, jolting me into the rather large mustachioed gentlemen to my left, who by the way, provided excellent conversation. Jessica fared better in the rear because men are scared to get too close to her, so she has a nice bubble of space while they smush even closer to one another. Why are we sitting separately? Just one of the many fun mysteries of the day!
A more interesting part of the ride was when Matatus would occasionally pass opposite and warn our driver of police checkpoints ahead. Since our vehicle is overcrowded by about four people past the max, the Matatu would stop, let out four people, and pay boda-bodas (motorbikes) to carry them past the checkpoint, whereafter they would dismount and come back in the vehicle. The one time a cop stopped us without warning, he had a huge grin, and “chastized” the driver “don’t let me catch you over capacity again!” (I think they were friends).
We did arrive to Kabale alive however. A friendly taxi driver grabbed us up and took us to a hotel sitting on the hills overlooking Lake Bunyoni, our stunningly gorgeous destination. The view would have to be enjoyed more thoroughly at a future moment however as my excellent bladder and bowel control decided 11 hours of bumping up and down was about the maximum my body could handle. Jess at least had the sense to go 8 hours ago.
The room was expensive, but worth the price almost solely for the view. The meal not as much worth the price, except the delicious cooked crayfish in a fresh avocado!
It was quickly apparent that the decision to embark on this epic journey to Lake Bunyoni was a good one. Walking down to the lake through a quiet forest was serene, but that paled in comparison to phenomenal wood canoe journey from the lake shore to our island retreat.
Our destination is known for the ‘backpackers paradise’ hostel; Bayoona Amagara. It was full however so as we disembarked we were met by two very friendly men, Moses, and the other everyone just called Manager. They showed us to our very humble, but extremely affordable room. One week prior the bathroom had collapsed into a big sinkhole, so our toilet was a mud hut with a hole in the ground. But the hostel grounds had cute goats everywhere and bunnies…totally worth it.
We got the best of both worlds though. Our hostel only provided rooms, everything else we received at what turned out to actually be a backpackers paradise, Bayoona Amagara. All structures made with sustainable local materials, all power from solar, composting toilets, solar showers, cool communal dining room, and exemplary food!
For the first time in a long time we also came in contact with other backpackers, as opposed to the usual tourists on packaged tours. We ended up spending the day making friends, chatting, eating and drinking. We took one quick tour of the tiny island with our new British friend Andrew and an incredibly friendly local named Fiona showed us around. She showed us how local buildings were built with eucalyptus wood, how the communities cook meals together, and all the various types of banana and other crops they grow. She was awesome.
At night we stayed up late with our new friends, then with some beers in us we hiked 15min the dark back to our room on the other side of the island. If you told me 2 months ago I would be hiking in the dark on an island in the middle of nowhere in Uganda, I would have thought you were crazy, but this place is a serene, unspoilt paradise; very safe feeling. Upon arrival to Green Village, Moses, our extremely Christian host (we’ll touch more on that later), was waiting up for us, made sure we had a pleasant day, then we headed to bed!
We woke to Moses dancing and singing to gospel music. After breakfast we hopped in a dugout canoe with him to take us to a hiking spot. Everything with Moses has to be a proverb, or something biblical related. We remain polite, which is easy because he is so unbelievably friendly. Jess and I taking turns to paddle; Moses doing most of the work, we took about an hour to get to a new part of the mainland.
Moses waited with the canoe as we disembarked and began hiking towards a peak. A local man quickly latched on as our unofficial, unasked-for guide, which tends to happen no matter where in the world we go. The hike was stunning. Super cute little farming huts dotted the agricultural hillside.
What Moses didn’t tell us is that where we currently were hiking is not, in any way, a common place for tourists to hike. What that meant for us is that everyone we passed was wide-eyed and whispered “wazungu” quietly under their breath. Soon we had a following of incredibly curious children. That gathering grew exponentially as the hike continued. Some of our entourage walked nervously behind, and some super close behind me. On random occasion I would jump back and shout “BOO”. Terror splattered on their faces every time, which shortly thereafter erupted into fits of laughter.
The apex of wonder and excitement came when on the opposite hill one small boy came romping in our direction, paying attention only to his footfalls. When his head picked up for just one moment, he stopped dead in his tracks, spotting perhaps the first white people he had ever seen. You would think he spotted a flying pink unicorn with how loudly and excitedly he erupted screaming “WAZUNGU, WAZUNGU!!!!” and ran back up the hill. No fewer than ten new children stormed with him down the hill towards us, and soon we were surrounded! They all loved having their picture taken, and then us showing the picture back to them as they excitedly named of each person in the picture.
