Getting to Uganda

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 when 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.

Arriving in Uganda

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. And Uganda derives its name from Luganda (Yuganda). Uganda has four main kingdoms and many more chiefdoms. These are credited with maintaining a strong culture of good behaviour amongst the friendly and affable people. The kingdoms are the Toro, Buganda, Bunyoro and Busoga.

On the Road in Uganda - Entebbe to Murchison Falls

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 5 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

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.

Murchison Falls National Park

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.

Murchison Falls

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.

On Safari in Murchison Falls National Park

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.

Journeying South and West. On the Road in Uganda Once More.

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.

Around Fort Portal

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 country sits at an average of 900 metres above sea level. Both the eastern and western borders of Uganda have mountains. The Ruwenzori mountain range contains the highest peak in Uganda ( Alexandra - 5,094 metres). Winston Churchill famously referred to Uganda as ‘The Pearl of Africa'. He was right.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

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.

Kyambura Gorge

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.

On Safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park

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.

The Kazinga Channel

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 to 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.

Searching for Tree Climbing Lions

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.

My Sightings

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.

Eating in Uganda

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 wrapped in a chapatti.

From Kazunguru to Mabamba. On the Road in Uganda Again.

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 Bay Swamp

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.

In Search of the Weird and Wonderful Shoebill

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.

Kampala, the Capital of Uganda

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 he undulating suburbs

There are no stand out sights, but we take in the independence monuments (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894-1962 -they were keen to preserve Nile trade routes), 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. Uganda has had a troubled history since independence, with tensions arising between the kingdoms, and especially resentment towards the larger Buganda kingdom. Milton Obote, from the north was able to gather enough support over time to seize power. But he was eventually deposed by Idi Amin, who ruled as a dictator, for eight years. It’s estimated that Amin was responsible for the deaths of up to half a million Ugandans. His regime came to an end when Tanzania invaded, in cooperation with Ugandan exiles. Uganda's current president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, took power in January 1986 after a protracted six-year guerrilla war. Following constitutional amendments that removed term limits for the president, he was able to stand and was elected president of Uganda in the 2011, 2016 and in the 2021 general elections

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, Main Airport for Uganda

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.

Entebbe Airport

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.

Khartoum, the Capital of Sudan

I've finally managed to get here form Eritrea. Khartoum is a city of some five million and the capital of Sudan. So, it's central to the coup that has just taken place. My guide, Diba, says that all the protestors have congregated in Khartoum now. So, unlike General Gordon, I’m going to try and avoid becoming entrenched in a siege, or embroiled in any hostilities. I'm retreating - spending most of my visit now, out of town. The news reports talk about peaceful protests, but also mention that 16 people have been killed ‘by stray bullets’ over the last 48 hours. There’s a curfew, but it’s being ignored. I hear chanting in the breeze from my sixth floor window at night and I'm still catching intermittent buzz. The BBC tells me that we’re now on president number three this week.

It's decided that I should leave Khartoum rapidly and tour the desert and pyramids, We're stopping to check that the museum is closed. It is - all the state run institutions are. I am driven past some of the government buildings and presidential palaces. From here I get a distant view of the site of Gordon’s decapitation by the Mahdi’s forces. (In 1884, on 13 March , troops loyal to the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, started a siege of Khartoum, against defenders led by British General Charles George Gordon. The siege ended in a massacre of the Anglo-Egyptian garrison, when the heavily-damaged city fell on 26 January 1885.)

Omdurman

There are several bridges across the Nile here. One suspension bridge leads to twin city Omdurman.. This is the scene of the bloody Battle of Omdurman in 1898, during which British forces under Herbert Kitchener defeated the Mahdist forces and got their revenge.

There’s plenty of army activity here today, Khaki-clad soldiers are scrambling into pick-up trucks and there's a mounted machine gun pointed down the bridge, tall piles of bullet clips coiled alongside. Scary. The streets are fairly quiet, though there a couple of men waving flags out of their windows, gesticulating excitedly. And clearly it not a good idea to start waving my camera around, so sadly, no pictures.. Except when we stop at a local bakery to stock up on provisions and watch the bread being baked.

