Saturday, November 18, 2017

Disgusting Trump and his abominable sons

This is what happens when you hand your iPhone over to your Gracepatt Ecotours guide to do some yousies at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi. Stephen was so delighted with the quality of the photographs that he couldn't help himself - honestly, this is just a fraction of what he took. I don't blame him at all, despite all the deleting it's led to, because his own phone was pretty basic, as were most of the non-tourist ones I saw being used during my Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas tour through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda earlier this month.

They are, though, an absolute boon to poor people in Africa: with my wealth of through-the-window experience of street life in, now, five countries in that continent (that's roughly one eleventh), I can boldly generalise to say that cellphones are ubiquitous and understandably so, when even electric lighting in homes can be a luxury, and landlines non-existent. It must have been such a glorious improvement to their standard of living to be able to communicate with others so easily. Yay for technology. But nothing of the sort for the unspeakable Trump.

After last night's horrifying news about the US re-opening the import of hunting trophies - coincidentally (not) to the benefit of the Orange One's disgusting sons - I was heartened this morning to scroll down on my own phone to read this tweet from Ellen Degeneres:
I'm sure many - hopefully most - Americans are equally dismayed by the Abomination's latest abomination. Certainly that unspeakable dentist who murdered Cecil the lion last year got a lot of local protest that I hope (but doubt) made him regret what he'd done. And honestly, where is the skill in shooting these magnificent animals? There is none. These pathetic self-styled 'hunters' don't actually hunt their targets, they're just taken to where they are - in fenced reserves - and then shoot them. That's not hard either - they're big animals, difficult to miss. Truly, I could have shot the Big Five myself, twice over, easily. There's no kudos to be earned - as if there ever could be anyway.
There was a nice American couple at the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage who were buying four fosterships to give as Christmas presents. Good for them. In the sure and certain knowledge that neither of my offspring will read this, I can say that I bought one too, as a present for the younger one, an elephant fan from way back. I chose Enkesha, a little girl of 18 months who was rescued in the Masai Mara where she was found with a wire snare (meant for antelope, for bushmeat) around her trunk, almost severing it (you can see the wound, in the photo above). Sadly, to save her life, she had to be removed from the care of her mother and her herd.
The Trust stitched the wound up twice, and though each time she promptly rubbed all the stitches out, it's still healing quite nicely. I'm not sure if that's the reason why she was drinking water directly, with her mouth in the trough, rather than the normal method of sucking it up her trunk and then squirting it into her mouth, but hopefully she'll get that sorted out. She came right up close to my bit of rope, and I was able to pat her. She'll be at the Trust until she's three, and then she'll be taken to a reintegration unit to be looked after until she feels able to live wild in a herd. Keepers will watch over her until she's accepted, which could take up to ten years. Isn't it heartening to know there are people being so kind to animals? Don't you wish certain other people were more like them?

UPDATE: After a world-wide reaction of shock and horror, there has been the suggestion of a retraction on the part of His Orangeness. Good. Be nice if he were as open to reviewing his other disastrous pronouncements.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

You're the Business, Emirates

When you've spent 16 days bumping and lurching along 3,467km of roads through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, in an un-air-conditioned truck with rattly windows, loose screws and meanly padded seats, oh! what a treat it is to return to the comforts of the 21st century. Especially when those comforts are supplied by experts in the field: ie, Emirates' Business Class.

I arrived with heaps of time to spare at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, because, I admit it, I was, feebly, Africa'd out by then. I was keen to get cracking on the journey home, but it looked as though I would have to spend a couple of hours on a bench near the check-in desks because it was too early to send my bag through. Then, though, the lovely Emirates lady took pity on me, promised to keep the bag safe behind the desk till it was time to put it on the conveyor belt, and sent me through to the lounge, airside.

