Enjoying the freedom of independent travel we first looked into travelling through Africa by public transport or hiring a van to move around at our own pace. We quickly learnt in our research that independent travel in Africa can be extremely complicated. After spending the last year negotiating public transport the thought of having to navigate cities, wait for buses, deal with delays, breakdowns and keeping alert to would-be thieves and conmen was making us exhausted just thinking about it. Travelling through Africa independently can also be very expensive having to hire private transport to get to the harder to reach attractions and to visit many of the National Parks which require high clearance 4x4 vehicles. The risks and hurdles associated with hiring a car turned us off, like driving only in daylight hours to be insured, the subsequent heavy insurance costs, theft of the car or its contents, mechanical problems, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, and even hijacking. The more research we did the more we started to feel we were not going to be able to fit in everything we wanted to do travelling this way. That’s when we decided perhaps doing an organised tour would be the way to go. The thought of jumping on a bus and just enjoying the ride in a relaxed environment while maximising our time seemed ideal.
There is an abundance of tour companies running overland trips throughout eastern and southern Africa, all catering to different age groups and different styles of “adventure”. Trying to choose which company to go with was a tiresome process, you never really know what to expect until you are there. Our main criteria was that the trip be hands-on, we wanted group participation in making decisions and doing daily chores, cooking and cleaning, the opportunity to camp out in the wild, and wanted it to be affordable. All the companies seemed to offer similar itineraries and add-on activities though the difference in prices varied incredibly. With our new found Excel obsession we made a comprehensive spreadsheet outlining the variations in costs between the routes on offer in relation to the activities we wanted to do, such as additional safari trips and cultural experiences.
In the end we chose The Wildlife Journey from Kampala to Cape Town with Absolute Africa, a 65 day trip traveling through nine countries with highlights including Gorilla Trekking in Uganda, experiencing Rwanda’s tumultuous history, The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the tropical island of Zanzibar, learning about traditional cultures in Malawi, playing with Lions and Rhino’s in Zimbabwe, floating along the silent waters of the Okavango Delta in Botswana and discovering the vast emptiness of the desert in Namibia. Before we knew it we had booked this amazing adventure, and spent far more money than we had initially intended. As the saying goes, you only live once and if you have an opportunity…seize it!
With only a limited number of flights each week between Istanbul and Kampala, we decided to arrive a few days before our tour departure date on the 27th of September, so we didn’t need to stress or rush before the start, instead we could relax for a few days and see a bit of Kampala. We arrived at Red Chili Hideaway to the smell of fresh paint and an army of staff and construction workers putting the finishing touches on this brand-spanking new hostel. We took advantage of the free shuttle into the city centre with Red Chili and went to explore the traffic clogged streets of Kampala.
The boda-boda motorcycle taxi’s and the overfilled matutu mini-bus service zipping through the streets of Kampala, remind you of the chaos that is Africa. It was strange walking down Jinja Road, the cities main strip, feeling like complete fish out of water, we looked different and we were the only foreigners about – well, apart from the hundreds of Indian shopkeepers in the countless computer stores lining this road. We felt like we were on high alert keeping our few belonging close and hidden while keeping a watchful eye out, even though we probably didn’t need to be in this bustling city, which seemed safe and where there are swarms of people everywhere. We couldn’t help but feel the stereotype “this is Africa; of course it is not safe”.
Only a week after the shocking Nairobi West Gate shopping mall bombings in Kenya, security was high here in Kampala, with police and military on almost every corner. When the shuttle bus arrived at Garden City Shopping Mall we had to get out of the van to be searched before entering on foot. Every car was checked, and every person frisked. Sometimes, we must remember, in Africa the police and military are not always willing to be on your side, as we learnt on our walked back to the mall after our escapade into the city centre. We took the opportunity to cross the road when we saw a break in the traffic. Without thinking where we were crossing, we ran over the road, passed across the muddy median strip directly onto the feet of two smiling military police officers holding enormous AK47 guns. We thought they were being polite escorting us to the other side of the road, but then they held us and proceeded to tell us we were in trouble for “trespassing”. Apparently in Uganda it is an offence to cross the grass on the side of the road or in the middle, “the workers, they work hard to make grass grow…people cross it, it dies”. They pointed out the crossings, where every Ugandan was walking, then at the workers scattered along the road laying the new grass. We pleaded our case, having just arrived in the country and unaware of the rules, “we take you to A.C.C, you pay fine 500,000 shillings…you no pay, you go to court” shocked at this horrific amount of almost USD$200, Treeny tried to plead her case to the nicer looking officer, while Iain stood stubbornly on the side refusing to pay and threatening to walk away. Then the meaner of the two officers turned to Iain and quietly whispered, “you know we are very poor…you give me 50,000 shillings we let you go”, INSERT BRIBE HERE! The problem was we actually had no money on us; we were on our way to the bank in the mall. We showed them our empty pockets and pleaded for mercy for another five minutes until they realised they were going to have to escort us into the mall to get their bribe, completely impossible! Thankfully they eventually shook our hands, proud to have taught us a lesson and finally let us go. Phew, that was close!
