December 2-5, 2008
The Mythical Costa Bus
Nkuruba was fun, but eventually we had to say good-bye and join the Red Chilli trip to Murchison Falls Park. That trip actually started at the Red Chilli guest house in Kampala, but we didn’t want to go back to Kampala. So we decided that we would independently head up to the town of Masindi, close to the park, and asked the Red Chilli people if they could pick us up there. They said “no problem”.
So back in Fort Portal (by the way, we kept accidentally calling in Port Fortal – everybody does that), we went around trying to find a bus to Masindi. It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask for – there’s definitely a road connecting the two towns. But each person we asked gave us a different answer. Most said that there is a bus by a certain company called “Costa”, but it wasn’t clear exactly where it stops or when – what time or even what days. In these situations we usually like to take the average of the several answers we get, but this time we were pretty confounded. We woke up early and headed to the place where we thought the Costa bus was most likely to be, but it never showed up. We’re still not sure whether the thing exists.
Anyhow, reluctantly, we instead took a bus to Kampala and then immediately another one to Masindi, where we waited to meet our group the next day. Yes, we could have just slept in Kampala and joined the group from the get-go, but really we just didn’t want to spend another minute in Kampala.
Masindi is another non-descript town that serves as a launch point for the nature nearby. We were hoping to stay at the recommended Alinda Guest House, but it was full — there were a lot of soldiers in town because the president was expected to visit the next day. So instead we checked into the “Decent Guest House” which was relatively decent except that it had no showers! I’ve never seen a hotel with no showers. Oh well.
Literally everyone in Africa has a cellphone. Actually, wait. Two people in Africa don’t have a cellphone: Pnina and I. This problem will be resolved in a few months when we enter Sinai.
While we’ve been traveling around, we keep running into funny situations resulting from our cellphone-less nature. After dropping us off, taxi drivers will offer their cellphone numbers so we can call them up if we need another ride. We apologize saying that we don’t have a cellphone. Blank stares. They just can’t comprehend the thought.
Most travelers we’ve met also have cellphones. They generally just bring their own cellphones from home and buy a new sim card in each new country. They have it easier than we do because while American carriers love to lock down phones, most of the world has advanced beyond that bullshit. It’s true that we could just buy a cheapo phone here and do the same, but so far we’ve held out.
The great great majority of locals use a simple pay-as-you-go approach. On every street you can find vendors selling air time in the form of small scratch tickets (much like lottery tickets). You punch the numbers into your phone and off you go with X more units of credit.
There’s a lot of competition between the local carriers. To compete they use some pretty creating marketing techniques. Local store owners can get a fresh coat of paint on their shop if they agree to advertise for one of the carriers (I’m pretty sure the paint job is free). Here’s how one of them looks:
The observant reader will note that this is the same Zain company we mentioned back in Lusaka. They definitely have the loudest color. Also, note that this is a furniture store with couches scattered out on the sidewalk to collect dust from cars passing by 🙂 That’s also very typical.
Spencer, Gus, and Jos
On our bus ride to Masindi there were three other mzungus. When we arrived in Masindi, one of them made a pretty spectacular exit – he busted out of the bus with an acoustic guitar singing Beattles tunes to the random people on the street. They loved it. This was Spencer, a 40-something marketing guy from LA. He was traveling with a couple of guys he just met recently, Gus from South Africa, and Jos from Holland. That evening Pnina passed out early but I went out with these guys. Spencer did an evening performance walking down the street and singing old rock-n-roll. He had about 15 kids following him all around. It was awesome.
After the show we went out for beers. We ended up at a restaurant called Tandoori. Pnina and I stopped by that place earlier that day, excited to have some nice Tandoori chicken and other Indian treats. No such luck. They didn’t have a menu and they’d never heard of Tandoori chicken. They had the same dishes as everywhere else – same flavorless mashed maize. How disappointing. But they were good for beers, so that’s where I went with the guys.
