From Riches to Rags
28.03.2008 - 30.03.2008 23 °C
According to the guide book the road to Masindi was less than four hours but a man on the Posta Bus told us, to the amusement of all the passengers on board, that we had one hour of bumps and 5 hours of potholes between us and our stopover. He was uncannily accurate so it was with great relief that we piled off the bus when we did.
We had lunch in a tourist cafe in the hope of finding a hitch into the national park. Instead we just found food and soda. We caught the last matatu of the day to a town called Bulisa. Only 100km on the map it took over four hours to get there. Needless to say it was well and truly dark when we disembarked from the fourteen seater mini-van which until our exit had contained 27 souls.
An albino that sat near us had phoned ahead to make sure that some boda-bodas where there to meet us. After negotiating what we though was a good price we jumped on the back. My bike was carrying the driver, me, both Di's and my large packs and my day bag. With only a faint headlight we rode down the dirt road to Murchison Falls National Park by guidance of the moon. We nearly tipped when we hit some thick sand and I let out a half sarcastic half serious phew. The driver laughed and said no problem. The next time this happened we were doing nearly 40 km/h I gasped. The driver asked if it was my first time on a bike. I explained that although I had only been a passenger for the last few years I started riding when I was six years old. I resisted asking him if it was his first time on a bike.
We arrived at the park gates and were devastated to find that they were not marked on our map. They were several kilometres from where we wanted to go. To triple our woes it meant we had to pay unanticipated park fees for the night as well as the boda-boda entry fees, the drivers' entries and the drivers to take us the extra distance. The ATM had been malfunctioning in Masindi so our funds were low enough without this. We tried to coax the ranger into letting us camp outside the gates but he wouldn't allow it. With not many options we decided to wing it. Over sixteen hours after departing from Kampala we arrived at the Red-Chilli Camp. Food was finished for the night so Di asked the barman to boil some water for us. While it was on the cooker I set up the tent and Di set up the plates. We had some left over noodles from Selous so we ate them with the water. A couple of American guys took pity on our disheveled state and asked if we would like to join them for a safari drive in the morning. It was a very tempting offer but as they were leaving through another gate, it meant that we would have to miss the boat ride up to the falls.
Di ate a small breakfast but I refrained for the sake of saving our precious cash reserves. We walked down to the park headquarters and paid our for entry fees for the previous night. We also bought two tickets for the launch ride. We arrived at the dock a bit earlier and watched the workers spill litres of fuel into the protected river. The boat we used was a double decker launch. There was room for dozens of people on board but there were 4 spare seats to every taken one. On the way up the river the provided guide pointed out many birds that we had already seen as well as several species of antelope. Near the falls was crock territory but the dominant animal was the hippo. They filled the waters in their hundreds. Unlike the numerous times we have seen them in the past these ones stood up regularly displaying the entirety of their powerful bulk. The falls themselves were lack luster in my opinion. Apparently the most powerful falls in Africa or Uganda (I can't remember) they were more like a big hydro-chute than a waterfall. The boat didn't get very close to the base of them so in order to see them properly we would have had to pay another $10 to walk to the top and catch the afternoon launch back to camp. Even if we thought it was good value our cash situation would not allow it.
Back at camp our bags were waiting where we left them. I asked everywhere for a ride out of the park but no one was leaving until the following day. It was crunch time. We had just enough money on hand to pay for another set of park and camping fees and nothing else thus relying on a hitch to get away. Alternatively or we could safely get back to Masindi using public transport that day but waste the money we had and endure the reverse of the day before. We chose to play it safe, we waited by the side of the road hoping to grab a ride but no one leaves the park in the afternoon. We contracted a motorbike owned by a park staff member which meant we avoided the park fees. Somehow we managed to fit the driver, Di, me, two bulging backpacks and two day packs onto the one bike. The ride to Bulisa was a test of endurance. The exhaust also claimed the sole of Di's shoe. Even the Vietnamese would have been impressed with our effort.
As soon as we had unpacked the bike a matatu arrived but it was bound for Tororo not Masindi. I was doing some calculations and I figured that we may have just been able to visit the chimpanzees on our current cash, assuming that they were the listed $10 per person. On this basis we both skipped lunch.
We propped ourselves against a shaded wall and waited for the matatu that would never come. The one we had let pass was the last for the day. We tried hitching for 3 hours but no rides were forthcoming. Not that no one was willing to help, it was just that no one was going in our direction. We were just about to give up for the night when a truck pulled over. Bound for Masindi but overnighting in Biso. Fortune was serving us well as Biso is the nearest town to the Budongo Forest where we hoped to track the chimps. We took the cabin seats and immediately got engrossed in conversation with the driver and his colleague. Like so many people in Africa they seemed to think that everything I said was a joke even when I was being serious so we all had some good laughs at my expense.
