© Rohini Das, 2015
“Where ya headed?” I asked the driver. He was the first one to pull over after I had walked half the length of Kampala on Bombo Rd to reach Amuka Lodge, about three hours north-west of Uganda’s capital.
“Bombo,” he said.
I wasn’t sure how far that was but if it took me out of this boda-boda-taxi ridden city, I’d be in a better position to hitch a ride.
“Can I go with you?” I asked. “I’m trying to reach Nakitoma.”
“I don’t know where it is,” he said. “But you can come.”
His wife was in the front seat and in the back was another fella. “Have you got room in the boot for my bags?”
He looked at the others, laughed and drove off, leaving me to stand dumbfounded, fighting not to drop my jaw as the amount of CO2 in the area was enough to embarrass China. His tail lights grew smaller into the distance.
Hope you get three flat tires you shitty fucker, I cursed him.
Oddly enough, the morning had begun better than I could hope for. I had left Kibuli (pronounced Chibuli) at sunrise, watching the big orange ball rise steadily in the east, casting an orange hue over the city as I walked downhill to reach the main road.
Behind me I could hear the wheels of a car. I turned to face the red Volvo station wagon and flagged it down. It’s rare that a woman would stop for me. Even rarer when it’s two. But Barbara and June took me to Old Kampala on their way to work.
“I’m just dropping June off at her work,” Barbara informed me. “She manages a hotel. Have you taken breakfast?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said, settling into the backseat.
“Then let me get you some breakfast at the hotel because you don’t know when you will eat.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I grinned, feeling a great start to the day. Even the grey clouds that had escorted the sun’s rising were dispersing.
I was presented with not only a tour of every unoccupied room in Ruhuka Inn (which means, ‘Place to rest’) but also a breakfast of an onion omelette with two slices of buttered white toast and a thermos of tea with milk (I don’t do milk so I passed on the tea).
June figured I’d like to watch some Al Jezzera but the staff member in charge of the TV put on the English Premier league. Not that I follow the football but it’s good to get an update as the majority of Africans practically worship the English league. And it was good to see my team, Liverpool, win it’s game.
I thanked June and hit the road. I predicted a long hike as I passed the jammed traffic lining up all the way to the other side of the city.
When my guitar bag was hit by a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) I got pissed off, cursing the driver. I kept walking, ignoring all the requests of riders wanting to take me. The dusty red-earthed sides of the road clogged my lungs along with all the exhaust fumes of the standing cars as I hiked downhill and then uphill, my shirt drowning me in my own sweat.
Even my pants where absorbing my body fluid.
Another boda-boda clipped my guitar bag, the rider almost getting jousted by the neck of it. I whipped around and said, “I’m not fucking invisible, mate. You can see me from space so open your fuckin’ eyes.”
He appeared embarrassed and sped off, his passenger trying not to giggle behind him.
When the third boda-boda clipped Ol’ Red I was ready to decapitate someone.
Finding cars with open windows that were jammed in the congested traffic I asked for directions to Bombo Road, the highway that would take me to Amuka Lodge and Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
“I don’t know it,” said every driver I asked.
I began to doubt whether I was saying the name of the place right. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d mess up the pronunciation of a place (hitching to Kisumu I kept calling the place everything but Kisumu. Luckily, I was hitching with Rohini who took care of the names of places, scolding me lightly).
It was just the day before that I had been emailing with Angie who offered me three weeks volunteer work in exchange for food and bed at the lodge.
‘You’ll be laying cement and doing some other construction if you can handle that,’ she wrote.
‘Sure,’ I replied. Not that I’ve ever laid cement but, ‘I’m a quick learner as long as someone shows me what and how to do stuff.’
It was after what felt like 8 K’s walking in hot, equatorial sun that the car that was heading to Bombo stopped for me and then sped off.
So it’s gonna be one of those days.
I had rested by a service station in order to dry out my drenched clothes. After an hour I picked up my gear and continued to hike at least two more K’s before William, a technician with Aqua Life, a mineral water company, picked me up and took me, “Six miles down the road,” he said. “To Mutungo.”
If it took me outta Kampala, I’d ride a dead camel just about now.
“Do you know where Nakitoma is?” I asked, almost embarrassed to say the word.
“Yes,” he said.
Finally! “No one knows the place!” I exclaimed in excitement. “I thought I was saying it wrong.”
“No,” he grinned, “you are pronouncing it correctly. But it is very far.”
Mate, I thought, I’ve been travelling over land and sea from Australia to here. Mars is far. Three hours outta Kampala? That’s like a walk to the corner shop.
Once we reached Mutungo hitching was a breeze. Within ten minutes of being dropped in the roadside town, I hitched a ride with Tony and Nelson, coffee farmers on their way to a plantation.
“We are headed to Luwero,” said Tony, after he got off the phone. “It’s about 60 kilometres from here. From there, you can catch a lift to Nakitoma.”
“You know where it is as well?” I asked, my eyebrows rising.
“Of course,” he said. “Tell me,” he continued after learning that I was heading to the Middle East after Africa, “are you not afraid of the Islamic State?”
“The Islamic State should be afraid of me,” I grinned as he and Nelson erupted in laughter.
He asked me about the Aborigines of Australia and I informed him how, like in any Western country where the white man has stolen the lands of the indigenous, they have very little rights and access to education and health care. We parted ways in Luwero where I walked through the town. A smiling couple in a VW Golf stopped at an intersection and took me five minutes down the road. It was better than walking in the hot sun.
