Uganda: A star is reborn

The backdrop of a new film, Uganda is an unspoilt wilderness waiting to be explored. No wonder it's reinventing itself as a top eco-tourism destination. Janet Tappin Coelho reports

"If your husband boils this plant and drinks it in this herbal mixture, within a matter of minutes, he'll have no problem getting an erection." This matter-of-fact medicinal advice is delivered in softly spoken Swahili by Alfonse Bifumbo, a medicine man of some repute here in Bwindi, south-west Uganda.

"But my husband doesn't need it," I blurt out a little too defensively (I can just see my hot-blooded, Brazilian-born spouse taking umbrage at me for bringing back this duty-free love potion). "No, he doesn't mean your husband," laughs my guide, Molly Mpirirwe, who is translating for me. "It's a remedy that will work on almost any man who suffers from impotence. Some tourists take the medicinal compound home with them. However, if you want, he does have a special mixture of herbs for women who have lost interest in sex," she adds impishly.

Libido banter aside, when it comes to playing the tourism field, Uganda is relatively virginal. Compared with its more developed neighbours, Kenya and Tanzania, this land-locked nation is a late bloomer following its war-torn past under presidents Amin and Oboto and the murder of Western tourists in Bwindi in 1999. However, over the past six years, Uganda has taken significant strides towards attracting overseas guests, with the number of tourists to protected areas increasing by about 15 per cent annually.

Last year, Tourism Uganda stepped up promotion of the region with an advertising campaign that hallmarked the country as a land "gifted by nature" and an eco-tourism destination with "exceptional and unique resources". It has made social responsibility, respect for the environment and intimate bespoke holidays its marketing weapons of choice.

"Uganda doesn't want to go down the mass-tourism route like its neighbours, because we feel it could ultimately overwhelm and damage our country's fragile ecosystem," Mpirirwe says. You soon see why Ugandans are keen to protect what they've got. Driving through the countryside, along bullet-straight roads and then up winding mountain-carved, bone-rattling tracks to Bwindi, you can't help but be impressed by the unspoilt beauty of this East African country. Breathtaking natural expanses framed by distant mist-capped mountains are followed by plunging valleys and rolling hills with cane-row plaits of lush vegetation. You feel you've stepped into Jurassic Park. And as it's an equatorial country with high altitudes, you are treated to favourable temperatures of between 18C and 27C throughout the year.

The question on my lips though is: how safe is the country? The Foreign Office warns against "all travel to northern Uganda ... because of banditry and rebel insurgency," and ponts out that last November "a British national was killed in Murchison Falls National Park. We advise you not to visit this Park". Mpirirwe dismisses as "negligible" the pockets of unrest in northern Uganda. She stresses that the government, which has brought economic stability, has done much to ensure visitors feel safe due to the security provided by the army. So confident are they that last year British filmmakers were given free reign to recreate the era of the dictator, Idi Amin (1971-1979). They spent three months shooting The Last King of Scotland (one of the many titles the tyrant bestowed on himself) in Kampala, Jinja and Mabira Forest - the burial ground of hundreds of thousands of Amin's victims. The story, told from the viewpoint of Amin's physician, is based on the novel by Giles Foden. Forest Whitaker stars as the tyrant and the Shameless star James McAvoy plays Dr Nicholas Garrigan.

It's the first time Uganda has been used as a film location and the producers are still singing its praises as a safe, accommodating and friendly setting. But more of that later. Right now, Bifumbo is standing behind a table laden with the tools of his trade. Five of us (including my sister Beverleigh, who has come to Uganda with me) perch on two benches in the cool surroundings of his banda. Overhead a tropical downpour drums loudly on the corrugated iron roof and leaves little rivulets outside in the herb garden where we sat just five minutes ago.* *Dozens of small bags of seeds spill their contents on the table; bundles of freshly plucked aromatic herbs and leaves are stacked among roots and bark that pile haphazardly high against each other. The traditional healer is holding a long, thin stalk loaded with tiny white berries in one hand and a mixture of roots and leaves in the other. He says he's been prescribing this herbal equivalent of Viagra to men in Bwindi and across the border in Rwanda for decades - way before the Western drug stole the show.

