Monday, 26 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Dollar Bills Y'All

After most of yesterday stuck inside a truck I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to an even longer day of travel. However today included a border crossing by land into Uganda and so I knew from past experiences that a good chunk of that time could be designated to that alone.

The main border crossing from Kenya to Uganda is at Malaba with the other at Busia. Both are known to be, in general, relatively pain free with visas available on arrival. Leaving Kenya I was finger printed and photographed but it didn't take long at all. The Ugandan side was a little more problematic. It started out pretty smoothly despite queuing in the blistering heat. But then when the time came to pay the $50USD I hit a problem.... My so-brand-new-you-could-smell-the-ink money was apparently not good enough. Perhaps this was, in part, because half of it was in $1 bills as apparently the border agent seemed very unhappy at not being able to get a good exchange rate for them. Whether or not the delay that followed was deliberate as a "punishment" I'm not sure but even after giving some larger new bills it still took almost half an hour for her to process my visa. Lesson learned? Don't get on the wrong side of someone who is obviously in a position of power. In total the entire "experience" took about an hour, which as border crossings go is actually pretty good. We were soon on the road again.

Uganda has a chaotic history known for its terror and bloodshed although it is fighting hard these days to emerge from those shadows. Idi Amin is known as the "Butcher of Uganda" with an estimated 300000 people losing their lives under his rule. He supported the Palestinian/German hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976 and allowed the plane to land at Entebbe. After over a week, Israeli commandos stormed the terminal and within 30 minutes 7 terrorists were dead. It is one of the most daring and dramatic hostage operations to this day. In retaliation to more than half the Ugandan airforce planes being destroyed to prevent retaliatory airstrikes on Israel, Amin ordered the killing of a hostage recuperating in hospital in Kampala. Like with most mass murdering evil human beings this planet has ever known, he died in Saudi Arabia in 2003 never having been brought to justice. Northern Uganda later had Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to deal with. Atrocities included mutilation/torture and the abduction of children to be used as soldiers and sex slaves. Despite not having threatened Uganda since 2007, most Northern Ugandans will not return to their homes out of sheer terror. More recently the incredibly controversial anti-homosexuality Bill proposing the death penalty and life sentences for homosexual behaviour has thrust Uganda back into the limelight for all the wrong reasons.

Despite these shadows cast on an otherwise new dawn of tourism in Uganda , it perhaps surprisingly is one of the safest destinations in Africa. What surprised me about the drive was how lush and green everything in Uganda is as well as the tropical heat. Despite being on the equator, Uganda is more temperate than its neighbours. The rolling hills are rich and fertile and much is grown here. Much of the country is 3000ft above sea level and even higher in the southwestern region. Alas it suffers the same environmental problems as the countries surrounding it: poaching and deforestation. It's also struggling from overpopulation with one of the worlds highest annual growth rates at around 4%. Significant discoveries of oil is putting pressure on several National Parks and protected areas.

The major roads in Uganda are said to be generally in good condition although there were potholes. However, that said, a lot of highway and road upgrades are being done which can inevitably lead to delays and a slower journey. Kampala, the capital city, is notorious for its major traffic jams and you are advised to plan your commute in/through/around it. Rush hour is obviously bad but they apparently have three of these per day and then on Fridays it is said to basically last all day. Fun! We managed to get quite close to the city before we were crawling at a snails pace and thankfully that didn't last long.

Red Chilli Hideaway, the camp site for the night, was on the outskirts of Kampala. We finally reached it about 10 hrs after we left Eldoret. I am willing to bet that it is home to the worlds smallest swimming pool - if you do decide to take a dip be prepared to have your personal space violated let alone invaded. There's a pool bar, an indoor bar, a pizza oven, hot showers and... Free wifi to make up for it though. Bring your ear plugs, the frogs start their chorus early and Deet will save your sanity from the onslaught of the mozzies.

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