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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

When 'goodbye' really means 'farewell'

Last week was a week of 'last times', as we said goodbye to our friends and colleagues, packed our possessions and made for the airport. Of all those farewells, one of the most poignant was to the caretaker and maids in our compound. We knew that we would be able to keep in touch quite easily with those colleagues and friends with whom we had been particularly close, thanks to Facebook and email. However, when we said goodbye to Sarah [name changed to protect her privacy], the caretaker for our block of flats who also did our washing and cleaning, we knew it would almost certainly be for good. There is no postal delivery service in Uganda. The houses lived in by the poor do not have house numbers and rarely even street names. Most people cannot afford to pay for a PO box or make international calls and so  'goodbye' really is 'farewell'.

Sarah has been the lynch pin of our domestic life for nearly two and a half years. She has scrubbed our floors, cleaned our kitchen and bathroom and tidied up our untidiness. Above all, she has washed and ironed our clothes. Washing clothes in Uganda means soaking them in cold water and solid block soap or detergent and rubbing them fiercely by hand to remove all stains. This is easier said than done as the water itself is full of red earth. Following multiple rinses, the garments are then hung on the line to dry in the sun, usually without the use of pegs. None of this process is mechanised or electrified. Only middle class urban households have electricity and few have washing machines. On my way to Entebbe airport, I got red mud all over the hem of a favourite black skirt. It has been through two washes here in Scotland and been treated with Vanish, but the stains will not go away. I realise now, if I didn't before, what 'doing the laundry' means in Uganda.

Omo is the market leader, used in unbelievably high concentrations which sometimes burn the skin. Why so high? Partly because of its reputation for efficacy but also because the labels on almost all household products are written in English, a language in which few maids are literate. Omo is magic. It is used for almost all cleaning activities, whether of clothes, floors or cars. In high enough concentrations, it even removes the paint off your car. Believe me, we have evidence to prove it.

Most ironing in Uganda is carried out using flat irons with a cavity for red-hot coals. Again, we were fortunate. We had an electric iron, indeed, lucky people that we were, a steam iron. In Uganda, clothes dry in the sun rather than the wind, as in Scotland. The sun kills germs and infestations but also tends to leave lots of creases. So, ironing is essential. It also kills the mango flies which can bury themselves in washing dried outside and then burrow into the skin.

And the other household tasks? Scrubbing the floors is a never-ending job, given the dust which blows in in the dry season and the mud tramped in in the rainy weather. During our first week, we bought Sarah a conventional British-style broom and a mop and bucket. How naive! Ugandans brush floors with a bundle of dried grass stems or papyrus - like a 'witch's broom', but without the long handle. The sweeping is carried out bent double. And the mopping? By hand, kneeling on the floor and scrubbing inch by inch.

Washing, ironing, cleaning and scrubbing: these are time-consuming tasks. Add to them the shopping and cooking which most households (not ours) require and it becomes  clear why most middle class families in Uganda have at least one maid.

And who are these maids? Sadly, many of them are young girls who have not finished primary school. You might think that, given their youth, they would have few of the domestic skills required, but no. Trained to carry out household drudgery without complaint from the moment they learn to walk, Ugandan girls buckle down in the households in which they are employed, just as their British counterparts did in Victorian households a century and a half ago. Of course, many of these young girls are working illegally, as child labour. All children, in theory, have a right to primary education, but not these girls. They may have been lured from the village by wealthier neighbours or relatives with a promise that in exchange for housework and childcare duties they will be allowed to attend school, but these are usually empty promises.

Why do middle class families want to employ children as maids? Obviously, because they are cheap but also because many wives fear the wandering eyes and lascivious glances of their notoriously unfaithful husbands and think that employing young girls rather than mature women will restrain their partners. Alas no: rape, pregnancy, shame and destitution often follow - for the girls, that is. In Christian Uganda as in Victorian Britain, there is little compassion for the damaged and exploited.

