Burundi is one of only eight countries I haven’t visited. I’ve been through the airport at Bujumbura when I visited Rwanda, but in those days the country was torn by internal conflict and deemed to be too dangerous to visit. I have to go back if I’m to reach my target of Every Country in the World. But I’ve got mixed feelings. Burundi is ranked as the poorest country in the world by GDP, at the moment. Wikipedia cites 'poverty, corruption, instability, authoritarianism, illiteracy, and more’. One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is densely populated and employment chances are grim, so young people emigrate in search of opportunities elsewhere. This has also been rated the unhappiest country in the world. Let’s see.....
I’ve travelled from Uganda. Both countries are in the central, Great Lakes of Africa region, The Heart of Africa. Burundi lies along the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. And I’m going to be exploring Burundi with smiley guide Justin and handsome young driver Sammy. They talk to each other in Kirundi, the sole national language.
Bujumbura is strategically important, as the largest port on Lake Tanganyika. It’s also the biggest city and economic capital of Burundi. So, there are government buildings in differing states of repair, lots of small shops and a few monuments. The monuments are surrounded by iron railings, painted in the national colours. You have to pay an arm and a leg to enter and this includes an obligatory guide, who recites speeches you can read from the sign boards. I peer through the enclosure at the Park of Presidents and talk to some ladies filming a video at the Unity Monument.
The Unity Monument was erected in 1991, by Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya, as part of the effort to defuse ongoing tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. So, this seems like a good moment to introduce a little history. Twa, Hutu and Tutsi peoples have lived in Burundi for at least 500 years. As with Rwanda, the relative ethnic proportions are roughly 85% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa (the indigenous pygmy forest dwellers).
Burundi was an independent kingdom, until 1899, when Germany invaded and it became part of German East Africa. Following the First World War, the League of Nations "mandated" the territory to Belgium. After the Second World War, Burundi was amalgamated with Rwanda and designated a United Nations Trust Territory, named Ruanda-Urundi . It was jointly ruled by the Germans and Belgians.
Burundi gained independence in 1962, initially as a monarchy, but the regime quickly became unstable. A republic and a one-party state was established in 1966, but internal conflict continued. Horrifyingly, civil wars and genocides resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The situation is slowly stabilizing, but the country is still described as being in political and economic chaos.
There are great views across the city from the monument. It's reached after a hill climb through some extremely affluent villas mansions and embassies, which stand in stark contrast to the low rise tin roofs down the valley.
Just outside Bujumbura, at Mugere, is another, not-to-be missed, monument. This marks the spot where Henry Morton Stanley is supposed to have caught up with David Livingstone in 1871 - I presume. They've added statues to the original etched stone erected by the Belgian colonists. Very sadly, this is another claim that turns out to be untrue. The famous meeting actually took place in Ujiji in Tanzania on 10 November 1871, as Stanley' himself, writes in his book, "How I Found Livingstone". The pair did visit Mugere, a few days later, by canoe from Ujiji, exploring rivers which might flow out of Lake Tanganyika.
Along the lakeside, beyond the port, are myriad beach hotels and restaurants. The Atrium does lovely food and you can watch the waves rolling from your table. But, with main courses at ten GBP it’s extortionately expensive for Burundi. Justin takes me in there, but refuses to order food for himself.
For lodging, I've been sampling one of the best five star establishments, The Club du Lac Tanganyika. I've a lake view from my room, which is comfortable and pleasant enough, with ethnic fabrics. It would be nice if the TV worked, the entrance hall light would stop flickering and the shower didn't instantly flood the bathroom. (And yes the staff do rectify it all after a reminder). There's a large blue 'semi Olympic ' swimming pool with peeling paint on the bottom, a gym, conference facilities and a restaurant with beach outlook, friendly staff and slow service.
There's a national park to the west of the city ( and almost at the Rwandan border), where the Rusizi River wanders into the lake. Red churning waters contrast nicely with the vast sparkling blue expanse of Tanganyika. It’s a good spot for another tranquil boat trip, with bloats (apparently that’s the correct collective noun) of hippo keeping their usual wary eye on us, bobbing up and down, and a sole crocodile. I'm not sure if this is Gustave, a Nile crocodile, rumored to have killed 300 people here. He's big enough. And there are numerous pelicans and other water fowl. The boatman has a guide book and insists on showing me each species we come across.
The Burundi countryside is beautiful. Justin says this is 'The Country of 1001 Hills'. One more than Rwanda. The roadside towns have small crumbling brick built shops and stores. The markets are utilitarian and crammed with shoppers spilling onto the tarmac. The Burundians are fervent Catholics. Their homes might be small and in need of repair, but each village has an enormous brick built church, many of them modern. And I’m told the priest often has to conduct several services a day, to cater to demand. On the way, a stop at a huge church at Ijenda, built in 1941. A crowd gathers to gape as we try to take pictures of storks nesting in a tall tree.
Bujumbura is home to a million people. The remainder of the eleven million population live off the land. At first glance this doesn't feel like the poorest country in the world, or the unhappiest. For the most part it's tidy and clean. There is little litter. The men are clothed in neat western dress and the ladies are beautifully turned out in bright printed fabrics and headscarves. The baskets they carry on their heads are often beautifully woven and decorated.
