The Falls and the Forest

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From Kampala I headed north to Uganda’s oldest and largest national park, Murchsion Falls. Traveling with a tour company recommended by my friend, it was about a five hour drive to get there. Just before the park gate we turned onto a dirt road where the driver, Sam, explained, “The tarmac road ends here. Now we are going to experience the dust.” And indeed we did. Faced with a choice between closing the windows to avoid the rolling clouds of orange dust or leaving them open to relieve some of the sweltering heat,  most of us attempted to do both by leaving just a small crack open, which made neither problem better.

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Rolling down the dusty road, Murchison Falls National Park

The falls themselves are very impressive. Almost the entire flow of the Nile River is forced through a narrow, 6 meter wide opening in the rocks and plunges 45 meters into the valley below. An additional falls, named Uhuru (independence), was created in 1962 after extreme rainfall made the Nile flood, burst its banks and create a new channel. We were able to follow a rocky hiking trail right to the top of the falls; standing so close to the Devil’s Cauldron, a churning mass of water and mist, definitely makes one appreciate the force of nature. Across the rocks stood the remains of a bridge over the falls built for the Queen of England’s visit in the 50’s, which had been washed away by the power of the river.

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Murchison Falls, Uganda

We stayed in a camp above the ferry dock on the south side of the Victoria Nile. Immediately upon arriving, our host explained that wild animals, including hippos, baboons, and a family of warthogs, often wandered through the camp and warned us to carry a light at night lest we bump into a wayward hippo and experience its ‘terminal’ bite. I shared a tent with a Serbian-German filmaker who was also visiting a friend in Kampala, another German who is working to develop the Uganda Film Institute. The night passed without incident (hippo or otherwise, although I did spot a warthog tearing up the grass outside the bathroom) and the next day we took a car out to the region between the Victoria and Albert Niles (the river as it flows out of Lake Victoria is called the Victoria Nile, which then enters and flows out of Lake Albert), which is full of buffalo and different species of antelope. The real highlight of the day, however, was a cruise in a small boat 17 kilometers up the river to about 400 meters from the base of the falls. Spotting crocodiles, fish eagles and innumerable hippos from on top of the roof, along with simply watching the lush green banks roll by as the afternoon waned, was pure bliss.

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Full speed ahead on the Victoria Nile

After Murchison Falls I caught a bus to the town of Fort Portal at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. Most public buses in Uganda wait until they are fully packed with passengers to depart, and mine was no exception with a three hour wait at the station in Kampala. A woman wearing a bright yellow headscarf sat down next to me and though I was becoming impatient, she was completely exasperated and began berating the bus workers to start the journey. We eventually got going and made it to Fort Portal by midafternoon (I bought a couple roasted bananas for lunch along the way). During a communal dinner at my guesthouse that night I took part in an interesting discussion on Uganda’s unemployment problem, which my host argued would only be solved by young people moving back to their parents’ farms and becoming ‘professional farmers’.

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Young crocodile, Murchison Falls National Park

Instead of gorilla tracking on the Congo border (which costs upwards of $600 for a permit, if you are lucky enough to obtain one) I decided to visit Kibale National Park, where tracking one of the 12 troops of chimpanzees is one of the more unique wildlife experiences in all of East Africa. Following an armed guide into the dense forest (the rifle slung over his shoulder was in case of any encounters with the aggressive forest elephants), my small group discovered some fruit branches that had been picked over by chimps and fresh chimp scat (complete with dung beetles) before spotting one in the bushes ahead. We lost him pretty quickly, but soon discovered an entire group of 15-20 chimps swinging through the trees, grooming one another, and rambling around on the forest floor. These chimps are habituated to the presence of humans and more or less ignored us the entire time, but that didn’t stop me from holding my breath as a large male walked by about 3 feet away. It was fascinating to observe the closest living relatives to humans in the wild, with all of our similarities and differences.

