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...