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Feature: Blessing in Disguise

Jack Smith

It is dinnertime at Mweya safari lodge, a resort of thatch-roofed cottages in the middle of East Africa’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. The guests, seated on a grassy plateau with a view of the Kazinga Channel in the distance, are not the only ones dining alfresco. About 20 feet below, at the foot of a 45-degree slope, a hippopotamus has lumbered into view and begun grazing. Every now and then the animal rolls his heavy-lidded eyes toward the guests, who are looking down at him, and yawns, casually displaying a fearsome set of incisors, each the size of a man’s forearm. As the hippo’s jaws clap shut, he seems to smack his lips, a reminder that however docile he may appear, Mr. Roly-Poly here is the most feared predator in Africa; the ill-tempered river horse takes more human lives every year than any other animal on the continent. It is a good thing, the guests are telling each other, that we are up here and he is down there, where he cannot possibly.
 

Leaping quadrupeds! Suddenly the buffet scene dissolves into pandemonium, with people yelling and pushing tables and chairs out of their way as the unexpectedly agile hippo lunges halfway up the bank. There he stops and, oblivious to the panic, continues his meal. “I thought that bank was supposed to keep him away,” a nervous first-time visitor, who is eyeing the hippo, says to Mweya’s general manager, Richard Hodgson.

“Oh, no,” the very British Hodgson responds. “He comes here every night to graze.” For that matter, he adds, lions and leopards also are frequent visitors to the lodge. “You just have to watch out for them. After all, this is their territory. It’s Uganda.”

Which is to say, it is Africa in the raw—primitive and untamed—and, as the old Africa hands will tell you, therein lies the country’s charm. “Uganda is the wildest part of Africa,” says Stanley Wilson, an expat from Ireland and technical adviser to Uganda’s European Union–funded Sustainable Tourism Development Program. “There are places in this country that tourists have never seen.”

In 1890, much of East Africa was unknown territory to the German and British government ministers who, nearly 4,000 miles away in Berlin, drew a few straight lines across a map of the region, defining what they referred to as their respective “spheres of influence.” The Germans took mainland Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, while Kenya and Uganda went to the Brits. England proclaimed Kenya a colony and thus a target for settlement by British subjects; Uganda, on the other hand, became a protectorate that the Brits administered but only sparsely occupied.

Well-to-do Englishmen flowed into Kenya and purchased, at bargain prices, vast tracts of land on which they replicated the estates, gardens, and country clubs that they had known in England. But in Uganda, the most desirable properties remained in the hands of the tribal chiefs. Touring British swells and adventurers could stop by Nai­robi to see how the landed gentry were getting along, but if they pushed inland to Uganda, they would experience Africa in an unspoiled and primal state. For one well-traveled Englishman visiting in 1907, the country was a revelation. “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life, plant, bird, insect, reptile, or beast,” Winston Churchill wrote in My African Journey, “Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.”

For some modern-day travelers, however, few places are more forbidding than Uganda. After all, this is the country that gave us Idi Amin Dada Oumee, who burst onto the scene in 1971 when he deposed Uganda’s then ruler, Milton Obote. Amin’s penchant for buffoonery at first masked his homicidal bent; the world laughed when Amin anointed himself His Excellency President for Life, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa, and the Last King of Scotland. But he showed himself to be a sadistic brute during a reign of terror in which, according to Amnesty International, he tortured, dismembered, or murdered a half-million of his countrymen. In 1979, after Tanzania invaded Uganda, Amin fled to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in exile until his death of syphilis in 2003.

Obote was elected president in 1980, but a civil war ensued. It ended in 1985, when Obote was overthrown by army general Tito Okello, who in turn was toppled by former army intelligence officer Yoweri Museveni. The country that Museveni inherited was in shambles; it would take years for Uganda to recover from the war, which had claimed possibly as many as 500,000 lives. The country’s economy was in a tailspin. (In 1972, Amin had expelled some 50,000 ethnic Indians and other Asians, some whose families had been living in Uganda for a hundred years, and confiscated their possessions. What Amin called his “master stroke” gutted the country of its entrepreneurial and professional class and propelled Uganda toward fiscal ruin.) Meanwhile, along the country’s northern border, the cultlike Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was staging a rebellion that, over the next 20 years, would send 1.7 million Ugandans fleeing into protected camps. And, as in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda was wracked by AIDS. Just the idea of a travel poster inviting anyone to visit Uganda was grotesque.

