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SEPTEMBER 27, 2007

The Road Less Travelled



After spending four very relaxing days with the ladies at the Kinigi Guest House, and feeling fully refreshed and revitalised by the amazing Gorilla Trek in the Volcanoes National Park, with our Rwandan visa running out we planned our escape into Uganda. The popular option (and also the quickest option) is to head back to Kigali, the capital, then bus from there to the border at Katuna/Gatuna. We decided therefore to forgo the tourist trail and head a little off course. From Ruhengeri we would head towards the Congalese border and cross into Uganda at Cyanika.

With a plan in mind, we packed our bags, and as we loaded up for the walk into Kinigi town, the skies overhead loomed ominously grey with the prospect of a heavy downpour. We were very quickly joined on the 3km walk into town by some of Kinigi's younger population who felt it their duty not only to escort us but also to practice their English. This was not only enjoyable for us but allowed us to slip past the vast number of beggars on route.

Before we knew it we had reached Kinigi and had been helped on board the nearly full mini-bus running into Ruhengeri/Musanze. The 20km ride was covered all to quickly and aside from being charged double the local price (which at 500 francs or $US 1 is not worth worrying about) dropped us right at the door to the Post Office.

So far Donna has successfully sent a postcard home from every country we have visited. As it stands, our arrival at the Post Office on a Saturday morning with no stamp and no postcard was worrying to say the least - thankfully they were open (why on a Saturday we will never know) and her record remains intact. From the Post Office it was only a short walk through town where - as always in Africa - we were assisted by well meaning locals in finding the bus park and getting onboard a mini-bus bound for Cyanika.

Our luck was holding and the bus departed only a few minutes after we boarded (some busses we have had to wait up to three hours). The run north was on pretty good tarred roads and before long the bus had emptied to just Donna and I. The friendly driver ran us all the way out to the border, dropping us right at the door to the Rwandan Immigration.

Thanks to a hungry immigration officer, our Rwandan de-immigration could quite possible have set a record for the fastest processing ever. He was more interested in getting rid of us than looking at our passports and within about 30 seconds we had been stamped out and navigating our way across the border into Uganda. Being lunch time and in the middle of nowhere we only had to evade two 'official' money changers on the way across.

The immigration office on the Ugandan side was unhappily empty, however by the time we had cleared a security check and arranged for some currency exchange with the security officer, the immigration official had returned and was ready to process us (being his only customers for the day). I handed over our two passports, and all of the necessary forms, along with a crisp new $US100 bill for both our visa's. He took the cash, then looked up at me and said in a dead pan face - "one bill, one visa".

Now after two weeks in Rwanda with little or no access to money - we were down to our last few dollars. I was banking on there being - well, a bank, in Kaiser, the next town over in which to get additional funds to continue our journey. Other than a few Rwandan Francs and some Kenyan Shillings we were down to our last nickel and dime.

For about five seconds he stared at me waiting for a reaction, then a huge smile crept across his face and he broke into laughter. Donna thought it was a hoot while I sat their shitting myself.

Outside we swapped the rest of our Rwandan Francs for enough cash to get us to Kisoro, then bargained hard for a taxi to run us into town. On arrival we were delighted with the news that - being a Saturday - everything was shut, and even better - the bus to Kabale - the next major town, was not leaving until MAYBE tomorrow morning.

While we were standing on the side of the road looking a little lost, an empty minibus pulled up and the driver offered to take us direct to Kabale, he was leaving immediately (even though he was not full) and agreed to take us for what amounted to the last few dollars we had.

As the bird flies it is only 20km's between Kisoro and Kabale, however the dirt track connecting the two towns has to contend with hundreds of hills similar to that found in Rwanda, as well as the large and imposing Lake Bunyonyi. As it stands the road winds it's way there over about 80km's taking a good four to five hours. Aside from the majesty of the scenery - this was one of the bizarrest bus rides we have had.

Getting on board we were delighted to have the whole back seat to our selves, ten minutes out of town two of the three other passengers disembarked leaving just three of us with the driver. For the remaining trip it stayed that way - even though on several occasions we stopped to pick up additional passengers - none of whom decided to get on board. Either they knew something we did not - or we smelt? Probably a bit of both I would say. It was not until we rounded Lake Bunyonyi and were on the final few km's into town that we managed to get a few other locals onboard, however we kept the back seat to ourselves the whole way...