In fact, Bifumbo claims he can treat all manner of ailments, from mild headaches to malignant growths; high blood pressure to asthma, using plants that grow on the forest-clad mountains and in the deep vegetation-rich valleys of Uganda. Herbs remain the primary method of healthcare in rural areas and Bifumbo's expertise is being promoted as part of the country's eco-tourism strategy. The aim is to encourage overseas visitors to travel with an open mind, to mix with the local community and to spend money in these communities so local people benefit.

After visiting Bifumbo, we head to a banana brewery. Trekking through the squelching wet soil of the banana groves, we arrive at Sunday Solomon's yard. He's the main man when it comes to producing the popular beverage. Every few days Sunday gives his feet a thorough wash and manicure and steps into a dugout canoe filled with ripened bananas. For the next three hours he treads them into a mush, producing enough liquid to make litres of a fermented brew that has sorghum added to it or a smooth, aromatic gin that is distilled for 11 days. Although we don't get to see him in action, we drink calabash cups of raw juice. The fermented brew is a little too sour but we lick our lips after the gin. Beverleigh wisely suggests my husband is more likely to enjoy this potent potion, so we buy a few bottles.

We're then informed that the Batwa people are waiting to entertain us with traditional song and dance near the village church. The Batwas, who are also known as Pygmies, are, to my surprise, as tall as or taller than my 5ft 1in frame (the women, that is; some of the men are 5ft 6in tall). Intermarriage, they tell me, has altered their genetic make-up. Even so, they haven't lost any of their innate enthusiasm when it comes to performing their powerful ground-stomping dance. But behind this cheerful show of abandon lies a deep frustration for the Batwa, one of the most deprived communities in Uganda. In 1991 they were forcibly removed by the government from their high mountain forest homes of Bwindi. The reason: to protect the gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates facing extinction in the mountain terrain, an area that was being destroyed through deforestation. The Batwas have struggled to adjust to life outside the forest. But as a result of their sacrifice, Bwindi has become much sought-after. Small groups of tourists combine the incredible wildlife experience of tracking rare mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park while adhering to the the strict hygiene rules that seek to minimise the impact on the lives and habitat of these majestic beasts.

More importantly, the community is seeing the benefits. Around 25 per cent of all the money we spend during our stay in Bwindi goes back to the people. We're lodging at the luxury tented Gorilla Forest Camp, which provides an exquisite "attention to detail" service and delicious four-course meals. And we've paid $360 (around £200) for our gorilla tracking permits. Leopold King, manager of the Gorilla Forest Camp, which works closely with the community umbrella group, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust says: "We have a series of different programmes and donations that we are committed to at the lodge. For example, part of our revenue goes back to the park and that is channelled towards gorilla conservation. On the other side we have social responsibility programmes that include supporting the health centre, providing schools and an orphanage programme. Better health care has helped to cut down infant mortality rates and helped to reduce the number of communicable diseases like TB, measles and diarrhoea that were rampant in these parts. Healthier people mean our primates live in a safer environment."

Bwindi normally takes 10 hours to reach by road from Kampala. Thankfully we break up this long journey from the capital by stopping for 24 hours at Lake Bunyonyi. Located in Kabale, in south-west Uganda, Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort is an idyllic retreat with spellbinding vistas of the lake and surrounding verdant mountains. The resort is owned and managed locally by the Lake Bunyonyi Development Company. Since launching in 1993, the charity has established itself as a beacon of sustainable development. It receives minimal external financial support and uses the majority of its revenue, generated from tourism, to support the local economy.

"This place is eco-tourism at its best," Patrick Tumwijkuic, manager of the LBDC, says proudly. "Our work here is not just about encouraging respect for the wildlife and environment but ensuring that anyone who comes here, as a tourist, understands that their visit directly affects and supports the livelihoods of those who live and work here."

Around 70 per cent of the money earned is channelled back into various community-based projects. A forestry programme provides seedlings to local farmers to stave off soil-erosion and deforestation; an orphan-care project looks after local children, craft co-ops help fair trade and micro-loans boost financial well-being. Money is also directed towards supporting schools and used to train and pay the wages of the hospitality staff drawn from the villages.

