Uganda: Kampala and the Ssese Islands

21st January - 9th February 2002


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It was only a few years ago that the thought of doing an independent trip for months at a time through sub-Saharan Africa filled me with fear. I think that back then, it was the fear of the unknown; sub-Sahara Africa was just a place I saw on the news showing wars, famines and droughts. I could not relate to this seemingly strange world. That all changed in 2000 when I embarked on my trip through West Africa and saw the real Africa for the first time, instead of the image portrayed by the western media. Today was Sunday 20th January and I found myself sitting at the railway station waiting for a train to take me to London and Heathrow airport. The wind howled along the platform and the rain lashed down as I waited. I had booked myself on a one-way ticket to Entebbe in Uganda from where I planned to spend the next few months travelling south to Cape Town in South Africa. I was in an anxious mood; I always am before the start of any trip. I reflected on the comforts and easy routine I was leaving behind and the adventures and challenges I was soon to encounter.

I was booked on an Emirates flight that evening which departed Heathrow at 20.00. First stop was Dubai where I landed just as the sun began to rise over the horizon. Here I changed aircraft for the next leg of my journey taking me to Nairobi and finally Entebbe where I arrived at 14.30 local time on Monday afternoon. Entebbe airport is very small but has an infamous reputation after the hijack of a Lufthansa aircraft in 1976 by Palestinian and German terrorists. After negotiations all non-Israeli hostages were released. In response and with the help of the German and Kenyan authorities, the Israeli's launched a surprise raid by landing paratroopers at the airport and in a clinical operation, shot dead all the hijackers and freed the remaining hostages.

My arrival was not so dramatic; there was only one other aircraft on the tarmac, a Kenyan Airways 737. My backpack was literally the last one to come out onto the luggage carousel. As it appeared through the hatch the conveyor belt ground to a halt. I really thought that this time my bag had been left on the tarmac at Heathrow or had caught a more exotic flight from Dubai. I was almost the last one to leave the airport, which worked out in my favour, as the remaining taxi drivers knew that some of them would be going home without a fare. This increased my bargaining power and I managed to negotiate a fare of US$20 to the Red Chilli Hideaway in the Bugolobi district of Kampala.

As soon as I left the airport on this warm, hazy afternoon, the anxious feelings that had plagued me for the few days leading up to this trip evaporated. I was overjoyed to be back on this continent and hadn't realised how much I had missed it over the thirteen months since I left Accra, Ghana in December 2000. The first thing to catch my eye as we drove out of the airport were two maribou storks perched on an archway over the road leading out of the car park. They were huge, ugly birds and at first I thought they were statues until one of them flew away. It took just over an hour to cover the 47 km from Entebbe to the Red Chilli Hideaway in Kampala. A lot of this time was taken up in a traffic jam trying to get through the centre of Kampala; there doesn't appear to be any ring road around the city. I finally arrived and checked into a dormitory room at 16.30; the end of a long journey.

Kampala is built over seven hills at an altitude of approximately 1,300m, which made the weather during my stay very agreeable, despite being almost on the equator. The city is very green, with trees covering the suburbs and the smarter areas of downtown. I didn't do much on my first day in the city; I needed time to recover from my journey to the heart of Africa and to acclimatise to the sudden warm weather I found myself in. The day time temperatures reached about 24'c and the sunshine was hazy, with the odd thunderstorm crashing about the city by the evening. The city is not a major cultural centre and there is not much for a tourist to do or see; there is very little tourist infrastructure here and very few tourists. Kampala is very much a city to walk about in, to see the different sights and sounds of everyday African life and to meet the people who were always friendly and helpful. There was very little hassle associated with the city and I always felt safe and secure as I walked about.