As we finally pulled into Kabale a tear formed in the corner of my eye, it could have been from the copious amounts of dust that had caked on everything, the sight of some black top, or even just that fabulous blue sign that says Stanbic Bank ATM.

With a fat wallet, we were taken from the centre of town through the snaking back streets by a helpful little street child to the Amagara Cafe, a restaurant with a few small rooms out the back which would be our home for next couple of days.

After a cold beer and a hearty feed we pulled out the guide book and started researching Uganda as a tourist destination - it's never too late. Kabale as it turns out is little more than a dusty border town and gateway to the gorilla's in Rwanda and western Uganda, as well as a staging point for visits to lake Bunyonyi and Bwindi Impenetrable forest. With that in mind and little here to entertain us, we persisted with our travels through the back of Uganda by buying two bus tickets on the Horizon bus from Kabale to the little travelled to town of Fort Portal in the West.

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Depending on who you spoke to, the bus was scheduled to leave sometime between 1am and 5 am the next morning. At 1:30am we climbed out of bed, woke the security guard who was supposed to have woken us, instead we found him sleeping soundly in the back of a 4x4 troopie in the car park, then had him escort us thought the dark streets of Kabale to the bus compound.

The guard was more interested in getting his forty winks and promptly dropped us at the gates where we disconcertingly found our bus being hastily worked on by three to four mechanics. We settled in for a long wait, and at 3am on the dot we were asked to climb aboard. mysteriously about 40 other passengers appeared out of the shadows of the compound and climbed on board as well. Ten minutes later we were on our way.

From our past articles you will be aware we do not like the prospects of travelling on busses at night - this was no exception. For the next two hours we had a hair raising ride through the hills, our driver expertly wound our way along the road and on several occasions as the mist and fog grew thick decided it was better to travel by moon light than to trust his head lights.

Thankfully the sun rose promptly at 6 (hey, it is the equator, what do you expect) and we were treated to the spectacular scenery as the hilly country around the Rwandan border gave way in dramatic fashion to the flat plains of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The majestic Rwenzoris provided the perfect backdrop to the grazing buffalo, antelope and other exotic animals. We arrived in Fort Portal as the sun reached it's zenith and the day was turning hot and balmy.

Already dehydrated (deliberately) the 2km walk out to our hotel felt like a good 5km trek, and so on arrival it was great to be welcomed so heartily by the friendly team at the Soka Hotel. This place is just a small rural guest house, a pub really with a small cluster of room out the back, but with hot water on tap we were all to pleased.

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Fort Portal offers nothing of interest to your standard tourist, however after eight months in Africa we were now looking for something different to your average joe. We took a mini bus about ten km's back along the Kabale Road where we came across a weekly market (in the middle of nowhere). It contained quite possibly the biggest collection of second hand clothes anywhere in Africa. In fact I would go as far as to say I saw more Africans walking around in Top Shop and Zara than in the whole of London. After picking up a couple of bargains we started walking back to town, 5km's into the walk the clouds darkened over head and we jumped onto the back of a boda boda each (small Chinese motor bikes). we made it about 2km's back to town when the skies opened forcing us to take shelter for half an hour under the cover of an old gas station with about 30 other bikers.

Enjoying the local hospitality we stayed in Fort Portal for a couple of extra days, giving us the opportunity to take a day trip out to the Amabeere Caves. It all started rather ominously when I was negotiating with a couple of Boda Boda riders to take us out to the caves. I am standing on the side of the road asking them to take me to see Amabeere, which only seemed to draw some queer looks. The owner of the hotel kindly came out and in local dialect described where we wanted to go - later I found out the I Amabeere means breasts, and I had been asking the driver to show them to me...

The Amabeere Caves are located about 15km's down a dirt road west of Fort Portal. The two riders took us out to the managers property and, being in the middle of nowhere - agreed to collect us in four hours. We then met our guide - Wilson who without delay walked us off into the bush.

The Amabeere Caves and Waterfall - A True History

The Amabeere caves come with a most unusual name - breasts, or boobs as our guide like to say, so it would be remiss of us to mention this natural phenomenon without going into a little of the factual history of how the name came about.

Without going into to much detail, Uganda is divided into several kingdoms. One of the kingdoms was ruled by a King who was told in a dream that his grandson would kill him and take the throne. In a bid to stop this he locked up his sole daughter in the village never to see an eligible bachelor again.