For the visitor, there is a range of leisurely and laid-back activities to keep you occupied. From bird-watching on Bushara Island which is in the middle of Lake Bunyonyi, to swimming, canoeing, mountain biking and nature trails. Bushara Island has an astounding variety of over 200 birds and we are treated to the dueting calls of the tropical boubou; spot pied kingfishers, yellow-back warblers and red-chested sunbirds to name but a few. To get back to the mainland, Molly and I opt for a moonlit ride in a dugout eucalyptus canoe. Beverleigh says she doesn't fancy the idea and motor boats it home. Her choice is certainly quicker, as our journey takes over 40 minutes to her 10. But the experience is a refreshing and soothing balm on the soul. Living in Britain under night light pollution, it's so easy to forget how beautiful a starlit sky is. And with no harmful creatures to encounter in Bunyonyi's deep volcanic waters, it's safe to trail a hand carelessly in its cold depths or even swim.

Before rounding off our trip, we go on a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park and include a trip of about two hours on the Kasinga Channel to view some of the largest concentrations of hippos in the world, and to see water buffalo and excellent bird life. We stay overnight in East African Meru-style tents at the newly opened Ishasha Wilderness Camp, which is situated on the wooded banks of Ntungwe River in the National Park. As we drive through the park to reach Ishasha, a herd of elephants blocks our path and we must wait patiently for them to amble on. We spot tree-climbing lions resting in the branches of large fig trees and herds of kob, antelope and buffalo stare nonchalantly at our passing Jeep as the odd warthog scuttles by.

Back in Kampala people are still eager to talk about how an award-winning Hollywood actor brought a bit of glamour to the dusty, burnt ochre streets of the capital city in June last year. Filming stopped traffic along the main thoroughfare, Kampala High Road, for several days, but nobody minded as everyone was too excited to worry about the inconvenience. One of the hotspots and iconic landmarks most associated with Amin was the Sheraton Hotel swimming pool. Amin would often lounge beside the circular-shaped pool with his ministers and the movers and shakers of the time of an evening, listening to a live band.

"We were given a free hand to recreate the period and had the full support of President Yoweri Museveni," says Charles Steele from Cowboy Films and one of the producers of The Last King of Scotland. "We filmed extensively in the parliament, in the ante chambers and cabinet rooms. It was also great to use the authentic backdrop of the city of Jinja. Over 80,000 Indians were expelled from Uganda by Amin during 1971 and 1972 and Jinja, at that time, was the epicentre of the East Indian community."

The historic epic will premier at The BFI 50th London Film Festival on 18 October and go on general release in the UK from 12 January 2007. Although it will not depict a palatable period in African history, some international travellers will, no doubt, be keen to see how the country has moved forward and include a location visit or two.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Kenya Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com), which flies to Nairobi from Heathrow with onward connections to Entebbe, which serves the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

The only direct flight is from Heathrow with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Alternatively, you can fly from several UK airports via Brussels with SN Brussels (0870 735 2345; www.flysn.co.uk). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Entebbe, in economy class, is £13.60. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

STAYING THERE

The writer was a guest of Tourism Uganda (00 256 41 342196; www.visituganda.com) and stayed at the following hotels and camps: Emin Pasha, Kampala (00 256 41 236 977; www.emin pasha.com). Doubles from US$270 (£159), room only. Botanical Beach Hotel, Entebbe (00 256 41 320 800; www.imperialhotels.co.ug), doubles from US$140 (£82), full board.

Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort, Kabale (00 256 48 626 231; www.traveluganda.co.ug/bwindi.asp). Prices available on request. Ishasha Wilderness Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Ishasha (book through: 00 27 11 702 2035; www.wildfrontiers.com).

VISITING THERE

Details of Bwindi National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park are both available through the website www.uwa.or.ug.

RED TAPE

British passport-holders require a visa to enter Uganda. These can be obtained either at Entebbe airport or prior to travel at the Uganda High Commission, Uganda House, 58-59 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX (020-7839 5783; www.ugandahighcommission.co.uk). They cost £25, and are valid for up to three months.

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