Thursday to Monday, 21st – 25th November
Robert and I left Soroti (and Teso itself) early on Thursday morning having fulfilled most of my expectations (and some of others’) during my three weeks in Teso. But it’s impossible to meet everyone who wants to see me. Even if there were time, I don’t have the energy! So I slipped away – and am still getting phone calls from people who didn’t realise I had left Teso already and had hoped to see me. But I had qualms of conscience about looking forward to a day or two of pleasure away from Teso and all the pain and problems, although the phone still works! I had texts from Sharon telling me she was in too much tooth pain, which no drug was easing, while she had to wait several days to have a tooth extracted. Hopefully, it was done today (25th).
We had planned to go north to Kotido for a night or two and then south to Pian Upe Reserve before returning to Kampala. But Robert met some tour guides in Soroti the previous evening who had just arrived from Kidepo on the South Sudan border who told him the road was impassable – they had had to do a long detour. The rainy season has been exceptionally long and heavy all over Uganda, causing much flooding and destruction. So we opted to just go to Pian Upe for two nights, using another route although the short cut from Bukedea to Sironko was impassable, so we had to go via Mbale.
As usual, we stopped for half an hour at Awoja swamp to look for birds. The grass looks like a vast lush meadow, but hides the fact that it is actually growing in deep flowing water which opens up where it flows swiftly under the road towards Lake Kyoga and so on into the Nile. It is strange to see fishermen with long poles gliding through the grass, which is almost shoulder high, as they stand on invisible dug-out canoes. Unlike other parts of Uganda, there is very little papyrus in Teso swamps which I think makes them more beautiful and easier to see birds. It was a treat to see a Squacco Heron catch quite a large black fish and fly off with it. We also saw a Senegal Coucal (I’ve only seen it once before, elsewhere in Teso), an African Pygmy Kingfisher eating a fish, bee-eaters, Northern Red Bishops, Fan-tailed Widowbird, Winding Cisticolas, Black-headed Weavers, Lesser Jacana, Black Crake and lots of swallows.
The road is tarmac all the way from Soroti until the right turn off the Mbale road which takes you up to Sipi and Kapchorwa. But the road straight ahead, which we had to take, is a murram and dirt road which goes all the way north into Karamoja (with turnings which even take you into northern Kenya (Turkana) and South Sudan. So it is used by some heavy trucks, although there is very little trade between Karamoja, which is still very undeveloped, and elsewhere.
The murram parts of the road weren’t too bad – apart from many deep potholes. But the parts which were just ordinary soil through swampy areas were deep holes filled with thick dark mud which had been churned up by trucks. Fortunately, despite skidding, we didn’t actually get stuck. The views of Mt Elgon, which lies across the border between Uganda and Kenya, were lovely and we could even see two of the three main waterfalls at Sipi – as well as many others – although the summit was hidden behind the threatening clouds.
Ahead of us were the mountains of Napak and Kadam and many other lovely little hills and craggy rock outcrops. We crossed a number of rivers carrying the high rainfall from Mt Elgon onto the plains, which eventually feed into Lake Kyoga (and hence north-westwards into the Nile). The surrounding savannah is normally very dry with short grass and is described in Bradt as “semi-arid surrounded by savannah with acacia (thorn) trees scattered amongst the tall, lush grass. that usually receives some rain in April and substantial showers from June to early September”. As in the UK, this year has been very different! Not only has there been exceptional and prolonged rain in Karamoja and Teso, but also on Mt Elgon which then pours onto the plains causing serious flooding. There are also frequently landslides on the southern slopes of Mt Elgon, killing hundreds of people. We passed a huge resettlement project in the district of Bulambuli where thousands of people from the areas devastated by landslides have been moved. Although the houses are new, permanent and safe, they are so sterile looking. Identical little brick and iron-roofed houses have been built close together in many long rows about ¼ mile long, with no thought for planning and their traditional way of life – so alien and different from their natural environment and little villages on the lush mountain slopes.
