Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Long Awaited Front Page Splash

Some may remember me mentioning the Kampala purveyors of finest tabloid journalistic tat, The Red Pepper, with its lurid front page stories. One of the readers of this blog, who spent some time in Uganda last autumn, even brought up the famous Pastor Kiweweezi 'Bum Sex' scandal, which ran and ran and ran.

R had taken a photo on one of the best front pages from this particular sordid tale, but had not got round to downloading it off his phone yet.

Then we read a recently released book by a very funny writer called Jane Bussmann, The Worst Date Ever. When recently in the UK for all of about two days (enough time for my brother's wedding a little light shopping) I picked it up because I'd heard it mentioned Red Chilli.

It did mention Red Chilli, with equal measures of praise and scorn, which is probably fair, and it had me snorting out my Emirates orange juice with laughter as I read my way through the flight back home. It's less a guide to dating and more an acutely funny take on Uganda's political situation with some extravagantly dark jokes that most people wouldn't dare make about Aids orphans, genocide and the like. But those jokes smuggle in revelations and conclusions that most people working in the business of genocide seem to spend their lives subtly avoid facing up to.

Anyway, in it she discovers (with some delight I might add) the Ugandan slang for a man's penis, whopper, as popularized by the Red Pepper. So we found her email address on her website and emailed her our appreciation of the book along with a copy of this picture, which she says made her day. Unless she's just saying as some sort of anti-stalking device...

She's currently performing at the Edinburgh festival, Bussmann's Holiday, which is, I would imagine, definitely worth the ticket price if you're up that way. I believe the festival finishes next weekend... Crossed fingers for Jane for the Perrier, or Tap Water, or whatever awards are the ones to have these days...

Maybe the Red Pepper could introduce their own awards called "The Best Whopper Award (And We Don't Mean Burger King Either....But We Would Probably Call It Bugger King If We Had To Write A Headline About It)". But maybe they would come up with something a little catchier.

Friday, June 26, 2009

School sign, Masindi

Not sure if I have already posted this before. Apologies if I'm repeating on you. But amidst all the poor taste Wacko Jacko jokes here's a little light relief from Uganda. Schools, mininbuses, grocery stores, tailors, hardware shops - if you operate a physical 'space' in Uganda, you need to get with the mode and have your very own slogan.

Here's my favourite from the road to Murchison.

Closely followed (literally - it's about 40km down the murram track into the park, as you are about to descend the Bunyoro escarpment into the Albertine Rift Valley) by my favourite example of road traffic signs in this country. How's this for a graphic description of what could happen...

Friday, June 05, 2009

More Shopping Tales From The Dark Continent

A tale in the same vein as the one where I tried to return three rakes, and only got my money back for the ones that weren't broken...

A colleague of ours was telling me a story last week. She wanted to get some skirts made out of the loud, funky Congolese cotton prints that are so beautiful. She'd bought her fabric and found a local seamstress.

The seamstress gave her a quote which included a charge for making a lining for the skirts. Our colleague didn't want a lining - she just wanted a simple cotton one piece skirt run up. She agreed with the seamstress that she would sew her the skirts without a lining.

When she went to collect the skirts she was presented with a bill that was the same price as if she had included the lining. She queried it, reminding the seamstress that the skirts had been made without the lining, so there was no real justification for charging her for the extra material a lining would have used.

Ah but Madam the seamstress replied, You are thin, but some of my clients, they are fat. And they will use extra material for their skirts and linings, so I need to charge you extra to pay for that material.

This is a logical conclusion for most shopkeepers in Kampala. And yet it is a scenario where most muzungus come unstuck, ranting and railing at the ridiculousness of it all.

Don't get me wrong. I have my days when I rant and rail. But it rarely gets you anywhere. Sometimes you just have to accept that you will be paying for fat women's skirt linings, and you'll probably be happier for it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Let Sleeping Hippos Lie

So, I'd seen Lake Albert and, more recently in our last trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Lake Edward too. But up until last week I'd never seen Lake George.

It seems all the lakes in Uganda are named after old British monarchs and their family. They were re-named after independence, under Amin, but after his own family members, so that was hardly any better and their old colonial names were swiftly restored after his downfall.

Maybe, a little cynical bit of me thinks, they thought it would be better for their tourist industry. And they'd probably be right.

With me going on about all these places named after British queens and their husbands or sons you'd think the whole place was Little Britain. Rest assured, African and black sporting and political heroes abound in street names and civic building titles (we have an Akii Bua Road, a Nelson Mandela stadium, a Malcolm X drive, Nkrumah Street, and so on and so forth). But the areas of interest to foreign visitors, the parks and mountains, the rivers and lakes, they all seem to have stuck with foreign names. Ah well.

Anyway, I digress. This last trip to QENP, as Queen Elizabeth National Park shall henceforth be known, saw us go to the end of the road (quite literally, there is a sign) and visit Lake George as part of a game drive.

We'd seen the kob, waterbuck, lions and birds, and we drove on past a momentarily quiet salt lake (with the rainy season upon us, the water does not produce the crystals needed to produce salt, being all too frequently diluted by more pure water falling from the skies) onto to a fishing village on the shores of the very shallow Lake George.

We got out and watched the fishermen paddle past in their dugouts or mending their nets. And saw children as young as three or so busy in the everyday task of collecting water. They lifted heavy 20l jerry cans from the sandy shallows to the bank, and some of them used an oft-seen example of Ugandan ingenuity.

Lost your jerrycan cap? Don't worry, simply use a matoke banana to seal the jerry instead. They seem to fit perfectly and are readily available, where plastic screw tops would be hard to find.

When we'd finished watching the fisherman, our sharp-eyed driver Hassan pointed us in the direction of a sleeping pod of hippos a little further up the bank. Hippos are one of Africa's most dangerours animals, easily startled with 12 inch incisors, but we decided, accompanied by our UWA ranger, to sneak a little closer anyway.

Hippos sleep by supporting eachother's chins on their backs. So you are faced with a rather endearing weaving of grey humps and wide-mouthed lumps as the hippos make up their sleeping jigsaw jumble.

We stayed watching long enough for a hippo or two to notice our presence and they started a round of Har Har Har honking which built into a crescendo that echoed across the flat expanse of rift valley all around us.

We retraced our steps to the minibus and left the hippos in peace. It had been a pretty magical moment, but we didn't want to push our luck...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Don't Try This At Home

One of our more gung-ho guests has just got back from the DRC.

He'd been asking us about the prospect of gorilla tracking in the Congo, which is just starting to open up again. I'd been in touch with a French woman working with the gorillas in a NP near Bukavu, who was introduced to me via some mineral mining guys we know who work over there but evacuated their Landrovers to Red Chilli when the trouble flared up last year....

The mineral guys had told us that Congolese gorilla permits were rumoured to be $150 (an attractive price when compared to the $500 permit fee you'd pay in Uganda and Rwanda). The French lady corrected this and said that in Bukavu, they charge $300.

Noone recommended driving in via Goma. The week before, a western woman who'd been driving down the Beni-Goma road was taken into Goma with a bullet in the leg so the fighting is still pretty active in the area. Both of our contacts suggested going to Kigali in Rwanda and then flying or driving in to Bukavu.

This would have been enough to put most people off, but clearly this guy is either mad or made of sterner stuff. He went to Kigali, and asked around. Everyone there still quoted $150 per permit but a congolese guy told him that the road to Bukavu had fighting on it so the only safe way to the park there was to fly in. And anyway, the gorillas at that park are not as good as the mountain gorillas in the Virungas near Goma.

