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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Road to Kidepo and Back

Monday, January 31st

6:22 AM : *ALARM* (In Posh British Accent): "Time to wake up! The time is 6:22. Time to wake up..."

7:04 AM: Eyes bleary and teary, screaming down Kampala Road in a boda, heading for the bus park, looking for Homeland Bus Company. I'm clutching my backpack, water bottle, phone and wallet. But with only two hands, which ones do I hold? Have I packed everything? I scan my brain for the inventory: pair of khakis, pair of gray linens, swim trunks, flip flops, three pairs of socks, three pairs of boxers, four polyster shirts, one nylon insect-repellent button down, toothbrush, toothpaste, hydrocortisone cream, hand sanitizer, deodorant, 50 proof sunblock, eye mask, a flashlight, two band-aids, floss, an ipod charger, a metal pin, a phone charger, two phones, Bradt's Uganda, The Poisonwood Bible, a pen, my passport, thirty American dollars and enough Ugandan shillings for transportation, lodging, a bit of food, and some extra in case...
Kampala's Bus Park

A plethora of matooke banana bushels waiting for transport

7:26 AM: Purchased ticket to Kitgum via Gulu, leaving at 8 am. Found an upstairs diner serving tea and potatoes while the sun comes up over the Hotel Serena and Uganda House to the east. I wait as the sun ascends. A mother and father stand over me with their boy, maybe 4 or 5 minutes, waiting for me to finish. I concentrate on eating. The bus park is teeming with vendors and travelers, motorcycles and buses, exhaust and garbage, droves of matooke and discarded plastic water bottles.

11:52 AM: Karuma Falls. I am now in Northern Uganda, historically and geographically. We pass the famous bridge signaling a warning to all during the LRA's reign from the late 80's to early 2000's. You are now in harm's way, Museveni. This is Acholi land. This is the north. Beware.

Karuma Falls, bordering North and South in Uganda

But now it is peaceful. Beautiful even. The sun stretches out across the Karuma reserve, Murchison Falls, and the blue waters of the Nile. As we approach midday my stomach begins to talk to me. I listen. And eat the remaining biscuits I bought four hours earlier.

1:08 PM: Finally reach Gulu. Sweating and warm, the bus presses east. A dubious man in an orange fleece, jeans and dark sunglasses sits down next to me. He smells like the soil. The bus continues east over red laterite and baked clay. I feel dirty for the first time on this trip. It won't be the last.

4:30 PM: Arrive in Kitgum, rush to UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Authority) to figure out ride to Kidepo the next morning. Meet with Augustine in the UWA office and have a date to meet him Tuesday morning at 8 am.
Augustine can't pronounce the 'p' sound in English, making it infinitely difficult to take down his number when he says, 'triple 8' or 'triple 2'.

5:10 PM: After four attempts, I find a boda driver who's heard of my hotel: Fugly's. It's 500 shillings (25 cents to reach Fugly's), the best hotel in Kitgum. The grounds are replete with a lush garden, trimmed grass, orange and black geckoes and one lovely pool. I throw my stuff in empty dorm room, take a shower, grab my suit, buy a cold Nile Special, and have a swim. I lie out in the grass on a chair and read my book as dinner is prepared; the day of travel was worth it for these small moments. Really worth it.

Rainbow bright above Fugly's Rest Lodge

7:15 PM: Finish dinner and meet NGO auditor, Stephanie from Boston, and Max, de-miner from Stockholm; as in he de-activates land mines for a living. Really interesting conversation after dinner, at bar.

11:15 PM: Finally head to bed. Not before showering again, spotting a black widow spider the size of my fist, and making sure my netting is tucked into my bed (because of said spider).


7:15 AM: Nokia Alarm: "TIME TO WAKE UP... the time is 7:15...TIME TO WAKE UP" (annoying British voice)

8:05 AM: It's raining and I'm drenched as I pull into the UWA office. Augustine is relieving himself as I walk in. I rush to buy food and drinks for the park, check my money supply is enough for the park, and wait around for the rain to stop.

9 AM: I buy my ticket on the "public transport" for 15,000 shillings (7 bucks). It's supposedly a three hour journey and the ETA is around ten-ish. I'm predicting a long day by the look of the driver. Morris, gap-toothed, chain-smoking and disheveled, has that look about him.
I don't care if you're white, American, rich, powerful, or insane...this is my rig. And I'll drive it however and whenever I feel like it.