The barrage of children may well be one of the highlights of our trip. They would try to touch Jessica’s hair, hold her hand, while I kept making funny noises and faces, scaring them with “boo” (every time without fail they got scared, then would excitedly repeat on eachother), and I loved showing them the ever classic thumb-removal trick. This small hiking trip turned unexpectedly awesome.
The village was truly sad to see us go. Our guide made us promise to call him if we returned and he would have the children prepare dancing and song for us, and the villagers would make us a feast. This was all just too much! We were tempted to stay another day just to take him up on his offer.
I gave our guide a bit of a tip and Moses was patiently waiting for us at the shore. On the way back he took us by “punishment island” where unwed pregnant women used to be dropped off to die. Interesting. Shortly thereafter Moses expressed his dislike of Barack Obama because of his recent stance for gay marriage. Like I said, Moses is very Christian, a born-again Christian nonetheless. In Uganda, the current popular vote is for a piece of legislation calling for the death penalty for convicted homosexuals (most of this due to proselytizing by American Evangelicals). I tried to explain to Moses how un-Jesus-like it was to judge others so harshly, but he explained simply that it is a deadly sin and worthy of the worst punishment. Speaking of unwed pregnant women, did I mention that Moses has a child, and yet is not married to the mother? I simply didn’t have it in me to point out the irony as I believe his fragile head would explode.
So…anyway…the canoe ride was great!
On our return to Bayoona Amagara for dinner we met a Belgian couple who we convinced to give us a ride in their car tomorrow to Kampala, SCORE!!! No more bumpy, cramped, long Matatu rides! Dinner was excellent as always, and the walk back to our dark hotel was even more pleasant than the night before. The stars here, as you can imagine, are very bright and beautiful.
The canoe takes over an hour to get back to shore, but the four of us split the price for a motorboat, zipping through the scenic glory of Lake Bunyonyi, morning mist rising of the surface as traders in dugout canoes rowed their goods to market, and children going to school.
Riding with the Belgian couple in their jeep was luxurious! And free!!! We made a couple stops for delicious food in Mbarara, and an unexpected stop for sodas at the equator line. We honestly had no clue this was even here.
They took us to a city about 30k from Kampala and we took a short Matatu ride to finish the trip. It was still a long travel day, but felt more like a road trip than being herded like cattle in a truck.
We chose to stay at Kampala Backpackers, on the outskirts of a bustling, smoggy city; unfortunately filled with young, loud, obnoxiously dressed, make-up caked Brits getting ready to go out for a night of partying. This was not our scene, and probably the most white people we have seen in one place since being back home. We tolerated their loud, sloppy behavior while gladly used the free internet to catch up from being without for so long. Then we retired to our nice sized room.
Kampala is actually a really cool city as we learned holding on for dear life on the back of a motorbike, the driver zig-zagging through ridiculous traffic. Of the African cities we have seen thus far, it is particularly modern and seems to have much in the way of architecture and culture. We were dropped off at a curiously modern mall where we experienced amenities unlike anything before on this trip; coffee shops, fast food joints, delis, computer stores, and even a movie theatre?! Where are we all of a sudden? We did some shopping and indulged in delicacies like blue cheese and prosciutto.
On our way walking back we stopped by the crafts market for some very pleasant, truly hassle free, souvenir shopping. Bargaining here is a cinch, they start with a reasonable price and quickly and happily drop it to an even more reasonable price. Not at all like crafts shopping in places like India where they start at 10x the price, and through blood, sweat, and tears you bring them down to a somewhat lesser ripoff. Man, we are loving Uganda and Ugandans more and more every minute.
We got back to the hostel, but were soon white-knuckling a motorbike ride again to a local bar where we would meet a man to pick up our newly rented Land Rover. Yes, for the next three days I planned to try my hand at driving on Uganda’s wild streets through some national parks!
The company, Road Trip Uganda is owned by a very friendly couple of dutch guys. They packed the car full of neat camping gear and check it thoroughly before handing over to he next client. We had a delicious burger at the local joint, checked the cars vitals, signed some papers and we were off.
Driving these mad streets at night was completely insane, but thankfully we only had about 5km to go. In that 5km I still managed to break some law or rather and a cop with a large machine gun on the back of a motorbike pulled us over. I apologized profusely for not going more quickly through the green light for fear of running over the thousands of boda-bodas zipping in front of me, but he assured me I should, in the future, just drive forward and they will move, or not and that it their fault not mine.
