Queen Elizabeth National Park

Today is safari day so we’re all up at the ungodly hour of 5:15am to be ready for breakfast at 6am. There are not many smiles at this hour of the day especially as it was very hot in the rooms last night. But we’re optimistic we’ll see animals. Our driver – Patrick – was feeling very poorly when we arrived yesterday so he arranged for a new driver for today’s drive. After a somewhat less than amazing breakfast (nothing wrong with it, just smallish portions and not amazing food) we piled back into the van for a full day of safari adventure. Our van has been transformed for safari with a pop up roof to allow passengers to stand and view the wildlife. It also makes for a nice natural air conditioning system!

We had a couple of quick stops to make before the game drive began in earnest. We’re not sure what they were for… some arcane bureaucratic exercise no doubt. From there we headed out onto the savanna in search of lions and elephants and hippos… it turns out safari game drives are sort of like trolling for salmon… you drive around a 2000 square kilometre park hoping to see creatures that are designed to be hard to see… we saw an elephant off in the distance but were assured we’d see lots so didn’t go closer (we should have) and we saw many types of deer and buffalo and birds… we saw a few of the deer like animals locking horns and learned that the losers have to leave the herd. We also learned that when buffalo get old, they leave the herd and form “loser” herds – sort of like retirement herds… Marie felt sorry for them for the rest of the trip… after a couple of hours of bouncing and bumping around, we saw a cluster of vans and Land Cruisers off in the distance and made our way over… Lions had been spotted… but no one really knew where… we all just kind of stared around in all directions looking for lions until a large female stood up about 30 feet in front of all the vehicles and started to amble away… the crowd erupted in a frenzy of camera clicks and excited whispers… and then a large male stood up and started to follow the female… the lions clearly couldn’t have cared less about the crowd of humans and vehicles metres away from them as they just did their lion thing and completely ignored us… I offered to sacrifice one of the students for a better show but apparently there are rules against feeding the lions…

After the lions we drove around a bit more but it was kind of anticlimactic after seeing lions… eventually we made our way to a salt lake and a series of small craft stalls… we spent some money buying souvenirs and then piled back into the van to make our way to our lunch destination – a fancy resort… a very, very fancy resort… we had planned to swim before or after lunch but what we’d heard would be 10,000 shillings (about 3 dollars) turned out to be 20USD (76,000 shillings) so none of us took advantage of their glistening, inviting pool… but lunch was delicious! And we were definitely impressed with the property and its commanding view of QENP.

After lunch we piled back into the van (a little reluctantly if I’m being honest as the resort was pretty darn comfortable) for the short trip down to the channel for the boat portion of our safari. We piled aboard and promptly took up most of the best seats and waited for the trip to start. We were all pretty excited because we could see a couple of elephants just across the channel and knew we’d be getting a close up view of them… As has been the case for most of Uganda, we did not leave on time (due mostly to a dead battery for the outboards). But eventually we were pulling away from the jetty and heading across the channel. Kazinga Channel is a 40 kilometre stretch of water that connects Edward and George Lakes and is home to hundreds of hippos, thousands of birds and provides an up close look at some of the larger mammals that head for the water each day… Over the course of our 2.5 hour “cruise” we saw African elephants, hippos, buffalo, Nile crocodiles, deer type things (I forget their proper names), fishermen and a bazillion birds… so, so many birds… In all, it was a relaxing and pleasant way to see the animals… and so much cooler (as in temperature) than sweating and bouncing around in the van trying to find a few hundred animals in thousands of square kilometres of bush.

After the boat cruise we headed back to Simba to wash off the road dust, clean up and grab dinner. There may have been a few naps as well. And the drinks were cold this time! Part way through dinner, the power shut off again so we were able to enjoy dinner by candlelight. In all, a long but thoroughly enjoyable day.

Masaka to Queen Elizabeth National Park

We drove… A long way… It was very hot… We saw some stuff… The drinks were not cold when we arrived at Queen… we were not amused…

It was a long drive. Nothing much stands out about the drive until we stopped for lunch at a rest stop just before Mbarara. It was pretty posh (gift shop, small museum, landscaped grounds). The food was decent but took a long time (not unusual for Uganda we’re finding) and was on the pricier side. After lunch we headed for a sandal shop in Mbarara where Marie, Craig and I each purchased a pair of very good quality leather sandals for $7CDN. Apparently sandals are not cool with the young’uns any more…

After Mbarara we made a pitstop along the way to see zebras (which you can’t see in Queen Elizabeth National Park). We saw cows too… with huge horns… which led the kids to christen every single one of them – in fact every single cow-like animal with horns we have seen on this trip – Ferdinand after the animated movie that was showing on the plane trip from Toronto to Addis. It has become less cute as time goes on…

After zebras we drove. And drove. And drove. There were baboons at some point I think… we had to make sure the windows were closed because they are bad baboons and might try to come into the van and take our stuff… but at least they do not call cows Ferdinand….