The people sometimes wave and smile - calling ‘mzungu’. There aren’t many of us Europeans around especially in the deep south. At others, the Burundians are quiet but not hostile. They don't want their photos taken unless money changes hands. The myth still persists that I will sell their picture to National Geographic for a lot of cash. A few small notes do change hands at times. I don't know if it’s good to encourage this attitude, but the recipients are very grateful rather than hassling.
The poverty is evident, however, in the streams of villagers trudging the roadside wielding hoes or carrying water. Subsistence farming and the development of plantations has led to deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss. The main crop is coffee, followed by tea. But only the government is allowed to grow for export. There are also maize, cassava, bananas and pineapple. Its thought that Burundi has some substantial mineral wealth: nickel, copper. But there aren't the resources to find out.
There are few vehicles other than bicycles loaded to the gunnels with provisions (for sale or just bought or exchanged). It takes three or four people straining, to push them up the many slopes. On closer examination much of the clothing especially on children is ragged and in need of a wash. Queues for petrol stretch three cars wide round the block in Bujumbura. Sammy has filled up in the middle of the night.
South, to what the Burundians claim is the Source of the Nile. We’re climbing immediately, with ongoing gorgeous panoramas beneath. The Source is deemed to be important. It’s signposted almost from Bujumbura, although it’s 115 kilometres. It feels like twice that distance. Chinese influence hasn't stretched to these roads yet and potholes proliferate, where there is tarmac. Most of the 14 hour return journey involves African massage on unmade roads, which are agonisingly slow. Not Madagascan level, just uneven enough to be awkward.
I'm not sure if guide Justin had factored in a 7.30 a.m. to 10 pm day. Driver Sammy looks exhausted . He has never ventured this way before. But he's enjoyed the sights and taken plenty of selfies.
The Source of the Nile here has a government guide, of course. And an odd little blue tiled channel, with a tap. It's not clear exactly how the tap is fed, but a scramble uphill is a pyramid. It celebrates this discovery by a German, Dr Buckhart Waldecker in 1932 and patronisingly pays tribute to Speke, Stanley and others who showed an early interest, like Eratosthenes and Ptolemais. I'm not sure what to make of this and I perhaps foolishly point out that other countries have opposing claims (see post on Jinja), to be the Source of the nil. But the Burundians are as adamant as the Ugandans that the Nile originates on their land. And there’s a superb 360° view of the surrounding hills.
We have to leave in a hurry as the Vice President is due for a visit and crowds of smartly dressed guests are beginning to arrive.
Next stop, responsible for a large portion of the massage experience, is so called German Fault. This is an impressive break in the escarpment, with plummeting cliff walls, marking the separation of the central plateaus and the Kumoso Valley. There’s a great panorama of the valley from the Nyakazu plateau, at an altitude of just under 2000 metres. The Germans invaded here via Tanzania and were initially pushed back by the King of Burundi, because of the forbidding terrain.
Sammy, Justin and I take turns having our photos taken on a strategically placed rock, against the dramatic backdrop, (that's Tanzania behind us) in a variety of combinations. Two boys fetching water peer over a rock to watch us with astonishment. It seems that the Vice President is on his way out here too. It's customary to decorate the roadside with banana branches when a VIP is visiting. And I thought they were for me!
Last stop, on this journey, is the five stage waterfall on the Kagera River. It nestles at the end of a forest passage of very tall African tulip trees. There's just enough water still flowing to make it impressive and there's a terrifying suspension bridge to view from thrown in. In addition, there are viewing platforms for all five stages, if you don’t mind steep, slippy paths.
The next outing is to the political capital of Gitega. This route is partly National Highway 1, built by the Chinese. But there are still plenty of craters to manoeuvre around. More fabulous views including the Kibera National Forest, where there's a stop at a Twa (pygmy) village.
The villagers dance and the children sing. It's well organised and moving. They have so little. There are few pygmies in evidence. They have intermarried and most of the inhabitants look to be of the same size as the remainder of their compatriots. The grave-faced chief is an exception. He's new to the post, chosen Justin says, as he is a true pygmy and can properly represent his people.
At Gitega, there are more fenced monuments and the German governor’s house. now used, perhaps fittingly, as a prison. The main draw at Gitega, and Burundi's only well known tourist attraction, if you discount Lake Tanganyika, is the drumming sanctuary at Gishora. These drummers are UNESCO recognised and famous for having appeared in film and pop songs. perhaps most notably in Joni Mitchell's 'The Hissing of summer lawns'.
The story goes that the Gishora Drummers originated when the last king of Burundi, Mwezi Gisabo, gave some men two cattle as a reward for his victory, over the rebellious chief Ntibirangwa in the second half of the nineteenth century. They used the hide to cover their drums. The body of the drums is traditionally made from Cordia Africana, a flowering tree sometimes known as Sudan teak. More interestingly, in Kirundi, the tree is known as the “umuvugangoma,” which means “the tree that makes the drum speak.”