10 AM: Still waiting. I go by the electronics store and talk to Singh. He's Indian. He's got two cameras for sale. Still trying to piece together some semblance of a photo album since my camera got nicked, I inquire about the two options. One is too much, the other is just crap. I try to talk him down. I tell him about my camera issues. He then mentions I could borrow his camera for sale if I have a memory card. I don't. He can't round one up. So we get in his car, stop at the pharmacy, pick up his keys from his wife, drive to a gas station, walk behind the station to a breakfast joint where he tells me to wait while he runs upstairs to grab something.

Five minutes later, as I watch the news on Cairo, he descends holding a camera case and a flash video device for recording. Brilliant.

I mention it's time to get back to the "bus station" and he smiles.

11 AM: I'm still waiting....and baking.
"Public" transport to Karenga, a 5 1/2 hour marathon through the murrem roads of NE Uganda

11:30 AM: Finally. We. take. off. 23 people on the back of the pick-up truck, stacked on top water bottles, crates of beer, mattresses, sacks full of flour, charcoal, a bike, etc.

4:30 PM:  Karenga. Finally. Trevor waiting in olive green pickup safari vehicle. Awesome vehicle. Trevor is scruffy, chubby, and totally in place in the bush. His South African accent fits him to a tee. He's a curmudgeon if there ever was one.

ME: Thanks for the pick up. That ride was a long one.
TREVOR: In later than I expected...we don't get many smellies out here.
ME: Smellies?
TREVOR: I guess you would call them backpackers in America.
ME: Ah.

We hit a fork in the road. I've made arrangements to stay at the UWA camp in a self-contained banda but Trevor gives me a reason to choose option number deux.

TREVOR: So I'll make a proposition. You stay at my camp for the same price as the Apoka Hostel.
ME: (Quickly calculating): That's 15 bucks. How much is your camp.
TREVOR: 140.
ME: Sounds good.

Hut #1 at the beautiful Nga Moru Wilderness Camp

5:30 PM: We arrive at Nga Moru. beautiful spot. We meet Richard and Juma (not their real names...) and get two cold Club beers out of Trevor's cooler. A very important part of Trevor's arsenal by the way. After showing me to HUT 1, I shower, clean up, change into my evening attire and follow Trevor back to the safari pick-up for a quick evening safari drive.

7:30 PM: Steak, two baked potatoes, next to the campfire. Trevor starts to rant on NGOs and Ugandans. Good times.
Trevor feeding a wild animal (duiker) a bread roll. The little guy later ate out of my hand too. Black tongue. Cute. I'm talking about the duiker now, not Trevor.

9:30 PM: Retire to bed. Lots of sounds. Elephants trumpeting. Antelopes and predators stalking my hut. I was fascinated as the moon and stars and wildlife come to life.


1:33 AM: Wake up to roars and wood being eaten. Elephant? Lion?? Leopard???
I'm too afraid to go the toilet outside. And I really have to go.

3:11 AM: Still have to go the bathroom. Decide it's better just to unzip tent, bring flashlight, take a quick pee next to the hut, run back to the tent, zip it back up, start to breathe again.

So that's what I do.

7:09 AM: Wake up just ten minutes before sunrise. Three buffaloes drinking out of the water hole a hundred meters from my porch. The three of them eye-hate me as I stretch and peer outside to make sure there's no cats or carcasses nearby. I have a fourteen minute staring contest with the buffaloes till I see Trevor in shorts and safari shirt waving me in to the dining tent for breakfast.

8:30 AM: We spot a herd of elephant with the binocs from the breakfast table and jump in the pick-up to find them. I'm leaving for UWA's campsite across the park.

11:00 AM: Arrive at UWA. See Booboo, the resident drunk elephant who is half tame half alcoholic. Pets in Kidepo aren't quite what I'm used to: two patas monkeys, a jackal, an elephant, a family of warthogs. All within shouting distance of the camp.

My S/C (self-contained) banda at UWA hostel

Elephant skull
4:00 PM: I meet William and set off in a pick up truck for our nature walk. It's just me, William, and his hunting rifle (and 30 bullets). I assume we are going to see plenty of animals close up. I hope...
William escorting me through the bush on our nature walk.

4:20 PM: After setting off for the burned out area high above Apoka, we see lots of eland, bushbuck, and Jackson hartebeest in the distance. Even two giraffe are within view. But all scatter as we walk toward them. We see a koppie tucked behind a clump of bushes and assume cats might be hiding. But none show.

