The Second week into my tour saw us crossing our first border into Uganda, where the real fun began! Such a diverse country, one day I was rafting, getting drunk and showering on/by the River Nile, the next I'm trekking Chimpanzees in the forest, cruising alongside hippos and sleeping next to elephants... spoiler: 3 of those things actually did occur in just 24 hours (never in my life have I had such a jam-packed day, sorry guys, day 14 is a long read!) I would most definitely recommend Uganda as an African destination to anybody who is looking for a country that has it all: adventure, game drives and culture!
Day 8: Eldoret to Jinja
We drove from the highest altitude town in Kenya, Eldoret, directly to the adventure capital of Uganda: Jinja. It was a completely uneventful driving day, bar our first border crossing experience. After overtaking all of the other trucks and buses to get to the immigration office, it became evident that the bridge to cross the border was still under construction. We did a big U-turn and headed down the side road which would take us over to the Ugandan side of the border crossing. As soon as we got out of the truck, we were immediately harassed by vendors trying to sell food, drinks, knives, sunglasses or change money. After being warned by Kanyo, our tour guide, of the unnecessary difficulty of African border crossings we were prepared for a long haul, but got out relatively quickly and easily… until we got back to the truck and all of the women were called straight back out because apparently one of the women hadn’t stamped out of Kenya correctly. We traipsed back into the immigration office, showed our stamps, even though they insisted one of us was missing a stamp, and rather than apologising or admitting defeat, a simple wave of the hand from the official sent us back on our way and into Uganda.
Driving into Uganda was an immediate change of scenery to more green and lush hillside. Most of us went quiet and sat in awe, watching this new, beautiful country unfold before us. Late in the afternoon, we turned onto an extreme red, dusty, bumpy road (the type of African terrain that you instinctively picture) and drove onwards into the gated campsite. The campsite offered unobstructed views of the Nile from the restaurant/bar, and we pitched our tents with a direct river view - home for the next 4 nights!
Day 9: Jinja
After a good night’s sleep, we jumped straight into the activities, with most of us heading off for white water rafting on the Nile. We waited a good half hour at the meeting point before being provided a helmet and vest and a Rolex for breakfast (a fried egg rolled inside a chapati) until we were on the road towards the starting point. For someone who’s never been rafting, I was quite anxious to be heading straight into grade 5 rapids, but holy crap was it fun! There was 5 of us from the tour group, and Ling, 1 other tourist from Shanghai, who didn’t know how to swim.
We spent the first 20 minutes in a flat pool at the top of the river going over the basics with the rafting guide, and then were thrown straight into the deep end (literally) of a grade 5 rapid on our first go. Smug after smooth sailing down the first 2 rapids, the third one flipped us dramatically! We probably spent a good 15 seconds under water, hanging on tight to the raft rope until I was able to get my head out of water and follow the guide’s instructions to flip the raft back over and hop back in.
Frantically looking around, there was only 4 of us in the raft, the other 2 had ended up in the emergency raft with the other crew. Ling didn’t return for a while after getting the shock of her life, but the rest of us battled the 4th rapid before lunch. Lunch consisted of scoffing down half a pineapple each and a packet of biscuits before tackling a 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th rapid. For anyone sitting on the fence about giving rafting a go, definitely do it! It was the most fun I’ve probably ever had in water, despite the hotdogs that I was trying to pass for sunburnt legs afterwards. We also got fed an early BBQ dinner, which couldn’t’ve been more than an hour after our snack-lunch, so need-less to say we were all starving by actual dinner time. I can hardly describe the feeling of eating dinner and drinking a cider while watching the sun set over the River Nile. We also got our first lot of new people join the tour in the form of 3 25-year old American boys nearing the end of a year-long world trip.
Day 10: Jinja
After having an exhausting previous day rafting, myself and three of the others signed up for a village walk, after feeling as though we really hadn’t seen any of the ‘real’ Africa in the 10 days since we had started the tour. However, I was wrong in thinking it would be a nice leisurely stroll through the village. By 9am the humidity was already at full-blast, and as the guide showed us his family garden/farm, I stood politely listening to his wisdom and observing his banana trees, coffee trees and other copiously cultivated fruit and vegetables, all the while sweating down my face, front, back and crack!
