We had arrived in Kampala central bus station mid afternoon, and our first impression driving through the western suburbs of town was that Kampala would be the s***hole town that reclassified all the s***hole towns we had previously come across in our travels.
Hopping off the bus and after composing ourselves momentarily, we made our way to Kampala Backpackers with a similarly maniacal taxi driver. We had chosen the Aussie owned backpackers in the hope of finding a social place where we could gather some reliable information on white water rafting and our travels ahead. What we got was an overpriced, overrated hostel, with commission-based information and a rude unhelpful tosser seemingly running the place. Perhaps the guy just worked there, as he certainly was not the Australian owner, but to give him the benefit of the doubt Karen did eventually ask him if he was "having a bad day", to which he answered "Im not usually the type to moan"…….. could've fooled us. The next morning he was equally as dour, and having no intention of putting up with his sour mood any longer, we checked out and moved into a considerably better local establishment just a few hundred metres up the road, and for a lesser price.
Later that morning we jammed-in to a matatu (public transport minibus) and made our way to town. We arrived at the centre of the city, and it was then we discovered the true definition of chaos. We stopped dead, cars, motorbikes, people, carts, minibuses as far as the eye could see all beeping their horns, but no-one really going anywhere. There were no proper sides of the roads, intersections an intricate jigsaw of vehicles, it was noisy, dusty, there were motorbikes trying to push through the people on the footpath or ride through the roadside stalls, there was no other word for it but chaos. The thing we later found out was that this was normal traffic. We knew we were going nowhere in the matatu, and close enough to where we wanted to be hopped out to walk and explore.
Kampala is centred around the minibus station, a massive block of white vans that if viewed from above would look something like a giant jumble of scrabble pieces when you first open the box. How any of the vehicles ever get in out or I don't know, there are street stalls and people everywhere. In all our travels we have never seen anything even remotely as chaotic.
We took an equally busy side street to try and break clear of the pandemonium, and only a couple of hundred metres down the road we saw a guy being punched and kicked by an angry mob of people. As the crowd watched we were informed he was a thief, and was getting what he deserved. This is quite common practice in Uganda and people have been know to be beaten to death, but this time it wasn't to be the case and eventually a policeman meandered casually over (allowing enough time for a bit of justice to be served) and then dispersed the angry group by beating them with his stick.
A couple of blocks further up the road and we came across a line of police in full riot gear. What was the go with this town? Apparently this one was a peaceful protest by workers at the central market who had objected to the market being sold for redevelopment. Whether or not it remained peaceful, we did not stick around to find out.
Amongst the chaos there were parts of the city that seemed very civilised, and this was especially the case on the north side where all the trendy business centres and upmarket hotels were located. This was the biggest city we had encountered since leaving Cape Town, and to stroll around these sophisticated and cosmopolitan areas was a welcome change. We visited a mall (albeit quite small), ate Nandos (although this was an extremely expensive disappointment) and even found a cinema which we later treated ourselves to. The more time we spent in this city of contrasts, the more it grew on us.
We did not know how long we were to be in Kampala, whilst here we needed to sort out our Serengeti safari, but the main reason was to go white water rafting.
The following day we booked ourselves on a white water rafting (WWR) adventure. The nearby town of Jinja is well known throughout the world as one of the premier WWR destinations.
Rafting on the Nile begins not far from its source at Lake Victoria. Before we began we were asked to what degree we wanted to take on the rapids eg. mild or wild, and grouped accordingly. The majority of the people opted for a more extreme adventure, by choice taking on the toughest white water and hence increasing the thrill level and the possibility of flipping. In an effort to create a group of ultimate extremists, we were teamed with the most enthusiastic bunch of thrillseekers which included 4 burly Polish guys and German couple.
I was pumped and excited, Kaz typically nervous despite most probably being one on the better swimmers in the group. Kaz and I had rafted twice before in QLD and Argentina, but these rapids were famed to be much larger and more dangerous. The day was to be a series of rapids, categorised from 1-5, with 5 being the toughest possible in a raft, and of which there were 4.
Call me a shovenist if you will, but I was a little disappointed when we were lumped with the only female guide in the group. In my experience of adventurous activities women generally don't push the limits as hard, and being a petite 4ft nothing I had my reservations about her, although at this point I had no choice but to keep them to myself.
