Xmas on the Nile in the Pearl of Africa

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The Hairy Lemon

Flag of Uganda  , Jinja,
Saturday, December 25, 2010

Akin to supermarket notice boards, we find that a quick scan through the classifieds section in local newspapers often offers an immediate insight into an unfamiliar country. As we woke up in Sipi Falls and flicked through the morning rag we stumbled upon this belter in the classifieds section:  “Seeking 25-year old, light-skinned, fat, horny, Muslim babe for marriage. Contact Adonis on ....”. We quickly decided that we were going to like Uganda (N.B. if there are any eligible, plump Islamic ladies out there looking for a Ugandan hubby, get in touch and we will pass on your details). A further browse through the country’s array of tabloids (which would have put The Sun to shame!) made it instantly obvious just how far the nation had progressed since the oppression of the 1970’s under Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship (may the toothy grinned bastard rot peacefully in hell), which relieved an estimated 300,000 Ugandan’s of their lives.

We eventually managed to pull ourselves away from the trashy gossip columns and walked up to the reception of the ‘Crow’s Nest’ campsite where we were greeted by a stunning view overlooking the cavernous gorge and three stepped waterfalls that combine to make up Sipi Falls. A lengthy phone call from Lani’s family in Melbourne, who were having their traditional family Xmas lunch, put a smile on her face but left her feeling a little homesick. We decided a hike to the falls was in order to help take her mind off missing the big family feast back home, so we enlisted the aid of Moses, one of the community’s hiking guides to take us on a trek to explore the waterfalls. He issued us with warrior sticks (a glorified hiking pole) and we set off through the village in search of the falls.

After 90 minutes or so of uphill trekking through maize and banana plantations we reached the uppermost waterfall and got a face full of the powerful spray created by the 86m sheer drop. We then followed the river downstream to the top of the second stage of the falls where we observed a group of teenage girls washing clothes in the stream. Moses had been waxing lyrical about Uganda’s modern, gender equality laws, but by stumbling upon this group of women fulfilling their stereotypical domestic activities, we knew we had caught him out. That was until he pointed out that they were actually not girls, but were instead a group of 16-year old boys, who don sarongs after undergoing the traditional circumcision ceremony, in order to speed up the healing process. Moses informed us that the ceremony is performed in full view of family and friends and any grimace, flinch or tears results in you being considered half the man by your nearest and dearest.

Struggling to shake the horror of that image from my mind we clambered down the steep slopes to the base of the second falls. I thought a comedy photo was in order and ventured under the full force of the falls placing a lot of faith in a cheap, telescopic umbrella. Fortunately, the umbrella stood strong and I only got mildly saturated by the spray engulfing me from either side. While I attempted to dry off, Moses guided us behind the second falls to the safe haven of a man-made cave, excavated over centuries by local Famers who ingeniously add the crushed limestone to cattle feed, speeding up milk production.

The third and final waterfall was viewed at an altogether safer distance, from the gorgeous lookout point of the Lacam Lodge. We sat in silence and watched on in awe, at the power of the stream of white-water which seemed to hang in perpetual motion on its arcing 95m freefall into the gorge. From the last falls it was an easy stroll back to the camp where Lani knocked up the most mouth-watering Thai green curry. The Maasai men would have been impressed at her taking her domestic role more seriously since Kenya, but I have to admit to chopping all the vegetables (Moses and Joseph I apologise for undermining my role as the man of the household/Hilux, I will try to be more assertive in the future.)

We said goodbye to Sipi and regretted not having more time to explore Mt Elgon (apparently one of the great unheralded hikes in Africa and one which doesn’t yet come with a Kilimanjaro-sized price tag), we were bound for Jinja, East Africa’s adrenalin and thrill-seeking capital. We pitched camp on the banks of the White Nile near Bugalali Falls and celebrated reaching Africa’s most celebrated waterway in the only way possible, with an ice cold Nile Special Brew.

The lure of the Nile River Explorers campsite’s private beach (with only a minimal crocodile population), eternally hot showers and lively bar enticed us to relax and kick back after a hectic few weeks. At the camp we bumped into Rikus, a South African veteran of multiple African Overland trips, who was currently on a Cape Town to Rome expedition, who sat down with us and helped plan our route back down to S.A. Thanks for all the advice Rikus, fingers crossed the roads in Western Tanzania survive the wet season for us!