 

These are just a few of the circumstances that make Uganda’s turnaround all the more remarkable.

The Ugandan government has offered amnesty to LRA members. But the Inter­national Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands, has issued warrants carrying the death penalty for the group’s leaders, keeping them on the run while refugees have begun returning home.

The country’s economy began to stabilize when Museveni invited the skilled Asians back to Uganda, installed a free-market system, courted foreign investment, and privatized failing state industries. He also has stemmed the AIDS epidemic, doubled the number of children in schools, and given women a guaranteed share of political seats. Entrepreneurs now describe the country as a new land of opportunity.

Museveni is generally described as a reformer and a statesman, or, as the Times of London put it, “the man who turned an ungovernable mess into a thriving democracy.” Yet after more than 20 years in office, he has acquired critics. Charges have included election fraud and corruption; his last opponent for office sat out the election because he had been jailed.
 

From a Westerner’s perspective, it still might be difficult to view Uganda as a success story, but, as one of the country’s most prominent businessmen points out, “First you have to have a stable government and then continuity.” So says Roni Madhvani, the 40ish chairman of the Uganda Tourist Board and scion of the Indian family who owns the Madhvani Group. It is the country’s largest private conglomerate, with interests in energy, manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism that extend from Uganda across Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia and into the Middle East and Europe. Accordingly, the invitation to dine with Madhvani at his home shortly after my arrival in Uganda is a welcome one.

His residence is a modernistic, hillside mansion that resembles an art museum. A spacious terrace, with fountains and pools of koi, is illuminated by the glow of lights from the city of Kampala below. “That’s why I bought this house,” says Madhvani, indicating the nighttime vista. “The view reminded me of the homes in the hills overlooking L.A.”

Madhvani recalls vividly the chaos of the Amin years, when, as an 8-year-old, he fled the country with his family. The problem is, he says, “That was almost 30 years ago. A lot of Ugandans don’t remember Amin and the way things were in Uganda. But after decades of turmoil, we’ve made great strides.”

However unlikely it might have seemed a few years ago, Uganda is on the cusp of becoming a travel destination, with luxury hotels and a stunning array of natural attractions.

“Blessed by Nature” is the country’s new slogan, and it is not hyperbole. Uganda offers the best bird-watching on the continent, with more than 600 avian species in Queen Elizabeth National Park alone, and the world’s best primate-watching: Chimps and gorillas are just two of the 13 species that live here. The country also contains the source of the Nile, mountain peaks 16,000 feet high, rain forests, dormant volcanoes, lakes and rivers brimming with 20-foot crocodiles that are more than 100 years old, rhinos, hippos, impalas, and a rare species of lion.
 

The tourist crush has yet to begin in earnest, but when it does, Uganda will be prepared. Hotels are being built throughout Kampala, the nation’s capital; the number of rooms is expected to increase from 1,000 in 2005 to 5,000 by the end of this year. One of the newest and most impressive lodgings is the Aga Khan’s Kampala Serena Hotel, a 17-acre property with indigenous flowers, butterflies, and a 23-foot-tall waterfall that cascades down a man-made stone cliff into a plunge pool. Another luxury hotel, the Imperial Royal, is being constructed right across the street. Last year, billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud, whose holdings include London’s Savoy Hotel and Monaco’s Monte Carlo Grand, struck a deal to build three luxury hotels and a yet undetermined number of safari camps across the country. New restaurants serving sushi, kimchi, coq au vin, and fettuccine Alfredo are opening all over Kampala. Spirits stores where you once would have been fortunate to find even South African plonk are now stocking the better vintages from France and Italy.