We set off on our way and were briefed with instructions before easing into the day with some smaller rapids. The river was wide and deep, unlike those we had encountered on our previous rafting trips, and it was incredible for us to think that this water would eventually travel 6000km and drain into the Mediterranean Sea off Egypt.
It wasnt long though before we were approaching our first grade 5 rapid of the day, Kaz was getting increasingly nervous of the unknown, but if posh Prince William could do it, surely she could manage. As we paddled closer all we could see was a slight spray as the water dropped away, and could hear the thundering of whitewater getting increasing louder as we approached. Finally the tip of the raft peered over the drop off and the rapid revealed itself. It was much larger than all of us had imagined, a smoothe narrowing steep water pathway, perhaps 10m wide at the top but converging to a point at the bottom creating a series of frothing white walls. The dark water rushed down the giant slide, like a dam spillway, the amount of water incredible. Had we not been instructed otherwise we would've all stopped paddling and ducked into the boat with fear, but instead we charged down the giant black tongue towards the standing waves below. At the last second we crouched low in the boat, crashing directly into the middle of the first wave. For a split second we held tight not knowing whether we would be flipped or flung from the raft. We were shaken around tremendously before a brief moment of stability and another collision into the second wave, again we crashed through into the 3rd and finally the fourth before the river widened and quietened once more. It was an awesome feeling, and an amazing rush, and as we yahooed and carried-on, we looked back at the rapid snaking its way up the ramp and the true scale of it became apparent.
The next class 5 rapid unfortunately did not reach the same heights. After some weak paddling by Karen (by her own admission) and others who must have become overwhelmed by the moment, coupled with possible lack of raft control by our weak guide, and we were floating down a mildly exciting class 3 rapid. Unlike the "soft" groups who had gone before us, we had missed the main exit on the rapid and thus our opportunity to tackle the grade 5 waterfall. I was not a happy camper (having missed 1/4 of the days excitement in one small hit) and I began to wonder just what if we had had a stronger male guide.
We had a brief break for lunch, and feasted on a well prepared buffet before loading back in the boats. We were bloated and full but fortunately, or so we thought, we had plenty of flat water ahead before the first rapid. Unable to simply float with the slow current we paddled for half an hour or more on our full stomachs, and by the time we arrived at the first rapid of the afternoon we were all feeling ill. The excitement of the next encounter remedied our nausea, but the rapid was soon over and we were back on the still water paddling for extended periods at a time.
The afternoon was getting on, dark clouds drew closer, and the wind increased as a storm moved in. We were now paddling full steam directly into the wind, and with the white caps spraying in our faces we were making minimal headway. Eerily the sky darkened as we edged slowly towards the final rapid of the day, know to the local villagers as "the bad place". A couple of our crew started to look worried
A huge grade 5 tacked on to the back of an impassable grade 6, our boats were carried round and members given 3 options of taking on the rapid; lame; 50:50; or "the bad place". We had all chosen the extreme boat earlier in the day and like some of the other boats we shouldn't even have had the choice, but as one by one we cast our votes, it soon became obvious that for all the macho talk at the start of the day, our boat was full of pussies. With only myself and 2 others voting to take on the extreme rapid, and Karen 10mins on still mumbling to herself and trying to make up her mind (she had only had the whole day to think about it), we were out voted and once again taking the soft option. I was devastated, pissed off in fact - we had opted for the wildest group and ended with a bunch of lemons. I had come to raft the famous white Nile, and would a spectator for 2 of the 4 biggest rapids.
One by one the boats before us took on the "the bad place", not having been given the choice by their "male" guides. They were flipped, churned up and eventually spat out by the fierce rapids, it was scary sure, but it looked like fun too, and I was extremely jealous. Our turn came, we crashed and we smashed through the waves, but for me it was just a disappointment, it had ruined my day. On the plus side though, we were the first group back to enjoy the warm beer, yay.
Karen and I spent the trip home arguing over whether her indecisive vote would've swayed the decision of our guide, it didn't matter either way, but had the journey gone on for another hour I am sure only one of us would have gotten off the bus alive.
