Elizabeth and I decided that it was high time we got out of Kampala. Banda Island, and the king of its castle, Dom Symes had been recommended to me by several people. It's the stuff of legends, the kind of place that people go to for three days and end up staying for three months. Banda is one of the smallest of the Ssesse Islands and 36 km off the coast of Entebbe as the crow flies. Or as the fishing boat chugs. There was an immense amount (read, a text message was sent) of planning involved, Dom sent us a shopping list for 2 loaves of bread, a kilo of green beans, some bacon and a tin of blue gloss paint. I knew from the outset that we were not in for an average weekend desert island break.
We set off from Kampala on Friday afternoon, and arrived at Kasenyi fishing village with instructions on who to speak to, and advice on avoiding the hooligans. We found our boat, with reassurances of 'It's leaving now, now', and were whisked on board. By this I mean that we were swept up off the beach, into the arms of our respective porters who waded through the water and dumped us in the boat. Along with 30 other people. We got a prime seat on top of the vessel, so it was just as well that the water was calm. Fortunately we had come prepared with essential provisions... a 3 litre box of wine (when empty I believe the bag makes an excellent flotation device) and an empty water bottle, just in case the wine fired off our bladders' parasympathetic nerve supply! 'Now, now' is a phrase that is best interpreted with caution. In this instance 'Now, now' meant in 90 minutes. But still, we at least got a good seat. Sitting in the port was a feast for the camera, men carrying extraordinary loads through the water, impossibly loaded boats, masses of birdlife. Eventually we up-anchored, cast off and were sailing. No sooner were we away from shore than the wine was opened. We chugged along for 3 happy hours, towards an island adjacent to Banda. As land came into view Elizabeth insisted that a 'short call' (guess what that is) was necessary, much to the amusement of our other, mostly male, passengers. Hangin' on until Banda, was not an option. Little did we know we would be required to change boats - hilarious in itself, given that I'm a natural gymnast... I spilled some wine in the bottom of the boat to cries of 'Eh! Muzungu, what is that?', 'Er, it's Blackcurrant Mirinda, obviously'.
So on transfer to the smaller boat, with its sputtering engine, we cut the top off the bottle. Elizabeth upset the other passengers by trying to move to the front of the boat to do her 'short call' in private, to cries of 'Muzungu, are you trying to drown us?!'... It turns out that none of our fellow passengers could swim, and didn't appreciate a rocking boat.
At last, we spotted Dom on the beach, with his seven fostered dogs, beer in hand, awaiting our arrival. Land was a welcome sight. 'Beer anybody?', were welcome words. The rest of our evening was spent round a beach bonfire, drinking beer and overindulging in Dom's unique way. The food was great, a tasty paella. Tasted even better on the way back up. Not one to let the side down however, after 30 minutes of island air, I was ready to start again. We moved to Dom's castle, a feat of civil engineering that would baffle that bloke off 'Grand Designs'. By rights, it shouldn't be standing. I asked Dom whether he had experience of architecture. His answer was 'No, I sat in my chair, got stoned and it sort of came from there. I built whatever came into my head, what didn't work fell down, and I bought more cement and tried again. I used my knowledge of the stars from sailing and some of my mining experience, but most of it came from inside my head'. Astonishing. Dom is an eloquent, intelligent bloke, who loves winding people up and is therefore deliberately on the other side of the debate, almost always. After discussing the finer points of his recent brush with the law, how many children he may or may not have and his views on the 'African problem' we decided to retire to our cottage. This coincided with the point at which Dom was unable to stand from his chair, and then unable to sit back down in it unaided. Which I guess is always a risk of drinking home made Waragi from a plastic green and white striped kettle.
The next morning, I woke up to the sound of the water lapping on the shore, sat on the beach front porch and read my book. At what we figured was probably a reasonable hour, we stumbled across to the castle for a simple but tasty breakfast of coffee, Marmite on toast and fresh pineapple from the island plantation. Once this had been polished off, Dom announced that it was Beer o' Clock and that there were to be no exceptions to this rule, especially since we had had no Waragi in our coffee. Beer o' Clock was swiftly followed by lunch of freshly caught Tilapia, the green beans and bacon we had carried, a delicious fresh salad and the obligatory Ugandan stewed beans. And more beer. Then it was siesta time, which for me meant going out for a walk with the dogs, who accompanied me around the island checking for snakes and the presence of Herbert, the solitary resident hippo. Banda is literally teeming with life, every inch of it moves. I spotted the only Paradise Fly Catcher on the island, and had a thoroughly pleasant afternoon pottering, chilling, reading a book and listening to music. We had a brief boat trip round to see the island's monitor lizards and then went back home to catch the sunset from the castle roof. Wearing our minging Hallowe'en dresses from Owino Market.
We were treated to a stunning sunset, good conversation, luke warm beer etc. Dom regaled us of the time when he first arrived on the island, sampling every hallucinogenic plant in his new domain, and lost several weeks. We talked about travel, life, you name it (especially if it's controversial). Climbing down from the roof before it got dark, we headed for dinner on the beach, equipped with a kettle full of Waragi. We sat and drank, and drank, and drank. At one point Dom sneezed, so drunk that he fell off his chair, couldn't get up off the floor and we couldn't help him for laughing. Eventually he rolled over and crawled back to his perch. At this point in the proceedings he announced we should go and find the hippo. When we asked Dom how we were going to find him, he licked his right index finger, thrust it in the air, determined the direction of the wind and proclaimed that since he couldn't smell Herbert, he must be 'over there' pointing in the vague direction of the centre of the island. 'I'm in the perfect state for tracking the hippo'. I felt that I was in the perfect state to avoid being trampled to death and suggested another glass of Waragi. So the hippo was allowed to sleep undisturbed. We headed to bed around 4.15am. It took Dom 45 minutes to get home, which was all of 25 metres away. A testament to the potency of his home distilled poison, and the difficulties of walking in sand.
The next morning, the weather had turned, and it had evidently rained very heavily, since we were greeted by a slightly soggy Dom, who had missed his mattress, and slept on his bedroom floor with the windows wide open. Breakfast was eaten, and there was a point at which it looked like we'd be staying another night as the heavens opened again, and the thunder crashed across the water. We sat in the dining room with the bats - yes bats - waiting for a sign. The only sign we received was that the boat was coming to get us, regardless of the lashing downpour. No point being a fair weather sailor... This small boat took us to... the other end of Banda. We were offloaded, parked on a bench and left there, unable to communicate with any of the local populus and with no sign of the weather improving. After an hour and a half, and a slightly unnerving encounter with the village madman who sat and shouted at us to a soundtrack provided by the local churches cacophonic choir, our bags were picked up to a grunt of 'Tugende', just at the point where the rain reached its heaviest. Our boat, essentially looked like a floating rubbish tip, and the reality was not much different. We were thrown on the boat, left to find a sheltered position amongst crates of empty soda bottle, jerry cans, bags of flour and sugar, crawling beasts and fellow passengers. It was not a happy passage. The lake was choppy, several times we listed just a little bit too far starboard and I spent a significant amount of time trying to decide which of the random items I was sitting amongst would make the best float. The sun eventually came out and by the time we reached the mainland we were dry. I have never been so glad to get on a Matatu.
So was Banda paradise? If paradise consists of a mixture of beauty and eccentricity, beasts large and small, and a plastic kettle full of Waragi, then yes.