Journal Excerpts – Fort Portal’s Crater Lakes

June 8 – Entebbe to Lake Nukuruba

Arriving in Kampala, we quickly found our bus on the outskirts of the chaos of the taxi park, a jumbled mass of white minivans packed in solid, each half filled with bored, overheated passengers waiting for the van to fill up. Of course, once full, it always seems to take a while for the driver to get his act together – the driver often not one of the half dozen men who lured us into the van in the first place – and actually start driving.

I should add here that I’ve come to enjoy the bustle of Kampala. It’s not the most beautiful of cities but it’s clean and the people are nice and energetic. While waiting for our bus’s departure, I ventured out, dodging traffic to buy some coffee beans that are steamed in banana leaves for chewing along with some bananas and muffins to eat. Meanwhile, CeCe found that plenty of shopping could be done onboard the bus from the “comfort” of her own seat. Salespeople squeeze past one another in the narrow aisle peddling wares. This day’s specials included men’s dress coats ($3 each), a complete home-cooked meal on a ceramic plate, and, for those youngsters reading this wondering what Aunt CeCe and Uncle Mark will bring home for them, anti-worm medication ($1).

Our destination was Fort Portal, a small junction town in Uganda’s west at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains. The bus ride itself was four and a half uneventful hours, although the people we met onboard made for pleasant companions. One woman negotiated on our behalf with vendors of “chicken-stick-in-face,” a local delicacy of sorts which is a half a chicken grilled on a skewer long enough for the salesperson to thrust it up through the bus window and to allow the customer a close inspection of the fowl’s merits. One kind passenger gave his number and said he’d pick us up if we got in trouble. A young boy promised to email and later did. Finally a veterinarian talked to me about his mission to buy ten bulls for delivery to eastern Uganda (the Fort Portal area is known for its stunning long horned Ankole cattle) on behalf of Send-A-Cow, a British partner to Heifer International.

Once in town, a shared taxi – eight people crammed into a late-model sedan, including two in the driver’s seat – bumped us southward to Lake Nkuruba and what we think is a community based tourism project (although you never really know where the money goes). Nonetheless, it was a refreshing change. We settled on a rustic cabin overlooking one of the crater lake, one of many in the area. Colobus and vervet monkeys were everywhere and the lakeshore reverberated with a bold chorus of frogs.

June 9 – Lake Nukuruba Biking 

The area around our campsite teemed monkeys. A few black and white colobus took turns devouring the stump of a papaya tree a few feet from the dining room where we ate breakfast. They simply plopped themselves down and proceeded to gnaw on the flesh of the trunk. According to our host, the fruit, leaves and branches were gobbled up long ago. To him the primates are such a nuisance that he promised a one or two to take with us upon departure. CeCe immediately pondered the dimensions of her backpack and thought seriously for the first time about ditching her five kilos of toiletries and 500-page Sudoku to make room for the primate of her choice.
At 10, we ventured out on what we thought was a 3 hour bike tour. It turned out to be the better part of 7 hours, in fact, with no lunch, but we had a delightful time nonetheless. The hills were too steep to pedal at times, the verdant scenery was panoramic and superb and the people almost universally friendly. We passed more in a series of three-million year old crater lakes, each surrounded by small plots of bananas (mostly matooke, the cooking kind), maize and papaya. Early on, we biked through a veritable banana forest, seemingly impenetrable from afar, from which occasionally emerged small yet always immaculate mud homes with well swept dirt courtyards. From within the shelter of banana trunks children’s voices would wail “How are you?” Uganda’s answer to Indonesia’s “Hello Mister!”. I doled out innumerable high-fives and high-tens, having learned in India that such diversions distract from pen, candy and money requests and the painfully obvious wealth inequities.

Today was a national holiday, Hero’s Day, in honor of those killed in current president Musevini’s rise to power in 1986, so schools were closed, thus making it impossible to determine attendance rates. Judging from their tattered clothes, these children were poorer than any we had encountered on our trip, although I would suppose the availability of clothing declines as one gets further from the urban centers and the oceans, so it is difficult to tell.

Around noon, we made a short, steep descent by foot to raging Mahoma Falls. After a few minutes’ contemplation, we trudged back up through the narrow valley’s few remaining trees and snacked on grilled corn sold to us by some enterprising locals. Back at camp, I swam across the crater lake, just so I could say that I had.

June 10 – Lake Nukuruba Walk

This camp at Lake Nukuruba is certainly one of the nicest we’ve visited. Our cabin – we got lucky here – is the only one on the lake and it’s wonderfully tranquil and secluded. We added monkey species number three to our list en route up to breakfast: the red colobus.

At 10:30, we ventured off on foot to see at our own pace what we’d whizzed by the day before. Our route took us past just a few of the crater lakes, instead climbing ridgelines amidst beautiful, pastoral landscapes. The kids, most of them at least, were back in school. We learned that on average, its $30/month for tuition and $30/month for food for each child. So our walk was quieter, at least until dismissal.

For the first time, a few of the kids we did see had bloated stomachs, which must be caused by a vitamin deficiency, as there seems to be ample food here. Uganda is blessed in general with copious rainfall and, especially in these volcanic foothills, wonderfully fertile soil. Nonetheless, we gave one such child our two remaining bananas and his portly grandmother seemed grateful. Perhaps adults eat first?

Lunch was elusive for a time, but as we sat in the sun for a junk food and soda break in a small town, a young woman approached us and asks us to her house. It soon became apparent that she wanted to sell us crafts, which was fine with us, as she and her family spoke good English, the crafts were cheap and she fed us heaping plates of matooke and beans. An hour later, we departed with seven plump avocados, and for less than $5, we purchased a basket made of woven banana leaves and a necklace. As is the custom here, she and a few of her family members escorted us to the edge of the village upon our departure.

We completed the circuit back to Lake Nukuruba tailed by a garrulous pack of dismissed school children, all in uniform yet shoeless. I borrowed a four year olds bundle of sticks and carried them for a time in local fashion: on my head. That drew laughter. The wood likely weighed as much as the girl did.  Meanwhile, CeCe held hands with each of the gaggle of girls swarming her, all taking turns to touch the mzungu’s  hand, fascinated by her arm hair.

Dinner was among the worst meals of the trip: street food of grizzled goat, mealy maize and bland, greasy chapatti. But dessert was better – I bought a whole sugar cane stalk that was taller than me for 10 cents. Don’t tell my dentist.

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