THE UNSTOPPABLE; RIVER FLOWS ON

Uganda, a country that was ravaged by the cruel dictatorship of General Idi Amin, is bravely trying to pick up the pieces. Katie Sampson delves deep into the undergrowth to explore the land of smoky mountains and mango plantations
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
After the round-the-clock pageant of sound, colour and life that characterises Kampala, Uganda's capital, the sombre and impersonal atmosphere at the White Horse Inn in Kabale was disconcerting. Staring past the immaculately tended gardens towards the "mountains" beyond, picking up laughter and African music rising with the woodsmoke from the town below, our reveries were interrupted as we were plunged into darkness. The wheezing of the generator and the giggling of staff and guests broke the ghostly spell.

The hotel's brave attempt at characterless efficiency had been ambushed by the true spirit of Uganda, an intimate Heath-Robinson world. The serendipitous nature of the average Ugandan's lifestyle contributes to the country's easy-going and unavoidable charm. Despite its recent brutal history, or perhaps because of it, most of Uganda is safe and welcoming. An air of celebration and optimism permeates life, delighting its steadily growing number of visitors.

There is even an enjoyable chaos in the character of Uganda's perpetually shifting scenery, for nature has managed to cram a wide assortment of dramatic landscapes into a country the size of Britain. Leaving Kampala's seven hills, which are emphasised rather than disguised by their higgledy- piggledy arrangement of buildings, we immediately found ourselves among tall plantations of banana, avocado, mango and cassava, intermingled with small mud-hut settlements and the occasional fruit stall.

No sooner had my eyes adjusted to the dayglo greens against the vividness of the orange mud, than the scenery was abruptly replaced by papyrus plains framed by voluptuously rounded hills which, in turn, transformed themselves into rugged, wooded scenery where extinct volcanoes masqueraded as "the Switzerland of Africa". I began to picture us as picaresque puppets in a cut-out jeep being pulled across a toy stage, while a crazed hand dropped a random sequence of exotic backdrops behind us.

Throughout the day our progress, and sometimes our existence, had been threatened by thundering UN aid trucks rushing food to refugee camps across the nearby Zairean border. As the dust slowly cleared, flocks of children in brightly coloured uniforms would appear out of nowhere calling out to us: "How are you mzungo [white person]?" "Suffering from sensory overload," I would laugh to myself before answering them.

The following morning, invigorated by the crisp mountain air, I was almost overcome with the spirit of adventure and exploration; a trek within the deliciously named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on a quest to find the endangered mountain gorillas was our next stop.

Scrunching through Bwindi, whose hills stretch into Zaire, is an enjoyable mini-adventure in itself. Swinging over mossy tree stumps with the help of dangling lianas and skipping onto stepping-stones jutting out of lively streams, demanded just enough effort and agility to justify the notion of exploration. In reality, the assistance provided by the trackers and the total absence of physical discomfort or insect harassment would have appalled any true explorer. The easy pace allowed conversation with my companions, a delightful English couple returning to show Uganda to their family for the first time since having fled from Idi Amin. About an hour and a half into our ramble, just as a vet from the Rolf Harris' Animal Hospital was sharing with me the concept of "animal companions", as opposed to the politically incorrect '"pets", we were ordered to pipe down. From behind the next thicket came the hair-raising sound of a large hand being beaten against a mighty, air-filled chest.

Emerging from the undergrowth to find ourselves in the middle of a group of six gorillas, ranging from the dominant male to a tiny baby, was as humbling as gatecrashing an intimate family gathering, which was, of course, exactly what we were doing. The gorillas may have grown used to the presence of humans, but they remain wild and masters of their own environment.

For 40 minutes of our permitted hour, we were virtually ignored by the group. Then, a four-year-old advanced towards us and, in a very "Impressed? Well, check this for size!" manner, began to swing his body from side to side using a young tree as support until, with one bored flick of his wrist, he ripped off the tree's top and hung it from his lip, taunting us with his strength. We realised this was just the overture when a mass of grey and silver fur gradually rose from the forest floor to form itself into a magnificent male silverback. As he strode into the clearing five feet away from me, locking eyes all the while, I nervously recalled my grandmother's earnest warning about meeting oversexed gorillas.

But nature mocked my preconceptions for, as the silverback stared, a female darted underneath him and initiated vigorous mating. Having obliged in a manner which the males in our party confessed left them feeling somewhat emasculated, the male shot us one more contemptuous look before leaping from sight. Utterly cowed, we crept off in reverential silence.

We had been fortunate to reach the forest when we did for, five days after our trek, the gorilla group split up, and the number of daily tracking permits was halved to just six a day. With a waiting list already a year long, permits have now become as precious as gold dust and are expected to rise from $150 to as much as $450 a day.

However, solace is at hand with the many chimp-watching opportunities Uganda offers. Our chosen viewpoint was from a floating platform beside the recently established Chimp Orphan Island in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, a five-hour journey from Bwindi.

"Chimps are exemplary characters," the young warden enthused, "in fact they have all the qualities women want from men; they are strong, beautiful and are not scared of showing their emotions."

There is a cautionary tale contained in the histories of many of these "noble" creatures. Kidnapped in the wild as babies, having witnessed the slaughter of at least 10 protective family members, the chimps were sold to private zoos or circuses. By the time they were rescued, some of these animals, so genetically close to us that we can exchange blood with them, had been taught the worst, arriving addicted to bourbon, nicotine and television. Ironically, it is only with the money earned by establishing them as a tourist attraction that their future safety can be ensured.

