Middle earth

Embrace and enjoy the journey into the center of unexpected Uganda
Middle earth

When you visit Uganda, you are truly tracing your roots, because life began here.&rdquo From the word go, I tread the line between the familiar and the alien, beauty and tautness. This makes travelling in Uganda (and Kampala, in particular) edgy, to say the least. It feels almost like home, but it&rsquos definitely not. You don&rsquot feel shielded from the realness of things &mdash the unemployment, the sense of historical and political awareness in casual conversation, the unique connection with wildlife, the depth of religious faith and even the rhythm in people&rsquos bodies and voices. (It&rsquos hard to believe that as sensual a country as this has a violently anti-homosexual bill in parliament.) And while you feel curious and quite excited, you&rsquore also slightly on guard.

Even while you&rsquore trying to put your finger on what Uganda is or is not, it feels pretty thrilling to be here. Maybe it&rsquos the constant variation in landscape from the point of landing. Entebbe, thirty-five kilometres away, is the flattest point in the region, and so houses the airport, as well as the UN base for East Africa. The airport is fringed by the magnificently blue and vast Lake Victoria and, landing in Entebbe, brushing silvery water and lush, hilly foliage, has to be one of the most amazing entries to any country in the world. Added to that is the slightly bizarre feeling of being on the equator, and somehow at the centre, the heart of things (so statements like &lsquowhen you take a close look at me, you&rsquore looking at the original man&rsquo, or &lsquothe African drum is the first instrument in the world&rsquo &mdash take on a spine-tingling meaning).

Kampala, spread across six hills, each with a self-contained personality, is visually and spatially arresting. You only just get used to Nakasero &mdash characterised by big hotels and diplomatic enclaves, hundreds of banks down hundreds of streets where unemployed men and women just sit around, and the &lsquoConstitution Park&rsquo, guarded by the men in blue, where, apart from the shockingly large Marabou storks, no one seems to be allowed to enter &mdash when you round a corner into the heart of the &lsquoold&rsquo taxi park, a glorious chaos of minibuses, or the Nakasero fruit and veggie market (and most other things, too, including lots of American second-hand shoes). Suddenly your idea of Kampala, and its &lsquocentre&rsquo, commercial and fairly bland, is turned upside down. The posh Kololo, with its mansions facing the airstrip, its chic bars and restaurants, contrasts starkly with Makarere, the university area, crowded with cybercaf&eacutes and hundreds of clothes shops with wide-hipped mannequins that so gladdened my heart. Down Makarere hill is Bwansie, Kampala&rsquos lower income suburb, packed with small bars and food stalls (grilled meat, corn on the cob), and the labour that keeps the rest of Kampala afloat.

A careful look alerts you to Kampala&rsquos layers it feels complicated and frenzied, a busy commercial capital that wears its stories, its likes and dislikes, discreetly. My own probing beneath the surface was aided greatly by a radio jockey I met, my first taste of the very friendly Ugandan, who knows his music, likes his beer and &ldquowouldn&rsquot want to live anywhere else in the world&rdquo. He diverted my gaze from the staid business of the day and the area, to the possibilities just across the road &mdash the National Theatre, its shops and live music, the Angie Noir and Club Silk and Rouge. Oh, not to mention a quick contemporary history of Ugandan tribes and domestic politics.

Both the historical trips we made &mdash the Namugongo Martyrs&rsquo Shrine, and the Kasubi Tombs &mdash were quite disconcerting, if fascinating. The drives featured waving babies with the most fashionable hairstyles I&rsquod ever seen, voluptuous Buganda women by the wayside in angular dresses. And roadside caf&eacutes gently gyrating to Sean Kingston, advertising their Papaya Sunrise smoothie special, quite irresistibly. At Namugongo, an intimidatingly industrial Catholic basilica reminds me of the burning of thirty-two believers who served in the court of the Buganda king Mwanga II in 1886. (Under a blazing equatorial sun, a thespian-poet-guide enacts the scene of pages and king, and the latter&rsquos rage at a Christian god coming between him and his subjects&rsquo loyalties.) At the Kasubi Tombs, the descendants of the Buganda royal family &mdash the largest of Uganda&rsquos eighteen tribe-kingdoms, and the most politically powerful &mdash guide you through the history of their kings, or Kabakas, their lives, coronation and burial rituals. The tombs are on the site of Ssekebaka Mutesa I&rsquos palace, one of whose 148 children was Mwanga II, who was not Catholic like his father and, in fact, deeply threatened by Christianity, which led to him burning alive the Christian men in his court at Namugongo. Sadly, this world heritage site was burned down in March 2010, and remains a shell of its impressive thatched structure. Still, it&rsquos worth a visit, if only to chat with the prince who is your guide, and buy some of his art. Or just to meet with some ghosts of Uganda&rsquos past, and hear a story of imperialism, war, religion and power, a history that still permeates Uganda&rsquos current &lsquostable&rsquo political arena.

