Exploring Uganda

Exploring Uganda

Uganda, where the first drips of the Nile flow, where all the great safaris ventured, is back on the travel map after 20 years

Swallows are about at sunset. They spill out of this dusky sky, inhaling a sandstorm of emerging lake flies just above my head. Beside us, the hotel's vast pool breathes with the wind. Beyond, the waters of the great lake strobe into oblivion and, at my back, where the lawn finishes, ridges of red, well-worked earth suggest infinity—the furrowed forehead of a once-troubled nation.

If you know Africa, you expect that once the sun has finally quit for the day, the darkest of nights will swallow you whole, and throughout the countryside, villagers will cluster around flickers—cooking fire, torch, candle.

But tonight, pampered at the Lake Victoria Hotel, we may not notice the dark. Our candles are arranged in silver candelabra on a linen-clad bar. Uniformed waiters pass canapes called devils on horseback, the band has broken into "Begin the Beguine," and the gin and tonic slips down my throat far too easily. I must tell our group the facts of Africa. I study the faces—all American, most of them in their sixties and seventies, poised for a child's adventure. It is their first time in Entebbe, if not on this continent. For the next few weeks, Justin Kente, Tanzanian safari guide, and I will be their leaders, therapists, scoutmasters. For him, this mission is hardly a challenge. For me—television producer, writer, conservationist—the prospect is worrisome. I am amused by the blind faith the American Museum of Natural History's Discovery Tours has in me.

Although much of the route we'll travel once figured prominently in safaris, Uganda has been omitted from travel brochures for the past 20 years. God-fearing tourists wrote off this country as Africa's hell, and its leaders—Idi Amin Dada and Milton Obote—as Satans. Now, with Yoweri Museveni as president, peace is being restored, travelers discreetly courted.

I clear my throat. "Here's a bet," I announce. "Soon we'll throw away our itinerary. I can't tell you when or why, but I reckon this trip's going to be a far cry from the one you expected. Here there's an expression: A.W.A. 'Africa wins again.' So be sure to pack a sense of humor."

A polite titter. "Africa wins again," someone repeats, trying to work it out.

The next morning, the port engine on our amphibious aircraft fails. It will be a week before the plane flies again. Reluctantly, Justin and I divert our group onto two conventional aircraft, leaving a day apart: not perfect, but it's the only solution in a country with only two charter companies. So, our itinerary is already obsolete.

I first saw Uganda as a schoolboy in 1961, its last full year as a British colony. My journals from those days describe a country of ravishing greens, of tea estates managed as satrapies, of tomatoes and bananas bursting with taste. Even in the first years following independence in October 1962, Uganda remained East Africa's cornucopia, more productive by far than neighboring Tanzania and Kenya. For a while the national parks, which were still managed by the British, seemed immune to the winds of change.

I visited Uganda once more, this time in the early 1980's, shortly after Amin had fled his palace and left Uganda's government to murderers and carpetbaggers. Outlaws had set up roadblocks outside Entebbe Airport, and there was gunfire at night in Kampala's streets. Travel to Uganda was ill-advised.

Throughout good times and bad, the Ugandans never ceased to smile; it seemed they were constitutionally incapable of bitterness. By a conservative estimate, 300,000 of their countrymen had been liquidated (many with unspeakable cruelty) during Amin's reign of terror. An equal number, if not more, vanished during Obote's second term of office. I have returned to lead a tour, but also to see if the Ugandans' spirit could have survived. I can think of no better place to start than Murchison Falls.

Murchison is central to the 19th-century saga of the search for the source of the Nile. The river that bathes much of this vast continent rises initially in the highlands of Rwanda, spilling into Lake Victoria, which links Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. The Nile departs for the north through Uganda, at first aimlessly, along meanders of Lake Kyoga. Then, with mounting deliberation, under the moniker Victoria Nile, it aims northwest into Lake Albert. Fed by other waters from Rwanda, it will endure further name changes—Albert Nile, White Nile, Bahr al Jebel—as it flows north, on a fairly straight trajectory through the Sudan and Egypt, bound for the Mediterranean.

But in Uganda, the Nile is quixotic. Prior to forming Lake Albert, it narrows from nearly 1,000 feet into a 23-foot gorge and plunges some 130 feet over the lip of the western Great Rift.

Clad in tweed suits and stalking hats, Sir Samuel and Lady Baker followed the Nile upstream through Egypt and the Sudan for nearly three years and, in March 1864, became the first Westerners to see the falls. Within minutes of the sighting, the Bakers' boat was upended by a bull hippopotamus. The couple were swept out of harm's way by a whirlpool, but as they dried themselves on a mud bank, they discovered they had been deposited in the middle of the most extravagant convocation of crocodiles in all Africa.

Today, the falls are more or less as the Bakers described them: no guardrails, barely any signs. The water is mesmerizing. The river doesn't so much fall as explode through the fissure, in all directions—spray dampening skin, thunder in the air. The horizon, gray upon blue, is softened by dust raised by the haboob and the harmattan, winds far to the north in the Sudan. Leaving, we are met by a chilly, end-of-day quiet pierced only by the heartbreak chime of a dove.

In the morning we board a launch to approach the base of the falls. A steel-plated vessel built 40 years ago in Crewe, England, it has seen better days. This is the preferred way to view game in Uganda—no potholes, no washboards. I had thought the river would be disappointing, since I had heard tales of both army and rebels treating it as their supermarket. But here along the Nile I'm staggered by numbers. Sixty elephants in one herd. A hundred hippos here, 200 at the next bend. Not one pied kingfisher, but a treeful. African skimmers slipcovering a mud bank. And, best of all, a pair of shoebill storks—enough to make even a show-off birder succumb to the vapors.

But crocodiles are the ones who run riot. They watch us, immobile, eyes like candied fruit, mouths agape, teeth polished by oxpeckers. All the time, whether lurking in reeds, on sand, or underwater, they seem to shadow us. The largest ones—some approaching 16 feet—must have seen their share of history. They certainly could have known my spindly legs from the sixties. Some living today may even have watched Sir Samuel and Lady Baker flail in the whirlpool in 1864.

"Comparing Uganda to Kenya," says one of our group, his ability to smile gradually restored, "is like measuring Africa against Busch Gardens." Yes, here nature is unalloyed and time walks backward. At Murchison there is not one concession to 20th-century Western taste. And Francis, the launch's skipper, his face a pagan bowsprit, has a footnote to add. He shows me scars left by bullet wounds on his arm and leg. "Bad times," he says, guiding us to another croc. During a decade of "troubles" he patrolled this park, mostly without pay. His wife and children were kidnapped by rebels and tortured.

On one occasion he was instructed to guide Idi Amin and his honored guest, Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya, on this very boat. Qaddafi, as Francis recounts, grabbed an AK-47 from a guard, aimed, and blasted a hippo on a bank and a waterbuck standing on the shore. The trophies are now, Francis surmises, in the statehouse in Tripoli. "What could I have said?'This is a national park—no hunting'?No, I'm not stupid. I'd have been shot like a waterbuck and fed to the crocs." Francis smiles. We fly south from Murchison, following the eastern shore of Lake Albert, and watch the Kazinga Channel burst into view. Once on land in Queen Elizabeth Park, I walk into Mweya Lodge, through the lobby, and onto the veranda. All at once I know why Africa has been my addiction all these years. I am looking down at Lake Edward as if I'm airborne; the Mitumba Mountains west in Zaire are shoulder-high. Water and dust—the stuff of Africa's Great Rift—have crawled under my skin as an afternoon storm charges from the north, crosses the lake, spits in my face.

Queen Elizabeth Park, pocked with jungle-crusted craters, affects me as if I've just arrived for the first time, age 17. While the elephant herds are now a wisp of their former greatness, a launch trip along the Kazinga Channel turns up waterbuck, bushbuck, mobs of mud-baked buffalo, and a giant forest hog. What birds! In less than an hour and a half, I spot 37 different species, from fish eagle to whiskered tern to spotted stone curlew—generally accompanied by hippos. The finale of Queen Elizabeth is a drive north to view kob, antelopes famous for fierce displays of male territoriality on their mating grounds. Rivals engage in horn-rattling contests of strength, while cattle egrets wheel and cry overhead as if they have a stake in the outcome.

After enduring one of Uganda's worst-maintained roads, we explore the country to the south around a ranger post called Ishasha. Here, at the edge of grasslands and stands of acacia, lions make like leopards, sleeping in trees. The Ishasha River is a somnolent collection of pools, festering with hippos. When our field glasses pan upward, we discover elephants, feet first; they've just emerged from the forests and lawlessness of nearby Zaire. Between us, we appear the sole proprietors of an ancient, unpeopled Africa.