Drumming is important in Burundi, as it is throughout Africa. It has always been a key part of the king's enthronement, funerals communication and battle. There are many drum groups, some of which included women. But this group is run by local boys and men, known as Abatimbo who descend from the ancient lineage of Abanyigisaka, run the sanctuary. They are the descendants of religious leaders who held senior positions within the royal court. The government has introduced contentious new rules that ban the participation of women in drumming. In addition, the Gishora Drumming Drumming is now mostly limited to official ceremonies. Private events require authorization, which is subject to a fee, of course.
The tour includes the king’s hut and other dwelling areas, very similar to the one at Butare in Rwanda. The performance is aleg scale and involves about 30 men. They make a dramatic entrance balancing the heavy instruments on their heads and led by a spear toting warrior. There is ritual dancing, poetry and great deal of leaping. All joyful and thoroughly uplifting. Even if it is just done for the tourists nowadays, it's worth a visit. If you can excuse the lack of inclusion.
Sadly, as I've already suggested, Burundi seems keen on overcharging tourists. and making visiting as difficult as possible. Most countries have now abandoned Covid testing and just demand the vaccination certificate. Burundi requires a test within 72 hours pre-entry and another on arrival at the airport. You have to book it online and prove this to be allowed in. And it costs 100 USD cash. The visa on arrival is 90 USD. That's a whopping bill, just to cross the border.
I also require a test to leave. Justin says we will do it Saturday morning, before we leave for Gitega. He sends me the requisition link, just before he's due to arrive, with a message to say that he's gone to the bank to pay as required. We manage to rendezvous an hour later, when he tells me that he's discovered that the banks don't open till 11 on a Saturday and there's a lengthy queue at the test centre.
Plan B is mooted. It’s unorthodox and I'm not going to describe it. But it only costs the same as the legally required route. And results are apparently guaranteed. The latter is predictably not quite true. My certificate citing a negative result arrives about an hour before I'm due to depart for the airport. It's just a tad stressful.
I've also just received an e-mail from our esteemed government. It advises against travel to all the places I've just been to.
And when I've finally got over the stress of obtaining my PCR test, departure from Bujumbura provides another contender for worst airport on the world. Melchior Ndadaye Airport (BJM,) is Burundi's only international airport. In fact, it's the only one with a paved runway. It's named after the first democratically elected president of Burundi, who was murdered in a coup d'état in October 1993, three months after being elected.
There's a huge queue to get the PCR test checked. VIPs, such as the national volleyball team, are ushered past to hold us up even further. Then, there's a queue to get your visa checked. Why? I'm leaving! Then, a queue to screen the bags. No-one is looking at the monitor. Then, an excruciatingly long queue to check in and go through immigration and get my visa checked again.
It's roasting hot. There isn't so much as a fan. And the whole check in process is being done manually, with the clerks taking photos of each handwritten baggage tag and boarding pass. I've carefully reserved my near the front window seat many months ago. But my boarding pass says it's free seating. Aaargh ! I just have time to buy a bottle of water in the departure lounge, before we board. And then it’s another hour before we take off. They've overbooked.
I’m touring Uganda anticlockwise, starting from Entebbe. It's a return visit, as last time I only dipped into the eastern corner, to Jinja and the reputed source of the Nile, from Kenya. This trip has begun with a bang. Literally. Twice. I woke up to find that a coke bottle had exploded in my fridge. There was a mess of sticky brown ice to clear up. Then my taxi turned up to take me to the bus station and the driver brought the tail gate down on my head. I now have a dent in my throbbing left temple. If I'm lucky I will get a black eye to match the one I picked up on my last trip, to Tunisia.
Finally, on the bus, the bus driver denies boarding to a young guy who looks as if he had a rough night. But more importantly he doesn't have a ticket. The would be traveller doesn't take it very well. He empties his daypack and trolley bag and throws the entire contents at the bus. It's not the best of starts.
Add to that the queues at Heathrow. Terminal 5 is heaving. It takes an hour in the check in queue, 20 minutes to get to the entrance to security and 20 minutes in security before I get airside.
I've already had a run in with my favourite airline (not) BA, who have given my paid for exit row seat to someone else. They rarely answer the phone, but I managed to get through to customer services which I discovered is now in Cape Town. Though they haven't been able to train the staff yet. It's an hour there before I finally get to speak to a supervisor who sorts the problem. I'm now in the exit row by the toilets, treated as a gangway by all the passengers. The plane is old and the screens tiny, with wavery pictures and touch screens that send you back to the beginning of the film all the time.
Thank God for Qatar Airways on the second leg. Polite, modern, spanking clean, entertainment that works and heaps of food. Though masks are demanded on both legs.
Immigration in Entebbe is the usual African chaos, with no adherence to any form of queuing rules. But I'm eventually in and out again and Hannington and James are waiting to greet me. Two guides just for me! Happy-go-lucky James is a trainee along for the ride and ready to polish his skills.
The official languages in Uganda are English and Swahili. But Hannington and James speak to each other in Luganda, as do most of the Ugandans. It's the language of Buganda, the largest of the Ugandan kingdoms, centred on Kampala.
The road round Kampala, east and north, is generally good, especially on the new toll section, but the traffic is slow through the urban areas, the road lined with small bustling markets. The buildings in the small towns are constructed wild west frontier style, with high brick stepped facias and shady pillared verandas. Stacks of red bricks stand drying in the fields. Most of the embellishment relates to advertising for telephone companies. Open air pool tables with thatched awnings. And solitary petrol pumps guarded by hopeful assistants.
