Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Home again

At Entebbe we phoned Moses and he came and collected the car.  We weren't allowed into the terminal building until nearer our flight time, so we sat outside in the balmy evening air before putting on some warmer clothes for the flight.

Once in the building we were approached by students doing a survey for the Uganda tourist authority, so were able to give our impressions of the country direct to the people who count - lovely people, terrible roads, fantastic wildlife, terrible roads, excellent national parks, terrible roads, nice accommodation, terrible roads......

KLM woke us at 1am for dinner and then 5am for breakfast.  Thank you.

Home in the cold and wet, only to find that our estate agent has only gone and sold our house that's been on the market for 7 months.  Oh well another adventure begins....

Why don't you use your headlights?

We waited til after lunch before heading off on the long journey home.  The road was pretty good, just the usual mad minibuses and some big trucks with awful emissions.

As we skirted the side of Lake Victoria fishermen would risk their lives by diving in front of the car holding up the day's catch in the hope that we might stop and buy. We were not sure they would keep fresh on the flight home, so we politely declined their offers by swerving dangerously into the oncoming traffic.  The fisherman seemed to have plenty of customers though, as we passed plenty vehicles with fish hanging from their front grilles - I guess to keep the fish fresh and the cars from becoming too wiffy.  I assume that when they get the fish home they just have to pressure wash the dust and oil off.

There is a shortcut from the road we were on that heads to Entebbe without the need to head into Kampala, and we had quizzed our hosts at Mihingo on where to turn off.  Beside a school said somebody, just after a big advertising hoarding said another.  As there are approximately 300 schools and so much advertising that even Saatchi and Saatchi would describe it as overkill, we unsurprisingly missed the short cut and hit Kampala just as the light started to fade.

This was not what we wanted.

I've already described the traffic in Kampala and our experience the second time was just as bad.  You need to keep your eyes peeled for cars, trucks, buses, bikes, motor bikes and I'm sure at one point a pony and trap; which come at you from all angles and appear to be heading to all points of the compass simultaneously.  If you hesitate the road in front of you fills with a mass of metal and diesel smoke, with cows, goats and children throwing themselves under your bonnet.  It is not stress free.  While you try to keep alert to the maelstrom around you it is imperative that you don't miss the one sign post that points to the airport.  This sign is about 3 inches high, stuck on top of a 12 foot post and is partly obscured by a satellite dish; the writing on the sign is grey on a grey background and it looks like the paint is being consumed by the pollution.

Luckily we spotted it and realised we were on the famous Kampala Southern Bypass.  Go and google the images for this - do not be fooled by the first few images, these have obviously been put up by the Kampala city council.

This is what it's actually like

Luckily we were not pressed for time, but we had aimed to reach the airport before dark fell, just so we weren't having to do the most dangerous of African activities.  But like a few of our best plans, this was doomed to failure and we turned down the Entebbe road just as the last of the suns rays disappeared.  We had recognised the mad roundabout from day 1 so at least we knew we were heading in the right direction - there may even have been another signpost!

As the traffic eased the danger increased - we picked up speed, but the vast majority of other vehicles on the road didn't use their lights.  Either they have blown all the bulbs and cannot replace them, or the local drivers have amazing owl like eyesight.  Black cars appeared out the darkness and thick smog at an alarming rate and we reverted to shouting and screaming as a way to keep ourselves amused.

The car following behind us (roughly 18 inches behind us) had lights he could use, because he would occasionally turn them on only to inexplicably turn them off again a couple of minutes later. At times we could only tell he was still following by the light of his cell phone which he was holding up in front of his eyes while presumably texting his friends.  

I have to say this was not a fun way to finish our time in Uganda, but as you can see from the very fact I'm writing this blog, we survived.  

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Mihingo Lodge

Last night was the last night of camping as we approach the end of our adventure.  So with no need for our camp chairs, table, pillows etc we managed to persuade the camp site attendants to take them away.  They seemed pretty pleased with their new donations, and certainly wasted no time hiding them away from prying eyes.  We had some tins and dried food left too, so we gave these to the restaurant to use up.

We explored the park for a few hours before heading for our last night of African luxury at Mihingo Lodge.  This is a really nice lodge, perched high on a rocky outcrop looking out over the park.  It has a smashing wee pool and very good fresh food.  It is currently being run by a fellow Scot - but not sure for how long.

We were given a tented room down by the waterhole - 200 steps down the hill from the main lodge.  The views are great - even when sitting on the loo!

We gratefully had our first showers since Kigali, with some hot water too.  Before heading back up the hill for a swim and a lazy afternoon on the deck looking out over the park.

The luxury continued with sundowners with chips and dip on the deck and an excellent buffet dinner, after which we were invited to meet the bush baby that frequents the lodge after dark.  The guides use a red light to illuminate the bush baby to ensure it isn't startled as it snacks on some fruit laid out for it.  Not exactly wild, but still lovely to see up close.

The only drawback to this place is the fact that all of the business of the lodge is conducted in full view of the customers.  The owners had arrived and commandeered the best tables and sat with the management staff drinking and eating.  I guess this is ok, but is not something we'd ever encountered before.  It was also strange to see the management calling staff and arguing with them down the phone in full earshot of the guests.  This was our only complaint with the place - otherwise it was excellent.

The next morning we were awoken by a waitress bringing us coffee and heart shaped biscuits in a wicker basket.  What a difference to waking up in a tent and having to get up to put the kettle on the petrol stove.
We had more swims and more food before having to hit the road for Entebbe and home.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Little too close to a hippo

We had hippos come close to our tent in QENP and close to our banda at Red Chilli, but not so close that we could smell them.

That's what happened when we were sitting beside our camp fire having our night cap beside Lake Mburo.  We heard the hippo coming, a sort of munch, munch, munch noise as it crops the grass.  It then passed about 5 metres the other side of our camp fire - and very close to the overlanders who didn't seem to know that it was there.  We sat transfixed, as it munched its way around our fire, car and tent - we were too excited to be afraid, despite the terrible reputation hippos have for panicking and running over anything in their way.

The overlanders seemed to drink too much beer as there was a steady stream of them heading back and forward to the loo through the night.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Lake Mburo National Park, Uganda

For our first night at Lake Mburo NP, we decided to camp in the campsite beside the lake.  This has good views over the lake, where local fisherman take their canoes out to fish at dusk.  The campsite is pretty basic, but a nice chap comes and lights a campfire for you near your tent.

There is also a lakeside restaurant, which does nice cold beer and food.  Fish and chips for me, and veggie curry and chips for Karen.

Lake Mburo Restaurant

We arrived in the campsite at the same time as an Exodus overlander truck/bus.  So it was a race to see who could set up camp the quickest.  It's a matter of pride that we were enjoying our 2nd beer in the restaurant while the overlanders were still trying to get their tents up.

The lake has hippos swimming around, kingfishers diving and a fantastic colony of weaver birds in a tree beside the restaurant.  The campsite also has a healthy population of over fed warthogs, who spend the whole time raiding the bins for food.  They've learned how to tip the bins on their gimbles to empty the contents onto the ground, they then tear open any bags with their tusks.  The poor campsite warden has to constantly go round tidying up after them.

Crossing the border from Rwanda to Uganda at Kagitumba

We left the Akagera park by a gate some 100kms North of the park headquarters where we had entered.  This seemed to be an unmanned gate, which was wide open so we reckon if we'd entered here we might have saved ourselves $320 in fees.  We tried hard to like Akagera, it could be an amazing place with the right kind of development - but we just didn't feel comfortable in our car, constantly worried about whether it was about to fall to bits.  There are some nice animals (minus the tsetse flies of course) and the rolling landscape is beautiful.  It deserves to be more successful, but then that would bring in the crowds...

We were soon back on the lovely, smooth blacktop of the Kayonza-Kagitumba road.  What a relief after the bone jarring hell of the roads in the park.  We fair scooted up to the border crossing for our second visit to Uganda.

Thankfully all our worries about crossing at this point were quickly dispelled.  There is little traffic here, so there is not the tense atmosphere that we felt at Gatuna.  There is a less formalised procedure here, which seems to involve showing all our paperwork to anyone who wants to look at it, including someone whose clothing suggested he had just woken up in a bush after a few nights on the sauce.

The Rwandans let us leave without a fuss, and we were told to park in no-man's land.  I presented myself to the Ugandan authorities and then spent a happy 15 minutes chatting with various different officials who all wrote out our details in various dusty ledger books.  The third office I was supposed to visit to finish the formalities was empty, but a man sitting in the shade of a tree said the official had gone away so I could happily be on my way.  Karen sat and roasted in the car throughout all of this - stuck between two lots of chainlink fence.  Returning to the car, another man (this time in uniform) unlooped the chain and waved us onto the road.

This being Uganda, the road was indistinguishable from the surface of Mars.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Game in the Akagera

A few pictures of some of the animals spotted in the Akagera NP.

Monday, 3 February 2014

I think we might be going to break the car

We really struggled to get around the Akagera.  The roads are seriously rough, often bare rock in places and we were getting really worried that the Levante was not up for the treatment it was getting.  There were some horrible noises coming from the suspension, and the tyre anxiety had not yet left us - we definitely felt that we were pushing our luck on occasions.  I would only recommend visiting here if you have a decent 4-wheel drive, and preferably you should travel with another vehicle.

We moved onto another campsite further North in the park called Mutumba Hills, again on top of a hill overlooking the lakes.  This site was equipped with exactly the same facilities as the last one - ie very few.  Visitor must bring absolutely everything with them, including all water.  There is a bit of firewood, but take care as it looks like there has been a massive bush fire quite recently.

It took about 2 1/2 hours to drive from the one site to another, a distance of probably only 40kms - there were a lot of tsetse flies attacking us and with the state of the roads it wasn't very relaxing.  However sitting in camp with a cup of tea enjoying the view while a local farmer drove his crazy horned Ankole cows down the hill was much more like it.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Akagera National Park, Rwanda

In what was turning out to be a very expensive day the park authorities relieved us of $320us for our 3 nights stay in the Akagera National Park.

Bearing in mind that this is camping in a park with little or no infrastructure, which is in dire need of visitor numbers and with only a limited selection of animals to see.  That is expensive.

The roads leading to the park had been slowly deteriorating since we turned of the tarmac of Route 2b.  Many of the villages in this area are populated by refugees who fled into the Akagera park trying to get away from the genocide.  They had then been cleared from the park, as the govt tried to re-establish the reserve.s They are the poorest looking village we passed through in Rwanda, even with their shiny new looking water pumps.

We were told by the wardens at the park gate where we could camp - one of the few sites was off limits due to an elephant in musth which had been causing problems.  So we headed for the nearest site on the worst roads we have seen to date.

We were the only campers, in fact it appeared that we were the only visitors to the park.  In our time there we only saw three or four other vehicles and they all seemed to be park staff.  The campsite is basic, a long drop toilet, NO water, a rondavel for sheltering in, and...... well that's all.  This park has nothing other than wild landscapes, great views, nice animals and peace perfect peace.

Sunrise in the Akagera National Park, Rwanda
We pitched our tent and headed down from the campsite (which is high on a hilltop) towards the lake side.  Battling with the rocks, pot holes and tsetse flies all the way.  There are some hippo in the lake and lots of signs of elephants, but we weren't lucky enough to spot any.  There are various antelopes around so we assume there are some big predators too - again we weren't lucky enough to see any.

Back at camp for a dinner cooked in the rondavel and an early night to escape the mossies.

Camping in the Akagera National Park, Rwanda

Wow expensive hotel!

The Guest Lux decided to charge us $218us for our one night and two meals; which seemed a little expensive.  Anyway the food was pretty good, the bed was comfy and we didn't have any real complaints.

Balcony at the Kigali Guest Lux

We did a quick shop at local supermarket - where a nice young chap helped carry our stuff back to our car.  He had just returned to Rwanda from Uganda, after his family fled there during the genocide.  We can only try to imagine what it's like to be displaced for 18 years.  Hopefully he is part of a generation that won't allow things to degenerate in the future.

We managed to get out of Kigali pretty easily, following the road out past the airport.  The same airport we had fleetingly visited a couple of weeks ago.  The overall impression of Kigali is pretty positive - it seems well ordered, fairly clean and tidy, the roads are pretty good, the buildings are in good repair- I imagine that a lot of foreign investment has taken place in the years following the trouble, no doubt much of it guilt money from the international community who failed to do anything to stop the violence.

Kigali Genocide Museum

It's understated, simple and horrifying.

The children's room is simply heartbreaking.

On to Kigali

Feeling refreshed after our few day's R&R at Nyungwe, it was time to hit the road to Kigali.

On the road out of Nyungwe

As I've mentioned before, I never thought I would visit Rwanda never mind Kigali whose name conjures up images of hell.  It seems so strange driving through this beautiful and peaceful country passing smiling people and colourful farms and villages, that the worst atrocities since the holocaust took place here.  What on earth happened?

My holiday reading of An Ordinary Man (the book later made into the film Hotel Rwanda) is making the horror all the more real and making the juxtaposition all the more stark when looking out at the countryside. I have to say that I am not in a very positive frame of mind when we hit the outskirts of the city.

Luckily it's nowhere near as mental as Kampala as far as the traffic goes, although there is still plenty of it.  However it wasn't long before we realised that the street names on our map were nothing like the street names on the few signs that were around.  Luckily my sense of direction seemed to have returned, and we ended up in roughly the right area of town.  Stopping to ask a security man sitting beside a gate to a compound, he told us we were on the right road, but he hadn't heard of the guest house we were looking for.  We drove around a bit - in what was obviously a very nice neighbourhood - huge houses, big gardens, security guards everywhere, no pot-holes.

As we approached the same junction for the third time, and just as Karen was about to lose her temper, I spotted a tiny sign for the Kigali Guest Lux - up an unfinished road leading to a building site.

Google has the address as Avenue de Lac Kivu, and places the guest house in what is actually a cement factory.  In fact it is on what google maps calls KG 414 st.  I think.

The staff appear very surprised to see us, despite me booking months ago, but they showed us to an enormous room with a huge bed.  Unfortunately there doesn't appear to be any hot water.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Trekking in the Nyungwe Forest

We did at least take a little exercise while in Nyungwe, when we joined a guided trek to visit a waterfall deep in the forest.

Our guide had come down to the lodge from the park headquarters, and you are expected to chip in for his taxi fare which seems fair enough, even though the lodge had already charged us $50 each for the trek.

Claud our guide was at best a little un-enthusiastic, and got us off to a pretty crappy start by beginning to explain about the forest while having us stand on a fire ants nest. Whether this was deliberate or not we don't know, but we all got a few sharp bites for our troubles.

Things improved as we got deeper into the forest, as we headed down into a deep gorge the plant and birdlife got better and better.  Vast trees and ferns dominate the landscape, and Claud told us that every time a scientific expedition goes into the forest they find at least one new species of tree.  Over 550 identified to far - mostly endemic to this part of the world.

We saw a few primates, and at one point a snake was spotted though neither Karen nor I managed to get a sighting of it.

It was pretty hot in the forest, especially out of the shade of the trees.  It would be a great place to explore on your own, but all walking has to be with a guide - probably a good idea as it would be pretty easy to get lost.  The walk is definitely for the able bodied - going down (and then back up)  the steep sides of a gorge.  The waterfall at the end is pretty nice and the spray helps to cool us down.

Drunken Nuns!

We spent a long time just lazing by the pool at Nyungwe.

Nyungwe swimming pool

The pool looks out onto the forest, and we were lucky enough to be entertained by the local troop of Angolan Colobus monkeys.  Watching their death defying leaps from one tree to another is a fun way to while away the time.

Angolan Colobus Monkey - flying!
The lodge feeds you pretty well, nothing too fancy - a small selection but generally tasty and well presented.  They have a limited (and expensive) wine list, mainly South African wines but the beer is cold and the coffee is stunningly good.

One evening we went for pre-dinner drinks and had a some fun watching a group of other guests.  These were two large, overweight men with big expensive watches, accompanied by 3 nuns.  At least they were dressed as nuns  but they sure as hell weren't acting like nuns!  There was a lot of drinking, loud giggling and at one point one of the nuns managed to drop and break her glass.  I wonder what the mother superior would have thought.  Very funny to watch - almost as good as watching the Colobus - who says humans and monkeys aren't related?

Umar- the world's politest waiter

We couldn't write about our visit to Nyungwe Forest Lodge without mentioning Umar, who was our waiter at most meals.  With his beaming smile, quiet voice and impeccable manners he is quite simply the World's Politest Waiter.

We felt so guilty when he had to admonish us for pouring our white wine into the red wine glasses on the table, when he had gone to get the specially chilled glasses from the freezer.  Oh the shame.

We cannot say enough nice things about Umar, and hope he has along and successful career.

The dining room at Nyungwe Forest Lodge