Nonethless I broke the law by stopping at a green light, but a nice 10,000 Ugandan shillings ($4) in the officers pocket “to pay for the gas he had to use to pull me over” made him very happily walk away.
We made it to the hostel after what felt like an incredible adventure! Our new mission, after searching earlier to no success, was to find some other suckers…er…travellers to join us for our road trip North. To our ever incredible luck, the first couple we asked, a Swedish guy Thomas and a German girl Henrieke, were totally down to join. We just cut the already reasonable price of $60/day plus gas in half! Wheelin’ and dealin’ baby!
We hit the road soon after brekkie (I say brekkie because they had Vegemite there, and boy do I love Vegemite on toast). The biggest challenge was navigating the labyrinth of city streets, and getting through horrendous traffic. Once we hit the main road north however it was wonderfully paved, flat, and empty. Smooth sailing.
Our first stop a few hours later was Kiwa Rhino Sanctuary. Rhinos are literally the only big game we did not see on Safari, and here was our chance. Kiwa is an open-range breeding grounds to reintroduce the Rhinos after they had been slaughtered to extinction in Uganda as poachers took advantage of civil unrest. There are around 20 Rhinos, and they started with only a handful.
We paid a reasonable fee and our local guide, plus a volunteer Englishman with a Ph.D in Rhinos (he assured us this is possible in England), jumped in the car with us and I drove to the Rhinos location. Only the first part was in vehicle however, and after a short hike on foot we were standing not 10 meters away from the massive beasts themselves! There were five in all. In this heat they usually just lay about, but at the moment the alpha male and two others were standing and munching some grass.
This was such a treat! I never would have imagined this was even safe, and the next few moments certainly made me doubt it was! The alpha stood up and began sauntering away from us, where he came upon another male lying in the grass ahead. With no warning except the thundering of their hooves and snorts of anger, the alpha charged at the other male who quickly jumped up and ran away…in our direction.
That’s right, At this moment we had two male Rhinos, one ton in weight each, thundering straight towards us. Needless to say we ran like a swarm of bees was chasing us…no scrap that…we ran like two one-ton RHINOS were chasing us! The thundering behemoths quickly diverted to the right however, and we group of eight were left breathless yet laughing hysterically like those who just outran a swarm of bees…no scrap that…oh not this joke again…
It was an absolutely incredible experience. The Rhino doctor assured us that we were in little real danger, but it sure as crap felt like it. Apparently if they were black Rhinos we would have been screwed, but white Rhinos are less aggressive and really only use their horns and strength to fight other Rhinos, avoiding most everything else.
With that experience behind us we hit the road again and in about two hours realized we had gone the wrong way. This ended up working out in our favor however. We now had to take a dirt road to cut back in and make our way to Masingi. This road ended up being a spectacular diversion. The local villages we drove by were beyond enthused to see a jeep full of wazungu. We felt like celebrities, how the queen must feel riding through England, having to smile and wave at all the wide-eyed passers by.
It was just one of those times that felt truly genuine in a foreign country, nowhere near any piece of the tourist track, mingling with the friendliest of local people, and seeing them just in their day to day element amidst the gorgeous green fields with bright red dirt.
We got to Masingi, stopped by the tourism office to get some advice of approaching Murchison Falls national park. Then we got provisions at a local market, checked into a hotel where we got cheap camp space, set up the gear, had dinner, cold showers, and bed.
We took the long way to Murchison through Bundongo forest where we drove through the canopy of towering trees, along Lake Albert dotted with fishing villages and babboons, and were soon at the gate to enter the park.
The park itself is pretty to drive through. Muscular, shirtless men, glistening with sweat, (as our girlfriends made us well aware) hack mercilessly at the dense jungle in its ever persistent encroachment of the red dirt roads. What we really came here for was the falls. The most powerful falls in the world. The Nile river hits this cliff edge as it snakes through from Lake Victoria to Egypt and simply pummels itself through twisting rock. Quite a sight to see.
The falls was only a taste of the awesome we were to experience today. We shot quickly south, eating lunch in the car to get to the staging area for chimpanzee trekking. We were met by the first female guide we have had and she soon had us tramping through dense jungle to find some Chimps.