After what felt like half a day in this guy’s garden (it was probably more like an hour, maybe even 45 minutes, I can’t be sure) we finally got out into the village, and onwards to a local community centre, which had been founded by volunteers. The centre included a computer lab, a room decked out with 20 sewing machines for the women’s course, a maternity course room, 3 levels of pre-school, and then further to the back - a clinic, path lab, and a specialty school.
The school ran 4 main classes throughout the day, in which children from the local schools would come to for an excursion twice a year to learn about preventing Malaria, growing food self-sufficiently, basic computer skills and family planning in different formats (i.e family planning was a drama class and learning about growing vegetables was run as an art class). They are provided lunch as part of the day course, and sent home with a pot-plant to grow their own tree and initiate a conversation with their parents about what the centre had taught them. After being sung to by the cutest pre-school children of all time for a good 10 minutes, the tour was ended by a local lunch, back at our guide’s house. We were served jackfruit, cassava chips, mashed green banana (Which tastes more like a starchy mash than a fruit) with peanut sauce, spinach mix and a cabbage mix.
When we returned to the campsite we headed straight to the River to try out the zipline and sled on the concrete slide and cool down in the water. I then washed off in the Nile-view outdoor showers, I can’t even explain how surreal it was to be staring out at that big, beautiful river while doing something so ordinary and mundane as showering. I prettied up a little bit and headed to the bar to meet up with the others before heading down for the Booze Cruise… 2 hours of appetisers and an open bar, and man did we take advantage of that fact! We watched the sunset go down over the river, and headed back to shore absolute drunken messes by 7pm. The American boys, already proving themselves to be terrible influences, convinced us all to do a quick final shot of the local gin, Waragi (which came straight back up), before we stumbled up the impossibly long staircase to the bar for a loud and obnoxious Tuesday night. To be honest, I don’t remember much more of that night except for ditching Amie, after half an hour of holding her hair back to put myself to bed for the first out of at least three other attempts, stumbling from the tent to the toilets.
Day 11: Jinja
This was a rough day. My mum has always prided herself on passing down her impressive genetics of never being hungover the next day to me, but I guess binging Vodka & Waragi for 2 hours straight before dinner can be the exception to the rule, because man did I feel it. Desperately seeking a bottle of fresh water the next morning, I stumbled into the bar to sit and witness the aftermath of the night present itself. One by one, my fellow sore-headed tour members found their way to the communal area also, to spread out on the lounges and not move for the next few hours. With bodies sprawled out over every possible inch of lounge, we ordered obligatory hangover breakfasts and coffee while trying to piece together the events of the night before, until eventually even conversation became too exhausting and we all fell into a post-breakfast nap. Having a duffel bag full of soccer, football and volley-balls (kindly donated by Footys4All), I had promised that I would return to donate them to the pre-school we had visited the previous morning. I’ll tell you, it was a real struggle to finally get off my ass and walk down in the heat just before midday. Josh, one of the new boys accompanied me to help carry, distribute balls and play with the kids.
They sung to us yet again, while we stood there giving each and every kid multiple high fives. They were so ecstatic about the balls, Josh had barely unzipped the bag before they all swarmed to fight over them. Overwhelmed, we stood back and let them have it before attempting to organise a game between the screaming children, which was near to impossible. With only 5 of the balls (my pump had broken so I couldn’t donate the rest yet) between at least 70 or 80 kids, who haven’t learnt how to share yet, I ended up becoming the new play-thing, picking them up, swinging them around, giving high fives and whatever else they felt compelled to do until we left.
After yet another few hours, lounging around recovering and trying to keep out of the heat, we realised it was our last day in Jinja, and other than the village tour which had barely taken us a kilometre away from the camp, we figured we really hadn’t seen any of the town yet. After mustering up enough effort to call a taxi, 4 of us jumped in to head into town for a wander. I had heard that Jinja was quite a touristy area, so not to expect much authenticity, but maybe find some good souvenirs and somewhere tasty to stop for lunch. That advice was pretty much spot on. We started up near the bank area to withdraw money, thinking it didn’t look touristy at all, but rather a normal town with supermarkets, locals and peddlers… however as soon as we turned right and walked down slightly, the curio shops started… one after the other of the same thing. The Ugandan crafts and canvases were actually incredible and I wish I had’ve bought more, but I was trying to control my shopping habits after already buying so many souvenirs just 11 days into a 73 day tour! We came by the most Western restaurant ever at the end of the main drag, and ordered pretentious salads and kale smoothies before heading home for a very timid and early night indeed.