Many children in Uganda are brought up by other children. Often this may be within the child carers' own families, but it may frequently be within the houses of strangers where, in addition to all the scrubbing and ironing, maids barely into their teens are expected to look after the children of the household as well. Most educated women go out to work. You quite often hear middle class women grumbling about the poor-quality spoken English their children pick up as a result of interaction with maids brought from the village. Hardly surprising when their 'nannies' may scarcely have got beyond Primary 4. All this, of course for a pittance, for many maids are to all intents and purposes slaves, with little freedom of movement and scarcely any rest time.

And of course, along with all the usual grumbles women have about their maids, little different from those you hear in comfortably-off households in the west, there are genuine fears. There are fears that maids will bring boyfriends into the house who will then proceed to empty it of valuables. There are also fears that maids will be bribed to kidnap their young charges and hand them over to witchdoctors to be sacrificed. Both these things happen, hence one reason for many families choosing boarding schools for their children from a very early age.

However, not all maids are young girls. Quite a lot are women with children of their own but without any male support. Sarah comes into this category, bringing up, and paying school fees for three children on her own. We were privileged to be invited to visit Sarah and her family in their home a couple of days before we left Uganda for good. The three children, Sarah and her elder sister live in a two-room 'terraced' mud-brick house in a 'slum' area beyond the northern bypass. To get there, we had to bounce our way through a dark warren of rutted and flooded mud tracks. However, the house had electric light and a television (with terrible reception!). Water, as everywhere in Uganda, was collected from a standpipe. We have no idea of the arrangements for sanitation.

The family income comes from Sarah's wages as a caretaker and what we paid her for washing and cleaning. The landlord routinely paid her wages late. That meant that the month we left she was four months in arrears. This is common in Uganda where the more privileged really do not care very much for those poorer than themselves, and specifically for their employees. If it hadn't been for what we gave her, goodness knows how she would have survived. And now, of course, we have left. The rest of the family's income comes from what Sarah's sister makes with her old treadle Singer sewing machine. She sews school jumpers and other garments. She also sews a backing of absorbent towelling onto locally-grown loofahs for sale in local shops, well, kiosks, really.

Sarah succeeded in keeping her eldest daughter in a day secondary school until she sat her A levels, a major achievement. Her two younger children are both in boarding schools. The younger boy is doing very well in a city boarding primary school. His elder sister is struggling with English at the local village school. She also boards. Sarah works from 8.00 in the morning until 7.00 at night, her journey to and from work taking her an hour or an hour and a half each way. Sarah's parents, who live in a village near Jinja, are too old to care for the children when she is away from home, hence the boarding arrangements. All this takes money. Our guess is that the boarding schools for the younger children are poor-quality private schools. The decision to send the children to boarding accommodation is purely pragmatic.

Sarah, a Muslim, is the most honest and morally upright person Stuart and I had contact with in Uganda.  Her English used to be minimal but she was improving it with the help of a Luganda-English dictionary which we gave her. We didn't spend much time talking to her as we were pretty busy and lack of a shared language was an obstacle. However, we grew to respect and care for her more than for nearly anyone else we met.

In our block of six flats there were two other maids, three until recently. All of them were lively, intelligent and friendly. They would wash our car, especially at the weekends when the extra money helped them go and visit their families. Our memory of them is of them in their leisure time sitting and doing each other's hair, carrying out manicures with a razor blade and, latterly, playing Ludo with a travel set we gave them.


Often Sarah would be making mats or other craftwork in the traditional Kiganda fashion, with banana fibre dyed in vivid colours, and beautifully shaped raffia baskets. These skills she learned in childhood in her village, and thought nothing of them. She laughed when we expressed our astonishment and pleasure at the beauty of what she produced and her skill in making them. Here are the wonderful gifts she has made for us at one time or another.


I mentioned that there had been a fourth maid until a couple of weeks before we left. Like Sarah, this maid whom we will call Lydia, had three children, the youngest of whom was four years old. The children lived in her home village near Tororo on the Kenyan border, a four or five hour drive from Kampala. Lydia worked for the three young men who shared one of the upstairs flats. She was pleasant and friendly, like the other maids.

