Fort Portal / Lake Nkuruba

November 29-30, 2008

Kampala – Gotta Get Out

We decided to visit a park in the north of Uganda, a place called Murchison National Park. The trick is that it’s very complicated/expensive to go there on your own, and there are really only a couple of agencies who run budget tours – Backpacker Hostel (where we stayed) and Red Chilli (the other backpacker place in Kampala). Backpacker’s tours were booked for the next week, and Chilli’s were booked for the next few days. Pnina and I had no desire whatsoever to burn even one more day in horrible Kampala waiting for either of these tours. So, we decided to book the Chilli tour and to spend the few days we had near a town in the west of Uganda called Fort Portal.

Never Say “Bullshit” in Kampala

We went to the Kalita bus station and waited in the “scrum” to speak with gentleman at the ticket booth. We wanted to know whether it’s possible to get to Fort Portal, when it leaves, how long it takes, how much, etc. When he finally gave us some attention he said that there is no “when” – a bus fills up and it leaves, then we wait for the next one to fill up. We said, “ok, we’ll take a couple of tickets”. Then we went off to fetch our bags and to pay for the upcoming Murchison Falls trip. By the time we returned to the bus station a couple of hours had passed. We spotted the bus heading to Fort Portal and proceeded to board. But not so fast. It turned out that while our ticket didn’t have a specific departure time, it did have a bus number (in chicken scratch), and our bus took off nearly two hours ago. Pnina asked whether we can just board this next bus instead, but the big boss came around and gave a flat “no”. Pnina’s reaction, which would be natural in the US, was to explaim “this is bullshit!”, because nobody told us that we were supposed to be around for a particular bus. Now, apparently “bullshit” is a much heavier word in Kampala than at home, because this exclamation made the station manager livid. He started arguing with her saying that we must pay again or clear out of his sight, or else he’ll call the police. He also said that our bus left with two empty seats, to which Pnina replied “I doubt that” (and I have to agree – they would *never* leave empty seats, ever). But the station manager stuck to his claim and stormed off. I came around a little later and tried to repair the situation. It was obvious that more argument was not going to help, so I attempted a different approach. I said things like “it was our mistake”, “our fault”, “we were stupid”, etc. At first the station manager ignored me. He just kept spouting off in Luganda (local language) only intejecting the words “African monkey” here and there. I said “wow! hang on! We didn’t call you that!” But it was no use. Eventually I convinced another employee to act as mediator, while Pnina hid out of sight. The station manager heard me out and eventually agreed to let us onboard with no additional fee. I went to grab Pnina and asked her to bite her lip and appologize, just to make peace. Then it was all kumbaya. The station manager said that we are strangers in his land and it’s his responsibility to help us understand the local customs. But he never took back that claim about the two empty seats. Bastard. πŸ™‚

Getting to Fort Portal

The bus ride was pretty entertaining too. There was this maybe 20-year old rasta guy, slightly drunk, who kept coming around to make conversation. He said his name is Edwini, but he also goes by Tiki Tiki, Simple Man, and a few other names. He has a radio show that airs on weekends on the local station, 96.7, where he interviews local bands and lets them play. He seemed like a decent guy, but then he showed his ugly side. There were a couple of gals standing next to him in the aisle. He tapped one of them in the arm (Pnina says it was her chest) asking to pass. She gave him the evil eye. He went off on her, saying she’s shaped like a potato, out loud in front of everyone around us, drawing a lot of laughs. Pnina and I didn’t laugh. I said “that’s not nice, you should appologize”, and much to my surprise, he did. Though I don’t think the appology made much of a difference.

After that we had a pastor stand next to us, one Paddy Kaweesi. He was pretty interested to learn that we are Jewish, being that we are “the chosen people” and all (Pnina are often surprised at how much esteem we get from Christians around the world just because we happen to be Jewish). He was even more surprised to learn that Israel is so small and that there are so few Jews in the world. We explain that this is likely because, while it’s possible to convert to Jewdism, Jews have never had much of a missionary culture.

Israel in Uganda??

By the way, when Theodore Hertzl and the other Zionists were starting to talk about building a Jewish nation, around 1900, one of the real proposals on the table was to have the country established not in the palestine region but rather in present-day Uganda! This proposal was shot down because some of the Zionists were fairly religious and to them it only made sense to have the Jews return to their Biblical homeland, where the first and second temples stood, and so on. Imagine how different the world would be if that proposal had been accepted! All the angst between Israel and the Arab countries wouldn’t exist (or at least not to the extent that it does today). There would be no Palestinian problem, no Gaza, no West Bank. And perhaps Israel would have stood as an example of a not-so-corrupt democracy in the middle of Africa. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that the native Ugandans would appreciate all these Jews descending on their homeland, so there would probably be another kind of trouble altogether. We’ll never know.

