Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Archive for the ‘Uganda / Rwanda’ Category

A Lush Loop – Uganda and Rwanda

Posted by jamesandpolls on June 13, 2010

Our last night in Kenya was perhaps the strangest. It was near Eldoret, right in the West of Kenya, and was a ‘resort’ that looked like it had been taken straight out of ‘Africa World’ in Florida and dumped in the real Africa. The resort was owned by a rather strange Indian Kenyan with a mullet who thought that fake statues of elephant and gazelle and a bar called ‘the Safari Bar’ would bring in the punters, strange when the real deal is just around the corner. The warning bells immediately start ringing in a place like this when you see that row of international flags on white flag poles, so out of place in the bush, which I can only assume mean, ‘these are the countries that stay away.’ One man who it appealed to though was Bill Gates, who stayed for a night in December 2009. I know this because there is a plaque as soon as you enter, in pride of place, telling you this, and that lucky you can now stay in the ‘Bill Gates’ room. By the way the richest man in the world gave a $20 tip at the end of his stay. Even though we felt like we were in Florida we found a lovely camping spot by the pool and fake waterfall just next to a river (real). We were promptly reminded of our real location by a big (in all senses of the word) black Kenyan having his daily bath in the river . . .  Polls averted her eyes of course!

Patrick and Julie riding on the roof - Western Kenya

The next day we were into Uganda. We took two Canadian passengers with us, Julie and Patrick, whom we had picked up at Lake Baringo. The LR only has two seats so from Lake Baringo they were on the roof, but for the border and main roads we thought it safer they lay on a mattress in the back  – far comfier than travelling by matatu! The Kenya/Uganda border was the usual affair, money changers, touts, ‘fixers’ who cant fix all after the Muzungu custom. After telling them that I had not one Kenyan shilling left they were less interested and we left Kenya with little hassle. The Ugandan side was a lot more chilled, a character trait that we would continue to see throughout the country. The money changers wore uniform and withdrew if refused custom, one chap even asking me to remember him in case I returned, well money changer No.3, we promise to come back to you one day.

Uganda was immediately greener, lusher and agriculturally more intense than Kenya. Lake Victoria spreads almost up to the border here meaning that the ground is quite marshy. We passed paddy fields as we drove. It also seemed a bit better kept. Neater. Less rubbish. Jinja was our destination. It sits on the Northern tip of Lake Victoria and marks the start of the River Nile as it exits the Lake. It was great to get back in touch with this river, which we first met in Cairo and which had shaped much of our travel since then. We had been to the source of the blue Nile on Lake Tana in Ethiopia and now we were at the source of the major tributary, the White Nile, which takes a meandering course through Uganda before emptying into a huge marshland in Southern Sudan where it continues before meeting the Blue Nile in Khartoum. As well as holding the position as the world’s longest river, its impact on the countries it flows through cannot be underestimated. Without that regular supply of fresh water Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda would struggle for power and irrigation. It is a water source that is so important to these countries that a treaty has been signed dividing rights to the water, the majority going to Egypt.

X-treme rafting on the Nile!

Jinga no only marks the start of the White Nile but also the Bujagli Falls, which rival the Zambezi for white water rafting. We managed to camp literally right in front of these falls with no one else around, apart from on Sunday when the whole of kampala came and had pic nics around us. The Indian Ugandans were especially taken with us and spent most of their day taking ‘snaps’ of us with different members of their family! Our day of rafting didn’t dissapoint , we had an incredible day with 5 australian guys going down grade 5.5 rapids, spending as much time out of the raft as in..

Our team

It was also here that we met Agnes. Agnes was about 18 and pregnant, and come up, very brazenly, to our tent one afternoon and introduced herself. She seemed much more interested in me than Polls, indeed so interested that she had to stroke my leg and push her boobs in my face. Polls and I, feeling quite disarmed, left the table and pretended to busy ourselves with something or other. Agnes didn’t get the hint and just sat at our table for about 10 minutes not saying anything or doing anything. Eventually, without a word, she stood bolt upright and marched off. . phew. Later I went off to do some emailing. Agnes, bold as brass again, walked up to Polls and thrust a letter into her hand ‘Give this to James’ she demanded. Quite taken aback Polls looked at the scrap of paper and read it. . . ‘You do know I’m his wife don’t you?’ was her reply. ‘’Ugh’ said Agnes and stomped off. It reads. .

“Hello my name is Agnes. I am 18 years old.
How are you now I am humble for
Your self I could be with you.
My favourite colour is yellow.
I wont a friend with a sex my friend goodbye.