During the two-hour drive south along the Ugandan frontier toward a forest called Bwindi, we pass tea estates as green as those I recall from the sixties. Children leap from huts—legs splayed, arms windmilling, with high-pitched whoops and cries for sweets. Our flirtation with humanity lasts a nanosecond; when we reach the end of the road, we face a barrier of green as absolute as midnight.


Mountain gorillas, Gorilla gorilla beringei, were once numbered at 300—all of them in the forests on the slopes of dormant volcanoes where Uganda, Zaire, and Rwanda join. About eight years ago, estimates doubled, with the discovery of a discreet population well north of this range, inhabiting hardly explored Bwindi, then dubbed the Impenetrable Forest. The niceties of habituating primates to humans, learned from patient work with gorillas in Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans, were applied by a crack team of conservationists to two of the Impenetrable's estimated 27 gorilla groups. Today, we are among the first wave of visitors to confront them.

We are also the first to patronize Abercrombie & Kent's Buhoma Gorilla Camp at the forest entrance. The lodging surprises even those who expected luxury. The roast lamb served by liveried staff in a vaulted tent overlooking the Munyaga River has caught them short. They sip South African Blanc de Mer and rave about crisp sheets and hot showers. This is camping designed for mandarins. Our group has been briefed on the exertions required to view mountain gorillas. Walking, beginning at 4,225 feet and rising to 8,125, will be torturous, and the conditions—uneven forest trails and extreme humidity—are intimidating. Will we all make it?Who won't?How will we explain defeat?The questions have absorbed everyone, especially the woman in our group whom I call the in-house shrink. She's been angling to conduct a "workshop" on fear. My approach has been dismissive: don't even THINK about the climb.

By nine the next morning, I can see my advice has gone unheeded. The group, divided into two different teams of six, will visit the gorillas on consecutive days. Ours is the lead team, led by William, the taut, 23-year-old mountain guide.

The forest is virtually without smell; sometimes without sound. Never are we alone. Black-faced warblers, gray-throated barbets, African broadbills are common here, but if I spot them at all, I do so mostly from their cry. Then, zingo, I see an equatorial akalat and, most beautiful of all, a golden-rumped tinkerbird. I repeat their names over and over again as if they are mantras.

There are other primates in this forest besides gorillas: red-tailed and blue monkeys, and many troops of chimps. In fact, chimpanzees, leaving trails similar to gorillas', dog our trackers. By midday we have seen where gorillas bedded down the previous night, but since then their course has been a slalom, crossed by a trail of chimps. The others frown at the delays when the trackers halt the caravan to study a clue, then return, mute and expressionless. Tracking is the hunter's art, forest patience a learned skill.

A leaf-rattling crash. Eyes turn; breaths are held. Our trackers have dropped their packs, slipped away, and, as we wait, we muse about the impending encounter. Soon we spot the trackers returning, their faces hangdog. The crash was only a tree falling. We resume the trek, silent with disappointment.

THE WALK IS FORMIDABLE, THE DOWNS AS UNFORGIVING AS THE UPS. Soon all our canteens are empty, and darkness is falling. It's time for a decision: Can we continue or must we return?Return, I choose. On the way back we hit pay dirt. The gorillas have returned as well. For the past eight hours they have traced a great circle through the forest; now they are only paces from their beds of last night.

A few minutes before dusk we stumble upon them, a group of 13, many of them youngsters. Small black arms extend through nettles to make contact. A face of rubbery blackness, no doubt a mother's, studies us through the jungle maw. And then the silverback noisily parts a way through the forest to settle down for the night. He's the group's leader, but he looks like a different primate. Archetype of the gorilla nightmare, his eyes are lost in a plasma of flesh and his stomach wallows in muscle and heft. This is not my first wild gorilla, but he may as well be. The amber eyes bore through me and then, without warning, they drift shut, the huge chest rising and falling with a mountain tide. The great silverback is fast asleep.

Our retreat to camp is no less an adventure. Some dub it the "Bataan Death March," others will recall it in triumph. Slipping, tripping, we exhaust ourselves. The miracle of gorillas is this: while we spent 12 1/2 hours in their pursuit, the next day the second team will come upon the same group in a fraction of the time: one hour up the mountain, one watching, another down. "A.W.A," I intone. "Africa wins again."

