Said goodbye to Peter and Lotte this morning after breakfast. It’s another truck day today. I read a lot and I sleep a lot. We check out of Uganda and check into Kenya at the border without much fuss, hopefully we’ve left the rain behind us.
Many of the Kenyan roads are under construction and so we bounce about on the makeshift dirt tracks making reading impossible, luckily for me I find the bumping about quite lulling and before long I’m fast asleep – again.
We stop for a lunch break next to a river where a young boy has climbed high into a tree to keep a watchful eye on his goat herd.
I sleep again after lunch and wake up in Eldoret, the town nearest our campsite. I lazily wave to the locals out of the window, school is out and the happy children eagerly wave back. We are back at the Naiberi campsite – after a shower and a bottle Tusker we tuck into jo’s chilli. Then a majority of us head to the bar’s open fire to toast marshmallows which we eat with cadburys chocolate squished between 2 tennis biscuits – sugar high!
Hypnotised by the fire we all get sleepy and slowly, one by one, head off to bed.
At night, to the rhythmic sound of chirping crickets, if provoked by fearful thoughts, I often find myself back in the churning depths of the Zambezi river. I will never forget the disorientating cartwheeling of a helpless man on spin cycle submerged in the unforgiving, aptly named Washing Machine rapids of Livingstone that continue to haunt my tented dreams. For good measure chuck in wet lungs, a struggle for breath, a couple of crocodiles, the terror filled eyes of the failing rafted lifesavers and the comedic threat of more oncoming rapids. Today my innocent camp mates, of the Ugandan leg of the tour, face that peril as they embark on their own white water rafting adventure in the Nile. I, however, remain happily firmly footed on dry ground awaiting to hear if they too face a watery grave and live to tell the tale (see 28th August – Livingstone).
I enjoy a refreshing cold shower in the waterfall themed “shower with a view” overlooking the Nile after breakfast. Rather than risk our wellbeing 10 of us skip rafting in favour of heading into Jinja town. We have heard very good reports on the deli, so head straight there in taxis for coffee and cake. Both are particularly good, especially the brownies. We wander along the main street in and out of the typical African craft stalls.
Back at camp we enjoy a leisurely lunch under cover as it starts to rain. Then the heavens open. It rains so hard, a downpour, thunder roars and the dark clouds roll in. We are kind of stranded in the middle of the camp under the kitchen cover watching the heavy rain fall all around us. Eventually it subsides enough for us to make a dart for the covered cushioned comfort of the camp bar. When the rain finally stops Emma and Luka and Lisa and I hire tandem kayaks and head out onto the Nile. Rowing against the tide up the river, as recommended by the hire staff, so as when we get tired we can let the river’s current bring us back.
The river is so calm and wide. It takes a little while for Lisa and I to get the hang of steering but when we do we have fun exploring the river bank and the river’s islands. Fishermen cast their nets, and locals wash their clothes. The Nile has many species of birds making the trees and bushes their home. Colourful kingfishers and tall storks. Emma and Luka spot a couple of otters – although I’m convinced it was just a couple of ducks! When Lisa and I get bored of rowing, as it is hard work against the current, we sit back and let the river take us back towards home. After an hour we make it back to camp, struggling slightly to get out of the kayak without capsizing.
A quick shower and a change of clothes and dinner is ready. Jo has hand battered local fresh fish caught from the Nile that has been marinated in ginger and garlic, served with fried potatoes, green beans, peas and a big salad – quite possibly my favourite camp meal on tour. Today is Deanna’s birthday, Jo and John have bought the most beautiful chocolate orange cake from town. We sing happy birthday and give Deanna her card before tucking into a big slice of her cake – it is yummy.
We head to the bar for a bit of chatter and wifi before bed. Tomorrow we say goodbye to Peter and Lotte before crossing the border back into Kenya.
I am woken by a Facebook notification!? Somehow the bar’s wifi (that hated me and my iPad last night) is now happily beaming 300 yards across the swimming pool, over the hedge, across the field and into my canvas abode! I check for updates, brush my teeth and put down my tent.
Only a short 2 hour journey today that quickly flies by. We stop again at the roadside market that sees us swarmed in street sellers holding 100’s of skewers of cooked meat. They surround the truck and I can’t help but wonder who is buying it? How long have they been holding it? Is it the same chicken thigh I saw them holding several days ago? Has it reached the correct cooking temperature? When it is offered up to my window I politely shake my head and take a photo.
