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ADVENTURE TRAVEL – UGANDA: The Pearl of Africa

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This very last in the series of stories from Dan Grec’s two-year Africa round trip details a scary mishap and some extraordinary wildlife encounters

I’m out solo, exploring an isolated gravel track in Uganda when the stunning Lake Albert comes into view over the crest of a hill. I strategically park the Jeep to get the best photo possible and walk away with camera in hand. As I climb the rock bank for a photo, I see the Jeep move. Almost before I can react it has travelled an entire Jeep length and is picking up speed fast. I desperately scramble after it, hoping without reason there is a way I can fling myself into the driver’s seat to stop it. Seeing the inevitable I keep clear, utterly helpless. Within three or four lengths it hurtles out of control into the ditch on the left before striking the rock wall, very hard. The tyre takes the full impact, violently flipping the Jeep over onto the passenger side before it skids to a crunching stop. I crumple to the ground, terrified that I may have just ended my African Expedition, and with no idea what to do.

Into Uganda

A few weeks earlier, I completed another straightforward border crossing from Rwanda into Uganda. After finishing the paperwork and starting the Jeep, I think for a second before turning off the engine and walking back to the armed military man guarding the boom gate. “Which side of the road in Uganda?” I ask. “Keep left,” he says, “not like Rwanda.” After swapping sides multiple times now, I figure it never hurts to double-check, and the lack of signs makes me not trust my own memory of which country drives on which side.

Uganda Quick Facts

Capital City: Kampala
Population: 43 million
Size: 241 000 square kilometres
Languages Spoken: 2 official (English, Swahili)
Currency: Ugandan Shilling
Independence from England: October 1962

Mgahinga mountain gorillas

A couple of friendly armed park rangers hitch a ride with me to the National Park on the border of Rwanda and The DRC, where mountain gorilla sightings are all but guaranteed. At $600USD it’s not an easy choice, though I rack it up as a ‘once in a lifetime’ and, as soon as I have paid, I can’t wait to get started. At a very brief introduction, I’m told there is only one gorilla family here, consisting of eight gorillas. This group contains two full-size male silverback gorillas – which is not at all common – and the leader is the second-largest gorilla in existence. Together with four other people, we set out hiking through the thick forest up the gentle slopes of the volcano. After an easy 45-minute walk we hear, and then see, the men tracking the gorillas sitting calmly on the ground.

From the moment I crouch down, about 10 metres from the massive gorilla, my brain can’t process what my eyes are telling it. The silverback is so big and so close, I feel as if I am seeing the best CGI movie of all time. He weighs well over 300kg, almost all being pure muscle, and his biceps, shoulders, and chest are simply too big to comprehend. His head is three or four times bigger than mine and his hands could easily crush my skull. It’s a certainty that he could tear me limb from limb with as much effort as it takes to snap a twig. Knowing all of that, it’s insane to sit on the ground so close, though the trackers and guides assure me I’m fine.
To move around, the gorilla walks on his front knuckles with his chest forward and, again, I can’t believe he is actually real. At times he looks exactly like a stuffed toy – complete with fluffy fur and leathery round
belly. It soon becomes clear each gorilla has a unique personality, though the one thing they all have in common is their ability to completely ignore us. I’m very close to the silverback when he stands up and grunts while striding right beside me, easily close enough for me to reach out and touch – which I don’t do. The baby gorillas are full of beans and wrestle, climb on and eat everything they can, and even take turns using the big silverback as a trampoline. He has an impatient look on his face but doesn’t do anything to stop them. Too soon our hour is up, and we tear ourselves away and hike back, still in disbelief about what we have just experienced.

Ishasha National Park

This rugged park lies on the very western border of Uganda, butting up against the mighty DRC. As soon as I approach the park entrance, I know I’m onto a good thing. It’s extremely remote, there is nobody else around and I even hear elephants trumpeting loudly while chatting to the officer at the entrance gate. Throughout the equatorial regions of Africa, I have been shocked to find wide-open hills covered in thick grass, and I smile as I recognise this familiar landscape yet again. This park is famous for lions that climb trees; the only place in the world where they are known to do this. I keep my eyes peeled and search high and low all over the park, though I never do spot a single lion. The torrential rains keep the temperature down, and I’m told the lions move into the trees in search of a cool breeze when the temperature skyrockets during the hot dry season. The monster thunderstorms boil all afternoon, making camping by the river a rainy affair. As usual, it’s just me and the noisy hippos in the campsite. In the morning I’m moving before sunrise, exploring far into every corner of the park until the skies let loose with a torrential downpour after midday.