So does the guy fly in? Nope. Given he's on a budget, he decided that if he was going to get public transport through an area of civil war, he may as well go to the Parc des Virungas near Goma. So he gets on a bus to Goma and shits his pants all the way.

The roads are in ruins and the buildings (what's left of them) unrecognisable. Everything that is still standing has coils of barbed wire at every angle. The only other vehicles on the road seem to be white UN landcruisers.

Our intrepid friend got to his hotel and fell gratefully asleep, glad to have made it alive. He wakes at 3am to screaming and gunfire nearby. When he asks the hotel staff where the shooting is, it's just down the road. At this point, he says, he started to wonder if coming to Goma had been a good idea.

The next day he finds a travel agency and negotiates for a gorilla tour. The permits appear to be $400 pp however, so he's not biting. The guys won't come down - apparently that is now the going rate for gorilla tracking in the DRC (which makes me wonder what on earth their business plan is based on).

So he goes for a $30 taxi tour of the town. He doesn't wind down the windows or get out of the car at any point, until they're out of town and near a crater lake. He said it was just too dangerours to walk around the town. That said, he apparently went to a club one night - with a Congolese guy from his hotel - only to witness the apparently regular sight of UN aid workers circling the local prostitutes. Or was it the other way round? Ladies of the night can be pretty predatory in these parts - R always hates it when I leave him alone in a bar for long as when I get back he's invariably covered in prostitutes, looking mildly petrified.

He was the first tourist in town for months and months. His hotel had last had a Spanish couple stay four months before. And the tour guide hadn't seen anyone for a year. He bought some masks, and the sellers bargained hard. But then again, that sale probably had to feed them for the next four months.

Anyway, this mad tourist got back to tell the tale. And you could tell he now feels pretty invincible. But I couldn't help thinking he was a very lucky, lucky man and it could have gone either way.

Jobs for the boys.... and girls

So if anyone is out there reading my (far too infrequent) posts on the trials and tribulations of running a backpackers lodge in Uganda and feels that they could do a job like that, then look no further.

Yes, we are recruiting. One of the Murchison managers has taken up an opportunity she cannot turn down, and her partner will be disappearing within the next few months, so we are looking for a permanent management couple to replace them, starting pretty much whenever if the right candidates apply (but certainly no later than early Autumn).

We are also looking for a temporary pair of hands to help us in Kampala. Because of our colleague's departure, we're losing one of the Managers based in Kampala to the Murchison camp for most of the next 4+ months. So we reckon we've got space for a temp assistant manager, based in Kampala, to help us out from NOW until early October or later in the year. Basically, this place is always about 30-40% busier than the equivalent month last year, so we're busier all the time, and the right candidate could find themselves morphing into something more permanent if this trend continues.

In the meantimes, we're opening up the email for applications now! So if you're interested, or know anyone who is, please email a note to and we're send you more details of the job so you can send us a fuller CV in return.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Or Your Money Back

We bought three garden rakes from a massive supermarket here recently.

One broke within a few days and the others were on their way out too. Pretty poor by most raking standards, we thought. Our shambas, the gardeners, were most disappointed in the rake quality. Next time, they said, we should only buy the orange plastic ones from the local markets. They last for ages. These posh green metal ones from the shiny new supermarket are no good at all.

So we bought some local market rakes, and next time we hit the supermarket, we took back the posh green metal rakes to ask for our money back.

Out of three rakes, one was completely broken - the head had become seperated from the body. The other two rakes were nearly broken - you could see where the metal around the neck was splitting and would certainly snap with further use.

I got money back for two out of three of them. The supermarket explained they could only give me my money back on the rakes that could be re-sold. They could not give me back my money on the rake that was broken, because it was broken.


That's African consumer rights for ya.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Days of Kings and Leopards

We've just returned from six days exploring Queen Elizabeth National Park out west. Despite both suffering some unknown virus from the day we set off (where's that swine flu tester kit, anyone?) it really was quite spectacular.

Where the Rift Valley curves southwards to meet Lake Edward, this amazing park stretches out in several different directions. When you come over the Kichamba escarpment, the view takes your breath away. Miles of flat savannah grassland stretching out across the Rift Valley floor, from the densesly forested Kyambura Gorge in one corner to the flat mirror like expanses of Lake George in the other. And we didn't even explore the park's nether regions - the wilderness of Ishasha, seperated from the DRC by a shallow river, with it's great plains of Topi and tree-climbing lions. We wanted to head down that way but we a) ran out of time, and b) felt it would be wasted on two very ill people.

Yes, the dream trip turned into a bit of a nightmare. Firstly, we nearly never left, as every hire car we tried to take had some inherent problem. The first one, which we picked up Saturday evening, had a problem with the alternator or the starter or something - it wouldn't move on Sunday morning when we were due to leave at 8am. Nothing else was available to later on so we picked up the next one at 4pm . We drove it a few km and had to turn around as the wheel bearings were on their way out, and you could turn the steering wheel 180 degrees before anything much happened. As we know from Ugandan roads, the ability to swerve (around potholes, cyclists veering into the middle of the road, or massive suicide buses that play chicken with smaller vehicles) is actually quite key, so as we fancied staying alive we took that one back too and demanded a new one. So finally, we ended up leaving Kampala at 5pm on the Sunday (when we were already meant to have got to QENP by then) in an ageing Mitsubishi Pajero. The horn didn't work, the air con was broken, there were massive cracks in the windshield and there was no handbrake, but other than that, it was fine. So we took it and got moving, and it did us proud all week.

The next problem was our health. I'd come down with some bug on the Saturday before leaving Kampala. R came down with the same thing on Sunday night. We ended up spending most of the week feeling rotten. As our fevers spiked at over 38 degrees (38.9 on our last night for me) and we had to turn down the chance to try out lots of lovely safari activities, the week turned into an exercise of checking timings, mileages, prices, directions and what kind of footwear is necessary, before going back to our room at Simba Safari Camp to collapse in a heap. I felt like a guide book editor and decided that I could never do a job like that - it takes all the fun out of travel.

But we still managed to be blown away by our location and what we saw. The sheer epic scale of the park, coupled with our inevitable sightings of game despite not really trying to spot any, gave us the thrill we had when we first went to Murchison.

We sat in Tembo canteen (or rather, R lay on the cool concrete of the low wall to ease his fever) and watched herds of elephants cavorting in the shallows of the Kazinga Channel on the opposite bank. We faced down am extremely grumpy matriachal flump with a high pitched trumpet on the Main Track to Mweya peninsula (R reversed quite quickly).

We did a bizarre high speed game drive on the Kasenyi plains with an understanding ranger ("Look, we just want to note the mileages of the tracks you might pass by on your average game drive, we won't be stopping to look at the animals unless they actually jump out in front of the car") where we whizzed round the open tracks of the Kob hunting grounds, wild stretches of grassland studded with Euphorbia trees, or Candelabras, as they are sometimes known. Without trying to spot game, game comes to us. Within 1km of driving off the public road, and at 10am, far too late for good game viewing by most people's standards, we pass a family group of eight lions.

Then, one late afternoon, we are trying to cool our fevered brows with a rest in the rooms after a long and hot day trialling a community village walk in the foothills of the Rwenzoris, and visiting the Bakonjo Kingdom's palace where I met a living, working, tribal King (his name was Charles and I have the photos to prove it), when we get the call. The Chief is free to meet.

