Few places in the world have ever inspired as much awestruck in me as Africa. Not only is the continent huge with an incredible diversity of ecosystems and culture, it is a friendly, beautiful and otherworldly place. I have had the tremendous fortune to spend time in countries in West Africa, East Africa and North Africa and I cannot speak highly enough of the experiences.
Right now everyone is reeling from the awful, senseless terror attacks in Paris where so many civilians lost their lives so I felt compelled to write this now even though I have 90% of my next post drafted. The attacks have also spawned ugly and hateful backlash against Muslims in general. Muslims who are our neighbours, friends, colleagues and community members. In short, Muslims who are people like all of us. Continue reading “The Muslims I met When Travelling”
The awesome folks over at BootsnAll Travel are hosting the 2015 Indie Travel Challenge to encourage travellers to think about what inspires them to roam and to share their learnings with others with the #DoYouIndie hashtag. By answering thought-provoking questions posed by BootsnAll, travellers are reflecting on and sharing why they travel, how they got started, and what there is to do in their hometowns. Today’s challenge is to come up with your top ten values for life and travel in order to create your own manifesto. Continue reading “The Zen Travellers Manifesto”
Anyone who has ever travelled anywhere by water knows that it is can be both a tremendously exciting and relaxing way to experience the world. Nevertheless, these a paddling trip requires a lot of preparation which can be intimidating for newcomers to water sports. So in this post I will try to help you wade through the muddy waters of canoe and kayak trip planning. Continue reading “Water Bliss: A Guide for Planning your First Paddling Trip”
|Kampala, a different kind of jungle in Uganda, with the Mosque in the background|
After spending so much time in Uganda’s countryside, Philip and I thought it right to make our way to Uganda’s largest city, Kampala. We had spent our first week and a half in Uganda with a guide/driver organized by Amagara Tours and had passed through Kampala’s infamous “jam” but had otherwise not seen much of the city.
I recalled bus stations being extremely chaotic in Bamako, so I warned Philip that we may be rushed as we stepped off and made sure to keep our belongings close as we got off the bus in Kampala. Instantly, there was a swarm around us of taxi drivers offering to drive us to the hotel which the guidebook said was just a short jaunt from the station. We enquired about prices as the swarm tried to remove our backpacks from our shoulders. One guy was asking the equivalent of $30 CAD for a trip to a hotel that we could see from the station. We dug our heals in, grabbed onto our shoulder straps and marched out of the station while trying to ignore the touts as much as possible.
The hotel proved to be a nice respite after the eventful bus ride and hectic station experience and the restaurant served up the best french fries that we had in Uganda. After a good night’s rest, Philip and I left the hotel to tour the city on foot, hoping that we would be able to find our way back ourselves.
|I think she chose well|
|Kampala from the top|
|View from another direction|
|Kampala from another direction|
Also, being back in a busy African city make me think back on my time in Bamako and on how much I missed the people and frenetic energy there. There were many challenges to living in Bamako, but I was there long enough to learn its vibrant rhythm and to carve out little places that felt like home to me. Kampala reminded me that you can never truly leave a place that you’ve grown to love despite the challenges.
Philip and I had dreamed of summitting Mount Kilimanjaro one day, but we had a pretty jam-packed itinerary during our 5 weeks in East Africa, and weren’t sure Kili was feasible due to both financial and timing constraints. Besides, I try to leave a few things left to see so I always have a reason to look forward to coming back. It’s always good to have something to dream about.
That being said, we still wanted to bag a peak while we were in East Africa and Mount Elgon seemed like a very interesting, accessible and affordable climb and we were not disappointed.
|Mount Elgon from Mbale|
Having come back from the brink of death in boring Budadiri, we finally set out the trail head 2 days later than we had planned. Much to our surprise, and my relief from the outset, our guide Moses instructed us and a Dutch couple to hop on the back of some boda bodas to cruise the first 3 kms up a muddy, rutted country road. The drivers managed the difficult terrain expertly, but it left my nerves a little rattled. They let us out at a little village where we began our trek through the idyllic countryside. Villagers went bout their business waving hello as we walked by. The gentle rolling terrain soon became very steep and I struggled every step of the way. Whatever strength I had gained from hiking in the Rwenzoris and gorilla tracking, I lost with that mystery sickness. I tried my hardest to push through it since we wanted to do the Sasa to Sipi Route which meant we had to make it to the second camp that first day.
|Looking back toward the village|
“We were wondering about you guys, but we knew you were coming on account of the MEC backpacks!” the dad remarked, sweat beading off his brow.
|We hiked through dense, foggy forest for the first bit|
I felt relieved enough to carry on and we made it to the first camp with ten minutes to spare and the skies opened up just after we arrived. We hunkered down in the bare bones wooden hut while our cook Xavier prepared our lunch. The soup and tea that he prepared for us warmed us up and we carried on toward the second camp.
