I – The Great Lakes

The Great Rift Valley contains a series of vast lakes which between them contain 25% of the world’s non-frozen fresh water. The Western edge of the valley merges into the great Central African rainforest. It is marked by a series of long, narrow and deep lakes which run from north to south covering several thousand kilometres. The North Western lakes: Lake Albert, Lake Edward and Lake Kivu are fringed by huge volcanic mountain ranges – with craggy peaks rising abruptly to 5000 metre altitudes from the jungle. The Southern lakes, Tanganyika and Malawi, follow the rift’s Western edge southwards, with a combined length of over 1200km. The great lakes connect all the main water-systems of the East and Southern parts of the continent together. Lake Victoria, the largest lake which lies in the flatter, Eastern branch of the rift, feeds lake Albert and the Nile. Lake Kivu and Tanganyika are connected to the Congo river system to the West, while Lake Malawi almost reaches the Zambezi river in the South.

The great lakes occupied a prominent position in the Victorian imagination. Explorers, missionaries, geologists, gold-prospectors, soldiers, surveyors, archaeologists, botanists, anthropologists, journalists and all manner of adventurers competed with one another to penetrate the mysterious interior of the dark continent. The source of the Nile, which historians and geographers since Herodotus had speculated about, was finally traced to its furthest source in lake Victoria in the 1860s. Tales of the exploits of African adventurers as they subdued savage tribes and wildlife alike were staples of the newspapers of the era. Men such as Henry Morton Stanley, Cecil Rhodes and Gordon of Khartoum were propelled to international celebrity by ethnographically inaccurate and jingoistic reporting of their daring deeds.

The region continues to attract adventurers to this day and the road from Kenya also remains the only feasible overland means of approach. Our bus crossed the border at Busia into Uganda with minimal disruption and continued on well-paved roads towards the town of Jinja, which is positioned at the point where the white Nile leaves Lake Victoria. The water pressure produced as the reservoir of the great lake is squeezed into the narrow river channel provides the area with waterfalls, gorges and rapids which cater for thrill-seeking adventure sports enthusiasts. Jinja is ground zero for this industry catering to the fantasies of modern adventurers travelling in the imagined footsteps of the great 19th century explorers, to the source of the Nile itself.

As our bus approached the Jinja bus station, the evidence of adventure tourism accumulated. Large groups of athletic young people in water sports-gear could be seen roaming in herds through the streets. Signposts and advertisements for white-water rafting outings, bungee jumping, buggy rental and Australian themed backpacker hostels grew in prominence. Nevertheless, after depositing a large group of adventure seekers in Jinja and accepting a new group who had completed their adventures and were returning to Kampala, the advance of the bus continued remorselessly. By 7pm, 11 and a half hours after leaving Nairobi bus-station, we pulled into the bus station of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. We had covered almost 700km in a single day – a pace which far surpassed anything we had managed on our journey to date. The contrast with the transport infrastructure that we had recently encountered in Central Africa was particularly sharp. The journey was rapid, the road was paved and reasonably well maintained, the bus was luxurious and modern and did not break down.

White-water rafting in the Nile near Jinja

II – Backpackers Hostel

Seeking to avoid the stress of arriving in a new city after dark and having to find a place to stay, we befriended the adventure tourists onboard and sought recommendations for accommodation. Backpacker or adventure tourism did not exist in West Africa and we were curious to experience one of these tourist hostels for ourselves. On the recommendation of one of our fellow passengers, we decided upon “Backpackers Hostel” as our destination. As soon as we disembarked we made a bee-line for the taxi stands, jumped in the first cab, handed the driver a leaflet showing the address, and were ferried swiftly away from the chaos of the bus-station.

