Outdoor Adventures in Uganda

We have travelled the full length of the Nile, tracking the mighty river all the way from Cairo as far as Lake Victoria. Often, we would look out longingly to its deep swirling waters from a scorching bus or train but until we reached Uganda, we hadn’t been able to swim in the river. Further downstream, bilharzia (also known as schistosomiasis) is present in still waters.

There wasn’t much fear of finding bilharzia in the white water rapids of Jinja, where at last our drought ended. It was Niamh’s birthday and we’d rushed to this place to celebrate the occasion. There was a steel frame towering over the water where thrill seekers could do a 45 meter bungee jump. Luckily it wasn’t open for business when we arrived so I have been spared that terror for the moment. Having seen the apparatus of torture, I am ever more vocal in my cries,”There is no way on earth I’m doing that Niamh. No way!”

So instead of plunging to certain death, we joined a dozen Italians and Americans for our rafting induction. “It’ll be grand,” was all I heard. The company have a spotless safety record, with a long list of famous patrons. “Just keep your shorts tied on tight and it will be grand,” our muscular instructor assured us. But it wasn’t grand. It was terrifying.

For a while, we slid down small rapids and learned how to capsize safely. There were sunburned legs, a delicious picnic lunch on a wooded river island, paddling through long quiet stretches and lots of swimming in the fast flowing water. It was beautiful to be pushed quickly through the abundantly green valleys of the young Nile river. Then there was also swimming in the rapids – giant washing machines which, in other parts of the world, inexperienced rafters are not allowed to enter.

When our raft went over the first time, I broke the golden rule and left go of the rope. So the white water sucked me down for a few unending seconds and shot me away from the raft. I knew I probably wouldn’t drown but it was the closest I’ve ever come. While I was still contemplating a watery death in Uganda, a rescue kayak had found me and was paddling us out of the turbulent rapid. While I had been free-falling in the foaming torrents, Niamh had managed to keep the rope but found herself jammed under the boat with somebody blocking her path to the rest of the world – and air. She emerged eventually. We all climbed into the raft, very shaken, but still able to scream with delight after surviving each rapid after crazy, turbulent rapid until, at last, sunset loomed and we admired the winding water from the high, dry river bank.

A couple of weeks later, we visited the Ssesse islands in western Lake Victoria. From Kampala, we took the post bus south and then a squashed minibus bounced us through beautiful forests which were being cut for charcoal. Long piles of neatly stacked branches were smouldering under a cover of earth. Charcoal is a preferred fuel everywhere we’ve been and has resulted in severe deforestation in many areas.

From Karangala, we carried our heavy bags down a steep hillside overlooking a palm fringed bay and other nearby islands which dot this part of the lake. After finding a cabin near the beach we swam happily even though there were patches of thick green algae. Long fishing boats paddled by at evening. The silence was broken for a while by a loud motor boat marked ‘Police’. After dark, we joined other guests and the Dutch owner of the camp for dinner, each of us sharing stories from our various travels. After a walk along the fine sandy beach, we swung in hammocks tied between two trees. While the moon peeked through the branches overhead, our eyes followed the path of a lone firefly, an intermittent speck of light dancing away from us into the pitch darkness.

The next day we packed our bags and took slow bumpy busses to Kesesse in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. My great great granduncle, Dr. Thomas Parke, was one of the first two Europeans to spot the snow capped mountains over a hundred years ago so I was anxious to visit them myself. They were called the Mountains of the Moon then and were seen as an important discovery as a major water shed to the Nile. As one local told us, “They were the first Europeans to find those mountains, but we knew they were there all the time”.

When we visited, the clouds covered those shining peaks, but we had a wonderful walk among the beautifully green steep hills where women carried heavy hands of green bananas on their heads and backs. We passed trees full of bats that darkened the sky whenever they took flight and found an enchanting gushing stream. As we sat on the rounded boulders enjoying the lush trees all round and a cool sweet breeze, we found ourselves thinking “this could be home”. Before long our illusion was shattered. Three siblings wandered by, each carrying a bottle of water, sized appropriate to their age, like the three bears’ porridge.

On our way out of Uganda, we hiked through the hills of Bunyioni from Kabale in the south. After several hours of tough walking, we were treated to terrific views of Lake Bunyoni. The lake twists and turns at the feet of steep, curvacious hills, meticulously contoured with terraced fields. Even the little islands which emerge from the snaking lake are cultivated in this extraordinarily scenic style.

Children spotted us from distant fields and screamed playfully, “Mzungu, Mzungu!” (white person). Three men toiled with a heavy freshly carved dugout canoe. Pale chippings littered the ground around the canoe, which had been shaped from a single, thick tree trunk. One man stooped to pick up a pat of cow dung from the road and pressed it into a crack forming at one end. They would have a tough task dragging the canoe down the hill side to the lake, far below. We, however, ran down a slippy path after a girl who helped us find the way. Down on the still lake, each of us managed to paddle a dug out canoe more or less where we intended it to go, hoping that we weren’t performing what the locals call the ‘mzungu corkscrew’.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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