Pian Upe is the second largest protected area in Uganda. It is planned to make it a National Park next year, which will increase the resources available to develop the area. It has a rich variety of animals, including some very rare ones such as the Roan Antelope which isn’t found anywhere else in Uganda. However, during the years of turmoil, some of the bigger species became extinct or reduced to a handful. Only a month ago, fifteen giraffes, mostly pregnant, were moved from Murchison Falls National Park – they are being monitored and have already moved westwards deep into the area towards Katakwi and Lake Opeta in Teso. Already, a few hippos are appearing in Teso. There are plans to move twenty five more giraffes early next year and hopefully some elephants later on if they can get a licence. But it is such a huge area that it won’t be so easy to see all the animals until they increase a lot in numbers. There is money for developing a network of murram tracks throughout the park which will start in a month or two. The landscapes are stunning, so if it becomes easier to see a variety of animals, it will definitely become one of the best parks to visit, especially when combined with visiting Mt Elgon as well as Kidepo in northern Karamoja. This should encourage more tourists to start exploring the eastern and northern parts of Uganda, which is what Ben, Robert and I have been working for, instead of the over-used western routes resulting in an unfair distribution of income and resources. Re-opening the direct road eastwards from Katakwi through Pian Upe will also be a great asset as it will also open up Lake Opeta in Teso, a very special and unique area for birds and animals.
We stopped to look at birds along the way. And butterflies were lapping up the moisture on the muddy roads.
We finally arrived at the park facilities where there are little staff houses, offices, canteen and bandas for visitors. I always enjoy the frisson of excitement of arriving somewhere new as I look around at the environment and check out the accommodation. There were three simple but comfortable en-suite bandas at the top of the little hill, with lovely views and lots of trees around which were alive with little birds. The views were constantly changing colour and detail as the clouds moved and lifted or shed their rain, while the sun came and went and then set behind clouds. A pair of Golden Crested Cranes (now officially called Grey Crowned Cranes – one had only one wing), three young ostriches and an oribi wandering around the compound, all more or less tame. In fact, the oribi (like a young goat) was sniffing me literally nose to nose and loved being scratched and rubbed! Ostriches are strange birds, taller than me, and have only two ‘toes’, one of which is enormous, on each foot. They look as though could really kick a punch – not worth getting too near to check that out! After checking in, paying, ordering a simple supper and settling in, we wandered around looking at the birds as dusk approached. There was a birding guide taking a couple round who hung a recording of bird songs in a tree – and the trees around came alive with so many little birds, including a beautiful oriole and a pair of Red-headed Weavers.
Friday, 22nd November
We were up by 6.30 to go for a game drive in one of the park vehicles (a pick-up truck) as Sam’s little vehicle wouldn’t have coped with the track and the grass is so tall, we wouldn’t have seen over the top! Robert sat inside with the driver while I stood in the back with the guide – and his gun. There was only one track which could be used. It wasn’t possible to see any small animals as the grass is so thick and high in most places. But we did see the heads and horns of a few Topi and Jackson’s Hartebeest in the distance – and also, what we really wanted to see, two Roan Antelope, albeit in long grass in the distance disappearing amongst acacia trees! We had both imagined they would be small animals, but they are bigger than topi and hartebeest, and only a bit smaller than Eland, which we didn’t see. The mountain views as the sun rose, including Mt Elgon to the south (although the clouds were covering the top), Napak and Kadam to the north and others a few miles away in Kenya, made up for the lack of animals. Our guide wasn’t very interested in or knowledgeable about birds, so we drove past most of them which was frustrating for me and Robert! One very interesting, large bird flew up from the track in front of us. “What’s that?” I asked excitedly. “It’s a bird!”
