Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Kalangala express

April 9th

Up very early; if the bus for Kalangala and the Ssese islands leaves at eight, then we reckon we need to be at the bus station by seven to catch it, and that means leaving the Hostel at half past six!

So we are leaving Backpackers before they are officially open. There’s just one snag – we haven’t paid for our rooms yet! The place is completely locked up except for the dormitory rooms at the rear. We pause and ponder what to do. Then we have a brainwave. Els is sleeping in the girls’ dormitory. So I end up creeping into the girls’ room with a pile of money and also Els’ towel which she has left in our room. The plan is to wake up Els, give her the money, and ask her to pay for us when she gets up. Why me? – because the girls are brushing teeth or whatever and I’m the only one who is hanging around ready to go.

Oh dear! This idea turns out not to have been one of my best moves. First of all in the darkness I don’t know which bed Els is sleeping in – there are two parts to the room with about eight beds in each. I whisper “Els” louder and louder, but it doesn’t have any effect. She may well be sleeping with earplugs, in which case I’d have to shout and wake everybody up before I find her. I’m also terrified that one of the other girls is going to wake up and think I’m an intruder with malicious intent and instead of going to Kalangala I’ll find myself in Kampala central prison! I daren’t shake awake the first person I find and ask them which is Els’ bed – she might not know who Els is, and will be more likely to scream the place down if I touch her!

So I go back to where the other girls are and persuade Épi to come with me. Neither of us can identify Els in the darkness, but eventually she rouses herself and we give her the money and her towel and say goodbye.

When we get back round to the front of the hostel we discover that the process of rousing Els has taken so long that somebody is just opening up the front of the Hostel, and that if we’d waited we could have paid direct and saved ourselves a lot of bother! But now we’re running late, and we pile into a matata to take us into Kampala centre. We know we’re supposed to be going to the “New Bus Station” but we’re not sure where it is. “New” is a relative term here, and there’s no point in expecting a flashy western style terminal.

We get taken in tow by a tout who takes us to a big bus, which looks the right size. We ask the driver if he’s going to Kalangala, and he says yes, and sells us tickets which are a lot more than the guidebook price. We’re beginning to get a bit suspicious, but there’s nobody else to ask and time is ticking on. So we get onto the bus and sit and wait for it to leave. We’re among the first passengers to board, and therefore while we have plenty of room to stow our baggage we know there’ll be a wait before we leave.

The wait turns out to be two and half hours! During this time there’s not a single second when the aisle of the bus isn’t full of hawkers. They get in each others’ way, and they get in the way of passengers trying to board. Some are selling plates of breakfast; others have fruit, clothes, watches, transistor radios. At one point we have two different hawkers each trying to flog us radios. Some have shoes for sale, or belts, or newspapers, or sweets. But the prize goes to the man who comes on with a bagful of medicines and announces his wares by waving a sachet of worming powder. At first the hawkers are a welcome distraction, but after two hours of being hassled and having our feet trodden on as they try to force their way up and down the aisle they just become a nuisance.

In Rwanda hawkers are not allowed onto the vehicles and have to restrict themselves to coming up to the windows. Here in Uganda it’s a free for all.

During this long wait, which goes well past the eight o’clock supposed departure time for the bus described in the Bradt guide, we get mutinous and I get up and challenge the ticket seller to ask him when we’re leaving. “Ten minutes”, he says, which is the African version of “some while yet – not until I’ve sold every single seat on the bus”.

Also during this wait we observe some of the chaos of the bus park. Coaches are jammed in so tight that there’s barely room to walk between each bus. Then, when all the spaces are full, more buses arrive and have to put themselves in front of all the others, blocking their exits. Nobody will move to let a bus out for fear of losing his place in the park, so when a bus is ready to leave there’s an enormous amount of shunting back and forth until there is room to turn out. These African buses are enormous – much higher up than our European ones and longer, too, and it’s no mean feat to manoeuvre so closely in a confined space. And even more so when the potholes in the bus park are so deep and frequent that the bus lurches suddenly as it’s moving.

By now we all realise we’re not on the bus we thought we had come for, and that the tout has “had” us by taking us to a bus run by an acquaintance of his. No matter; it’s all part of the African experience and provided the bus takes us to Kalangala we don’t have any problem with the situation. We’ve got all day, and the only stress point is that we don’t have accommodation booked for tonight, so we don’t want to get to Kalangala too late.