Lake Nkuruba

Fort Portal is a nice enough town, but there’s not much to do there. It’s mostly a launch pad for various activities in the area. We’d read about the various crater lakes nearby and decided to visit one called Lake Nkuruba. The only issue was that we didn’t know exactly how to get there, and what kind of supplies we’d need (e.g. do we need to bring our own food or is there a restaurant?). We stepped into an internet cafe to do some research. The owner told us that the computers are down, but he’s working on it, so he’d appreciate it if we could sit down and wait for a couple of minutes. Normally we would just head out and look for another place, but this time for some reason we agreed to sit down and wait. While we sat, a guy next to us struck up a conversation, asking us where we’re from and where we’re going. When we said that we’re trying to get to the camp at Lake Nkuruba he said that he runs that camp and he’d be happy to give us a lift. What luck! πŸ™‚ This was especially lucky because it was a weekend so there were very few matatus running down that road.

This man was Father John Bosco, a pastor. It turns out that the camp at Nkuruba was part guest-house for tourists and part orphanage. Uganda, like many African countries, was hit badly by the AIDS epidemic. It also turns out that Uganda is hailed as one of the best success stories when it comes to AIDS, in that they were able to really curb the problem and reduce AIDS rates dramatically. For this reason western countries have been throwing money at Uganda like it’s going out of style, but the extra money hasn’t made a proportional difference. More on that later. Anyhow, all this AIDS still left a lot of kids as orphans, and Bosco’s organization is just one of many that takes care of them. He has about 30 orphans living at the orphanage in Nkuruba, and another 100 (or so) living with various foster families in the area. The money that comes from the guest-house (plus money from sponsors around the world) is used to pay for all these kids. So, by visiting the campsite you get to interact with the kids and feel good about helping them out. Plus it’s not to expensive (especially compared to other attractions in Uganda). It was less than $20 for our own little hut. Meals were less than $5 and the various guided treks in the area cost no more than $10 each.

Top of the World

The first guided trip we did was to the “top of the world” – a hill nearby that happens to be the highest hill in the area. Our guide was Livingstone (named after the explorer/missionary who discovered Victoria Falls – apparently people think highly of him). On the way he explained all kinds of stuff about the vegetation, but I’ve forgotten most of that. What stuck is how beautiful the surrounding was, all those green hills and lakes everywhere.


Crouching Rhino Hidden Llama

Back from the hill, we met an English couple, Mike and Sarah. They are also doing a round-the-world trip, though their trip focuses on Africa and South America. Also, they have the best travel blog url:


Sarah has experience with community service, so while we were there she gathered information to help her register Bosco’s orphanage as an official non-profit in the UK. Mike is an architect so we had some fun musing about our respective ideas for a dream home in the future. Interestingly, both of us have this idea about building a house with an inside courtyard. Mike said we should visit Morocco one day because they have a lot of homes like that. So many places to visit! Mike and Sarah also told us about how they did a gorilla trekking trip in Rwanda, and yes it was expensive ($500 each for one day!!) but it was totally worth it. This was the umpteenth time we heard exactly that — that gorilla trekking is expensive but you just have to do it. So we started to make up our minds to also try visit the gorillas. More on that later.

Time to Swim

The campsite sits on top of a hill overlooking the lake. It’s just a five-minute (slightly steep) hike down to swim in the Bilhartzia-free water. And usually the kids come out to swim too. This was a lot of fun, and it was basically the way we “showered” while at Nkuruba. The camp does have bush-style showers, but to prepare for your shower the camp manager sends one of the kids down to the lake to haul a jerrycan of water up the hill. We couldn’t make them do that.



Back up from the lake, the orphans told us they prepared a show for us, and instructed us to sit in the dining area and watch. The show was pretty good – song and dance. All the songs were very simple and positive – “we welcome you here”, etc. Some of the dancing was very energetic. But our favorite part was this little girl who wasn’t quite old enough to learn the moves but still wanted to participate. She kind of stood in the middle and did her own thing, shaking her butt. It was hillarious.




The next day Livingstone took us on a longer day trip to a waterfall, maybe 7 km away from the campsite. The hike was great. The same green hills and lakes everywhere you look, but it just never gets old:


Along the way we saw the biggest, loudest groups of kids come up to us yelling “HOW ARE YOU?!”, asking for money. We didn’t give them money, but we did give them peanuts and one brave kid got a ride:


The waterfall itself was tucked away in thick forrest, so it was difficult to get a good shot of the whole thing. The cool thing about this fall (and I stress “cool”) is that you could step in and take a “power shower”. The water was freezing so we could only manage a couple minutes each, but it was fun.