The transport though, is chaotic; but it functions once you begin to work out what is going on. The traffic jams coming into the city from the suburbs can often be bad; sometimes I thought it would be quicker to walk. From the Red Chilli Hideaway I took a matatu (a minibus) to the new taxi park, down the hill from the main street Kampala Road which runs through the city. This area of town is where all the transport hubs are, both the new and old taxi park and the bus park, which are spread around the Nakivubo stadium. The streets around these parks are just a mass of people, vehicles and traders all competing for the same space of road. I took a matatu from the old park to Entebbe to visit the Botanical Gardens, one of the few tourist attractions in the vicinity. Entebbe is fairly small and quiet when compared to its larger neighbour, Kampala. I didn't have a map of the town or any directions on how to find the gardens; all I knew was that they were down by the lakeshore. I took a motorbike taxi, known here as a boda boda, who obviously didn't know where the gates of the gardens were either, as he dropped me off at the Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel. I asked directions from the hotel staff and finally after asking a few more locals on the way, found the gate with a lady sitting on the grass verge selling tickets.

The gardens were laid out in 1898 by the first curator Mr A Whyte and stretch along the shores of Lake Victoria. The gardens are divided up into different sections, including the rainforest section where the locals claim that Johnny Weismuller filmed the original black and white Tarzan films. I spent most of the afternoon strolling around the gardens, sitting on the benches watching the amazing number a birds flying around, including hornbills and the ever ugly maribou storks, as well as black and white colobus monkeys swinging through the trees.

The next day I made an early start to leave the city and travel to the Ssese Islands, a group of eighty-four islands off the north western shores of Lake Victoria. I took the first bus out of Kampala to Masaka at 06.30, hoping to make a connection with the morning ferry to the main island, Buggala. I arrived in Masaka at 08.30 and found that I had missed the morning ferry; to make matters worse I also found out that the afternoon ferry didn't sail until 16.00. I now had the prospect of spending a long time here with nothing to do. I found one of the few shady trees in town and sat on my pack and waited. The ferry is run free by the government but due to budget restraints and the high cost of fuel it only makes the crossing twice a day. As I waited the locals stopped to say hello and to ask where I was going. I explained I was waiting for a bus to go to Kalangala, the main town on the islands; they confirmed to me that I was waiting in the right place and that soon some matatus would arrive.

While I was chatting to some of the many passers by, a young girl ran up to me and handed me a note. It read, ' Gentleman be careful. This place is full of con men. All those guys you see standing there is the same trick. From Eddie.' I cut off my conversation with the guys standing next to me and turned around and saw Eddie sitting on a stool outside a shop. I briefly nodded and then picked up my bag and joined him outside his shop. I spent the remaining hours in Masaka chatting to Eddie about everything from music and football, to the weather and the immigration policies in the UK. At 14.00 the matatus for Kalangala arrived and an hour later I departed along the dirt road to the ferry at Bukakata in a matatu completely stuffed full of people and luggage. At least once I arrived at the ferry crossing I could again stretch my legs as I waited for the ferry to arrive. In the distance on the northern horizon hung a huge storm cloud brooding over the lake, the lightening striking the lake and the thunder rumbling deeply in the distance. The crossing on the rather battered but still functioning ferry to Liku on Buggala Island took about forty minutes. The road, which was little more than a red dirt track, wound its way through the thick forest and small farms that cover the islands to Kalangala, where I finally arrived just after 18.00, twelve hours after leaving Kampala.

There were two other travellers on the matatu, a young couple from the Czech Republic. We were dropped off at the Hornbill Camp Site, which saved us a twenty-five minute walk from Kalangala, down the hill to the shores of the lake. This campsite had been recommended to me by many other people staying at the Red Chilli in Kampala and also had a good recommendation in my guidebook. I took a bed in the dormitory banda (a simple wooden hut with a thatched roof) while the Czech couple went off to check out the prices of some other nearby campsites. There were only two other people staying at Hornbill, a couple from France, Françoise and Celion. I joined them for dinner that evening; locally caught fish with beans, rice and cabbage (with a dash of chilli sauce). Françoise is in Uganda working for the aid agency Medic San Frontiers as a hospital logistics officer in the north of the country. Celion was visiting from France for ten days while Françoise had some leave from work.