The Chief is a key post within the Uganda Wildlife Authority - every National Park has a Chief. And nothing really happens in that park without having the Chief on side. This was our chance to pitch our plan, so off we went. Take two paracetomol, jump in the car, and race down to the Park HQ to meet the Chief. After a good meeting, the sun was setting. Chief lives on site, at Park HQ, so he has nowhere to drive that will take him anywhere after dark. But we have at least a 45 min drive back to our Camp. So off we race, R watching the track and me scanning the bushes left and right ahead of the vehicle. Our track passed along the banks of the river and I was concerned about hitting a hippo that would be coming up to graze the plains at night.

Before long, we had made it off the park tracks, having passed close to, but not into any wandering hippos, and had reached the public road that linked to the sealed road that ran to our camp. By now it was quite dark, and we thundered along, R braking violently for the odd bird of prey that would sit, pensively, in the centre of the dusty track, eyeing us up as we barrelled towards it, then flying off at the last possible minute.

As we neared the tarmac road, we saw a small amber glow on the side of the track. R mentioned it and suggested it was someone walking, carrying a lit cigarette in their hand. Well, that's what it looked like from a distance, and we'd seen plenty of brave locals casually wandering the public roads, which given the amount of lions about, is actually quite, quite brave. Or stupid.

Anyway, the orange glow got a little closer, and it had a shape to it. Within the space of a second or two, we realised it was an animal. At first we thought it was a lion, as it was a big, muscular looking thing. Then our headlights picked out its spots.

It was a leopard

There is something about spotting a leopard. This one was our first (and possibly our last). They are shy, solitary, nocturnal animals and seldom seen on your average game drive. Our boss has lived in this country for ten years, and up until a day or two before we saw our leopard, she had never seen one, despite going on countless game drives.

And here we were, a year into living here, fifty yards from the main tarmac road from Mbarara to Kasese, and there was a leopard in front of our car. The thrill was greater than when I tracked gorillas (you kind of know they're coming, so while they're amazing to watch, it's no surprise to see them there). And it was more beautiful than seeing lions. There is something very aloof and casual about the leopard.

Our spotted cat gracefully slunk off into the savannah, clearly not rattled by our presence.

We, on the other hand, were extremely rattled. We manouevered the car round to try and prolong the experience of watching the disappearing leopard. I intermittently scrabbled in the dark footwells of the Pajero for my camera, then realising any pictures would be crap and I was much better off just enjoying the moment. We were both nervy, swearing with excitement and awe, and kept telling eachother what we were seeing in that simpleton way you hear people talk on home videos where they capture natural disasters or other unexpected events.

That night we told anyone who would listen that we'd seen a leopard. We're still telling people. And I keep having to remind myself that earlier in the day, I shook hands with a King too.

And there's not many places you can do that...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Sometimes, running a backpackers in East Africa is not as great as you expect it to be. Like any job it has its low moments.

Last week for example, I walked into the Ladies loo to wash my hands quickly (there is so much red dust around in our office I end up washing my hands very frequently!). I had to back out quickly. Someone was very ill, and someone had had very bad aim. All I can say is thank god it occurred during normal working hours when Housekeeping were around. God bless them, they have a dirty old job sometimes...

The week before, I spent at least four or five hours wrangling and fighting with the local electricity firm. There is only one national supplier, so the customer does not have a choice of supplier, and they are, as a result, a lumbering, bureaucratic and simply RUBBISH organisation. R had to physically pull one of their workmen down from a pylon when they were trying to cut us off for non payment of a bill we had not yet received. Last November, they move to a swanky new computerised system. Since then, we get our bills about six weeks late, causing all sorts of arguments.

Then there is the bank. I won't even go into detail on this one but suffice to say, due to a typo that they made, some money got transferred into the wrong account and it's taken them two weeks to even try and correct the problem, and in doing so, we lose about 300,000 Ush (GBP 100 or USD 70) in bank charges or loss in currency exchange. That's customer service for ya...

So the job can have its petty grievances. But, life here does have it's perks.

Tomorrow, we're off on a six day recce of Queen Elizabeth National Park and its environs. We're pushing to launch budget safaris to the park within the next month, rather like the trips we send to Murchison several times a week.

So, we're off on work time to try out all the activities and check out the area. Which will be a good break from the banking/electricity/poo problems of the current day job!

Expect some updates on my return...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Chips, Anyone?

Call us hippies if you will, but as soon as we got here we realised that we could develop a way of filtering used vegetable oil from our kitchens and reusing it as fuel for the generator and the Land Rover.

So, in our first few months last year, we asked the Kitchen to save all their waste oil in the big yellow jerries. When we had enough to do anything half decent with we'd work on the filtering system.

It took a while to get the kitchen into the habit of regular collection of the waste oil - the first 20l jerrycan took two months to fill - but now we're getting a full 20l jerry every other week to play with.

The first filter stage is to get the big chunks of stuff out. Breadcrumbs, pieces of chips, Tilapia tails - it all smells quite disgusting when we're doing it. We have a stock of old mozzie nets that we chop up into squares and layer in a filter, balanced in the neck of a jerry.

The next stage takes a lot longer. We have about 16 boxes of coffee filter papers in the store from when a manager two years back bought the wrong size for the coffee machine. The paper provides a very fine filter. Which takes forever for a cup of waste oil to pass through. R puts the jerries outside, in direct sun (warm oil passes through a lot quicker) and pours a mugful of old oil into the filter and then comes back to the office. Twenty minutes later, or whenever he is passing, he tops it up. In this way it takes several days to second stage filter a 20l jerry of used oil, but the stuff out the other end is a lot cleaner for it.

(We have to take care when it rains tho - many a time we've headed out to the shops and had to call the bar in a hurry to ask them to move the jerries inside when we see how black the clouds back over Red Chilli are...)

R then adds a little white spirit, to thin the oil, and pours it out into clean, dry old water bottles. We wait two weeks for the glycerine to separate out of the mix, and then it's usable. We're adding it to diesel, as to go 100% veg would require a lot more chemicals to be added and make the whole process a lot harder to implement, but we can go up to 50/50 with a veg oil/diesel mix, though realistically, with the amount of oil we can produce, we've probably never gone more than 70/30...

The funny thing is, despite Africa being so inherently anti-waste (everything is used and reused several times over here - every piece of 'rubbish' has a use), most Ugandans we've told about the joys of running your landrover or gennie on what is essentially re-cycled chip fat tends to laugh in disbelief.

It was only when R polished off an article for one of the newspapers here about it that a taxi driver we knew suddenly sat up and took notice. When R told him about it, he scoffed. It was another one of those Muzungu stories that just didn't ring true. But when he read it in the New Vision, well, it was most definitely true.

Getting the horn

Last October we added the relatively new joy of tracking wild rhinos on foot to the Red Chilli Safari tour. We kept one tour as the tried and tested itinerary, and marketed a new one, called "Big Five on a Budget", which included all the usual game drives and boat launch trips in Murchison Falls National Park (where one has the potential to tick off at four out of the 'big five' game animals), but also tacked on a visit to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, just off the road between Kampala and Masindi (thereby ticking off rhinos, the remaining member of the 'big five').

The Northern White Rhino used to be indigenous to Uganda, but years of civil unrest and war led to extensive poaching of these magnificant creatures, and the last homegrown Ugandan rhino was killed in 1982.