One thing led to another and a prince from a neighbouring village cast some wacky spells and snuck inside the princesses compound - after a few months she was pregnant and he left her. The king found out but let her have the baby anyway. It was a baby boy which he cast out into the wilds.

At the same time the king did not want his daughter having anymore kids either so he cut off her breasts and threw them into the caves. The boy did not die - that would cut this story too short by far, no, instead he was found by a local wood cutter and raised to be a healthy boy. Local legend has it the boy would visit the caves to suckle the breasts.

Now I know I am going on a bit - but legend also has it that one day the king was out riding to track down this mischievous son of his - and when he found him he tried to spear him to death, however the boy caught the spear and threw it back at the king - killing him, well, dead. The legend was complete, the boy became king and the caves were there after known as the Amabeere Caves. That, in a nutshell is the 100% factual truth behind the naming of the caves - I swear.

Interestingly the formations do look like breasts and the water coming out of the rock is milky in color...

We crossed through several paddocks, past some fencing, and then descended down into a heavily wooded little valley. The owner of the property has managed to retain the natural surroundings for the cave without impacting his farming operation. Wilson took us through the caves, gave us a guided tour of the waterfall, then gave us a very long drawn out version of why the caves are called "breasts" - see description above for the story. Essentially the stalagmite formations look like female breasts.

After visiting the caves Wilson took us 20 minutes into the hills to see the crater lakes. There are three lakes in the area formed from volcanic activity. We made it the first such lake with it started to drizzle. Looking at the surrounding skies we decided against persisting with our little adventure and hightailed it back to the lodge. We barely got 100 metres when it absolutely bucketed down. This time at least we had our coats, which in effect did very little against Uganda's monsoon rains.

Walking into the owners house we were wet to the skin, thankfully they were quick to whip up a hot cup of tea and some cakes till our ride back to Fort Portal came.

---

After four days in Fort Portal we decided to push on to Masindi - the launching point for visits to Murchison Falls. Rather than cut back to Kampala, then bus out to Masindi, we decided to persist with our back roads approach which seemed to be working thus far, and head direct via Hoima. Now the guide books advise against this route - it has remarkable bad roads and may be impassable at certain times of the year.

6am found us clinging to the back of a boda boda as we whizzed through town to the Fort Portal Bus Park - at least a side street with a single minibus. Thankfully it was the Hoima bus and after waiting around for only two hours we set off. The road was not that bad - in fact it was pretty good as far as dirt roads go. It was not until a lady in the back started shrieking that things turned a little awry. Passing a sign that said "Bridge closed - road impassable " we thought we would have to turn back, and when the Priest sitting behind kindly said - "maybe we should get out" we really started to worry. As the shrieking lady bailed out, the door of the mini van was slammed closed, the engine killed and about ten guys jumped behind and started pushing us out into the river.

The water was high - in fact we could not see the bridge at all, a local gentlemen walked in front of the bus guiding us along what we assume to be the bridge. The water poured in through the floor and door of the bus pooling at the bottom. A few minutes later after much yelling and heaving by our local power providers we were pushed out the far side of the river.

After a few minutes to let the water drain away the engine was restarted and off we continued. I would like to say we travelled safely onto Hoima without a glitch, however that would be just too easy. About 20km's up the road the bus pulled over and after much yelling we were all told to get out. Here we were in the middle of nowhere about three hours shy of our target. We teamed up with the Priest, two Spaniards and another two Ugandan gentlemen hiring a local car. with five adults in the back, Donna, myself and the driver in the front- we were a little cramped to say the least. However that did not stop us getting to Hoima in record time - Colin Macrae could not have done better.

At Hoima we were all dropped at the Priest's house where we were introduced to his family. After the greetings were completed we all climbed into the Priest's car - this time with driver and son in tow and after dropping the two Spaniards at the Hoima Bus Park (they were trying to get all the way to Murchison Falls in one day) we headed off for the final hour to Masindi.

After what can only be described as a mammoth day of transport we were dropped at the Alinda Guesthouse - totally beat.

Without a doubt taking the road less travelled through western Uganda has been thoroughly enjoyable - providing us with some of our most memorable experiences to date - and giving us a glimpse of areas of Africa most tourists will never see from the confines of their 4x4's.

Click here to see the Fort Portal and Surrounds Photo Gallery (18 photos)

     
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Loved the story about the Amabeere Caves!

Stella - 26 November, 2007

 
     
     
 

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