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Around Uganda in 14 Days Pt 1

Make a drink and get comfy.

sunny 88 °F


It's been a little spell.

I left you as a wayward sail-less toss-pot with next to no experience with Uganda and I return to you a man!
Let's dive in where we broke off.

I picked up the SuperCustom from Alex last Sunday around 11am. He looked worried and once again went over the small maintenance points that he felt important. I liked that he looked worried. It meant he cared about his vehicle so I'm sure it was taken care of. Looking at the last service tag hanging from the steering wheel confirmed my intuition; over 530,000 Km on the thing.

I will take a moment to describe the learning curve for any of you interested in someday doing this. This will apply to folks of average intelligence, moderate caution, the ability to shy away from looking at everything shiny or such while driving, and having a clean vehicle record. The rest will experience variables. Day one is white knuckle and all focus. The road conditions, I now know, allow for around 40-60 kph. I averaged 30. Extreme caution is used in towns and villages. Everyone is waved to. Mirrors are checked NOT as often as they should be and so a few near misses occur with passing cars, motorbikes etc. Goats and cows are untrusted and passed slowly. Google maps is trusted completely, until it leads you onto a road that becomes impassable instead of taking the less direct but actually traveled road. Google maps is never fully trusted again. New scratches are made by flora one should not be traveling through.
Day 2 is a little bit faster but not much. Things are still tense and one continues to try to figure out where the left hand side of the car ends so as to not kill any pedestrians. The mind continues to adapt to full compass awareness while driving. In the U.S. we mainly focus on 10 to 2 o'clock and 6 to a lesser degree. Driving here requires all hours as there are very few rules and most of them broken constantly.
Day 3 is much like getting over an illness. When you are relaxed enough to become irritated at the road conditions you know you're getting better.
Day 4 things become quite a bit more comfortable but speed is still kept at a moderate pace. People and goats are given wide birth. One still basically pulls over for oncoming vehicles as one is still afraid of rolling the top heavy van on an essentially one lane road with large ditches on either side. Many are still waved to.
Day 5 one now maintains some small momentum while passing oncoming vehicles. Slow vehicles are passed more quickly and more often. Goats are fairly trusted and cows don't exist unless they are crossing in front of you. One learns that motorbikes are the ones to watch closely. The left side of the vehicle has become part of one's mind space.
Day 6 you've achieved relaxed one handed driving, knee driving to light a smoke, eyesight adapts to picking out potholes and washboard on dirt roads well in advance. Passing cars and trucks is easy. Pedestrians and goats on left side are navigated with confidence.
Day 7 you're honking at bikes to make them aware of your motives, getting irritated with bad or slow drivers, playing chicken with oncoming motorbikes (you are bigger...it's the natural way of things). Few are waved to but children are always responded to.
Day 8 Yawn...when do we get there and how does this damned radio work.
Please keep this guideline in mind and apply appropriately to the coming post. It saves time...lol

So I pulled away from his shop a complete virgin when it comes to having the wheel on the right hand side AND driving on the left. I was apprehensive enough to bag my plan to stop at the bank and just keep to the road out of town. Less turns=better.
The first destination was Sipi Falls in eastern Uganda. Google maps said three hours so I planned on 6. Turned out to be 5 1/2 ;-)
It's hard now to fully remember the sense of freedom and "yay I'm driving in Africa by m'self with the window down and whoop whoop y'all" and such but it was pretty darn great behind the initial tension. The landscape was beautiful in the desert kind of way for most of the drive.
Maps led me astray once as stated. That was a little adventure but I learned I have a magical fuel gauge. I basically had a full tank but as soon as I took that wrong turn, which the pleasant but LYING English lady on my phone told me to take, it started to fall towards empty at an alarming rate. This, along with the horrid road conditions and absolutely bewildered looks of the walking villagers I passed, convinced me to turn around. As soon as I got back on the main road and chose my OWN directions it went back up to full. See, magic. There's no other explanation and none will be heard. Magic! ;-)
This was around Mbale if you're following on a map.
Refer to Day 1 driving for the rest of the trip to Sipi which was reached around 5pm. I parked at the Crows Nest, payed a modest camping fee and shook a bit of dust off. Oh before I forget, please apply dust to everything. The van, the air on the road, all my clothes and belongings, my contact lenses. Really...the inside of the van is now red. It started dark gray. I hope they have shopvacs in Uganda.