Soon after leaving the park I hear a disconcerting noise from under the Jeep. Over the course of a few kilometres, I diagnose it’s related to road speed, and it’s definitely not the engine or the brakes. I finally nail it down to the front driveshaft, and the universal joint near the transfer case – the very universal I had replaced in South Africa. At first, I plan to ignore it, though five minutes later the clunking noise is so loud I know I must take action. For the first time after more than 150 000km on my two expeditions, I pull to the side of the road, get out my tools and lie in the dirt to work on the Jeep. I don’t carry a spare, so, for now, I simply remove the front driveshaft entirely, and will have to make do without 4×4 until I can rebuild or replace the joint in the capital city, or possibly have one sent over.

Disaster strikes

At almost 3 000kg, my Jeep is no lightweight. I have too much stuff and bolted too much onto it, but that’s a problem to solve on another day. The handbrake has needed adjustment for a long time now, which is yet another job I have constantly pushed down the list. Stopping on the isolated gravel road above Lake Albert, I kill the engine, pull the handbrake, and leave the transmission in first gear. The hill I have stopped on is not overly steep, though in the past while sitting in the driver’s seat I have felt the Jeep move when stopped on a hill. Given that the transmission is in first gear and my foot is off the clutch, the weight must be overcoming the compression and turning over the engine. In the past, it has only moved a few centimetres every five or ten seconds, which I assume is just one cylinder rolling over. It’s been a monster day at the wheel, and I’m exhausted. I know I need to get a good photo here, and so I try to concentrate before getting out of the Jeep. I do my usual trick and sit in the seat for a ten count to see if it will roll over a cylinder on this slope. It doesn’t budge, so I walk back to take the photo before watching helplessly as my house and shelter smashes onto its side right in front of me.

Immediately I feel more helpless and alone than I ever have while on expedition. Maybe more than I ever have in my entire life. I’m terrified to walk over and really examine the situation, so I spend a few minutes crouching on the ground without getting any closer, somehow hoping to deny reality. I have my camera, so I snap a few photos, though it makes me feel sick to even see the Jeep through the viewfinder, so I stop. Attracted by the loud crash, locals begin to materialise out of the forest. I explain time and again that nobody is injured, and everyone is relieved. It’s clear they think I’m an idiot, and I tend to agree. When I stop shaking and start using my brain, I have a good look around. There are a couple of trees off to the side that would be perfect for winching, and so I endeavour to get out the winch controller, which is no easy feat. I climb up the undercarriage and struggle to open the driver’s door before I lower myself down to stand on the inside of the passenger door. Looking around I see absolute chaos inside, including a pile of smashed glass beer bottles and fresh eggs I bought earlier. I try not to think about it and get on with the task at hand.

I would prefer to go around the tree with my snatch block and back to the Jeep frame to really pull it up, though my winch rope is not long enough to make the return trip. One local man speaks reasonable English, and he assures me that with the help of everyone gathered we’ll get it back on the wheels. I’m a little sceptical given how heavy it is, though he and everyone else are undeterred, and soon they’re lifting the rear passenger side while I slowly take up the slack with the winch strung sideways to a tree. To my complete surprise, the Jeep slowly climbs and lands on its wheels with a minimum of fuss. It has come to rest half in the ditch and, after a lot of back and forward, I manage to get someone else to disconnect the winch line before I let it roll forward a little. After more communication problems yet another kind local chocks the wheels with massive rocks, and finally, I feel confident it can’t move any more. Again, I feel reluctant to survey the damage, and after shaking an endless procession of hands I finally bring myself to walk around to the passenger side. Miraculously there is no broken glass, and the fibreglass J30 pop-up roof is almost unscathed; there is only a tiny chip in the pop-up section which is purely cosmetic.

I don’t usually like to put things down to luck, though in this case, I have to say I might be the luckiest person in the world. On closer inspection, I see the AEV snorkel took the brunt of the impact, as did the mirror and the two plastic fender flares, which are almost entirely broken off the Jeep. There are dents and scratches in both doors, and both door handles are broken, though, overall, I’m impressed at how well the Jeep has held up.