In the last few years, Rhino Fund Uganda has created the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary to help them with their aim of, one day, releasing rhinos back into the wilds of Uganda.

The Rhinos at the sanctuary have been donated to Uganda from various sources (four came from Kenya and two came from Disney in Orlando, of all places) and they are working on a breeding programme to grow their numbers and develop sustainable rhino 'families' that they can later release into national parks like Murchison Falls and Kidepo.

The Sanctuary itself is 3,500 acres of bush - a mixture of swamp and savannah - situated along the Kafu river basin area near a small village called Nakasongola. The Rhinos move vast distances around the sanctuary every day as they graze and deal with minor herd 'disputes'.

A Rhino in the long grass

(A couple of months ago I phoned the director of the Sanctuary to discuss some business matter, only to find she'd been bush camping all week as they tracked a runaway Rhino. He'd fought with the other dominant male and ran off, out of the safety of the sanctuary and into the surrounding countryside. Angie, her husband, and some of their rangers had been tracking the beast for days in an attempt to bring him back by gently guiding him back towards the sanctuary, rather than having to resort to darting and transporting him, though, as she pointed out, they were 85km off road in the middle of the bush, and couldn't have got a transporter out there if they'd tried.)

The rangers not only guard the rhinos and protect them from potential poaching threats, they have also succeeded in habituating the group to human presence, so that small groups of visitors can be brought through the bush on foot to view the rhinos and help generate some income for the Sanctuary.

This source of income is increasingly essential - a few years ago it seemed quite the rage for corporate donors to give to Rhino Fund Uganda but apparently 2009 has seen barely any 'large' donations or support of this kind. They are surviving, just, based on tracking permit sales and accommodation (they have a beautiful guesthouse and backpacker accommodation where people can stay overnight).

Tracking them is pretty exciting. Depending on where they are within the 3,500 acres of bush you may drive the first section in your vehicle, having already picked up your ranger. He knows where they are within the sanctuary, and you'll pull up and park some distance away from the group. If you want to spend 90 mins tramping through bush you can ask them to have you leave the vehicle a bit further away, but usually they get you to about ten to fifteen minutes walk away from the rhinos and start from there. Then it's a matter of following the ranger as he walks through the bush. You may see a bushbuck or some birdlife in the bushes as you make your way through the long grasses (or swamp - one group we sent were very game and decided to wade through thigh high waterlogged swampland to get to their rhinos - but they did avail themselves of a hot shower and a change of clothes on their return to the lodge!) and eventually, you'll see a couple of ranger trackers ahead of you. Then you know you're close. The ranger will tell you how to behave around rhinos, and, slightly concerningly, how to react if charged. Apparently their eyesight is terrible, but their hearing is great, so speak quietly around them, if at all, and if charged, stand your ground until the last possible minute and then step aside, matador style.

Mmmm. There is a bad joke in rhino conservation circles that goes along the lines of "If a rhino charges you, the best thing to do is to pay up".

When you suddenly see them, they're massive. Big grey prehistoric things, sleeping or standing in the shade, maybe even have a munch on some grasses. And when they move, lumbering is the only word to describe it. But then again, I'm lucky enough not to have seen them move very fast at all. And that's the way I'd like to keep it.

So if anyone is visiting Uganda it really is worth dropping in to see them. The thrill of seeing wild rhinos up close is amazing, especially when you are on foot. And it's a worthy cause. One of the cows was pregnant last year, but miscarried. But now, it seems that every one of their three cows is pregnant. So babies are expected. And soon. We keep sending trips off every other day expecting the next minibus to come back telling tales of rhino calves.... lets watch this space.

Ironically, many people who are independently travelling around Uganda probably don't go and see them because they are reliant on out of date guidebooks. The Sanctuary was only set up a few years ago, and has only been open to visitors for less than that, so it's no wonder it's not mentioned in books that may have last been publishes in 2005 or so. In fact, we've booked people on our 'Big Five on a Budget' trips, who have then rung us up a week later saying "If my guidebook says there are no rhinos in Uganda why are you taking my money to send me on a trip where you say I get to see Rhinos - I mean how is this possible?".

Though the idea of setting up completely impossible trips is quite amusing - roll up for the Red Chilli Dodo Birdwatching Tour... for more info...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Quad Squad

Last November, when S&J visited, we decided to do something R&I had been saving up for some time.

Quad bike safaris up the banks of the Nile, up past Jinja around the Bujagali Falls adventure area.

All Terrain Adventures are a company that was set up by an Antipodean couple - the mad and lovely Shirray and PK. He knows his bikes and spanners, she does the hospitality side and runs the craft shop and cafe. They built their house out of the containers the quads got delivered in, and it's an amazing warren of rooms and open plan areas that works really well.

We were kitted out with overalls, helmets and goggles, signed our liability papers and were led out to our bikes. I used to ride motorbikes (small ones) in the UK, and picked up my full license just before we came out here, but I hadn't been on a quad since a friend of mine had a birthday 'do' at a quad track in South London when we were in our late 20s. On that cold October morning we raced round and round a sandy obstacle course with steep banks and long curves. We raced heats against eachother and somehow I managed to beat everyone else and win the bottle of asti spumante, thanks to a winning combination of a fiercely competitive streak and the fact I was one of only two people there that morning who had ever ridden a bike before.

Back in Jinja, I couldn't even get my bike started. It did turn out to have a flat battery (most bikes I ever ride do) so I didn't feel too bad. But it meant I had to remember not to turn it off when we were out!

After a warm up changing gears and getting a feel for the steering column, we lined up and set off. We turned down steep slopes towards the river and climbed up gnarly banks, studded with tree roots. We flew along dirt tracks adjoining banana palm plantations and weaved our way through cassava and maize plots. We passed village children who tried to high five us as we passed. We stopped for a swim in the Nile, where we bumped into a group of kayakers, one of whom R and I knew. Without drying off we got back into our overalls and let our wet t-shirts act as natural air con as we drove along the lanes and tracks, goggles down to keep the orange dust out of our eyes.

Later, we pulled into a trading post and bought sodas. Local kids crowded the bikes, clambering all over them and us. S and I got our cameras out and spent a happy hour part playing with, part photographing the children, who loved seeing themselves on the LCD screens on the back of our cameras.

Some of the photographs I took will actually probably end up as postcards, and it was while I was taking them that I first thought about finding a charity to donate a portion of the postcard sales too.

When you have the mixture of pride and pleasure at a perfect shot taken, combined with the squirming sort of uncomfortable voyeurism that you feel from photographing a child who quite clearly does not have all the benefits of sanitation, health, provision and care that we have in the West, it creates a certain kind of guilt only tourists and professional photographers know.

Back in Bujagali, it was time to get back on the bikes and head back for a shower to get the dust off. We were actually Tango coloured. Sweat and river water had stuck the dirt and dust to us - we had orange arm hairs, orange faces, orange necks and orange cleavages. After a hot shower and a banana pancake we all felt a lot better, and a little cleaner, the exhiliration and adrenalin slowly wearing off from the day's riding.

Going Commercial

With all the money that being a landlord in the midst of the credit crunch is costing me, it's time to up the ante on this downsized life.

Over the next month I will be enjoying the increased salary perks of entering into a second year contract with Red Chilli, which, while tiny by UK standards, enables us to enjoy a nice lifestyle in Uganda and still put some dollars away. And long may the current trend for a strong dollar continue, if only to help me use my dollars to subsidise my UK mortgage.