Day 12: Jinja to Entebbe
Mainly a driving day, we said goodbye to the chill life and views of the Nile, headed for Entebbe. We stopped in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to stock up on food, use clean toilets and indulge in KFC for lunch.The most eventful part of the day was congregating at the truck to leave the Mall when all of a sudden motorbike after motorbike, after trucks full of people, after trucks towing shiny new cars made a grand entrance through the carpark. The truck at the front, equipped with megaphone and groupies, advertised the local paint company and their giveaway of 10 brand new cars, which then followed. They were accompanied by people on motorbikes handing out free highlighter pens and a film crew to record the entire thing. Immediately, I was having flash backs of Thai men in pick-up trucks driving up and down the main streets of Phuket with a megaphone ‘Thai Boxing, Boxing…'
After being held up for close to half an hour, not being able to exit the carpark through the commotion, we arrived at the campsite in Entebbe, where our newest 2 members were waiting to join, an Irish couple: Kevin and Alice.
Day 13: Entebbe to Kalinzu Forest
Tents down, jump in the truck, another day hitting the road. We stopped by the side of the road to buy ‘chix on sticks’, fresh rotisserie chicken and ate in the truck before arriving at the Equator. There was a short demonstration of water swirling in different directions on the opposite hemispheres, and believe it or not straight down directly on the equator.
Some quick shopping at the gift shops, and back on the road, through the lush countryside of Uganda, multiple tea plantations, to the very edge of the Kalinzu Forest, our most basic ‘campsite’ yet. The site was more-so a patch of grass next to two extremely feral drop-toilets and no showers. While dinner was being prepared by the generous cooking group of the day, we whipped out the frisbee and soccer ball to play with the resident children of the site, and later played cards in the light of our head torches, stomachs grumbling. Being so dark, most of us headed to bed early, and resorted to doing our business in the forest because the drop-toilets unanimously made us gag.
Day 14: A whirlwind of animal encounters!
Holy crap what a day! The morning began with a 5am wakeup, quick coffee and corn flakes, and straight into the dark, dense Kalinzu forest before dawn. We split into two groups, one detouring around the side of the forest through the tea plantation, and us directly past the tents and into the forest. Hiking boots laced up tight, water bottle full to the brim, and heart pounding with anticipation, this morning we were trekking for Chimpanzees! After umm-ing and ah-ing the previous day whether to partake in the optional excursion or not for $50USD I decided that the trek would be a good warm-up for the Gorillas just a few days later, and I’m so glad that I did it!
We followed the guide through the slight path, jumping over streams and cutting our way through dense shrubs, while she communicated with the trekkers by phone who go out much earlier in the morning to find where the resident chimps have disappeared to that day. Time escaped me during the trek, but we came across our first baby-backed chimp about 45 minutes in, much earlier than I had expected. We watched as mother and baby frolicked in the limbs of a tree far, but directly above our heads. Squinting to watch their silhouettes as dawn broke behind them, good photos were near to impossible, and after 5 minutes the back of my neck was straining so badly that I had to keep taking breaks to do a few neck circles before looking up again. After going about her business, and then staring at us intently for a minute or so, the duo swung through the trees, moving on to a slightly more secluded area. The guide cut a path for us so that we could sneak in and get a better view. We probably went on like this for a good half an hour until suddenly, before knowing what had even happened, the chimps were swinging through the trees and out of sight within seconds. We broke into a run, behind our guide frantically cutting branches, and us just focusing on not tripping over or running directly into any of the hundreds of obstacles that could have had us flat on our face. It was futile though, and after a few minutes of chasing, we were defeated that we had lost them.