We made a quick stop at a little viewpoint overlooking the Great Rift Valley (where QENP) is located. It was quite spectacular. From there we entered the park proper and had to make a couple of stops to register for our game drive the next day and take care of various administrative tasks before bumping and bouncing our way to our home for the next two nights – Simba Safari Lodge. It was quite rustic. We had to order our dinner as soon as we arrived – our choices were a bit limited but a rubber tire would have appealed at this point… after ordering and signing for our rooms, we dumped out stuff… into the 9th level of Hades… apparently it has not rained in a QENP for a couple of weeks… I’m not sure they would have noticed because it would have immediately turned to steam in the heat… hot as it was outside, it was substantially hotter inside our room… the wall mounted fan tried valiantly to cool the room but it was fighting a losing battle.

As Marie and I were dropping our bags in our room, we heard a commotion coming from the girls’ room next door… geckos… on the walls… they were not amused. At all. Especially when the porters basically laughed and left them to deal with them… I was pressed into service but there is little you can do about geckos beside scare them into a crevice… which I did with a duo tang… I expect the geckos came back…

Eventually we got everything squared away and headed down for dinner. It was not any cooler in the dining area and as I mentioned, the drinks were not very cold. There may have been tears… from me… but I guess we had to forgive them as they had not had power for most of the day… During dinner we were momentarily distracted by a spider the size of a small kitten (okay it was actually not that big but given the reaction it elicited, I figured it must have been a kitten-sized spider). Noah solved the problem by kicking it out into the night like a soccer ball… After dinner we all headed for our saunas… I mean our rooms… and called it a night. It had been a long day of driving and we had to get up very early the next morning.

Traffic in Kampala

How to describe traffic in Kampala… it’s not the craziest we’ve ever seen (that would probably be Bangkok or Phnom Penh) and it’s probably not the most aggressive we’ve ever seen (that would be Turkey) but there’s something special about it… it might be the matatus – the white vans (much like ours) packed with passengers that stop pretty much anywhere they darn well please and just zip back out into traffic whenever they feel like… they’re basically the public transit system of Kampala. There’s a driver and a conductor. The driver drives and the conductor entices/encourages passengers to get on and collects the money. They don’t follow a schedule or any particular route… basically you pays your money and you go where it takes you… you and a dozen or more passengers… they’re a big part of the reason nothing ever starts on time in Kampala and while they’re a necessary service, they clog up the traffic pretty bad…

And then there’s the bodas… dear lord the bodas… they’re everywhere… they’re not quite scooters… not quite full blown motorbikes… they’re some sort of time-bending, warp drive enabled, space folding vehicle of the future… they squeeze between vans, zip in front of trucks, dodge buses… if we had a dollar for every time we thought someone was going to be squashed and somehow emerged unscathed, we’d all be very rich… and they’re not just hauling people… we’ve seen them piled with mattresses, pineapples, construction equipment, recycling, and an endless variety of families, babies, tourists and whatnot. Sometimes they where helmets. Most don’t… probably so they can see and hear everything around them so they don’t get smacked… there are some companies (Safe Boda being one of them) that have standards, follow the rules, wear helmets and make their passengers wear helmets but they’re definitely in the minority. Most seem to just say “screw it” and let ‘er rip…

Now add in full size buses, four wheel drive safari vehicles, construction equipment, potholes capable of swallowing tanks, police trucks loaded with heavily armed officers, Royal convoys, guys selling vegetables and fruits, people zipping to and fro, dogs, goats, cows and the odd mzungu looking forlorn and lost and it’s a wonder Patrick’s hair isn’t snow white and falling out… there are few (we’ve seen maybe 3) stop lights, virtually no stop signs, no street signs to speak of, the traffic police wouldn’t dare stand in the actual intersection so they mostly just whistle and wave in random patterns (I swear one guy was just swatting flies) or write tickets… and then a military or police vehicle comes roaring through the seemingly impenetrable wall of vehicles and everyone gets the heck out of the way… there are no sidewalks… few zebra crossings (crosswalks) and it’s every person for themself…

Probably the only saving grace is that the drivers are all pretty chill about it all… they’re aggressive sure but only because if they weren’t, we’d still be at the airport waiting for a break in the traffic… maybe it’s more accurate to say they’re assertive because we haven’t seen much actual aggression… mostly they cut you off, lock up the brakes and then everyone smiles and laughs… and lays on the horn of course… once in a while they might make a gesture or make a comment (their window is only inches from yours at times) to show that you went too far or someone might do something particularly stupid and others will let them know, but for the most part it all actually works… insofar as we haven’t seen any accidents or road rage… which is good, because it would probably take a tank to get to the scene of the accident because there’s no room for the drivers to move over and let emergency vehicles by…