One day a couple of weeks before we left, Sarah told me how long her employers had held back her wages. She said that once we left, she would leave her current job. I was very worried as jobs are scarce and Sarah has so many domestic commitments. However, what was she to do as she wasn't getting paid? It was then that Sarah told me that the maid upstairs had left the day before, with no warning. The young men for whom Lydia worked had said that they would take her to the UK, that land of milk and honey. She would then be able to send money back for her family. It was clear that Sarah was tempted to follow suit.

I was appalled. Nobody can get into the UK these days and certainly not at short notice. It was quite clear that this was a case of human trafficking, of which there have been a number of cases recently in Uganda. Nobody had seen the warning signals or recognised them and I was too late to do anything.  The young woman had already left. Who knows what country she will end up in or when, if ever, she will see her children again? She had said goodbye to Sarah, and that was it. This 'goodbye' was definitely a 'farewell'.

These anecdotes about the maids in our building are part of a common story, a story of people living on the edge, of women working hard to feed and educate their children. No doubt, you will all have heard the recent news stories of corrupt elite Ugandans stealing the international aid meant for their poorer compatriots. The maids in our building are not the recipients of aid. They struggle on their own or with the help of their parents and siblings to keep their heads above water and give their children a chance. Sometimes, sadly, they sink beneath the surface through no fault of their own.

So, with the memory of Lydia haunting us, we waved goodbye to Sarah and left the country for good.

Farewell, Uganda.




Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Ritchies' Farewell Tour: Stage 4, across the River Nile in Murchison Falls National Park, birds, animals and oil

Uganda does it again! Last year it was Lonely Planet naming the country as top destination for 2012. Now it is the National Geographic listing Uganda among their 'top 20 must-see places of 2013'. Not only that, but last week Birdlife International named it a 'preferred birdwatching destination' for next year.


To summarise yet again, Uganda has 342 mammal species, including the 'big five' - lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhinoceros (though the latter only survive within a breeding programme, thanks to China's obsession with rhino horn). It has over 1,000 bird species, many of them found only in Uganda, due to its geographical position between east African savannah, west African rainforest and north African semi-desert.

Nevertheless, despite these impressive statistics, tourism in Uganda is relatively underdeveloped, what with poor roads (though they are now improving thanks to the European Union, China and Japan) and a relative dearth of mid-range accommodation. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) does what it can but other aspects of the country's heritage such as its historical and cultural sites are sadly neglected. The country's poor reputation, both at home and abroad, particularly in the area of human rights, does not make 'selling' it easy. One tour operator was quoted in Tuesday's Daily Monitor as saying, 'In other countries, everyone talks about how their country is the best and yet in Uganda people have been forced to think that Uganda is a terrible place.'

Well, Uganda is far from a terrible place. Indeed, it can be an absolutely magical place as we have been reminded during our 'farewell tour' around some of our favourite places. However, like many other 'magical' places, Murchison Falls National Park, one of Uganda's premier parks, is under threat, under threat from local poachers and under threat from the international oil industry, not to mention the crazy Presidential wheeze of converting some of the land into a golf course. All these activities could end up undermining everything the tourism bodies are trying to do.

In our last post, we wrote about the River Nile from Murchison Falls to Lake Albert. Well, in this post we pop across the river in the company of a UWA ranger to rediscover some of the most symbolic of Uganda's animals and birds.

You do not have to go far in the national park before you see animals. They stand there by the side of the tracks, like this female Uganda kob, just staring at you.




Although the animals were as curious as ever, we noticed some differences in the landscape from the last time we were here, only six months or so ago. There is oil under the broad savannah of Murchison National Park, and in order to get at it and to provide good access to the airstrip, several of the roads have been broadened and deepened, leaving them with precipitously high sides. These red gashes cut cross the grassland, no longer unbroken from horizon to horizon.


Once we had to wait while about 15 lorries rumbled past us. We found it quite unpleasant. I wonder what the animals thought? This giraffe certainly looks bemused.


Nevertheless, the magic remains. For me, the giraffes are among the park's greatest wonders. Their stately unhurried progress across the skyline is unforgettable. Do giraffes ever run, I wonder?