We continued on, after another trekker called in that there were more further onwards. Not even 15 minutes later (I think), we reached the trekker who led us deeper into the forest and pointed upwards. One chimp chewing on some leaves, looking left, another chimp sleeping, suddenly a noise behind us as trees rustled making the position of another chimp known. While we distracted by the noise at our rear, fruits started falling violently to the ground as the chimps above us tucked into their breakfast. Throwing my arms over my head, I took a few steps back to avoid the fruit missiles. I stood there, gazing up in amazement while the chimps communicated with each other, grunting and screeching, exactly how they sound in movies or documentaries. After letting rip a few mad farts, the first chimp we had spotted started to move down the branch towards the tree trunk. We came out of the dense shrubs and did a big circle around the tree to come to the base of the trunk again at a 270 angle from where we had been only to spot another three chimps. After spending an hour at the forest floor, straining to observe these tree-top creatures in their natural habitats, eating, screeching and pooping, and counting about 8 in total, it was time to begin the long trek back. I honestly had no idea where the heck we had ended up, and this task would’ve been impossible without a local guide.
Just as we headed counter-clockwise around the giant tree and back to the main path, I came to an immediate halt, after almost tripping over two of the others, as I’d had my head down watching my step. They shushed me as I looked up and pointed ahead of the path. All this time we had been breaking our necks to watch the chimps up in the trees, and some sneaky old bastard had snuck down to lounge against a tree and hang out on the path. After keeping our distance for 5 minutes, struggling to get photos through the shrubbery infant of the curved path, we began to edge closer and closer. Every time we would get within 5 metres, old mate would get up and walk on all fours back up the path a few metres, and sit back down against another tree. This went on a few times, for probably close to 20 minutes. Every time, the old chimp would be less and less bothered to move and we would get ever so slightly closer. Until finally, the guide announced that we really did need to head back to the campsite, and because he was obstructing our path, we would have to just keep walking until he got out of the way. No longer crouching in silence, we got up and continued up the path towards the chimp, who broke into a lazy jog to disappear into the forest away from the group.
It took a good couple of hours to retrace our path, however nothing was looking familiar on the way back. Finally by 11am, we broke out into the sunshine, not at the campsite, but at the tea plantation, and it was only when we got there that I realised we were going back in the opposite direction of the other group had come. Looking back over my shoulder, I couldn’t believe how abruptly the forest ended. Just one minute before I had absolutely no concept of where in the forest we were and becoming hungrier and hungrier, was wondering when we would finally exit the forest… and then there was light and there we were, in the direct open of the crops. Walking up a slight incline, through the tea leaves, and along the road back to the campsite, it wasn’t long before the sweat was running down my back and we finally reached our destination, where the others sat waiting for us to dismantle our tents in a rushed effort to get in the truck and back on the road, as we were already behind time. After having two minutes to compose ourselves, and cursing that there were no showers at the site, we did just that and headed directly towards Queen Elizabeth National Park.
With views of the Great Rift Valley, we winded downwards, past elephant, over the bridge, past hippo and through a small town to make it to the official entrance of the Park. I couldn’t quite believe that we had already accomplished so much during an early morning trek, and yet the day wasn’t over, we were now headed on a game drive, towards the centre of the park where we due to jump on a boat cruise by 3pm. Need-less to say we were in a rush. While Kanyo jumped out of the truck to pay our entrance fees at the gate, already we could see a small elephant wander across the path just ahead of us beyond the gate. We entered, and it was elephants galore! We were pressing the buzzer every other minute for Robert to slam on the brakes and stop the truck for yet another elephant. They were right there, just going about their business, completely unfazed by the big yellow beast on tyres, engine roaring on the path beside them. Eventually Kanyo had to get us moving on, or we were going to miss the cruise. I could’ve stayed and watched those magnificent creatures all day. Ironically, as soon as we tried to push on, a huge herd of close to twenty elephants were leisurely crossing the path ahead of us, with absolutely no consideration for our time constraints. We watched them come up from the Lake on the left, through the shrubbery, and across the road to a muddy watering hole on the right, one by one, pole pole (slowly slowly). Finally the convoy all settled at the watering hole to our right, and Kanyo let us watch for a few more minutes as a young bull was bullied to the outskirts of the herd by the matriarch, and the young rolled around in the mud, falling over their trunks, and chasing each other, weaving in and out of their mother’s legs. We continued on, speeding up the path (definitely speeding faster than the allowed park limit) towards lake.