We had to return along the same track as the circuit was impassable. As we approached the ‘main’ road, we stopped by some rocky hills and walked up to the top where there were some wonderful sculpted rocks and caves with lovely views. There were footprints of baboons in the dust. The main one has been used by the Karimojong for generations at least, for shelter and gatherings. There are a few small paintings of animals (including a giraffe and an antelope) on the walls which look similar to those at Nyero. If they are, then they must pre-date the Karimojong. After eating a snack, we climbed on top of the rock where we heard baboons and saw rock hyraxes – they ran so fast across the rocks and quickly disappeared. On the way down, we saw two rocks which were smooth and shiny where the Karimojong have sharpened their tools as well as a little pool in the rocks which the guide said is filled by underground water from higher up. However, it wasn’t flowing and was a bit stagnant, in spite of all the rain, so I’m not quite sure if that’s right. But it must be an important source of water if it never dries up.
We had a late breakfast of an omelette rolled up in a chapati when we got back and relaxed until we drove the seven miles into the nearest town, Nakapiripirit – although it could hardly be called a town! As it was market day, it was seething with people, as was the road for the five miles approaching the town. Even Robert felt he was in a foreign country and was as fascinated as I was and keen to take photos – it was so different from anywhere else. The Karimojong dress differently. Most men carry long sticks and wrap checked blankets around their shoulders or tied round their waists instead of wearing trousers. Many of the younger women wear heavily pleated, multi-coloured short skirts which swing as they walk along, and their plaited hairstyles are distinctive. Some, both men and women, were wearing earrings, nose rings, head bands or neck bands while many of the men had hats, often with an ostrich feather sticking up. We met a noisy procession walking out of the town as we approached – they were obviously celebrating something! People, including young children, clearly walked many miles to and from the market, always briskly in spite of carrying heavy and sometimes unusual loads, including huge granary baskets.
We had planned to go birdwatching again before dusk, but heavy clouds built up with distant thunder and we could see it was raining hard around us. It started drizzling and got very cold. The birds all disappeared, so we did as well! It wasn’t until about 8.00pm that it started raining on us …….
Saturday, 23rd: …….. and it continued raining all night until dawn when it reduced to drizzle. Although I love sleeping with the sound of rain on iron roofs, this was too much. Both Robert and I were very aware of having to drive on a road that was already very bad in places and could only be much worse by now, so we got up a bit earlier than planned to get going, without stopping for breakfast, before heavy vehicles made it impassable. We realised later that those ten minutes made all the difference. We also needed to get the car worked on in Mbale. It was making a knocking noise, which was checked by some mechanics in Nakiripirit who thought a bearing needed to be replaced, which they didn’t have. Robert had to get to Kampala that evening so that he would be available very early on Sunday morning to drive a tourist for a tour of Uganda.
Although the road was very wet, we were relieved to see from the tracks that only one vehicle had already passed in front of us although there were a few motorcycles out – and a young ostrich! It was running towards us in front of a motorcycle. The rider was obviously nervous about passing it as they can be very aggressive. Taller than the car, it gave us a disdainful look as it ran past us. Later, we disturbed some ducks swimming in the deep puddles on the road! Cows in the middle of the road were a minor obstacle. Although the clouds were very low, it was only drizzling.
Robert successfully negotiated several bad patches, including one where a truck was stuck. At one point, the road was flooded, but there was nothing for it but to drive at a reasonable speed to avoid getting stuck through the dark muddy water without knowing what was beneath the surface. Halfway across, the front of the car dropped down deep – and a bow wave of brown water sloshed right up and over, completely covering the car. It happened too quickly to be frightened, but we both heaved a sigh of relief when we came up on the other side onto “dry” land. My only regret was that I didn’t have the video running! But the car appeared to be none the worse and we continued, knowing there were more obstacles ahead.