As we drove towards the delta area, our ranger, Daniel, told us about the trouble they were having with poachers. When we were out on the Wild Frontiers boat the day before, we had had one or two awkward moments when our crew were clearly sizing up people in other boats. It turned out they were concerned they might be poachers. Daniel said there was a lot of poaching, not just of what I would think of as 'obvious' targets such as antelopes (easy to carry, dismember and cook), but also of hippos and, of course, elephants. In fact, Tuesday's Monitor reported that in the past three months 103 poachers had been arrested by rangers in Murchison, while at least 75 had been convicted and jailed.

The concerns are genuine. The elephant population in Murchison has fallen from about 14,000 in the 1960s to about 1,000 now. Poaching is worse during periods of political instability and when food is scarce. The impact of climate change is going to make the situation worse and so is the continuing rise in population. In a country which adds a million and a half new lives to the planet every year, it is hardly surprising that there are growing conflicts over land, both conflicts between different groups of people and conflicts between man and animals.

Every year, landless people, desperate to feed their families, encroach onto land within the national parks, National Forest Authority (NFA) reserves and wetlands, threatening the habitat of wildlife. And, of course, animals, recognising no boundaries, trample people's crops and eat the food essential to their families' survival. Families are rarely compensated for such depredations  Lions kill their cattle and so, in return, people poison or shoot them.

The clash between man and animal and the increasing frequency with which the species come in contact with each other can have devastating consequences. Recently, Uganda has had some outbreaks of terrible diseases such as Ebola and Marburg, though not (I stress) in the Murchison area, which some have said can be traced back to direct contact with primates, sometimes through eating them. Tourists, of course, are not at all at risk as they neither eat monkeys nor attend village funeral ceremonies.


Of course, some poaching is still for ivory as it has always been, with the police, customs and UWA rangers becoming increasingly successful in intercepting the tusks at Entebbe airport and other crossings. One ranger told us that it is now rare to find elephants with the size of tusks common a century ago. Indeed, they are now occasionally coming across young animals born with no tusks at all.  A Darwinian response to environmental pressures?

However, poaching is also carried out by descendants of the hunters and gatherers who were turned off their ancestral land to protect the animals they used to pursue. And the weapons they use are often the traditional ones: bows and arrows and spears. As the UWA and other groups are becoming increasingly aware, poaching will not stop until people's livelihoods are secure. Protecting people is as important as protecting animals. Supporting people will also support wildlife.

I have to admit that being in close proximity to huge beasts such as elephants is an awe-inspiring, and sometimes frightening experience. We came across a group of elephants munching away on the acacia trees right by the side of the track. We stopped the car and just watched, holding our breaths in case the animals got rattled, started flapping their ears or showing the restlessness which precedes a charge. However, they remained perfectly calm, entirely focused on the 200kg of leaves and grass they had to consume before sunset. (Not to speak of the 200 litres of water they had to drink.)



However, the park has many other fascinating animals, not all of them quite so big. We love these Jackson's hartebeest, with their long lugubrious faces.













We saw a lot of birds in the delta area, here Egyptian geese and cattle egrets and below a Spur-wing plover and an African jacana. Below these, an African wattled plover surveying all from a termite mound.























However, the most glorious sight of all were the Crested Cranes, Uganda's national bird, resplendent in gold, red and black, the national colours..



Their crests are quite difficult to see against the tall grass, but when they're out in the open, wow!


Sadly, these wonderful birds are seriously under threat due to the draining of, and encroachment on wetlands. Apparently they used to be common sight in the swamp land which has now become Kampala's Northern Bypass.

As Uganda's industrial base becomes more developed, the pressures on parks such as Murchison will inevitably become more intense. The country is already experienced unprecedented rates of tree-felling in forested areas across all regions, threatening rainfall and bringing about climate change. The proud kingdom of Bunyoro, where Murchison is situated, has suffered high levels of poverty for years. The development of its oil reserves, which stretch under Lake Albert and much of the surrounding area, should give the region unprecedented opportunities to increase employment and provide better services for its people. Oil production is expected to start in 2017.