We arrive in Jinja, the adventure activities capital of Uganda. For the next two nights the Nile River Explorers Camp Site is our home. This lovely site overlooks the Nile River, as it’s name would suggest. We explore our new surroundings. The camp boasts both a flying fox (zip wire) and a waterslide into the river, 4 themed “showers with a view” that overlook the river, a spa, a bar, a restaurant and a games room. As usual some camp mates upgrade – not me, Aaron and I set up our tent and we all relax on the veranda that has beautiful views over the river. The sun is blazing as I sip on a bottle of Nile Special beer and munch on a basket of chips.
Day soon slips into the evening as we watch the red tail monkeys playing in the tree tops. Lots of our number embark on the sunset cruise (posh name for a booze cruise), those of us that skip it have dinner with Jo and John then hang out in the bar waiting for our camp mates to return. We are entertained by their drunken shenanigans when they finally stagger up from the river. The bar soon turns into a party and after a final beer I leave them to it.
Luckily the rain is light this morning as I pack up the tent in the darkness. Packed lunch prepared, breakfast eaten and coffee downed. The truck journey is a long one today – possibly up to 12 hours.
I snooze, I read, I eat.
We stop for a supermarket shop to purchase another 5 litres of water and the all important munchies that make truck life bearable. I also take the opportunity to hang up my still damp washing all over the truck in the hope that it will dry while we’re shopping. Most of it does but I continue the journey with a row of multi coloured Calvin Klein’s acting as a moist headrest.
Then the rains come. Hard. And the windows start to leak. Lots. I dole out reams of toilet paper to those unlucky enough to be sat in the wet seats. It gets very warm very quickly with all of the windows shut and before long we are in a truck filled with condensation preventing any view and the heavy downpour ricocheting off the roof.
The rain slows enough to pitch our tent on our return to the Red Chilli camp. Only 5 hardcore campers tonight – the rest choosing to upgrade to actual rooms. Along with my team I help Jo prepare dinner, then relax in the bar trying to connect to the frustrating wifi that only allows some people use. The Wales vs England rugby match is on the TV but I’m exhausted so head off to bed.
It’s rest day. Hooray. I have a whole day to do whatever I please and I choose to do very little. Those camp mates with an East African visa (I don’t have one), have left at 5am bound for Rwanda and the genocide museum. Jo serves late breakfast at 8am and I spend much of the morning washing my clothes. A majority of the camp mates that are left have opted to go on a day trip to tour around the local area – I opt out. Instead I chill out at the bar with a coffee and my iPad before I’m joined by Emma and Luka for chocolate pancake indulgence. Later we wander back to our camp to help prepare homemade guacamole and sandwiches, then eat with Lisa, Ben and Peter.
Lisa, Emma, Luka and I hire a taxi and head off into Kamale, the nearest town, 8km away to explore. The fruit market is abundant with fresh produce, colourful characters say, “hello” and ask that ever popular question, “how are you?”. Yesterday Damien, our gorilla trekking guide, taught me to say, “agandi?” The local dialect for, “how are you?”, it takes the locals by surprise when I ask them.
We make our way up the Main Street in search of a SIM card for Emma’s mobile phone. The thunder roars overhead and it isn’t long before the rain begins to spot. We seek shelter in the Airtel mobile telephone shop just in time. It begins to pour down so Luka calls the taxi driver to come and collect us. A quick stop off at the supermarket to purchase water and chocolate and we’re on our way back to the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Camp.
The rain is relentless. We play cards under cover of the dining area awaiting the return of all of our camp mates. Dinner is served, more cards are played and bags are packed. Tomorrow is our longest drive so I head to bed early, hoping that the rain stops by the morning so I can pack away my damp washing and the tent without a soaking.
I am not 100% convinced that my training regime (consisting of sitting still for vast amounts of hours on a truck, stuffing pringles and chocolate hobnobs into my face) has fully prepared me for today’s activity. At some ridiculous early morning hour I find myself teetering on the edge of sleep as we are transported in 3 mini buses on a two hour journey to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The only thing stopping me from falling into the land of nod is the spark of stimulation from the caffeine in the coffee I drank a little earlier to raise me from my zombie state. Patrick, our driver, is driving at speed through the darkness on what must be the windiest road in the world. The tyres screech as we take each corner, but all onboard are so tired that we remain in silence until we reach our destination.
On arrival at Bwindi we are directed to the briefing zone. I look ridiculous (picture a malnourished Bear Grylls) in my safari outfit of khaki and beige – we have been encouraged to wear neutral colours. My rucksack, filled with litres of drinking water, packed lunch, a rain jacket and the suggested gardening gloves, is weighing me down.