Then, I have a postcard plan. There are a couple of good postcard suppliers in the Uganda market, but only a couple. I have amassed a load of shots of wildlife etc over the last year and it seems like a big opportunity. I have found a really good printer, who, as it turns out, really wants to promote their own printing services so will help cover the costs in exchange for their details on the back, so it looks like when I return to Uganda we should be finalising the choice of designs and going to print. My plan is to also donate 10% of each card's sales to a charity called The Busoga Trust, who put boreholes in remote villages in North and East Uganda - areas of the country which are seriously affected by poverty compared to the bouyant South and West.

And finally (and why not) I have succumbed and signed up to Adsense to get ads placed on this blog. It may earn me only a few pence a year, but every little click helps in these cash-strapped times, so if you see an ad for something you fancy, feel free to take a look.

I feel dirty and used, but if it helps me avoid meltdown, then it will all be worth it in the end.

2 Years - Part 2

At the hospital two weeks ago I was advised to call last Wednesday for a fast track answer to my Mammogram.

Last Monday however I got an early call back from the doctor. Recognising her voice on the phone gave me a bit of a chill. In the world of follow up scans for cancer you don't want to be on a list of people the doctor would rather phone than write to. Generally, being phoned means being asked to come in for bad news.

But she put me out of my misery and, before I had time to panic, announced my mammogram was all clear and 'she just thought I might like to know as soon as possible'.

Which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Not only the all clear, but an NHS doctor stepping outside the system to put a (difficult) patient's mind at rest. If you remember, the original timing on hearing back on the scan was meant to be one month in writing, and here she was, phoning me in person, four working days later.

Maybe the NHS ain't so bad after all...

Now all I have left is an ultrasound and re-meet with the Professor tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to seeing him in a perverse sort of way.

I mean after all, he was a bit of a life-saver.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

2 Years - Part I

Two years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three days ago I went for my two year scan.

It was a lesson in the benefits of private healthcare, which I was lucky enough to be on at the time of diagnosis, over the disadvantages of the unwieldy, creaking old behemoth that is our National Health Service.

The breast specialist who originally diagnosed me (and went on to operate on and treat me), Professor Kefah Mokbel, also happens to have an NHS clinic he runs at St Georges Hospital in Tooting. Which also happens to be just down the road from where my flat is in Earlsfield.

So when I discussed with him the prospect of how to retain some continuity in my follow up care (not essential but beneficial - as understanding the difference between the pre and post operative breast state is quite important) he said he'd be very happy to see me at his NHS clinic at this hospital. All I needed to do once I relinquised the private healtcare ticket through my job at DCH, was to get my GP to refer me to him at said clinic about two months before i wanted the appointment.

I had last year's 'one year' scan on March 19th, and passed with flying colours, getting all the scans (mammogram, ultrasound), blood tests, and clinical exams (a quick prod and a grope) done the same afternoon with the consultation and results delivered personally by the Professor moments after my ultrasound.

So my two year scan was a bit of a letdown.

Firstly, despite getting my doctor to refer me all the way back in January, having booked my March 16th flight home from Uganda about a year ago, the hospital made noises about 'not necessarily' being able to give me an appointment when I needed and wanted one.

My father then took on the phone campaign on my behalf to save me from bankruptcy caused by excessive phone calls between East Africa and SW19, speaking to a man named Igor (yes, really) and was given an appointment time of 3pm and told I would definitely get all my scans done the same day, but, just to note, the Professor would himself not be there.

Now, I don't begrudge the man a holiday, but it suddenly seemed rather silly that I had constructed this delicately balanced plan for the continuity in my own personal healthcare and yet events had conspired against me to make this effort entirely redundant.

Ah well, at least i'd get seen, scanned, and given an answer.

Or so I thought.

I got seen, got a clinical, got a broad thumbs up but was sent to radiology with a yellow form to get the mammogram appointment. When I was bold enough to suggest I may want to be seen the same day a lady who clearly spent more on cigarettes than she did on shampoo nasally intoned "We don't do afternoon appointments".

But lo, a radiologist took pity on me and an afternoon appointment was obtained there and then.

And as my left boob was squeezed between two perspex plates, I was advised by the radiologist that the doctor would write to me with the results of today's mammogram, but if I hadn't heard anything within a month, I should get in touch.

A month?

Apparently it takes a week to report the scan (I presume this means look at the films and enter the results into a computer), another week to dictate the letter to the patient, and another two weeks to allow the British Postal System time to find its arse from its elbow.

Thankfully my doctor knew I was flying back to Uganda on 1st April and advised me to call her next Wednesday between 1-2pm.

But then there's the Ultrasound. Not something they normally do in NHS follow ups apparently, but something I was very clear was instrumental in my original diagnosis and was used in follow up scans when i was private. Try as I might, I still can't see any sign of a 'mass' in my original mammogram from 29th March 2007, but I can't miss the reading of the ultrasound - it's a super-obvious massive black hole, which sounds more like a title for a Muse album.

But I have a bit of thickened tissue, 99.9% likely to be scar tissue from the radiotherapy, just under the original tumour bed area which I pointed out to the Doctor. Apparently it's nothing to worry about, but it does give me permission to badger them into giving me an Ultrasound. But this could have either have been next Wednesday, when I would be in the middle of a relaxed week at my parents about 150 miles west of the hospital, or on the Wednesday morning of the day we fly back to Uganda.

So I gamefully opted for the day we fly back. Which also means I get to see the Professor who will be back by then. Which will be nice. A friendly face.

So, this is follow up in stages. I have one set of thumbs up on the physical, am awaiting the mammogram results (due next week) and then will be going in for the final piece of the puzzle come the day I'm due to go home. Of course, going home will be a damn sight harder to do if the result is not a good one, but it's highly unlikely.

Either way, it makes me all extremely glad I had private healthcare when it actually mattered. Way back then, I was diagnosed within nine hours of visiting my GP with a suspicious lump, and operated on a mere 48 hours later. I was in chemo before most people would have got their written mammogram results.

And for that, I will always be thankful.

God bless Standard Life.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ten Years of Red Chilli

In all the talk on here, I'm not sure I've ever told the Red Chilli story properly.

It's one I know pretty well now, after nearly a year in the job now, but it pre-dates me by some time. Red Chilli turned 10 in Jan 2009, having been set up by a British expat couple, Steve and Debbie Willis, back in 1998.

Steve worked for the High Commission in Uganda and had met Debbie whilst she was on her backpacking tour of the continent. She continued the tour, but came back to Uganda when Steve persuaded her that he was both the man for her, and that he was going to leave the civil service and they would start a backpackers hostel and campsite together.

They found a plot of land to rent, with some decrepid, rotting, buildings on it, and started renovating and knocking through walls, opening for business officially in Jan 1999, though rumour has it they may not have turned away the overland trucks that started pitching up as early as November the year before, hot on the heels of the rumour that a new backpackers' operation had opened in Kampala.

Eventually, bit by bit, they converted all the derelict buildings on the plot, adding larger dorms, more rooms and even cottages. A bid for a concession in a national park led Steve and Debbie to managing the Rest Camp at Paraa in Murchison Falls National Park, tearing down the old mud bandas that the warthogs would just barge into, and putting smart new brick bandas up in their place.

Red Chilli started running 3 day safari trips - back then they were as little as $99 (but then chimp tracking cost a mere $6 compared to the $40 it costs today, and park entry was peanuts) but even today at $240 they're still the cheapest safari in East Africa.