I begin to hope this isn’t as bad as I feared. I’m worried that oil may have leaked into the cylinders, so I let it sit for four hours while I slowly clean up and attempt to put everything back where it belongs. I also begin to wonder about any damage caused by the engine turning so fast. I left it in first gear, and notice it had not popped out of gear during the crash. That means the engine was mechanically turned by the weight of the Jeep, so it’s entirely possible it has sustained some damage. I don’t know how fast the Jeep would actually go at red line in first gear, though I doubt it really went all that fast. If it did, there is every chance the engine has skipped teeth on the timing chain, which would be a catastrophe. There is nothing I can do, so I try not to think about it. Duct tape does wonders to hold the fender flares on, and I just throw the mirror inside for now. Under the hood, everything looks sane, with just a hint of power steering fluid leaking from the reservoir, and some engine oil leaking from the filler cap on the valve cover. Originally, I plan to remove all the spark plugs, though night has well and truly set in, making the task much harder. I rationalise that it’s now been sitting right side up for four hours, and it was only on its side, not actually upside-down.

After topping up the engine oil I turn the engine over a few times then immediately turn it off before it actually fires, and everything sounds and seems fine, so I start it up and let it idle. Again, miraculously, everything seems fine, and I have no reason to think I have caused permanent damage. There is no smoke, no rattles and certainly no nasty noises. There aren’t even any warning lights on the dash. During all of this, a local has stayed around to talk to and reassure me, and he suggests I camp near his house, less than 50 metres away. I limp the Jeep off the road and am relieved it seems to drive fine. I set up camp and continue the massive clean-up job. The J30 roof opens perfectly fine, and other than a lot of glass, beer, and broken eggs, the interior is also intact. At first, the Dometic fridge won’t turn on, though it comes well after a few hours of being ride-side-up. In a strange twist of fate, I then see one of the most beautiful sights of my entire life, which I would have missed had it not been for the accident. Thousands of small boats have rowed onto the lake to fish for the night and the small kerosene lamps look like an ocean of stars stretching below me. I’m not sure if I should be smiling or crying, and so after midnight, I’m still shaking as I climb up into bed, feeling like this has all been a horrible dream.

Disaster aftermath

In the morning my new local friend happily jumps in the Jeep and shows me down to Kibiro Hot Spring, my original destination. It’s a small and very hot spring in a beautiful valley, right next to the shores of mighty Lake Albert. I normally love to explore hot springs, but my heart isn’t in it today. On the way out I park the Jeep near the scene of the accident to snap the photo I was originally trying to get. I put it further up where the road isn’t so steep and chock the wheels with large rocks. After all that, the photo turns out to be nothing special. I drive a hundred kilometres and the Jeep seems fine. The roads are not paved, so I can’t be sure it’s driving completely straight or smooth, but nothing feels wrong, the engine is nice and quiet and there are no lights on the dash. Driving on the wrong side of the road without a passenger-side mirror is annoying and dangerous so I become determined to fix it one way or another.

I repeatedly ask in every small town and village, and a few days later I find a guy that assures me he can weld the aluminium of the mirror support which snapped. Directly on the side of the road, he uses an oxy-acetylene torch to heat everything until the aluminium begins to melt and then uses a steel rod to push the liquid aluminium around until it bridges the gap to form a join. It’s exactly like soldering small electronics, and it appears to hold well enough.

Later that day I reattach the mirror and continue to find broken glass and the remains of broken eggs, which now reek horribly after a few days baking in the scorching African sun. I completely disassemble the rear fender flare and repair it with new plastic body clips, making it as good as new. The front fender has been broken and held together with gorilla tape since I clipped a tree stump in The Congo, so I just replace a few clips and use more gorilla tape, which is sturdy enough for an African fix.

After a few hundred more kilometres, I notice the front axle is leaking oil from the end of the axle tube on the driver’s side, something it has never done before. I wonder if hitting the bank so violently on that side has unseated an axle seal, or if I’ve done more major damage to the notoriously weak D44 front axle. I will have to keep a close eye on it for the next phase of the journey through Africa.

The pearl of Africa

I had been looking forward to Uganda since first landing in Africa over two years ago, and it far exceeded my expectations. Even with the biggest challenge yet to the expedition, I fell in love with this wonderful country. Locals are well educated and are extremely happy to include me in their daily life. In the evenings I played pool and enjoyed cold beer at local bars while chatting easily. I genuinely felt that locals were not treating me any differently than their own friends – in Uganda, everyone is the same, and it feels fantastic. On top of that, Uganda has stunning wildlife, breathtaking scenery, and immense National Parks making it easy to see why it’s often called ‘The Pearl Of Africa’.