She almost had me at ‘Yellow’ but not quite. (a bad Jerry Maguire pun) Good luck to Agnes as she tries to leave Jinja by whatever means!

After the falls we said goodbye to our Canadian friends, who had managed to find a charity to work for in Jinja for a while, and headed onto Kigale. Good roads and lush forest, almost rainforest on either side. Weirdly masses of butterflies lay on the road in some stretches, like lemmings, waiting for passing cars to squash them. They are so numerous in places that it is not unknown for cars to skid and crash on dead butterfly juice! Kampala is a safe, modern African city, which is reinventing itself after a difficult period in the 70s and 80s (see Last King of Scotland). The political situation now seems stable and economic investment the buzzword of the day. Shopping malls are now popping up next to the slightly grubbier local markets (good thing or bad thing – you decide) and we started to see more of a South African influence here in shops and businesses. After being kicked out by Idi Amin, Indians have now returned and are noticeable in many areas of commerce. This was the first capital city since Damascus where we did not have a home to stay in so we had to find a place to camp.

The heavens opened in Kampala

The first, on the East of the city, gave us such an unfriendly welcome (something that has not reached many in Africa is customer service) that we decided to take our business elsewhere. Probably not a cause for concern to them when we are paying about $5 a night to camp but a statement nevertheless. The second spot was on the West side, this meant crossing the incredibly busy city. It was also at this time when the heavens opened and we had one of those once a month tropical storms where the rain comes down in torrents. It was not long before the roads became streams and we had got lost in a one way system (going the wrong way) surrounded by mutatus (minibus taxis). To make matters worse the windscreen wiper that had first broken in Dover and had never been reliable then had chosen this moment to come of entirely, this meant I also had to drive leaning over to my left looking through Polls’ half of the windscreen that was now clear with Polls giving some helpful hints to avoid people, cars etc. . We were saved by the rising water, which soon got to about a foot causing all traffic to either breakdown or get stuck behind a breakdown. This carried on long after the skies cleared and meant that a 5 mile journey took the best part of 3 hours, although I have to admit it was all quite fun.

The ‘Kampala Backpackers’ proved to be an oasis of calm and we found a lovely spot to camp on. Our fellow campers were mostly gap-year NGO volunteers  and charity workers who were in Uganda on short missions to save the country from starvation, disease, HIV AIDS, abuse (donkey and cow included), orphanages etc. . a list that has been the same since Ethiopia. It was not until about 1100 that we realised that these volunteers were also absolute ravers and our oasis of calm turned into the Oasis nightclub for the next 5 hours. The next day, rather exasperatingly, was dedicated to applying for an MBA in Cape Town, which meant completing the application and application essays, finding somewhere to print and photocopy them, finding somewhere to bind it all together and DHL-ing it to Cape Town. It took all day. We await the results with anticipation! That night we were meeting Peter, a Ugandan who was bought up in Uganda and the Sudan, who went to Dulwich College and Bristol Uni and is now back in Uganda running a company which provides a regular bus link from Kampala to Entebbe, the international airport, and also a haulage firm. He was a fountain of knowledge on all things Ugandan and clearly is doing sterling business. We also met lots of his friends; both Ugandan and ex pat NGO workers who treated us to a delicious curry in a rooftop restaurant – thanks Pete!!

Ugandans travelling light

The next day we were out of Kampala and heading West towards Fort Portal. Perhaps the best roads in Africa so far, built by the Ugandans meant three hours of tarmac smoothness (amazing how this matters so much). It was obviously a proud achievement as every kilometre there were two signposts, one on each side of the road, saying that Ugandans had built this road. This was every Km for the 180 km to Fort Portal – we got the message! We were staying on the rim of a crater lake surrounded by agricultural land and other crater lakes. It made for a fascinating stroll through the countryside and swimming in the lakes (No hippos, crocs or bilharzia – the three point checklist before swimming). It was rather strange to be walking in maize fields, miles from anywhere that can conceivably be called civilisation, watching some men scything grass with machetes, to be assaulted by the dulcet tones of Leona Lewis from a workers’ radio. It is a small world.

Through Fort Portal the next day we headed South to the Queen Elizabeth National Park (the name was changed after the Queen’s recent visit). It is a savannah national park nestled in between the two huge Albertine Rift lakes and sports many lions, elephant, buffalo, hippo etc. . We have had to be quite careful over the parks we are going to as they are very expensive. This was going to cost us $150 for 24 hours. After visiting the Visitors Centre we followed a track which our GPS showed went into the park. Only this track didn’t go through one of the gates where you had to pay! We kept driving expecting a gate but it didn’t materialise and we found ourselves on a free safari! A bit cheeky but an absolute result! There was a huge amount of game scattered around the savannah and we ticked off many game species, including our first lions.

