Trip Start May 20, 2010
Trip End Jun 03, 2011

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Flag of Uganda  ,
Thursday, August 19, 2010

Uganda is a special place. After passing through the deserts down South, the tundra on Kilimanjaro and the savannas in the East, we had seen a wide variety of landscapes throughout the trip.  However, this was the first place I could appropriately describe as lush.  Soon after you cross the border, the dry savannas start to give way to green everywhere.  Winston Churchill described it as the Pearl of Africa and it is easy to see why.  It is home to the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria, and the impenetrable forest.  Beautiful mountain lakes dot the countryside and it provided some of the best campsites we would have in Africa. 

However, while the natural beauty was astounding, it was the beauty of the people that would leave the most lasting impression.  Only a few decades after Idi Amin, the country is still in the process of recovering.  As with other parts of Africa, it has similar problems with AIDS and other health issues, meaning that you don't see a lot of older people around.  But, despite this, everyone we met there was incredibly friendly and we always felt welcome.

It was the children, though, that will be what I will always remember of Uganda.  While we had gotten occasional waves and other smiles from curious onlookers in other parts of Africa, Uganda gave us the true rock star treatment.  As Songwe lumbered down the road, children far in the distance would hear and come galloping out to the road to wave at the truckload of foreigners.  I think we spent more time in the truck waving at those outside than we spent doing anything else.  In addition to these passing glimpses, though, our itinerary in Uganda also offered us the ability on numerous occasions to interact with the kids.  Whether we were there to volunteer or just to visit, the kids latched on immediately, asking to have photos taken and enjoying just playing around.  The little ones would often run up to me, and after picking them up, wouldn’t let go for the whole visit.  Despite the problems they face – while testing is currently too expensive, there’s a good chance that a number of them have AIDS as well, passed down from their parents – they were full of smiles and formed the most amazing part of our visit there.

SoftPower movement

Our first direct interaction with the kids came at our initial stop in Uganda, Jinja.  Our campsite in Jinja stands out as one of the more striking places we stayed as it sat on a tall hill overlooking the White Nile shortly after it emerged from the Nile’s source, Lake Victoria.  A steep stairwell led down to the water, where there was a swimming hole and a good view onto the rapids out front.  A restaurant and bar overlooked the whole scene and provided a great place to relax.  This was also the first place on any of my Acacia trips where we had 3 consecutive nights to spend in the same place. 

After an early first night, we woke up the next day to volunteer with an organization called Soft Power.  This movement was started by a British woman who spent years driving for the overland companies before settling in Jinja.  The goal is to help improve the local quality of the schools in the region by using both permanent and day volunteers.  They have 2 preschools that they fully fund and run, and also send teams out to all of the government schools to help bring the facilities up to a standard quality.

Our trip started first with a visit to their preschool and main facility.  As we were walking up to the path, a small group of kids came running up to us and one of the smaller ones, wearing an oversized green sweatshirt ran up and grabbed hold of my hand.  For the next hour or so, he wouldn’t let go, with the exception of the few times when I’d throw up him on my shoulders and provide him first class transportation.  With the kids fully holding on to their new friends, the project leader took us on a tour of the facility and explained the work that they did there and what the long term plans were.  We met some of the other volunteers but, really, just spent half the time playing with the kids.

After the tour, we loaded the back of a pickup truck, standing up for the 20min ride to the school we’d be working at that day.  We pulled up to one of the government schools and were told that it was summer break, so there might not be many kids around.  However, within a few minutes of arriving, it seemed like the entire group of village kids came out to greet us.  They loved having their photos taken and enjoyed laughing and taunting the others when we turned the cameras around so they could see.  While they weren’t allowed to help out with the actual work, they ended up hanging around for the whole time we were there.

The work for that day involved painting several classrooms.  We were split into groups, given brushes and a big can of blue paint and set to work.  Overall, it was a lot of fun.  While I can assure you that I have no future as a house painter, we did an alright job (and felt confident that someone, presumably who had some better painting skills than we did, would be putting on the second coat).  By the end of the day, the fully white classroom now showed waves of blue that helped to liven up the place.  The only casualties were my clothes and toes, which to this day still have small flecks of blue paint on them.

After we had finished, we walked over to the other classroom to clean up with some turpentine.  Only a few minutes later, Uganda decided to remind us that she was an equatorial country and not to be underestimated.  It began with thunder in the distance, but quickly turned into one of the biggest downpours I’ve seen recently.  About 20minutes in, in case we weren’t yet convinced, huge balls of hail started to fall all around us.  As a result, we ended up being barricaded in the classroom for about an hour.  Luckily, 20 or so kids had filed in with us and provided great entertainment for the time.  I had brought my shock-proof camera that day and handed it to them, which helped to start a photo extravaganza.  They passed it back and forth, taking photos of each other and then all laughing at the results.  While only a handful of the photos are actually in focus or without fingers, they had a great time and we all enjoyed an extra hour to play around before heading back to the campsite.

