By David A. Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 12, 2003
We waited for the downpour to let up before walking into the rain forest, but it was still coming down in torrents. Vincent, our guide for the chimp walk, stopped our group at the forest's edge. "Nature is just nature," he said opaquely. "Do you really want to do this?"
It was a reasonable question, one that my wife, Lisa, and I faced from the moment we began planning a trip to Uganda. When we mentioned the trip to people, they were dumbstruck. Was it safe? Were we taking travel tips from Bono and Paul O'Neill? Winston Churchill famously called Uganda the "pearl of Africa," but that was ages ago. In most Americans' minds, Uganda -- even its airport, Entebbe -- means power-mad Idi Amin, airplane hostages, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Ebola. More recently, the whole of East Africa has been tarred by al Qaeda links.
We came to Uganda at the urging of a friend who works with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kampala. Instead of a basket case, he promised a lush, engaging country. When I was in East Africa in the mid-1980s, Kenya was the garden spot, and Uganda was the war-torn country at its border. Now the roles are reversed. Even before the recent bombing in Mombasa, Kenya teetered on instability. Recent visitors to Nairobi report that it feels dangerous.
Uganda may have a slightly less spectacular wildlife display, but it offers a pleasant alternative. During our visit, we paddled a dugout canoe around Lake Bunyoni in the southwest, snapped photos of crocs and hippos in Queen Elizabeth National Park and gaped at the powerful whitewater of Bujagali Falls on the upper Nile in the east. The Uganda we visited felt safe and welcoming (granted, we didn't go to the guerrilla-wracked north), and the Ugandans we met were invariably hospitable. Their country is still poor, but judging by what they've overcome, Ugandans have a right to feel optimistic. And visitors can expect to feel joy in this unexpected African bright spot.
Kampala is a surprisingly livable city set on seven green hills with Lake Victoria spread in the distance. The downtown has been mostly rebuilt since the cruel Amin regime and its aftermath, and a lively range of restaurants and businesses has sprouted amid the chaos of matatus (minibuses) and private cars. Traffic is even somewhat less paralyzed than in many other capitals in developing countries. The government has courted investment with an economic policy aligned with the World Bank's. And President Yoweri Museveni has proven politically independent and committed to progress.
Nearby, at the Kasubi Royal Tombs, we found Ugandan culture that the Amin years didn't erase. Guide Arthur Mwebe, a student at Makerere University, led us through the stories of the kings (kabakas) of Buganda, the largest of four kingdoms that the British combined under the name Uganda. The last kabaka buried there was exiled by Amin's predecessor and died in London; his son Ronald Mutebi is the present king, whom Museveni welcomed back from exile. Widows of the late ruler maintain the tombs, which are in a huge, round thatched structure. Standing inside it is like being in a vast, overturned basket. The 52 concentric rings in the roof represent the 52 clans of the Buganda. "I belong to the grasshopper clan," Arthur told us. The king was seen as the lion of the people. A high, brown hemplike curtain shields the tombs; Arthur explained that it creates a symbolic forest. According to locals, kings never die but simply "disappear in the forest," a euphemism that dates back centuries. Even now dying rulers are said to disappear into the forest, searching for their ancestors.
From Kampala, we traveled by car out to the lush southwest of the country and along the seam between the great savannah and the Rwenzori Mountains, along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Uganda straddles the intersection where Central Africa's undulating lush rain forest meets East Africa's beige grassy plains. Most travelers to Uganda come to see mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, or the lions, leopards, elephants and other wildlife in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We spent a day there cruising the crocs and water buffalo by boat and by car.
A later side trip took us to Jinja, an hour east of Kampala on Lake Victoria. Jinja boasts elaborate old shop fronts left from the 1930s and '40s, and impressive Hindu and Buddhist temples. Its sizable South Asian community has returned with Uganda's prospects after more than two decades of exile. (Mira Nair's 1992 movie, "Mississippi Masala," told a story of one such family. Nair now keeps a home in Uganda.) Jinja's main tourist attraction is the source of the Nile. There you see the stony current where Lake Victoria spills north toward Cairo. There's a predictable entry fee and a gantlet of vendors, but the site is scenic, and there's a surprise, too: a larger-than-life bust of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, in Uganda? Apparently the great man asked that some of his ashes be cast on the Nile. Unveiled a few years ago, the bust is perhaps a sign of a growing tolerance.
But our most spectacular views came in the less-traveled crater lakes. After leaving Q.E. Park on a highway that rolls past tea farms, we turned off the pavement onto a rugged dirt track. Driving in the countryside is an education, and not just because it feels as if half the countryside is running alongside your vehicle in pastel school uniforms. (Uganda's system of universal primary education may be exemplary; but kids always flee joyously when school lets out, scattering in flocks of pink and blue.) You also learn the cargo limits of bicycles. Billboard ads for the Roadmaster bike -- "Any load, any road" -- baffled me until I saw bikes pushed uphill under a half-dozen bunches of bananas or several huge barrels.
Before long, our driver was navigating an even slimmer two-rut track perched on the narrow spine of a long ridge. On either side we looked down on round, dark-water ponds rimmed with palm trees. The slopes were lush with small farms, or shambas, packed with banana fronds and corn stalks. In the distance loomed the blue-green Rwenzoris, which the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy called Mountains of the Moon on his map of Africa.
At the end of the ridge we came to Ndali Lodge, a mix of rustic romanticism and post-colonial luxury. Indoor lighting was strictly the warm glow of a kerosene lamp, muted by gauzy mosquito nets. Guests take tea in the afternoon and evening drinks with other guests before English-style meals. Becky Holt, Ndali's manager, brings a breezy Yorkshire energy to the eight thatched, ocher-plastered bungalows. The lodge was built using local materials, with an emphasis on light, spaciousness and simplicity. The style feels almost Spanish mission, with the main building commanding breathtaking views of lakes on either side.