Political drama and city thrills notwithstanding, there isn&rsquot anything quite like the rush you get when staring into the eyes of a war-scarred old giraffe from five feet away. Perhaps this is what every safari-er in any savannah anywhere has thought for centuries, but for that moment, your experience is both lonely and all-encompassing, and unlike anything you will ever feel. I&rsquom not sure how much of it is about the animal(s) in the vicinity, and how much simply the feeling of driving through an unending savannah, occasionally bordered by the Nile, the Congo or South Sudan far in the distance, or cut through by an elephant corridor of palm trees. There&rsquos no frame of reference for this moment, this place.

The Nile safari down to Murchison Falls (at the heart of Uganda&rsquos largest national park, named after a prominent explorer of colonial Africa, Roderick Murchison), where the Victoria Nile passes through a narrow crevice and crashes down as the Albert Nile, is quite an introduction to Uganda&rsquos striking offering of wildlife. The river itself feels younger, wilder, less inhibited than further down its six thousand-odd kilometre course, closer to northern Africa, where it&rsquos calm, serene.

Milton is our bartender on the African Queen, and I&rsquom alternately lulled into a post lunch, Nile Gold lager stupor, sharply broken by the snap of a Nile croc&rsquos jaws, or the low flying Egyptian geese, or the sudden emergence of a hippo with a wreath of pretty lilac weeds.

It&rsquos almost bizarre how our initial tremors of pleasure give way to the expert focusing of binoculars each time there&rsquos an island of hippopotamuses, or a giant flap of elephant ears, blending into the tall grasses, or even a magnificent white-necked African fish eagle eying you regally, or an African darter in the midst of his reptilian stretch. Although I still feel the tremor each time I see the beautifully patterned pied kingfisher dart into the black waters for a feed, with a dozen crocodile eyes glinting in the back of my mind.

Both the river safari (closing as it does with a melodramatic golden Nile sunset) and the lovely Paraa Lodge, where we feel the tap of jungle life on our Nile-facing windows all through the night, set exceeding high expectations for our venture into the savannah the next morning. Despite a few glasses too many of South African wine, we make it for a 6am start, catching the sunrise and perhaps the most captivating of moments to be in the wild.

There are other parks in Uganda there are gorillas, chimpanzees, zebras, tree-climbing lions. But Murchison is beautiful simply for the expanse of savannah it offers, the shape of the Ugandan kob &mdash definitely the antelope with the most regal and symmetrical bearing, and such a poser &mdash against the pale green and blue landscape, and the distance from human habitation it affords. So much so, that when we come across a young lion, panting after his morning run, strewn lazily across our safari path, and so cavalier, it barely feels like we are there at all, just suspended in the cool, clear air above him.

Sunset at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, a few hours later, and the spell is somewhat broken. Angie, the South African manager of the seven-thousand-hectare sanctuary and a feisty and charismatic champion of rhino rights (&ldquoall South Africans have the conservation bone in their bodies&rdquo), introduces us to the horrors of poaching prevalent in East Africa, across the borders, and even in the heart of the national parks. The white rhinoceros, originally from South Africa, has almost been wiped out from the Ugandan wild, and there&rsquos an international drive on, albeit with dwindling resources and political support, to bring them back. (Rhinos donated from the US and Kenya have produced Obama, the first rhino calf to be born in Uganda in thirty years.) Our stealthy twilight glimpse of a mother and her newly-born calf leaves us craving more, but is a moving end nonetheless to our unforgettable foray into the heart of Uganda.

Back for Saturday night in Kampala, and it takes a while to tune into its unmistakeable R&ampB groove. Alex, on the midnight show on Capital Radio, eases us in, with a voice thickly coated with Ugandan charm (I&rsquom sorry, there is no other adjective for it), and more than one intoxicant. After driving pretty much all through the day, our guide Marc is still up to show us Kampala&rsquos famed nightlife. He doesn&rsquot warn us about the dress code, however, and we&rsquore blinded by the bling outside the Equator Bar at the Sheraton, clearly one of the places to be seen.

We drive through the Industrial area, abandoned warehouses converted into some of Kampala&rsquos most upmarket bars and clubs. The fashion is almost intimidating, and we settle for Mateos, a popular local bar it&rsquos one in the morning, but people are still on their pre-club drinks. This is immersion of a different kind, and although it&rsquos not the Ugandan jazz we were promised, the music moves from Ugandan hip hop to Sean Kingston and back to just so-infectious-your-hips-can&rsquot-stop, and each square inch is crammed with pulsating pelvises. Stunning ladies of the night look disapprovingly at our T-shirts, and men with some pretty sensual rhythm wonder why we won&rsquot (can&rsquot) move like them. We leave, drunk on something that&rsquos not the Nile Gold.

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