All manner of dress: traditional with headscarves western long and short and nearly all immensely colourful. Chickens in cages, huge green hands of bananas strapped precariously onto bicycles, families of up to five, crammed on motorbikes. Motorcycles and scooters are called “bodabodas.” They’re cheap transport.
Further on, long horned cattle and flattish agricultural country, red termite hills erupting at various intervals. Plenty of maize and rippling sugar cane. The cane is being harvested and loaded onto top heavy trucks which lumber past. Cassava, mangoes, bananas. The cassava is drying by the road in pieces or pounded. Rows of bean and coffee processing plants. Tall fan like papyrus, used for roofing and decoration. It's placed outside buildings to signal a party. Watch out for it!
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established in 2005 to reintroduce rhino into Uganda. Uganda was home to both the black rhino and the northern white rhino, but both indigenous species were wiped out by civil war, poachers and plain habitat mismanagement ,by 1982. Six southern white rhino were initially donated by Kenya and Florida(!) and the population is now 33. It's the only place in the country where you can find rhinos and it's a convenient stopping place on the way north, 100 miles from Kampala.
We creep out in single file to see seven of the pachyderms (have to get that word in somehow), in two groups, slumbering peacefully. Mostly young males, farting and snoring. There's a female Luna, who is pregnant. When she has her baby, the males will have to form their own group as she won't be looking after them any more.
There are also warthogs (Pumbaa of course) skipping around, and the odd bush buck sliding out of the bushes.
Further north, gorgeous rolling velvety hills. The road is a big dipper, as we venture on to Murchison Falls. Here, astonishingly, is a two lane highway but they’re still constructing it, the rust-red soil churned up, the edges lined with JCBs. More hard work in the heat. The Chinese engineers always immediately distinguishable, in their straw brimmed hats.
Murchison Falls is the biggest national park in Uganda. The Nile runs east-west through the centre, with the game congregated in the northern areas, which are mostly exceptionally pretty emerald savannah, dotted liberally with fan palms. Who wouldn't want to live here ?
The lodge in the park is packed. They must be grateful for the custom. Things are only just reopening after Covid. This is Hannington’s fourth safari this year and his sixth since 2019. There are lovely sweeping views from here, down to the river. This is the Albert Nile which links Lake Albert with Lake Victoria. Although landlocked, Uganda consists mainly of the Nile Basin and is at the heart of the African Great Lakes. Lake Kyoga is the largest entirely Ugandan lake, and also notable is Lake George. Uganda shares Lakes Albert and Edward with the DRC and the huge (and largest lake in Africa) Victoria, with Kenya and Tanzania.
The eponymous park falls are billed as the most powerful in the world. They’re not very high, but still spectacular, as the Nile is forced through a six metre wide channel, thundering into a churning cauldron. You can view from up top or down the bottom. The latter involves a surprisingly long three hour boat trip. Two hours upstream and one back. There are crocodiles, elephants, antelopes and heaps of hippos to entertain us.
The elephants, protective of their babies, are much more unhappy about boats than they are cars and bundle the little ones away rapidly, forming a protective barricade of elephant backsides. They swivel back as soon as we pull away. One baby hippo unintentionally uses its mother as a waterslide. The boats keep a wary distance from the hippos and from the falls themselves, when we finally reach them. The impact causes plenty of foam and current and the zoom lens is required for any meaningful shots.
A road takes us to the top of the falls, where you can peer over the edge (almost) and get a real sense of the power of the boiling waters cascading over the edge. There’s a fantastic view back along the Albert Nile. You also get soaking wet and have to avoid the clouds of buzzing tsetse flies. Unluckily I've worn blue ( in addition to not donning my cagoule) and acquire four stings.
Safaris in the park are delightful and the game prolific. Giraffe, elephant and buffalo arrange themselves round every corner. Antelope abound. The square jawed Jackson’s hartebeest is the largest. Water bucks and bush bucks pose obediently. Kobs are the Ugandan equivalent of impala, redder brown without the distinctive black vee on the rump. They are abundant, flinging themselves across the tracks with gay abandon. The diminutive oribi, with their two tiny horns, follow suit. They make good prey for leopard, who can drag them up trees easily.
A large leopard has draped one a across a branch and lazes 20 metres up, every so often switching position to gnaw at another chunk. It's entertaining for the punters, as the relieved guides vie to get their clients to a reliable sighting. Every time we meet another van we have to stop and check what they have seen. There are a lot of vans. And there're already a gratifying number of ticks on my animal and bird checklists.
Our journey south again involves a stretch of unmade road lined with traditional villages. Square and circular huts with grass thatched roofs. (They're selling rolls of the stuff by the roadside. ) Tilling the soil with metal hoes looks like very had work.
Toddlers wave excitedly. Children and lines of women trudge along the roadside balancing yellow waterfilled Jerry cans on their heads. Too many villages still don't have pumps or wells. There are also a few large gated mansions. Hannington says they belong to government officials.
The road signs are British style. So are the many sleeping policemen (in every town and village ) and the speed cameras. The lollipop ladies here use red flags instead of circular signs to escort children across busy roads.