After climbing a grueling 1600m in one day, our arrival seemed to shock the Dutch couple as well as the 20 German school kids and their porters that were camping there.
“Uganda power!” Moses offered up as an explanation.
“Uganda power!” the porters chimed back in unison, raising their cups of tea towards us.
It felt good to have made it through the hardest day, but it was raining and very cool outside and my stomach was still in twists. I struggled to keep my spirits up while we waited for dinner in the hut with the porters. At one point I told Phil that I would be ok if we went home at that point, That I was close to giving in. He seemed surprised. We still had the summit and seeing the Great Migration in Kenya ahead of us. But I was tired. My bones ached, my muscles throbbed and I felt weak in mind and body. Why wasn’t I just lying on the beach? I cursed myself for picking such a challenging vacation.
We reached Jackson’s Pool after about 3 hours of hiking and Moses dared us to jump in. I told that I would consider it on the way back down and he replied by saying that he wouldn’t save me if I started to drown.
|Philip poses by Jackson Pool at 4050m|
I figured that since the pool was at 4050m and we were heading to 4321m, I remarked to Moses that we must be pretty close to the summit. He shook his head and said no, there was a lot of terrain to cover yet and the route was not direct.
We trudged on for another couple hours through alternating fog and sunshine before finally gaining the summit. The Dutch couple and middle-aged couple that had both passed us had been there for almost an hour already.
|Brought to you by Uganda power!|
|Our guide Moses poses with us at the summit.|
The summit was covered in this weird fast-moving fog that made the lighting switch from dark to really bright in a matter of seconds. The views we able to catch in between rolling fog patches were incredible. Peaks and valleys forever. Lush green hillscapes that gave way to towering brown rock formations. We ate our lunch in awe as I pulled out a tiny flask of Ugandan Waragi gin.
“Uganda power!” I said lifting it up to the sky as the Dutch couple looked on curiously. Philip and I had a swig and offered it to the others. After spending about 45 minutes on the summit, we began our long trek down as the Dutch couple went on to climb and descend another peak that same day.
The Sipi route ends very close to the town of Sipi, but contrary to the promotional material on the UWA website, it does not take you by the picturesque Sipi Falls. That being said, it was marvelously scenic, even more so than the summit.
|Having a break with our climbing crew|
But it is also another long, hard day. By then I had some of my strength back and my spirits were better, but we still had about 38km to walk on foot and a substantial amount of elevation to gain and lose. When your guide tells you it’s “up down gentle” be prepared for anything. Up down gentle meant climbing to the top of a hill, then descending all the way down to the water and then climbing back up the hill on the other side then descending back down to the water the whole day long.
|The “gentle” hills of Mount Elgon|
Still, hiking alongside the caldera was beautiful and the “gentle” rolling hills were truly a sight to behold. We reached the last camp just shy of dusk having hiked for close to 11 hours. As per usual, the flatlanders had beat us there and had enough time assemble not only their tent, but ours as well. Their seemingly endless energy impressed us immensely and it was nice to be in a more quiet camp.
|Only two tents in the camp, a sight for sore eyes on Kili.|
As we waited in the warming hut for dinner, it began to rain heavily so Philip and I pulled out our Uganda power and had a sip in silence. I figured it would help keep us warm. Nevertheless, that night we froze despite putting on every warm layer we had and cursed ourselves for not having packed warmer clothes. Next time, I’m bringing my down jacket I promised myself.
|Nice views for the descent too.|
Once off the mountain we thanked and tipped our guide, cook and porter and hailed a bota bota to the beautiful Sipi townsite. The falls are visible from the town site, but to get a closer view, we would have had to do another hike that day. We opted to have a nice meal and a warm bucket shower and enjoy some downtime before our hectic overland border crossing to Kenya scheduled for the next day. If we’d had a little more time in Uganda, Sipi is the one place we would have liked to stay longer for the falls hike, the coffee plantation tours, and tranquil atmosphere.