Even as this journey races to its end, our appearance on the mountain road produces whoops of welcome. We seem far from the ravages of tyrants, the epidemics of war and disease. This is not headline Uganda; it's just a beautiful land peopled by Bakiga and Ankole—all of them tall, most tied to fertile earth and the boast of many children. While Ugandans seem to scrap among themselves, there's unaccountably no rancor toward the overtly rich, white, and foreign—avatars, no doubt, of old colonial memories. Try Swahili on a stranger and you'll discover a Ugandan's only show of frostiness; this East African patois is an ugly reminder of armies, invasions, and Amin. Here English is the preferred language, taught in schools not as a symbol of repression, but as an icon of progress.

Angel's-trumpet flowers line the roads. Hills are girded by cloud, and with morning, the rain-soaked ground begins to steam. Our car is traveling faster now: we stop for breakfast at the White Horse Inn in Kabale; at a nearby table sit beribboned UN troops bound for Rwanda. Finally, after four days of dust, our Land Cruisers reach the tarmac and settle into a comfortable cruising speed. When one of the vehicles breaks down, a member of our group, standing by the road, acquiesces to our ad hoc schedule. He's adapted to my fatalism. "A.W.A," he says, shrugging. Indeed, Africa is winning.

AT LAKE MBURO NATIONAL PARK, GRASSLANDS FILLED WITH PLAINS GAME just a few hours short of Kampala, two encounters: Simon, our foot-safari guide, stays away from the lake, reluctant to swim. "I am still undergoing some training," he says, lighting a cigarette. When I caution him about his habit, he shrugs and smiles. "I learned to smoke when I was carrying the bodies of dead during the war. I didn't like the smell."

An elderly British couple arrives at the lake just as I paddle a launch back to shore. They explain to us that they've returned to Uganda and are visiting Lake Mburo National Park for sentimental reasons. In the colonial fifties, she was stationed here as a nurse, he as a police constable. They met at the governor's ball. Today they are back in Uganda, for the first time in 40 years, to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. "Welcome, welcome," says Simon, explosive with happiness.

The pace has quickened; we make a hurried, diversionary flight north to Kidepo Valley National Park on the Ugandan border. "Don't go," Kenyans had warned a month before. "It's dangerous, and all the game's been shot."

Kidepo is Africa in miniature, and it will be my final text of Uganda. I saw it last in 1981, when it seemed the quintessential African national park: two lonely shrouded valleys, ribbed by sand rivers, where great herds of elephant crossed from the Sudan to dig for water and get high on the liquor of borassus palm nut.

Today, the last day of the trip, I am prepared for devastation. We have just touched down on a little-used strip and have only a few hours before the long journey home, back to Entebbe, then to London. The Zulia Mountains to the northeast and the Lotuke Mountains in the Sudan are as close to unknown as one can find in Eastern Africa. At noon, when game should be invisible, after a war during which all wildlife was said to have been sacrificed, I approach two herds of elephant, each 60 strong; two tides of buffalo, 400 in each; Abyssinian rollers festooning several acacia trees; and schools of zebra pinstriping an entire plain. I am ecstatic not merely at the sight of such profligacy, but at the discovery that Africa has begun healing itself, unaided, unobserved.

ON THE RETURN TO ENTEBBE, THE AIR COOLS and I pull on a sweater. Below us, the switchbacks of Lake Kyoga; beyond, through dust and smoke, Lake Victoria, where so much, including the journey, began. Our tires squeal as they alight on the runway at Entebbe. It's a quiet night in Uganda, only one international flight leaving, and throughout much of the country nothing but cooking fires visible. We roll past the wreckage of a 707 captured by Idi Amin in 1977, past the terminal where he held its passengers hostage. No one has seen fit to rid the country of the sordid evidence. Up ahead, a lone jackal cruises a taxiway. Then I spot the swallows. As before, they're coursing low to hunt flies just hatched from the lake. It's the mother of all feeding frenzies: insects darkening a sky the color of eggplant. They are besieged by wave after wave of swooping predators, an ornithological Battle of Britain in which, miraculously, at least two life forms will prosper.

A vision of hell and redemption: no better way to leave Africa. It is what tugs at the heart, reinforces "A.W.A.," hastens my return.


  • Soft duffel bags, never hard. Make sure your personal hand-carried bag can, yes, be hand-carried.
  • Enough underwear for no more than four days between washings. Please note that in Africa, male camp staff will not wash women's underwear.
  • Faded gray, green, blue sport shirts made from nonsynthetic fabrics. Shorts. A bandanna. A bathing suit. A variety of obsolete T-shirts to donate to adults for kindnesses rendered.
  • Rain gear, such as a hooded poncho, especially if planning a gorilla trek.
  • One broken-in pair of hiking boots, one pair of jogging shoes, one pair of sandals to wear around camp.
  • A baseball cap. Safari hats sold in Nairobi or offered free by tour operators generally look idiotic.
  • Antidiarrheal medicine (probably never to be used, but a source of psychological comfort).
  • Sunscreen.
  • Non-allergenic bug spray.
  • Paperback reading that has nothing to do with Africa. I suggest Jane Austen.
  • Twice as much film as you need.
  • A flashlight.
  • A set of field glasses. I suggest 8x power.
  • A combination lock for your valuables.
  • A large bag of hard candy to give away to children.
  • At least $100 cash, preferably in small denominations.
  • The three most valuable pieces of advice for Uganda-bound travelers: Travel light, travel light, and duplicate essentials.

Since tourism is still in its infancy in Uganda, standards vary widely, and, especially on low-end safaris, promises are not always met. Most U.S.-based packagers rely on Uganda operators; only one U.S. firm, Abercrombie & Kent, operating out of its own Kampala office and managing several hotels and camps, can deliver its own product.

Typically, Uganda's long rains are from April to June, the short ones through October and part of November. If you intend to visit gorillas at Bwindi, remember that there are only two habituated groups. Since only six people can visit each group on any one day, the waiting list is long, and reservations are essential.

OUTFITTERS

ABERCROMBIE & KENT
1520 Kensington Rd. Suite 212, Oak Brook, Ill. 60523-2141
800/323-7308 or 630/954-2944, fax 630/954-3324
A&K offers two regular trips: the "Pearl of Africa:" six days visiting Queen Elizabeth Park and Murchison Falls, featuring the best hotels and lodges, or five days of gorilla tracking. Rates for these trips range from $2,590 to $3,390 per person, not including airfare. Custom-crafted safaris are always available.

MOUNTAIN TRAVEL/SOBEK
6420 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito, Calif.
800/227-2384 or 510/527-8100, fax 510/525-7710
Custom-designed itineraries for gorilla and chimp-watchers. Might include stays in Queen Elizabeth Park, Murchison Falls, Bwindi National Park. Typical length: 18 days. Approximate cost is $5,000; gorilla permits and park fees are additional.

SAFARICENTRE
3201 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach, Calif. 90266;
800/223-6046, 800/624-5342 in Calilfornia, 800/233-6046 in Canada; fax 310/546-3188
Safaricentre has ten trips ranging from three to fourteen days, encompassing national parks, whitewater rafting and the gorillas. Prices range from $900 to

WILDERNESS TRAVEL
1102 Ninth St., Berkeley, CA 94710
800/368-2794 or 510/558-2488, fax 510/558-2489
Wilderness Travel has one comprehensive offering, a 17-day trip concentrating on Uganda, with a short detour into Zaire to visit the Ituri Forest and gorillas in Virunga National Park. Guides are either British or American. This trip is scheduled intermittently, so call to confirm availability. Price is in the region of $5,000, with gorilla permits and park fees additional.

PLAYING IT SAFE
A yellow fever vaccine is mandatory, and you should also take the recommended vaccinations: typhoid, polio, and immune serum globulin (formerly called gamma globulin). Drink only bottled water, readily available throughout Uganda. For more information, call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (404/ 332-4559). The center's system is incredibly efficient, especially if you have a fax machine; just dial 404/ 332-4565 and follow the prompts.

The best prevention against AIDS, common especially in large settlements and along major truck routes of Uganda, is to resist intimate contact with strangers. In the event of a blood transfusion, insist on screened blood—currently available through the Flying Doctor Service/African Medical Research Foundation and at Nairobi Hospital in Kenya.

WHAT TO PACK
Laundry services are generally available every two or three days, so many changes of gear are not necessary. Cold is rarely extreme; only one sweater and one down vest are required. Blazers for men, dresses for women are of use only at the Lake Victoria Hotel and the Kampala Sheraton. Generally, these watering holes will be happy to store such items, awaiting your return.

Did you enjoy this article?

Share it.

Explore More