Adventures in Africa

Chapter 3 - Moving to Uganda (Mt. Elgon)

We are happy to leave Nakuru. There is too much tense in the air, and you have the feeling that if you stop paying attention to your belongings for 1 second, it won't be with you anymore.

Already on the way to Uganda (less than 6 hours drive in a rather comfort bus) we can feel a difference: the cornfields change to banana fields and the rather brown soil changes to grass-covered soil. This points to the differences in the national dishes in these countries: if in Israel it is the Falafel, then in Kenya it is corn on BBQ or the Ugali (corn porridge which resembles the Italian Polenta or the Romanian Mamaliga) and in Uganda it is Matoke. Matoke is Uganda's version for mashed potatoes but instead of potatoes they mash cooking green bananas. It is tasteless, but usually it comes with nice peanut sauce.

Between 1971 and 1979 the Ugandans suffered the repression of Idi Amin's regime who was supported by Soviet Union and Libya. During these notorious years many thousands of Ugandans "disappeared", baggers were killed, the non-African citizens were expelled, and the infrastructure collapsed. Now, under the regime of Museveni, a relatively much better leader, the Ugandans are recovering from these black days. The Ugandans are a very friendly people who want to live peacefully after so many years of guerilla war.

A nice surprise waits at the border. All foreign tourists have to pay for a visa except us - Israelis, who get the visa for free.

After changing the bus at the border to bicycle-taxi and then to 2 pick-up trucks, we succeed to arrive at Sipi falls, a tiny village on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, on late afternoon. It was a long day on the roads of Africa and we are happy to pitch our tent and go to sleep in Moses' campground. In the morning we can appreciate the beautiful settings of the campground - our tent is pitched on a cliff overlooking the astonishing Sipi waterfalls. The green scenery around overwhelms us, and we reckon it is the consequence of the almost daily rain. We also enjoy the small market.

The Sipi waterfall.

Moses, as many other locals, is very curious about us, the Jews. He is eager to know whether I was circumcised. In this area of Uganda, circumcision is common, but not at 8 days of age as in our religion, but as a maturation ceremony. Once a year, the annual cycle of 18 years old boys gather in a special hut, a bit away of the village, and dance and play music for 7 consecutive days. In the last day, they are circumcised (without anesthesia) and then go back to the hut where they are given a lot of food until they recover.

In the evening we eat an interesting supper which is made by Moses' mother. In the morning we are kindly asked to leave the place as a group of around ten 18-22 years-old American girls want to bath in a field shower made by their host, Brent, a young American priest. We agree, and while the girls bath, we talk with him. Brent is a missionary who lives in Jinja, an Ugandan town, on the shores of Lake Victoria where the Nile starts its way to the Mediterranean. He is there with his family in order to convert Ugandans into Christianity. He invites us to visit him, if we pass by. We thank him and tell him that the field shower he improvised impresses us. He shows us how it works (it has a small motor connected to the car battery, in order to make the water pressure greater, and the shower more comfortable for the girls...). He tells us a bit about the trek we're interested to do in Mt. Elgon and we set off to Budadiri, the starting point of the trek.

In Uganda there are no student reductions, so in the park headquarters I try to pretend as a journalist. I interview Michael, the manager, and take some photos of him. From his enthusiasm I think I caught him, but when I ask for a journalist reduction he refuses. We need to pay all park fees in Ugandan Shillings. As we don't have enough local currency, the nice manager is "ready" to change money for us, but at bad rates. Not only didn't he let us in as journalists, but also he gains personally from us, the bustard!

Michael, the manager.

We start the trek. It is a traverse of the mountain starting from one side and finishing in another. Climbing a high mountain in Africa is an interesting botanical experience, as the vegetation zones change while one gains height. One starts walking in a thick mountain forest, then reaches the bamboo forest. Up to this area some locals climb in order to cut the bamboo and bring it down to the villages where they sell it. It's about 2 hours climbing up and at least an hour down. Let us assume that one journey takes around 4 hours of hard work, that a man can carry 30 kilos of bamboo on his back, and that he can do the journey twice a day. The price of bamboo in the market is only 5 American cents per kilo, which means that if the man gives his wife to sell it in the market, the family will earn 2*30*0.05=3 $US per day!

One starts walking in a thick mountain forest.

The bamboo forest.

After climbing the bamboo forest, one reaches the moorland with the typical African Giant Lobelia, Ostrich plum and Giant Groundsel. These interesting plants grow very slowly to several good meters and up to a great age (120 years). They flower irregularly, once every decade or so. Mt. Elgon is an extinct volcano with a big caldera (7 km in diameter). We climb its summit in 3 days. It's technically easy, but physically quite tiring to climb from as low as 1,250m' up to 4,321m'. Not to remind the difficult weather: every day starts sunny but gradually clouds gather and it's only a question of time till it starts to rain.

Mt. Elgon is an extinct volcano with a big caldera.

From the forth day an armed ranger accompanies us. We go into the caldera towards an end where a river starts flowing down and where we bath in a hot spring. He tells us that this point is very notorious because most storms come from this part of the caldera. We finish bathing (unbearable hot water in such a cold place - a shear pleasure!) and continue. We need to cross the caldera, climb the crater rim, and then start our way down. Walking in the caldera is long but quite easy. We look back to the direction of the hot spring and see that thick clouds are gathering. We start to climb the rim, a well-exposed section, when the storm hits us fiercely. Hail hits us hard but we don't have any choice but to continue - we still have an hour till the camp. We only hope that the storm will not increase more.

Giant Groundsel.

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Last modified: Fri Jun 11th 17:05:00 IST 1999