Thursday, January 21, 2010

Unnecessary Illegal Meeting Not Allowed

When we stayed the night in Kitgum on the way up to Kidepo, we were amused by the hotel rules stuck on the wall of our room.

I wondered if illegal meetings were allowed, just as long as they were necessary. And R regretted bringing all his military equipment...

Seriously though, this is what hotels are like in previously civil war afflicted areas where child abduction to the Lord's Resistance Army was common.

Never mind sleeping with those under 18, how about kidnapping those under 12, making them your bush wife, have them kill their own friends with their new military equipment to prove their loyalty to the LRA and having them bear several children - all before they turn 16...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

An Elephant For Tea

Ostrich. Kidepo Valley National Park

We'd spent New Year way up North in one of the remotest areas of Uganda, past Gulu and Kitgum and their lingering IDP camps, and even up past the land of the Karamojong - Ugandan tribal pastoralists as famous for their cattle as they are for toting AK47s to keep the cross-border cattle-raiding at bay.

IDP camp between Gulu and Kitgum

Kidepo Valley is made up of rolling savanna plains and bush, sandwiched between craggy mountain ranges on the Sudanese and Kenyan borders. The park offers bush camping in two wilderness campsites, with nothing more than a pit latrine and a shower room to have some privacy with a jerry of water (but you bring the water with you). We'd come for the bush camping but little did we know that Uganda's best kept secret was secret no more.

Kidepo Valley

The day we arrived in the park, we stopped at the UWA headquarters en route to pick a wilderness campsite, only to find out the campsites were full. One had a posh temporary tented camp in it, which we knew about in advance. But the other site, the one we were planning to take, had apparently been taken by a group of 29 - mainly families with young kids and a close personal relationship with Christ.

So, the options were to camp at the UWA village, where the staff live and there were some bandas for rent as well, with the background hum of the generator and the daytime metallic pounding of the truck workshop. Or, depart for a campsite full of kids and guitar-toting Christians.

Well, we figured, If we set up our tents facing out over the valley and stick fingers in our ears we can just about imagine we're in the middle of the bush and so we set up our carefully angled New Year's 'Bush Camp' at the UWA village with the sound of a distant welding torch the only clue that we were slightly closer to civilisation than we'd hoped for.


We picked a large acacia tree for shelter, and having checked with a ranger that the spot was reasonably safe, set up camp. That afternoon, whilst building campfires and reorganising the minibus after our two day journey to get there, we saw more wildlife than I went onto see on any one game drive later in our days in the park. Within minutes, a side-striped jackal appeared and slunk his way past us. Later, a pair was seen, one without a tail, which gave it a curious air of poodle amongst the other jackals.

Side-striped Jackal

Patas Monkey on a termite mound

Then, a small group of Patas monkeys lollopped across the grass in front of our tents and settled down for a grooming session. Two buffalo, caked in red mud, grazed at the firebreak line, where the shorter grass gave way to waist high grasses and reeds. A magnificent male waterbuck lay lazily about 100m away, chewing thoughtfully on the grass and giving us the eye, whilst herds of giraffe and elephant passed by on the horizon. Later, when night fell, a herd of zebra turned up, which we only noticed when someone flashed the minibus lights by mistake, momentarily illuminating the group of stripes in a mirage-like apparition.

Jackson's Hartebeest

So, whilst we had been a bit annoyed that all of Kampala had had the same idea as us and Kidepo was over-run with visitors, forcing us to camp in the village, we ended up delighted with our running wildlife sideshow, waiting to see what would pop up next.

R eyeing up BulBul. Or was it BulBul eyeing up R?

And earlier that afternoon, about 50m away at a ranger's hut, we had also spied the famous "BulBul". A semi-habituated African Elephant, BulBul has been a visitor to the UWA village in Kidepo for many years. The rangers claim (and we later witnessed) that he comes every day to drink his 'brew' (in reality, eating the peelings and fruit husks discarded by the village brewery before the things begin to ferment and become boozy) and has also been known to knock down the door of a UWA banda when he can smell Posho being made inside (a sticky mushy mealy mash).