Hoima is the centre of the oil industry. This where all the companies and construction folk have based themselves. It's the nearest city to the game park. The Chinese have built all the roads round here to give them access to the newly found oil. Sadly, they found it in the middle of the park. The issue was debated in parliament, but money won of course. The animals are being moved to other areas. Let's hope they like their new homes.
Hannington has no watch and little idea about distances. He underestimates wildly. So our ETA is usually way off the mark and lunch eaten long after my stomach has started rumbling. He’s not always easy to understand. When Ugandans speak English, they often replace “l” with “r,” so play becomes pray. A toilet stop is usually a short call. Though there’s also the long call.
Further south, the scenery increasingly gorgeous. Hills and mountains. Emerald tea plantations. Climbing up to Fort Portal, a tourist city with green cloaked views in every direction. We’ve just crossed from the Bunyoro kingdom to Toro. The king’s palace at Fort Portal has the best view in town.
The other side of Fort Portal the scenery is better still, as we skirt the Ruwenzori Mountains. . The Ruwenzori are the tallest range in Africa and contain the highest peak in Uganda ( Alexandra - 5,094 metres).
There’s a bad day on most trips, or at least one that isn’t as good, and my first day in Queen Elizabeth Park is it. The Bush Lodge just outside the park, at Kazunguru, insists that my reservation is for a tent, not the Banda hut with en-suite by the water, described in my itinerary. The small, sweltering tent on offer has an outside shared ablutions block five metres away. No thanks. They argue that no Bandas are available, until I show them my itinerary hard copy and then there suddenly is one. Hannington says that the office of his company agree that a Banda was booked.
There are tranquil views from the veranda, of crocodiles and hippos in the Kazinga Channel, which separates Lake George from Lake Edward. It’s forbidden to walk alone to the huts at night. Escorts are required, as a pair of warring hippos wander the grounds constantly after dusk.
Chimp trekking in the Kyambura Gorge is the first activity here. It’s not as frenetic as the tracking in Rwanda and only involves sliding down a rainforest covered gorge and crossing two bridges over hippo frequented rivers. The first bridge is rickety, with slats missing and the second a fallen tree. Thankfully, the uniformed ranger, with his AK 47, is happy to assist. But the chimps are similarly uncooperative and stay firmly in the tops of their trees, peeing down from above. They are not really habituated. A second group, the other side of the river, are even more elusive. There’s a very cute tiny baby, but sadly my photos show him peering round his mother's backside. It's not pretty viewing.
Later, we go on a game drive, but there is nothing to be seen. Just a couple of water buck and small herd of kob. The dry yellow savannah stretches to the mountains and Hannington spends two hours driving us literally round in circles, searching for a lion and cubs he’s been told were there this morning. The only good bit is the sunset over the Ruwenzori Mountains. Very disappointing and I’m not happy. Hannington responds by sulking all through dinner. His parting shot - the office have told him that they think there was a mistake with my booking and they agreed to two nights out of the four in a tent. I told him I’m not leaving my Banda.
Next morning, Hannington tells me that I definitely have to move. I’m still not convinced, but the hotel manager says Hannington’s known all along that I should be in a tent. That’s what was booked and I was only in a Banda as a favour. I’ve read that Ugandans don’t like confrontation. Never shout at a Ugandan. But I do and there are tears (on my part).
To cut a long story short, I’m now in another lodge. It lacks the rustic charm of Bush Lodge and sadly there are no views at all from my room. But it’s a little palace with two enormous beds and a long thin bathroom. The toilet isolated at one end like a throne. The electricity can go out at any time for 4 to 24 hours. It’s known as load shedding. Most of the lodges have their own generators but of course those are known to play up too. My shower and hair wash is cut short mid lather tonight.
The game drive next morning is a little more productive. There are a herd of buffalo, a lioness (from a distance) and some hippos playfighting. There’s queue of vans along the track, a sure sign that there’s been a big cat sighting. But Hannington says I’m not allowed to look. These vans have paid for ‘The Lion Experience’ and the rangers have tracked their prey down for them. No money, no lookee.
In the afternoon, a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel. This is where all the wildlife have escaped to. The banks are lined with elephants, consuming their requisite 100 litres of water a day and in the interim squirting the liquid, or dust, over each other. The many babies have a great time rolling in the mud and linking trunks. The groups of buffalo lounge in the water, a wary distance from the elephants. The hippos can’t decide whether to duck or take centre stage, alternating between the two.
There are scores of different birds, crowned cranes (the national bird of Uganda featured on the flag), yellow billed storks, great and lesser pelicans, three types of kingfisher, fish eagles (one makes an audacious dive and scoops up a fish in his talons right under our noses. He’s much too fast to photograph). Cormorants, goliath herons, great herons and the boringly brown hamerkop (but notable because they have the biggest nest in the world according to our guide and their name refers to their hammer shaped head) and marabou storks, (on the Ugly 5 list along with the amusing pumbaas of course). The warthogs are everywhere running along with their tails erect like car aerials. The name pumbaa means stupid in Swahili. That’s even more unkind than putting them on the Ugly 5 list. We meander along the channel, waterside scenes the whole way, to a fishing village and back again.