The Hornbill Camp was very basic but comfortable. There were three individual bandas and the dormitory banda plus the kitchen and dining shelter. There was no electricity, although there were some solar panels but during my stay the solar generator was not working. Water came from the lake and the shower consisted of an old oil drum with a showerhead sticking out of it. I found it great to be completely away from city and urban life. I always intended to come to these islands as soon as I arrived in the country just to kick back and unwind after both a long journey and thirteen months of hard work saving up for this trip. The location was perfect, the camp was surrounded by trees and had it's own private beach with white sand and a few palm trees. I didn't swim; even though everyone on the islands says that bilharzia (a water borne disease transmitted by snails which generally live in reed beds and slack water) is not a problem. I walked along the beach, which was covered in thousands of snail shells which made my mind up for me.

There were plenty of chickens wandering around the camp, as well as a couple of ducks. The chickens would go everywhere, but they seemed to spend most of their time jumping in and out of the kitchen, scratching about for any scraps of food that may have landed on the sandy floor. You couldn't leave food unattended in the dining shelter otherwise you would come back and find half a dozen or more chickens pecking away at your plate. The chickens were not the main food thief at the camp; this position was taken by Moaney the monkey. He was an expert at snatching food straight from your plate without you even noticing until a streak of grey passed by your plate; by then it would be too late and Moaney would be off with your chapatti or pancakes. He managed to steal my breakfast on my last day; I never saw him coming. I fought back and grabbed Moaney who then dropped my chapatti on the floor; it was too late my breakfast was covered in sand so Moaney ran off with it. At least I had managed to save my omelette. There was also a small puppy at the camp called, originally, Osama Bin Laden, or just Osama for short. He provided hours of entertainment. When he wasn't playing with me he would chase the chickens or be chased himself by Moaney the monkey.

My first morning I woke at 06.00 to the sound of thunder in the distance; it wasn't long until it reached us. I lay in bed looking out of the door of my banda watching the leaves of the trees dance in the rain and the illuminating flashes of lightening. Finally by 14.00 that afternoon the storm had passed over and I could at last go out and explore my surroundings. In total I spent three nights on the islands; in the afternoons I would walk along the dirt roads through the forest between the villages, stopping to buy some fruit on the way to take back to the campsite to eat that evening. Generally I spent my time doing very little, mostly relaxing and deciding what I would do with the five and a half weeks I have before I have to be in Dar Es-Salaam to meet a friend at the airport.

I had originally planned to go to Rwanda for a week. Unfortunately a couple of days before I left home a volcano in the far east of DR Congo erupted sending a river of lava through the border town of Goma and into Lake Kivu. This natural disaster sent an estimated half a million refugees flooding across the Rwanda border to Gisenyi. Lake Kivu, one of the major attractions in Rwanda, had now been left acidic from the lava flowing into it and the attractive lakeside town of Gisenyi overrun with refugees. I also realised that I really didn't have enough time to do justice to both Uganda and Kenya in the five and a half weeks I had if I also spent a week in Rwanda. My plans on this trip remain fluid and there may be a chance to go to Rwanda from Tanzania at the end of March, although by then it will be the rainy season.

The Czech couple I had met on the matatu from Masaka had been gorilla tracking at the Bwindi national park. This is something I wanted to do but the US$250 permit fee had so far dissuaded me; there are only twelve permits a day issued for Bwindi and these have to be booked through the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala. The Czech couple only waited a week for a permit. I thought it would have taken a lot longer, but the tourist trade to the Bwindi park is still slow after the massacre of eight tourists by Congolese rebels there in 1999. I decided I would return to Kampala to try my luck arranging a permit.

Celion was booked on a flight back to Europe at 23.00 on Sunday night from Entebbe airport. The ferry connecting Buggala Island to the mainland doesn't operate on Sundays so Françoise had made arrangements with some local fisherman to hitch a ride on a fishing boat taking fish to market on the mainland. Our plans were a little complicated; after Françoise had settled his bill at the Hornbill camp site he worked out that he didn't have enough money to pay the fisherman, travel to the airport to drop off Celion and then take a taxi back to Kampala. I agreed to loan him some money to cover the trip back to Kampala and in return Françoise arranged over the phone a couple of nights free accommodation for me at the Medic San Frontier guesthouse in Kampala. On Monday morning we would go to the bank and he would repay me.