When you leave the city and start driving, say to Masaka, the potholes get bigger. The trucks get bigger and slower… the bodas are joined by tuktuks and assorted other vehicles (most of which are built like tanks). The dust is everywhere… and police checks… in the 4 hours we were on the road, we passed through at least 15 of them and were pulled over (for absolutely no reason we or Patrick could discern… except perhaps to be lectured by the traffic cop on what his hand signals mean)… these stops include full-on spike barriers and lots of machine guns…

And on top of all this, they drive on the wrong side of the fecking road!!! All in all, you would be quite literally out of your mind to try and drive in this country. Save your sanity. Save your hair. Your marriage. Your hopes and dreams for the future and hire a local driver… and update your will…

Kampala to Masaka

This morning we were able to sleep in a little as it’s something of a travel day as we will be making the 3-4 hour drive south to Masaka where we’ll be connecting with a number of social enterprises and NGOs.

Up first, though, is the Gaddafi mosque at the top of Old Kampala Hill. Started by Idi Amin during his time in power (1971-1979) and finished with funds from Gaddafi in 2006, it can hold up to 35,000 worshipers and is the National mosque of Uganda. The interior blends African, European and Arabic elements and the minaret provides a spectacular 360 degree view of Kampala. We started by properly covering our female students (pants needed to be covered by a wrap and heads covered with a scarf… the girl helping our students robe up was quite taken with Marie’s head scarf (it was purchased in Morocco for our trip into the desert). After that we removed our shoes and headed inside for a brief tour of the interior of the mosque and a reading (singing) from the Quran by our tour guide – Fatima – who quite literally has the voice of an angel… Hearing the verses of the Quran sung rather than read was quite beautiful.

After that it was time to make the short (but steep) climb to the top of the minaret and a brief history lesson by Fatima. The name of the city is apparently derived from a British camp that used to be located at the top of the hill during colonial times and from the impalas that used to roam there but the C in camp is pronounced differently so it became Kamp + Impala = Kampala). She also pointed out interesting and historical features on the surrounding hills. In all, it was a well received tour and, for most of our students, their first time in a mosque.

After the mosque we made our way to Buganda road and a craft market. We all bought a few things… for most of the kids this was their first experience with bartering and some definitely got the hang of it pretty quickly from their reports. Marie and I have been to a lot of markets and the prices at this one were definitely reasonable and the sellers very friendly. After the market we crossed the street to 1000 Cups – a local coffee shop known for their variety of coffees from around the world and their own ethically sourced Ugandan coffees. We all stocked up on beans and enjoyed some of their concoctions – Marie’s was definitely the winner… whatever it was, it tasted just like an orange creamsicle… the coffee floats were a close runner up… after the market we headed for a restaurant for a quick lunch and then hit the road to Masaka.

The ride to Masaka was long. And bumpy. And hot. We stopped briefly at a spot along the way (I forget the name) that straddles the equator to snap a few photos. Then it was back in the van to finish our journey. We arrived in Masaka about an hour later than Patrick had predicted (6:30) and as soon as we arrived Marie and I sacked out in our room (quite luxurious with a king size bed and our own toilet and shower this time) while the kids (and Craig) jumped in the pool for a quick swim. After that it was off for dinner at Frickadillen (it’s owned by the same people who own the Banda Overland Lodge where we are staying.) We had all placed our orders while we were still in Kampala so dinner was more or less ready when arrived at 8 and we all chowed down on a variety of western and local dishes. After dinner it was time for a quick debrief and discussion of the day and then back to the lodge and off to bed…

Some random observations and bits of knowledge from the past couple of days:

  • The average life expectancy in Uganda is 58 and the average age is 19 with almost 50% of the population under 14…
  • A common car wash consists of driving cars/trucks part way into a creek and tossing buckets of water at them…
  • In more than a few parts of Kampala we’ve had to make sure our windows are up and the doors are locked to avoid people reaching in and grabbing phones or bags. Given how often traffic comes to a complete standstill and how close people are riding/walking by the van, this is a wise precaution.
  • There are about 40,000 boda drivers in Kampala… so many that the government is apparently reluctant to do much to regulate them for fear of them rising up
  • Many banks apparently charge interest rates that can add up to 80% – one of the reasons micro-lenders are so important to helping lift people out of poverty
  • We haven’t seen many people smoking but apparently everybody smokes…
  • The average wage in Uganda is 2USD per day. At Sawa, the employees are paid $150USD per month and the women at Afripads are paid about $6 per day
  • Hundreds of people each day go to hospital as a result of boda accidents
  • There is a type of stork called a Marabou Stork (also known as Undertaker Birds) that are basically the garbage collectors of Kampala… they are tremendously ugly and look like pterodactyls in flight…