We’re in Entebbe, Uganda this week, smack dab on the Equator, visiting my elementary school friend Beth. She and I had been long out of touch; we established that Kent Place School’s prom 1994 was likely our last meeting. (My sister recently reminded me that I was in the habit of wearing a Mickey Mouse bowtie to such affairs back then. Beth claims to have a photo. I’m hoping it never surfaces.) Thanks to the wonders of Facebook we’re back in touch and keep giggling that the site of our reunion is Uganda of all places. Beth is nearing the completion of her master’s in environmental education at NYU while working for the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) here.
CeCe and I had long sought a beautiful, quiet place to spend a slow week after month upon month of moving around, and the tranquility of Entebbe is perfect in that regard, with Beth being the perfect hostess. In addition CeCe is logging a few volunteer hours with JGI this week and hopes they will find work for her for perhaps a fortnight more. If that pans out, I’ll try to place myself as a volunteer on a farm or an orphanage for the same spell. Failing that, we’re looking forward to hitting Uganda’s many wild places in the weeks ahead.
Eight days into our Africa sojourn, we’ve already come to love it here. Most memorable was our 24 hours in Kenya’s Hell’s Gate National Park which gave us a tantalizing taste of the bounty of East Africa’s wild places. But each day has brought its own joys and learning experiences. Here’s a day by day accounting rewinding a bit to cover our trip to a camel market in the UAE. How could we skip that?
A bus from outside Dubai takes us through the desert to Al Ain, the UAE’s only inland settlement of any size. It’s radiates out from an oasis into the surrounding desert and despite its location is a proper modern city. We make a beeline for the town’s camel market. Up until a few years ago it was housed in a traditional building and reeked of Middle Eastern history or so we‘ve been told. It was demolished though and the new site could pass for the parking lot of a Home Depot. Regardless, we brave the crushing heat and the smothering attention of the Iranian camel dealers. (In our four days in the UAE we didn’t once meet a proper Emirati citizen. I guess they’re too busy doing real estate deals while driving their Bentleys. Everyone we met was either Iranian or Pakistani.)
CeCe spent an hour or so cuddling up to as many camels as she could. She even rode one briefly. On sale were camels for milking, meat, and, yes, racing. I think the lowest price we were quoted was $300. If only shipping was included… Afterward we crossed over into Buraimi, Oman. There wasn’t much there other than an historic fort, a small market, and loads of car dealerships.
We sit in traffic for far too long (a popular UAE past time) before visiting the surprisingly progressive Sharjah Art Museum.
Minutes after our arrival in Kenya we spot a giraffe near the airport boundary. Nairobi National Park is adjacent to the airport. En route into town a few zebras graze on the highway’s edge. But the city of Nairobi is wild in another sense so we quickly transfer from cab to bus to take us out of town. Heading northwest the bus traverses a ridge with magnificent views and then descends into the Great Rift Valley. It’s unspeakably gorgeous.
While waiting for our lunch – things happen slowly here – I wander the grounds of our guest house and easily spot at least 25 species of birds in no more than 60 minutes. Our 24 hour total surpasses 50 species. CeCe later reads that the world record is 300 species in 24 minutes, a record set in Kenya. And they are all beautiful. No common sparrows or pigeons. Even the crows are interesting, sporting what looks like a white vest. We also see two species of primate: baboons and an evidently elusive black and white Colobus monkey.
During our 24 hour visit foot to Hell’s Gate National Park we walk along side at least 10 species of large mammals including giraffes and zebras plus an odd assortment of herd animals that I’d never heard of I before. Hartebeest and topi, anyone? Plus loads of warthogs. The warthogs look delicious. Instead I eat bananas and scavenge a few skeletons for teeth to bring my friends Sam and Ian. Did I mention ostrich? We saw those too. In the afternoon we get a tour of the park’s eponymous slot canyon lead by a Masai tribesman who teaches us to brush our teeth with a twig and deodorize with some fragrant leaves. CeCe is grateful. We sight no predators to speak of, although there are a few cat tracks near our camp. One big and a few small. We camp alone on a plateau near some mildly alarmed zebra and overlooking a plain full of wildlife.
After hiking out of the park we spend the day waiting and waiting and waiting for a pair of minibuses to take us to Eldoret. Along the way we meet loads of pleasant people and even the vendors thrusting socks and belts and packets of peanuts in our faces take our refusals with a smile. It’s a refreshing change from some of the other places (read: India) that we’ve been lately.
Eldoret is no El Dorado. After wearily agreeing to stay in a guesthouse with no electricity, we belatedly learn that there’s no running water either.
Eldoret’s only Lonely Planet-approved tourist attraction is a cheese factory. No tour was forthcoming once we found it at the back of a muddy commercial parking lot. So we made do with some mediocre ice cream and outstanding raw milk cheese. A gift for Beth if it doesn’t spoil.
We then loiter about waiting for our 1 pm bus across the border to Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Once we had dispensed with the border formalities – Uganda is country #28 for us – we found the Ugandan countryside to be among the most beautiful agricultural areas we’ve seen: clean, verdant and lush. The glow from the late afternoon sun certainly helped. Local housing consists mainly of small circular mud buildings capped with conical thatched roofs. The towns are timelessly picturesque.
We finally meet up with Beth in the evening in Entebbe. We enjoy a leisurely dinner while we reminisce about our elementary school years. CeCe grins and bears it.
During the day we explore what we can of Entebbe on foot. It’s a tranquil beautiful place on the northern edge of giant Lake Victoria. It was Uganda’s colonial capital and is home to a number of NGOs and a large contingent of UN diplomats. A comfortable, albeit pricey, place to make camp for a week or so.