The airport is a bit then-and-now, after a fire in 2013, but the lounge is in the new bit and, shared with Turkish Airlines, comfortable and well-supplied with the necessities and more. I kept myself perfectly happy and busy there for hours until my flight was called. EK722 uses a Boeing 777 in several permutations - this was the 300 with three classes - but it's being phased out in favour of the ER version. I wouldn't have liked to be in the middle section of three seats, but my window one was nicely private despite my having a neighbour. It would have been nice if the seat had reclined totally flat for this overnight flight to Dubai, but since I've also spent the last 16 days mostly sleeping in a tent, I wasn't inclined to be picky - and anyway, after eating dinner at midnight (after, etc, of same-same stews and vegetables, I wasn't going to turn down proper food on a china plate however unsociable the hour) there wasn't much sleep time left of the five-hour flight.

Arriving at Dubai, I made up for the 16 etc of solid sitting by taking the long, long hike from my C gate to the central B section of that enormous airport building, diverted by all the glitz on offer. Then I rode the train to the A section where the Business Class lounge is simply massive. It has two fine dining restaurants, does that sum it up? I took another shower, and had some breakfast (disappointed, to be honest, not to find the excellent Bircher muesli I'd had on the journey out - which I would have savoured even more had I known about the 16 days of crumbly bread and banana sandwich-based breakfasts to come).
Then came the moment I'd been looking forward to for such a long time: stepping (the first passenger off the airbridge, I was that keen) onto the A380 for the 15 hour journey back home to Auckland on EK448. Private pod, shiny walnut veneer everywhere, lockers to keep all my stuff stowed handy, a big TV, 2,500 channels to scroll through on the tablet controller (including the box set of the last season of 'Episodes', yay), a seat that reclined completely flat, a bar at the back of this upstairs cabin... Wonderful stuff.

And, finally, after sleep, entertainment, a dinner of tender meat (those 16 same-same stews were invariably on the chewy side) and flapjacks for breakfast, we touched down in Auckland. I hit the ground not exactly running, but striding briskly as usual, and not only got to the luggage carousel second, but waited only a couple of minutes before my bag appeared. I was first through customs and, final Emirates Business Class joy and glory, there was the Corporate Cabs man waiting to take me home. Touchdown to taxi in 28 minutes - that has to be a record. Further, thanks to the new Waterview tunnel, the trip into the city took only half an hour, I just scraped onto the ferry one hour after I landed, and 40 minutes after that, I was home. Class act, Emirates: you're the Business!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Giraffes do it with tongue

Well, how else should you spend your last hours in Africa, but kissing a giraffe and patting baby orphan elephants? So I went with Gracepatt Ecotours out, first of all, to the Giraffe Centre on the outskirts of Nairobi. Here they breed Rothschild giraffes and release them to national parks. There are 3 sub-species of giraffe in Kenya, and this one, found only in this country, was nearing extinction, down to 130 individuals because of habitat loss. Then Jock and Betty Lesley-Melville stepped in and began their rescue in 1979 - it's not over yet, there are still only 300 of them, but the future's looking pretty good. If you're wondering, you can pick them by their white stockings.
Equally important, as ever, is education, especially of young people: about the environment, wildlife, and its importance to Kenya - as well as its right to live here. So there are well-informed guides at the centre handing out molasses-cereal pellets to hand- (or mouth-) feed the giraffes, and telling everybody all about them and what extraordinary creatures they are. Necks the same length as their legs, did you know? Same number of neck vertebrae as we have. Tongues 46cm long - and blue. The thing to do here is to hold a pellet in your lips and wait for the giraffe to take it. There are whiskers and a bit of spit, but it's a gentle process. Step back fast once the food is gone, though, or you'll get head-butted.
Next we went to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to get up close with orphaned baby elephants - so, naturally, cuteness overload. For an hour a day, you can go in and watch while 32 eles are brought up close and each fed big bottles of lactose-free baby formula. 
We stood behind a flimsy rope and watched them trotting eagerly out of the trees, in two groups, rushing up to the keepers to get their feed (every three hours, 24 litres each in total) and not always happy once the bottles were empty - there was a bit of irritated trumpeting going on. Then they wandered around, playing with each other, picking at leaves, messing with the water in a trough, and frequently close enough to the rope for us all to give as many pats as we wanted. There was a bit of inter-elephant pushing and shoving, and we sometimes had to leap backwards not to get trodden on, but it was a lovely experience.
The head keeper gave a detailed history of each of the orphans - name, age, how it ended up here (some mothers poached or dead of drought, a surprising number rescued from wells, a bit of human interference) and lots of other information, as well as an impassioned plea to avoid buying anything that could encourage more poaching. The babies are all re-introduced to wild living once they're old enough, but it can take five years to establish them with a new herd.
Though it was sad why they were here, it was really lovely to see them, especially up so close, to touch them and look into their eyes, and recognise what unique and special animals they are.
It was also pretty unique to run into the New Zealand Scrabble Team there, in Nairobi for the biennial international championships.  A Kiwi has, uniquely, won it three times in the past, know that? But this year's winner of the $20,000 prize was from Bahrain. The competition games are always one-on-one, by the way. Far too hard, with more players, to remember what tiles are still to be played.
Then Stephen, my chatty driver, took me back to the hotel - city street vendors wandering along the stationary lanes of traffic offering drinks, snacks and bananas, but also ties, tea towels, chef's hats, inner tubes and framed paintings - to have a final Tusker beer with the last of my Kenya shillings before heading out to the airport for tonight's long journey home. On the way there, stuck in some of Nairobi's dreadful traffic on a dual carriageway with four lanes nose-to-tail on both sides, was Africa's last surprise: a herd of cattle calmly grazing on the central reservation.

Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas - review and advice

Keep in mind that the Intrepid Game Parks and Gorillas tour I did in November 2017 is unlikely to be offered in the same format in future since Rwanda, having already doubled the price of a gorilla permit this year, is rumoured to be planning further increases. They know there’s a demand, and they’re going for the upper end of the market (they already have a permanently-full lodge there that costs USD3,000 per night – a staggering sum by African standards).

But I can give you an idea of what it’ll probably be like to do the new-version Intrepid tour to view the gorillas from the Ugandan side. So will the website’s Trip Notes, which pull no punches and warn about long days on bad roads in an un-airconditioned truck, variable toilet/shower facilities, putting up your own tent, and chipping in with the chores.

In reality, it’s even more rugged than that. The truck – which, to the credit of its carer – didn’t break down or even get a flat tyre, is rough, battered and pretty irritating in a number of ways. Even simply the steps into it: all different heights, just made to catch you out. Despite the big sign about fastening seatbelts, they’re all dodgy: either too loose or too tight, the buckles sometimes too stiff to use, at least one clip missing. The seats are padded, but not adequately for African bumps, so it’s a good idea to sit on a rolled-up mattress. That’s also helpful to lift shorter folk like me high enough up to see over the intensely annoying window-pane edging and reinforcing bar which are exactly at eye level. Further, the window glass is old and dirty, covered in tiny grains of whatever that make it impossible to wash them clean (I tried). When the prime reason for your being here is to see the country, I reckon that’s unforgivable. So a lot of time, the windows were down (they’re arranged horizontally) – but only if your neighbours behind are ok with the draught. It’s really frustrating for photographers. Having said all that, other companies use the same trucks, so it’s not purely an Intrepid feature. The main necessity is for the vehicle to be able to cope with the challenging roads, which ours did – it’s hard to imagine a fancier bus making it unscathed along this route.

The tents are sturdy, straightforward to erect and offer good protection from rain (as long as you remember to zip up your windows, sigh) – but they are heavy to haul around, and the clips that hold them to the metal frame can be really stiff and hard to operate. Some are better than others. Inside, it’s a snug fit if you’re sharing, and you won’t be able to store much gear in there – safer to use the truck’s lockers, anyway. On this tour, the maximum number is 16 (gorilla visiting parties are limited to 8) so, since the truck seats 22, there are surplus mattresses in the locker – thus it’s possible, by stealth or negotiation, to use two, which is much more comfortable.

