The next morning, we left at around 8, driving to the next decent sized town, where the cash machine decided that it initially wasn’t going to dispense any money for us, and then 5 minutes later after having no success inside the bank, decided that actually it would give us some funds after all. We were relieved. We then set off for Ishasha. Arriving at around 10, we hoped to catch a glimpse of the tree-climbing lions. As it turned out, the lions were not feeling particularly tourist friendly and had abandoned the branches of their fig trees. We didn’t spot a single one. Disappointed that nature had won the game that day we carried on through the park in the direction of the Kichembwa Lodge, which was to be home for two nights.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is very different to Murchison Falls. The hot, dry savannah continues as far as the eye can see, with bits of scrub here and there, and the occasional damaged tree, providing evidence of the presence of elephants. We saw hundreds of Ugandan kob, a sort of antelope, and numerous elephants on the horizon as we drove along the dusty dirt track, baking in the blistering sun. The lack of game meant that the drive was fairly dull, with little to grab our attention or capture the imagination. As we got out of the park and onto slightly better roads, Eddie picked up the pace. Along the way were brightly coloured butterflies. Wherever there was a puddle, the butterflies congregated and as we drove past, they fluttered up from the ground like handfuls of wedding confetti, streaming out from underneath the back of the car. Beautiful. We arrived at the lodge, which was a series of round thatch-roofed huts, reminiscent of Hobbiton. We got to our hut and were greeted by a breathtaking view of the plains below, reaching what seemed to be the edge of the world. It was a really special place. We reflected on the day’s game drive and the arid landscape that we had seen, and decided to change our plans. We’d originally decided not to go up to Murchison Falls, but Mum wanted to see giraffes, and we figured that we would probably have more luck seeing big game up at Murchison. We decided to spend one night at the lodge, game drive the next morning, head to Fort Portal for 2 nights and then spend 2 nights at Murchison.
Our game drive the next morning was again, fairly fruitless, save for watching male kob sparring with each other at dawn, and group of mongooses/mongeese/mongice/mongoose (exactly what is the plural of mongoose?!). There was a disappointing lack of most of the big 5. We were out in the park before the sun came up, but as it rose it was seemingly too hot and dry for the animals. I was glad that we had changed our plans. After eating a breakfast of fruit, bread and eggs while gazing at some salt flats, we began our journey to Fort Portal, and I started a series of phone calls to rearrange our accommodation. Unfortunately the guest house we had already made a reservation at was unable to accommodate us a night earlier, and so referencing our ‘trusty’ lonely planet, settled for a place called the Y.E.S. Hostel. We drove round some of the crater lakes which sit outside Fort Portal proper. on the way there We saw endless numbers of men pushing bikes impossibly laden with bunches of green matoke, up dirt tracks in the midday sun, and women and children tilling and farming the land. We were in very fertile country, on account of previous volcanic activity in the area. The fields were full of coffee, tea, matoke, papyrus and other crops.
We stopped for lunch where we got rid of the packaging from breakfast. My Swiss Army knife was wrapped up with them, and was inadvertently disposed of, without either of us realising until the next day and by which time it was too late. From here we continued to the sparse, prison like hostel. We were the only guests. Mum was incensed, ‘I stayed in a place like this in Afghanistan in the ‘70s, and there was shit up the toilet walls there too’, I suggested that our options were limited but we could check out the posher – and even more soulless – hotel just up the road. On balance, we decided to stay put and grit our teeth for 3 dollars a night. On walking to the posher hotel we became surrogate parents of a random dog, who followed us all the way there, entered the ground with us and sat next to us while we drank cold beers in the shade. The dog found the rest of the customers fascinating and whiled away a few hours making a nuisance of itself. At one point the bar manager came and asked us if the dog was ours, and we quickly denied having any connection with it. As we left, the dog decided it had probably best go home and followed us back to where we had found it. We had concluded quite quickly that Fort Portal itself was a place to pass through and use as a base for exploring the area, rather than a place to have a holiday.
We went back to prisoner cell block H, spending a bit of time playing table tennis, without actually using the table at all. In a desperate attempt to make our evening into something we went to a nearby guest house with a roof bar, containing a pool table, a couple of TVs showing football and a noisy parrot. One beer and we decided the best thing we could do was go back to our room and try and get our heads down. This was delayed by Mum's discovery of the lonely hearts page in The Red Pepper, Uganda's quality rag. 'Married man seeks woman for fun times' and ' Man seeks woman from North for marriage, must have untilled land upcountry'.
The following morning, we couldn’t have escaped faster than we did and checked in to Rwenzori View, which was lovely. We headed off to Amabere Cave, just outside of Fort Portal. We met Robert who was to be our guide for the morning, and set off, first on a ridiculously steep hike through burned fields to a vista point from which we could see three crater lakes. He pointed out birds and plants on the way and we had some interesting discussions about religion and politics. Like most Ugandans I have met, Robert talked around the subject matter, including the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, without actually giving us his personal opinion on any of it. On the way back down towards the falls themselves we met a couple of girls, who can't have been any older than 10, one carrying a bunch of matoke and the other carrying a pumpkin and a machete. Child labour is all too evident outside of Kampala, where less than 60% of kids attend school. We headed to the cave from here, fighting through sinewy forest to reach it. Here, stalactites and stalagmites continue to form, supplied with minerals by the milky coloured water dripping from the cave roof. Robert regaled us with the legend of the cave - full name Amabere ge Nyinamwiru, meaning Breasts of Nyinamwiru. Nyinamweru was the King's daughter, the most beautiful woman in the land, constantly plagued by budding suitors - a feeling I know only too well ;). The king had heard prophesy that he would be killed by his Grandson. The King had no grandson, but the attention of suitors towards his daughter now worried him. In an effort to reduce her beauty and hence the attention of menfolk, the king chopped off her breasts - and in Robert's version of the tale, poked out one of her eyes too - to reduce the chances of her becoming pregnant. This still had no effect on her charms, and so the King threw her into a tower - Robert's version - or into the caves - Bradt Guide version. Either way, she was impregnated and gave birth to a son. In Robert's version, word reaches the King that Nyinamwiru has produced a son, and the King takes the child and throws him into the cave, where he manages to survive by drinking the milky water running from the cave, grows up, learns of the events surrounding his birth and abandonment, meets the King out on a hunting trip and avenges his misfortune by killing him. The guidebook version is not so elaborate, basically stating that the child and his mother took shelter in the caves, and she, having no breasts, replaced the milk with the water dripping from the caves. I know which version I like better. We spent a happy hour scrambling round the caves and behind the waterfall there, and on the way back to the car, Robert pointed out a bald cow, born with no hair, which has to be one of the strangest freaks of nature I've ever seen.