5:30 PM: It's hot out, then it rains, then hot again. Sunset is another hour off.
7:30 PM: Before we enter Apoka hostel, we have to pass three bachelor buffaloes, the most dangerous and stubborn of the buffalo herd. In fact, they're outsiders and have been exiled from the herd. that's why they're dangerous. I'm sure we're going to rain gunfire up in the air. But instead Williiam picks up three rocks and hurls them at the beast. He scatters ten feet, then turns around and stares us down again. Nasty animals. They don't forget a face or an encounter. More rocks, more distance, but not out of the woods. Finally a single stone lands right on the foot of the buff and he finally buggers off.

7:45 PM: Three Americans in their mid-20s are at the table finishing up dinner. Very friendly. A welcome sight. They are smoking and I can't make out their faces. Only their genders. Two males and a female. A couple from Chicago and their buddy from Brooklyn. I ordered a beer and waited for my dinner in the dark. The stars are absolutely amazing tonight. Just fricking in your face, twinkling, shooting. Then the American girls says what I'm staring is a satellite.

10:20 PM: A jackal takes a crap twenty feet away from us, almost in a taunting fashion, as if to say 'top that!' We chatted a bit more, spotted a portly couple from eastern Europe (presumably) make their way to another banda, and then disperse to our beds.


6;01 AM: "Time to get up...the time is 6:01...time to get up..."

6:18 AM: Breakfast is a tomato and onion omelet with instant coffee. Delicious. The sky is an amalgamation of purples and oranges. A few fluorescent pinks spread out over the eastern horizon. Our pick up comes at 6:46 and we're off.

Sunrise looking back on the Apoka wetlands

7:01 AM: William, Pawel, Ewa (not their real names) and I pile in the back of the pick up with two spare tires. The driver sits alone in the cab. We encounter a herd of buffalo right away.

8:45 AM: After an hour of frustration, seeing nothing more than absynnian shoe bills and a couple of oribi, we spot the Apoka Lodge safari vehicle parked in the bush about five hundred meters toward the dry bed of a river. Our driver approaches. As we get closer we spot two black heads moving in the tall elephant grass.


Two lions and three lionesses had killed a lone buffalo at some point in the night. It's carcass lay about fifty feet behind them in the river. I could only make out its horns. Within an hour the scavengers would be hovering. The lions were filthy, caked in mud on their faces and tails. Blood trails ran off one of the male's visage. But awesome to picture what must have transpired. I'd love to see a lion hunt once in my life.
Male lion after the kill

9:30 AM: I have a missed call from Trevor. He's on a game drive and offers to drive me back to Kitgum in the morning. Yes! Can I stay at the hut for the same deal we made tuesday? Yes. True that...double true!

9:40 AM: We spot a felled tree, a family of baboons, more water buck and buffalo, and then head back to the lodge.

11:15 AM: Trevor arrives with three Americans and a Canadian in tow. He makes his plea to the Polish couple and 3 Americans at Apoka Hostel to stay at his lodge and chats them up a bit. He looks a year older today than he did yesterday. Shave, Trev. Shave.

1:30 PM: Amin's Hotel.
Idi Amin's 1970's lodge. Been vacant for nearly 30 years.

The rocky canyon is filled with hints of a glorified past. Thirty years before, Idi Amin hosted VIPs up here at his lodge. Now all that remains are the stones, bricks, and facade of a once prominent vacation resort. And a six foot cobra coiled at the bottom of a staircase we were about to descend. Martin spotted it first, halting our  descent down into the fangs of fury. We scurried back up the stairs and played possum as Trevor flung pebbles to get it riled up. Not smart. But cool to watch it move. I checked my back more than once.

3:00 PM: I hit the rack for a great power nap as a twenty minute rain storms hits Nga Moru.

5:30 PM: We watch the sunset and look at pictures from the day

7:00 PM: Rhea, Tex, Barbara and I join a very tired Trevor and Richard around the campfire. I guzzle a cold Club (thank you, Solar Power) while the three oaks sip on a gin and juice with lime. We are in the middle of nowhere and yet they have gin and juice with lime. The special touches make an experience. These old folk were eating up their experience.

7:30 PM: Dinnertime. Steak with sausage, posho, salad, rolls, and butter. Delicious yet again. I feel a bit off staying at such a nice place, paying 100 dollars less for my own tent, while ladies twenty years my senior are shelling out 140 for a shared tent. But thems the breaks. I got in with Trevor, they didn't. They inquired through a travel agency. I showed up at Fugly's and had a back up plan. And I appealed to Trevor's sense of isolation I suppose. An American "smelly" sitting in coaches and pick ups for 700 kms to reach what? A banda? Trevor, ever the salesmen, gave me the deal in exchange for some company. Frankly, we both got what we were looking for.

