Backtracks and butterflies

Words and pictures by Words and pictures by Grant Spolander

If you travel to Uganda you’ll either be threatened with an AK47 or you’ll get a panga to the head. If neither of these situations transpires, you’ll definitely fall victim to one of the many diseases, parasites or viruses that plague this country.

Or so I used to believe.
When you hear the phrase “deepest, darkest Africa” it most commonly refers to the equatorial parts of our continent, an overgrown strip of muddy roads, impenetrable forests and a history of war-torn countries, coups and corruption.
SA4x4 July 2012 issueFor many folk, the prospect of visiting this region is daunting, but to others, equatorial Africa is the ultimate adventure playground, a place equal parts danger and indescribable beauty. I’ve always wanted to travel here, specifically to Uganda. For some time now I’ve romanticised the idea of mist-shrouded mountains, thick green jungles and the belief that if I can travel through central Africa – without having a limb chopped off – I can travel anywhere.
It’s a foolish perception, and one I’m not particularly proud of now that I’ve been to Uganda. Obviously, there was a time when this country was as dangerous as a late-night swim in False Bay wearing a pair of pork chop trousers, but I have to say that I felt safer in Uganda than I did drawing cash from my local ATM the night before I wrote this article.

My trip to Uganda came about thanks to an invite from Land Rover SA; the idea was to meet up with Kingsley Holgate on his latest expedition – the Great African Rift Valley. His journey started at the rift’s most northern point, Djibouti, and will continue southwards through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Malawi and finally, Mozambique – the rift’s most southerly point.

We met up with Kingsley and his crew in the Pearl of Africa, a name given to Uganda by Winston Churchill, or possibly even Henry Morton Stanley the explorer – no-one knows for sure who fi rst came up with this description but the name has stuck and many Ugandans are proud of it. As with all of Kingsley’s adventures this expedition focuses on two important aspects: humanitarian work through the distribution of mosquito nets, and the exploration of a new route and its surrounding areas.

On this trip Kingsley plans to criss-cross his way down the Great Rift Valley, a 6 500-kilometre seismic fracture that’s said to be the largest on Earth and viewable from the moon. It was formed approximately 20 million years ago and stretches from Lebanon to the Mozambique Channel. Th anks to its size this natural wonder is home to a vast variety of wildlife and terrain types: from rain forests and volcanic peaks to lakes and snow-sprinkled mountains; it’s also home to animals found nowhere else on Earth. Our journey began at Kasese where we met up with the Holgate team and their two Land Rover Discovery 4s. We spent our fi rst night in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, sleeping high on the banks of the Kazinga Channel – a link between Lake George and Lake Edward.

That night torrential rains flooded our campsite and soaked our tents. I woke the next morning to find my feet (and duvet) in a pool of muddy brown rainwater. Our trip was meant to be straightforward: a journey to the gorillas in Bwindi while distributing life-saving mosquito nets along the way. Instead, we found ourselves tracking and backtracking for an open route south. Due to unseasonal rains many of the bridges en route to Bwindi were washed away, and some of the roads were impassable.

There was one route in particular that I’ll never forget. We drove along a grey gravel track pockmarked with puddles and potholes. Our Disco 4s swerved and dipped as we navigated an endless array of obstacles. Then, as the road snaked its way through an extensive tangle of bright green flora, tens of thousands of butterflies took flight around us. It was a surreal sight, like a drug-induced hallucination. (Ed: Grant assures me that he has had no direct experience of a drug-induced hallucination, but that it was exactly how he’d imagine such a thing to be.)

We travelled through this fluttering confetti cloud for about 20 kilometres, during which time very few of us in the Disco 4 mentioned the butterflies. It could’ve been that my fellow passengers were just as awe-struck as I was, or perhaps none of us men wanted to get publicly mushy about the pretty bugs. Whatever the reason – I’m not ashamed to say it now, I loved this stretch of road. It was a trip highlight for me and even more memorable than the gorilla trek.