Jos said that he visited Ethiopia earlier in his trip and loved it, which was good to hear because Pnina and I are planning to go there soon. And he confirmed what we heard that Ethiopian ATM’s just don’t take foreign cards – you have to bring US cash with you.
Gus was full of interesting stories. He’s currently doing research on child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Is it dangerous? Yeah, but he’s used to that. He previously worked in Angola when they had their own war. He said that because of the ongoing war in the DRC, it’s no longer possible (currently) to visit the mountain gorillas there. However, it is possible to visit the lowland gorillas and this only costs $300 for a week-long permit, as compared to $500 for the one-day permit for the mountain gorillas. On the other hand, everything else is super-expensive in the DRC so it’s probably not worth it financially, and definitely not in terms of security. He said his grandfather came from Germany, so basically everyone in the world hates him – either because of his German heritage or because of his white-South-African heritage. His grandfather worked in mining in Germany but then was involved in an accident where he was trapped underground for a long time. After that he said “the hell with the cold” and looked for a mining job in a warmer place. He ended up in Namibia (which was a German colony) mining diamonds. The town where he lived has been abandoned and now is an interesting ghost town – the Namibian sands have half-swallowed up the town. He also said that the diamond barons (De Biers) hold a tight leash on the diamond supplies in the world and specifically avoid releasing too many diamonds to the market to keep the price from plummeting (as it has at some points in history). Gus’ grandfather told him about times he wandered on off-limits diamond fields and saw sparkles on the ground in the moonlight. Awesome.
We capped the night by getting roasted chicken from some vendors on the side of the road. This is one of the few foods that Pnina and I actually do like in Uganda. Ummm.
Our Red Chilly Group
Next day, we finally met our Red Chilly group when they stopped for lunch in Masindi. We sat with Allison, Avi, and Tom:
Avi is an American Jew who has worked as a volunteer in some of the most inappropriate places for an American Jew, including Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan. Now he has a far more mundane assignment helping the CDC track the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among different groups in Kampala. Because of this work he knew a surprising amount about, for example, the umpteen-thousand bodaboda (motorcycle taxi) drivers in Kampala.
Alison, an Australian, has been doing volunteer work in Jinja. Her boyfriend Tom came to visit and here they are traveling.
We also had three Francophones on the tour. Cecile, a French gal, has been living in Kampala for the last year, doing administrative work for a night club. Her high-school friend Mariane came to Kampala for a short visit. Mariane was adopted by a French family from Korea. And there’s Olivier, a beefy Swiss guy who spends the winters doing ski patrol in the alps and the summers doing river kayaking in all sorts of places. He’s been spending his days on the rapids by Jinja.
Entering Murchison Falls National Park
Not long after we entered Murchison Falls Park, we had a flat tire. Not to worry – this area didn’t have any dangerous predators, just baboons.
With the flat swapped, we continued on. The Francophones busted out some Smirnoff to celebrate:
After a surprisingly long drive, we parked the car and took a short hike to the actual falls.
Hiking to the Falls
In Murchison there are actually two separate falls, side by side. One is called “Murchison” and the other is called “Uhuru”. The first one is named after the man, Murchison, who was head of the British Royal Geographical Society when the falls were discovered in 1864. The other fall only formed on October 9th, 1962 which happened to be the day Uganda gained independence, which is how it got its name: Uhuru is the Swahili word for “freedom” or “independence”.
Our path lead us extremely close to Murchison Falls, which is the bigger of the two. We’ve seen taller, wider, and more voluminous falls in the past, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a surge of water so powerful, and this was the dry season! The river narrows into such a tight jagged chute. It was kind of surprising that they didn’t have any kind of fence above the falls. You could easily take one step too many and get dragged off to a certain death.
Red Chilli Campsite
After the falls we headed to the Red Chilli campsite, the only budget place to stay in the park. The campsite is nice enough, and it has the quirky twist that some semi-domesticated warthogs wander around the campground munching grass or whatever human food they manage to find. For this reason they ask you not to keep any food in your tent.
