Travel: Down here in heaven: Uganda is a paradise that receives virtually no tourists, so the few who visit are indulged splendidly. Simon Calder is smitten by a country whose people smile in the face of tragedy

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
My plan was to be the man with no shadow. If you stand near enough to the Equator, close to a spring or autumn equinox, and within an hour of noon, the sun is plumb in the middle of a huge sky. The only way to cast a shadow is to lean improbably, in the manner of Rowan Atkinson or John Cleese. It worked.

My quasi-scientific curiosity was sated by this experience of finding nowhere to hide from the sun, so I chose not to bother checking which way the water flowed down the plughole of an Equatorial bath. Instead I flopped into an extravagant wicker chair for some comfortably tardy elevenses. Tea and toast were brought by a waiter from the predominant ethnic group in the area, the Pygmies.

Though concise in stature, Pygmies have the advantage of living in a reasonably close approximation to paradise. Uganda is a wayward fragment of Africa, but I was smitten by its unassuming charm.

A few shreds of cloud collided nonchalantly above the veranda. This ancient piece of DIY woodwork was tentatively attached to an old colonial hotel, just on the right side of tumbling down. I was rather more concerned with buttering toast than the view, but as I glanced out at the tallest of the Ruwenzori mountains, I realised I was looking at the point on earth closest to the sun. And the peak was covered in snow.

Central Africa is daubed with a broad, bold brush: vivid greens, brutal reds and dazzling yellows. Uganda looks like a colour spectrum from which the less interesting shades have been removed. The greens deepened and the vegetation became more alpine as I climbed. At a lively mountain stream, a group of schoolboys laughed uproariously at my pale skin, then showed me how to swim safely across the rapids.

I hitch-hiked back downhill. Only in Uganda could you get a ride in a car with no engine. This heap of rust, so ochre that the earth provided natural camouflage, had evidently begun life as a Toyota. It coasted powerlessly but happily for a few miles before we encountered an uphill stretch. I realised that the motorist (if he could be so described) had packed his battered vehicle with hitch-hikers purely for their pushing power. With plenty of willing heaving shoulders, we cleared the rise and leapt back in for the last downward roll to the dusty old town of Kasese.

The driver set off to procure an engine, while I followed a chattering crowd to the clapperboard church. At the door I was handed an ancient C of E prayerbook. Half the worshippers, though Protestant, were wearing T-shirts celebrating the Pope's recent visit to Uganda. They politely bundled me to the front of the congregation.

Between hymns, the preacher struck a sombre tone: 'Those of you who have not yet mourned, prepare to mourn.' This was not fiery evangelism, just a reflection of awful reality. Even in the middle of a happy Sunday, under a bountiful sun, one disease casts a mortal shadow on this country. Almost every family has been touched by Aids.

Uganda sometimes feels like a condemned nation. It is hard to know which grim statistic best conveys the scale of the tragedy. One person in eight is HIV positive, one in 60 has full-blown Aids. This lethal epidemic is devastating the society and crippling the economy. Yet the people show no bitterness, only dignified good humour.

White, gangling and obvious amid the congregation, I was gently invited to explain my presence in one of the world's more obscure corners. It is quite something to win a round of applause in a church at all, let alone simply by explaining you are on holiday.

The day was idyllic, but any journey to Uganda provides several candidates for the perfect 24 hours. You are unlikely, however, to find undiluted joy in Kampala. Indeed, the capital is a right old mess. Kampala has been carelessly strewn across a series of rumpled hills. It is also very ugly. The post-colonialists have imposed a selection of incongruous, angular monoliths, scattered like gigantic tombstones around the city. Banks, office blocks and the British High Commission all look like losing entries from a Sixties architecture competition.

Life in Kampala carries on without regard for these neocolonial relics. The main street, Kampala Road, functions for most of its length as a respectable thoroughfare, lined with airline offices and shops. At its western end, however, it loses its senses of direction and purpose, fraying and merging into a natural arena buzzing with activity: this is the nation's bus station.

That explosion of anarchic commerce next door is Owino Market, described in one of Uganda's rare tourist handouts, with some understatement, as 'a hectic business situation'.

The people of Uganda are endlessly cheery and courteous, and almost everyone strikes up a conversation. Each passer-by has his or her own script, based on a common strand of courtesy. The de luxe version goes like this:

'Good morning to you.'

'Good morning to YOU.'

'How are you?'

'I am fine. How are you?'

'I am fine. How are YOU?'

Such exchanges do not get tedious because a random factor is at work - you are never sure at which stage in the cycle the litany will start. Often a complete stranger will greet you with 'I am fine. How are you?' The most endearing exponents are young children, who can spot a muzungo - a white person - a mile off. You might think the ancient volcano you are climbing is deserted until a high-pitched 'I am fine - how are YOU?' pierces the air, followed by gales of giggles.