The sanctuary is overlooked by Mweya, the park's only lodge, perched like an eagle high up on a peninsula above Lake George and the Razinga Channel. Mweya has a reassuring shabbiness despite its spectacular situation and its history as a playground for the fashionable elite when, during the pre-Amin era, Uganda was the top East African tourist destination.

As we escaped from Mweya's grand barbecue, under cover of a dark night, towards the staff canteen for a traditional meal of matooke (steamed green banana) and ground-nut sauce, we were followed by the sound of an unpleasant, high-pitched cackle. I suggested to a passing night-watchman that the sound was a bird's. "No, it is a hyena," he replied. "Ah, but a tame hyena," my companion confidently stated. "No," came the response, "he is a carnivore".

Before daybreak, Nassur our driver, ever the ladies' man, arrived with Pamela, an attractive warden with an unrivalled reputation for spotting game. We descended into the savannah and watched Pamela's eyes watching the horizon, whilst laughing a little too loudly at her account of discovering a villager's leg in the road after he'd been found in a drunken stupor by a lion. True to their reputation, Pamela's eyes lead us into the path of a pride of nine lions which circled curiously, rather than hungrily, round the jeep.

Nassur's sadness at leaving Pamela lifted as we neared our next destination. "Here, one can live like a king!" he exclaimed happily, and spent the remaining three days trying to persuade the lodge's owner, an eccentric English hotelier, to rent him some land.

Still in the process of being built on a hill between two crater lakes, our lodge had views of endless ancient volcanoes terraced with plantations. Monkeys and hornbills played noisily in the trees and the sight was made all the more fantastical by the knowledge that, should the woodsmoke eventually clear, the snow-capped Mountains of the Moon overshadowing us would be revealed. But it was the farmers' burning and clearing season, and we saw no more than a tantalising jagged edge outlined against the setting sun.

Ndali was somewhere to soak up Uganda's beauty in perfect peace until, that is, the thatchers arrived, including the young local Lothario, who went by the impossible name of Romancy Adonis. Deciding to do something with the scenery rather than just gawping at it, I coaxed Tuesday, a thatcher and trained herbalist, to accompany me on a walk and give me a few lessons in local folklore. I returned several hours later having had lessons in, among other things, removing venom from a snakebite with the aid of a rock. This might have come in handy later had the black mamba crawling past the chair on which I stood decided to attack.

Encouraging Ugandans to take a leaf out of the book of the Tuesdays of this world, is a priority for the Ugandan government, which sees national pride in the abundant wildlife and exceptional scenery as the only way of slowing its decimation. The ease with which a species can become endangered was brought home to me some days later by John Boscoe, head warden at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda's largest park. As we took the lazy river-launch up the Nile towards the Falls, John described how Amin and his cronies had systematically machine-gunned down the vast majority of Murchison's wildlife, "just for the hell of it".

But the wildlife is now returning, as Boscoe's four-year-old son demonstrated, pointing out buffalo, giraffe, countless crocodiles airing their mouths in the sun, an abundance of hippoes, the rump of a lion and birds - including every birdwatcher's fantasy, the absurd-looking shoebill - all collecting on the river banks.

The appearance of foam on the river was the first sign we got of Murchison Falls, quoted in my guidebook as being "the most spectacular thing to happen to the Nile along its 67,000-kilometre length". The usually wide and gentle river becomes a boiling mass of water and spray, as it is forced over a ledge and into a gap in the rock just a metre wide, before reforming as a sluggish body of water.

Perhaps one can compare this sudden traumatising of the river to the condensed period of severe brutality and disruption that the Ugandans were forced to pass through during the Seventies and Eighties. Like the river, the Ugandans have emerged depleted, battered and yet intact as a nation, still carrying the scars from the trauma as the river carries the foam, yet moving as one towards a future filled with hope and regeneration.

Back in Kampala, sitting at the bar in the friendly open-air Kabira club, and recounting our adventures whilst watching my companion swimming at midnight, my admiration for Uganda's remarkable spirit knew no bounds. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

Katie Sampson flew to Uganda with British Airways (0345 222111). Flights are direct from London, Heathrow to Entebbe, the nearest airport for the capital, Kampala, and return fares start from pounds 579.

TOURS

Her tour was arranged courtesy of the Ugandan tour operator, Delmira Travel (002 564 123 5494/123 4840, fax 002 564 123 1927). Delmira offers various tours of the country, including the 10-day Uganda Safari of Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks. Prices range from around $1,650 (about pounds 1,100) per person for a group of eight, to $2,000 (about pounds 1,350) per person if there are two of you. The price includes accommodation, most meals, entrance to the National Parks and car hire, with driver, for eight days.

STAYING THERE

Accommodation on the tour was provided at the following hotels and lodges: the White Horse Inn, Kabale; Abecrombie & Kent's Tented Camp at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; Mweya Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park; Ndali Lodge, Fort Portal; Nile Safari Camp, Murchison Falls; the Kabira Club, Bukota, Kampala. A double room at these sites costs between $50 (about pounds 35), for the White Horse Inn, and $244 (about pounds 165), for the Nile Safari Camp, per night.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Although equatorial, Uganda's average altitude of 1,000 metres above sea-level ensures a year-round "rarely sweat, never shiver" climate. Like most tropical countries, travellers are recommended to get inoculations against yellow fever, tetanus, polio, meningitis, and to take anti-malarial prophylactics. British passport holders do not require a visa to visit Uganda. Further information is available from the Uganda High Commission (0171 839 5783), Uganda House, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX.

Comments