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So like us

The River and the City

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Kampala, Uganda

Kampala is a city of hills and motorbike taxis (known locally as boda-bodas). After crossing the Nile River on the bus in darkness, the only light emanating from some industrial smokestacks nearby, we arrived and hired a ‘special taxi’ to take us to my friend Michael’s house, of which I had the address and the name of a nearby road but not much else. Following a local boda driver (the acknowledged experts in city geography), we eventually found the right street and a woman at the streetcorner kiosk directed us to the right gate.

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The bodas of Kampala (photo credit: Meredith Saba)

Mike runs a rent-to-own motorbike business for boda drivers called Tugende, meaning “Let’s go!” in the Luganda language (the most widely used local language in Uganda, spoken mainly by the Baganda people who constitute the largest ethnic group in Uganda, but are still only 17% of the total population). It was fascinating to get his perspectice on Ugandan business practices (corruption is rampant, unfortunately, though Tugende maintains a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and keeps it out of its business) as well as politics over a couple bottles of Club, a local beer. I also tried a bit of ‘Uganda Waragi’, a spirit similar to gin often sold in small plastic pouches (because they are cheaper to produce than glass bottles).

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Discussing Uganda’s future with Mike

Two hours from Kampala, where the Nile flows north out of Lake Victoria and begins (according to Ugandans, though I was just told in Kigali that the true source is in Rwanda) its 4,000 mile-long journey north to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, a number of intense Class IV and V rapids support a fun rafting trip in which Meredith and I were eager to partake. The current raftable section of the Nile is a ways downriver from the original rapids, many of which were flooded with the completion of the Bujagali Dam in 2012 (the goverment is in the process of constructing yet another dam further downriver, which may make the current rapids disappear altogether).

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Rapids on the Victoria Nile (photo credit: Meredith Saba)

We met our lead guide Juma (who competed in the London Olympics in 2012), grabbed a life jacket and helmet and jumped into the boat with five other travelers. After practicing flipping the raft in the refreshingly cool waters of the river, we approached the first rapid, known as Overtime. We hit it just as soon as our guide Paolo had time to explain that there is an 8-foot drop at the end, and that it was the most extreme rapid of the day. There was no time to think, about whether we had made a terrible mistake or anything else. Only to duck down and take cover as the raft plunged sideways over the drop off. Miraculously we did not flip, and an exhilirating (and wet) few seconds later we were in calm waters again, looking back at the waterfall we had just gone over as the screams of our fellow rafters subsided into giddy laughter.

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Dropping in to Overtime

Seven more exciting rapids followed, including ‘The Dead Dutchman’ and ‘The Bad Place’, a Class VI that we had to take the rafts out and portage around to avoid. At one point the raft turned almost perpendicular to the water and Paolo was launched into the river, though the rest of us managed to cling on. Watching our fellows in Juma’s boat flip a number of times, I found myself wishing I would be similarly thrown into the brisk water at the next rapid. There were also long stretches of flatwater where we enjoyed pinapple slices and glucose biscuits (ubiquitous in East Africa), and I took every opportunity to dive in, swim around and cool off (no hippos or crocodiles here!).

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Meredith and me on the river

The day ended with a BBQ, beers and a carnival trolley back to the main road. Sadly Meredith had to return home and flew back to the US the next day (a 36 hour journey) while I stayed in Kampala to see a bit more of the city, including the recently constructed National Mosque on Old Kampala Hill (fun fact: Kampala is also built on seven hills, like every other city in the world), known as the Gaddafi Mosque to Kampalans as it was built with funds and engineers provided by the late Libyan leader. The idea began with Idi Amin in the 1970’s, however, and it was interesting to talk with my guide about Uganda’s Muslim community while taking in the wide-ranging views of the city from the top of the minaret. I would soon strike out from here to Uganda’s hinterland, where waterfalls, chimpanzees, and Africa’s highest mountain range awaited.

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National (Gaddafi) Mosque, Kampala