The Nile Confluence

When I return to Khartoum everything is still closed. As compensation for missing out, Diba finds a boatman who carries us down the Blue Nile,. We travel alongside an island, to the fabled confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers. One bank is urban, hotel towers, cafes and docks. The other, completely rural, alive with a variety of fluttering birds, storks, more weavers’ nests and the putter of dozens of little pumps carrying water to the crops. They fill the sky with black clouds of pollution..

We can just make out the contrasting colours where the waters meet. The White Nile is huge. The the giant river that is now formed from this and the Blue Nile that we are sitting on, begins to make its majestic way onwards to Egypt. It’s a fitting way to finish my trip.

Visiting the Toposa

I've been to visit the Mundari people and now I'm on my way to Kapoeta to visit the Toposa villages. The Toposa are said to be the most interesting ethnic group in South Sudan, still living a very traditional lifestyle. The sides of the Juba Airport runways are lined with NGO cargo planes (United Nations, World Food Programme and MSF amongst others) and small passenger craft. There’s hardly any infrastructure and nearly all long-distance travel has to be done by air. The charter planes are mainly Russian, declared unfit to fly in Europe. They are operated here by Russian pilots who drink vodka all evening - so I’m told.

And the bad news on this front is that Thursday’s flight back has been cancelled, due to lack of take up, so I have to return tomorrow. Two more days in Juba, where I’ve already seen everything. Guide Duncan is on the case, but you can’t travel anywhere without a permit and we don’t have one for anywhere else.

Kapoeta

I arrive safely in Kapoeta, east of Juba, despite all the bureaucracy involved (we have to visit one tin hut and two concrete blocks, so my permits can be verified) and the decrepit 12-seater Cessna plane. Duncan says it’s the oldest plane he’s been on. Hardly anyone bothers with the seatbelts. Children crawl around, peering over the backs of their chairs and Duncan can’t even find the latch for his. The pilot’s door flies open as we land. He has to wrestle it closed before it is damaged.

I’m staying in Mango Camp, the best accommodation to be had. I’m housed in a very basic rondavel, known here as a tukul. It has a huge concrete shower and its own separate toilet. Thisis just as well, as I’ve already picked up a stomach bug. Sheep and glossy starlings patrol the grounds, so I’m keeping the gate to my little area bolted. Most of the guests here are involved in projects - drilling bore holes, for example. One Danish guy runs an aeroplane company and tries to persuade me to alter my routing onwards and go via Nairobi, so I can carry out my original plans. Then we remember that my big bag is still in Juba.

The Toposa Villages

We were going to set off early for visits to the Toposa villages, trying to cram two days into one,. But my passport needs to checked locally before we’re allowed to venture out. It’s gone a couple of hours. Despite this we manage to fit a lot in. The landscape is reminiscent of e-Swatini - wide sandy swathes of river beds, thorn bushes and flat-topped acacias. It seems very odd not to glimpse rhino and giraffe, but there is plenty of birdlife.

We see two villages, one twice, as the women want to show off their ceremonial dancing and need to change. The locals are very friendly, though naturally, our visits are sweetened by sacks of food and other goods. Agriculture is difficult – the area suffers intermittent drought and flooding. Water is in short supply- this is arid country and water tanks, towers and wells are being installed by various aid groups

The Toposa are herders (cattle, sheep and goats) and prolific cattle raiders, which has historically (and understandably) led to conflict with other tribal groups. During the civil war they took what Wikipedia describes as 'a pragmatic approach' swapping sides several times, depending on who was offering the largest amount of food and weapons in exchange for theri support.

Both Toposa villages are neat and well managed, with intricate mud and stick tiered huts (those for storing food are elevated on stilts), The thatched roofs are often adorned with the skulls of cattle. The compounds are surrounded by very effective thorn bush fencing. . Long drop toilets in tin huts have been installed, but the villagers don’t use them.

The Toposa People

As with the Mundari, the most striking feature of the Toposa is their practice of scarification. Many of the men and women are decorated in elaborate raised patterns covering their upper arms, torsos, backs and in some instances their faces. Many of the older Toposa still adhere to traditional dress - for women this is usually animal skins
worn around the waist, while men often go naked.