Then, when everything was going so well, Steve responded to a distress call from some rafting friends who had got into some trouble on the Nile up in the Northern section of the park. Steve went to their rescue in the white landrover we still drive today. He never came back.

This was in November 2003, and Joseph Kony's notorious LRA army had, in previous years, retreated to the jungles of the DRC and southern Sudan, but pockets of guerillas had been left behind. They were armed, hungry and scared. They were now in the minority and all the villages they had been busy raping and pillaging in the late 80s and early 90s were now angry and keen for revenge.

A few of these bandit types ambushed Steve's vehicle on his way back from picking up the rafters. Shots were fired and while everyone else got away (even one of the rafters who had sustained a broken leg on the river) Steve was tragically killed by one of their bullets.

Debbie returned to the UK, utterly devastated at the news of her husband's death, and in a strange twist of fate, also newly pregnant with her dead husband's child. The day to day running of Red Chilli was left to the then Murchison Managers, a South African couple called Hennie and Anne, but as time went by Debbie got more and more involved. She also got more and more pregnant and gave birth to the lovely Zoe the following summer, who joined older brother Joe, as part of the new reality of her single parent family.

Debbie was still mourning Steve, but life in England didn't feel right. Uganda, a country that many saw as being implicit in her husband's death, was luring her back, and what better way to honour her husband than go back and grow the business she and Steve had built together?

In January 2007 she returned to Uganda with her children. Hennie and Anne were still running Kampala but new managers had to be recruited for Murchison as their replacements up there were moving on.

That's when we came into the picture and answered an ad and got the job at Murchison. The job we couldn't take up because I then went and rather stupidly got cancer. In our place came the very able Jim & Tanya, who still run Murchison today. Buildings at Murchison were renovated, and Kampala gained a new adjoining compound with extra rooms and cottages.

In January 2008, Hennie and Anne sadly decided to call it a day on a personal level and Anne returned to South Africa. We got the call and joined Hennie as Managers of Kampala in April 2008.

Now, ten years on from when Red Chilli was launched, the two camps cater for around 2,500 different guests every month. Kampala sleeps up to 150 or so in beds and with a few overland trucks and campers, this can be bumped up to around 240 or so on busy nights in peak season. And we send up to 320 people on safaris to Murchison every month.

The Murchison camp is smaller, but perfectly formed, sleeping 44 in beds and several more camping, but they are permanently fully booked, being the only budget option inside the park.

Genuinely, the business is booming. We're low margin, high volume. Everyone's talking about the global credit crunch affecting business but in our world of backpacks and budget travel, it's hard to believe there's a financial crisis on. Maybe all our customers are disillusioned bankers who've been made redundant. One of the overland truck companies is actually marketing a trip along this basis ("Lost your job? Sod the lot of them and come away with us....").

So, when it came to how best to mark the passing of a ten year anniversary we decided to hold a massive party. Invite the world and his wife - all of Debbie and Steve's friends and supporters over the years, all of our staff and their friends or families, all of our suppliers and business partners. More than 400 people turned up, with plenty of kids thrown in as well.

Nile Breweries donated some beer, we donated some more, and bought cases and cases of wine.

The kitchen slaved for 3 days to prepare the salads (try mixing 50 litres of coleslaw) and some friends from Nile River Explorers produced a salivating spit roast.

Icemark, a fruit and veg export company, donated several cartons of beautiful red and orange scotch bonnet chillies, which were piled around the tables and displayed in every corner.

Grace, Annet and Susan from housekeeping had helped me make loads of papier mache chillies and Fred Opar (a groundsman and one of the 3 Freds we have employed at Chilli...) had shown his artistic talent by helping me paint them bright red and hang them in the trees.

Maringa Ogilvy lent a hand by organising the printing of some massive banners and blowing up some of the Red Chilli archive of photos taken over the years (with thanks again to Nile Breweries for picking up the printing bill), and a massive firework display was organised by a good friend of Debbie's.

Raffle prizes were donated by friends and business partners and a free raffle ticket was given to every guest... Vodka jellies were served as dessert - I tell you, our kitchen floor was sticky for days after making 400 vodka jelly shots.

Debbie had made some chilli tequila, so after the vodka jellies were finished, the chilli tequila shots started. Someone was even seen cutting the top off the scotch bonnet chillies, fillin it with chilli tequila, and then downing the shot and eating the chilli whole and raw. He was later witnessed throwing up in the car park.

The party was a huge success. We were stressing about the weather all day, as it poured with rain all morning and afternoon. The first guests braved the rain, and then as the sun came out, everyone else came out of the woodwork and appeared. The food went down a treat, the fireworks made the whole evening go with a bang, the bar never ran dry, debbie made a moving speech, and the great and the good of Kampala were out in force.

And I spent most of the following week recovering from a vicious cold and wondering just quite how we managed to pull off hosting and catering a party for more than 400 people.

But somehow, someway, it fell together. The staff excelled themselves and lots of other people and companies helped us get it all sorted. And I may have been here ten months and not ten years, but it felt pretty good to be part of it all.

In the lap of luxury

Bwindi, home of the gorillas, is not a short distance from Kampala.

It’s a gruelling 11-12 hour drive. And that’s without a car that’s falling apart…

So when we went, back in early January, we rather sensibly decided to break up the journey with a night staying at Lake Mburo National Park. And we rather wonderfully decided to have a night of extravagance in what is probably the best luxury retreat in Uganda - Mihingo Lodge. Halfway between Masaka and Mbarara, the lodge is approximately a third of the way between Kampala and Bwindi, and I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful.

Perched up on a rose-tinted grey rock kopje, overlooking the grassy savannah of Lake Mburo with zebras at the water-hole down below the infinity pool, the lodge emerges from the rock-face, hidden into nooks and crannies around the kopje, with everything in its place.

Mihingo is magical. I expected to enjoy it, and I expected luxury. I knew the owners and expected a display of good taste. What I didn’t expect was such a kind and gentle marriage of the lodge within the landscape – such a vision that has been followed through to the last detail - everything seems to have a place and just fits. Even swimming in the pool feels like you’re taking a dip in a natural rainwater hole – somehow it seems to lack the scrub-tiled, chemical experience that you find it so many other places.

The rooms are all huge and beautifully appointed safari tents on top of mahogany platformed decking, under thatched roofs. The en suite bathrooms emerge to the side, built out of the gnarled branches of acacia and smooth, curved, hand finished plaster walls.

Some are like eyries, tucked up on rocky outcrops, with a private view. Others are nestled in grassy dells, with waterbuck and warthog grazing a few feet from where you may be sat on the hand-enamelled loo. Our loo seat had an antelope painted on it, with hoofprints on the seat.

The windows to the bathroom were not so much windows, as wide, rounded apertures that reached from knee height to ceiling, fitted with fine mosquito mesh but otherwise offering the perfect ‘loo with a view’. Which does of course mean that anything outside has just as good a view of you, as you have of it…

I ended up needing to go for a pee whilst there was a warthog rooting in the grass in front of the bathroom, just a few feet away. I pulled the curtain to that separated me from R and my sister who were busy admiring the rest of the room. Stupidly, I announced they should both watch the warthog to see how he would react when I dropped my trousers. Down went my trousers, up went the warthog’s tail, and with a snort, he turned and fled. I’m not sure who was more traumatised by the experience, me or him.