The Hostel was situated on a hill above the city centre, set at the centre of a large compound, surrounded by extensive gardens, with an onsite bar and restaurant. We were dismayed to discover that they were booked out of double rooms but relieved to learn that they did have some beds available in shared dormitories. We reasoned that these would be preferable to the alternative of driving around in a taxi late at night in Kampala randomly looking for a hotel room. We grabbed a beer and a snack at the hostel bar, which was deserted but had a mouth-wateringly familiar menu full of burgers and English breakfasts, before retiring for the night to our respective gendered dormitory rooms. To my great dismay the quiet atmosphere that had greeted us proved to be misleading. Throughout the later part of the evening, groups of young men with English accents arrived at the hostel, full of alcohol and bravado, returning from some adventure activity or other. All nostalgic memories of camping and adventuring in hostels were decisively crushed as my dormitory room filled up with staggering, braying, snoring, drunken young men. I did not sleep well despite having travelled through the day.

Upon awakening I happened to get into conversation with the young man who inhabited the bunk bed diagonally above my own. He told us that he, along with the rest of the dorm, and most of the guests at the hostel, was a trainee at Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training school, and they were in Kampala as part of training exercises that they regularly held with the Ugandan military. Obviously, this was not good news – drunken gangs of trainee officers on an African jolly to learn James Bond stunts do not make for peaceful room-mates. Later we begged the receptionist to move us to a private room and this proved mercifully successful, so we enjoyed the insulation of a locked door for the remainder of our stay.

The young man spoke with a distinct, if muted, Irish accent. Upon interrogation, he indeed turned out to be from Ireland. How and why he happened to join the Officer training program of the British army was never quite explained. He remained, however, personable and willing to share a drink or ten, in true Irish style. He provided pleasant company over beers in the hostel bar, happy to banter, argue and philosophise late into the night whenever called upon.

III – Kampala

Kampala is blessed in its location and climate. It is situated on the elevated plateau in the centre of the continent and is laid out across a number of gently rolling hills. This keeps the temperature relatively mild. As one travels West towards Uganda’s border with the DRC the landscape becomes progressively richer and wetter and more verdant and fertile, from grasslands to jungle and, eventually tropical rainforest. The presence of high levels of sunlight, water and rich alluvial soils makes this part of the world particularly good for growing plants. It is reputed that bamboo plants grow two metres per day on the slopes of the Ruwenzori mountains. Kampala is situated in a happy middle ground, with lush vegetation flowing down the rolling hills, with splashes of colour from patches of bright tropical flowers, indicating the presence of the villas and compounds of the elite.

The city centre is small and scruffy and occupied by markets and proletarian commerce – on the hills above modern hotels, banks and businesses predominate. The prevalence of armed police and security guards was striking – men in khaki holding antique-looking rifles guarded all the important buildings and traffic intersections. Since the Rwandan genocide and the start of the war in the DRC, there had been a series of bombings and shootings in Kampala and atrocities in rural areas which had been attributed to rebels who had infiltrated the country from the DRC. Local newspapers contained lurid accounts of beheadings carried out by rebels in the countryside. The urban population did not, however, seem particularly concerned by such security threats or particularly cowed by the armed police presence. Taxi drivers uniformly viewed the security measures as being cynically deployed by the president to enforce his control.

We spent a couple of days wandering through the streets until we eventually found an internet café. The city centre’s charms were quickly exhausted and we thereafter retreated to the leafy hostel and spent several days hanging around the bar and garden, enjoying the steady supply of hamburgers and cold beer, drinking with our new Irish friend and other travellers, gathering intelligence regarding our next move.

Although we had abandoned our effort to cross the DRC overland, we were not yet ready to turn our backs on the central African rainforest. The forests of Western Uganda and Rwanda are home to significant populations of primates, gorillas and chimpanzees, which are reasonably easily accessible from Uganda compared to the parts of the rainforest we had visited. Having spent so long around this rainforest, it was our last chance to see our closest relative in their natural habitat. However, the problem was that a huge war was raging across the border in the DRC and the primates lived close to the border. We wanted to make sure that the chances of getting caught up in the war by mistake were minimal. The advice of the backpackers in the hostel was, unsurprisingly adventurous – the security risks were not considered significant. The locals were more concerned with the threat from bandits on the roads, however, the consensus was that day-time transport was quite safe. After a few days of anthropological observations of the trainee officer in its natural environment, with our laundry done and having refuelled properly through a strict regimen of English breakfasts, we were ready to head out into the wilds once more. Our destination was Fort Portal, in the far West of the country.