The campsites varied a lot, but the common feature for most was disappointing facilities: we had, variously, no water, cold water, muddy water and, now and then, lots of nice hot water. Take wet wipes. There was, on the other hand, free wifi more often than not, although usually pretty slow of course. There were often upgrades available, into dormitories or rooms, and the prices were usually pretty reasonable though it does add up. That doesn’t, by the way, guarantee you good facilities – some of them had no bathrooms, and others were just as challenging, light- and water-wise, as for the campers. One, though, was enviably luxurious.

The food was substantial and healthy although fairly monotonous: lots of salads and vegetables, stews of various sorts, and fruit for dessert. It did, though, get pretty boring by the end, and though the veges were tasty, the stews were invariably on the tough side. To our cook’s credit though – and due in large part to his authoritarian manner re hygiene, no-one developed anything inconvenient over the entire 16 days. We all took our turns, according to the rota, at preparing the vegetables, and washing up dishes and pots (also, sweeping/mopping out the truck daily). The system was good, and efficient, and flapping (the dishes dry) soon became second nature.

As far as equipment is concerned, don’t stint on your sleeping bag, because it does get cold at night in some places along the route. Some people even brought proper pillows, which were comfy both at night and in the truck. Be prepared for your body, clothes and shoes to get dirty and stained orange with Africa's dust/mud. Leave the good stuff at home, and your standards. Wear things multiple times, don’t worry about clashing patterns, or buying up Kathmandu. Just have something beige/green for the gorilla day. Game drives don’t matter because you’re tucked inside the truck. A head torch is essential. For the gorilla trek, boots are a bit over the top – most people managed fine with trainers, and some appreciated gaiters because those big stinging nettles they have there in the jungle are truly vicious and can bite through fabric. If I ever did it again, though, I would wear gumboots/Wellingtons like the guides do – as long as they have soles with good grip, you’ll be fine, and they’re so much easier to wash the mud off after. I really wished I’d brought my Hunters.

The optional activities added some variety to the trip. The chimpanzees were a universal disappointment: because of cool weather they stayed way up in the tree tops, so that was $70 pretty much wasted. The boat cruise in QE National Park was really good, with lots of hippos and birds. I recommend the horse ride at Jinja – lovely horses and a good guide, and you needn't be experienced. Other people enjoyed the white-water rafting and quad-biking there, though some of them were relieved when it was over.

More than anything else, though – and this here is a counsel of perfection that, personally, I fell short of - you need to make sure you bring along quantities of patience and tolerance, and a sense of humour. Travelling in a biggish group of strangers, you’ll be tested in many ways. Try to stay positive and concentrate on the good bits, and rise above the irritations. The gorillas will be worth it, I promise.

Final verdict: I’m glad I went, though there were a couple of serious disappointments. Our guide Edwin was useless and didn’t tell us any more than he needed to and sometimes not even that, sitting silently down the back of the truck day after day. Someone more forthcoming would have enriched the experience immeasurably. But the other guys, Ben the driver and OT the cook, were excellent and professional and did a great job. Retracing so much of the route after the gorillas seemed kind of a waste but I don’t know if it’s possible, road-condition-wise, to do a circle route. I was prepared for it to be rugged, and was resigned to a monotonous menu, so that didn’t matter. The gorillas were exactly as promised, super-special and worth the money and effort. The cavalcade of African life past the windows every day meant even those long, long days on the road were fascinating and never boring. I never felt unsafe and, Edwin apart, everything else was professionally organised and reliable. I think you should do it. Even the rough stuff will give you great stories to tell back home.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas - Day 16

It was only after I had lain for a while last night enjoying the cosiness of hearing rain on the roof of the tent that I realised I wasn’t actually feeling cosy at all – in fact, I was wet. Someone genuinely helpful had opened a couple of my mesh windows yesterday afternoon to air the tent, and I hadn’t realised that the one with a closed solid blind inside was also open on the outside when I shut the others at dusk. So in the rain came, onto my mattresses, sleeping bag and even the clothes I was wearing inside it since it was a cool night. But it wasn’t a huge deal: two weeks of general discomfort prepared me well. I survived.