It's low season for Uganda now so I was fairly alone at Sipi. Moses, a guide, introduced himself before I even pulled in to Crow's Nest and we made a date for the morning to take the 4 hour guided tour to the three falls. The night passed uneventfully while looking at Sipi falls in the distance.
That night I slept peacefully in the van, which has a large moon roof in the middle and two smaller ones in the back. Quite nice. Incidentally it actually says Pleasure Cruiser on the side. Add that to the tinted windows and it feels a bit like I should be wearing large sunglasses and my license plate should say Candyman.

The next day was a blessing disguised as and all out trudge. I had collected a lot of toxins sitting in Jinja and I think a little something was still lingering from Kisumu but due to the climate and an ungodly amount of steep uphill climbing the icky was all furiously purged from every pour and is now water for banana trees. Those who have traveled with me know that I sweat like an unhealthy alcoholic pig. Then at some point it stops and I feel great! Total flush...lol Obviously Moses was much healthier, didn't sweat a drop and looked kind of bored really. At one point during a rest break to mop up bodily deluge we passed a girl of about 16. She was making the same hike up the valley side with a full load of bananas on her head. I once helped to unload some bananas off the cargo boat while traveling on the Amazon. I can attest to how awkward and astoundingly heavy a branch of them are. I was definitely put in my place. My sweaty sweaty place.
The falls are at dry season flow now but they're are still beautiful and impressive enough and the surrounding area is worth it on it's own. The non-uphill bits are spent walking directly through the back lanes of villages and little farms. The four hour tour costs about 8 bucks. That in mind you've no excuse not to tip.
The trek, along with a short jaunt with Moses to watch the sunset from an outcrop that overlooks pretty much the whole of Uganda, was the day.

Day 3 was off to Moroto through Karamoja Land. I was headed north to Kidepo N.P. and a back route was suggested. The main roads are only slightly better and often under construction so I gladly took the tip. Here folks, is the Africa/Uganda you picture. Here is definitely off the beaten tourist track.
I saw two other white folks when I got to a hotel in Moroto but none before and none till Kidepo. I saw a handful of vehicles. It was wonderful and I highly recommend the trek before the word gets out. The people are friendly, open, very prone to waving back and utterly authentic. The men are partial to fancy top-hat sorts of head ware. This makes them look completely out of place but that's just because we have memories of circuses and fez and a brief hipster trend. I've no idea where they adopted them from or if they are completely original but they're really fun. The farther north you get the more folks adorn themselves with multiple necklaces and bracelets and start painting their faces. You can go quite some distance here between seeing a soul, including wildlife. Not even a bird. Just the bush. Get a flat tire here and you'll be waiting a while. But GPS still worked!
I picked up my first passengers on the way to Moroto. I think after today I'm up to about 26 people, about a gross ton of grain/rice, and precisely 4 live chickens. The latter left a lasting olfactory impression.
The first didn't speak any English but she understood where I was going and nodded. I motioned her to hop in. She patted my shoulder when it was time to stop. No conversation needed. Easy peasy. The second and third were my little B.F's.F. I picked up after I had hit this odd empty wonderful paved road a couple dozen clicks outside of Moroto. It starts there with no pomp and ends just as abruptly just outside of town in any direction. It was surreal and appreciated. These two tiny little girls, absolutely adorable in any conceivable fashion and all painted and benecklaced, were standing on the side of the road unchaperoned when they waved me down. The were exuberantly tickled at being given a lift by a mzungu and whispered and giggled to each other the whole time. The oldest was maybe 6-7 and the younger maybe 4. They were still a good 15-20 Kms outside of Moroto and were hoofing it. And we're scared to let our kids walk to school 4 blocks away ;-) I dropped them on a corner they recognized and they couldn't stop smiling and saying goodbye. They were lovely passengers...lol Please do not affiliate this with the Candyman joke.
The night was spent and the Mt Moroto hotel for a decent price (I've allowed myself a room every two or three days to take a proper shower and get a real nights sleep). Moroto is a small town located at the bottom of it's namesake. It is always windy here. Always. As I told Cam it sounds like the ocean from your room. Great long swooshes of wind racing through down and around the mountain in off-beat rhythm. The landscape is spaghetti westernish and beautiful.

The next morning was an early start for Kidepo N.P. More rocks, dust, washboard. Sparse but captivating landscapes. Many huts and small villages. Droves of folks waking the road. The men on bicycles or walking with their sticks/machetes, the women and children carrying copious amounts of wood, water in jerry cans, bags of grain or rice. All on their heads of course. The posture here is a thing to see. You know me and posture ;-) It is not bred. Nor is it a birthright so do your future selves a favor. The folks are quite literally dirt poor but money isn't really a thing (oh you know what I mean). And they are gorgeous in their poverty I must say. It all comes from the necessity of carrying so much weight atop ones head in a balanced fashion and the constant physical activity. The men are very slender but very strong. The women are varied but always with the posture. Just an observation.
I won't speak about every passenger but the next was odd. Her mother shuffled her off on me and told me she was going to Kotido. Fair enough. It was on my way. She spoke not a work of english. Upon reaching Kotido about and hour and some later I tried to ask where exactly she needed to go. She just looked at me. Okay. Find translator. This wasn't hard and he spoke to the girl, learning that her true and final destination was off in the hinterlands in northeastern Uganda. Without bus fare. I didn't understand everything but I think she was going off to get married. I assume the family figured she'd find her way there eventually through various rides and such. I'm sure it's normal. But I paid for a bus ticket (I hope it was used for that) and left her in the care of the translator. She seemed not happily consigned to her fate but she was a teenager and every teenager looks like that so who knows.

I pulled up to Buffalo Base outside the park just before sunset and pitched my tent. The entrance to the park is $40 for 24 hours so unless you time it right it is sometimes beneficial to camp outside. That night was given to little sleep. There was a man just outside our fence who, for hours, was loudly switching between praising God, preaching, and wailing about his misfortune. No one seemed put out by this so I assume it's a bit of a "yeah that's just Barney, he does that" situation. Plus the moon was full so...
Then there were the roosters. I see no purpose. outside of fertilization, for roosters. In my experience they are never on time. This one starts at 3am and goes on until just BEFORE the sun comes up. And he was about 10 yards away, joined by about 4 thousand others in the town.
So I was up for the sunrise and off for the park.

This was a great day. Just so much fun to drive myself around and be my own spotter and chose my own roads and navigate the very challenging terrain. It was here I learn exactly where my right front wheel is in order to traverse the 4 inches between high-centering pits and points bits.
I was at one point within rock-throwing distance of the South Sudan border. There were Waterbucks, Hornbills, Kobs, Oribi, Hartebeest, Patas Monkeys, Crocs, Fuballo, Elephants, Pumbas etc. Being an amateur and unfamiliar with all areas I did miss a good few species. Mainly lions. And I have no idea what an aardwolf is but that would have been nice. I was pleased as punch anyway.
Two scary moments: Driving through the middle of a hundred and some buffalo hanging out in and around the road (me and cows) and one memorable experience with a good size herd of elephants with their young. They were also crossing the road. I went slow of course but I think the engine was rather disturbing to them. Their hearing and sense of vibration is quite keen and a diesel engine is not pleasing to either sense. Plus it kind of sounds like growling. The size of the van becomes abysmally obvious when very close to a protective mother elephant. Much less 10. They actually did the whole corral and circle bit. Which is fun to watch on T.V. but when you're the one they're looking straight at and there is no one else around for miles it's not as enjoyable. They nudge all the young into the center of a group with their bums, point the tusks outward and start circling so that every vantage can be seen constantly. They flag their ears and trumpet menacingly. Every animal has that sort of bubble of fight or flight. I don't know how large an elephant's is but I was skirting the edge. Far better to keep moving forward with the chance of speeding up than to reverse out of the situation. It was exhilarating and quite harrowing for a bit there. The sad part is being so blatantly misunderstood...lol I lOVE elephants! Let me pet you and ride you and find you peanuts! Nooooo....they want to kill me cuz they think I'm a threat. Oh wait, I just remembered that female elephants are called cows...that solves it. Shit.

That night was back to Buffalo Base where they made an excellent dinner of rice, noodles and stew. It was here that I first met two blokes by the names of John and Eddie. John is from California (but he's okay, don't judge yet...lol) and Eddie was his Ugandan Guide/Driver.
We only exchanged a few words but they would end up being part of my trip again in Murchison and beyond. I as long a the rooster let me and was off. It was AFTER I left Karamoja Land I learned that as recently as 2012 or so it was considered impassable by tourist companies and many others. From 2010 to 2011 the Ugandan military took approximately 40,000 AK47s off the locals. Basically every man and boy of age had one. Highway robberies, murders and revenge killings were not even worth reporting on as it was a given. Jeez without the guns one would never know and I'm thankful I didn't know that beforehand. It's a great place now though, promise! I gave a lot of them rides!

That morning I was supposed to be off to Murchison Falls N.P. directly but I picked up a full load of passengers in Kitgum and the road to Gulu consists mainly of speed bumps that are placed, kid you not, about every 30 yards for distances the length of which I do not like to recall. This amounted to a rather alarming cracking sound around the front passenger wheel. Annoying bit cut short the mechanic fixed two tie-rods, replaced some bushings and greased everything. Then we found out none of that was the problem. He was a bit downtrodden even though I still paid him and told me it was upper suspension and it will make noise but it will get me where I'm going so don't worry about it. Should have just kept driving!
Night was spent in Gulu at Memphis Hotel. If you have to stop in Gulu you could do a lot worse.

The drive to Murchison Falls N.P. was an easy couple hours. At least to the gate. The road to Paraa and the Ferry crossing to get where I was staying was back to rocks and rolls. $40 a day again. At this point something became annoying enough that I'll back up what I read and disbelieved; if you are using U.S. currency here, which is sometimes easier than carrying around boatloads of inflated Ugandan shillings (3600 to 1), do take time to make sure all your bills are IMMACULATE. Not a wee tear, no writing at all. Creases are okay to an extent. They will not take them otherwise. Something with the banks denying them. It can be comically infuriating when you've gone back to your pack for the third time because you missed a little nick that the receptionist sees. Every...time. And "where's George now" can kiss my ass after this ;-) What makes it all the more special is when they hand your change back in shillings and the bill is so dirty and used that you can't even read the denomination. Sigh.

The ferry operates every two hours and I parked with about an hour to go. There's a fun little band that plays for tips and plenty of bandit baboons to keep one occupied. I forgot the window rule and promptly lost my biscuits. Two big fellers just totally had their way with the poor pleasure cruiser before a boy came to the rescue armed with rocks and a teenagers' sense of immortality. They do fight back. It was laughed off without injury.

Murchison N.P. is populated with many of the same animals that were in Kidepo but to a lesser degree. The whole north, including many areas I drove through (I guess that's what whole means), was subjected to incredible violence and upheaval at the hands of the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) a while back and are still recovering. They took their toll on the animals as well. But they're are coming back like everything else. Look it up if you want nightmares.
Murchison is also the site of an incredibly bad break for Hemingway. His sight seeing plane trip ended abruptly in the bad way. He sustained enough injuries to warrant another flight to the hospital, which burst into flames before take off...lol Ruptured liver, hemorrhage upon hemorrhage and a cracked noodle that some speculate he never recovered from mentally and might have led to his suicide. The trip was a gift from his wife ;-)
I read this in the Lonely Planet to give credit where it is due.

I stayed at Red Chili Rest Camp and pitched m'tent. After a shower I went directly to the top of the falls about an hour away through Tsetse land. My experience with them was totally my fault as I had just told an Aussi, whom (or is it who) I had stopped to help fix a blown tire, that I have yet to have a confrontation with them. Enter the legion. Don't drive with the windows down folks. God there were so many. They follow along side the vehicle until you have to slow for holes or washboard then GO GO GO WE'RE IN and we're NEVER leaving! HAhahahahahaha.
I think I used three repel wipes in 10 seconds. Got bit only once on the forehead. I consider that a success.
The falls are gorgeous. The Nile goes from tens of meters down to 6 very quickly and this forms the most powerful waterfall in the world as I've been told. Not the biggest or tallest mind you but the amount of water being pushed through per minute and such. It's a very impressive sound and you can get nervously close.

The flies stayed with me all the way back to camp. This allowed me time with them enough to learn that they are more intelligent than our houseflies. They became so incessantly annoying that I got my travel towel out and started just whipping it around and batting the front windshield and dash....well everywhere really. I wish some satellite somewhere had taken some footage of the idiot tourist swerving on the road trying to beat some manners into the incorrigible. There really were dozens of them. What I learned is twofold: The fear of death can be put into them as they all huddled in the weatherstripping and dash creases after a good flailing. And their memory lasts about 8-10 minutes. Which is kind of impressive for a fly but leads to the need for repeated shock-and-towel tactics. One confirmed death...which I felt terrible about and tried to explain to them but I don't know that it came across. I left the windows open all night back at camp (with biscuits gone there was nothing left to take) and they were gone by morning.

I had planned to leave the next day but met John and Eddie here again and was invited to join them on a game drive for free and took the offer. This amounted to me paying another park fee as it's $40 for 24 hours so I don't know about free free but it was fun. John slept the whole time nursing a hang over that he blamed on me. I was fine :-) Eddie spent his time kindly chiding me about being my own guide and correcting my animal knowledge. At 2pm we took the boat launch that takes you up the Nile to the foot of the falls. This really is a very lovely, slow-going, relaxing way to see the falls and you shouldn't miss the opportunity if you go here. The elephants and giraffes and Nile Crocs and such grazing along the banks of the river bring a whole different ambiance than a game drive. It makes them kind of new to see. We didn't get astoundingly, amazingly close to the falls so be aware of that but that was just a small bit of the trip and there's the option to be let off to walk to the top of the falls if you've arranged with your driver to pick you up. I'd already been there so I took the boat back and left the others to the Tsetses.

I had planned to try to get to Fort Portal the next day and was assured by Eddie that going back through Kampala then up again, though much farther, was actually a good deal faster due to better road conditions. Especially if I wanted to visit the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Which I did want. So we made a wee caravan of it. The Sanctuary is $45 to get in and can be quite brief for the money so be prepared for that. If you see a couple rhinos you are given the opportunity to take as many pictures as you like for a limited time and then you're done. For me it was worth it. We found a mother and her calf which I hear is a lucky break. There are 19 Rhinos in total. The land was gifted and the whole effort stems from the fact that every last rhino in Uganda was poached during the Amin nonsense. Every one. A couple rhinos were donated from Kenya and a couple more from Disney's wildlife park in Florida. It came to be that the female from the U.S. had a thing for the male from Kenya so the first rhino to be born in Uganda since the extinction was named Obama ;-) Now they are up to 19 as I said and once they hit a critical number they will be dispersed around Uganda's parks. Interesting side note: They are called White Rhinos due to a misunderstanding. The folks who described them first did not possess English as a first language. They had intended to describe their wide mouths. Wide (wijd initially) was heard as white. This helps explain why gray rhinos are white rhinos. The black one's just got the opposite name...incidentally they have smaller mouths.

From here we sped along an excellent road to Kampala where we ate lunch in a trendy (who cares totally worth it for the food) cafe chain. I had fajitas in Uganda. It was lovely. The mocha was...well we import coffee from Uganda so you get it. If I ever remember the name of the place I'll tell you. Reminded me of Crepes and Waffles in Colombia.

I was supposed to branch off to Fort Portal but remembered I'm kind of on vacation (not really but kind of) and that ICU Guesthouse is here. Remember? I also felt that waiting any longer to post was going to amount to a heavy burden rather than a fun communication. You've seen how long this is already. Plus I knew they had Wifi here. There really was a dearth of it this last week.
So I'm back where I was a couple weeks ago and it's really strange to have gotten here so directly from a very different place. I'm clean and comfy and it's a self serve bar on the honor system and there are no flies and there are good roads (L.A. traffic though) and the last week seems like a hazy lifetime already. But I have pictures to prove it. Which, and I'm very sorry for this, you'll have to wait for. It's getting late already and this post has taken some good time to write. I have to be off early tomorrow to wire money to Dixon (I know I know but just bear with us, there's a whole land deal and such going on and it's not much), and pick up John to head for the Impenetrable Forest. I'm only just over halfway through the van trip and this is simply a nice cosmopolitan pit stop before more dust. He's going Gorilla tracking. I am not. I'll be satisfied with the trees and the bugs. They're cheaper.

The van is due back this coming Sunday so I'll see what more I can do with it. Please ask your divinities that I don't roll it...lol Eddie and John are on their second van. They were on the same road I traveled to Kitgum, swerved to miss a motorcycle and ended up on their side in a ditch. No major injuries but the van was finished. And he's the pro so...yeah...happy thoughts and safe speeds!

Cheers and love,


Posted by sbinnell 08:14 Archived in Uganda

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