At one place, the water flowing under a bridge was too much, so was coming across the road. But the real problem were the patches where the road is nothing but deep, sticky mud. We asked if there were any alternative tracks we could take, but there weren’t any, so we carried on. It wasn’t long before we came to a halt behind a long stationary queue of lorries, ‘taxis’ and cars which stretched in both directions. The lorries at least had obviously spent the night there because of one lorry stuck in the mud ahead. Robert got out to investigate. Two ‘taxis’ had tried to get through by going off-road – and were completely stuck. There was a huge crowd of people by the roadside, as well as many sacks piled up in the mud – we didn’t know if they had fallen off a lorry or had been taken off to lighten the load. Sacksful of rice husks had been spread over the mud to make the surface drier. With the help of a gang of young men from the nearby village who charged 2,000 UGX (about 45p) for each vehicle they helped, cars were able to overtake the waiting lorries and started, very slowly, to get through the deep mud and up the other side. Having got across, we stopped to check the car – we were thankful to have a small car even if it wasn’t so suitable for roads where a higher clearance is needed. We looked back – and found a big articulated lorry had decided to attempt the crossing. Not surprisingly, it was completely stuck deep in the mud, tilted and slewed across the road with no hope of getting out because of being so heavy. We were so thankful that we had set off ten minutes early as we would never have got through otherwise. [Robert has just had to drive a tourist today from Sipi on Mt Elgon to Kidepo in northern Karamoja and had to turn back at the same place because of another lorry which was stuck and blocking the road completely. He had to go a much longer way via Soroti, which was also bad. It took them 11 hours.]
It was a great relief to reach the tarmac! It had taken us two and a half hours to do the murram stretch instead of less than an hour. We went to a sort of “garage” where the car was examined. Robert told me later the man had said, “Let’s do lots of work on it and replace various things as it is a Muzungu (white person) paying”. Fortunately, Robert knows cars quite well and was able to tell him that we only needed one thing doing and that he was paying. So two men set to in the muddy yard, jacking up the front, removing the wheel and then placing it under the car with a rock on it to hold the car up while he did the same thing the other side! They didn’t have a pit or a ramp or any other lifting equipment. We stood over them throughout – the only safe way to get repairs done. An hour later, we were on the road again – with no more ominous knocking sounds! As we drove out of Mbale, we were shocked to see all the flooding on both sides of the road. We stopped in Iganga for lunch and reached Ben’s home in Kireka, on the outskirts of Kampala, at about 5.00, but had to sit outside for an hour and a half until Ben came home!
Sunday, 24th: Robert left at 6.00am before I was up to drive a nine day tour. Ben also left on Sunday evening to drive another tour. So Denis has once again stepped in and is looking after me and driving for the rest of my time. Simon Etoru (Charles’ son) is doing all the cooking for us – a very good cook. I spent Sunday doing my photos and writing this.
We spent today (Monday) visiting SINA (Social Innovation Academy) at Mpigi (beyond Kampala on the other side on the way to Masaka) and have made some very helpful contacts and picked up many useful ideas which I hope will benefit Teso as the links are made. Espoir (a refugee from DRC and Rwanda, who now works there) is going to meet Joel Odongo in Kampala on Friday when he comes for a day’s workshop run by “Teach a Man to Fish”. An artist (Edgar from Mbale) is going to make contact with Emma Eyomu and has ideas for him. And a woman from Soroti wants to discuss the possibility of setting up the SINA model in Teso. We left before Etienne (the German founder) got back – he had asked to meet me because one of our ex-TESS students, Itwomo Catherine, had applied for one of their short courses at my suggestion and had told him about me (don’t know what she told him!), so I will be in touch with him later. One of the things we liked most was their up-cycled building materials: plastic bottles, plastic jerrycans, rubber tyres and tiles from Coca Cola plastic waste.
Tomorrow (Tuesday), I shall visit Sam Opol briefly in Mukono and also expect to see Josephine Aguti (ex-TESS) who has recently returned from doing a two years’ Master’s in railway engineering in Addis Ababa. After lunch here in Ben’s home, Denis will take me to Entebbe, visiting Agnes Amajo (ex-TESS) at her work place in Nsambya before he takes me to Henry Nganwa’s home where I am meeting up with several of the Nganwa family (my childhood friends from Mbarara), including Babu who has organised it. Denis will leave me there and one of them will take me to the airport later in the evening for my flight home.
[I’m sorry – no time to proof-read!]