Today, the women are decked out in costumes with vivid patterns, bright bead collars and gilt bracelets. Several are smoking ornate pipes. The elders sit serenely posing for photographs and the children leap around trying to sneak into all the pictures. There are two dance performances. The dances look very much the same to me, involving pogo jumping and whistles, but the second time the women have put on traditional costume, animal skins, beaded dyed skirts and headbands; long leathery breasts flying. Everyone has a good time.

Finding the Mundari Villages

Wake up early to ready myself for my trip to the Mundari cattle camp. Go in shower. Phoned at seven by guide Duncan to tell me to order a packed lunch from the hotel kitchen. Go back in shower. Phoned by Duncan to say he is in the kitchen. What would I like for lunch? Try to order without being able to read what is on offer. Fried chicken and chips are suggested. I’m not sure how cold chips will taste. Go back in shower.

The road from Juba to the traditional Mundari tribal lands, located around the town of Terekeka, is un-made, but looks fairly even. It isn’t. Two hours of jolting past fields, corrugated roofed huts and two security road blocks takes us to a side road into the bush. I say side road. It isn’t a road, or even a track. We’ve picked up Mundari guide, Martin, who directs us for ten minutes over the rough grass, swerving to avoid the undergrowth (not always successfully), to a boggy rivulet. The itinerary didn’t say anything about having to wade through squishy mud up to my knees. Aside from worrying about falling in and getting wet, I’m not sure what else is lurking beneath my feet.

Crossing the Nile

Another ten-minutes, walking. Martin bounds ahead, even though he’s been shot in the leg in the conflicts and uses a stick. Now we’re at the Nile proper and Martin ferries us across in a leaky wooden canoe. I’m allocated an upturned tin bowl to sit on. Duncan crouches, in a vain attempt to keep his Lee jeans dry.

The Mundari Peoples

Now we’re on an island in the middle of the river and it’s a total contrast to the city. This very much a traditional lifestyle, based on herding cattle and agriculture. We are greeted warmly, extended palms waving, and everyone demands photographs. I tour the little rush huts, taken over by tiny bleating goat kids during the day, and view porridge eating and clothes washing, accompanied throughout by a series of increasingly frenetic tableau. Adults and children dispose themselves in assorted postures grabbing drums, musical instruments, then dogs, goats and even calves as props. As a final coup de grace the warriors fetch out their rifles and flourish them above their heads.

These Nilotic cattle herding peoples are tall, elegant and slim. The Mundari are locally famed wrestlers, and compete against other villages in traditional shows of strength. Most of the boys are entirely naked, except for a rope lanyard, or string of beads round the hips. The girls and young women wear short skirts, the latter often with cloaks, revealing one breast. Some of the faces bear the patterns of ritual scarification, although the government is trying to halt this practice. Some of the men dye their hair orange with cattle urine. Nearly everyone’s skin is covered with dung, mud and ash to protect from the sun and insects; some of the smearing is done in intricate ceremonial patterns. At least my feet are now the same as everyone else’s. After each set of pictures is taken, I have to replay them for my audience, on the camera, which is now covered in muddy fingerprints.

Siesta - In Theory

Following my Pied Piper cavalcade round the camp it’s siesta time. In theory. My followers have set up position at the bottom of my sleeping mat, which is picturesquely sited on the banks of the Nile, a welcome breeze wafting. The children alternately sing, whistle, play drums or climb the tree sheltering us to rain down mangoes and secure some more attention. The mangoes are a little under-ripe but good and more tempting than my cold chicken, which defies all attempts to bite into it.

When  I do manage a snooze in the sweltering heat, one of Duncan’s phones rings. He is conducting business on two of them at once. As I give up on sleeping and turn to writing, an audience forms again. The young boys are fascinated by the phone and the group swells as they insist on viewing a slideshow of all my pictures. The next doze is almost underway when one of the beautiful long-horned cows charges past bellowing.

Driving the Cattle Home

Most of the cattle are taken further away to pasture during the day and they are driven back at the end of the afternoon, thousands and thousands of them streaming into the stockade, evening fires billowing smoke. It’s impossibly atmospheric.