Polls 'on safari' having morning tea after (free) game drive

After 2 days in the QENP (to get our moneys worth) we headed south towards the Rwandan and Lake Bunyoni. We stayed yards away from the beautiful shore where we could watch the sun set every night. It had been formed by a lava flow blocking a river which then formed the lake and is reputed to be the cleanest lake in Africa and also one of the deepest (4000ft deep). We hired a dug out canoe on one of the days ($2) and, with a picnic lunch packed, spent a very happy few hours exploring the many islands that are dotted around. After three days at the lake we crossed the border into Rwanda, saying goodbye to Uganda after an excellent 10 days . Before this trip I would not have been able to put a pin on a map and say for sure where Uganda was, but after our time in country we both felt we knew a little more about this little African country, right in the heart of the continent.

Sunrise in QENP

The border was a joy. A very rough dirt track led us to the Ugandan gate where we got ourselves and PAX stamped out. The 20m drive in no mans land being the only excitement as I went head on into a truck (Uganda drives on the left, Rwanda on the right – where does one swap over?) after a bit of reversing and gesticulating we arrived at the Rwandan border. The visa was FREE for the first time and we had to ask someone if we could change some money – no money changer hassles here. The visa guy was so friendly he invited us into the back office where we had the obligatory Premiership chat (he supported Liverpool and seemed to have a crush on Steve Gerrard) finishing off by telling me I look like Peter Crouch – for the 100th time since leaving.  Throughout our trip we have been asked if we are driving to SA for the World Cup, the whole Continent is talking about it. Still, at both the Ugandan and Rwandan borders we got asked. “It starts in 2 days!” was my reply. Blank faces. I wonder when this question will stop getting asked. The visa chap was 6”7 at least which immediately made me think that he was a Tutsi, and I wanted to ask him, but not sure of the post genocide etiquette on tribalism, I held my tongue.

Exactly half way in no mans land the dirt track had changed to pristine tarmac, a sure sign if ever there was one that the country ahead was more developed, in transport terms at least and it is true that Rwanda has had a lot of investment over the last 10 years. As we drove away, the differences, as is the norm, hit us straight away. Rwanda is full to the brim with people and every inch of available land is farmed. The roads, (of the pot hole free, butter smooth, empty of cars, tarmac variety) was teeming with people. The Ugandans had been clever. They had built a 5m hard shoulder on both sides which people used to walk along and herd their animals, the Rwandans had not. The road was a teeming mass of humanity, walkers with huge loads on their head, cyclists with massive bunches of bananas perched precariously on handlebars and seats, schoolchildren, all in yellow, wandering back home clutching a small bundle of books. The clothes are brighter here than Uganda as well, bright pattern prints of all colours are wrapped around the women, all set off by the amazing green patterns of well irrigated fields. There is also much more ‘head-carrying’ here. We have seen all manner of things perched atop peoples heads, to name a few – a handbag, an umbrella, a watering can and a small oar! Comedy.

Rwandans are amazing at head carrying...!

We passed Ruzengori which is the most often used base camp for gorilla trekking.  At the start of this adventure we thought we would see the gorillas but we have had to have a budget realignment and at $500 each for just 1 hour, we think it is something that can wait.  We have spoken to many who are here to see them, from as far away as Australia and the US, all who say it is worth it (hardly likely to say otherwise considering the effort they have gone to!) so I think we will have to come back. With no natural resources Rwanda is treasuring this source of income and gorilla numbers are now the highest they have been in the last 20 years. There is still time to see them.

Rwanda is tiny, half the size of Scotland, so on the day we entered we drove all the way to the very West of the country, Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu marks the boundary with the DRC and from our camp spot we could look across the lake and see Goma and the mountains behind. A historically turbulent border, all seems quiet now and if PAX was allowed we might have nipped in, just to say we have been there but not this time. Having read Tim Butchers Blood River I think of the DRC as truly the darkest country in this Dark Continent, and have a fascination with the place which I know will take us there one day!

Polls by Lake Kivu, Congo in the background

After three nights in two separate spots on Lake Kivu, truly one of the most beautiful camping locations so far, we headed for Kigali, which lies at the centre of this tiny country. It only took us two hours, on the way we passed some of the most stunning scenery so far; there really are vistas here, which minus the banana trees, could be Switzerland in summer or Italy.  On our way we passed a cavalcade of about 20 luxury Merc 4x4s with police outriders, this was for Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda. We wondered what his people thought of their president as he raced through their villages in the most bling way possible as they struggle to feed themselves! Another case of the ‘Big Man’ in charge?