The Exodus group had vanished during the night, like those other things that vanish in the night, so even rising at 5.15am to pack up felt like a lie-in. We had our last breakfast – omelettes – and, hooray, my last instant coffee-Milo drink, loaded up and were away by 6.45am as a rainbow signalled a less than sunny morning ahead.
Wet and misty, and also early on Sunday morning, there wasn’t for a while much to see of the roadshow, but gradually the shutters came down, and people appeared on the verge with food to sell – watching the woman clutching three cabbages rushing to our windows and then, when rejected, running along to the next stopped truck made me feel very privileged, despite my whingeing about discomforts on this trip. Men with loaded donkeys walked along by the road – no lead rope needed, they were a team – women piled up their pyramids of potatoes, some men were hacking away at the stumps of a cleared forest, and another man grabbed several chickens that were standing amongst an unsuspecting flock on a grassy bit of verge (that wasn’t going to end well).

Watching the road ahead, I saw several instances of dodgy overtaking – and then, sure enough, passed the recent wreck of a car, stove-in at the front, with people gathered around it. We’ve come across so many dramatic-looking road accidents on this trip (and heard one actually happen right behind us) – at least six in the fortnight, which is exponentially more than I’ve seen anywhere else. Something to consider, people, if you’re tempted to do a self-drive here.

On a guided tour like this one, though, there is little of that sort of responsibility; instead, there’s lots of time to observe and to think. Like, if your job is to watch over a little herd of cows or goats or sheep all day as they graze along road verges and tracks and on bits of apparently common land, what do you think about? All day long? How old are you when you’re first sent to the pump to bring back a jerry-can of water? How old when you can’t do that any more? And what happens to you then? How much skill does it take to pile up a two-metre stack of firewood on the back of your bike? And how much strength to wheel it to where it has to go? How much competition is there amongst the women waiting by the road to sell their fruit and vegetables to passing truckies? How often do those welders and grinders and wielders of machetes have industrial accidents? And how much pure talent is squandered by there being no alternative to spending your life performing these menial tasks?
And then you see something that distracts you: like a bunch of women down in a riverbed busily doing their washing in water that’s opaque orange. Or a young woman dressed to the nines in bright red, picking her way through the mud in her fancy shoes. Or people being scanned for explosives by a security guard before going into a supermarket. Or four men on the back of a motorbike carrying a long metal stake. Or a shop called ‘God Cares Auto Spares’. Or a man ushering a herd of goats along the roadside, a single donkey in the middle of them. Or smiling at the iPod when it suddenly throws up Toto’s ‘Africa’.
Finally, we approached Nairobi again, getting swept up in city traffic, the cars and people both looking much smarter. There were avenues, skyscrapers, traffic lights and, at last, our hotel again and the usual messy dispersal of the group with no ceremony whatsoever.

Upstairs was a spacious room with a bed, a shower, lights, and privacy, all now a welcome novelty. I ventured out to the Stanley Hotel, an important part of Nairobi’s history, especially the railway bit – they paused here to summon up the strength to tackle the Great Rift Valley – and famous for its Thorn Tree CafĂ©, of Lonely Planet fame. To be honest, it’s pretty sanitised now, onto its third thorn tree and the travellers’ notes these days pinned to a bulletin board instead of its trunk – not very interesting notes, either. But the coffee was good, and I appreciated the civilised niceties I’ve been without for the last fortnight.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas - Day 15