The path was too steep, so the truck dropped us at the top of the hill, and we power-walked down to the boat just in time to take off. Our first game cruise was a totally new way of seeing the incredible African animals. A giant lake, abundant with wildlife, they were suddenly now coming to us, rather than us seeking them out.
There were hippos everywhere, some in huge bloats (a pod of hippos) by the shoreline, while some would blow bubbles next to the boat, and as soon as you would look over the side to see them, they would hide beneath the water. Elephants came down to the shore to drink and swim. Different species of birds nested in the trees lining the lake. Crocodiles wallowed in the shallows, waiting for old and injured wildebeest to wander in during the heat of the day. All the while, we sat in this boat, slowly wandering from left to right in the water. Surprisingly enough, my favourite encounter of the entire cruise was watching some sort of water bird protecting its eggs from a monitor lizard on the banks of the lake, spreading its wings to look as intimidating as possible to the approaching reptile... It reminded of a David Attenborough documentary I had watched years before.
We cruised onwards to the end of the Ugandan side of the lake, for if we had drifted even 2 more kilometres, we would have ended up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We passed a small fishing village, who were one of the few tribes allowed to remain in the National Park that they had called home for 100’s of years, and thousands of sea birds squawking over the fishermen who were heading out for the long nights spent on canoes in the darkness. After an exciting ordeal in which we thought a leopard was swinging its tail in a distant tree branch, we reversed the boat and headed towards the tree, to realise it was a garbage bag flowing in the breeze. As the sun began to set, a slight drizzle of rain set in and we rushed back towards the pier. On our journey back we saw our first hippo out of water, who, as the engine rumbled and the boat approached, ran straight back in with a huge splash.
After such a hugely successful day of game viewing, we drove out of the park, towards the campsite, aptly named Hippo Camp, not far from the shore of the lake. Before we could even reach the campsite, we were stopped again for yet another great animal encounter. A lone, young lion lay in the scrub by the road, having a nap. We pulled over by the side of the road and watched as a gazelle appeared out of the scrub, and looked out towards us and the road. Perfectly camouflaged, the gazelle did not spot the lazy lion, who lay in the long yellow grass, staring in the same direction towards us, oblivious to the gazelle standing about 7 metres directly behind him. It was quite comical and bizarre, as though roles had been reversed, and rather than sitting at home watching a documentary on the black box about these incredible, distant creatures, they were both watching the strange foreigners in the yellow box. After the gazelle caught wind of the lions scent, it turned back into the bush and we drove on to our campsite only 2 kilometres from where a lion lay, with no fences between us.
Of course though, this incredible day did not end there though. After I finished cooking duties and we all hungrily devoured our vegetable stir-fry with noodles, I was the second to head to bed, barely able to keep my eyes open at the camp-fire by 9pm, after such a long day. It was exactly midnight on the dot when I was rudely woken by the loud clanging of metal. Startled, I looked around the tent, to find my tent-mate, Alanna, only just settling into her sleeping bag. I groggily asked her what the heck was going on, and what all the commotion was about, after minutes of banging and thrashing of what appeared to be pots and pans. And so she retold the events of the past hour in the campsite while I had been happily snoozing my head off. At first I didn’t believe her, and the next morning still thought I had dreamt the whole thing, until the other campers relayed the story over breakfast. Josh had headed towards the toilet blocks, around the back to the gents, when suddenly he heard something bellowing at him. He turned around and bolted to the female side of the block, barricading himself into one of the stalls away from the bull elephant, who proceeded to thrash the tin roof of the toilet block with his heavy trunk.
After he thought it was safe to exit the toilet block, he ran back to the others at the campfire, who eventually all ended up bolting to their tents after the bull charged towards where they were all congregated. Of course, the first advice we were given from Kanyo on day one about sleeping in game reserves and national parks was never to run from a wild animal, because it kicks in their natural instincts to chase, and rather to stand your ground, and slowly back away… well who do you think was the first person leading the fleeing group? Poor Kanyo then stayed up the entire night to ensure that they fire stayed lit and made as much noise as possible to fend off the bull and the other elephants surrounding the campsite. I couldn’t believe that I had gone to bed early that night of all nights, and been oblivious to the entire commotion until the symphony of pots and pans had begun.
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