9:10 PM: After two beers, an exemplary dinner, and conversation ranging from over population to water purification, we all retire to our huts. Tex's wife is battling diarrhea and already is out for the count. I spray some bug repellent outside my tent and look at the stars for fifteen minutes, hoping to God a buffalo isn't coming up from behind me.

9:27 PM: I get in my tent and flash my torch under both beds. No cobras. I get into my leisure suit and go back outside to wash my hands, brush my teeth, and see the largest spider on the base of the bathroom tiles. A tarantula or a black widow? Not sure. It's fricking huge though. And just sitting there.

I think I'll shower in the morning. 


7:20 A.M.: I wake up remarkably still exhausted and groggy. Some female voice shouts out my name, "Matt, you okay in there?"
"Fine," I mumble. I scratch my eye-lids for sand crystals and move my palms around the bed for my cell phone. The sun is already above the Sudanese mountains and I'm going to be the last one to breakfast. The spider is still in its position so I throw a ball of TP at it, turn on the shower, and watch it scurry up the wall and across the open window to the outer rocks on the hut. Ghandi.

7:40 A.M. "Good afternoon." Trevor says wryly.
Our host once again looks a decade older than the day before, smelling of the earth and soil. He watches the five of us eat as he broods about the drive upcoming.
"I'd rather have brain surgery than drive back to Kitgum."

8:30 AM: After everyone settles their bills and tips the staff, the four oaks head off in their Pajero for a game drive on their own ("they're going to get so lost," says Trevor) while Trevor and I mount our behemoth of a vehicle. It's bigger than the truck I took to Karenga but without any cargo or humans to weigh it down, it's going to be bumpier. Trevor's red cooler is between us. Tse tse flies are all around us. Trevor swears and yells at someone in the back and then we're off.

10:11 A.M. (About an hour into the four and a half hour journey): "I like 'what if' books...what if Europeans had never come to Africa...what if Germany had won the second world war..."

I listen and let him go. Trevor's biggest asset is his experience. Don't interrupt him. Let him go. Let him speak. Give a 'right' or 'hmmm-mmm' every now and then and you're going to get along fine.

11:55 A.M.: Trevor's thrown down three F-bombs and two N-bombs since leaving Orom. The murrem road is taking its toll on his patience. Two construction sites and bicycles have destroyed his chivalry. It's now just a question if he can keep the car in second gear long enough to get me safely back to Kitgum before his heart implodes. Watching him is really something to behold.

Typical road on the journey from Kidepo to Kitgum. Your basic nightmare.
Snippets from the drive's conversation:

ME: Trevor, why do you think South Africa is a 1st world country while the rest of Africa is developing?
TREVOR (grabbing his skin): That's why.

TREVOR: I find it very interesting how the four of them tip Richard and Juma but don't give me one bloody shilling.
ME: Maybe they figure Richard and Juma live off tips.
TREVOR: (ignoring my remark): I mean, who does all the work? Who arranges all the sights? Who organizes all dinner?
ME: You d-
ME: Right...

1:22 P.M.: We arrive. Cold beers in tow. Ula is writing about her NGO work at the table near the pool. Two staff are behind the bar. All else is quiet. Tranquil is a better word. I think about staying the night but know Saturday will be much harder if I do. Time for good-byes and thank yous.

3:11 PM: Singh makes me four CD's of all my videos. I return the video, thank him, pay him, and then bolt for the nearest bathroom. In the can, one of the Indian icons on the wall looks a lot like Snookie from "The Jersey Shore." I flush, wave, and exit, keeping the Snookie comment to myself.

Boy is it hot out. Must be like 97 with a windchill of 99. Everyone's sweating. I find a bottle of water, some rice and beef for lunch, and a ticket on a bright pink bus to Gulu. And the Polish couple is on the same bus. The wife looks mosquito bitten and travel weary. I can tell their trip has been restive. I find a seat in the back row, next to a 12 year old boy and his younger sister. We wait for forty minutes till every last seat is full before leaving. Excruciating.
Bus from Kitgum to Gulu

Snapping a photo from the bus en route to Kitgum

5:42 PM: As we near Gulu, the driver hits a speed bump and everyone on the bus goes flying in the air. I hit my shoulder and neck on the window siding and immediately feel pain. I might have even sworn out loud. I can't remember. Can't. Wait. To. Get. Off. This. Bus.