The first day, BulBul kept his distance, deciding to stick to his tried and tested diet of posho and brew. But on New Year's Eve, when we were peacefully mooching around our camp and a few of us were peeling potatoes for lunch, for no reason at all I can remember, I suddenly looked up to my right and saw BulBul, about 15 metres away and approaching with purpose.

Elephants - they may be big but they can sneak up on you pretty damn quietly. My sister tells me it's something to do with having enormous flat feet.

Uhhhhh.... Guys. Elephant approaching, I managed to stutter. Maybe it was that slo-mo that kicks in in weird situations but noone seemed to react straight away.

Guys! BulBul! Pick up your cameras and head for the bus! He was quite close by now.

BulBul at our picnic table

I gathered my own camera bag, looked at our pile of foil wrapped potatoes for lunch and gathered up those too, and jumped on the minibus. Clever, our driver (yes, his name really was) jumped in the driver's seat and started the engine. We backed off by 20m from our camp but BulBul was now right where we had been sat. He looked at the table filled with clean camping bowls and mugs. His trunk delicately felt around for something less plastic and more edible - no such luck - and several of our bowls fell to the floor. He sniffed at a black bag I'd forgotten I'd left on top of the catering box.

Oh no I groaned.

What's in it? asked Rich.

I was just sorting out our fruit and snacks for the journey tomorrow. That's got all our bananas and mangoes in.

We watched in dismay as it was deposited from trunk to mouth and swallowed, black bag and all.

One bag down...

Quite a crowd had gathered to one side from the UWA bandas - part laughing at the muzungus in their safari bus, watching an elephant trash their camp, part raising the alarm to gather help.

In the meantime BulBul took a step forward and knocked a chair over. In front of the chair were two bags. My heart sank.

What's in those bags? asked Rich, me being chief food monitor on our excursions and me having just re-ordered our food supply and organising the bags for the journey back down.

One's a rubbish bag I was about to throw away, and one's got the Doritos and our remaining chocolate bars in it... I trailed off, willing the inevitable not to happen.

No prizes for guessing which one BulBul took a fancy too. But it seemed he inverted the bag just a moment too soon. He got all the Doritos, and the packet of novelty crisps I'd bought just for the name ("Big Ring"), but two little shiny packets of purple dropped onto the grass at his feet. The Dairy Milk was saved!

BulBul makes his exit...

Since the UWA crowd had sounded the alarm, a truck roared up to see off our hungry visitor. Bu tactically reversing the truck at BulBul in short, sharp bursts, the driver managed to finally see off the elephant who trotted off down the road in a huff. We felt quite bad. Whilst we would miss our Doritos this was by far the most interesting animal encounter we'd had all trip and it seemed a shame to chase BulBul off when we were the visitors.

Turns out, the big tall Acacia we were camped under was also his tree. The helpful ranger who had smiled and said "No Problem" when we asked if it was a good place to camp had failed to mention this.

Poor BulBul. He must have thought us most ill-mannered. Camping under his tree then chasing him off with a big scary truck...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Monkey Business

To give you a flavour of the kind of executive business problems we have to deal with here at Red Chilli, we had a customer report a problem to us this morning.

Turns out there is a monkey fried on a power cable just outside his room. The monkeys leap from tree to tree, and house to tree, but where there are no trees near the houses, they will run up and down the power cables.

This one obviously reached out for a juicy avocado whilst still on the cable, or simply didn't clear the building before stepping on to the cable. How do you sensitize vervets to the dangers of electrocution?

So now we have to figure out how to get the corpse down. It will mean turning the power off at some point and then someone has the grizzly task of removing the body.