Rafting the Nile

While our first day in Jinja had been dedicated to volunteering, our next day was reserved for fun.  I had been impressed with the rafting on the Zambezi.  Getting flipped 3 times and facing some big rapids, I had thought that this was pretty insane.  But, this was all before I had seen the White Nile.

With its reputation preceding it, our whole group decided to try to face the rapids.  Bobo, whose independent travels had taken her towards Kampala, had met up with us in Jinja and joined as well.  The trip was a full day adventure, starting close to the source of the Nile and continuing through some of the craziest rapids I’ve ever seen before ending at a beast of a rapid about 30km down the river.  All in all, it had 12 major rapids, including 4 Class 5 rapids and numerous Class 3 and 4 thrillers.  Added to the challenge was the fact that, in a split-second the night before, I had not seen a tent pole in the dark and had shattered my little toe.  Still limping a little, I taped it to the next toe, a solution which proved to last roughly 3 minutes once we hit the first rapids.  But, there was no way I was going to miss this, and despite a few flashes of pain during the worst rapids, it didn’t hold me up too badly.

The river definitely lived up to its reputation.  While Erin and Natalie joined another group, the rest of us – Me, Adam, Kate, Megan, Leigh, Roxy, and Bobo – made up the crew of our boat.  We were paired with Henry 2, one of the more experienced guides and quite a character.  As the male contingent, Adam and I took the front seats and would consequently take the brunt of most waves, but it made for probably the most exciting post.  After our normal safety drills, we then practiced flipping the boat and finding air pockets underneath – overall an easy task, but one that started to make a few in the group a little nervous.

Our first major rapid didn’t do much to help ease nerves as we pitched downwards at almost a 45 degree angle before running headfirst into a massive wave that crashed down on us.  There were plenty of screams, particularly from the back, but we made it through upright (except for Leigh who was unceremoniously tossed out), and we continued on.  The next rapid, however, proved to be our undoing.  Known as 50/50 for the chance of actually making it through, we ended up being on the upside down half of the percentage.  As we got in, a wave crashed against our side and flipped it over, hurling us all from the boat.  Just as it started tipping, I grabbed onto the rope and was able to hang on, but others got trapped under the boat for a while and got a little freaked out.  While everyone was okay, Henry took a little easier path through some of the other rapids for a while.

Unlike the Zambezi, which is pretty much a constant run of rapids, the Nile had a number of long stretches of wide, flat areas.  When there was still some current, these provided good swimming spots, where we’d jump off and float along, getting a chance to feel the power of the river for ourselves.  In one of the long stretches, we stopped for a good lunch of biscuits and half a fresh pineapple each.  However, while these breaks were nice, most of the flat stretches required a good amount of paddling.  As Henry would call, "all forward," Adam and I would set the pace and the others would start following.  However, particularly as the day progressed, we’d be going for a few minutes when I’d realize we weren’t going as fast as we should.  I’d look over at Adam, who was paddling hard.  And then, I’d turn back to see the 5 girls sitting there talking with their paddles across their laps.  Despite several threats of strike from Adam and I, we managed to all get through it and back to the rapids.

As I mentioned, these were some of the most insane rapids I’ve ever seen.  Most of them involved a huge drop into a massive wave and there were some places where you could barely see what was coming with the white water frothing all around us.  At one point, we even tried to go over a waterfall, but just missed it and instead became perilously stuck on the edge, before pitching back and going through the next rapid sideways.  Finally, though, we came to the big boy.  The start of it is a class 6 rapid that no non-professionals are allowed to attempt, and which we carried the raft around.  However, we put in right in front of the biggest rapid of the day.  As we set off, Henry barked commands at us until we came upon the spot that he referred to only as “the bad place.”  As we entered, the front of the raft pitched upwards violently.  I was certain it was going to flip and was just about to let go when I realized it was started to come back down.  I decided to hold on and barely kept my grasp as we crashed back down upright.  I turned around, smiling, to see if the rest of the group had found it as fun as I had, when I realized that I was the only one left in the boat.  Even Henry had been thrown out.  I kept the boat steady as he, Roxy, and Leigh climbed back in and we took the last half of the rapid with the 4 of us.  Overall, it was an incredible day, though, and will set the bar for all rafting experiences to come.

After rafting and an eventful night out where some of the group once again realized the power of the river, we woke up early the next morning to head to Kampala.  After an afternoon of internet and card games in the courtyard, we called it an early evening to get ready for our 5:00am departure the next day.  We said goodbye to Bobo and met the three other girls that would join us for the gorillas.  Then, early the next morning, we set off towards the forest and the main attraction.
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