IV – Fort Portal

We rose early to try to ensure that we would set out in time to arrive at our destination before sunset to avoid the risk of bandits or rebels on the roads. However, despite the familiarity of the menu, the service culture kept to African standards and my breakfast took hours to arrive and the prospect of an English breakfast was too tempting to allow me to curtail the wait. It then took some hours for the hostel staff to locate our laundry and for us to pack up to go. As we arrived at the roadside where people gathered to hail buses into the city, Deirdre remembered that her towel had not featured among the returned laundry and we returned to the hostel for an extended search. By the time we finally tracked down the towel and emerged again, it was almost noon and we decided to hail a taxi directly to the bus-station. As we pulled away, we passed a large group of people gathered around a minibus in an arrangement that suggested an accident. The driver informed us that there had in fact been a shooting – rebels had apparently opened fire with shotguns on a bus and had killed at least one person. His story was corroborated by the next day’s newspapers. Had the angel of missing laundry not intervened, we would have been sitting on that bus when it was attacked. This sobering thought made us quite relieved to be leaving the militarised atmosphere of Kampala.

The roads deteriorated as we travelled West and we failed to beat the sunset target. It was 7pm by the time the bus pulled into the station in Fort Portal, but happily the tension of Kampala was quite absent and armed troops were a rare sight. The town, set among spectacular forested mountains has a peaceful, sleepy air. We found a simple hotel room near the town centre and grabbed a beer and dinner before bed. The next morning we arose early and hired a taxi to take us onwards into the forest, to Nkingo and the Mabale National Park, famed for its chimpanzee population.

A troop of baboons blocked the road as we entered the park, flocks of tropical birds and clouds of bright butterflies filled the air. Within the park confines, a Safari hotel had been constructed to house tourists. The hotel had seen better days – the war in the DRC and the activity of the rebel groups had obviously not helped the primate-tourism industry. We were the only guests. We walked to the park-office from the hotel where organised tours on foot in search of primates in the wild are given by officially licensed guides. We signed up for the following morning’s tour.

The next morning we were surprised to find a small huddle of people waiting outside the park office. A Frenchman named Bruno and three couples from Israel made up our party. The Israelis were part of a large group who were camping at a site near the park office – Bruno told us that they were travelling to celebrate the end of their military service together and that such groups were common in East Africa and famed for their boisterousness.

the large, gnarly middle-aged male with thick matted greying hair who was hanging out of a tree by one hand and roaring at me

We set out as a group into the dense green forest, following our guide as he led us silently through the undergrowth, listening intently for the sounds of Chimpanzees. After a couple of hours walking, he gestured for us to stop – a branch broke in the distance. He gestured for us to follow him and set off at a brisk pace towards the sound. In the distance, a blur of dark shapes could be seen crossing our path – the distant outlines of a group of Chimpanzees travelling through the trees away from us. As we followed the sounds of the chimps crashing through the trees ahead of us, the guide started gesturing for me to slow down. Unfortunately the excitement of the sighting had proved irresistible to the guy behind me who pushed me forward enthusiastically every time I tried to slow down, yet refused to pass me out when I stood out of his way. We turned a corner into a clearing and, with the guy behind still clambering on my back, I almost tripped over our guide who had come to a sudden stand-still. I grabbed a tree trunk and somehow managed to prevent myself from flying headlong into the large, gnarly middle-aged male with thick matted greying hair who was hanging out of a tree by one hand and roaring at me from no more than 15 feet way. His aggressive gestures and posture appeared genuinely threatening. I slowly edged delicately backwards, not wishing to antagonise the angry ape and seeking to position myself so that my enthusiastic friend would be between myself and the chimp. In the background, behind the large angry male, the rest of the group of chimps continued travelling through the trees away from us. Although chimpanzees are undoubtedly adorable and cute, they are also ferociously strong and easily capable of tearing a human’s limbs apart and this angry male was evidently trying to discourage us from continuing our pursuit. It worked – nobody dared to try to pass him and after ten minutes or so of threatening gestures and grunts, he slouched moodily off into the trees.