Eventually we get going. There are still hawkers on the bus, and they stay on until they’ve tried their luck with every single passenger. By this time we’re beginning to pick up speed as we come out of the city centre. The driver’s assistant opens the side door and unceremoniously bundles the hawkers onto the pavement. It’s a whole new experience for us!

Well, we get half way to the Rwandan border, at a town called XXXXXXX, and here we’re told we have to get out of the bus. This vehicle isn’t going to Kalangala at all, it’s going to Kabale which is the last town in Uganda before you reach the Rwandan frontier. We’ve been had. So we’re left at a big road junction with all our stuff. It’s not quite out in the wilds, but it’s not what we had intended. Fortunately the day is young and there’s plenty of time left.

At this junction there are lots of boda-boda drivers and taxis, and eventually, after a lot of arguing and haggling, we realise we haven’t much option but to accept the best price we can and trust to the locals. The Matata towards Kalangala turns out to be an ancient car, so we put all our stuff in. The boot won’t stay shut, so the driver ties it up with string.

After a few hundred yards we come onto earth roads, and they stay earth for the rest of the day.

The fare we’re being asked is 9000 shillings each, and we think that’s exorbitant, but in reality it’s not bad for the length of the journey. We bucket along through rural Uganda. The land gets lower and flatter and it is clear that we must be approaching the lake. Every now and then we see open water in the distance, but the road invariably turns away from it and we press on past thickets of dense forest (all protected – Uganda is doing a good job of trying to save its remaining forests) until eventually we reach the lakeside and a small ferry. We take our bags out of the car boot and find they have changed colour. Everything is covered in a thick layer of brown dust, as fine as talc. We try to pat the dust off, but we’re only partially successful, and I fear that a tiny bit of Uganda will remain in our baggage forever.

In front of us is a huge body of water studded with dozens of islands. We’re about to cross to the Ssese Islands. The ferry is free, a Ugandan government initiative to improve communication with the islands and reduce their isolation. The relative isolation on Ssese has had its benefits, too. During the terror years of the 1970s Ssese escaped the worst excesses of Idi Amin’s bloodbath regime. But the islands reached a low point earlier in the 20th century when tsetse fly became so severe that the islands were all but abandoned. Now there is an uneasy compromise. People have moved back to resettle the islands, but in nowhere near such big numbers as at the turn of the last century, and the tsetse fly remains a huge nuisance. We never see any, but then we are beside the lake for most of the time, and every camp site has elaborate traps to catch them. We are warned not to wear blue, which seems to attract them for some reason.

The ferry takes a long time to load in the blazing sun. There’s one big articulated lorry which has to be placed just right to balance the boat. This involves much back and forth shunting, just like the buses at the coach station in Kampala. The ferry is powered by four little engines like those which power pneumatic drills in road works. It’s not surprising that when we set off I find we’re travelling at barely walking speed. A good swimmer would overtake us! But it’s nice to be on the water, and we’re all excited because at last we really are going to paradise, to the island of lotus eaters which is Buggala (Ssese is the name for the whole group of islands). We’re away from the throng of people and traffic that is Kampala. There’s nothing but a scattering of islands across the horizon and then and endless expanse of greenish water. A few fishing boats are working the lake, and every now and then a slightly bigger boat will be ferrying people between islands. You can’t do anything else but begin to relax.

On the ferry a man gets out his suitcase of patent medicines and herbal remedies. No Ugandan seems to be able to resist a captive audience without trying to sell them something. We’re given a price list, but all the medicines are written in baganda or some such language and don’t mean a thing to us. So I don’t even know if he was selling herbal Viagra….

When we reach Ssese we have to negotiate yet again for a matata to take us to Kalangala. I know Kalangala is at the far end of the island, and it’s far too far to walk, especially in the fierce heat. We end up in the oldest matata in the world, quite literally falling apart, but we get a good price. The driver must have brought a group of people to the ferry in the morning and faces going home empty, so he really wants to take us and we agree a price which suits us all! It also means we almost have the matata to ourselves so we can stretch ourselves out and enjoy the ride.

The Main island on Ssese, called Buggala, is shaped like a figure 7, and we are driving along the top edge of the 7. The island is never very high, but neither is it flat. There are periodic sharp rises and steep drops, where we lurch and creak along the earth road. There is very little other traffic, and remarkably few people or villages. There are lots of woods, and for most of the journey the road is shady. What is just amazingly beautiful is that we’re almost never out of sight of the lake. Now on our left, now on our right, we pass an unending procession of beautiful bays and verdant headlands. We rarely see any houses, and those we do see are very poor affairs usually made of rough wooden planks for the walls and thatched with banana or palm leaves. Some of the bays we see have beaches and look so incredibly inviting. Every now and then we’ll pass a resort or hotel of some sort, but many appear empty even though we are arriving at the peak Easter weekend.