On the way back Livingstone pointed at the sun and said “could you explain this to me?” When we looked up we saw a very strange sight – the sun had a kind of rainbow-halo! What the hell? We’d never seen anything like this before:


So we said that we don’t know exactly how to explain it, but like other rainbows it must have something to do with the sun’s light being refracted by moisture in the sky, or something. Weeks later, when we were climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, we learned that there’s a Kiswahili word for this effect: “muni”. And “muni” is the nickname that Pnina’s family gave to her younger sister, Miriam, years ago. So Miriam, now we know what you name means!! πŸ™‚

Even stranger, Livingstone told us that most people around that area fear rainbows. Fear rainbows?? Why?? Because the story goes that if you go to the river when there’s a rainbow then the rainbow will swallow you up. What to do? Easy, just pitch some object, say a button, into the river so the rainbow will swallow that instead. Of course! πŸ™‚ We tried to explain to Livinstone that rainbows are perfectly harmless, and anyhow you could never actually reach the end of a rainbow – the Irish have been trying for centuries. But I’m not sure it helped. It still blows my mind.

Christina & Chloe

Back at camp we met two more visitors – Christina and Chloe. Both are Kiwi and both are lawyers. Chloe said that for a while she worked on some island (Guinea?) helping battered women. She said it was very draining because after all her efforts trying to help these women leave their abusive husbands, the women would usually just go back. And the culture was such that beating wives was just not such a big deal. Christina and Chloe said that as they travel a lot of local men try to propose marriage to them. They try to explain that “you don’t want a muzungu wife – it’s too much trouble”, but to the local men it seems there’s no bigger prize (except, of course, two muzungu wives – you can have as many as you want here). The kiwi gals are weary of love these days because they keep running into one broken heart after another. They said they just spent some time in Zanzibar where they met this guy Evan, who they both called “poor poor Evan”. He had come down to Africa to propose marriage to his girlfriend of 10 years, a girlfriend who came down to Africa just three months prior to do some volunteer work. And when he got here he discovered that she started an affair with a local Masai man just a week before! She knew he was coming, but she didn’t have the respect to either hold off on the affair or tell him before his flight. Evan contacted her parents and accidentally revealed the affair to them (he thought they knew). And her parents proceeded to blame him for “letting her go”. After that her father had a heart attack, and Evan could only assume that the news he accidentally devulged was responsible. Wow, that’s rough. Evan, we’re rooting for you, but please, let her go man.



Next morning, Pnina and I decided to just hang around the campsite and read. We recently picked up Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, and now that we made up our minds to go gorilla trekking, we figured we should finish reading the book. When we sat in the dining area, a young (11-year-old?) boy came up to chat. This was Elijah. He wasn’t one of the orphans. He was just there on vacation from school (Christmastime is the big school break). We asked him about school and he said that he’s having some trouble with math. OK, so we asked him what specifically and he said “long division”. So Pnina sat down with him going over examples and technique, but quickly it became clear to her that his issues were more basic. So then she had Elijah fill out a multiplication table. When he had trouble with that, I took over and we worked on addition. But that was tough too. So we started playing this dice game – it’s called “Martinetti” but we refer to it as “the 12 game”. It’s pretty simple, and it requires you to quickly find all the numbers made by combinations of dice (summation), so it’s a good way to teach addition. He did OK here, but he still had a tendency to count up the dots on the dice instead of just recognizing that this dice is 5 and that dice is 3 and 5 + 3 = 8. It was kind of disheartening, but very much in line with stuff we heard from the various volunteer teachers we met along the way. In America and Israel kids know this stuff cold by age 6 or 7. It made us think about how we will raise our own kids one day. I tell you one thing – they will know how to add! πŸ™‚


Sum it Up

Overall Nkuruba was one of the nicest and most economical parts of our trip so far. We highly recommend it.


5 responses to “Fort Portal / Lake Nkuruba

  1. Happy New Year!
    Nice to read about places I ‘ve been.I loved the lakes near Fort Portal.
    Waiting for the next stories.Gorillaas and climbing the Kilimanjaro!

  2. i cannot wait to hear about the gorillas either!!! the rainbow around the sun is something i saw for the first time in the desert out here last year–it’s a “22 degree halo” and pretty awesome. once we even saw one around the entire sky–it was so incredible. nkuruba looks so friendly and so gorgeous and you guys look like you’re having so much fun!

  3. You should look up parahelions and sun dogs to see some really cool halos. Hope you guys keep having fun, I’ll keep reading.

  4. Blog much anymore? πŸ˜› Hope everything is ok. I’m sure you two are having loads of fun!

  5. Pingback: Tracking Gorillas « Honeysun

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