Our butterfly show came to an abrupt end when we found ourselves faced with a washed-out road engulfed in rain water. The brackish brown liquid spewed out the jungle from an unseen source, as though the trees themselves were turning into water. The road ahead of us was nothing but a torrent of swirling rapids. For about half an hour we contemplated the risks of a river crossing. Th en a fellow journo, Murray Williams, walked the most likely path across the river. Th e walk across went well, then he turned and walked back, a track-width downstream. With his camera held high above his head Murray edged back towards us. Th en, without warning, he suddenly dropped below the surface, with only his arm, head and camera sticking out.

Despite the Discovery’s commendable wading depth, we decided it too risky to attempt the river crossing, as there was no way of knowing how many dips, holes and gullies lay beneath the surface. Th is forced us to take yet another route to Bwindi – this was our fourth attempt to reach the gorillas. We followed directions from several locals. Just when we thought we’d found a clear passage south we found ourselves caught in a traffi c jam on a narrow gravel track. A long line of stationary trucks, cars and buses stretched out in front of us. Th e delay was due to a truck bogged down in a muddy hole. Locals gathered around to push the truck free. Unfortunately, manpower alone couldn’t free the truck and a super-sized bulldozer was eventually used to lift the truck’s rear and push it forward. Th en something bizarre happened: dozens of passengers walked back to the bus and collected their luggage, which, in this case, happened to be very large rocks.

In many parts of Africa – where the roads are known to be bad – passengers are oft en asked to forgo luggage and to pack a rock instead. Th en, when a bad stretch of road is encountered, each passenger collects his / her rock from the bottom of the bus and begins rebuilding the track. Once the bus is free of the obstacle the rocks are recollected and packed back into the bus. No-one complains about it, they just get on with it. It’s just another day in Africa – another day on kak roads. It took us roughly two full days to fi nd a route to Bwindi, a destination, which as the crow fl ies, lay just 110 kilometres from our starting point. Th e funny thing is that fi nding the road to Bwindi became the adventure of this trip – it was a two-day trial of zig-zagging, back-tracking and interpreting local intel. As a result, we ventured through dozens of small settlements, villages and saw some extraordinary sights – none of which would’ve happened if we’d found a direct route. As for the gorillas, well, a one-hour visit will cost you $500. However, we were told the price may increase to $700 very soon this year. Is it worth it? Absolutely, especially if it’s something you really want to do. But when it comes to a repeat visit, I think $700 may be a bit much. For that kind of cash I’d like to see pink tutu-wearing gorillas juggling fl aming bananas. (Ed: It seems Grant may just have a little more experience of drug-induced hallucinations than originally claimed.)

Costs aside, our gorilla hike was amazing, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that not only allowed us to see this highly endangered species in its natural habitat, but also to experience an age-old jungle growing denser over time. But for me, the real magic was the journey itself, the chance to travel with Kingsley and experience the exquisite beauty of Uganda and the authenticity of its people, who are friendly, helpful and genuinely happy to see you. When I got home from this trip the fi rst thing people asked me was, “How were the gorillas? How close were you? Did you stare into their eyes and feel a connection?” I usually answer with “Th ey were awesome, very close and their eyes are strangely human like, but that’s not to say I had an overwhelming urge to cuddle them or ask for a high-fi ve.” I then go on to say something along the lines of: “But don’t be too worried about the gorillas – there’s so much more to Uganda than big fl uff y apes. Let me tell you about the people, the butterfl ies, the roads…”

Okay, so you’re sold on the idea of Uganda as a possible overland destination. Now what? There aren’t too many tour operators running trips this far north so you’ll have to plan everything yourself. The following should help to get you going.

LOCATION
Uganda straddles the equator line and is located in the eastern half of the African continent. On average, much of the country sits an altitude of 1 100 metres above sea level and covers a total area of 236 580 km². This is a landlocked nation which borders Sudan, Kenya, the DRC, Tanzania and Rwanda.

