June 13 – Kalinzu Forest to Lake Mburo NP
Allison joined us for the bus ride down out of the high country to the dusty environs of Lake Mburo, in Uganda’s southern central plains. Beth, my elementary school friend interning at JGI, and her boyfriend Eddie made a long weekend of it and joined us there. “Mayor” Eddie (we call him that because he seems to know everyone in Entebbe) has a brother who happens to own a car rental business and we got a sweet white Toyota Corona (Uganda’s favorite car) for $20/day. We did our best not to beat it up too much.
We chose Mburo simply because it sounded like the most interesting national park within a half-day’s drive of Kampala. It boasts Uganda’s largest zebra population, but not much else. The corrupt Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) milked the park for all that it is worth and then some. There was no evidence that our $30 entrance fee went towards anything constructive; there were no signs, the roads were ill-maintained and no map was distributed. Our afternoon’s activity was what was supposed to be a 90 minute boat ride on the lake at $10 per person. The UWA guide went through the motions, perfunctorily pointed out some hippos, monkeys and birds, then tried to return us to the dock after just 50 minutes. I grumbled and had a bit of back and forth with the guide before getting the final 40 minutes out of him. The corruption and mismanagement is so predictable, so annoying and so sad. On a related note, we learned later back at JGI that Uganda’s government in the form of the National Forest Administration is wresting control of JGI’s excellent eco-tourism site at Kaniyo Pabidi – where we walked amongst chimpanzees a few weeks back – so that its officials can line their pockets there too.
We had dinner lakeside in the company of some docile warthogs as a few hippos watched us warily from the water.
June 14 – Lake Mburo National Park
We spent the morning bumping along the empty park roads in search of wildlife. Eddie let me drive a little in the early going but I guess I didn’t navigate the rutted roads well enough – it was my first time behind the wheel since last July – as he re-took the helm after our first stop. Here and there we saw zebras, waterbucks and a few other grazers, but presumably due to the long-term absence of elephants there, the shrubbery was largely very dense, so any animal glimpses were generally fleeting.
At one point, we ascended to a nice viewpoint over a few of the area’s smaller lakes and spent an hour taking it all in. More wanderings followed before we decided to skip a second day in the park.
Plan B, once we had put Allison back on the bus to Kalinzu, was to hit the sights along the road back to Kampala. The drivers here tend to be aggressive and the roads are often potholed, so we weren’t surprised as we watched an approaching car veer off the road and land on its side. The two passengers were unharmed, if visibly shaken, and the four of us busied to help them, CeCe proving particularly comforting to the rattled elderly passenger. After a few minutes the gathered onlookers righted the car, a substitute driver was found, and they were on their way. Eddie commented that they were lucky that it was Sunday and therefore no police were around to complicate affairs.
June 15 – Back to Entebbe
Monday morning, things were back to normal and prior to breakfast, we had our own little run-in with the po-po. I was off using the internet but the three others got nabbed after driving less than 10 meters the wrong way down a poorly marked one-way street. A trip to the station for Beth and Eddie entailed, and a bribe of 20,000 shillings ($18) was the result. Standard practice here, and our first bribe paid this entire trip. I’m disappointed I didn’t witness any of the goings-on.
Belatedly, we drove off aimlessly and fruitlessly around nearby papyrus wetlands in search of Uganda’s odd shoebill stork. Not one was glimpsed, although we did see several crowned cranes, Uganda’s national bird, throughout the day.
Next stop was the souvenir glut at the equator. Once the obligatory snapshot was taken, we bought a Congolese mask for $18, vastly overpaying. We’re beginning to love our masks and to again despise bargaining. We’ll cross the equator two more times before heading home.
Following a brief stop to watch some incredibly muscular men carve some drums, we were given a deeper understanding of the complexities of conservation in impoverished areas at our subsequent destination, Mpanga Forest Reserve. There we were shown a large tree illegally felled by the same drum makers in order to provide wood for their craft. Do you support local artisans, or do you refrain from purchasing something of unknown provenance? As a conservation-minded tourist, sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The forest was beautiful if, at less than 1000 acres, far too small to be meaningful. We read in the newspaper the other day that Uganda has lost millions of acres of forest cover in recent years. And with 6% annual population growth and virtually no cooking fuel other than wood available nationwide, the future is dim.
We did see some odd vibrating insect, called “shaking spiders” by our guide, which vibrated wildly like a tuning fork when we approached and when really threatened floated off somehow. They’re not spiders though, as they only have six legs. More research needed.