Kampala, Uganda

The night bus from Nairobi to Kampala sounded almost luxurious:  air conditioning, lots of leg room, and reclining seats that the marketing brochure described intriguingly as “leatheroid.”  I’d reserved a window seat near the front.  We were scheduled to leave Nairobi at 8pm and arrive in Kampala twelve hours later.

I should have been more worried when by 10pm our bus still hadn’t shown up, but I was used to transportation delays and didn’t give it much thought.  There were no announcements of any kind, but at 10:30pm the other passengers – more clued-in than me – stood up and began to walk purposefully down the street.  I followed along in the back of the group, and after twisting through several dark alleys we eventually reached a bus.  I boarded last and looked for 3A, my assigned seat.  But there was no 3A.  The seats weren’t even numbered.

I showed my ticket to someone who looked like he worked for the bus company.  “Bus changed,” he said.  “Sit in any open seat.”  I learned later that our original bus broke down, so our bus company shifted us to another company’s bus.  Which meant no 3A for me (and, unfortunately, no leatheroid for anyone).

It gradually dawned on me that getting on the bus last had been a big mistake.  The only open spot left was the middle seat in the very back row.  The base of the seat was broken and slumped awkwardly downward.  The people to my right and left were not small, and when I squeezed into my tilted seat I found myself pressed solidly against arms and legs on both sides.  Every now and then I caught a whiff of an odor that made my eyes water.  Twelve hours began to seem like a very long time.

I almost bailed out.  I probably could have found a seat on a bus leaving the next day.  But the next day was December 24th and the idea of being on a bus when Christmas arrived sounded even more depressing than the idea of spending the holiday alone in a Kampala hotel room.  So I put on my headphones, and with the help of the music I managed to work myself into a diffuse, bleary state of half-consciousness that made the hours pass quickly.

We stopped at the Kenya border around 5am.  The process for crossing the border wasn’t clear to me, so I just followed the other passengers, who – with the exception of two Asian tourists – all seemed to be East African locals.  First we waited in line at the back of a beat-up, poorly-lit building, where I filled out the visa form and paid a fee.  Then we hiked down a long street in the pre-dawn dark, turned left at an unmarked intersection, and eventually reached the Uganda border, where our documents were given a final check.  The bus was there waiting for us and we re-boarded.

Soon after sunrise we passed over the Victoria Nile, the first time I’d seen any part of that legendary river.  We reached Kampala around 11:30am, but it took us another hour to clear an elaborate security check.  We didn’t reach our final destination until 12:30pm, a full 14 hours after we left Nairobi.  I was beat.

 

First Glimpse of the Nile

 

Winston Churchill visited Uganda in 1907 and famously described it as “the pearl” of Africa.  The country’s landscapes are diverse and dramatic.  Broad savannas teem with wildlife, rolling hills are blanketed by intricate patchworks of green and brown fields, the vast expanse of Lake Victoria dominates the southern border, and the snow-capped Rwenzori peaks are so otherworldly they’re called the Mountains of the Moon.  Despite all this beauty, the bloody reign of Idi Amin is the strongest association most Westerners have with Uganda (if they have any association at all), and, while the country is now relatively safe, the enigmatic Lord’s Resistance Army and its tragic child soldiers are still active in the north.

Uganda’s primary draw for me was the chance to see mountain gorillas in the wild.  Only about 700 of the critically endangered Great Apes remain in the world, and they can only be found in one place – the area where the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo meet.  Those three countries haven’t exactly been a model of stability over the past century, and all the turmoil has made it difficult to protect the rapidly-disappearing gorillas.

In the 1950s conservationists began to realize that tourism might be able to help.  Mountain gorillas are by nature afraid of humans, and they must be habituated – a process that takes years – before they’ll allow people to approach them.  But once a group of mountain gorillas has been habituated they’ll let humans get extremely close.

The work of Dian Fossey (popularized in a movie called Gorillas in the Mist) significantly raised worldwide awareness and interest, and over the years gorilla tracking has become the biggest attraction in Uganda and Rwanda.  Tourist dollars now provide a powerful financial incentive to protect the area’s wildlife, and the gorilla population has stabilized.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the far southwest corner of Uganda is home to about half of the world’s mountain gorillas.  Six of Bwindi’s gorilla groups have been habituated, and eight tourists each day are allowed to track and visit each group.  Supply and demand allows park officials to charge a steep fee for gorilla tracking – a one-day tracking permit costs $500 – but the majority of that money goes directly towards conservation efforts.

When I arrived in Uganda my only goal was to secure a spot on one of the gorilla tracking groups headed into Bwindi.  Some travelers manage to keep down the costs of gorilla tracking by going with a scheduled group and staying at budget hostels.  Other travelers shell out a lot of cash for a custom tour that includes luxury accommodations.  I somehow managed to combine the worst of both those approaches and ended up paying a lot to stay in budget hostels.

I’d underestimated the impact of Christmas.  The tour operators were all on vacation from 12/24 through 12/27 so I couldn’t even check availability until Tuesday the 28th, and it turned out the next scheduled group didn’t leave until January 7th.  I wanted to leave sooner, so I sucked it up and paid for my own solo tour.  And as long as I was creating a custom tour, I figured I might as well add on a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park to see chimpanzees in the wild as well.

The next available gorilla tracking permit was for the Nshongi group (sometimes spelled Shongi), in the Ruhija sector of Bwindi, on January 1st.  That sounded perfect.  If all went well I’d be spending New Year’s Day with mountain gorillas.  Not a bad way to welcome 2011!

It felt strange and lonely to spend Christmas by myself in a Kampala hotel room.  Uganda is 85% Christian, and the entire city shut down.  The street outside my hotel room, which had been gridlocked with people, cars, and motorbikes when I arrived, became deserted and silent.  I ate Christmas dinner in the hotel restaurant, where, for some reason nobody could explain, they played the movie G.I. Jane on a big-screen T.V.  I think it’s safe to say that watching G.I. Janein Kampala will not become a new Christmas tradition for me.

 

Mellow Sunday Afternoon on the Streets of Kampala (Video)