There was mist over the Nile when we rose this morning – “I’ve never seen so many dawns,” someone said plaintively. We headed out of camp at 6.45am, rattling a bit more around the truck because four of our number headed off early this morning to Entebbe airport, one couple going to Mauritius for some R&R, the other making the connection with their next Intrepid tour, to the Serengeti.
The rest of us continued retracing our steps back towards the tour’s end tomorrow in Nairobi; tonight’s destination is the camp at Eldoret - it already seems an age ago that we stayed there on Day 3. Everyone is now looking forward to their next journey – Serengeti, Cape Town, Mauritius, or home – and few of them paid much attention any more to the cavalcade of African life parading past our windows, preferring to read, nap, write, chat.
I don’t know when, if ever, I will be back in Africa, so I remained glued to the window, still fascinated by the sights, despite their being (now) so familiar: Masai cattle chewing their cud on roundabouts as trucks rattle past; women bent double sweeping the dirt with hand-besoms or working with babies tied to their backs; security guards leaning against walls, guns slung over their shoulders; kids playing with footballs, in the ditches or doing Saturday chores, the littler ones waving excitedly from the verandas of their homes; goats fossicking, chickens scratching; four-poster beds, metal doors and window grilles on display outside dark, poky shops; stacks of plastic-wrapped mattresses (also often seen rolled up being transported on the backs of motorbikes); carpenters, mechanics and welders at work beside the road; people hacking with mattocks at the orange soil, surrounded by green luxuriance; lines of washing strung between trees, done in plastic basins on the ground, with water carried in the ubiquitous yellow jerry-cans; and everywhere people, walking, cycling, with loads on their heads or on their backs, working, watching over cattle, or just sitting. 
One of the more frequent advertisements plastered across the fronts of the terraces of shops is for a brand of paint, the slogan ‘Colour Your World’. Pretty superfluous instruction here, I reckon.
We reached the border crossing, lurching and swaying again across old bridge over the river and up to the Kenyan side, driver Ben negotiating a tight 90-degree turn around a truck that he judged to a nicety. The formalities this time included taking our temperatures and actually checking the yellow fever certificates that have been ignored so far – the ebola outbreak in Uganda is the reason for that. We changed our money back via the fat jolly man with a fat wad of notes in his hand who came onto the bus, and then we were on our way again, urging Ben to get ahead of the Exodus Travels truck that we shared Adrift with last night, and which is heading to the same site tonight in Eldoret. There was some anxiety that they might beat us to the upgrades – though not on my part, natch: it’s the last night for tenting and I planned to finish as I began.
And so the journey continued, as before, with the foreground so absorbing it was easy to ignore the backdrop of green hills or wide plains, the occasional rocky outcrop, and a big, big sky. Lunch was in the grounds of a tatty little hotel with smelly loos and a sad skinny cat who mutely begged as we ate our final – yay! – standard lunch of sliced tomato, cucumber, pepper and onion, with grated carrot and cheese (livened up in my case with mixed mayo and peanut butter) and crumbly bread. The cat appreciated the cheese, and also the Spam that I took for the first time for his sake, which I hope didn’t disagree with him afterwards (I haven't eaten it for precisely that reason).
We pressed on, into Eldoret where a detour was necessary because of the funeral of an Archbishop, attended by the President (who has already held us up once before on this tour). It was when I’d watched a man wheeling a bicycle along the street with a load of stacked firewood on the back fully 2 metres high, and only as he disappeared thought I should have taken a photo, that I realised how standard I’ve come to consider such sights.
I put my tent up unaided this time and got the shower to work properly: it’s only taken two weeks to get the routine straight. Same goes for the others. We did the post-lunch clear-up of washing up and flapping in eight minutes flat, so we’re clearly now a well-practised team - either that, or the four who left this morning have been holding us back all this time. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas - Day 14