HOW TO GET THERE
Personally, I’d follow Kingsley’s lead and start my very own Great Rift Valley adventure. Begin your trip in Mozambique and make your way through Malawi, the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda. With regards to visas: you may get lucky and be able to purchase your Ugandan visa at the border, but I wouldn’t count on it so arrange these documents beforehand – visit www.uganda.org.za.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Uganda is best known for its gorilla hiking safaris. The cost of these is rapidly escalating, so don’t waste any more time. If you’re keen to go, go! Uganda is also home to a wide variety of game, including antelope of every description, hippo, lion, elephant, buffalo and many more. For a conventional safari along these lines, visit the Queen Elizabeth National Park and the many water bodies that decorate this stunning reserve. Mountain lovers will be happy to hear that Uganda is very well known for its beautiful cliffs and peaks, such as Mount Elgon (4 321 m) in eastern Uganda, the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains in the west, or even the Moroto and Muhavura mountains in the north-east and south-western parts of the country respectively.

WHERE TO STAY
The Queen Elizabeth National Park offers a wide variety of accommodation types from luxury lodges to wilderness camps and budget chalets. For more information visit the park’s website at www.queenelizabethnationalpark.com and click on the accommodation tab. Prices will greatly vary, but be warned, Uganda is on the rise so accommodation and park entrance fees are climbing.

Buhoma is on the northern parts of the forest and is Bwindi’s busiest tourist site. There are loads of accommodation options available and you could probably get away with not having to book – just rock up and  nd something you like. However, if you really want to spoil yourself, check in at the Buhoma Lodge. Amongst its many offerings, Buhoma features various spa treatments and terri c views of the forest – a pre-booking will be necessary. Many of the accommodation options are within walking distance of the gorilla trekking of ces. For more information go to www.bwindiforestnationalpark.com.

FUEL
Fuel stops are surprisingly abundant, but travel with a few jerrycans and stock up at respectable looking fuel stations. An aftermarket diesel  lter may also be a good idea if you’re worried about bad diesel. However, with that said, our brand new Discovery 4s had no problems with the local fuel.

PROVISIONS
Bottled water is a must for Uganda. You could bring your own but there are plenty of shops that sell safe Ugandan bottled water. If you don’t like the idea of unpasteurised milk, pack several long-life milk cartons before leaving SA. Bread is widely available and coffee / tea is everywhere. The local beer is brilliant so leave your Castles at home.

ESSENTIAL GEAR
A rain jacket and something warm to wear in Bwindi; the evenings in the forest can get quite cool. Don’t underestimate the seriousness of a gorilla hike. Tracking the gorillas can take anything from 10 minutes (if you’re very, very lucky) to six hours – excluding the hike back. Be sure to pack breathable long trousers as you will not be permitted to hike in short pants due to stinging nettles. Lastly, if you’re coming down with a cold, don’t book a gorilla trek – the guide will not allow you to join the hike as gorillas are highly susceptible to human-transmitted diseases.

ROAD CONDITIONS
Be prepared for the worst. The main roads are often riddled with potholes and many of the secondary routes get muddy from frequent rains and humidity.

VEHICLE REQUIRED
Low-range is a nice-to-have but it’s not a requirement. We saw ordinary sedans slip-sliding through the Queen Elizabeth National Park. On that note, be sure to  t good off-road tyres that offer increased traction in muddy conditions.

RISK
Don’t drink the tap water in Uganda and be suspicious of food that could’ve been washed in dodgy water. Uganda is also a malaria area so cover up, use insect repellents and consult your GP about prophylactics. Lastly, if you haven’t already got one, you’re gonna need a yellow fever inoculation before departing for Uganda – it’s a legal requirement. Your local travel agent will advise you on several other recommended inoculations that you should consider.
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