James' little friend..

If you are squeamish, look away now…No trip to this continent can be complete without some strange medical affliction and here was mine. What I had thought of as a mosquito bite on my shoulder had not disappeared since Uganda and was now quite swollen, we thought perhaps it was a spider bite or insect sting. What it turned out to be was a Tumbu Fly which had laid an egg under my skin. The egg had hatched and a maggot was growing inside the ever-growing ‘bite’. We found this out because as I squeezed the ‘bite’, along with a large amount of yellow puss, the wriggling maggot came shooting out. Gross!!

We found a campsite in Kigali (a Japanese NGO which has let us camp in its car park) and after the maggot episode we had a quick bite before heading to the local bar ‘The Executive Carwash’ to watch the England v USA match.  Being the NGO capital of the world there was no shortage of westerners, although the US outnumbered the Brits 20 to 1. A great crowd livened up a disappointing match and I am looking forward to the next one, I think we will be in the Serengeti. (While watching the match a local, after I had told him what we were doing, asked if we were driving to the World Cup! “You are watching the bloody thing with me in Kigali. . . .” When will it end?)


After getting over the effects of  the night before we headed to the Genocide Museum in Kigali. For most people, genocide is what immediately pops into their head when they think of Rwanda and perhaps rightly so. The scale of it was immense. In a nutshell Rwanda was colonised by the Belgians. They separated the population into Hutus, Tutsis and Twa depending on rather arbitrary things such as nose width and height. Identity cards were issued. The result: A Hutu majority mainly occupied in agriculture. A Tutsi minority, used by the Belgians to run the country, civil servants etc. . Education and privilege heavily biased towards Tutsi.. Just before independence, in an effort to right the wrongs the colonisers reversed their policy putting Hutus in charge. 1962 Independence. It was a country divided. After some violence and killings during the independence era 135,000 Tutsis left Rwanda, a three year old Paul Kagame amongst them. Over the next 30 years tensions rose between the two tribes, vying for political power and recognition. 1990 Paul Kagame took over the RPF, a militia of 12,000 Tutsi exiles, and continued making raids across the border. April 1994, Rwandan and Burundi presidents shot down near Kigali airport. Within hours the killing began. Moderate Hutus and Tutsis were the target. In total, over the next three months, 1,000,000 people would be killed, mainly with machetes.

The UN had a peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the start but after 8 Belgium soldiers were killed withdrew most of them, leaving a measly 250 to protect the peace. On 30th April, 20 days after the genocide started, the UN had a debate about the situation. Much of the time was spent deciding what ‘genocide’ means and the difference between this and ‘acts of genocide.’ The US had been stung in Somalia (Black Hawk Down) and was reluctant to get into what it saw to be another African mess. The European powers had their minds focused on the Balkans. The killing continued. It was up to Paul Kagame and the RPF to end the massacre and in July, after fighting their way across the country they took Kigali and declared peace. Looking closely at the statistics it is staggering to imagine the effect of such a massacre in such a small country. 70% of people saw someone get killed, 90% saw dead bodies, 40% saw rape 99.9% experienced violence. Maurice, the manager of the hotel in Lake Kivu, was one of these. He was 11 at the time and saw all his family hacked to death in front of him. He escaped. Most do not talk about it, Maurice was an exception. There has been a significant amount of ‘forgiving and forgetting’ here. After this reconciliation many Hutus were allowed to return to their villages to live amongst the people whose lives they had ruined. This is why Maurice does not want to go back to his village. The men who murdered his family are now back. It has, undoubtedly, shaped the country as we see it today. It is still very raw in everyone’s minds.

The museum was fantastic but incredibly harrowing, Polls and I were exhausted by the tales and pictures of slaughter. Out of the mess have come some good stories. One of these we are visiting tomorrow. Hope and Homes for Children is one of the charities we are raising money for and we are visiting their Rwandan centre tomorrow. We are thoroughly looking forward to it and if our visit to them in Bosnia is anything to go by, it will be fantastically uplifting. If you enjoy reading these blogs then perhaps you might consider giving to one of the charities. You can do it through our website and click on the ‘Charity’ tab.

We only have a few more days in this country before we head to Tanzania. It has been both beautiful and disturbing in equal measures. We are both very pleased that we made the effort to do the Ugandan / Rwandan loop around Lake Victoria when going directly from Kenya to Tanzania would be a much easier (and more often travelled) route.  For now it’s back to the bush, the Serengeti, then to the coast and, leaving PAX behind, a few days ‘backpacking’ on Zanzibar (well, lying on a beach really). We feel we need a holiday from this holiday!

Good old African Sunset


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