After a late lunch of chicken and chips, we stretched our legs with a walk to one of the nearby lakes, marked as Lake Rucwanzi on the hand-drawn map that Becky gave us. The slopes resembled central Kenya's -- the red clay beneath a plush green fur of grass, passion-fruit vines, bananas and maize. We took a one-lane dirt road through the tiny village of Kabata, where we met a teenager walking along with a machete in one hand and a school notebook in the other.
Startled to see a machete wielded so casually, Lisa asked, "What's that?"
"It's an English notebook," he said. Obviously the book was a bigger novelty than the blade, which he used mainly for weeding.
We felt self-conscious by the attention we got as outlanders, but were greeted good-naturedly. We passed a large shade tree and a ragtag collection of shops. I tried to make sense of the map's directions, which pointed us vaguely to an "uphill track," past an "ill-defined cattle track" and puffs labeled "coffee." Before long we were above a banana grove, looking down on the deep volcanic pond. The far side rose in a sheer, quarrylike stone cliff; on the near shore palms swayed. It was a truly magnificent landscape. The volcanic crater field took shape around 11,000 years ago when the Western Rift Valley buckled and bubbled.
Halfway around the lake we passed some young boys tending cows. The young herders giggled as we stepped tentatively in front of their animals' horns. One boy rapped out the international greeting, "How are you?" Another boy tried an innovation, only to be undone by it: "What is my name?" he cried, sounding a little crazed.
We continued past mothers returning from jobs elsewhere, and children hauling water home. With rain looming, we scrambled uphill past goats, maize stalks, banana plants and lime trees.
Back at the lodge, Becky fed us a hearty meal. She compared Uganda with Kenya by observing that while Kenya still has a more developed network of roads and travel services, Uganda offers an "unspoilt feel and something a little different." She conceded, however, that the country lacks middle-market options. Uganda's tourist board recognizes its off-the-beaten-track niche and claims to be learning from the experience of more-touristed countries. The country's light tourist traffic, they say, lets visitors enjoy Uganda's gifts at their best, supported by people committed to preserving their beauty.
Forty-five minutes away, the Kibale Forest reportedly has the highest density of nonhuman primates in the world. We passed large colonies of baboons on the road. As we approached the visitors center, our driver pointed out colobus monkeys passing from tree to tree above the road, white fringes on black. The main activity there is the chimp walk: several hours with a guide, following the primates through the forest. The rangers at the visitors shelter divided the dozen travelers huddled there into three smaller groups, so as not to scare the chimps. When the sky brightened slightly, the first group started. Ours went next, led by Vincent, our guide. He looked sullen. A steady rivulet trickled down his rain gear as he asked if we were sure we wanted to go ahead.
"Of course, it's the rain forest," he said. "It rains." I wondered if he had gotten complaints from visitors griping about the leaky forest canopy and the poorly lit chimps in their viewfinders.
We followed him and the Danes in our group through dense undergrowth that kept a steady open spigot on our heads. Vincent paused to single out a huge fig tree and its significance. The figs were ripening, and that would draw the chimps, he said.
Throughout our walk, trees guided our prospects. We scored first at the base of another fig tree. Vincent pointed up into the rain and said he recognized a face above us. I looked up, and from impossibly high above us, through the branches, a dark face looked down at me skeptically. It was a 6- or 7-year-old female named Kisser. Vincent said she was just getting her independence and was nervous to be caught away from her mother by a gang of humanoids. Kisser let out cries that echoed as loudly as if we were in a cave. From far away we heard replies.
The rangers in Kibale have the chimps' welfare very much in mind. Groups are kept small, and close viewings are limited to 15 or 20 minutes each. The chimps can also retreat to other parts of the forest when they want.
After watching Kisser for a few minutes, we pressed on through more thick, wet undergrowth, passing spots as funky as a midden in a zoo's primate house. We paused at another high-rise figgery but couldn't get too close because another chimp-watching group was there. At a nearby spot, we glimpsed one or two dark shapes high up. A dark, hairy arm reached out to pick from a cluster of figs. (Vincent explained that chimps smartly choose only ripe fruits, whereas a baboon will just strip a fig branch clean, unthinking. That's a baboon for you.)
Evidently we were still crowding them because a fig missile soon landed with the force of a small meteor a yard from where I stood. It landed with a deep, earthy thwump. We took the hint and left to gape at red-cheeked mangabeys instead.
In good weather, the chimps come down to ground level and you can watch them do lots of things. But on rainy days they stay aloft and wander their territory, a 10-mile radius. Although they like figs and other fruits, they sometimes gang together to hunt other animals. As the rain ebbed to a steady drip, we found two older males clearly visible in lower treetops and watched them malinger. They took turns picking lice off each other, as friends do in the chimp world. Then they made their own high-wire La-Z-Boys, deftly folding leafy branches together and plumping them like bean-bag chairs. It was siesta time, and there we were craning up to watch them relax. A chimp had a good idea and the rest of us just looked silly, jockeying like second-tier paparazzi on the wet forest floor.
Vincent pointed out one nearby bush with leaves as spicy as chilis. They are used locally for stomach problems and researchers are studying them as a cure for meningitis. Vincent had worked at Kibale for six years and knew the forest. He said that paradoxically, the more that rangers knew, the harder it was to get posted to a new park. He's been here long enough to recognize the faces of many chimp residents. I asked if he had a favorite. "Yes," he said, "but she has transferred."
David A. Taylor last wrote for Travel on New Jersey's wine country. His book "Hunting 'Sang: An Odyssey from Appalachia to Guangzhou" will be published by Algonquin Books next year.
In Queen Elizabeth National Park,
In the southwest,