To that end, my resolve was pushed to its limits when I came down with a mystery illness during a trip to Uganda. Having pushed myself physically with hikes in the Rwenzoris and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and whitewater kayaking on the Nile, I felt strong and in good shape for our 4 day climb up Mount Elgon, but an illness nearly flattened me.
|Mount Elgon, as seen from Mbale.|
In order to start on our hike from our starting point at Bugugali Falls, we took a bota bota to Jinja and waited a few hours for a matatau to fill up so we could make it to Mbale and set up our trek. Once we finally made it to Mbale, we spoke with some people at the UWA office who informed us about the different route options and worked out logistics. As it happens, we were supposed to begin the trek from a small village called Budadiri, about an hour away from Mbale, so we would have to make it there the next day and leave for the hike the day after.
The guide books said that Mbale was the place to get outfitted for the trek, so we were a little confused that we had to add an extra stop. We loaded up on groceries at the market in Mbale, enjoyed some tasty Indian food at the New Mount Elgon View Hotel which makes a better restaurant than hotel, and got a good night’s sleep despite the hotel being sweltering hot and on a busy, noisy street.
The next morning we took a matatau to Budadiri where we stayed at Rose’s Last Chance guest house and made our arrangements with the UWA guide and porter. In hindsight, we could have just transferred straight to Budadari after arriving in Mbale and picked up provisions there since we mostly bought staple goods (ie: beans, potatoes, cassava). Mbale had better selection to be sure, especially for canned and processed goods, but stopping there delayed us starting our hike by a day and the fresh fare the cook ended up preparing for us was better than anything processed we bought.
Once everything was sorted in Budadiri it wasn’t even noon, so we decided to go for a walk around the village and had lunch at a busy local cafe. Afterwards, we checked out the village market and picked up some jack fruit and cassava chips to sample. As the vendor was cutting it, he pointed to the fruit and said to only eat a certain part of it. I thought I understood him, but perhaps I didn’t. Regardless, I didn’t fancy neither the jack fruit nor the cassava chips, so I only had one bite of each.
|What could possibly go wrong with this?|
Later that evening, Rose prepared a delicious feast of rice, beans and cabbage for us for dinner and we went to bed with our bellies full ready to start our hike in the morning.
As soon as I woke I could sense something was off, but still I put my hiking clothes on and tried to get ready despite my queasy stomach. It was all in vain because I soon became very sick and threw up a few times before lying back down, thinking maybe I could brush it off. Every time I lifted my head or stood up, I would have to be sick again and I couldn’t even keep water down. To make matters worse, I developed a fever so all I could do was lay in bed and sweat because if I moved I would be sick again. Rose eventually called a doctor who gave me a shot of aspirin to make my fever go down and said he would return in the evening. Once the fever medication kicked in, I felt a little better but still couldn’t eat or drink anything. I spent almost the entire day laying in bed trying to figure out what exactly made me sick. Philip had eaten all the same things as me and was fit as a fiddle but I was barely living. I blamed the jack fruit.
Eventually the doctor came back after I had gone the whole day without eating or drinking and gave me another shot for the nausea and some unidentifiable pills to take over the next couple days. After all that, he charged me roughly $12 CAD for the medicine and 2 visits, which I handed over solemnly understanding that many Ugandans unfortunately wouldn’t be able to receive the same medical care I had just received in their own country.
After the nausea medicine kicked in, Rose brought me mango juice and made me a simple tomato soup which I was able to keep down. Feeling weary and tired, I went back to sleep and tried to muster the strength to start the trek the next morning. As much as I wanted to get on the trail and out of boring Budadiri, I couldn’t muster the strength that day either and took another day to rest. By then a lot of our food had gone rotten so we had to buy more which once again showed us that you can probably get all the food you need for the 4 day trek from Budadiri (ie: rice, beans, vegetables, fruit pasta) and our cook, Xavier even offered to do the shopping for us.
I did my best to walk around and keep my spirits up, but the mystery sickness had really drained me and I spent most of the day sleeping. I’m not sure what I would do different next time, other than not sample strange fruit from street vendors and bring more books since we burned through all of ours during our unexpected extended stay in a sleepy village at the base of a massive mountain.
In the end, the experience highlighted an important travel truth: that sometimes the only way to get your Zen back is to keep on keeping on. Travel throws the unanticipated at even the most prepared travellers and all we can do is control how we react. In my case, that meant getting up on that third day and putting one foot in front of the other, slowly but surely, until I made it up that mountain. More on that journey in the next post!