6:36 PM: Just as the sun slowly sets, I'm free and nearly giddy as I look for a boda to take me to the Acholi Inn. This hotel is an NGO and Military favorite. It's dripping with LRA and Ugandan political history. Lots of MPs and foreign dignitaries have drunk in the hotel bar, Wizard of the Nile. There's a pool. There's a sauna. There's a steam bath. I'm in. I'm so in...

7:07 PM: Air conditioning. CNN. Hot shower. New clothes. Swim suit. Pool. Poolside bar. Garden. This place rocks. The dinner buffet is wonderful. Lots of people swimming and drinking and eating and partying it up. I have a beer and some great chicken wings. I take a steam, swim in the pool. Then I hit the wall. Fast. It's 8:30 on a Friday night and I can barely keep my eyes open. I saunter back to my room, shower, hang up my suit, set up the mosquito netting, drink some water, take a couple Ibuprofin (shoulder pain), and then I'm out.

8:14 AM: Breakfast outside in the garden is too good to pass up. Eggs, sausage, hot coffee, juice, cereal. I am thoroughly enjoying Gulu. Except I've really only been to the Acholi Inn. Which reminds me, I need to leave.
Poolside for a morning breakfast before heading back to Karuma and Kampala
9:07 AM: Find a matatu almost full and jump in. "This is going to Karuma, right?" I get nods and talk the driver down from 8,000 shillings to 7,000 shillings. Really hustling the locals now. I'm stuffed between three other people in a row of two seats. Not comfy. I try to read and study the map.

10:38 AM: I disembark the matatu in dusty and smelly Karuma. The falls are 1 km to the east along a dirt path. Two people point me in the direction. I buy gonja (fried bananas) from a local lady by the stage and start walking.

11:11 AM: I find a path careening toward the Nile and head in that direction. Four boys with empty jerry cans run past me and laugh. I see three fisherman at the banks and sit and rest for awhile. The boy is in underwear and a Man United jersey and takes me closer to the falls. I give him a coin in my pocket and he waves wildly as I move back up the ridge. There must be a better look-out point beyond these cliffs, I reason. The paths are confusing at best. I pass lizards and horse flies and birds and nettles and thorny bushes and other bushes and it's all a big mess after a while. But the views are spectacular. I finally find a dirt trail leading me to the top of the hill. The first thing I see when I get there is a promontory overlooking the falls. I snap a picture.

The view of Karuma Falls

Then I turn around.

I'm now staring at eight rocket launchers aimed north across the Nile. Three soldiers in fatigues are walking toward me. There are thatched huts all across the vista. It's fairly obvious I've taken a wrong turn somewhere.
And I'm in an area off limits to smellies.

"You! Stop!"

I walk toward them smiling, draining the rest of my water and pulling thorns from my shirt. It's really hot out now.

"Sorry, guys. I didn't know this was a barracks."
I'm scanning the rocket launchers. Part of me thinks it's really cool I'm here. These guys seem all right, too. Not too buff or menacing. The UPDF (Ugandan Police Defense Force) has to understand their are no signs, right?

A bald man with two hands full of mud walks toward me. He's the boss.
"Where are your documents?" He asks.
I pull out my passport and explain everything.

He goes to a hut and washes off his hands, returning with a walkie talkie the size of a rocket launcher. It's at least as long as me. At least. He walks out of earshot to go talk to someone else. Presumably a superior. Meanwhile three soldiers look at me curiously. My khakis are nearly black with soot and grime. I've got red and orange stains from some dirt I walked through. There are thorns all over my arms.

"What you doing here?" one of them asks. He's chewing on sugar cane and nearly in stitches over my appearance. Presumably.

I explain myself again, trying to keep it light. "It was the map. There's nothing on the map..."

They keep staring and giggling.

12:08 PM: I get escorted to another barracks along the road by a fourth soldier. He takes to the boss of the base. Same questions, same answers. We talk. I show him the guide book and map. I smile. He gives me back my passport and allows me to leave.

12:33 PM: I find a cold bottle of water at a restaurant as I wait for a bus to come by. I'm being hassled by the town drunk. Thoroughly shit-canned at noon. He's delirious, asking me about Gulu, the waitress, the animals, everything. Where is the bus?

12:42 PM: I practically sprint to the stage when a bus finally comes over the bridge. There are four empty seats. I take one in the back, next to a woman and three live chickens. I'm not kidding.

Check out what the little girl is holding while the boys pose.

Live chicken eating peanut shells in center aisle of the final bus of the trip

4:01 PM: Gridlock in Kampala. I stop the bus and get out, find a boda, pay him and fly around a stalled semi, several hundred yards of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and back to civilization.