My last day in Queen Elizabeth Park also calls for patience. Today, we’re in search of the tree climbing lions of Ishasha. They are reputed to wake up early, go hunting and then climb into trees to sleep for the rest of the day. It’s a two hour drive up a very bumpy track to this part of the park. And the lions have been up and come down again when we arrive, according to the rangers. It might have something to do with the fact that they’ve been burning off the long grass and nearly the whole area is a scorched and still smoking. If I was a lion I wouldn’t be that keen on padding across it.
We spend the whole morning driving round in more circles, but the lions are even more reluctant to appear then the rest of the wildlife in these parts. I’ve been told (too late and possibly unreliably) that only one pride remains. A dozen or so cats were poisoned by locals, as they were thought to be taking their cattle. James and Hannington spend a lot of time on the roof of the van vainly looking. The only sighting is a veritable parliament of eagle owls, all surprisingly alert, and a blue monkey. There are a lot of monkeys in Uganda.
James is a little vague over the names (and even more so about the spellings) of the wildlife, so I’ve challenged him to write a list of everything we’ve spotted in both parks. This is my agreed sightings list, in James’ order:
Side striped jackal, crowned crane, egrets, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, ground hornbill, snake eagle, yellow throated longclaw, African jacana, marabou stork, open billed stork, hippo, Rothschild’s giraffe, African buffalo, African bush elephant, nightjars, vervet monkey, patas monkey, olive baboon, black and white colobus monkey, common hare, black headed heron, grey heron, goliath heron, white backed vulture, permanent vulture, lion, leopard, Uganda kob, water buck, African pied wagtail, Egyptian goose, yellow billed black back, slender mongoose, marsh mongoose, white tailed mongoose, common warthogs, long tailed starling, Bunyoro Rabbit (at night, quite rare), blue monkey, red tailed monkey, topi (from a distance), hamerkop, long crested eagle, fish eagle, eagle owls, scarlet ibis, common bulbul, weavers, tawny eagle, bush buck, oribi, Jackson’s hartebeest, side striped jackal, cattle egrets, oxpeckers, red turaco, bee eaters, flycatchers, kingfishers, bustard (careful with the spelling here), guinea fowls (known here as wild chicken), northern common bee-eater, Cooper’s sunbird, black and white cuckoo, barbets, yellow billed stork, pelican greater and lesser, cormorants.
Food in most of the lodges relies on quantity rather than quality. It’s international buffets, pasta and some sort of chicken is the norm. Potatoes here are known simply as Irish to distinguish them from the indigenous sweet potatoes. Dessert is usually a tropical fruit plate: passion fruit, pineapple, watermelon, small sweet banana and mango if I’m lucky. When we stop for lunch its usually heaps of fries and fish (tilapia from the lakes) or chicken. Hannington and James eat what they term local food. Stews: beef or goat with lots of starch; cassava, big (bland) bananas, pumpkin and rice. Some of the lodges are a little more up market in their offerings, tiny pink lamb chops with mustard sauce is my favourite. Pork isn’t served at all in some restaurants. In villages there’s usually a ‘pork joint’- for roast meat. A “rolex” is an omelette (or meat, or vegetables) wrapped in a chapatti. Pan-fried grasshoppers are also considered a delicacy, but I've not been offered those.
It’s a very busy road through from the DRC to Kampala. The scenery is still gorgeous. There are numerous crater lakes in the Queen Elizabeth Park, evidence of past volcanic activity. Indeed, some argue that sulphurous odours indicate that they are still bubbling. Or road takes us through a scattering of these, the mountains beautifully reflected in the still water. Lake Nkugute is said to take the shape of Africa, a newish dam, creates the horn. An old man with a wooden rowing boat is fishing for crayfish, who nip his hand whilst he brandishes them aloft.
More neatly tiered tea plantations. And police road blocks. President Museveni lives in this area and it's apparently also a high risk accident zone. There are almost as many checks as in the DRC. Hannington has his licence confiscated and is made to pay an overdue speeding fine. I have to loan him 150,000 shillings so we can get back on the road. Finally, we make progress. We reach the Equator – I’m having my photo taken at the designated markers, (on some of the several main roads it crosses you have to make do with a small brown sign) when a small Ugandan boy sidles up. His parents are giggling from their car. ‘He wanted his picture taken with a mzungu, (foreigner).’ they call.
Mabamba Lodge is up a 20 kilometre bumpy track in the rainforest above Mabamba Bay on Lake Victoria. There are amazing swamp and lake views. I have a small bungalow with views across the rainforest. The jungle noises are loud at night and the monkeys throw fruit onto my roof.
Farida, from Kampala, who I met on the Caucasus train in 2017 is coming to join me for a trip into the swamp in search of the rare shoebill (only 3-5,000 left in the wild). They're sometimes wrongly referred to as shoebill storks, as they've now been classified as a family all on their own. Their closest relatives are actually the pelicans.
We have a motorised canoe, but our crew are young and inexperienced and make hard work of poling through the narrow channels as jacana hop on lily pads and kingfishers and heron swoop by. There are ominous thunder clouds rolling over head. Nevertheless, the boys know the way to a, so very rare, it's almost unheard of, shoebill's nest.
