Travel Zen in Africa

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.

Continue reading “Travel Zen in Africa”

The Muslims I met When Travelling

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 Zen Travellers Manifesto

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”

Water Bliss: A Guide for Planning your First Paddling Trip

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”

Getting to Know Kampala’s Rhythm

As our world becomes more urban, I often wonder if it’s possible to get a feel for a country without seeing its capital when travelling. Cities offer a different perspective on daily life, unique opportunities for entertainment, as well as a bustling and exciting environment. That being said, cities can also present a certain set of challenges and this was most evident during our trip to Kampala.

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. 

As I’ve written before, the guided tour experience comes highly recommended and Amagara offers a good quality budget option for safaris and gorilla tracking in Uganda. That being said, I do typically prefer a more DIY style of travelling so after our last stop on the tour, our driver Bosco dropped us off at a bus station and said goodbye. He seemed more nervous about leaving us than we were about leaving him which I thought was rather sweet. 
His worry was well-placed as the bus did break down on the way to Kampala, just as Bosco had warned us could happen, but it only took a couple extra hours so weren’t too flustered by it.

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. 

Although Aponye Hotel was visible from the station, figuring out how to get there on foot proved a little more difficult. As we paused to get our bearings, a man approached us and offered to walk us there. The man made small talk while sipping a beer and then informed us owed him $5 for the escort once we reached the hotel. We hadn’t realized that he expected to be paid for this, so I handed him a 2000Ush note and walked away. Thankfully, he didn’t follow us any further.

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. 

Our first stop was Oweno Market, where second-hand clothes from Europe and North America are sold to Ugandans, since some believe that “used from Europe is better than new from China.” They might be on to something there. Unfortunately, while leaving the market, I felt someone tugging on my purse, I’m assuming to get at my wallet. As I turned around a young man pulled his hand back and smiled flippantly at me and I was glad that I was using a locked, Pacsafe handbag.  
From there we headed toward the Gaddafi National Mosque. There are not many mosques in the world that will allow non-Muslims inside, so we were keen to check this one out. As we paid for our admission, the attendant fished through a box of headscarves to find one that matched my outfit. Once her selection was made, she helped me into it and we began our tour around the mosque.

I think she chose well
Putting aside its unscrupulous origins, the building is beautifully decorated with exquisite tiling and paintings, but the highlight is definitely the 500m climb to the top of the minaret where you can have a 360 degree view of all of Kampala.

Halfway up
Kampala from the top
View from another direction
Kampala from another direction
After taking in the beautiful sights from the top of the minaret, we continued our foot tour of Kampala. We checked out a few more markets and a mall before eventually making it back to Aponye for more of those awesome french fries. Sadly, they were out of potatoes so I was denied that treat. We ordered some Nile Specials to our room instead and sat on the balcony watching the city life unfold below. As we reflected on some of the challenges we had faced in Kampala such as navigating in a big, strange city, dealing with touts and almost getting mugged by the market, we couldn’t help but be moved by the tremendous kindness of most of the people we met. The attendant at the Mosque who made sure my hijab matched my skirt, the ladies who sold us our limes with a smile, and even the men who apologized to Philip when he stubbed his toe on an uneven sidewalk. As much as Kampala could be overwhelming at times, it still featured a lot of the same things we loved about Uganda.

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. 

Kampala had me feeling Bamako-sick, but then I found a little Bamako in Kampala 
Kampala had similar energy to Bamako; it was lively, bustling, colourful and loud. It had its differences too, but we were only there for 2 nights so we hardly had any time to get to truly know the city. That being said, I think it’s always worthwhile to spend time in the bigger cities of the places we visit, even if the main attractions are elsewhere, because each city has its own rhythm and pulse and feeling the beat is an experience in and of itself. 
Having felt Kampala’s heart beat over 2 days, we set off on a bus to Bugugali Falls where we would try whitewater kayaking for the first time which was a whole other adventure set to a different rhythm. 

Travel Alternates: Do They Measure Up?

A lot is made of the alternates while travelling. Try this hike instead of the Inca Trail, since it’s less crowded. Track chimpanzees in Uganda instead of gorillas since it’s less expensive, but I’ve always wondered if the alternates truly measure up.

There are many reasons to choose an alternate over the main attraction. Budget being one. Avoiding crowds being another. So when I read that Mount Elgon in Uganda was considered an alternate to Mount Kilimanjaro, I was very intrigued.

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 borders Kenya, has the longest base of any mountain in the world and is home to the world’s second largest caldera. It rises to over 4321m above sea level and features incredible bio-diversity. It’s no tallest free-standing mountain in the world, but impressive nonetheless and it made sense for our itinerary since at that point in our trip, our next stop was Kenya. 
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
I took what felt like constant breaks, slowing down our team and worrying that we wouldn’t make the second camp. Eventually we ran into the British father and daughter team who left the day they were supposed to.

“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.

“You are very close to being done the hardest part.” His daughter added which reassured me greatly. 
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. 

The next morning we began our summit attempt after a decent night’s rest. I was feeling marginally better at this point but still struggled to keep my energy up. Moses knew we’d be slow and had us start an hour before everyone else who caught up and passed us in no time.  Once we were in the afro-alpine, the views opened up and we could see some of those strange plants that thrive only on the mountain.

Afro-alpine plants

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.

Foggy ascent

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.

Once back at the camp which was noticeably less crowded since the 20 German teenagers had begun their descent on the Sasa route, we enjoyed some tea and hot dinner and went to bed early since we had another big day ahead of us.

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.

We woke to sunshine the next morning and began making our way down off the mountain. The night’s frigidness gave way to stifling heat as we lost elevation and the sun beamed down on us. The trail descended quickly and soon enough we were back in thick tropical forest with butterflies and birds fluttering around us. Although we didn’t get to see the beautiful Sipi Falls on the descent, the river valley and plantations below provided nice scenery.

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.

Sipi Falls 
While the last 4 days of hiking had been challenging, they had been very rewarding at the same time. We had climbed to our highest elevation yet, saw amazing sights, tested our strength and resolve, and forged a nice camaraderie with our hiking partners. While I don’t think it could truly stand in for the rooftop of Africa, Mount Elgon is a worthwhile destination for any mountain lover and we were glad that we had the opportunity to climb it. If you’re interested in learning more about organizing a hike up Mount Elgon, please check out my earlier post.

How to Get Your Zen Back After Being Sick While Travelling

Few things can harsh a traveller’s Zen more violently than getting sick on the road. It can be difficult just to get around and meet your needs in a strange place, but doing so when you’re sick is even more challenging.

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.

Pictured: POISON!!

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!