Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A short note about guides

It seems that nearly everyone else on holiday has a guide to drive them around.  This has some plus points  -

- no problems with navigation
- no stress with driving
- having everything organised for you
- no worries about the vehicle
- getting to the right places at the right time
etc etc

but there are some serious negatives

- cost
- going at someone else's pace
- worrying about someone else's driving
- having to make conversation with a complete stranger for 2-3 weeks
- what if you don't get a good guide?

On the whole we prefer to be totally independent, but everyone to their own.

Murchison Falls NP

The Red Chilli rest camp is only a few hundred meters from the Paraa ferry over the Nile, which you need to cross to get into the "safari" area of the NP.  You buy a ticket from the park office at the top of the slope down to the river.  A Ugandan Wildlife Authority security guard also checks that your park permit (bought at the park entrance 70km back down the road) is valid and waves you through the lifting gate.

The ferries run regularly throughout daylight hours, and even if there are too many vehicles at the timetabled hour they will go back and forward until everyone is across.

We spent our first afternoon on a gentle safari drive - not going too far as we couldn't find a map to purchase.  Possibly could have got one at the park gate 70km back down the road!)

The wildlife viewing is very good - elephants, giraffe, plenty of antelope, hippos in the river and a small croc lying beside the ferry landing spot.

The landscape at first look is typical African savanna until you notice all the palm trees - apparently the elephants spread the palm nuts in their droppings making this landscape unique. It is spectacular as the sun starts to go down.

While we waited for the last ferry back over the river (7.00pm) we chatted to a man with a very big camera who appeared to be travelling on his own (with a guide) - he was remarkably annoyed that we had seen elephants which his guide had managed to miss.  Ha ha.

Paraa Ferry

Red Chilli Rest Camp on the Nile

We arrived for our 3 nights at the Red Chilli Restcamp in a bit of a fluster following the encounters with the tsetse flies - but were quickly assured by the bar man that the flies are sterile and don't carry any bugs.  As soon as we got out the vehicle the flies just disappeared.  Whew.

We are staying in a banda again - twin beds, en-suite shower and electricity from 7pm to 11pm.  No hot water though - but this again doesn't feel like a problem as it is so hot.  Both beds have good mosquito nets.

It's a short walk to the bar/restaurant which has view over the treetops to the Nile.  That's the River Nile - arguably the longest river in the world.  Wow!!!  And the bar sells Nile Special beer which is very tasty and very cold.

It's a lively place - there is a campsite, safari tents and bandas so it is popular with the overlander/backpacker crowd.  But there are others here too - and the place has a lovely atmosphere.  The staff are very relaxed and friendly and the food is plentiful, tasty and cheap.  Two choices of main for the meat eaters and a single veggie option.  This turns out to be fairly normal throughout our travels.

Red Chilli bar and restaurant

The bar turns out to be a great place to watch the thunderstorms that roll in from South Sudan away to the North. It has a noticeboard with useful information and strips of electric plugs (2 pin European and 3 pin UK) for charging phones, cameras etc.  Again this turns out to be fairly normal at the places where we stayed.

Try the toasted sandwiches (not toasted but fried in butter - yum).

Meet the tsetse flies

We headed north from Ziwa and almost immediately took a wrong turning, well actually we stayed on the main road when we should have turned off towards the small town Masindi. Luckily there are another couple of turnings and we got there in the end.  Murchison Falls NP is quite well sign posted - if nowhere else is.

It takes about an hour to reach the park gate from Masindi, but another 2 hours from there to the Paraa ferry   crossing over the Nile.  The first hour or so passed through some very dense tropical forest with spider webs high above the road, with massive spiders hanging like bats above the car.  As the forest opens up a bit the car becomes a tsetse fly magnet - at times there are up to 20 flies clinging to the bonnet of the car.

Because it is so hot we had been travelling with the car windows down, which means the vehicle is soon full of madly buzzing and biting insects.  They are attracted to moving vehicles and dark colours.  We're both dressed in dark blue, in a dark green car. Great.  We closed the windows up to try to prevent the flies getting in, but we were soon cooking, eventually we worked out that having the windows right down helped get them back out again.  Plus a wee squirt of doom every now and then to get our own back

The further we go into the park the worse the roads become - it is obvious that there has been some seriously heavy rain and the murram roads simply wash away.  We are regularly passed by other vehicles which seem to be impervious to the damage they must be doing to their suspensions and their spines.

Tsetse flies have to be taken seriously - they transmit the disease trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness which can be fatal if untreated.  Our insect repellent which is DEET based doesn't seem to ward against them. Apparently pyrethrum works better - you can buy clothes specially impregnated with this from Craghoppers.

Swotting the flies is very hard - they are incredibly fast and we only manage to squash one in an hour of trying- much more effective is sweeping them out the open windows using the map.  All in all it is a fairly stressful hour as the driving is pretty difficult, the temp is going up and up and the fly bites are pretty painful.

They are easy identify - look a bit like a large house fly, very like a Scottish cleg and they are the only things that attack a vehicle moving at 50mph.


The road map had Ziwa rhino sanctuary as being off the main road and onto a side road - also this appeared to be to the north of the main Kampal Gulu highway.  This of course is rubbish.  Stay on the main road, and the sanctuary is well signposted as you reach the village of Nakitoma and is south of the main road.

Once you come off the main road it is rough murram (clay/mud) tracks to the gate and then the park headquarters.

We are made very welcome by the staff, who are very friendly if a little disorganised.  I had made booking for camping here, but I'm not sure they were really expecting us.  We are shown to the campsite, which looks suspiciously like a corral for holding rhinos in.  But Winnie, the campsite manager, assures us that the steel barred fencing is to keep the rhinos out - they were fighting here last night.

We unpacked our new table and chairs, opened a bottle of wine, set up the tent and relaxed in the cacophony of birdsong, frog squawking and insect buzzing.  

Ziwa's rhino proof campsite
There is a basic shower block- no hot water, but it is very hot so no need really.  

We ate in the restaurant - tasty basic food, and nice cold beer.  Electricity is not always on, but paraffin lamps are put out if required.  The noise of the cicadas is almost deafening.

Our first night in the tent is enlivened by a two hour thunder storm that passed right over head.  Very loud, very bright and some very heavy rain.  My guidebooks say that September is the dry season, but the locals disagree.

Up at 6.15 - made own toast on camp frying pan, with peanut butter (yes you can buy it here - local brand, tastes like wholemeal) and white bread.  Instant coffee and orange juice.  We were still late for 8.00am start to our rhino trek.

Our guide is Fred, and we are the only 2 going out with him.  A larger group has just arrived at the park, but they are trekking after us.   Fred suggests we take our car - but as we had  left it at the campsite a decision is   made to walk to where the rhinos are.  This turns out to be about 15 mins along a track and then through some marshy forest.

You are given rubber boots to wear as it is very wet in places,  but it is easy walking and not too hot.  It is also very easy to find the rhinos as they are accompanied by armed rangers 24/7 to ensure their safety.  Our guide contacted the rangers and guided us to meet a mature female called Bella and her young daughter called Donna (9 months).  Bella is a relaxed kind of rhino, and seems completely unconcerned by our presence.  The white rhino is much more placid than the black.  You wouldn't stand 20m away from a black rhino and not expect to be chased.

Bella and Donna were shortly joined by Bella's older calve Augustu (3 years).  We watched amazed as these 3 grazed happily on the new green grass that the rain had provided. Every now and then Donna would peer at us and start heading our way, we would then just walk quietly away until she became more interested in the grass again.

Fred explained that we were very lucky to see them up and about, as usually by this time in the morning they are sleeping in the shade.  But with the weather being a little cooler we were seeing them in feeding mode.  Most visitors only see the rhinos sleeping away the day in the bushes.  He then asked us if we would like to see more rhino - of course we said yes.  And over the next couple of hours we were introduced to Taleo the dominant bull, his two other wives and the rest of his children.  Meaning that we saw 10 out of the 12 rhinos in Uganda.  Only the two lower ranked males were no-where to be seen.  Taleo obviously likes to keep the ladies to himself.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Tackling Kampala

We filled up at one of the estimated 4000 filling stations on the road between Entebbe and Kampala.  The car is right hand drive and the Ugandans drive on the left.  That's the Ugandans who aren't driving bicycles, motor bike, scooters, taxis, minibuses, lorries and coaches that is.  Those guys drive wherever they want to, and its up to you in your stupid little/big (delete as appropriate) car to get out of their way.

So it is with a cheerful acceptance of our fate that we head into Kampala to try to a) do our necessary shopping, b) get on the right road out the other side and c) survive.

Initially it's fine, the traffic flows well and the road from Entebbe is smooth tarmac.  However on the outskirts of the city it starts to get a lot busier, and the lack of any road signs make it tough going.  You also have to watch for vehicles approaching from all angles, and learn how to force yourself into a small gaps when getting to a junction.

My printed off googlemap of the streets helped a little, but only in a vague "it must be that kind of direction" way.  But a kindly traffic policewoman told us where to go and by hook and by crook we reached the Nakumatt Oasis shopping mall.

This shop did seem to have pretty much everything we wanted, and we could easily have picked up camping gear if we had needed it.  But be warned it is not cheap.  We spent over $100us on supplies - I reckoned it was at least twice as expensive as at home.  The shop is obviously there for the expat community - pringles and skippy peanut butter and the likes.

The car park had an armed guard watching the vehicles, so it seems pretty safe. (edit 2014 - in the light of what happened to an almost identical mall in Nairobi I have revised my opinion on the safety aspect of one man with a rifle).

There is Western Union in the supermarket for changing money - in fact there are other banks in the mall too.  There was also a nice looking cafe, but we had just not long had breakfast.

We headed North from the mall, following major roads out the city to the Northern by pass.  Unfortunately when we reached our turning, it was closed for repairs with no apparent alternative.  We executed a tricky U-turn and headed back, again passing the junction - closed this way too.  So Karen bravely suggested we try a left left right manoeuvre through some of Kampala's more "traditional" neighbourhoods.  This worked remarkably well, and if you could ignore the slums, rubbish heaps, open sewers and filthy street kids would have been a pleasant detour on our route through the city.

Actually it wasn't too bad, and was probably the worst deprivation we saw in the whole time in Africa.  The only thing to worry us was that the air conditioning stopped working, never to work again.

The road North turned out to be pretty good - the tarmac was rough around the edges, but the pot holes were manageable.  The traffic soon disappears, and the road becomes more of a footpath than a highway.  Lots of bicycles, and people walking along the verge.  Every now and again we'd be reminded of the dangers as we passed a couple of really nasty accident scenes.  At one of them the locals were busy hacking a huge overturned lorry to pieces with axes and hand saws.  I imagine the same thing would happen if the lorry had crashed in Falkirk.

Our hire car

Our hire car was delivered to us at UWEC for 9am.  The boss man himself (Kizito) and Moses delivered it in person.  It turns out that Kizito whom I had been dealing with all this time actually lives in London and just by coincidence was in Uganda on business.

The car - a 4wd 2litre V6 Mazda Levante, looks like a total pile of crap.  Which was kind of what we had been hoping for, as we don't like to stand out too much.  It's done 160,000km and has some weird looking japanese stickers on it.

But it has just been serviced, the oil is clean, and all the various fluids are topped up.  The paint is peeling off, but the engine sounds fine.  I just wish I'd checked the tyres......

The fuel gauge reads empty, and Moses says this is because the fuel tank is empty.   This is the first time I've ever had a hire car that hasn't been full to the brim.  Also the first time a car hire company has not been the slightest bit interested in our licences or passports.  Paperwork seems to be too much hassle in the heat of the morning.

The air conditioning works and cools us down nicely as we head up the road to Kampala.

A troubled first night

We had booked a banda for our night at UWEC.  What we hadn't bargained on was it being close to a night club, which was intent on keeping the loud music going til 5 in the morning.

Our banda

Also hadn't bargained on there being a mouse (and or bat) squeaking loudly and pissing on my leg in the middle of the night.  There was also the steady pitter patter of poops landing on the floor from a great height.

My pillow also had a very funny smell.

On the plus side there was hot water in the shower room (not sure if we knew how much of luxury this was.......) and box with approximately 500 condoms sitting on top of the loo.

After the night club finally gave up on the music, the chimps in the enclosure nearby started their morning chorus of screaming and yelling.  So we gave up trying to sleep and got up to see the dawn over Lake Victoria.

It's hard to say whether I would recommend staying here - maybe on any other night of the week ie not a Friday, it may be quiet and peaceful, but not getting much sleep certainly clouded our view of the place.

We headed for breakfast, passing various animals in the sanctuary - including some giraffes.

Our first wildlife (ie actually wild) turned out to have arrived in Africa even later than us.  A just born vervet monkey, with its mother licking the afterbirth from its head was sitting just beside the path from our banda to the cafe.

Tiny baby vervet monkey and mum
This improved our mood no end, and after oohing and aahing over the tiny infant we headed for breakfast.  The cafe at UWEC looks out over Lake Victoria, where you can watch both humans and birds fishing. The cafe is the perfect play ground for the young vervet monkeys who seem to enjoy pushing the patience of the cafe staff as far as they can; knocking over chairs and stealing breakfasts from under the noses of unsuspecting and sleep deprived customers (eg me). Karen had a very nice omlette, we shared some crappy Nescafe coffee, and I had sausages, toast and some fresh fruit.  The monkey had some of my fresh fruit - didn't seem keen on the toast.

Entebbe airport arrival

First impressions of the airport - well it looks pretty much like an airport anywhere else in the world.

It's not huge, and there aren't that many planes on the ground.  Disembarking, it feels warm and humid but not oppressively so.  Lucky as we're wearing jeans and fleeces as Edinburgh was baltic this morning.

Immigration is fairly simple - they take your money for the visas, no need for passport photo as they take your picture with a camera on the desk.  They also take your fingerprint using an electronic machine - never had that before.

Immediately after immigration is a money changing place, so I got $100 worth so that we had some cash if required.  

Straight through customs with our bags - no-one interested at all. And out into the public arrivals hall.

I was expecting this to be a little difficult, but there was a nice man with a sign which had my name spelled correctly waiting to give us a lift to our accommodation.  There were one or two money changers wandering about, but no-one hassling at all.  Turns out the airport is very secure, and quite hard to get to.

The car park is a bit chaotic, due to the lack of lights and the number of drivers picking up clients.  Safari tours, taxis etc.  But we get onto the road within 40 minutes of landing.  Our driver stopped at a small shop, to allow us to buy some bottles of water - nicely chilled in a big fridge - then took us to the Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre.  

A security man made us fill out a book with our details - name, passport number, country, occupation, DOB,     mothers maiden name, inside leg measurment, favourite film star etc.  Then we were finally allowed to go to our banda, and head for bed. 

We were now starting to feel the humidity/heat.


Apart from the taxi arriving at 3.45 am to take us to the airport, everything with KLM was fine.  I had checked in on line so already had the boarding cards, they happily accepted our 3 piece of luggage including the case with all the camping equipment at 22.7kg. Allowance was for 4 pieces.  We were through the Edinburgh security system with about an hour and half to spare.

Coffee was had - not bad, but so expensive.  Captive market should not mean being completely ripped off.

Arriving at Amsterdam we found we had only a 2 minute walk to our next gate (remembering the last time we went through Gatwick - 2 and half hours to get from one flight to the next .. argh.)  So we wandered around the cheese and tulip shops til boarding time.

Then we found out something that may have been handy - our flight to Uganda was routed on a triangular route via Kigali, a city we are going to be visiting in a couple of weeks time.  Had we known this we might have been able to organise a holiday flying into Entebbe and out of Kigali, saving the long drive back to Entebbe.  Even our hire car company would have been happy for this as they operate in both countries.  At no point in my booking of flights was this mentioned.

Flying during the day gave me an opportunity to do something which I really enjoy - staring out of aeroplane windows at mountains (the Alps),seas (the Med), deserts (the Sahara), rivers (the Rhine, the Danube, and the Nile!!!).  Unfortunately it was dark by the time we landed in Kigali, so no views of Rwanda yet. Although after the very short - 45mins- flight from Kigali to Entebbe it was possible to see the lights reflecting  off the surface of Lake Victoria.

Been there done that

Got home to find that our estate agent had sold our house will we were in Africa, so we've a lot to sort out before I can spend much time on this blog.

Other than to say both Uganda and Rwanda are fantastic in their own ways.  And we have a few tales to tell, plus hopefully lots of useful information for anyone going there on holiday.