There are many sensitivities of course. Some of the refineries will be built over traditional cultural, historical and environmentally sensitive sites. There are questions about how much employment will go to Ugandans and how much to foreign workers. People are increasingly, and rightly, asking whether schools and further/higher education develop the skills the oil industry needs. The answer appears to be 'minimally'.   One good step is that Total has signed an agreement with Makerere University to improve the quality of engineering graduates.

There have been major discussions about how many of the profits will flow back into the area. The Omukano (King) of Bunyoro Kitara has said that royalties would 'help improve infrastructure, preserve culture and improve the welfare of the kingdom's subjects.' He added that they would go some way towards compensating the Banyoro for the unjust treatment they received from the colonialists during the reign of his appallingly badly treated ancestor, Omukano Kabalega. However, the Kingdom also expressed concerns about environmental degradation and pollution. Civil Society organisations have petitioned the government to create an Oil Fund to address the social, economic and environmental needs of the area. Most of the development to date has been in the Lake Albert area, around Hoima, but it is already taking place in the Murchison Falls National Park itself.

This week, Parliament has been in uproar debating the Oil Bill, so much so that a couple of days ago the Speaker abandoned the session due to the chaos. The police even deployed tanks and water cannon, though they were not used as far as I know. We saw them on the Northern Bypass on their way to quell any demonstrations

As far as I understand, the main discussion relates to whether all the decisions should be made by the Minister for Energy, with the President (allegedly) pulling her strings, or whether they should be discussed and decided on by MPs in Parliament. A scurrilous subtext appears to relate to key issues such as whether only the Minister (and puppet master) should be allowed to 'eat' the oil revenue or whether that opportunity should be accorded fairly to all members of the House at each stage in the bureaucratic process.

These and other thoughts were in our heads as we drove back to the Paraa ferry, passing herds of the beautiful Uganda kob, the country's national animal, and the less sociable little oribi. We wondered how the average Ugandan weighs the benefits the new oil industry can bring their people against the possible environmental and social costs, and if they are even aware of these.



In addition to oil, Uganda is blessed by significant mineral deposits: vermiculite and rock salt, gold, phosphate and limestone, copper-cobalt. An article in the New Vision (11/02/21012) reported the results of a geophysical survey by air which indicated that about 80% of the country is endowed with rich and diverse mineral wealth. The paper listed a score or more of precious, non-precious and industrial minerals.

How the country balances the profits to be made from extraction of oil and minerals, some quite time-limited, against the long-term tourism potential of an enduring landscape and rich indigenous wildlife is going to be interesting to observe.


When we got to the north bank of the Paraa ferry, a development supported by the European Union, we had some time to spare. We were hot, sticky, tired and thirsty. We also wanted to buy some postcards. Alas, none of these needs could be fulfilled, so we stood around in an area with virtually no seats and little shade. An agreement has apparently been made with the various lodges that no refreshments should be made available at the crossing points. Fortunately, I had bought some postcards in Kampala, but what a wasted opportunity! Perhaps the tourism bodies should think a bit more deeply about customer service.



We arrived at our lodge delighted with what we had seen but with a number of questions about what the future might hold. Coincidentally, the place was buzzing. It seemed that oil developers were meeting a stakeholder group which included representatives of community organisations and local businesses such as lodges and campsites. They were discussing how to manage the impact of oil on the local area and on tourism in the area.

Uganda's motto is 'Gifted by nature'. And so it is, with its mild climate, fertile soils, beautiful landscape, varied wildlife and now also its oil and minerals. Let us hope that these gifts are used well for the benefit of the Ugandan people and succeeding generations.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Ritchies' Farewell Tour: Stage 3, the Nile from Murchison Falls to Lake Albert, some shoebills and a minor misadventure

It was a good hour and a half's drive from the Murchison Falls Park entrance near Masindi to our destination, the wonderful Nile Safari Lodge. The first time we did this journey, over two years ago now, we slithered and skidded through the sticky red mud under torrents of rain and with three very wet Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers in the back of our pick-up  This time, our third visit to Murchison, the road was dry and smooth - great for Stuart's normal ninety miles an hour driving until we met deep ruts in the road. Recent rains had carved out deep rivulets running diagonally across our path. We slammed on the brakes and jolted our way nose first, down into these mini-ravines and up the other side.