The male is standing guard, motionless and silent, except for a swivelling dinosaur like head and huge beak 30 centimetres long, (shaped like a clog). It's either a monster dreamed up for Dr Who or an offbeat cuddly toy. A very tall one. The bill is sharply hooked to help grab prey. The shoebill feeds on fish, snakes and even small crocodiles and baby monitor lizards, lunging suddenly in surprise attack. This is a solitary and possibly fearsome creature and unsurprisingly receives a mixed reception amongst the locals, who often view them with suspicion.
The baby is on the grass nest, camouflaged by the undergrowth. We can glimpse him when he fidgets and preens. It's difficult to get a clear shot of either, because of all the waving papyrus stalks between us. Sadly, we are not the only people who know about the nest. It's become world famous. We're soon surrounded by other boats, with more experienced navigators edging their craft around us. The twitchers wander all over everyone else's canoes, hefting their huge lenses and raising them in unison every time the baby moves.
One guy has flown specially from France for the event and spent the whole week by the nest. He has four cameras. He tells me that the mother is out hunting for food while dad acts as security, fending off snakes and birds of prey. When mum comes back she feeds the baby and tends to him giving him a shower from her beak and shading him with her wings. Dad goes hunting in the afternoon. He gives his catch it to the female who swallows it and regurgitates it an hour later partially digested, to feed the baby.
Two eggs are laid, on a nest maybe two metres wide, at the end of the rainy season. The parents constantly add grasses to it. However, only one bird is allowed to live, to maximise the chances of survival. If the stronger baby doesn't murder their sibling the mother starves the weakest to death. That's nature.
We're fascinated and would dearly like to see the mother return, but naturally no one has any idea when that will be. The clouds are getting darker and more boats are arriving. Time to depart.
Farida whisks me off into the capital Kampala. 8.5 million of Uganda’s 42 million, population live here. Ironically, the name derives from the impala that are now only found in a couple of small parks in Uganda. The ultimate contrast to the last few days. Traffic laden. Full of fumes. It's one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Bustling with streets of several storied blocks, mini scrapers in the centre. Small malls, open fronted shops of all kinds, a couple of theatres. Farida’s family own some of these buildings. Her father has accumulated considerable property over the years and she points out some of them as we inch past. Further out, villas scattered across the undulating suburbs
There are no stand out sights, but we take in the independence monuments (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894-1962), the national cultural centre, a mall (excellent cheesecake), some craft shops and the long established Sheraton Hotel. The beautiful-in-its-simplicity Bahai Temple competes for the best view of town, with the top of the Ghaddafi Mosque minaret . You have to pay to enter there. They won't even let you take a photo from outside unless you stump up. And they've recently started to insist that women wear headscarves and cover trousers too.
There are also, of course, government buildings and the parliament.
We also indulge in an exceptionally good meal, no banquet, at Izumi, a Japanese-Thai restaurant in a shady street full of upmarket eateries. Farida orders far too much and it's all delicious. Really good to meet up again and she showers me with presents from Uganda. An excellent day !
Entebbe is located on a Lake Victoria peninsula, 22 miles southwest of Kampala. It was once the seat of government for the Protectorate of Uganda, prior to independence, in 1962. The city is the location for Entebbe International Airport, Uganda's largest commercial and military airport. Entebbe is also home to the State House, the official office and residence of the President of Uganda.
I’m staying at 2 Friends Beach Hotel. Beach is a little bit of a stretch. The lake is so vast, it's certainly like being by the ocean. Don’t swim in the lake (or any of them for that matter), you risk bilharzia. And there is sand. Held in place by netted stone walls that defend against the battering of the waves. A couple of tiny smelly strips allotted to fishing boats. The rest is manicured (well sort of ) covered in trees and requisitioned by the various hotels arraigned along the lakeside road. Its all beach bars and restaurants and I even see stacks of sunbeds. But what with the trees and thatched awnings there's no way for the sun to peep through. There are sunbeds by the goldfish pond like swimming pool directly in front of the hotel though.
An hour in the evening discussing the woes of the world with the owner, Icelandic Hinrik and an English guy from Derbyshire who has made Uganda his home. Both are very content and wouldn’t consider returning to Europe.
But I can't hear the word Entebbe without thinking of the famous raid on the airport in 1977, when the Israelis rescued 100 hostages kidnapped by the militant group of the PFLP-EO and Revolutionary Cells.
It’s still a problematic place. I’m trying to get to Burundi next. The president is flying out today and security is intense. The car is searched thoroughly before we can enter. Vehicles are not allowed close to the departures area. I have to drag my bag uphill on a bumpy track. And it’s not till after check in that I discover that my flight time has been changed for the third time. I’m doomed to spend five hours airside. And that gets extended. They’ve given us free food vouchers and no firm departure time, which is ominous. And my biro has leaked ink all over me and my tee shirt. It’s another one of those days.
Read more about Uganda here.
Just a quick nip over the border from Kenya, with my fellow truckers, to see Lake Victoria in Uganda. Lake Victoria is Africa's largest lake by area, the world's largest tropical lake, and the world's second-largest fresh water lake by surface area after Lake Superior in North America. Jinja sits on the northern most shores of the lake, and claims to be the source of the White Nile. The point, at Coronation Park, is marked by a garden and a monument honouring British explorer John Hanning Speke, who is alleged to have tracked down the location. (Our camp is named Speke Camp.)
