2 – 7 September 2010, Uganda
Our overland tour from Cape Town, South Africa to Nairobi, Kenya proved to be a fine way to experience Africa. We gazed upon impressive desert vistas in Namibia, explored the wilderness of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, swam in deep blue Lake Malawi, visited one of the world’s most famous wildlife parks in Tanzania, and even managed to absorb some culture. We traveled in relative comfort, ate more steak than I’d had in the entire year leading up to our trip, and didn’t spend a single minute looking for accommodation, figuring out public transportation or debating which sights were worth visiting. Initially unsure about participating in an overland tour, we had grown to appreciate its benefits. However, after 42 days the truck was growing a little claustrophobic, we were tired of the early mornings and long days, and we felt ready to venture out alone again. After reaching Nairobi, we set out with Paulo, our Brazilian travel companion who decided to continue on with us to Uganda.
Our 12 hour bus journey to Kampala, Uganda was relatively comfortable but upon arrival we were quickly reminded of the downsides associated with independent travel. Not only was our prebooked accommodation significantly more expensive than we’d been promised, the staff seemed unable to answer any of our questions about bus schedules and taxi fares. We changed to a cheaper room but our transportation woes continued three days later when we woke well before dawn for an early morning bus trip to Kabale in southwestern Uganda. The taxi to the bus station was late, and after calling the driver it was apparent that he hadn’t yet left his house and that my call had woken him up. We missed the 6:00 a.m. bus and therefore had to wait for the second, which was “scheduled” to depart at 7:30 but didn’t leave until 9:00 when all the seats were full. The trip to Kabale was one of the most miserable bus rides in all of our travels. With five seats in every row we were already packed in, but the driver found plenty of aisle space for anyone waiting alongside the road. We made only one actual rest stop during the eight hour trip, and that was for a hurried bathroom break in the bushes. For much of the ride we were hot, uncomfortable, and hungry.
Prior to our journey through motorcoach hell, we took advantage of our free day in Kampala to deal with a nagging problem: what to do with the carved wooden chair we’d purchased in Malawi. The chair was packed away in a locker and easy to forget on the truck, but once we set out on foot again it became a significant burden. It fit in my backpack but left little room for anything else. We wanted to ship the chair back home but had been warned that it’d have a better chance of arriving if we tossed it into a black hole than if we sent it from Africa. Fortunately Paulo was returning to Brazil via London and volunteered to ship the chair for us. Our next challenge was how to pack the chair. We’d tried a couple of times before but hadn’t been able to find packing supplies. The post office and shipping companies weren’t much help because we only wanted to pack the chair, not ship it. We tried to explain our predicament to a taxi driver and were skeptical when he motioned us into the car, but we soon found ourselves at a sort of used cardboard box mecca with an abundance of attendants willing to help pack the chair. Safely secured in a box that originally housed 7,200 condoms, we left the chair at our hotel in Kampala for Paulo to pick up on his way out of the country.
After stumbling from the bus in Kabale it didn’t take long to rediscover the joys of independent travel. We spent two of the most tranquil and relaxing nights of our entire trip at Byoona Amagara, a backpacker lodge on an island on Lake Bunyoni. There are no cars on the island and the lights and water pumps are solar powered. The food is cooked fresh using only local ingredients, and much to Allison’s delight most of the items on the menu were vegetarian or centered around fish. We slept in wood-framed geodesic domes covered with papyrus and grass and open towards the lake. Perched on a hill above the water, we woke each morning to beautiful views. After breakfast we read, swam in the clean, clear water, and toured the lake in dugout canoes. During a canoe trip we docked at a nearby island and were invited by teachers to tour their primary school. The students were excited to see us, possibly because the school wasn’t on the overlanding circuit and didn’t see many tourists, but perhaps equally likely because the students could ask us for help with their homework. As with the other schools in Africa this one was struggling with a variety of problems, most notably a lack of basic supplies and funding. An issue unique to this school was its isolated location; there aren’t enough canoes to transport students from their homes on other islands and there is a high turnover rate among the teachers. Byoona Amagara is not just a backpacker lodge but a community development project, and some of their proceeds have been used to purchase boats and employ a driver to transport students to and from school.
Our first few days in Uganda were a reminder of the trials of independent travel, but were also a reminder of its rewards. Byoona Amagara is a small, isolated lodge that we never would have visited during our overland tour. It’s accessible only by boat and doesn’t have the facilities to support a large group. We were the only guests for most of our time on the island, which was a welcome change after six weeks in a tour group, traversing the same route as a multitude of other tour groups. After two nights we’d almost forgotten about our tortuous bus ride, and our only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer.