Sunday, April 1, 2012

We end up in a sticky situation at Lake George

Elephants, lions and hippos: that's what most of us think of when Queen Elizabeth National Park  (QENP) is mentioned. And it's all true enough, as we and our posts can vouch for, especially if your usual routes are the main Kasese to Mbarara Road and the game drives which branch off it.

However, there's more to QENP than meets the eye. Indeed, we got a rather different perspective on our most recent visit to western Uganda. As is often the case, accompanying visitors to an area means that you see different things and see the same things differently. For a start, we approached the area from an unfamiliar road. Once at Mbarara, instead of continuing up by Bushenyi, through the savannah and across the Kazinga channel, we took the Ibanda turning and drove due north to Kamwenge.

Gambians Lynn, Tawsu and Materr at the equator on the Mbarara road
At first we thought we'd made entirely the wrong decision. Our Gambian colleagues, about to be introduced to Link's work among the rural poor in the Kamwenge area (see our next post), had already been astonished by the apparent prosperity of the towns along the Kampala to Mbarara route: the impressive looking schools and the equally impressive tarmac road (courtesy of foreign aid) which even had street signs and speed limits! Coincidentally, this area of Ankole is home ground for Uganda's president.

Now, however, the Gambians' astonishment knew no bounds. Instead of a modest minor country road, a broad tarmac thoroughfare (one of only about five in Uganda) stretched all the way to the small town of Ibanda, a road shared only by a scattering of banana lorries, a few herds of cows, the odd boda boda and us!
Volcanic core on the road to Kamwenge.
Once at Ibanda, however, things changed. We bumped along the rutted murram road to Kamwenge and spent the rest of the week bumping along similar roads as we visited educational settings across the area. We will tell you all about these in due course. For now, however, we want to take you on a trip to Lake George, in a less-frequented area of the Great Rift Valley.

For Stuart, not much different from driving in the Highlands
We went in convoy, Stuart first in our Landcruiser (above) and me behind in the Link pick up driven very capably by Fred, one of the Link officers. Any illusions our friends might have had about Uganda's apparent prosperity were quickly dispelled.

Chickens enter by the back door
Houses were mud and pole and children wore threadbare rags of worn-out adult clothing.

One alternative to school...

What's going on here?
Mmm...Mint Imperials, our favourites...

Our visit to Lake George was supposed to be a quick detour of a few minutes en route to a couple of primary schools. Visitors rarely get a view of Lake George beyond a glance from a boat on the Kazinga Channel which joins it to Lake Edward.

However, we were lucky enough to be able to visit a fishing village at the opposite side from the Kazinga Channel, miles from anywhere. The boats had already been out on the lake and brought back their catch.
The fleet
Talapia in banana fibre basket
The traders were here to buy fish and take them by boda to sell on the nearest main road, many kilometres away. (Look at the map for where the roads are!)

Fish market
Cooking had already started at the other side of the village, for hungry workers would need snacks.

Fishing village with wood-burning stoves in the centre mid distance.
And everyone was just going about their various businesses.

Another alternative to school...
Maribou stork on the look out for scraps
Black-and-white sacred ibises with huge curved beaks searching for shell fish
Brown hamerkop looking for any left overs
We soon felt we had seen enough. For us, unlike for the children, school called. We must be on our way.

Easier said than done, however. Fred aimed for the road, accelerated...and stopped.  The pick up was stuck in the mud for it had rained the night before. Very embarrassing. No matter how much we revved the engine, we would need help.

Mud-spattered helpers
And help came.  No harm done: a few minutes, a few helpers and we were out.

But where was the Landcruiser? Ah, there....

Stuck back...

...and front
Well, forget the fish, that was the most interesting thing that had happened in the village that month, never mind that day. And everyone had a point of view.

Meanwhile our Landcruiser sank ever deeper - well and truly stuck

Watching was certainly more interesting than going for water
A bit frightening, those strange mzungus
Left open-mouthed
Ever the educationist, our Link colleague Edith took the opportunity to do some quick formative assessment by the side of the road.
Mmm, she has some doubts.
And then it was all hands on deck.

Stuart and Edith wisely standing clear.
We even had our photos taken - by the local LC1 chair who had been telling the authorities about the terrible road for ages. Now he had incontrovertible evidence. It might not matter that local people had found life difficult for years, this time it was the mzungus who had got stuck!

We were soon on our way again, rather late, to be sure, but then this is Uganda: everyone's late all the time! And we were all happy: Stuart and I would not have to own up to Derek, our Link boss, that his precious Landcruiser was at the bottom of a swamp; the children had got to see exotic mzungus at close quarters, a rare treat; and the fishermen had ended up with a bit more money for beer. Above all, our Gambian friends had got to see that Uganda is not just nice restaurants, tarmac highways and beautiful scenery. It is also muddy, dirt-poor villages and execrable country roads.

But yes, it is beautiful, all the same.

If you would like to read about our more conventional visits to QENP, you may find the following posts interesting:

Speechless in Kazinga

On safari through Uganda's Great Rift Valley

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