The trek was dead quiet, all too excited with nervous energy to speak. Within an hour we were spotting our first chimp, munching some jackfruit in a tree. As we admired him, the trek group before us appeared running from the jungle, drenched in sweat, and panting heavily. They began undressing and before we could wonder if we should for some odd reason be doing to same, the guide explained they had been swarmed by bees when someone stepped on a nest…terrific.
A minute later the vicious sound of howling, battling chimps surrounded us, forget the bees, these beasts can rip your arm off with little effort, or bite easily through your skull like a jackfruit. Yet our guide assured us they believed we were the superior species, so we crept closer towards the sounds. We counted eight chimps around us, as we snapped pictures and swatted the leftover bees from the attack. Jess and Thomas got stung once each, but otherwise the experience was spectacular!
Later I will have to post the videos we snapped of 1. chimps mating, man he was quick, and 2. one chimp running full speed downhill to smack an adversary across the face who responded with barred teeth and angry grunts. 98% of human DNA indeed.
We hung out with them for almost two hours before heading back. We got to see about everything exciting there is to see involving Chimpanzees, including a cute baby hanging out with mommy in a tree.
We exited the park and received a warm welcome at Boomu women’s group. A hostel run solely by local women. We checked in to our very cute huts, took outdoor showers, and ended the night eating, we all agreed, the most delicious and by far most traditional African meal we have had including succulent grilled goat in spicy sauce, savory mashed plantains, dripping roasted sweet potatoes, steamed eggplant, raw cabbage, fresh avocado, and flavored rice. This place is awesome.
The drive back was uneventful, amazing we never popped a tire or had any mechanical issues considering the amount of potholes and rough dirt roads we have covered. We dropped off our travel buddies and Jess and I hit the road again to Jinja; the source of the Nile as it leaves Lake Victoria. Aside from constantly playing chicken with oncoming cars in order to pass painfully slow trucks while avoiding the chasms which dotted the road, the drive was easy…ish.
On the other side of the concrete behemoth which dams the Nile a cop stopped us at a checkpoint simply to mess with us. He asked bizarre questions trying to find an excuse to mess with us even more. When he asked our religion; “Christian!” I lied quickly. I figured that was the answer he wanted considering nearly every place of business in Uganda has some form of Jesus in the title including my absolute favorite: “Jesus Christ is Our Lord and Savior – Women’s Beauty Salon.” Not at all kidding about that either; sadly I didn’t get a picture, but here’s a fun Mormon billboard, somehow even creepier in Africa.
The cop let us go after complaining we didn’t bring him dinner…I assume jokingly? Another interesting Ugandan interaction.
The sun was setting over the misty river as we arrived at the backpackers hangout. We caught some street food called a Rolex. Literally just a vegetable omlette wrapped in a chapati, but dipped in spicy chili sauce, quite a bit more delicious than it sounds. The enterepreneur cooking was remarkably friendly. Afterwards we walked back and climbed into our spacious tent.
Our day in Jinga was spent mostly at coffee shops, buying a couple more souvenirs, and exploring the town; quite modern, remarkably liveable, lots of expats. The highlight of the day however, were the absolutely hideous birds on the golf course.
We drove back to Kampala, checked into a hotel at city center, dropped the car off to the Dutchman, wandered the big, smoggy city a bit more then slept. A pretty average day really.
More or less the same as yesterday. We putzed around the hotel, had a nice breakfast with lots of pineapple and avocado. Then we took a packed Matatu for an hour ride to Entebbe where we checked into the backpackers place. We spent the day doing more wandering. The botanical gardens were nice, we watched lots of monkeys play, then read along the lake and just hung out, waiting for our flight tomorrow to Zanzibar.
In the evening we met the first Oaklander on this trip and her San Franciscan friends. We chatted a bit then went to bed early.
Three flights today. From Entebbe to Arusha, then Arusha to Dar, then Dar to the beautiful, historical island of Zanzibar! It took most of the day.
Our hotel in Zanzibar was exquisite! It used to be an old English club, the succession of Zanzibar rulers from Sultan to the Queen ascend up the marble staircase. Old Persian rugs hang from the walls, and our room is the most modern we have stayed in yet. We decided to splurge a bit here. Dinner included some tasty seafood. We slept very well in our cushy beds, a luxury compared to the cardboard-like material of most beds we have slept on this trip.
We spent the vast majority of the day exploring the exciting Unesco World Heritage Site of Stone Town! This town is where almost every African slave was brought, sold, and shipped to the middle east and part of Europe. You can imagine the wealth that accrued here from the blood, quite literally, of others. Pretty dark and crazy history, hard to believe in such a gorgeous setting.