12 Days Holiday Safari Culture and Wildlife Tours — Wild Travel Safaris &  Adventure

When we returned to our hotel, the proprietor cooked us a dinner of coq au vin from a can and filled us in on the history of man-killing chimpanzees in the park. One chimpanzee had been accustomed to visit the town on the edge of the park after dark to investigate the refuse. Over time he discovered the pleasures of alcohol and would get drunk on the dregs of beer cans. The residents would find him sleeping it off on somebody’s porch the next morning and he would eventually wake up and stagger off with a hangover back into the forest. The only trouble was that he could be a mean drunk and had to be dealt with delicately. Then, one night, while drunk, he killed and partially ate two small children and was found asleep the next morning with a half-eaten child’s liver in his hand. When he staggered off, a hunting party armed with rifles was quickly assembled and the chimpanzee was no more.

V – The Populous Rural South

From Port Portal we continued South, along the Western edge of the country, towards the Rwandan border. Although we travelled close to the border with DRC, there was nothing to indicate that a war was being waged nearby. The unpaved road snaked through mountains, lakes, forests and sleepy looking rural towns with only a couple of police checkpoints to interrupt us. The mountains and forests that line the border are virtually impenetrable – no roads run through them. Our destination was Lake Bunyoni, a scenic lake in the far South West corner of Uganda. As we moved South, the landscape changed, becoming intensely hilly and increasingly densely populated. Terraced fields extended over the summits of mountains and hills in all directions. Every inch of cultivable land was put to work.

Ruwenzori mountains on the Uganda / DRC border

The modern countries of the great lakes region – Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – are distinguished in Africa by having borders that are made up of almost no straight lines. This is because they correspond to the borders of political entities that pre-existed colonialism. The great distance from the coast and the mountainous terrain provided some protection against slaving raids, while the fertility of the land supported a relatively high population density. This allowed the indigenous political structures to better survive the shock of colonial invasion without disintegrating entirely. This provided a challenge to British imperialist planners in Uganda, however, who did not merely want to dominate militarily, their mission required them to transform these societies morally, politically and economically. Uganda and the Great Lakes region was not suitable for large scale settlement from Britain – too remote and inhospitable and with too many natives. The local societies were largely subsistence based, markets and trade did not play a large part in life and wage labour was unknown. Settlers served as economic shock troops who transformed military dominance into a modern economy based on wage labour and market exchange, driven by economic self-interest. In 1903, in an effort to fill the gap, the British proposed to the World Zionist Congress that Uganda, rather than Palestine, could be the location of the new Jewish homeland but were eventually turned down as the Zionists successfully held out for their preferred option of Palestine.

In the end, large scale importation of labourers from India was used to make up for the absence of settlers and as a substitute for a local wage economy. The Uganda railway, linking lake Victoria with the port in Mombasa was an engineering marvel begun in 1895 and completed in 1901. It was constructed by 30,000 Indian labourers, through 1000km of equatorial wilderness, roamed by lions and cursed by disease. Those who survived and stayed went on to become the middle management of the colony, dominating trade and administration as substitutes for the missing settlers. Naturally, importing a middle management caste from abroad disrupted social relationships significantly and created serious social and ethnic tensions.

19th century anthropology had a very simplistic model of social evolution – where societies passed through a progressive sequence of stages of development – from the most primitive and savage to the most noble and civilized. They also tended to project their values and prejudices onto the native societies that they encountered. For example, they tended to see pastoralists as being more noble than agriculturalists and tended to prefer them for governance and security roles. This reflected a European society where the imperial nobility traced their origins back to the conquest of the agrarian Roman empire and its peasantry by tribes of nomadic equestrian warriors. In Uganda, for example, the people were categorised into simplistic and inaccurate Bantu and ‘Nilotic’ stereotypes, with the army dominated by the pastoralist Nilotics, supposedly better suited to the roles.

