Uganda

A delay at a border was bound to happen sometime. After the, shall we say, unique way I was processed in at the Rwanda border a couple of weeks ago, I landed up with no paperwork being processed for the bike at that border. I had been surprised at the border entering Tanzania to discover bikes were free, so maybe Rwanda doesn’t bother with paperwork? I wasn’t going to question the border manager who did all the processing for me, checking if I had a COMESA insurance, and I was frying bigger fish at the time with my back pain. When I came to exit Rwanda there was, therefore, no Rwanda paperwork I could produce. I explained to the exit border officials what happened, and it all seemed ok. Passport was stamped, the chap from customs came out of his building and walked over to talk to the police at the exit gate to say to let me go, but as is the case in Africa, things can grind to a halt very quickly with no clear reason. They did. The police guy wanted to phone his boss, who then came over 10 minutes later, who then called another guy, who both came to ask me what the situation was. I explained again, showed them the discharge paper from the hospital, showed them the photo of Aimable, Asiimwe and I (see the Rwanda blog) and gave contact numbers for them. They seemed to think that was fine, apparently just ‘popping off to make a final confirmation phone call’. An hour later I was still waiting, so I went and tracked them down to see if I could offer any help, only to be told they are waiting for an answer from Aimable. I said I had his WhatsApp number so what did they need to know? The story then changed and said they had already spoken to him, but were waiting for something else. Again, my offer to help just met with a “just wait” reply. At that point the guy from customs made another appearance, said something to them in Swahili, they said Ooohh, handed my passport back and said I could go. You don’t have to speak a language to understand tempo, tone, and body language, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of what he said!

When I entered Uganda I got another TIP for the bike, known as a form C32 in East African countries. I’ll skip ahead here to when I entered Kenya, where I got another such form stapled to the Uganda one. I also in the meantime checked the paperwork I got from entering Tanzania, which is also a C32, as they are all members of East Africa. I probably should have showed them the Tanzania C32 at the Rwanda exit border, which might have made it easier. It looks like, from the layout of the document, that you get one C32 and that is stamped in and out of the East African countries as you travel, in much the same way as a Carnet is. I’ll certainly be paying close attention to that one on my way back down through Tanzania, and the next time I’m up this way. After that, the rest of the border crossing was straight forward, including screening for Ebola.

I headed straight for Rushaga Gorilla camp about a kilometre from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest gate, in the hope that being so close would give me a better chance to get a trekking permit and a transfer from and back to the camp. I had previously been in touch with one or two operators I found online. Only one picked up the conversation, offering me a trip for US$1,200 including the $600 gorilla trekking permit. That was originally from a hotel about 50km away, so I asked for a price from the camp – US$1,100. That wasn’t going to happen so I asked Elizabeth, the manager at the camp, if she could do something. Long story short, I paid US$630 – $600 for the permit and $30 for a driver for a day who took me in his 4×4 to the briefing, then the departure point, and back again to the camp. We left at 7:30 and got back at 17:30 so a 10 hour day. It was only fair to give him a few more dollars.

So now you know; I managed to go Gorilla trekking without spending too much money stuffing the pockets of international tour operators. The trek itself wasn’t too bad to the entrance to the forest, but inside the forest was a challenge. At some stages we were digging our shoes in to the side of the hill and holding on to roots of trees and shrubs higher up to get across almost vertical drop offs. I was still recovering from my back injury and unfortunately twisted my back again on one of those knarley sections. I had told the guys at the briefing about my back, but I think if you say something about ‘the shortest trek’ they put you on the longest one on purpose – there were groups that left the same time as us and were back at the camp by 11:30!

I don’t know if it was my discomfort after twisting my back again, but meeting the Gorillas wasn’t the “awesome” experience I had been imagining. Maybe there’s also an element of the gorilla families you trek with having been habituated to humans, and they take groups of tourists to see them every day, so the results are somewhat predictable and almost guaranteed. 

Am I happy I went to see them? Most definitely! 

Would I recommend that you go and seem them too? Most definitely! 

Would I do it again? Ask me in a month or two.

But I must say our guide stepped up and assisted me personally back through to the edge of the forest. His help, plus the carved stick I bought before the trek as a memento of my gorilla trek, let me balance myself over the knarley sections and keep the weight off my back. Except for one section of a few metres where I slipped and fell down the steep hill, fortunately being caught by some bushes not too far down. The guide and a few porters rushed to my aid and managed to pull me out, me being of no use to help myself back up. I gave the guide a pretty good tip at the end, with instruction (given in front of them) to share among the other trackers and escort guys as appropriate – the same way tips are shared on SCUBA diving liveaboard yachts.

After twisting my back I extended my stay at the camp for another two days, taking in a local walk to the school and pygmy (Batwa) village. The school is also home to about 35 orphans who also board at the school. My guide for the walk also told me that two of the old ladies in the Batwa village were the original forest dwellers, being born and raised in the forest. One of the ladies was claimed to be 110 years old, but I wonder if, as a shorter people, they also have a shorter year?

Eventually it was time to move on. I headed in the direction of Kampala, not sure how far I’d get. I was looking for a specific hotel just outside Mbarara, but couldn’t find it. Instead, I happened upon the Igongo Lodge and Cultural centre just after lunch. It looked very interesting so I checked in, and took a walk around their cultural museum in the afternoon. Interestingly, a lot of their old history is based around a solar eclipse that occurred in the middle of a big battle, some 400 years ago! Historians can calculate the exact date of the eclipse, and thereby establish a time line of history from that era. There is a monument to the eclipse on the hill across from Igongo, but I didn’t manage to get up there.

Wisdom is rooted in the past

From there it was over to Jinja, the source of the Nile river flowing out of Lake Victoria. Some say the true source of the Nile is further down the other side of the lake, in Rwanda close to Lake Kivu. With so many rivers flowing in to the lake, who or how can we say this river is the source of that river which flows out the other side? The route to Jinja was the point I crossed over the Equator, half way to Kampala. I nearly missed it, and had to turn the bike around to stop and take a photo and get a cup of coffee. Those of you who are paying a bit more attention would probably see the bike is pointing the wrong way in the photo! I took the norther bypass around Lusaka, but even that was sheer madness of traffic. You creep forward centimetres at a time, with only millimetres between you and the car or truck behind you. One guy bumped the panniers on the bike in his impatience, so I felt obliged to pull in front of him so he couldn’t get past, get off the bike, gloves off, helmet off, inspect the bike, inspect his car, and go ‘have a word’. The second or two he wanted to save by being right on the back of my bike turned in to a 5 minute delay while I took my time. “Pole-pole”, my man, slowly-slowly!

The Living Waters lodge is right on the source of the Nile, and has the monument to John Speke, who is credited with being the first to declare it the source of the Nile, on the lodge grounds. That looks good on a map and booking dot com, but it was a bit over priced for what it was. I was there for two nights, and both nights the open air night clubs were banging away until 4am, and even the one across the water was going at it all day on Sunday, preventing any Sunday afternoon siesta. At least I got to see the source of the river, and drink a Nile beer at the source of the Nile river – box ticked.

The next day I headed out of Jinja and over to Kenya. The bike had been slowly getting worse and worse with a problem where the engine warning light would come on and the bike would lose power. Turning the ignition off and on again would reset the computer and all would be well again, for anything from a few seconds to the next time I turned the bike off. I had been in touch with the guys from BMW in Nairobi and was keen to get the bike over there to get it sorted out. Making that in one day would have been a bit much, plus I was looking forward to an early night and a good sleep so aimed for Eldoret.

Stay tuned to find out how BMW Motorrad Nairobi do with carrying the brand’s reputation…

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