Travel Long Haul: Not many animals but plenty of surprises

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The Independent Culture
Uganda's President wants to sell his country as East Africa's latest unspoilt holiday destination, but much

work needs to be done before visitors can expect a problem-free safari in paradise. By Chris Walmsley

"UGANDA IS still a land of great beauties with breathtaking scenery and a richly cultural heritage," our guide told us, almost apologetically, as we started our game drive through the Murchison Falls National Park.

Last month, Uganda's President Museveni announced plans to promote his country as East Africa's newest holiday idyll. But portraying the country as a place ready for large-scale tourism would be unfair to travellers or the people of Uganda.

In England, we were warned that Africa is full of surprises; so, the four of us made a point of not being surprised at the number of people who climbed into the four-wheel-drive vehicle we had hired. There was the driver, and the guide, and one of the guide's friends, and one of the guide's friend's friends. And, of course, a Park warden with a rifle to ensure our safety. We picked up one other person later, but that was after three hours of not seeing elephants, lions and giraffes, and not before we had run over a tortoise and two guinea fowl and narrowly missed the only living cheetah in a 50-mile radius. Is this the sort of sustainable tourism the President professes to promote?

To be fair, many of Uganda's surprises can be pleasant ones, and at least the unpleasant ones were unforgettable. We had been booked in to Paraa Lodge in the Murchison Falls National Park, but it had been gutted in 1982 during Uganda's "troubles" and was home to 80 baboons who weren't keen on uninvited guests. We settled for bed and breakfast in a mud hut for the same price as peak season B&B at home.

Having not seen any animals, missed breakfast, paid for dinner twice and lent the tour guide 80,000 shillings to get us back to Kampala from Paraa Rest Camp, we decided to do what the British do best abroad: drink heavily. With five bottles of Nile Special Lager inside each of us, the world, and Uganda especially, almost seemed like a better place.

On the road back to Kampala, after a three-hour detour to look at the inside of a hut at Rabunco Cottages, we were driven off the road by outriders to let President Museveni and Jimmy Carter flash by in a fleet of Mercedes

Outside Kampala, unannounced and not on the itinerary, we dropped in on King Ronnie's coronation site and ceremonial house which was made of mud and bamboo canes and had a big oak front door.

King Ronnie's house was still being built when we arrived. At the back of the house was a smaller construction which our guide explained was King Ronnie's wife's annex "so he can have her in easy reach". Our guide's friend said it was the maid's quarters, and several other locals told us it was everything from a kitchen to a chicken pen. King Ronnie's housekeeper mimed the human squatting position at this point and we deduced that the hut was in fact a toilet. By the time we had completed a lap of King Ronnie's house, our party had swollen to 14.

As Uganda's tourist industry is in its infancy, now is possibly the best time to visit the country. The greatest danger we felt, when walking around Kampala after dark, was falling into one of the many open sewers by the roadside, or bumping into a skip full of rotting matoke. It is easy to be blase, but while we were there, two children playing in one of these holes got electrocuted by the mains and died. True, Uganda offers an astounding range of sights and experiences and is unspoilt by Western excesses. But Heaven it is not.