Martin ferries us back across the Nile, simultaneously making an impassioned speech, explaining that the villagers are praying that Duncan will pay for an operation to fix his leg. Then he abandons us on the edge of the scrub. I’m filthy, absolutely covered in dust and mud, and I’ve taken 500 photographs today.

Next, a flight to see the Toposa peoples.

The Police in Juba

It takes a while to get to my hotel, in Juba, as we’re stopped by the police three times on the ten minute journey from the airport. The third time they get bored with trying to find something wrong with the brake, the fire extinguisher, the warning triangle and the driver’s paperwork, so they just hold the car. We call for another one. It’s not far to walk, but I have luggage to drag through the dust and it’s forty degrees outside.

Keep Your Camera out of Sight

Juba, the capital, of South Sudan has red dust roads, the verges knee deep in litter, mostly plastic bags and bottles. It’s a smaller version of Kinshasa, with similar statues on the roundabouts and a river location. This time it’s the White Nile. My guide book suggests that the river is the only interesting sight in the city.

I’m keeping my camera well out of sight. I’ve been told that the townspeople are very suspicious of cameras and don’t understand why anyone would want to take pictures, unless they are a journalist, which is equivalent to being a spy. There is also a list of places/items one may not photograph. I’m not risking a repeat of my Congolese encounter. My hotel is nicer than any of the DRC offerings, however, and is a pleasant, comfortable, surprise.

Juba-lation - The Tourist Sights of Juba

I tried breakfast in the hotel today. It looks like a reheated assortment from yesterday’s buffet dinner. There’s toast, if you don’t mind the really disgusting margarine placed alongside it. This is a good place to go on a diet.

I've been to visit the Mundari villages and the Toposa peoples. Today, flying in the face of nothing to see, I’m having a tour of Juba. It’s like being back in the days of the wild west frontier towns.

.Juba has its origins in the trading post of Gondokoro, the southernmost outpost of the Egyptian authorities in the 19th century, and it then fell under joint Anglo-Egyptian rule. Used by explorers such as Samuel Baker as a jump off point for expeditions to find the source of the Nile, it was seen as the last semblance of civilisation before one headed off into the unknown beyond.

We visit a women’s collective, where representatives from 21 different tribes gather peaceably, to create colourful beadwork, and I buy some earrings, then drive alongside the university and an enormous rambling corrugated roof market. Over a metal bridge (even more definitely no photos here) on the only tarmac road in the country. It leads south to Uganda and is deemed, by the FCO to be particularly dangerous to drive on, with a high risk of attack. But we’re only dipping over to the other side for ten minutes. There’s also a wholesale market: sacks of onions, avocados and tomatoes piled high, past domestic compounds where oblong tin roofs and circular brush huts are crammed in side by side.

No pictures allowed anywhere else, of course, especially not outside the many ministerial buildings. They are concrete walled and guarded by epauletted soldiers, as is the grand edifice that is the president’s palace. Most of these date from 2012, when Juba became the capital of the new country. Having been neglected for so long by Khartoum, independence has seen an explosion of infrastructure and building projects, and the city is changing rapidly. It's almost a boom town.

The Civil War

Duncan says that during the last civil war, in 2016, two battalions of the army were stationed facing each other here. One solder accidentally set off his rifle resulting in a lot of ‘friendly fire’. Indeed, the whole war of 2016 seems to have been ignited by another misunderstanding. The opposition leader had been appointed Vice President Number Five and was installed in the government building. However, a rumour circulated that he was in danger and some of his followers set out to rescue him. This fracas duly escalated. Duncan also reports a much more recent skirmish yesterday, between two villages, 50 kilometres from where we were staying at Kapoeta. As Duncan keeps telling me, ‘D.I.S.’ (Dis is Africa)

Juba-lant

Bars and cafes are springing up all along the Nile River, the nicest part of town. Guide Duncan, from Uganda (no trained local guides), takes me to the most up market restaurant, Da Vinci’s, for dinner. There are guards at the entrance wielding AK47s, a band playing Congolese music so loudly we can’t talk and a view across the water, to islands packed with roosting egrets, where Ugandan rebels used to hang out. My marinated pork chops have been cremated, but they are at least, accompanied by gin and Schweppes. And now, it seems, I’ve seen everything that Juba has to offer.

