Swivs Travels: Uganda 2003 - Part Seven

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The Equator

Those of you who have been around and reading the Post for the last three years may remember that in 2000 I took myself off to Africa for the second half of my Gap year. This year I returned.

Our journey to Kamuronko was also full of potential story-telling. It was very long and very dull, but it had its moments. It started off very early in the morning. We hadn't been able to find out from anyone in Fort Portal what time the bus to Kabale left in the morning - but admittedly we hadn't tried very hard. The Lonely Planet said that it left at about 6am, therefore we decided to roll down to the bus park at 5:30 to get a seat. First mistake: follow Lonely Planet guidebooks. Second mistake: plan to leave a hotel when it's dark. Third Mistake: plan to walk to the bus station in the dark.

We'll leave the first mistake for a moment. We weren't actually aware that we'd made it until we'd worked through the second and third, though given the Lonely Planet map of Fort Portal, we really should have been suspicious. Accordingly we'll join the pair of us at 5:15am, stumbling down the slightly too steep stairs of the Wooden Hotel in pitch darkness carrying backpacks and camera bags, to find the front door locked. We had to rattle it quite loudly, and managed to rouse one of the owners' sons, who let us out into the street. Then we headed off to the bus park, escorted by a cadre of piki-piki riders who were desperate to give us a lift. They circled round us as daylight began to appear, hoping that persistence and declarations of love would entice us onto the back of a motorbike with weighty bags.

On arrival at the bus park we finally discovered our first mistake. The bus for Kabale didn't leave until 8am. So rather than sit around on a roadside in Fort Portal for an hour being hassled, we decided to get on the bus to Mbarara that was at the park, and get another bus onto Kabale from there in the early afternoon. It was the same route, it just involved changing buses. However, as Ugandan buses don't have stops where passengers can get off, stretch their legs and have a toilet break - at least, not without the risk of seeing the bus drive off without you, or having all the passengers watch the mzungu pee by the side of the road - changing buses would give us the chance to have a toilet break - quite a nice event on an eight hour bus journey.

The road to Mbarara goes through Queen Elizabeth National Park, so we waved at the Rwenzoris and Equator as we went past them again, and crossed the Kazinga channel into the southern section of the park. It being the main road, and a fairly busy one, there was no chance of game spotting, but the scenery was still spectacular and, once we left the park, we were back into rolling hills and tea estates again. On alighting at Mbarara we found ourselves again surrounded by eager boda-boda and piki-piki men. We asked the way to the bus park (our bus didn't go into it, as it was heading through to Kampala): 'Is very far lady.' Yes, I'm sure it is, but I'm still not going to sit side-saddle on a motorbike with a large rucksack and a camera bag and a non-existent helmet. Instead we noticed the route other buses and matatus seemed to be taking and followed them. When we reached our general destination - according to a couple of locals and the Lonely Planet guidebook - there was (surprisingly, since we used the guidebook map) a complete absence of buses. With a little bit of wandering we found a matatu that was headed to Kabale, and clambered in.

It was at this point that the journey got interesting. First the matatu went to pick up about two dozen wooden planks, that got forced under the seats along with our rucksacks and a few bags of maize to remove any leg-room we might have potentially enjoyed. Then the driver took us for a twirl round Mbarara for a little bit, picking up some extra passengers and a new driver before heading off with about 16 passengers crammed in. This was the high point of the journey.


It was a two hour drive of shunting up and down seats, of checking that our bags didn't fall out of the back of the matatu (it turned out that they were actually tied in with some old twine) and avoiding noticing when there was another vehicle hurtling straight at us. In all honesty there was only one moment that can legitimately be classified as a 'near death experience', but there were plenty that had the potential to become such situations should a vehicle have chanced to come the other way as we shot round a corner. Our moment came about halfway through the journey, when one half of the road was shut. We were driving down the open lane, so the driver speed onwards, regardless of the fact that there was another matatu coming up the road towards us.

I'm not entirely sure what happened then, because I flung my hands over my face. I decided in about 2 seconds that if I was going to be in another African car crash I didn't want to be able to see it coming, and remember it in very clear slow-mo pictures (should I survive it). After a couple of minutes my brain suggested that we were probably still alive as the matatu was still bombing along, and I removed my hands. Fiona later said that she reckoned we must have missed the other matatu by inches - by unspoken consent we never discussed the dangers of matatu travel while we were actually on a vehicle, we just focused hard on the view.

As we neared Kabale Fi's excitement became palpable, and catching. It felt absurdly like coming home - though I had heard about the place almost every other day for three years. And almost the first person we met when we reached the town was a very friendly taxi driver...

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