Following much deliberation and discussion with other travellers we decided we would bite the financial bullet and attempt to secure Gorilla trekking permits, which unfortunately put to bed any ideas of rafting on the Nile. At $500 each, the Gorilla trekking seemed ridiculously over-priced, but nobody we had spoken to had regretted their decision to blow a month’s worth of travel budget to meet the great apes face to face. We just hoped that it lived up to the hype and that we managed to secure a last minute cancellation, as the permits are usually booked up 6 months in advance.

Our plans to spend Xmas around Kampala quickly changed when news filtered through of a grenade attack on a coach in Nairobi which was bound for Kampala. Kenyan and Ugandan authorities blamed a militant Somali group, Al Shabbab, who had been responsible for Kampala’s fatal suicide bombings during the World Cup, and had been threatening more trouble over the festive period. We opted to seek sanctuary on the fantastically named “Hairy Lemon Backpackers”, located on an island in the Nile 20km upstream from Jinja, and far away from any fireworks that Al Shabbab might have had planned for the capital. Unfortunately when we called to make a reservation the island was fully booked over Xmas, but luckily a chance meeting and a few beers at the bar that night with two South Africans, Chris and Paul, who it transpired was the owner of Hairy Lemon, and a keen admirer of our bakkie meant that miraculously a cancellation to camp on the island over Xmas appeared. Chris – thanks for having a quiet word in his ear, we owe you a beer on our way back through S.A.

The next morning we arrived at the riverbank, parked up Kwetu and followed the instructions to ring the bell (a wheel hub) hanging from a tree and instantaneously a dugout canoe appeared and started making its way across the river. The crystal clear waters (not something normally associated with the Nile) and lush vegetation were reminiscent of New Zealand’s Tongariro River, so it was a good substitute for missing out on being with my family at Christmas time in Taupo. When the dugout docked on the other side we found Hairy Lemon had been overrun by Kayakers, who’d come from all over the globe to spend several months on the island riding it’s world class white water, preparing for the World Championships.

We got chatting to an English kayaker, Doug AKA The Dawg (I am not kidding), who ran a business organising tours which combine a Kayaker’s two favourite activities, riding ridiculously dangerous rapids and then drinking ridiculous amounts of Jagermeister. Doug, who at only 5 foot tall, possessed the typical kayakers build: tree trunk neck, the torso of a bodybuilder, combined with the legs of a sparrow. He resembled a children’s flip book, where the upper and lower halves don’t match...and yes, it was as funny as it sounds.

When you have come to a serene island retreat, a 20-strong group of kayakers sinking beer bongs (along with the associated post bong nasal vomit) at 2 o’clock in the afternoon comes as a bit of a surprise. Not knowing a backstab from an eskimo roll, we excused ourselves from the paddler’s drinking session and spent the rest of the day chilling out, enjoying the tranquillity of the opposite side of the island with a book and/or fishing rod in hand. The island is a nature lover’s paradise; butterflies and equally vibrant birdlife flood the skies while colossal monitor lizards patrol the lawns and river (yes these guys can swim too) looking for a tasty snack.

On Xmas Eve we accompanied Paul on a trip to the nearby villages to distribute a few Christmas hampers and we took the opportunity to hand out some footballs. The first stop on his Xmas rounds was the local police station, having only owned the Hairy Lemon for six months he knew the importance of getting the local constabulary on side. Paul, a self-proclaimed recluse who struggles to deal with big crowds, was dreading the next part of his great Xmas giveaway....the kid’s lolly scramble! Giving sweets to kids in rural communities is something we have mixed feelings about (there aren’t too many dental clinics in the bush!), but we figured what the hell it was Christmas.

Paul swiftly passed the buck to Lani, who took a deep breath and took off down the street, handing out lollipops one by one, but when the kids got too much Paul took charge and resorted to grabbing handfuls of sweets and tossing them to attempt to disperse the crowd. One spray of bonbons landed right at my feet, accidently according to Paul, (but I am sure I saw him take aim) and within seconds a mob of kids descended on my ankles nearly taking me off my feet. Once Paul’s sweet supply was exhausted we tracked down a couple of teachers from the local school and donated a couple of our brand new Kenyan footballs (thanks to Ross and Evelyn + Bob). There was one final stop at the nearest village to the island where Paul distributed a few more hampers and we gave a football to the guys and a netball to the girls. Thanks go to my cousin, Benson, and his girlfriend Bec for the donation, you made their Xmas day.

By the time we had returned to the island most of the kayakers had begun to evacuate (watch out Bugalali Falls!) and had been replaced by a really great bunch of travellers with which to spend Christmas day. Our adopted Xmas family comprised of Lucia, an Embassy intern in Kampala, and her parents from Germany, Mika and Jan from Belgium and a bunch of Melburnians who had been working in Kenya on an NGO programme. The Aussies were a nice reminder of home and we partied with them until the wee hours of Xmas morning and then continued with beers in the ‘Jacuzzi’ (a series of rock pools in the river) on Christmas day. Chris, Paul and the other staff laid on a delicious Xmas buffet and made every effort to make the day feel special, but it still felt a bit surreal to be so far away from our families at Christmas.

Come Boxing Day, with Lani nursing a severe hangover, we said goodbye to the Hairy Lemon and caught a dugout back to Kwetu where I assumed driving responsibility for the short drive to Kampala. Cruising through the capital’s congestion-free streets (we were timing our Sunday drives to perfection) and pitched camp at a hostel on the outskirts of the city, at Red Chilli Backpackers, which was a bit run down but it was great to have guaranteed hot showers. We also finally managed to log onto the Rwandan Immigration website (which had been offline for the past 10 days and was the only way to apply), lodged our visa application forms and then set about emailing EVERY Gorilla safari company in Uganda. We bumped into Mika and Jan, the Belgians, who were in Kampala for the night before setting off on a Safari tour and treated ourselves to a BBQ dinner with them at the hostel.

The following day we still hadn’t had any luck with sourcing a Gorilla permit, that was until the Aussies arrived from the Hairy Lemon and one of the girls, Elle, introduced us to her ex-boyfriend, Sam, who was a tour operator and said getting a pair of permits wouldn’t be an issue. We tried not to get our hopes up and thought it was best to postpone the celebrations until we had them in-hand.

On our last day we decided to head into the city centre on foot to explore Kampala. We were apprehensive at first having been harassed for being Muzungu’s in nearly every African city (bar Windhoek) but Lucia had assured us that the city was safer and friendlier than most. She wasn’t wrong and we managed to walk all day through the city without anyone bothering us. We actually regretted staying so far out of the city centre, and wished we had been right in the heart of the city to experience a bit more of Kampala’s legendary nightlife. On the walk through the city, every flat surface seemed to be plastered with ‘Vote Museveni 2011’ posters, in preparation for the February elections. Having been elected President in 1986 and scrapping the 2-term limit which he had previously introduced, the ‘man in the hat’ shows no sign of relinquishing power. Uganda is far from immune to vote-rigging and corruption (and has been responsible for some uninvited interactions beyond its borders into Rwanda and Congo), but Museveni surely must receive some credit with the rebuilding of Kampala from a battered shell after the Tanzanian invasion to oust Amin in the 1980’s, to the vibrant, modern (and even affluent) capital it is today. Hat’s off to the man in the hat, but after a quarter of a century, maybe it is time to hang up your hat....sorry, one too many hat puns.

Continuing our hassle-free trek through Kampala we ended up at the Uganda Museum. The museum’s dusty displays covered everything from musical instruments and cultural heritage to Uganda’s hydro-electric projects and malaria prevention, with reproductions of various indigenous architectural styles in the gardens out back. Perhaps the most intriguing was a temporary photographic exhibition documenting the rebuilding of the lives of refugees displaced in Northern Uganda by Joseph Kony’s (a man so psychotically deranged he makes Idi Amin look like a pussycat) Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA forcefully acquired a vast army of child soldiers and actually tried to stand for government forming its policies solely around the Biblical Ten Commandments...watch out George W!

On our way back from the museum we got a surprise phone call from Sam who had good news. He had managed to organise a pair of Gorilla trekking permits for us in Mgahinga N.P. on New Year’s Eve, what a way to send off an epic 2010 and see in the New Year.

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DaveNRachel on

Happy New Year (And Merry Ethiopian Christmas)!

Nice hearing about your tales in Kenya and Uganda. Did you manage to get gorilla permits? Rachel and I went to Mugahinga Gorilla National Park in SW Uganda, and got permits without booking in advance - its the place where the gorillas sometimes cross over the border, so they only take bookings 2 weeks in advance...which puts most people off. But the gorillas have now been in uganda since July 2009. We looked at the guest book and they have only been getting about 2 tourists per day (max group size 8) so you'd be almost guaranteed to get one if you havent moved on yet. Good Luck, they're gorrrrreat (sorry)
Have fun

Anna&Jeroen on

Looks amazing!!! It's lovely to see how much fun you are having! First week of March 1 week in NY and then Mexico here we come!
Can't wait to drink some good tequilas with you in our new apartment! Those days with a roof top tent (unfortunately) are over!!

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