Friday, 19 March 2010


The lesson learnt last week was avoid budget safaris. 10 people in a rickety old saloon car may break world records but isn't very conducive to viewing the 13 types of primate that supposedly swing through the branches of Kibale Forest Reserve. However, while contorted into the back seat amongst four generations of one family, I did get a good look at the gums of the smiling and oblivious grandma.

This was not enough to deter us from hiring Safari John, along with his clapped out taxi to take us through the savannah plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Within the first five minutes of our 'game drive' it became apparent Safari John knew nothing about safari. Within 15 minutes we were informed there were neither zebra or giraffe and interest shifted to picking my nails.

Safari John, however was determined to show us a good time and cranked up the radio. As Ugandan pop music blared out the car, the entire wildlife population of QENP migrated to Tanzania. On the odd occassion we saw some non-descript deer like creature run in the opposite direction, Safari John would slam on the brakes and reverse, warning beeper on just in case any animal was thinking of crossing our path.

An afternoon boat trip turned out to be more lucrative. The guide shouted out as we passed elephants, buffalo, hippo, hyena, lion and more birds than you could shake a pair of binoculars at. These calls would be accompanied by a chorus of excited shouts as the fellow spectators - consisting of 50% OAP birdwatchers, 40% bum bag wearing Americans and 5% German pornstars - would wield their long zoom cameras and elbows as they made for the side of said animal. The boat would tip us dangerously towards the water and my thoughts turned to my weighing up the chances of making it to shore. What if I did and then got finished off by warthogs? There isn't half as much glory as wrestling with a crocodile and no-one would be able to keep a straight face at the funeral.

I never thought I'd be so relieved seeing Safari John back at the dock. After a swift embrace he revved the engine, put the volume on max and we sped out the park, sending warthogs flying in our wake.

A gorge in QENP

A non-descript deer like creature

Saturday, 6 March 2010




The rain has continued relentlessly over the last couple of weeks. Despite the daily deluges, the buildings cling onto their foundations and by afternoon with the sun baking the ground again, it’s easy to forget a few hours before the streets were rivers of mud.

The communities of Mount Elgon’s foothills (a few hours east of here) have been less lucky and this week saw horrendous landslides, which wiped out three villages, with an estimated death toll of 350. Uganda's Minister of Disaster predicts more to come, after the uncharacteristic early arrival of the rainy season.

We managed to escape Jinja last weekend and headed north to Gulu via Kampala. The very centre of Kampala is just about manageable without feeling you’re going to be swallowed up and spat out. Head a little south towards the taxi (bus) parks and you enter a heaving world of chaos where the mud never dries, the traffic doesn’t stop and it’s all too easy to get sucked into the thronging crowds. We may have been heading to a post-conflict zone but the weekend’s biggest challenge was finding a bus to get us to the hostel in Kampala.

Fast forward twenty-four hours and we were enjoying a meal in Gulu’s finest Ethiopian restaurant. My second challenge of the weekend would be working my way through a blanket of sponge, decorated with a variety of brown specimens. As usual, Janet found the meal delicious and thankfully managed to polish up my uneaten remains.

Gulu was the centre of the recent civil war and is currently the staging post to a number of large NGOs aiding the region’s recovery. For twenty years a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army caused indiscriminate havoc in the region, kidnapping thousands of children who were either raped or recruited as soldiers. In 1996 the Ugandan government responded by giving residents 48 hours to move out of their villages and into camps. Those that didn’t comply suffered the consequences through bombings, murder and torture by government forces (also know as the Uganda People’s Defence Force – I think the irony is unintended).

A peace deal was established in 2006, which has essentially meant the LRA have just retreated into the Congo and Sudan where they now continue their mission. Meanwhile Gulu has - with the help of huge amounts of aid - been getting back on its feet. If it wasn’t for the presence of countless signs and trucks flagging up the presence of the UN, World Food Program and various other NGOs you could remain fairly oblivious to what the place had gone through. I counted at least five large hotels being built; though despite rooting around on the internet I’m not entirely sure who the intended market is for these or whether the government has a plan for Gulu beyond its immediate recovery.

We met a guy from mid-west America who I like to believe is called Chester. Chester told us to go to Pabbo. 20km north of Gulu, 40km south of the Sudanese border, Pabbo was home to one of the largest displaced people's camp during the war (pop. of 65,000). Many of these people have now moved back to villages but the complicated remnants of this war have left the town with a swollen population. Unlike Gulu you couldn’t help but notice this small town had had no ordinary history. It was hard to imagine what the people here had been through - one study found 60% of female inhabitants had been victims of violent or sexual assaults within the camp - and unsurprisingly the locals seemed wary and dispirited. The blank, empty or demolished buildings gave Pabbo the feeling of an abandoned town in the Wild West. But the camp itself had gone and there were small signs (such as the busy market and a hut screening premiership football) that suggested the town was moving on.

One of the very visible charities in the region, especially in the rebuilding of schools, is the American charity Invisible Children. They've got a good website which is worth a look if you want to find out more.