Apparently, warthog and waterbuck are not the only animal we get around the tents. At night you have to beware of buffalo, and once or twice, guests have spotted or heard leopards from the tents we were staying in. Chris, one of the Lodge Managers, was forced (under duress) to do an imitation of a leopard calling. It sounded like a heavy breather with asthma.

Later that night, after Kiki and I had ridden on horseback around the fringes of the park, wearing amusingly colonial style riding hats and riding through family herds of zebra, eland and impala, we watched the staff feeding bush babies in the trees surrounding the bar area and then got fed ourselves, with some pretty damn fine food.

After a couple of glasses of wine around a campfire, it was time to fall asleep. The beds must be eight foot wide, surrounded by posts and draped in mosquito nets. The tent itself is open mesh on all four sides, and although you can roll down the canvas, we chose to fall asleep staring out at the night sky, dusted with stars and the ethereal wisps of distant galaxies.

The next morning, the others has left for a dawn walking safari, whereas R and I had elected for a lie-in and I had a massage booked. We woke when the sun came out, around 7am, and lay there for a while watching the waterbuck grazing from our bed. R left for the bathroom at one point, but I stayed wrapped in the sheets, watching the antelope with their beautiful dark eyes and remarkably furry coats, like native ponies in the winter.

Suddenly, the waterbuck, as one, started and looked up from their breakfast. All of them were looking into the middle distance beyond the line of acacia trees surrounding the clearing our tent was in. And there it was, a low bass rasping breath, like an asthma sufferer making a dirty phone call. The leopard. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. He called a few more times before moving on, leaving the waterbuck to resume their feeding.

R came back from the bathroom and scoffed lightly at my story.

But I heard a leopard and noone can convince me otherwise.

Next time, I’ll just have to make sure I get to see one too.

Land of Opportunity

It’s a strange old thing, living the ex-patriate life in Uganda.

One of the stranger aspects is that there is opportunity every way you turn. One of the sadder aspects of this strange aspect is that this is mainly because we’re white.

It, quite literally, opens doors.

We drive up to the compound gates of a business, or a home we’ve never visited before (we did this a lot when we were tasked with delivering party invites for the 10 year anniversary party for Red Chilli) and merely a quick toot on the horn will gain us entry. The gates swing open, the guards peer out, they clock we’re white and wave us in. The owners may not be home, we may not have an appointment, but if you’re white you must be here for a reason, surely?

We’ve always joked, the day we decide to leave this town, we should take advantage of this open door policy and commit some serious theft.

On a higher level, being white and open to ideas led to R getting his slot as a DJ on a local FM station. And me as his celebrity gossip sidekick.

When R, who used to hustle and cajole motoring press and the odd newspaper to take his articles in the UK, emailed a national newspaper in Kampala asking if they wanted to consider any story ideas, they replied with the open invitation that they would “publish anything he sent them”. There was no suggestion of an editing process or quality control. The man takes pride in his work, but that’s just an invitation to be lazy…

Equally, I was approached the other day by someone I knew socially. Local guy, who knew I was something to do with Red Chilli, but didn’t really know what, told me he’d heard I used to work in advertising and would I mind having a drink with him and his friend who were launching an agency together.

I thought they just wanted to bounce some ideas around.

They offered me a job.

Just like that – as a consultant in some sort of freelance strategic planning role.

And they had no idea what sort of work I used to do in the UK, whether I was a creative or a “suit”, or if I was the post girl, how many years I’d worked in ads, how good I was, or anything important like that. Just because I had worked in ads, in the UK, and presumably because I could offer the bogus professional sanction of my whiteness for clients to feel ‘reassured’ by (a lot of the clients would be white or Indian), I fitted the bill. It beggared belief.

Of course, they also didn’t realise that I already had a full time Red Chilli.

Though it’s reassuring to know that if that if I wasn’t still very much enjoying myself with that there could be other opportunities out there. You never know, one day the novelty may wear off and I may not have the stomach for any more tourists demanded a refund for the free internet service we offer (yes, think through the logic of that one...).

If and when that day comes, at least I could hawk myself round Kampala’s burgeoning ad scene…

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Save the Gorillas

My favourite, but slightly sad, Adam Ant story is when the poor bloke went a bit cuckoo a few years ago, he got it into his head that he had to save the world's gorilla population and went as far as to re-record a special versio of Stand and Deliver.

Instead of chanting 'Stand and Deliver' when it came to the chorus, he sang the refrain 'Save the Gorilla' instead. At the time, he was more out of his tree than the gorillas he was trying to save.

It was all a bit embarrassing really and the story died in the UK media out of a demonstration of sensitivity that UK journalists seldom show.

But the man had a point. After my sister, her boyfriend and I went gorilla tracking in early January, we worked out that in visiting the one family group who numbered twenty-three individuals, we had spent time with approximately one thirtieth of the entire mountain gorilla population.

Imagine one thirtieth of the world's human population? No wonder they don't let you track any of the remaining estimated 720 mountain gorillas if you've got a bit of a sniffle...

We tracked ours at Buhoma, in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Which allowed our ranger to tell us, as we were about to enter the Forest boundaries, that we on the verge of penetrating the impenetrable.

Which I'm sure he says to all his trackers, but there you go.

Before we left Kampala I was concerned about how hard the tracking would be and whether it would be worth it.

Friends who'd done it before warned me of 8 hour take-no-prisoner hikes up steep volcanic slopes, slip-sliding between slimy tendrils and ruining hiking trousers all for staring into the eyes of some close relatives for no more than an hour tops.

Plus the permit alone costs $500.

So was it worth it?


It ranks as my all-time top wildlife encounter as a landlubber. It was close to the thrill of seeing a shark for the first time when diving in the Red Sea. But with the sort of intimacy that comes with sitting your arse down on top of layers of rainforest mulch and just simply watching something eat, play, fight, sleep and fart.

And No.

It’s $500 for goodness sake. That’s now something like £350. And maybe it feels worth it to someone on a London salary, but to me on my Kampala salary it feels pretty darn steep.

And you know the discount you get for being an East African Resident?

A measly $25. And I didn’t even qualify for that as I was buying cast off permits from some tour company who’d had some tourist cancel on them probably out of a knee jerk reaction to the squabbling over the border in the DRC.

Ah well, you only live once etc...

So there we were, penetrating the impenetrable. Following a well worn track that was about half a foot wide, it didn’t feel that impenetrable. But then we went off-road. The slip-sliding had begun. We were heading down into a steep ravine, so steep you couldn’t help but simply lurch down from sapling to slimy vine. Except they weren’t that slimy. We had the dry season to thank for that, I guess.

The porters were incredible - all should have been handicapped by their local gumboots or simple leather soled shoes - but all were more sure-footed than any of us put together.

Every so often somebody grabbed a trailing vine that was just the wrong side of rotten, and with a crack and a tumble, they would accelerate slightly. A porter would somehow always be there, hand outstretched, ready to steady them, all the while carrying a couple of day packs and the best part of a camera shop in spare lenses, video cameras, extra memory cards and all sorts of photographic paraphernalia.

We were a relatively young and fit group. I’ve heard horror stories of enormous 250 pound tourists attempting the steep slopes with no fitness training, and usually having come straight off a plane and not be acclimatised to the altitude. One backpacker I knew was in a group with a couple of such specimens. A husband and wife from the US of A, whose love handles alone could have incurred an excess baggage charge. Apparently the husband collapsed on the way up to the gorilla group, and was pushed, pulled, hauled and carried the remaining distance by the hardy porters. When he got to the gorillas, he had to lie down to recover, and so saw nothing of the apes themselves. When his wife was asked how she had found the climb, she proudly declared that she had been fine by comparison, she’d only blacked out twice.