How lovely to wake without an alarm - and also to the novelty of monkeys scrabbling across the tin roof. It was a beautiful morning, the Nile glossy and smooth, with just a few fishing canoes dotted across it below the dam. Today we went in all directions for our optional activities; it was just me who chose the horse-riding.
Moses came to pick me up on his boda boda - a motorbike taxi - and we chugged along (helmetless) for half an hour on roads busy and deserted, paved and dirt, the engine switched off on the downhills to save petrol, to Nile Horseback Safaris. This is an admirably well-run operation which is home to around one quarter of Uganda's horse population (that is, 23 - there are just over 100 altogether. In the entire country). With very little fuss Suzie did the formalities and introduced to my guide, local man Danny, and my horse, a good-looking chestnut called Rusty with smooth and comfortable paces.
With two trainee guides in tow, we set off along tracks and dirt roads, past simple homes with coffee beans drying outside, little kids waving in excitement, adults smiling shyly or giving the upward nod, depending on their coolness, past shops and stalls. We rode through maize plantations (the reason for Rusty's mesh muzzle - sweetcorn leaves are very tempting for horses), past potatoes, yams, mango and jackfruit trees. 
We cut across a school playground at playtime, the kids used to seeing horses now but still fascinated. And then we got to a viewpoint and sat to gaze at the beginnings of this mighty river, which from here has so far to run to the sea.
We had some trotting, several canters and almost a gallop at one stage; Danny chatted companionably and I learned more about Ugandan life from him in ninety minutes than I have from Ed in two weeks. And then we were suddenly back at the beginning, and Suzie was welcoming me home again. She told me all about her adventurous history, and how she, an Aussie, ended up in deepest Uganda working with another Aussie and a Kiwi running a horse-trekking operation which is now in the top three of In the Saddle's best-rated businesses. Their week-long safari sounds just lovely. And it was good to hear how they are helping out the community by - so practical! - digging a couple of landfill pits and arranging a supply of rubbish bins; and also beginning a small-scale Riding for the Disabled set-up.
It's a hard place to keep horses, though: they have to have their health checked every day because of ticks and tsetse flies, and the risk of tetanus, and anything serious means a vet has to be flown in from South Africa.
Back at Adrift, despite 'Hold Back the River' being on high repeat in the background there, it was very pleasant to have downtime in the bar with a bit of lunch that wasn't a salad sandwich and a banana, to watch a couple of bungy-jumpers get their thrill and to hear about the others' adventures as they returned. It seemed, for some, that the white-water rafting was equal parts terror and hard work, and good to have in the past. Give me Rusty, any day.
There was to have been a sunset cruise on the Nile that everyone had signed up for, but the weather broke late afternoon and it was eventually cancelled, disappointingly. But since the river had completely disappeared from view - totally rubbed out, from the bar's deck - there was no arguing. So instead that's where we stayed, to the pleasure of the hotel's lovely and friendly little dog, River.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas - Day 13

It was another noisy night for us doughty campers. Crickets, frogs and birds: good. Constant rattly trucks on the nearby road, right through the night: bad. But in the morning, while the others feasted on dainty treats at the hotel buffet, we had eggs and, for the first time, bacon, to the ironic accompaniment of the muezzin’s dawn call.

We’re covering familiar territory now, heading back towards Nairobi – not that it’s boring, at all. Today there were brick kilns smoking and crackling away, huge papyrus swamps, the usual villages with everything happening alongside the road.
It was misty, it rained, then the sun came out, and we stopped again at the Equator marker for a group photo, and coffee (a rare treat). Next we approached Kampala, around a new bypass cutting straight through slums so crowded and tatty that the mudbrick huts we’ve got used to seeing in the country look positively idyllic in comparison. There were market stalls laid out along the pavement, selling cheap tat, and behind them a stagnant stretch of water. There was also a nasty smell, presumably the attraction for a big flock of vultures hunched on the grass.

After that squalor, our lunch stop, next to the carwash in the bare carpark of a shopping mall, felt quite upmarket. The rain poured suddenly down, forcing us to eat in the truck for the first time – there are two tables midway, which until today have mostly been used for playing cards. We had to close the windows to keep out the rain and it rapidly became like a sauna. The salad, as ever, was fresh and crunchy; but everyone has now learnt to avoid the bread, which falls apart if you even look at it.