But the whole business of identifying the source of the longest river in the world is highly contentious and has a tragic history. To begin with, some argue that the Amazon is in fact longer than the Nile. Next, the River Nile is fed by two large rivers. the White Nile and the Blue Nile respectively. They meet at Khartoum, in Sudan. The Blue Nile contributes 80% of the water in the river. Its source is Lake Tana, in Ethiopia.
The White Nile is however, longer and more mysterious. The location of its source fascinated first the ancient Egyptians and later, British explorers for centuries; their explorations probably laid the foundations for colonialism.
Richard Francis Burton made the first documented attempt, in 1855, with John Hanning Speke, a naturalist, explorer and officer in the British Indian Army, targeting Lake Tanganyika. They were attacked near Berbera in Somaliland, almost before they had set off. Speke was captured and wounded before escaping, and Burton was speared through both cheeks.
On the second attempt they caught illnesses including malaria and most of their hired team abandoned them. Nevertheless, they got to Lake Tanganyika and Burton claimed the discovery, as Speke had become temporarily blind and so, couldn't see it. It didn't do him any good as they realised that this was not the source of the White Nile, after all. They found a large river flowing into it, rather than out. Burton was too ill to carry on, but Speke recovered and went on to Lake Victoria, announcing that he had found the true source of the White Nile. The logic was that Lake Victoria feeds Ripon Falls (now submerged under a dam), which feed Lake Albert, which feeds the White Nile.
Burton didn't believe him. They had a huge falling out. Speke went back again to map the area, but still couldn't prove the river's origins satisfactorily and then he shot himself. No-one is sure if it was suicide or an accident.
As if that wasn't enough, the missionary, David Livingstone then rose to prominence, disappearing whilst he searched for the elusive source. Famously, he was tracked down by American/Welsh journalist, Henry Morton Stanley. But Livingstone was already ill and he died still searching. Stanley went on to confirm Speke's findings (and also, incidentally to find the source of the Congo River). But the claims are still not accepted by some, who argue that Lake Victoria is a reservoir for the Kagera River, which feeds it. And the two main tributaries of the Kagera arise from the hills of Burundi and Rwanda.
Another argument states that 85 percent of Lake Albert’s water is supplied not from Lake Victoria, but from the Semliki River, which Christopher Ondaatje, modern day explorer, has traced to the Mountains of the Moon, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Take your pick. The good news is that either theory definitely makes the Nile longer than the Amazon. So maybe it wasn't all for nothing. Caput Nili quaerere used to mean trying to do the impossible....maybe it still does.
Jinja is the second largest city, economically in Uganda (mainly because of its port). It also boasts that it is the adventure capital of Africa (though I'm not sure what Botswana would have to say about that). Kayaking, sailing, horse riding, quad bike riding, white-water rafting, hiking, fishing, tubing the Nile, water skiing, windsurfing, cabling, canoeing, cycling, and last, but not least, bungee jumping, are all on offer.
And, I’m white water rafting. Yes you read that right. When I perused the itinerary I fondly imagined myself sunbathing or wandering around the local villages while the others got to grips with what I'm told are the most dangerous rapids in the world, Grade 5s all the way down. Grade 6 is too dangerous to run and has to be portered round. See, I have all the lingo now.
The white-water rapids are farther north of Jinja, on the Nile, at Itanda Falls. On our arrival, they show us a promotional video which depicts rafts turning over in the air and much screaming. I decide I'm definitely not doing it.
And here I am, in the inflatable, having paid 65 dollars to be frightened silly on my white-water baptism. Our instructor says he will go the easy way and promptly takes us in to the "G Spot" of the most dangerous falls on the river. Typical, discovering a man who can find it when you don’t want him to.
Five of the nine occupants catapult out immediately and I hang on, despite getting a nasty crack from a paddle as they abandon ship. It's the longest 90 seconds in my life and I'm convinced I'm going to die. The procession of iodine-daubed-wounded at the end of the day has to be seen to be believed. I also have cuts and bruises all over my arms and legs. The other instructors are actually jealous: 'Nice bit of surf'. At least I've honed my skills in hauling people back in to inflatable rafts.
The next activity here in Jinja, is quad biking. I'm spectating. Speke Camp is in an idyllic spot. The toilets look out onto a little lake and Bujagali Falls. The falls are said by local residents to be the site of a spirit, called the Spirit of Bujabald. The spirit is embodied in a man, Jjaajja Budhagali, who lives next to the falls and protects the community by performing rituals there.
More prosaically, the toilet rolls are obviously in demand, as they're padlocked. In the evening, fruit bats fill the skies and the drumming of the water lulls us to sleep. Strange to think how hard those Victorian explorers struggled to find this place. I feel like a proper explorer myself now, after my overly adventurous journey.
(The falls aren't there any more. They've been submerged by a dam. Uganda is in desperate need of electricity.)
Camping in the Kamagawe Rain Forest next: monkeys in the canopy, showers with plastic buckets to up-end, little banda huts and squalid toilets. A quick chat to some children on a school outing and we’re leaving. Rickety markets and a manic border crossing mark our return to Kenya.
Read more about Uganda here.
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