I hate to think what state those two were in. I consider myself grossly unfit and while it was tough going and pretty sweaty work, it was not that bad.

But then maybe we just had an obliging group of gorillas. There are three groups in Buhoma. One group that day had been found within forty minutes hiking. Our group was found within two and half hours. But by the time we’d spent an hour with the gorillas, hiked back for ninety minutes, been distracted by some local dancing and singing, and had the debrief back at the Park HQ, the third group had still not even found their gorillas. It was 3pm at this point and the day had started at 7.30 that morning.

I was glad I was not in Group 3.

On the hike back down the hill, you start to get a feel just how the local villagers and hill farmers are affected by the tourism. Once you are out of the forest and walking alongside tea plantations, small boys set up temporary stalls selling hand hewn gorilla statuettes and child-like drawings of the apes. When we pass, smiling and greeting but not stopping to buy, they wait for us to pass, then gather up their wares and bags and make off down the other side of the bushes lining the path, only to reappear round the corner, having laid out the same stall all over again.

We still didn’t buy any of their hand hewn gorillas, not even second time around.

We did stop and watch a performance by a local orphans group. While I usually find the carefully contrived ‘performances for tourists’ rather hard to stomach, this was actually quite special.

Most of the group donated a few dollars or shillings at the end, but the Slovenian couple with us chose to hand out boiled sweets. I do hate it when people think they can cheer up a poor little African with a piece of candy…

Even worse is when they hand out a sweet to each and every orphan, get everyone lined up (in a remarkably well behaved fashion – no pushing or shoving to be seen) and then discover they’re three sweets short by the time they near the end of the queue.

The three patient children at the end of the line looked like they were about to burst into tears.

As for the gorillas themselves, they were pretty special. We caught sight of the large silver-back first, an enormous black face through the parting leaves. He was far larger than any other gorilla in the group, and there were plenty of them.

From tiny baby gorilla twins, only a month or two old, to black-backed adults and playful sub-adults, and even a second silver-back who was just about happy to play submissive Lieutenant to the lumbering bulk of the lead silver-back’s General.

Every so often a young, inquisitive gorilla would pop over and try and approach one of us. Because of the danger of transmitting diseases, the rangers would break off a branch and wave it at the curious gorilla, warning them back. But had it been the silverback or an adult gorilla, we would have been behaving differently. Then it would have been incumbent upon us to sit or squat down, avoid eye contact and generally be submissive.

Thankfully it never came to that. The big apes kept their distance, busy being groomed by their adoring medium-sized groupies, and the little ones tumbled around learning to climb trees and play-fight.

So were they worth it? They were definitely worth doing once. But the cost prohibits most people from doing it twice. Once is certainly enough for me on my current budget.

Not so the Canadian couple that were part of our tracking group. They had tracked gorillas in Rwanda 8 years ago and were here on a four day trip to Bwindi, to track on four consecutive days. That’s $4,000 on gorilla permits. Upon hearing that, we were all too busy inwardly computing their madness to ask them why.

Finally, whenever I think back to looking at that silver-back, or review my photos of the day, I am constantly reminded of one thing.

Bollo, the I've got a bad feeling about this gorilla character from The Mighty Boosh…

How do you fail as a blogger?

You don't post more than once in six weeks.

You blame it on being away on holiday for two of those weeks, then being extraordinarily busy for the next two, organising a party for over 400 people, followed by one week of being laid low with a cold, the next week being manic at work doing the previous month's accounts, which brings us up to date and leaves me without any more excuses.

So it's Valentines Day in Africa and we're on the radio again, playing Leonard Cohen's "I'm your man" and other anti-valentines music, and frustrated to find there is no "My Bloody Valentine" on the system.

In the meantime I am plotting my return to blogging. There will, I promise, be a cornucopia of posts over the coming weeks to bring us up to date. I have tales to tell and you lot to share it with. Just give me a few more days to sort through the stories and I promise you, it will be worth the wait.

Now there's nothing like building yourself up for a fall, is there?

Now, Slick Dick needs me shortly for my celebrity news slot. Mad-dog Madonna, sad old U2 and the Grammys all in this next bulletin. Poor ol'Rihanna, obnoxious little Miley Cyrus and Wacko Jacko with his flesh eating superbug in the last one... Better go and get on the mike...

Til tomorrow...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Radio Ga-Ga

I have lots to tell from our two weeks off and various adventures and misadventures up and down the country but:

a) all my photos are on my hard disk at home
b) for other, confidential reasons, some stories are best left untold. For now.

Until then feast your eyes on the faces for radio that are Slick Dick and Dorothy Spank.

You may remember that Rich signed up to do a once a week radio show, beaming out to all of Kampala, and some of Jinja, on 95.9 on Touch FM. He practised for months. I stood behind him and pointed a bit. And then we were allowed live on air.

It seems that the only rule was "Don't swear on air, or play a record with any swearing in it". If we do, the station can lose it's broadcasting license. Seeing as all I do is write and read the celebrity gossip news, I would be okay. Unless I actually wrote any swearing into my bits, I should be fine.

But Rich has to concentrate very hard not to say anything dodgy when he's having a rant about various things, or indeed when he's playing the music. Luckily he knows his music pretty well, so there have been moments where he's played a track, only to have to hover over the decks, waiting for the moment of cursing and quickly dip the faders on it to avoid causing our radio career to be the most short lived in history.

However bad swearing is, it seems innuendo is fine. We were only a week into training in the practice studio when we stumbled across two jingles that you wouldn't get away with in the UK:

Touch FM. Playing sexy tunes that will keep your knob still.
Touch FM. Playing tunes that will make your boobs drop off.

I can see the double entendre in the first one, what with the FM dial knob etc, but the second one is still quite gratuitous and odd, whichever way you look at it.

Our first broadcast was mid October last year. For which we needed to decide upon a radio name each.

Rich's Slick Dick was born out of the process of him being trained in the 'cheesy DJ' style, i.e. actually being slick, and yet him wanting to do a calmer, less Smashey and Nicey and more John Peel style of delivery. As some of you may remember John Peel playing records at the wrong speed, you'll know he was not known for his technical brilliance. So, in the early days of learning the decks, R would forget to bring up a fader in time, or play a jingle over the top of something else by mistake. At these moments he would adopt a cheesy DJ pose and declare himself to be 'Slick Dick'.

It stuck, and when we began discussing his broadcasting name with the station controller, Slick Dick was sanctioned as being perfectly acceptable. It's not considered rude at all, which surprises us, but there you go.

As for my on-air name, the station controller was less bothered to pin that down early on. So much so that it got to the first broadcast and we were five minutes away from being on air before realising we needed to decide. I came up with Dorothy Spank as a suitable name to face off Slick Dick (as it were) but I distinctly remember mooting that I should have a different silly name each week.

Sadly, when it came to week two, noone else remembered this, and I was told that Dorothy Spank was it.

So there you go kids, there's a lesson there for us all. If you're deciding on an innuendo laden faux newsreader name, make it a good one as you'll be surprised what sticks...

Anyway, last weekend, when C&C were still here on the last day of their holiday, we had them as guests in the studio and they did a very kind thing and took some photos of us doing our, usually less kind, thing.