East Africa

Summer 2007

Part 1: Uganda

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Africa trip

Danny and I had both wanted to go to subsaharan Africa for a while but weren't sure exactly where to go. Then we read about Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater and decided Tanzania was the place to go. As was to be expected, by the time we'd decided on dates and flight tickets our plan to visit Tanzania had grown to include a start in Uganda and a quick visit to Rwanda as well, and by the time we left we'd decided to climb a volcano in Congo and travel through Burundi as well. So, five countries to visit in only three and a half weeks!


The first country on the menu was Uganda, where we only spent two days. Uganda is a former British colony with some 30 million inhabitants. Unfortunately it is mostly famous for the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin, whose rule from 1971-1979 cost an estimated 300,000 lives. Nowadays it is home to the equally bloodthirsty Lord's Resistance Army, a guerilla group known for using child soldiers who they sometimes force to kill their own relatives. They are only active in the northern regions of Uganda though; the rest of the country is stable and perfectly accessible for tourism.

Wednesday August 15th (day 0): Flights

In the morning we flew from Zaventem (Brussels) to Schiphol (Amsterdam), and with the clear weather I could make some great shots.
Northern Brussels
The Heysel area of Brussels. You can very clearly see the atomium and the King Boudewijn stadium
The mouth of the Westerschelde (Western Scheldt) with the town and harbour of Vlissingen on the right
The Veerse Meer
The artificial island Neeltje Jans in the mouth of the Oosterschelde (Eastern Scheldt), part of the famous delta works that block storm tides
The part of the port of Rotterdam nearest the North Sea
The coast line of Holland

From Schiphol we flew to Entebbe in Uganda where we arrived at 9pm. We ignored the group of taxi drivers that assailed us as we walked out of the shabby airport, intending to catch a taxi on the road, but as we didn't find any there we had to return and barter with them anyway. We drove to the Backpackers Hostel in Kampala which turned out to be quite nice.

Thursday August 16th (day 1): Nile Rafting from Jinja

Initially we were gonna spend several days in Uganda, but with four other countries to go to we decided to only spend one day here doing the one thing we really wanted to do: go rafting on the Nile. The Nile flows north from Lake Victoria on its way to the Mediterranean, and this first section of the river is one of the best places in the world to go rafting. There are many rapids, including several of grade 5 (the highest grade), but because the river has so few rocks it is possible for newbies like ourselves to raft over them.

In the morning we were picked up at the hostel by a bus that first drove all around Kampala picking up other rafters and then drove us all to Jinja, the starting point. There were some 40 people there, and we first had to form groups depending on how wild we wanted the ride to be. Danny and I went for the "crazy boat" group, which turned out to have mostly other Belgians in it.
The Nile near Lake Victoria
The starting point of our rafting trip in Jinja
Then we were off, first paddling down a quiet section of the river and getting some instructions on how to paddle, how to hold on to the boat during the rapids and how to get away from underneath it when it flips. The first rapid was a grade 3 and sure enough our boat flipped around a first time and we were all in the water. I felt like I was going through a washing machine but I managed to cling to the rope attached to the boat the whole time while keeping my eyes and mouth shut. When we were through the rapid and I opened my eyes again I was all alone with the boat and didn't see anyone else for a while, strange experience. After a while people came swimming towards the boat though.

Since this grade 3 had already been very rough I was very anxious before the first grade 5 rapid. We flipped again and I tried to hold on to the rope again until my arm got pulled so hard I had to let go, but other than that it wasn't really worse than before. The next times we flipped I didn't bother trying to hold on anymore but instead jumped away so I didn't end up underneath the boat again. In total we rafted 31km of the Nile and crossed five grade 5 rapids. Each of them has a name like Big Brother or the Bad Place, as you can see on the map below.

Rafting the Nile in Uganda from Jinja

One time we got stuck in the middle of a grade 5 rapid and the instructor had to get out on the rocks and start pushing and pulling the boat while all of us had to jump up and down inside the boat simultaneously, with water violently rushing all around us. A fantastic situation that I tried to memorise. Now I'd brought a disposable camera and took pictures as best as I could all day, but stupidly I hadn't bought a water-proof one and though I always kept it in a watertight bag, it got wet eventually and all the pictures were ruined. There are plenty of pictures on the web though, here are a few.
Rafting the Nile
Rafting the Nile
This rapid included a 3m drop
Holding on to the rope as the boat flips
Flipping backwards - we never did that and these guys seem to be doing it deliberately
That three meter drop on the right was particularly cool, and that time the boat didn't flip. One of the most enjoyable parts of the day though was when the instructor told us we could swim - or rather, float on the current - for a kilometer or so. Though we were doing a typical European activity, the surroundings were very much tropical Africa with thick vegetation on both shores and scantily clothed native people doing their day-to-day thing by the water (like fishing in primitive canoes or washing clothes). There were also many birds; one time we saw an eagle dive into the water near our boat and emerge with a fish in its beak, spectacular. Swimming through this alien landscape in silence for a while was amazing.

The afternoon was a bit tedious with fewer rapids and lots of paddling, but the trip ended with the roughest rapid of all. The boats had to be carried along the first part which was grade 6 and not navigable in a raft. After that we were given a choice between two routes through the second part: one would give us a 50% chance of not flipping, while the other was impossible without flipping and would keep us all submerged for 30 seconds. The first option narrowly won the vote but predictably the boat flipped anyway and I wounded my foot against a rock. That was the end of the trip; we paddled to the end point on the other shore, passing a crocodile along the way.
The end point of our 31km rafting trip
Danny and me posing with the rafts

The bus brought us back to our hostel but had to go through the center of Kampala, which literally took hours during which we stood still most of the time. So it was about 10pm by the time we got back. If you're just gonna go rafting, better get a hotel on the eastern side of Kampala.

Friday August 17th (day 2): Kampala to Kigali

We woke up early to get to the office of the bus company Jaguar by 6am, hoping to catch one of their morning busses to Kigali in Rwanda. The taxi we'd ordered didn't show up at the hostel, so we paid two guys on scooters to drive us to the center, which was a very fun way to move around. Danny made a movie during the ride while I made some pictures - great minds think alike, almost.

Riding on the back of a scooter through Kampala
As good a time as any to take a picture - this is Danny on the other scooter
Walking through Kampala in the early morning. Love this pic.
Unfortunately all Jaguar's busses were already sold out, so we started wandering around town looking for another bus to Kigali and found one with a company called Regional. This bus would leave at 9:30, which gave us a good hour to grab a bite and walk around the city center.
The center of Kampala, with the big mosque built by Idi Amin in the background
Kampala's most noteworthy building is this Hindu temple, built by the city's sizable Indian majority which was expelled by Idi Amin.
We were at the bus station at 9:30. The bus however didn't arrive until noon. We left at 12:15 for the 8 hour ride to Kigali, during which we crossed the equator. The border crossing was to be quite stressing but I'll talk about that in the next part as the problem was on the Rwandese side.
The bus station in Kampala
Taken from the bus as we drove out of Kampala
Southwestern Uganda seen from the bus

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