When we arrive at Kalangala we break out laughing. Is this it? Kalangala is the administrative centre for the whole group of islands – at least twenty are populated. Yet Kalangala has the air of a tiny village. Most buildings are official in some capacity – the police station, the church and mosque, the hunger clinic, the health centre. There are a handful of shops and several eating places. It is a one-street town, spread out along the dusty road running along the ridge. The view out across Lake Victoria takes your breath away.

We get directions from a friendly local woman to the “Hornbill” camp and set off on foot, much to the chagrin of the local boda-boda drivers who thought their luck was in. We know from the guidebook that the campsite is only about fifteen minutes away from Kalangala, and on the lake edge, so we head off in the right direction and look for signs. By the time we reach the place we’re lathered in sweat and the prospect of a swim in Lake Victoria is all that’s driving us on. We meet the woman who runs the site; she is either Dutch or German, very hippy. The campsite is raved over in every guide book, and justly so. There are a mixture of tiny wooden bandas, tents, and some bigger huts. Tina, the owner, scratches her head when we arrive. We haven’t booked in because we’re here on a last minute whim. Yes, she says, she can accommodate us for one night and she’ll have to think about subsequent nights. We look at each other with relief. The last thing we want right now is to have to leave this beautiful place and find a more expensive place to stay which will almost certainly be away from the lakeside. Tina asks us if we would be happy with a dormitory, and we fall about laughing. Of course we would – a dorm would be ideal for us!

So we end up in a spacious 6-bed dormitory, with room to spread out our things. The building is made of wooden planks, brightly coloured on the outside. The inside is lined with banana leaf mats held in place with nails, and with beer bottle tops used as washers to stop the nails pulling through the matting. The roof seems to be made of a couple of layers of plastic sheeting, but fortunately it really does keep the rain out. It’s delightfully casual and ad-hoc, and catches the mood of “Hornbill” perfectly. The trees are raucous with hornbills and other birds, and egrets and kingfishers patrol the lake shore, including the pygmy kingfisher which is like a tiny jewel of a bird.

We strip off and race to the water. I plunge right in; Épi goes up her waist and then stops, and Tina and Soraya stand on the edge. The waterside is littered with little snail shells; that means that even here – on a sandy beach away from any reeds – the water is full of bilharzia parasites. There doesn’t seem to be any trace of crocodiles or water snakes, so at least we’re spared big nasties. So I end up having a short swim and then a shower and vigorous rub down with my towel. The Bilharzia parasites burrow their way through your skin, even if you don’t have any open wounds or weak places, but if you rub down thoroughly you remove them before they can get into your skin to infect you. At least, that’s the theory, and I’ll find out in six weeks’ time whether I’ve been infected. Plenty of Ugandans swim in the lake, including at “Hornbill”, so I’m not unduly worried. I think if I spent most of the day in the water I might be seriously at risk, but it seems the thing to do is swim little and often.

We book an evening meal at the camp. This is another lovely informal affair. You write your names in a book, and with meals, drinks and everything else you get it all on credit until you leave the site, when you have a massive settling up. The meal is a mélange, but a good one. Everyone eats together, and we start to meet all the other people on the site. Three of them we already know –they were at Charlotte’s party on the night I was pick pocketed. They are Americans teaching in Nyagatare and Kirehe districts in Rwanda. In fact most of the people on the site seem to have come up from Rwanda, like us, to get away from Genocide Week.

After the meal there is a campfire lit, but we stay in the dining hut and play “taboo” with whoever is around. Tonight I’m the only native English speaker playing in a group of six. We have two Belgians, a German, a French Canadian and a Philippina as well, so I ought to have a handicap to make things harder for me.

We all fall in love with Ssese and Kalangala and the “Hornbill” camp site. It really is a lotus eater’s paradise, right on the Equator, with a tropical lake, lush woodland all around it, and a laid back atmosphere.

It has been a long day today, and we’re more than ready for bed.

Best thing about today – absolutely everything, even the rascally bus driver! This is exactly what we thought travel in Africa might be like, and we’re enjoying every second of it. Bring it on!

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