The tall alleys of Stone Town twist and turn like a never ending labyrinth. The most notable and beautiful part of the city are the plethora of intricately carved wooden doors brightening even the most dilapidated structure.
We quickly explored the old fort and then the House of Wonders for hours; once a Sultans pleasure palace of modern trinkets, now a museum rich with artifacts and history of Zanzibar.
We then got a tour of the slave chambers and old slave market. A church sits atop the former slave market, the altar sitting right where the whipping tree once stood. We puzzled at the fact that 95% of Zanzibar was Muslim even though it was Islamic cultures here which ran the slave trade and essentially the English Church which brought the end of slavery. You’d think the locals would just give up after being screwed by pretty much the rest of the world and get back to their root beliefs, but well, indoctrination is one hell of an effective concept.
Speaking of Muslims, it is Ramadan right now. This means that even we cannot eat or drink in front of the locals or many will get very angry with us. Nonetheless there were a couple places tucked away serving food; House of Spices, a rooftop joint is where we savored a delectable lunch.
We finished the day wandering through markets, relaxing at the hotel and going out at night to the famed seafood markets in the park. Unfortunately they have become too famed. What might have at one point been enjoyed by both locals and tourists, has now been turned into incredibly overpriced “fresh” seafood from dozens of carts, where pushy and aggressive touts nearly force you to buy from their food cart as opposed to the exact same looking food one cart over.
We ordered just a bit of “lobster” (definitely wasn’t lobster, but well spiced and delicious; chicken maybe?), and tough octopus tentacles. Many of the tentacles went to a begging stray cat, who instantly became my best friend.
Jess, too annoyed at the whole situation to eat (I don’t blame her), grabbed some samosas from our hotel before we went to bed.
For the last two days of our travel we decided to really treat ourselves. We gathered our things, walked through the narrows Stone Town streets to the busy Dala-Dala stand, and took a crowded ride to a barely inhabited corner of the island where we checked in to the fancy Ngalawa Beach Lodge to spend the next two days doing nothing except eating, swimming, and laying around.
We arrived and were greeted by Joanne, a Canadian, and nearly the spitting image of my mother in so many ways; her two pet goats in tow (okay so the Linda Edwards I know would not have pet goats, but other than that, identical I swear).
I will be brief. I could write many pages about how unbelievably delectable the food here is, prepared by an exquisite chef and served by the friendliest of staff members (who, if you remember, are all fasting!) The grounds are lovely, the beach lovely, the pool lovely, the room lovely. But lets just stop there. You get the idea, it’s paradise, and as far as writing goes it would be stupid boring to regale you with each and every detail.
Take an educated guess as to what we did today. Have an idea? Yup that’s right, the same as yesterday: nothing! And it was awesome. Although I did write this blog…so I guess that’s something. I did get Jessica to play our yearly game of chess during high tea. And we took a gorgeous night walk along the beach during extremely low tide with a friendly American couple living in Germany. The food was even more delectable than yesterday! A band played at night and we sipped some whiskey and gin. So different from our previous lives as backpackers! But, it is fun and relaxing here. No complaints!
So here I am. Looking out over the pool. The blue ocean in the background. Computer in my lap on the porch of our room. Ahead of us is a half day of relaxing and then something like 35 hours of waiting, flying, waiting, flying, waiting, flying; home. 22 hours we will spend in the sky over the next two days. Not an endeavor I wish to embark on, but a necessary one.
It has been an unbelievable trip. We saw every African animal I could have hoped to see. We experienced a new continent, new cultures, remarkably warm and friendly people. We ate a lot of food, we laughed, we walked vast distances, and drove even more. We had many moments outside of our comfort bubble, but that is why we do this; to get home and truly appreciate all that we have.
We will return to you Africa. As our ancestors left you some 80,000 years ago and we have been privileged to spend this short time again on your fertile red soil…and not get eaten by lions, or impaled by a rhino horn, or swarmed by killer bees, mauled by a leopard, pounced by a group of hyenas, torn to ribbons by gorillas, poisoned by a black mamba, eyes pecked out by your freakish birds, gored by warthogs, pooped on by babboons, puked our guts out from malaria, or yellow fever, or bilharzia, or sleeping sickness, or dysentery, drowned in a capsized boat, or crashed in a freak dala-dala accident. We made it! And it was well worth it.
Signing off until the next adventure,