Our guide today is Damien and together we will be tracking the Busingye group of mountain gorillas, Busingye meaning peaceful – I do hope that that is true. I am however slightly perturbed by the safety information. If the gorillas become agitated or aggressive do not look them in the eye, especially if a younger family member takes an interest in you. If they approach you do not attempt to touch them, keep your head down and don’t make a noise or any sudden movements. Approximately 700 mountain gorillas exist in the world and half of those live here in Bwindi.
We excitedly set off. My group consisting of Lisa, Lee-Ann, Aaron and Carolyn plus 3 Australians from a different tour – Simone, Nicola and Jen. After a 15 minute bus journey to a local village our trekking begins. I follow Damien at the front, leading the way. Ahead of us a group of young locals are heading up the mountain to tend to their farmland and livestock, they accompany us up. I cannot help but laugh when after about 15 minutes I realise that at the head of the group, on a lead, is a big black pig! I have been presented with a long walking pole/stick as the climb can get quite steep. This is taking all of my interest, I concentrate on putting the stick in the ground then make appropriate follow up footings. I fail to realise the close proximity I have to Damien and have completely ignored the fact that he is carrying an incredibly sharp machete that he is now casually swinging back and forth in my general direction. He uses this weapon to hack at branches and creeping vines that protrude or dangle into our path.
The climb is steep and we stop regularly to catch our breath and allow the stragglers to catch up. Apart from Damien we also have a team of assistants who, for a $15 fee, carry the bags for some of my fellow trekkers and bringing up the rear a police officer with an AK47. Eyes widen in fear. Apparently this shiny machine gun is only used to fire warning shots should we encounter mountain elephants. It is not so much the gun that concerns me but the facial expression of the policeman himself – absolute anger, His blinkless stare and furrowed brow suggest to me that he cannot wait to empty his bullets into each and everyone of us – I try not to get eye contact.
The rain forest is totally tropical. I chat gorillas with Damien to pass the time as he has announced that the early morning trackers, with whom he is in constant radio contact, have found the Busingye family, they are about an hour away – we have already been trekking for over an hour and a half up and down the undulating forest floor. The time passes quickly as we all concentrate on where we walk so as not to fall down, or fall up the incline of the well beaten path. Before we know it we can hear machete hacking coming from the side of the path deep in the undergrowth. A tracker cuts a path for us that we tentatively tread. Leaving our poles and bags with the assistants we drink some water, turn off our camera flashes and quietly follow Damien to the gorillas.
I am lost for words. We stand facing downhill and there atop a mass of bush is a gigantic black mother gorilla with 3 babies. She eats young shoots and the children play, jumping on each other, falling into the leaves. They are totally undisturbed by us. Over the years they have been habitualised, having daily contact with humans so that we are no longer a forest threat. As the gorillas move, and they move often, we follow. Conservation law dictates that 8 people a day can visit each family of gorillas for only one hour. Damien and our trackers hack at our surroundings making pathways to view the massive beasts. They point into the shade of a tree where the gargantuan dominant silverback male is sitting. He is massive. His head is absolutely enormous and when he turns it to look at us I am incredibly nervous, he rolls off and disappears running on all fours down the hill – the ground shakes with his pounding. The baby gorillas are far more curious and pose for numerous photographs, riding on their mother’s back when it is time to move on. From what I can gather this silverback has 3 females and 3 babies. They constantly eat, which is unsurprising considering their size as they move around the area in search of young leaves and stems.
At one point we come face to face with the huge silverback, he is sat 10 feet away facing us, totally exposed. I feel totally vulnerable. He looks directly at us, suddenly he springs up on to his front fisted arms, he makes intimidating grunts then he comes at us with threatening posture. Adrenalin rushes through my body, I am momentarily petrified, there is nowhere to run and I’m pretty sure a little bit of wee comes out. The trackers and Damien make threatening gestures back and match his grunts and he again disappears into the undergrowth. We are reassured that there is nothing to worry about – he is testing his dominance and he is actually more threatened by us, the last thing we should do is turn to run! Easier said than done.
The hour spent with these endangered creatures is phenomenal and passes too quickly. We sit discussing our encounter as we eat our lunch back on the jungle path. The trek back is arduous. We stop for a graduating ceremony where we are presented with gorilla trekking certificates. As we walk down the steep incline back to the minibus Damien points out a most beautifully coloured chameleon in a roadside bush, what a crazy looking animal with three pointed horns and the brightest coloured skin.
With great relief I remove my hiking shoes and gift them, along with my gloves, to Damien. They are too big and clumsy to carry around the world and to be honest they haven’t been the comfiest footwear I’ve ever sported just ask my blisters. Damien says he can make good use of them.