Next morning. We woke up at 6:33 AM saying “oh shit!”. We were supposed to head off on a safari drive at 6:30, and when we zipped open our tent we saw our car drive off. Why didn’t they wake us up? Crap! No, hold on, it wasn’t our car, it just looked like our car. Whew. We caught the ride on time.
To start the game drive we had to board a flat ferry and cross a river – from what we understand it’s easier to see the animals on the other side. That may be, but as far as safaris go, this is not the best one. We did get decent views of antelope, giraffes, and one elephant. At one point it looked like some lions in the distance were preparing to attack a buffalo, but they were just out of sight. The best thing we saw was a cobra snake attack a lizard on the road right in front of us! When we pulled up, the snake took off, but the lizard wasn’t going anywhere. Also, there were tons of dragonflies everywhere.
After a lunch break we headed out once again, this time for a boat tour. The boat took us 2 hours heading upstream towards the falls, then 1 hour back. This ride was pretty good. We saw lots of hippo groups, mostly in the water but a few of them were out. At one point we saw a hippo approach two buffalo on land. It looked like some kind of showdown since both are very territorial, but the hippo ended up just walking by. We also saw some crocs, elephants, and some birds. Our guide tells us that it’s rare to see a male and female fish eagle together (it was only his third time), so I guess that’s cool. By the way, this guide had a hillarious style all his own. Every answer was followed by a laugh. “How much does a hippo weigh?” “Adult hippos can be up to 3.5 tons, HA HA HA!”
Eventually we reached the falls. The current was so strong that we could only get so close. It was a nice enough view but I think the views from the prior day’s hike were better, or at least it was easier to feel the force of the water.
At the top of the falls there’s a cement block that juts out. This used to be the foundation for a bridge. Winston Churchill donated 10 pounds to build the bridge back in 1907. The bridge wasn’t built until 1960. It collapsed in 1961. I asked the guide why it took so long to get the bridge started. He said “well here in Uganda we have some bureaucracy, HA HA HA!”
Before heading back the guide pointed to the side of the river. A marker showed the spot where an airplane carrying a famous writer crashed in 1954. The writer was stuck in the jungle for three days while he and the pilot struggled to establish radio communication with the outside world. Eventually they were rescued. They were flown to a nearby hospital, but then that airplane crashed as well! The writer survived that crash as well and made his way back to England. Then depression set in and he took his own life. That was Earnest Hemingway. By the way, when he committed suicide he did it with a gun he purchased at Abercrombie & Fitch – they used to sell guns!
Murchison Falls used to have rhinos, but they were poached to extinction. Now a group is trying to reintroduce rhinos to the park. The first step is to get a group of rhinos acclimated to each other and breeding in a safe environment. That environment is the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. We stopped there on our way from Murchison back to Kampala.
Ziwa has six rhinos. Three males, three females. Four were donated by Kenya and the other two were donated by Florida’s Disney World (for which they Disney logo appears next to Ziwa’s logo in various places).
The cool thing about visiting Ziwa is that you can do a walking safari to the rhinos, rather than being forced to see them from a car. Unfortunately, we happened to arrive in the hottest part of the day so the rhinos didn’t do much but lay around in the shade. Still, it was pretty incredible how huge they were and how close we could get to them.
Everywhere in Uganda and other African countries you see people walking around with chicken for sale. They usually carry the chickens in bunches, all of them hanging upside down! For this treatment, the chickens are incredibly well behaved – I couldn’t stand all that blood rushing to my head, but they take it like troopers with no complaints.
Cecile had some hens in her home in France, and here in Kampala she keeps a few as well. On the way back from Murchison she had the driver pull over so she can pick up a couple more:
Everyone thought it was hillarious to see a mzungu buying chicken.
Here is the whole group together: