Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Wild West (cont)

So, back to reporting on our travels. As I write this we've just got back from eights days upcountry, babysitting Red Chilli Rest Camp in Murchison Falls National Park, so there will be more tales of the road to tell.

But for now, it's back to day two of our travels out West at the end of September. We'd stayed overnight at CVK, a budget community focused tourist spot on the edge of one of the crater lakes south of Fort Portal.

We left CVK after a walk round the lake shore, heading for Kibale Forest National Park.

Just down the road, past lines of tea pickers working the plantations, we entered the forest.

Tall trees towered over either side of the rocky track, and as R looked for potholes in the dappled shadows on the road, I peered into the greeny black darkness either side of us to look for monkeys.

Kibale has probably the highest concentration of primate species in the world, so it was just as well that we were eventually rewarded with the sight of a big black shaggy Uganda Mangabey sat on a branch overhanging the road. He swung away into the trees before I could get the camera out, so here's a shot from wikipedia.

We then headed for the sumptuous Kibale Primate Lodge, tucked away behind the Uganda Wildlife Headquarters at Kanyanchu, where the ever popular chimp tracking starts out from.

Given R and I are on local salaries, we chose not to stay in the $280 luxury en suite tents offered by the lodge. Instead, we'd booked ourselves in the $30 a night treehouse, hidden 800m away down a dark forest track. We sat among the real guests, amused at how our Nissan Micra squared up against their shiny stretch Landcruisers, as we waited for our escort to the treehouse.

Advised to bring a minimum of stuff for our overnight belongings, we settled on a bag containing our key valuables, clean pairs of pants, a pack of cards, our torches and our toothbrushes, and set off after our man down the track. It twisted and turned through dense canopied forest. We heard a monkey shriek to the left, and some chimpanzees hooting in the distance somewhere ahead of us. Winding our way through the trailing trees, we crossed boggy patches filled with huge round waterlogged holes. So uniform in size, could they have been the footprints of forest elephants? There are certainly meant to be elephants in the park, although probably not the small, hairier, more agressive forest elephant species, but nonetheless, elephants in a forest, and that's enough for me.

After about 800m of the tiny track, suddenly it opened out into a small clearing with a far bigger, lighter, forest clearing to the right of us with clumps of tall palm trees dangling weavers' nests like a Christmas tree dangles baubles, and bright green, chest high grass which was gently moving in the pre-storm breeze.

A basic wooden ladder stretched up above us to our room for the night. Twenty metres up, with grass mats for window blinds and a roof, was a tiny room for two. Inside it smelt of tree and contained nothing more than a single bed, a second mattress, a narrow bench with a paraffin lantern, mosquito nets and bedding.

It was perfect.

Rolling up one side of the treehouse's window covering gave us the most exotic view out over the forest clearing. If we were going to see forest elephants anywhere, this would be it.

We didn't.

See forest elephants that is.

But nonetheless, this was it, and it was great.

We whiled away the afternoon gazing out over our forest, playing cards, reading and snoozing. The evening came and saw us splurge $20 each on a four course meal back at the posh lodge. The equivalent of spending two hundred pounds back on a meal for two in London, this felt like true decadence... and it was worth it. It was one of the best meals I've ever had in Uganda. Tomato and herb bruschetta to start, followed by a warm and spicy pumpkin soup, with fillet steak, roast potatoes and vegetables as a main, finished off with what they called 'apple crisp' but what I would have called a crumble.

It was now about 9pm and long dark. We got chatting to Amos, the owner of the lodge, who must have assumed we were staying in a $280 tent. As after twenty minutes of polite chit chat, when we let slip we were in the treehouse, a look of panic crossed his face.

You must go now! he said, looking around wildly for someone to help us.

If you are in the treehouse you must go there soon. Otherwise it will be too late!

What? Why?

It's okay, it's okay. But the elephants. If they come, they come at night. So you must go soon. And I must find someone to go with you.


A man with a stick was duely located and we trooped off again, saying our goodbyes, feeling like children being sent to bed early. We had assured Amos we would be fine making our own way there - we had torches after all and could listen ahead for sounds of elephants. Surely elephants marauding their way through a forest would not be that quiet about it?

But apparently, the man with the stick was an essential accessory for late night forest walks, and once on the tiny jungle track we were actually quite grateful. It certainly seemed a lot further at night, and the turnings and twists looked different under torchlight.

Nevertheless, elephant-free, we made it safely to the treehouse and up the ladder. Once inside we lit the lantern. A warm glow lit up the dark corners of the little room, suspended above the forest floor. Then a periphal flutter caught our attention. We had a bat for company! The tiny creature flew around our heads for a monent or two as we raised the grass mat shutters and gave it an escape route, which it found after only a couple more circuits of the roof.

Then we pulled the shutters tight down, preferring to spend the rest of the night bat-less, and tucked in for the night.

And despite all the weird and wonderful sounds, and waking up several times to the pitter patter of feet on the roof (birds? monkeys? elephants?), we both enjoyed one of the best night's sleep we have ever had.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Vervet monkeys, over breakfast, on a crater lake rim.

Black and White Colubus Monkeys at Sebitoli forest campsite, Kibale NP.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Frog In The Bog and Other Stories

So, our holiday last week saw us cross Kampala in our little white car and head out west on the Fort Portal road.

Our guidebook told us the road was really good up until Mubende, a town roughly halfway between Kampala and Fort Portal, whereafter it became so bad, the town was nicknamed Fort Pothole.

Of course, the guide being a few years out of date, the road West of Mubende is now smooth as silk, with a camber that's pleasing to the soul.

It's the 160km stretch to get there from Kampala that's now falling apart.

Never mind, the Nissan, because it's so small, has some advantage in it's ability to swerve around holes and fit through ever decreasing narrow passages of tarmac sandwiched between the encroaching corrugations, rocks and dust of the earth either side. But we know if we misjudge a hole we're going to come off a lot worse than our fellow road users in their Toyota pick-ups and Landrovers.

We eventually passed Mubende at around lunchtime and pulled over on a side track of long grasses to have a 'comfort break'. A swift and subtle pee in between the tall grasses and the natural alcove created by opening both left-hand side doors of the car at the same time. Veterans of many old banger rallies through Africa, I know how to relieve myself quickly and discretely.

(And a quick pee in the bush is always preferable to one in the stinky, mosquito ridden long drops you find round the back of Africa's village highway fuel stations.)

We were both eating our pack lunch when it quickly became apparent that the overgrown track we were parked on was a major pedestrian cut through to some un-seen village.

And everyone who had to pass up the track seemed to favour the side of the car where I had just left a small puddle. In this searing heat there is no way it would be mistaken for rain. And what's more, most people were barely shod. One old lady was barefoot.

Horrified, we had to jump up and block their path, motioning them round the other side of the vehicle to keep my shameful secret, and to keep their feet dry...

After lunch, the wide shoulder of the road ahead urging us on to Fort Portal, we made good time and hit the town at around 3pm.

Little more than one main street connected by a couple of roundabouts, Fort Portal is small but compact. With unpredictable weather. It lies at about 1500m altitude, at the feet of the Rwenzoris, which you can see on a clear day.

It was not a clear day. The blistering heat of our lunchtime stop had gone, the temperature dropping about ten degrees in the space of ten kilometres. The Rwenzoris where hidden behind black clouds sat on the horizon and the wind was cold enough to make us wind up our windows. I burrowed in my bag for a fleece - the first time ever I've had to wear one in Uganda.

As we took the Kamwenge road south towards the Kasenda crater lake cluster, the rain started. The road was unsealed, and our windscreen wipers were short of useless, so we made extremely slow progress as we peered to see the holes. Taxis and bodas sped past us, hooting and flashing their lights.

Never mind we thought. We'll have a suspension system tomorrow - they won't.

An hour later and we made it to CVK - our first stop of the trip. A budget traveller's hangout perched on the steep banks of a crater lake, overhung with lush, dense tropical forest and alive with frogs, birds and monkeys. In fact, CVK is on Lake Nyabikere - which means Lake of Frogs. You could certainly hear them, and it wasn't even dark yet.

The place seemed deserted. We were shown to our room by a single member of staff. To get there we slid down some steep, moss-covered steps - a lawsuit waiting to happen - fearing we'd end up in the lake if we mis-judged things. We left our things in the room and went to take a seat on the main verandah, feeling like we were the only people there.

But we were wrong. Within half an hour, an Israeli couple turned up. They recognised us as had been staying at Red Chilli only a few days before. Then a girl joined their table. It was dark by now and we couldn't see her face - but her voice sounded familiar. When she popped over to confirm it was us we realised she was a regular guest at Red Chilli - a dutch woman who would stay at ours in between research trips to 'her village'. Which turned out to be a village a few miles down the road from where we were staying.

So there we were, listening to the frogs croak and the rain drum on the roof, on holiday 300 miles from home, talking to the only other three guests in the hotel who were three people who knew us from Kampala, one of whom was trying to persuade us to adopt an abandoned puppy she'd found...

We then met the owner of CVK - a lovely woman called Pelusi. Her husband was or is the head of Agricultural studies at Makarere University and set up a field station out here for research. It was then that they saw the potential to build a community tourism based site on the edge of the crater lake. The water pumps they have installed pump water from the lake to the site, and also to the village down the road. The crafts for sale come from the local basket makers and carvers, and there are other projects they are involved in which are inherently community focused. They have planted lots of fruit trees in amongst the tropical forest on their lake shore which has attracted all sorts of monkeys and birds back to the area, including the odd family of chimps. The place has a great soul to it, but we got the sense Pelusi and her husband were ready to retire. They're certainly looking for a Manager to run the place, if anyone out there's interested.

Later that night, after the torrential storms had finished (this week I heard of an overland truck crew I know who had to abandon setting up camp down the road in Queen Elizabeth National Park that night because the hailstorms were too ferocious...), we disappeared to our room. I popped to the en suite bathroom quickly, only flicking the light on at the last minute before I was about to plant myself on the loo.

But before I did I noticed we had a surprise visitor. It seems water was not the only thing pumped up from the lake that night. I was eye to eye (and almost cheek to cheek) with a long legged black lake frog.

We stared at eachother for a moment and with a sudden plop, he disappeared round the U bend.

What to do? I couldn't go to the loo, knowing he was around the bend in the pipe. But I couldn't fish him out as he was hiding around the bend. R and I figured that a quick flush would hopefully see him back somewhere, if not where he originally came from. It was only once we'd flushed that we realised, like every other sewage system in Uganda, this pipe probably led to a soak pit.

Poor Froggie...

Watch Those Hemlines, Girls!

This was recently sent to me by a friend in the UK (thanks Rosie) as a story from the BBC website, and it's also been covered here in Uganda's own national press.

Uganda seeking miniskirt ban

The minister said wearing a miniskirt was akin to going naked
Uganda's ethics and integrity minister says miniskirts should be banned - because women wearing them distract drivers and cause traffic accidents.

Nsaba Buturo told journalists in Kampala that wearing a miniskirt was like walking naked in the streets.

"What's wrong with a miniskirt? You can cause an accident because some of our people are weak mentally," he said.

The BBC's Joshua Mmali in Kampala, the capital, said journalists found the minister's comments extremely funny.

Wearing a miniskirt should be regarded as "indecent", which would be punishable under Ugandan law, Mr Buturo said.

And he railed against the dangers facing those inadvertently distracted by short skirts.

"If you find a naked person you begin to concentrate on the make-up of that person and yet you are driving," he said.

"These days you hardly know who is a mother from a daughter, they are all naked."

Vice list

According to the minister, indecent dressing is just one of many vices facing Ugandan society.

"Theft and embezzlement of public funds, sub-standard service delivery, greed, infidelity, prostitution, homosexuality [and] sectarianism..." he said.

Earlier this year, Kampala's Makerere University decided to impose a dress code for women at the institution, our reporter says.

The miniskirt and tight trousers ban has yet to be implemented, but our correspondent sought the opinions of women on campus about the minister's opinions.

"If one wants to wear a miniskirt, it's ok. If another wants to put on a long skirt, then that's ok," one woman said.

But others had more sympathy with Mr Buturo.

"I think skimpy things are not good. We are keeping the dignity of Africa as ladies and we have to cover ourselves up," one woman, called Sharon, told the BBC.

Cultural differences aside, the best bit for me is the Vice List. The fact that wearing a mini skirt is compared to other vices such as corruption and so on (although there are a few items on that list equally undeserving of inclusion - homosexuality remains hugely controversial over here, not to mention illegal, as you can see).

In our local papers here, the list was extended and wearing a mini skirt was just one of the many ethical problems we had to deal with, including "Corruption and war".

Yep, shorten that hemline and you may as well be invading Poland.

Talk Like A Ugandan

The spoken language is rich in it's use of local idioms and phrases.

Ugandan English is more distinct from English English than you might, at first, expect. Some of it a stranger can 'get' without the help of a local, some of it is a little harder to fathom.

Like the slang for various parts of the anatomy. The local tabloid (think Sunday Sport but worse), The Red Pepper, has popularised the term 'Whopper' for a certain part of the male body (no guesses for which).

At least the term Whopper makes some sort of sense, even if it makes for an interesting moment when ordering in Burger King.

But then they go and use the term 'Kandahar' for the vagina. Now how on earth would the name of an Afghanistan city come to represent female genitalia?

I thought this might have been an urban myth, but then I picked up a copy of the paper myself and read a story about some prostitutes being rounded up and arrested by local police. There were lines like "The women had been opening their Kandahars for clients for years" and quotes from the ladies themselves saying "I will let whomever I choose enjoy my Kandahar". And other such gems.

So it's not a wind up. It's an elaborate, and unfathomable, but highly effective way for the paper to smuggle in lots of lewd talk and smut, without getting prosecuted for it.

But it gets better.

There is another popular slang word for the vagina.

Some time back, the play called The Vagina Monologues came to Kampala. It had a short-lived run and was taken off the stage in a flurry of controversiality.

Ever since then, I'm told, the word monologue has been slang for a lady's bits.

But sometimes, when they can get away with it, the tabloid press here still favour the direct approach. Thanks to some spurious story about a local Pastor's sexual shenanigans, the Red Pepper newspaper managed to get the words "BUM SEX" into their front page headline every day for a whole week.

That's dedication to the art of shlock journalism, that is.