Patrick brings us home via the scenic route. Lake Bunyonyi is so picturesque, the mountainsides are a tiered patchwork of well tended farmland sloping down into the water. Hilltop houses gently spew wood fire smoke up into the air. The local farmers hand plough their fields with rustic hoes, planting vegetable seedlings, while their children sit in the shade of a nearby tree. Clean washing dries sprawled out over the grass. We pass through bustling villages, the people wave and shout at us. A congregation are preached at by two preachers at once – one speaking the scripture in Swahili and the other translating into the local dialect. The children playing on the mountainside spot us coming from a distance and scramble up the steep incline to greet us on the road as we pass. They sing and wave – Patrick tells us that the lyrics are, “Welcome visitors…. Welcome visitors”, other children just beg for money with their outstretched hands. The Lake Bunyonyi area may be rich in scenic beauty, but like much of Africa is financially very poor.
We return to camp tired and hungry. The threatening thunderstorm arrives and the rains fall. We ravenously eat steak bbq’d by Jo, enjoy a couple of drinks undercover and sleepily head to bed after another brilliant African day.
By the light of my headlamp I aptly slice a banana onto my weetabix and strawberry yoghurt. Early morning breakfast is followed by following Debbie, our tracker, through yesterday’s tea plantation in the dawn mist and into the Kalinzu Forest Reserve. The moist rotting woodland floor is a tangle of tree roots, ferns and fruit carcasses. “Keep your ears and eyes open”, suggests Debbie before scaring us with an impression of the beasts we are tracking today. Her cacophony of cries and screeches is followed by “that is the sound we are listening for”. We stop often to listen, a symphony of birds and insects call to each other repeatedly, but still no cries or screeches. We move on following the forest pathway. Intermittently Debbie’s mobile phone rings and she speaks to her fellow trackers. We have been split into 3 groups and each group has entered the forest from a different direction to increase our chances of finding our prey.
Eventually we hear it. Cries, screeches and screams. It is loud and close and under normal circumstances I would run in the opposite direction but we follow Debbie as she steps off the beaten track and into the dense undergrowth of the forest. It is not long until we spot our first chimpanzee. I am convinced that my breakfast banana breath has been an important factor in tracing the chimps. They are so fast and after a couple of photos we have disturbed them enough, they nimbly climb down the trunk of the tree and disappear into the thickness.
Debbie and her team are expert trackers and it isn’t long before we are back on the trail. This time a mother and her baby. She is high up in the top of a tree and although I can’t see her face, her tiny little baby chimp is holding on tight to his mother’s underbelly looking directly down at us on the forest floor.
Often we lose them, but hear them further away, we catch up, take photos and they’re gone again. Debbie tells us that this a family troop of about 40 chimpanzees. Another mother is busy making a nest way up in the tall tree’s canopy and her two baby chimps have spotted us. One of them plays hide and seek, nervously peering out from behind a cluster of leaves. He is so cute, with a pink face, fuzzy black hair and two pink ears that glow in the backlight from the sun that streams through the trees foliage. Our primate cousins, just an evolutionary gap away, look at us through intelligent eyes and a recognition that we are not so different. I’m not sure who is watching who as the pair of us curiously gaze at each other.
Seeing these apes in their natural habitat is amazing. Jo warned us last night over dinner that not all guests are lucky enough to see the chimps. I feel so lucky and leave the forest privileged with my encounter with the Kalinzu Forest chimpanzees.
Over brunch we watch 2 black and white Colobus monkeys playing high in the trees at our camp.
Unfortunately the truck gets stuck in some soft mud when we attempt to leave, wheel spinning for 40 minutes. Even with a host of helpers digging, stuffing banana leaves and pebbles under the wheels to increase traction we get nowhere. Eventually, with everyone pushing as hard as we can, we succeed in reaching the Tarmac – hooray. We hit the road bound for Lake Bunyonyi.
The landscape offered by Uganda is simply beautiful. Lush green hills, steep mountain farms, banana tree plantations and lots and lots of greeness. Jo tells us that this area is known as Africa’s Switzerland. Once again we spend the afternoon waving to the happy children playing at the road side.
Lake Bunyonyi is breathtaking. We approach from high up on a hilltop and the still waters look postcard perfect reflecting like a mirror in the valley. The campsite is in the most spectacular lakeside position. Aaron and I set up our tent between two tall palm trees. The wifi is rubbish but other than that the camp is faultless. Lots of our camp mates upgrade to permanent tents or rooms but we all meet for dinner and a briefing on what tomorrow has in store for us. I shower and get my head down for an early start and the highlight of our Ugandan experience when we’ll “penetrate the impenetrable ” (Innocence’s words during the briefing!)