Back in Kampala tired, cranky and hungry, we feasted at the nearby local food market. It was the kind of place where locals came to feast, but where your mum always warned you not to venture in fear of contracting some exotic illness from week old meat that had been hanging in the street covered by flies. We found it tasty and ultra cheap in comparison to the cafes, and although most mzungus dared not roll the dice with the health gods (in reality we were probably no less likely to get ill from a cafe anyway), it was to become a bit of a routine for us every evening from then on.We'd sample the fare from the different sellers - stews, grilled meats, rolexes (an omelette thing rolled in chapatti), a strange milk based spicey African tea, and our favourite we kept going back to…….."Goatman". A friendly guy selling chargrilled goat from his makeshift bbq on the side of the street, we were continually impressed with his ability to make goat taste so good and hence affectionately named him "goatman". I don't think he understood his new name, but Im sure he got used to it as we became repeat customers of "goatman" during our time in Kampala, the only mzungus though I'm sure.
With every journey into town and around Kampala we were taking life into your own hands. Matatu's (minibuses) and boda-boda's (moto-taxis) were basically the only practical way to get about, but by doing so you were effectively dicing with death. The drivers of these vehicles are absolutely crazy, presumably handpicked straight from the mental asylum, whizzing in and out of traffic, on the footpath, the wrong way down streets, oblivious to any laws there may have been. For all the power shortages Uganda experiences (power shedding is commonplace most evenings) they may as well get rid of all the traffic lights because they are a pointless waste of electricity aswell. Pamphlets issued by the British High Commission and littered through the hostel where we had stayed, warned travellers of the danger of public transport in Uganda, with a dozen or two Brits dying each year. Whether or not it was the pamphlets or our previous frightful rides that had made us a little edgy, we did often greet our driver/riders with threats on non-payment if he drove crazily - it seemed to work to a certain extent. All that said, remarkably we only witnessed one minor accident during our time in Kampala,
We spent our last few days in Kampala between town, trying to organise transport to Tanzania, and the internet café up the street trying to organise a safari for once we had arrived. In the preceding weeks luck had been conspiring against us, firstly Paul and Susie had changed there plans, and now unable to join them on a Serengeti safari we needed to organise a potentially very costly independent tour. Secondly, post-election rioting and violence in Kenya had cut off our direct route to Arusha in Tanzania making it necessary to journey back the long way round the Western side of Lake Victoria to Mwanza. The journey was not entirely straight forward. The western route roads, if you could call them that were in terrible condition and rumoured to be barely passable, and so we would need to take a combination of buses across the Uganda/Tanzania border to the small town of Bukoba where we would need to wait for the thrice weekly MV Victoria overnight ferry to take us through to Mwanza. Originally we were excited about another ferry journey, but this one seemed increasingly complicated (and being overnight the scenery limited) and like through most of Africa reliable information on timetables and costs were proving hard to come by.
Our problems were being magnified by the fact that the vast majority of safari tour companies were based in Arusha on the eastern side of the Serengeti National Park (where we would've arrived from Kenya), and we were to be arriving on the western side of the Serengeti NP in Mwanza. It was possible to organise a one way tour from Mwanza ending in Arusha, but for this there was a hefty premium to be paid.
From Mwanza, it was also possible catch public transport to Arusha, but even this had its complications. A direct 1 day bus journey was available between Mwanza and Arusha, but as a foreigner the catch was it was necessary to travel through and pay the hefty park fees of the Serengeti and Ngorogoro , despite not actually stopping to see anything. Alternatively we could spend a further 2 days on bus journeys travelling round the exterior of the National Parks.
It was a juggling act between time, cost and convenience. Despite being 6 or so weeks away, our only real commitment to time was to meet my parents at Victoria Falls on April 9th, but already this was shaping our time. Karen and I had a number of things we wanted to do before then, including the safari, climbing Kilimanjaro and relaxing on the beaches of Zanzibar, and with travel thrown in we realistically had only a handful of days to spare.
Our purse strings had also needed to be tightened a little, having the sudden expense of a safari tour, coupled with an indefinite period of being unable to camp or cook for ourselves, and thus save money, now we were travelling independently. As for convenience, well 4 or 5 days straight cooped up on public transport was definitely not our idea of fun.
In the end there was really only one option, forget our past days of effort and book ourselves a flight to Arusha - and so we did.