While we were waiting for the taxi in Entebbe one of the security personnel at Entebbe Flight Hotel, Annette, kept us company while we waited and shared with us her story. At 24 years old Annette is saving to go to school to study business and accounting in Kampala, eventually she wants to own her own business selling children’s clothes and renting out wedding dresses and hair appliances, apparently big business in these parts. Annette wants to be her own boss one day, she said “I must work hard now…today is hard, but tomorrow will be ok…with the Lord, I’ll be ok”, in Africa there is always a wistful optimism with a religious undertone, that obviously keeps people functioning, but Annette wanted to admit, “this is not my life…my better life is waiting for me”. Africans are warm and generous people, always willing to share, be open and happy, despite their hardships. Annette, even through her struggles, offered us the one thing that gives her hope, her bible. After showing us her favourite psalms that give her hope and optimism for her future we couldn’t possibly take the one thing that drives her confidence and enthusiasm, so we politely declined; instead she offered us tea and breakfast.
Conversations almost always revolve around money, back at the Red Chili Hideaway we got talking to the receptionist, a young gentleman only 22 years old, about bank cards, he told us the first time he went into a bank was when he was at university, just a year ago. Before that his grandmother had taught him to keep his money safe and hidden in a pot. Every time he got paid he would put his money in the pot, which was a souvenir given to him by a friend, and he would put stones over the money to hide it. He said he doesn’t trust banks because they charge him too much in bank fees without telling him, and closed his account taking his money when he didn’t maintain the required minimum account balance of 10,000 shillings (only USD$4). Once he learnt the problem he started putting his entire wage into his account and began using the ATM for the first time to withdraw, “I love the cash machine; I put my card in and it vomits money out” as he made the sound of someone vomiting. Then using the ATM began to distress him after learning it cost him 700 shillings each time it “vomited” the money out, now he doesn’t know what to do, should he leave it in the bank which is safer, or the jar where he doesn’t lose any money? He is envious of the travellers in the hostel because he wants to save to go on holiday too but feels it is impossible, so he asked us for some tips on how to save, “…you need to cut down on the drinking and parties”, “but I like to party…and then my friends and girlfriend will leave me”, “…then you need to find a girlfriend who wants to save for a holiday as well, then you don’t have to go out and spend money”, “that is a good tip, I find new girlfriend”!
Our roommate Denise, a young girl from Rwanda, was at the hostel writing a book about her story of suffering during the horrendous Rwandan Genocide in the 1990’s. Denise is a very strong minded and brave woman who survived the war and was orphaned when she was just 6 years old as a result. To think of the atrocities this girl has seen is just shocking and to see what she is doing now is just tremendous; cycling around Africa spreading her story to tell people there is more to life than “playing the victim”. She says she doesn’t want to be a victim, that life is too important to not do something special with, and she wants other Africans that have suffered like her to know that they can turn their lives around too. Denise is living at the hostel with her Australian editor who is making her stay until she finishes writing, then she will ride to South Africa, return to Kampala once her book is published and then ride all the way north to Tunisia, an amazing feat for someone so young!
We felt like we had been waiting forever for our group to turn up at the hostel. We just couldn’t wait to get the trip underway. We had already met so many generous and kind people; we couldn’t wait to learn more about Africa and its people! We were beginning to get impatient as many tour groups from other companies were beginning to arrive, and still we had no sign of people from our tour. We had no idea what to expect, was everyone going to be old? Will they be young and crazy? How many people will there be? Is this even the start point? Eventually our tour leader Kanyo, from Kenya, turned up for the “group meeting” the day before our “departure”, and revealed all to us, “well this is weird we are the only two people in the group”! It turned out the rest of the group had been travelling from Nairobi over the last nine days and were expecting us “newbies” the following day at a camp two hours away.
Next stop our African Overland Journey begins on the banks of the Nile River in Jinja…