Next stop Djibouti

Getting into South Sudan

The first thing I have to do is get the visa. This involves presenting myself, in person,  at the tiny Consulate of South Sudan, just off Great Portland Street. Once I’ve got myself up to London it‘s all fairly painless, I don’t have to wait long, and they post my passport back to me a week later, exactly as promised.

The terminals at Juba airport used to be huge tents - they’re still there. But now there are also modern concrete blocks with domed roofs. It doesn’t stop them being chaotic. You could easily just walk through immigration and no-one would notice. I know this because I did it, as I went back to find the toilet. It would also be easy to avoid the man with the chalk who is supposed to search all the bags and mark them with a dollar sign. There’s an X ray machine, but they’re not using it. I don't think it works.

Is South Sudan Safe to Visit?

The next thing I have to do is panic, as I’ve only just read the FCO advice alongside a map of South Sudan; dangerous areas are highlighted in red. The whole country is scarlet. ‘The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to South Sudan. If you’re in South Sudan, you should leave if it’s safe to do so.’ Ongoing civil war and violent crime are cited.

‘I’ve never been in a country which was totally FCO red before’, I tell Jim, my travel agent. ‘I’ll have to find you some more,’ he replies. Jim has sent me a copy of the Bradt guide. It’s the most up to date travel book about the area available, as unsurprisingly, there are very few tourists. There’s a section on what to do if there’s an aerial bomb attack.

The map showing malarial risk in South Sudan is virtually identical to the one showing areas where it is dangerous to travel. So, I’m popping my malarone.

And I’m stocking up on Rescue Remedy again.

Where Am I Visiting in South Sudan?

Bearing in mind the FCO advice (!) I'm :

  • Spending time in the capital Juba
  • Travelling up the Nile to spend time with the Mundari People and their cattle
  • Flying to Kapoeta to visit the Toposi Villages

Why Did South Sudan Split from Sudan?

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It was created by splitting the country of Sudan, which was the largest country in Africa into two, after a referendum in 2011.
It offers practically zero tourist infrastructure; no paved roads and the communications infrastructure is almost non-existent.

South Sudan was largely neglected by the former Sudan regime due to racial considerations as Southerners are predominantly black Africans, while the Northerners (occupying the current Sudan) are predominantly of Arab origin. the discovery of oil in south-western Sudan, helped to fuel the bitter war between South Sudan and North Sudan (the current Sudan).

What is the Cause of the Civil War in South Sudan?

South Sudan has many different ethnic groups, most of which are Nilotic (people of the Nile). The Dinka form the largest ethnic group followed by the Nuer. Other dominant tribes are the Silluk, Loluhu and Acholi. Unfortunately, this rich diversity hasn’t been the source of peace but rather a source of war with supremacy battles between the Dinka (roots of the current president, Kiir) and the Nuer (roots of the founder of the nation Dr. Garang, and Kiir’s rival – Marchar).

Is South Sudan a Poor Country?

Almost 83 percent of the population resides in rural areas. Poverty is endemic - at least 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

This landlocked country is isolated from humanitarian professionals and foreign investors and poor roads make the country impassable during the rainy season. It is impossible to get in all the necessary aid during the short dry season. Before South Sudan’s independence, the Sudanese government largely failed to build good roads in rural areas and left them neglected. Corruption was prevalent.

Civil war still continues with inter- tribal division. This also manifests at government level. As a result the independent government does not have the ability to improve the infrastructure either.

Many traditions, rituals and ceremonies  relating to  rites of passage (birth, child naming, circumcision, courtship, marriage, divorce, death, etc.)  that have fizzled out in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, due to the intrusion of modernity,  are still practised in South Sudan.

Lake Victoria, Jinja and the Source of the Nile

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 the Adventure Capital of Africa

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.

Whitewater Rafting in Jinja

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.

Bujagali Falls

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.

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