Although there is less big game in the southern reaches of the park than across the other side of the river, there were enough animals around to remind us that this is tropical forest after all. Every so often we encountered troops of baboons who wandered off lazily, noses in the air, offended at our intrusion into their long red sitting room.


We were delighted to see a pair of Southern Ground Hornbill. For the first time I managed to get a clear view of the splashes of bright blue on the female's wattle, making her a handsome consort for her red-splattered husband.










Bumping and rattling over the ruts, we arrived at Nile Safari Lodge, 'paradise' as our friend Angela described it. Difficult to believe that the broad powerful river below the verandah is the same river which joins the Mediterranean at Alexandria.


We were lulled to sleep by the sounds of grunting hippos, creaking branches waving wildly under the weight of vervet monkeys and the raucous croaks of frogs.

Woken by a few early morning grunts and warbles from our neighbours, Angela and I were ready to be picked up at the jetty at 7.30 on the dot for our trip to the delta. Here the Nile joins Lake Albert before turning north towards Sudan. Stuart, however, felt no need to renew his acquaintance with African wildlife. A full Ugandan breakfast was on the cards for him.










So this is an account in reverse order of life on the Nile and its banks, starting with a trip downstream to the west and ending up at Murchison Falls to the east.

We slid quietly down river in the Wild Frontiers boat. Papyrus lined the nearest banks, with acacia trees further back. Do-it-yourself islands endeavoured to grab a foothold on the riverbed, some, like the one below, even supporting a colony of weaver birds on its new-grown branches.










Water lilies floated gently. The powerful river became more and more sluggish as it merged with the swamp.


Various creatures lurked amidst the lush grass and papyrus on the banks: on the left an Egyptian Goose and on the right a Purple Heron.













Smaller birds fluttered between the branches, including various species of kingfisher: here, the omnipresent Pied Kingfisher and a beautiful little Malachite Kingfisher. Below these, a pair of blue-breasted bee-eaters perched among the papyrus stalks.




Some animals remained firmly on land. There was no way these  Black and White Colobus Monkeys were going to get their feet wet. You can see one peering curiously through the branches on the left, while all you can see of the one on the right is its long dangling tail.


The Patas Monkey gazed down from its prickly perch and the waterbuck watched calmly as the humans floated by.


A young Monitor Lizard sunned itself on the trunk of a tree.


Meanwhile huge Goliath herons - the world's largest herons - stood majestically in the grass, far more impressive than their Common Squacco cousins. A Black-headed heron surveyed the river from a tree-top vantage point.




High in the branches the raptors lurked, peering down on life below, here a Tawny Eagle and a Grey Kestrel. Below that an African Fish Eagle










Many of the animals, however, were as comfortable in the water as on the banks. We came across a couple of wallowing elephants.



Slightly nervous about our proximity to the elephant above, I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed when, with an expression of supreme boredom, it looked us over, turned round and moved sedately into the undergrowth.










As we neared the delta itself, we came across pods of hippos. They took one look at us and fled with wild splashings.



None of this activity appeared to perturb the fishermen who calmly carried on with their work.










In the far distance, we could make out the shadowy outlines of the Blue Mountains of DR Congo: beautiful to view but very difficult to photograph!

However, we did manage to photograph something very special: a shoebill, in fact more than one shoebill. These strange birds look prehistoric. We almost expected to catch sight of a group of dinosaurs in the grass behind them.



One look from those primeval eyes, and the observer just wants to slink back into the river.


Time to turn round and aim upstream, past the African darter, flapping its wings to keep cool.










A quick turnaround for Angela and me - off the boat, into the restaurant, a tasty and substantial lunch and then off to catch the UWA boat upstream. Stuart felt it was his duty to stay by the swimming pool and interact with the vervet monkeys.





We caught the boat with plenty of time to spare. In fact, the staff arrived at the exact second we were supposed to be leaving. (Now, that's a mzungu thought!) It took some time to get started. We set off in one small boat which then turned out to be far too small to take on the number of passengers waiting on the opposite bank. Not rocket science, that calculation, especially as we were all pre-booked. So back we went, swapped boats and set off again.