This is when I'm glad we have a team of camp attendants who will no doubt see the task as a manly challenge, and I can stick to the VAT returns...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Big Bumper Blog New Year Catch Up

I know, I know... It’s been far too long.

First the Kampala riots happened in early September, and I wrote a piece but while there was still the sound of gunfire in the distance at night and stories of journalists getting arrested for ‘inciting violence’ (read, criticizing the established government), I thought better of posting it. But I may resurrect it after casting a careful eye over the final edit…


Then I got embroiled in the whole oil and tourism debate. Or rather, trying to start one. Oil has been discovered in the national parks in Uganda. The government and the oil companies want to drill further test sites and then start production, in between selling their stakes and making millions.


The conservationists are horrified and are desperately trying to work with the relevant parties to mitigate the potential for damage to one of the top ten global areas for biodiversity. The tour operators and lodge owners are also up in arms – if the wildlife goes then so do our customers – so it’s in all our interests to run sustainable businesses and suddenly someone else comes in with full permission to start drilling up the Delta. Furthermore, they didn’t even want to speak with us. Two test sites were drilled and completed and restored within the National Park before any of the tourism concessionaires were consulted. And when we were finally consulted we were reassured that it was before the Environmental Impact Assessment for this next round of test sites would be submitted, only to see a copy of the report stamp-dated a week before our interview. Letters were written, petitions were signed, meetings were held. We played a nice game of what PR merchants term “Stakeholder engagement” for a while (ironic that it took the stakeholders to force a little engagement in the first place) until I personally decided that the fury and frustration I felt at some of the bureaucratic side-stepping and meeting avoidance being practiced by state and corporation alike was no longer worth the effort. I was keeping myself up at night, fuming at the latest email chain of weasel words and weak excuses, but the net effect was that nothing tangible was being achieved, so I quit campaigning for the tourism sector and went back to the day job.

It was a period of two months which left a bitter taste in my mouth. I have worked more than a decade in advertising, considered to be a profession that attracts individuals with little personal integrity, and yet I met more weasels in the process of a couple of months of oil and tourism discussions than I ever did in advertising. The whole process did however leave me in awe of the NGOs that I came across. There I was, railing in anger at knock back after knock back, but mindful of the fact that these conservation NGOs (amongst others) have to do this day after day after day. And still somehow seem to stay motivated. I doff my cap to them all, wherever they may be.


Then, Rich and I took a much deserved week of leave at the end of November and did another loop around the South West of Uganda. We stayed yet again at the beautiful Mihingo Lodge (I can’t possibly pass down the Mbarara road without making a night of it there now), went onto Lake Bunyonyi where we enjoyed a peaceful evening at Bunyonyi Overland Camp, and then onto Nkuringo for a walking safari at 2000m, more about which I shall write later. From Nkuringo, on the fringes of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, we drove up rocky switchback roads to pass over the mountains and down onto the Western Rift Valley plains again and made for Ishasha. The southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, Ishasha is famous for tree-climbing lions. Of course, with our luck, the lions were on their holidays and had not been seen for a week or two. But it was fine, we stayed at the lovely, peaceful Ishasha Wildnerness Camp on the Ntungwe River and were spoiled rotten by being the only guests and eating some fantastic food.

December came and went in a rush of tourists, trips and festive meals. Our camp at Kampala is full to the brim a few days either side of Christmas itself but on Christmas Day it’s strangely quiet. Those that do stay here on the 25th December itself, are usually in town to visit relatives or friends and so disappear to spend the day with them. It’s when Rich and I eat Christmas Dinner twice a day and play our annual game of pool.

New Year saw us take a trip to Kidepo, a remote National Park in the North East of Uganda on the Kenyan and Sudanese borders. More on that later too, but suffice to say we ended the year with the memorable experience of watching an elephant trash our campsite and eat all our Doritos.

And that, in a nutshell, is the last five months… I’m sorry it’s been a while and my New Year’s resolution for 2010 is to write more posts. So here goes….