On Sunday morning we all settled our bills and waited on the beach for a fishing boat to pick us up at 08.00. Françoise found that he had made a miscalculation with his bill and still had USH70,000 in his pocket; enough money to cover the transport back to Kampala. We waited together by the beach for over an hour but no boat arrived. It turned out the fisherman had all got drunk the night before and were still sleeping; it had been a national holiday the previous day, NRM Anniversary day. We quickly came up with plan B and phoned for three boda bodas to take us to the other side of the island from where hopefully we would pick up another boat to connect with the large boat going to market. When the motorbikes arrived we jumped on the pillion seats, our backpacks on our backs and sped off along the dirt road to Kalangala. It wasn't long until we reached the hill going up to Kalangala where we had to hop off and walk as the motorbikes didn't have enough power to get us up. Once through Kalangala it was down hill along a narrow, rutted track that lead through the forest and eventually to a small fishing village on a beach.

We were not sure if we were at the right beach or whether we had missed the boat completely, as it was now 10.30. After a while a couple of other villagers came down to the beach to wait for the boat. At least we knew we were in the right place at the right time. Soon in the distance we saw a fishing boat approach around the island and in about 15 minutes it had arrived at our beach. We waited for the fish to be loaded before wading out to the boat ourselves and climbing aboard. My immediate concern was the amount of water in the bottom of the boat; then I began to notice the leaks along the sides. The wooden planks were quite rotten in places and the water poured in. This had to be the leakiest boat I had ever seen or ever sailed in. I began to have visions of my pack lying at the bottom of the lake while I swim for my life to a deserted island. Luckily we didn't have to go far in this boat and we had a big Mama sitting in the middle who did a fantastic job of bailing out the water with a bucket while also reading a newspaper.

Just along the coast we stopped at another beach where we waited for the big boat to arrive. It pulled up alongside us and we all went to work transferring our luggage and fish cargo into this larger, watertight boat. There were about eight passengers on this boat as well as the fisherman and their fish. We made ourselves comfortable in the bows of the boat for our long sailing to the mainland. It was about midday when we left this beach and sailed to another island. We stopped at another three islands, each time picking up more fish to take to market. The crew on our boat would jump off when we beached, greet the other fisherman, weigh their fish before paying them and loading it aboard. Finally at the last island we stopped at, we picked up a can of fuel and then set a course for the mainland and the small town of Kasenyi just along the shore from Entebbe.

The weather was good and the lake calm. I was concerned when I woke this morning as there was a thunderstorm rumbling away in the distance and the dawn light was occasionally lit up by a strike of lightening. This storm had quickly evaporated and the islands were now only covered with some patchy cloud. Once we had left the islands behind we found ourselves sailing under a clear blue sky with only the very occasional small cloud providing a short respite from the intense power of the sun. The voyage took about five hours in total to cover the approximately 30km to the mainland. It was a very relaxing way to travel; I had heard horror stories about these fishing boats running into storms on the lake and almost sinking as the waves broke over the bows. My only concern was the power of the sun and the total lack of shade on the boat. I did my best to protect myself from the sun but despite my best efforts I still managed to get burnt.

By early evening, just after 17.00, we arrived at Kasenyi. As we pulled up by the beach we were surrounded by porters wading out to the boat to carry both the passengers and the cargo on to the beach. We negotiated with two porters to carry three people and three peices luggage. It was a chaotic scene; men running and splashing through the water to unload the boat. I found it difficult to keep track of the men we had negotiated with as they off loaded our backpacks and then carried us through the water and on to the beach. From Kasenyi we took a matatu to the main road and then changed to get to Entebbe where we stopped for dinner and a beer before going to the airport to see off Celion.

Françoise and I finally got back to Kampala and the Medic San Frontier guesthouse in the Kalabagala district of the city by 23.30. The guesthouse was a smart block of flats where the workers stay on their way in and out of the country and while they are working at their offices in the city. We met the regional logistics director when we arrived, who had just cooked up some fish and pasta and invited us to help ourselves.

Continue reading this journey: Tracking the Gorillas at Bwindi