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...