Thanking them, I walked downhill when James pulled over in his Nissan Navara, hitting the brakes hard.
“I’m heading to Masindi,” he said. “I know the rhino sanctuary. I can drop you there.”
A telecommunications engineer, James is divorced with three daughters. “I want two more children. But I want sons,” he grinned. “I’m getting married in November.”
“Congratulations,” I congratulated him.
He was of the Moyo tribe, from the northern reaches of Uganda. We pulled into a service station in Mijera, a major security hold where I met Pascal, his brother who works with the defence forces.
“What’s with all the security in Uganda?” I asked. “It’s like everyone’s paranoid here.”
“There are elections next year,” he said, “and the politicians are campaigning. And there is also Al Shabab.”
“Is Uganda a democracy?” I asked as James placed a dark black tea before me and a Rolex.
Unlike the watch, a Ugandan Rolex is an omelette fried with onions and tomato (also with potatoes and cabbage, pending on where you get it) and then wrapped and rolled into a chapati. It’s my new food addiction.
Pascal smiled uneasily and looked into the distance, trying to figure out how to answer my question.
“It’s OK,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “I get it.” Democracy was a loose term in Africa.
“Are you a Christian?” he suddenly asked.
Uganda’s population is 84% Christian. It doesn’t explain why it houses the second largest mosque in Africa – the Gaddafi mosque overlooking Kampala – but that’s the way it is.
“I’m agnostic,” I said carefully.
“What does that mean?”
“I believe in Karma.”
“What is that?”
“You do good things, good things happen to you.”
“So who created the world?” he asked, slightly taken aback.
I love this question. “The earth is 4 billion-years-old, my friend,” I began. “It was created when stars collided creating an explosion that formed gases that created the planet we now call home. The Bible, which is a book with good moral and ethical stories, is just a book. But it claims that god created the earth five thousand years ago, right?”
“Then how do you explain the scientific proof that the Mayans pre-date the Bible? The Aborigines of Australia? Their history goes back 50,000 years.”
Pascal’s jaw dropped as James laughed.
“You are lost, my friend,” Pascal said.
“No, mate. I’m quite found, actually,” I grinned.
“It’s science,” James backed me up.
“Do you know what dinosaurs are?” I asked Pascal.
He shook his head, misty eyed in disbelief.
“You know what a crocodile is, yeah?”
“Yes, of course.”
“So basically, a crocodile is the last remaining dinosaur. These are huge creatures that became extinct 65 million years ago. The crocodile has been around for 200 million years, my friend.”
Pascal leaned back in his chair. He looked to James and then too me.
“Just now,” I was on an unstoppable roll, “in South Africa, a species related to us was discovered. Its bones date back three million years. In Ethiopia and Kenya bones were discovered of our ancestors in the 50s and 60s dating back two million years.
The Bible is just a book with stories.”
He stared at me flabbergasted. “Why do you not tell this to everybody?” he demanded.
“I’m not a preacher, mate,” I said. “If someone asks, then I’ll tell them what I believe in. If they don’t, I won’t force it on anyone. You believe what you want, Pascal,” I put a comforting hand on his arm. “And as long as you’re happy and comfortable, that’s cool. I don’t judge.”
We shook hands as Pascal continued to sit, slightly shocked by having his religous world shattered as James and I walked back to the car.
“I think I disturbed him with my science,” I said.
“He is too religious,” said James.
“I’m an engineer. I believe in god but not everything in the bible is gospel.”
We hit the road and a half hour later I was dropped at the Amuka Lodge, James going about 15 K’s out of his way to make sure I made it safely through the bush.
“James, safe travels, my friend,” I shook his hand. “Hope you get those two sons.”
“Thanks for the company,” he grinned as he pulled away.
I was greeted by Jarrad who does T-shirt printing and manages the bar. After putting my gear away in the chalet I had lunch cooked by the talented David and then dived ankle deep into the cement job I had arrived to do.
Four hours later, we finished up, I showered and met Angie and her son, Duan.
“We took over this place about nine years ago,” said the South African native. “We have a stable number of rhinos (numbers are excluded for protection), leopards and cerval cats. We recently discovered that we have honey-badgers too.”
“Oh, those things are ferocious,” I said, recalling a few videos I had seen about them.
“Just when you go to bed,” Angie warned, “make sure you have a flash light as the rhinos do come into the lodge.”
“What do I do in the off-chance that I’m charged?” I asked.
I knew how to handle a predator. In theory, if a predator charges at you, you charge back. Why that freaks them out? I guess they don’t expect it from a puny bi-pedal. But non-predators? They’re more dangerous than predators because if they charge at you, your only option is to run. And non-predators run much faster than us puny bi-pedals.
“Climb a tree or hide behind an anthill,” offered Angie.
Nothing better I like doing at night than climb a tree.
I had dinner of potatoes and chicken wings, a glass of white wine (I was feeling posh) and then I walked back to my chalet with my flashlight on.
It was the longest walk of my life as I turned almost 360 degrees in search of rhinos.
“They’re very quiet,” Angie’s voice echoed in my head.
“The rhinos don’t lift their legs high enough,” Duan had said as I eyed the knocked-over bricks lining the pathway. “It’s a constant job to put the bricks back.”
It’s gonna be an interesting three weeks.