Night had truly set in by the time our truck's worn out brakes brought our hitch to an end. Still hoping to make the chimps without having to return to Masindi we asked directions to the police station. There, under the watchful eye of Biso's finest we set up our tent in the compound. For some reason the the boys (and girl) in blue thought our tent too pitiful and offered us to stay in the cottage. We could never offend Big Agnes (our tent) like that so we politely declined. Despite our obvious intentions to conserve money some locals who looked no more filthy than ourselves tried to beg. We turned them away empty handed and went to bed with empty stomaches. I listened with horror to the guano raining down on Big Agnes from the overhead tree.
We emerged from the tent in the blue light of dawn. The policemen were doing the same and the personable female officer offered us some tea. We were more interested in the first matatu of the day which had just pulled into town. One of the more junior officers walked us over, guaranteeing us a seat in the already axle scraping Toyota. It was no more than 10 kilometres to the forest entrance where we were greeted by a rather eccentric Australian. We asked him if it was the place for chimp tracking. He responded by telling us in a mix of standard and cryptic English that it might be, there was lots of things to do in the forest and then completed his jumbled sentence by saying it was possible. The slightly less burdened Hi-Ace drove off and a jovial looking ranger walked up. The crazy, I'm guessing bird-watcher, Aussie took it upon himself to talk for us. He knew the ranger by name so he'd obviously been there for a while. The short and long of the response was that we couldn't see the chimps. The venture had ceased 18 months ago as the habituation of the animals had led to fearless behavior and ultimately crop raiding. A problem for the farmers and a danger for the chimps. After all that effort we had been thwarted. With nothing to do we waited for the next ride to town.
The first thing we did was to try and arrange some cash. It was a Monday so the ATM had been brought to a fully functional state. We had money again. No words needed to be spoken to agree on our next stop. The nearest restaurant was the obvious choice. I hadn't eaten for over 40 hours so like shopping on an empty stomache I ordered just about everything on the menu. Well not really but you can be sure I wasn't hungry when I paid the bill.
We called the number of a guy who runs a community based chimp tracking project. He came to meet us with no reason. The project wasn't ready yet. The chimps hadn't been habituated and the forest area wasn't fully developed. This left us with one option. We organised for a boda-boda to take us back into the National Park (via a closer gate) and onward to Kaninyo Pabidi. This meant that we needed to extend our park fees but the driver, to our benefit refused to pay for his.
The ride through the forest was refreshing. The greenery sapped heat from the ambient air, bringing the temperature down a few notches. As the wind gushed over my unprotected head I gazed around content. The light that shone through the branches had a green tinge, softening the usually harsh African landscape. We passed velvet monkeys, baboons and some stunning birds we were to later find our are called Abyssinian Hornbills. We rolled up to an elegantly crafted headquarters where a ranger met us. It was lunch time so we were asked to wait for an hour. They must have eaten quickly because three quarters of an hour later we set off to find the chimps. The trackers radioed their position but there was clearly some communication errors as we crossed our own tracks many times. The forest was divided into a grid pattern with very few identifiable landmarks for navigational purpose so we couldn't hold it against our otherwise agreeable ranger. Half an hour later we found the trackers right back near where we had started. They were sitting down on the path without even feigning interest. They had seen the chimps here but had since ceased tracking them. So we took over their duties, scouring the local area for indicators of the primates' presence. I was starting to worry that we would never see them when another 30 minutes passed by. I thought our ranger was getting ready to give up when a piercing and unmistakable shriek shook the forest to life. It was followed by another and then another. Soon our ears were ringing with the chimps' vocals. To add to the bush orchestra they started up the drums. Beating hollow logs and the bases of the trees they sent forth the trembles of deep bass. In just thirty seconds the forest had transformed. The sounds were all around me and my heart started racing.
We tracked them by their cries and made first contact in 5 minutes. They were walking along the ground in single file. We stood back and watched them from a distance to preserve trust. One by one they filed off into separate trees to begin feeding. Through dense foliage we saw a few chowing down on all varieties of green. We continued on for a better view and found it in the form of a one eyed chimp whose name escapes me. As if to put on a show he swung down low and leisurely across the path. His belly, swollen from a pure vegetarian diet distended in front of him. His big ears, hairy face and beer gut reminded me of Homer Simpson and other such loafy T.V characters. However his confidence when traversing the trees was unparalleled. A few of his comrades came to join the party whilst we stood watching. It was absolutely magical. As we looked on aghast some intern students studying the chimps barged through the trees like kings of the jungle, unsurprisingly the objects of our fascination scattered away into the distance.
We distanced ourselves from the research students and found another group of chimps. These ones were a little higher in the branches but clearly visible. I couldn't believe how quickly the allotted hour expired. On the way back to the headquarters our guide detoured via another part of the forest to show us some different trees including strangler figs and (rich) mahogany.
The clouds were closing in by the time we straddled the bike. We hoped to beat the rain to Masindi but two minutes later we found ourselves riding through a light downpour. We found a cheap hotel in town. The registration book indicated that we were the first people to stay there in 4 months