Uganda receives virtually no tourists, which perhaps explains why the few who visit are indulged so splendidly. I did meet a couple of American travellers at Kabale, close to the Rwandan frontier; they were heading for the Impenetrable Forest in the hope of tracking gorillas. I was content to remain in Kabale, drinking the excellent local tea and contemplating the region's proximity to paradise.

The tourist authorities call the area 'little Switzerland', but the description sells it cheap. This dramatic African valley is a patchwork of a thousand shades of green, neatly organised into productive units on a one-in-two gradient. Life on the horizontal scarcely exists, but almost every square inch of the slopes has been cultivated in a triumph of agriculture at an angle of some 30 degrees.

The bank in Kabale town centre is a testimony to the bewildering bureaucracy imposed by the British. Changing money here takes up the best part of the morning, before a pile of cash is counted out meticulously and topped with a somewhat uncrisp 10 shilling note, worth less than 1p. To enhance your wait, the bank is bristling with notices giving helpful hints such as 'There is No Substitute for Neatness'.

The best way to get around town is on a 'taxi-special' - a padded seat on the back of a bicycle - but the real purpose of a trip to Kabale is to hike in the hills. After a breathless hour's climb through the steep terraces of red earth, you stumble out on to an improbably gentle meadow. A school commands one side, the church holds the other. Thatched huts jostle each other for the best view. And what a view it is.

Conjure the strongest image you can of a glistening lake dotted with islands, deep blue speckled with rich green. The vision is muted, but not blunted, by a fine haze. It is hard to believe that reality could be so intense. And the locals, blessed with this panorama at every dawn, think you are barmy for staring at the scenery. In Uganda, the effort of everyday life leaves little room for such indulgence.

A few minutes - by bus and geographically - north of the Equator is the Mweya Safari Lodge. This hotel is presumptuously close to perfection, on a promontory above the plains of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. In the foreground, shocking violet petals flutter in the breeze blowing in from Lake Edward. The sun brings a shimmer to the backdrop, distorting the lazy wriggle of the river as it meanders off to dissolve into the horizon.

The river is the preserve of the slow hulks of hippopotamus, yawning the afternoon away. Extending the background in this sort of Utopia is easy: just borrow somebody's binoculars and focus on the wildlife. Here a family of elephants, there some water buffalo, everywhere hippo. A boat that was built on the Isle of Wight, but which somehow has ended up in the middle of Africa, takes you into the thick of them. They grunt obscenely as they go about their ablutions, watched incuriously by egrets, storks and cranes.

Much of the wildlife was massacred in the various bloody conflicts that Uganda has hosted over the last two decades. I hitched a ride in an expatriate's Jeep to the middle of nowhere, and started to walk.

A vicar on a bicycle paused for a chat. He mentioned in passing that lions resided in the park and I was likely to be eaten. I would have felt more alarmed had he not pedalled off unsteadily at a speed unlikely to outpace even the slowest predator. I decided the risk must be minimal, and made it back to the lodge intact.

The sun was sinking quickly somewhere over Zaire, so quickly that even the shadows of static objects seemed to be racing. Life on the line of zero latitude is full of scientific surprises, but by now my experimental interest was channelled into deciding whether waragi - East Africa's ambitious answer to gin - mixes most amicably with soda or tonic.

FACTFILE

Getting there: I bought a discounted British Airways ticket from London to Entebbe, the airport for Kampala, through Somak Travel (081-903 8526) for pounds 455.

Accommodation: The government-run Uganda Hotel Corporation operates a network of comfortable lodges around the country. Prices are around pounds 15 single/ pounds 20 double per night, including tea and toast. Cheaper hotels are easy to find; in Kampala, try the Tourist Motel on Kampala Road.

Visas: British visitors need a tourist visa, which costs pounds 20 and takes two working days to obtain from the Ugandan High Commission, 58 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX (071-839 5783). Irish visitors do not require a visa.

Health: The only compulsory vaccination is against yellow fever, but protection against hepatitis is also recommended. Ugandan mosquitoes enjoy nothing more than fresh European skin; use a repellent, and take malaria tablets during your stay and for six weeks afterwards. The best protection against Aids is to refrain from casual sex. A risk also exists from medical treatment using contaminated medical equipment; travellers should carry an 'Aids pack' of needles and catheters in case an injection, drip or transfusion is required. The Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad (0891 224100) provides health briefs. A typical call, for up to six countries, costs around pounds 2.

Further information: Up-to- date material on travel in Uganda is scarce. The East Africa Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 9.95) is the best of a thin lot; a new edition is due in March. Serious twitchers should use Birds of East Africa by Williams and Arlott (Collins, pounds 14.99).

(Photographs and map omitted)

Comments