Kampala is notorious for its traffic jams and we got caught in one as we tried to leave the city, crawling along for ages beside gutters foaming with bright orange run-off. It gave us time to observe features, eg a big domed building on a hill, like a cathedral or basilica. “What’s that, Edwin?” “A church.” And so we left Kampala, unenlightened as to its history, points of interest, role in Ugandan life. Great work, Ed. There was also some, unfortunately not unusual, excitement when one of the traffic jams turned out to have been caused by yet another truck on the side of the road with a smashed-in cab. We passed two ambulances on their way to the crash.
We carried on towards today’s destination, Jinja on the Nile, where we will be spending two nights so that tomorrow we can choose how we want to experience its adventure offerings – everything from Grade 5 white-water rafting to a booze cruise. Tonight someone local will be coming to tell us all about it. It’ll be nice to get some actual information, for a change.

We crossed the Nile again and turned off down a side road, excited by a big posh sign reading ‘Jinja Nile Resort’ – but then drove straight past it and in the gate of a much more basic outfit, Adrift. We had a choice of camping in our tents, or dorms, or safari tents or rooms, so we spread ourselves out amongst them all (dorm for me tonight: a small, tall room with 3-storey bunks made out of polished poles).

Then we repaired to the bar above the river (notable for its displayed flags, which included NZ but *cough* omitted Australia - perhaps a nod to our introducing the world to the bungy jump, which they do here?) to make friends with the cute resident puppy, River (the resident black and white cat, nameless, is also very vocal and friendly – until he’s not. Typical cat). We learned what we could do – again an even split between full-on white-water rafting, the ‘chicken boat’ option, quad-biking, horse-riding, and just hanging out and maybe going for a stroll.

Dinner was more nice vegetables and an almost-tender stew, and then we went to bed, luxuriating in the knowledge that there would be no alarm in the morning.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas - Day 12

We were back to Intrepid-normal with a vengeance this morning: up at 4.30am for a 6am departure. We wound our way up out of the valley and down the other side, leaving the volcanoes behind. Ed warned those of us “afraid of long drops” not to sit on the left. By now we’re all pretty inured to the horrors of the long drop – but of course he meant the steep hillsides that, even so, were intensively cultivated with all sorts of luxuriant crops.
Everyone was going to work, or already at it: the woman plodding up a steep track with a baby on her back, a load on her head and a mattock in her hand; the men sawing a log lengthwise the old-fashioned way, one above and one below; or washing their motorbikes in a stream; or hacking at a rock face and scraping off minerals to shovel into heaps; or builders standing on precarious wooden scaffolding.
There was less work happening in the immigration office, when we got to the border, and a long line outside it, but we were eventually recorded and stamped, and set off again switching back to drive on the left. We had a photo stop – only about the third in the whole trip – with a long view down to Lake Bunyoni over more terraces, as well as some goats and now, again, the long-horned cattle they prize here.
We had an audience of only three boys and four cattle at our lunch stop, so, hardly awkward at all. We really shuddered at the litter all around though, so noticeable again after the neatness of Rwanda. Such a shame.
Then we carried on, the roadshow continuing: bricks and blocks being moulded by hand, stacked in the sun to dry, and fired inside tomb-like kilns; villages all with the same set of windowless stores, selling food and vegetables, plastic goods, wooden beds, padded chairs, metal doors, and workshops repairing bicycles and motorbikes, welding things, making wooden doors. Oh, and pubs with pool tables under thatched shelters.
We passed back through Mbarara and after 250km and more than 9 hours from departure got to our accommodation for the night. It's a pretty fancy hotel with rooms that anyone would be happy to stay in, and in which, apparently and in our recent experience unusually, everything seems to work as it should. Not for us hard-core campers, though, eschewing the upgrade and pitching our tents on an appealingly soft and tidy lawn. The main shower, some distance away, had flies and beetles crawling all around the basin; and the other unisex ones in a line nearby didn’t have any sort of door or curtain. They eventually found some to hang up – but they didn’t sort out the hot water. Still, the day was sticky enough for that not to matter.
And so we ended the day in the usual manner: a beer in the bar until dinner was ready, which we ate under a big pergola while Ed gave us tomorrow’s briefing. It’s a 7am departure tomorrow. Cushy.

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