Now Stuart and I are great fans of the UWA rangers. They are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and keen to ensure that you appreciate and respect the wildlife as much as they do. Unfortunately, the words 'almost all' are missing from that statement. The government has recently decided that soldiers should be 'trained' as wildlife rangers. This may be a simple measure to ensure that resources are used as effectively as possible, particularly in those national parks which border sensitive regions like DR Congo. Or, there could be a political reason, who knows. Anyway, on our boat trip upstream, the 'ranger' was clearly not one of the usual ones.


She was able to parrot off the facts and figures about the obvious animals and the Falls themselves. However, she was pretty hopeless at spotting and pointing out the wildlife so that the passengers could also see them. In fact, chatting to her mates seemed a preferable activity. At one point I ended up identifying birds for the passengers on the bottom deck as she had disappeared upstairs for reasons of her own. How different from the wonderful Wild Frontiers guides we had been with in the morning.

Nevertheless, we had a good trip all the same. We saw herons, fish eagles and kingfishers. Below you can see a spur-wing plover next to, I think, a grey kestrel.


Here you can see some tiny red-throated bee-eaters, fluttering in and out of their nesting sites in the cliffs.



A yellow-billed stork stood preening itself.

Some hippos were lumbering about on the land.










The banks upstream are steeper than at the delta area and the tree cover thicker. Elephants moved about in groups among grazing warthogs and waterbuck. They looked like huge grey boulders.



















And then, at last, there were the Falls themselves.


Magnificent from the bottom but spectacular from the top, as we saw a couple of days later, on our way home. At first, all you hear is the deep roar. Then, as you approach the Falls, you see what looks like a wild highland river.


But gradually, as you move down stream, you see the enormous power of all those gallons of water pouring out of Lake Victoria, into Lake Kyoga, down through the various falls and rapids to the Karuma Falls, then down the Victoria Nile to Murchison Falls. Our visit took place during the rainy season. When we had been at Lake Victoria a couple of days earlier, the water was higher than we had ever seen it. And now it was all pouring down Murchison Falls.



As the spray rose higher and higher, so the rainbows sparkled more and more clearly.










And there at the bottom, the River Nile went on its way, gradually losing momentum as it reached  the papyrus swamps at Lake Albert. And, as for us, we had to be on our way too.

Not so fast, said Fate, as we bumped along the rutted track. Indeed, not.

The engine started cutting out and then smoke, yes smoke, not steam, began pouring out of the bonnet. Some cables were on fire. A previous repair to the battery had been carried out using an old wire coat hanger. This, alas, had now given way. We couldn't turn the engine off, put out the fire, raise the windows or lock the doors. We stood behind our car while swarms of tsetse flies stung us right through our long-sleeved and long-legged clothing. And, no, our mobile phones didn't work. So, we turned our backs on our vehicle, hoping that it wouldn't blow up, that baboons wouldn't get inside and wreck it or that reckless thieves wouldn't find some method of spiriting it away.Thoughts of camping out with tsetse flies, buffalo, hyenas and leopards for company did not appeal.


We were lucky. Only 20 minutes or so later, along came a four-by-four which dropped us at the junction with the 'main' track. We were told later that this was the LAST vehicle to drive along that track that day. Then we hitched another lift with the 'Jesus bus', a school outing crammed with children five to the seat. Given the circumstances and our extreme gratitude, we did not think it appropriate to point out any safety considerations.

All's well that ends well. Our stalwart colleague Dan, who runs the Link office at Masindi, made it back to the car with mechanic in tow and managed to move it. Next day, by some miracle,  the ingenuity of Ugandan mechanics got it working again. Except the handbrake, that is, but then very few cars in Uganda have working handbrakes.

Well, when Hemingway crashed his plane into Murchison Falls, he stayed at the Masindi Hotel, built in 1923 by the East Africa Railways & Harbour Company. And so did we. After all, why stop a tradition?




Time for coffee and, perhaps, something stronger later on. Hemingway would have approved.