70 senior police officers reshuffled

Thus, the colonial administration grafted new hierarchies and power bases onto the complex network of pre-existing relationships between ethnic groups. The resulting configuration did not constitute the basis for a stable nation state. Post-independence, matters came to a head when the president of the newly independent republic made the cardinal error of nationalising the country’s largest industries. A military coup ensued, but the coup leader – the notorious Idi Amin – turned out to be an unreliable partner. He turned on the imperial powers in a fit of pique, allied himself with Libya and the USSR and expelled the entire Indian population. Decades of dictatorship and persistent war followed. The current regime, under president Yoweri Musevini, came to power in a military coup in 1986 and set about constructing a single-party state based on a security and intelligence apparatus which has effectively suppressed all political opposition since. The regime depends on a permanent state of war and an ever present security threat to justify its existence and persistence. Uganda is a loyal servant of the great powers in strategic and military matters (e.g. the war on terror). Uganda has also effectively delegated its economic management to the large exporters via a series of deregulating structural adjustment plans with the international financial institutions. As long as the government continues to be obedient to the great imperial powers in these matters, the state of permanent military rule will be allowed to extend indefinitely. It’s very convenient to have a local partner take care of the dirty work.

VI – Lake Bunyoni

Lake Bunyoni is one of the lesser lakes of the region, but it is vast by normal lake standards. It is set in the intensely hilly, intensively cultivated terrain of the South West corner of Uganda, bordering Rwanda. The lake had been recommended to us as a tourist destination in the backpackers hostel in Kampala. The tourist infrastructure at the Lake was sadly clearly suffering from the depredations of neglect. It amounted to a small number of backpacker camps which were mostly empty, with a few forlorn and empty restaurants along the shore. The lake itself is the main communication and transport highway for the region. It snakes through the hilly terrain, providing a much easier way to transport produce than overland. The locals paddled canoes effortlessly through the waters travelling from spur to spur in all directions – the surface of the lake was crisscrossed by the wakes of commuters. I tried to learn their skills for an afternoon before conceding defeat. Steering and powering a canoe with a single paddle from the back of the boat turns out to be more difficult than it looks. I attempted to convey myself to a small island right in front of our hotel. My route resembled a corkscrew – at least it provided entertainment for the bored staff hanging around who hooted enthusiastically at my incompetence. Thereafter we paid for a local water taxi rather than trying to propel ourselves.

The lake contains many small islands, some of which are cultivated and inhabited. We found an island with an abandoned old tourist hotel and resort – thick tropical foliage was slowly reclaiming the follies and enveloping the garden sculptures. It stood in stark contrast to the surrounding society – subsistence farmers living in crushing poverty on tiny plots with only the simplest structures for housing. It gave the place the atmosphere of an abandoned palace of a long-dead civilization.

Typical Lake Bunyoni transport canoes

We chartered a water taxi to take us to the local market town – it turned out to be an hour long paddle each way. It felt wrong to sit there for an hour while the poor man did all the paddling behind us, but I had learned my lesson and tried to enjoy the ride. As we progressed more and more boats appeared, all converging on the same spot on the distant shore, many evidently laid down with sacks of freight. The market was set on a sloping hillside that extended steeply upwards from the lakeside to a small ramshackle village on a slightly flatter area 50 metres above the shore. The views across the lake and hills was spectacular – no roads, electricity or any evidence of modernity as far as the eye could see – just the fingers of the lake stretching out into the distance and the endless rolling hills, terraced for agriculture everywhere as far as the eye could see. The market itself was distinguished by an overwhelming sense of crushing poverty – ragged malnourished farmers gathering around a collection of shacks with barely any food for sale. The only prepared food that we managed to find for our lunch was a helping of several kilos of boiled potatoes with salty water. Everything seemed strangely reminiscent of famine era Ireland: intense cultivation of potatoes, high population density, small marginal farms.

Pretending to help out with the paddling – lake Bunyoni

On the return journey from the market, we stopped off to visit an encampment of pygmies that had been established on the lake shore. These people were Batwa hunter-gatherers who had inhabited the nearby Bwindi impenetrable forest until they were evicted by the government and moved into settlements. This was as depressing as the market had been – the camp had the air of a concentration camp about it with a population that has been culturally defeated and knows it is powerless to do anything about it.

Bwindi impenetrable forest

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