Adam, my housemate, met us in Fort Portal that afternoon, and we went back to the guesthouse to shoot the breeze on the porch with a few beers. We met a Dutch surgeon and his wife, who had trained one of the guys I work with at Mulago, and it was interesting to talk about the differences between Mulago and Kisoro hospitals. We shared a communal dinner around a large family table at the guesthouse, with about 15 other people.
The following morning, we embarked on the long drive from Fort Portal to Murchison Falls. The day was scorching hot and the roads incredibly dusty. We sped along the dirt roads, kicking up the dust that flew through the car and covered us in a thin film of orange particles. I looked like a Scouser with a bad St Tropez tan. As we drove along, the scenery was similar the whole stretch, fields of Matoke, coffee and tea plantations, papyrus springing up from the marshes. Most of the vegetation was also covered in orange dust. Each village we hit was a collection of similar looking huts and shops, some painted with the colours of mobile phone companies, others displaying signs such as 'God is Able Grinders', 'Second Chance Salon', 'The Breath of God Ministries', 'God is Good Barbers' and so on. We saw a man wobble along the road on his bike, so drunk that when he eventually fell sideways into the ditch, he just went to sleep there. There was a brief moment of excitement when a wasp entered the car and Mum nearly had a fit of hysteria, demonstrating the 'Dinsley Wasp Dance' to Eddie and Adam with a modicum of style and finesse. After 8 hours on the road we stopped in Masindi for lunch. They had nothing on the menu we asked for 'It is finished', 'It is over', 'We don't have', so we settled for Chapatti and avocado salad. We were caked in orange dirt and must have looked stunning.
Eddie bundled us back in the car, and drove into Murchison Falls National Park. The scrub had been destroyed by wild fires, sparked by poachers or carelessness. Much of the vegetation along the main road in was blackened, the trees stripped of leaves, their bark scorched, looking eerie in the smoky air. We couldn't get a space at the backpackers campsite and had booked a banda in a lodge. It was more gross than the hostel in Fort Portal and at least 20 times the price. We decided to upgrade to a cottage, which wasn't much better but at least had a shower in it with hot running water. It had been a long and tiring day, and having to spend much more money to get a decent bed made me grumpy for the first time on the trip. We did get a good night's sleep, but I reflected on how the best places we had stayed had been some of the cheaper places.
Eddie collected us at around 6.30 ready to pick Adam up from his campsite and catch the Paraa ferry across into the park proper. The sun was rising over the misty Nile, hippos wallowing in the water like giant rocks with ears. On the other side, we didn't have to drive for long before finding an abundance of giraffes, buffaloes, kob, hartebeest, oribi, warthogs, baboons and hippos. Eddie managed to spot a shoebill stork on the far side of the river, one of the rarer birds here, with a face that looks literally like someone stuck a clog on the front of it. We went to the hippo mating ground, and if hippo foreplay is anything to judge by, all I can say is that I'm glad I'm not a hippo. We saw a solitary lion and a few elephants too. On the way back to the ferry, Adam spotted an upturned, decomposing hippo, a fair distance from the water. Not something the UWA mentioned we were likely to see in the brochure. Quite how it ended up on it's back, all four legs up in the air is beyond me. Perhaps it fell out of a tree.
We spent lunchtime at the Red Chilli Hideaway, kicking back with our books. The tranquility was only disturbed by an octogenerian canadian man using a chair to fend off a warthog that was just standing on the opposite side of a ditch minding its own business. His shouts of 'You might just get more than you bargained for, sonny!' while thrusting the chair towards the hairy pig had us sniggering into our plates, and when he turned to address the rest of his group after the warthog got bored and walked off, with the line 'You just need to make a threatening gesture', I had to leave the table for fear I might embarass myself. After lunch we took a boat trip to the bottom of the falls, watching the hippos pop up from underneath the water with a look of surprise that seemed to say 'Oh 'ello!', and spotting all sorts of colourful birds. There were many more elephants around compared to the last time I was here. It was a really lovely afternoon. We got back to the banda, and helped Adam to pitch his tent outside. We headed over for dinner, and despite us all having headtorches on, Adam still managed to trip over a sleeping warthog. I'm not sure which of them was more surprised.
The next morning we took a hike to the top of the falls, the last leg of our adventure before heading back to Kampala, and again were blown away by the sheer power of the water. We got back to Kampala mid afternoon, and after showering, throwing the dirty washing in the laundry and finally properly unpacking, caught up with the gang. It had been an amazing journey.
Photos can be seen here