For many Ugandans, tourism represents an entirely new way of looking at the world. “Before, we never had time to think about tourism,” says Patrick Bitature, chairman and CEO of Kampala’s Simba Group, which has interests ranging from cell phones to travel agencies, and which is building a hotel and conference center in the city, the Protea Hotel Kampala. “We never invested in infrastructure; we were too busy just surviving,” says Bitature. “Now we have peace in 99 percent of the country, and tourism is the wave of the future.”

With the British Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting coming to Kampala in November, thousands of dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II, will be looking for suites in which to lay their heads, restaurants for entertaining, bars for relaxing, and safaris with which to edify themselves. Still, one has to wonder what is going to happen after the Commonwealth Heads return home.

Bitature shrugs and says, “You have to look on the rosy side. If you do not, nothing gets done.”
 

Ernest Hemingway was piloting a plane near Paraa Safari Lodge when the aircraft crashed. Unharmed, he spent a few days recovering poolside. (Click image to enlarge)

For all the excitement over new hotels and imminent improvements, present-day Kampala is not so bad. A city of some 1.2 million, it sprawls across seven hills and wetlands where herds of impalas once watered. With its low, cream-colored buildings roofed in red tile and corrugated steel, its green parks, and its palm trees, the city has a lazy, equatorial appearance. This is consistent with the city’s location, just north of zero degrees latitude.

But in Kabalagala, the Bourbon Street of Kampala, bright colored lights hang over countless bars housed in crudely constructed shacks, plywood lean-tos, and mud huts. Red dust hangs in the air, while rock, rap, and reggae reverberate through the street. It is the kind of place a foreign motorist might be inclined to hasten through after first checking his car’s door locks. According to the tourist board chairman, though, this aura of disrepute is misleading. “Everybody in Kampala comes to Kabalagala,” says Madhvani, as we climb out of his Range Rover and onto the dusty street. “It’s a cultural thing,” he says. “The only thing you have to look out for here is the young girls. They like visitors. Things here are very liberal, very loose.”

To demonstrate just how loose, Madhvani leads the way into a bar where a handful of young men and women are dancing. I order a waragi, a gin made from bananas, while Madhvani has a beer and continues his discourse. “How do you think this new movie, The Last King of Scotland, is going to affect Uganda’s reputation?” he asks, referring to the biopic about Idi Amin that won an Oscar in February. “I think most Americans are under the impression that Amin is still in power.”

While Uganda may have a fearsome image in the United States, the country is known in Africa for the friendliness and gentleness of its people. This perception is in part a function of history. “This country was never colonized,” says Madhvani, as we leave the bar and move through the crowd on the street. “It never had to fight for independence; the British just gave it to them. So there is none of the residual resentment you see in other countries.” It is common in Kampala for Ugandans who have returned from trips to South Africa or Kenya to regale friends with stories of the rudeness of the people there and dangers of Johannesburg and Nairobi.

No matter how hospitable the people of Kampala are, nobody comes to Uganda just to tour the city, and so the next morning I climb into a Toyota SUV with a guide and driver and head out along the rutted, red clay road for Murchison Falls.

It is a trip some visitors might have foregone in the wake of the 2005 slaying of a British tourist within the boundaries of Murchison Falls National Park. Since then, security has been enhanced. But more to the point, given the vastness of the park, which extends nearly 1,500 square miles, I reckoned I might be safer here, mile for mile, than in Manhattan’s Central Park.

The outskirts of Kampala are fringed with mud-daubed, one-story huts housing barbershops, furniture stores, butcher shops, tailors, bicycle repair shops, cafés, bars, haberdasheries, and numerous trade schools. A few hours later, the mercantile shacks have given way to villages of grass huts.

“Almost all the people outside the city live this way,” says my guide, Sylvia, indicating the grass huts, whereupon I suggest that we stop in and say hello.

The villagers are surprised but pleased to have company. A young man in a T-shirt and jeans invites us into his home, a tidy residence with a hard-packed dirt floor, bookshelves, and a blanket dividing the bedroom and the living room. A plaque on one of the walls reads Jesus Loves Me.

“We work right here on this land,” says our host. “We mostly farm and raise cattle.”

I wonder if they ever see lions near their herds.

“Of course we do,” he says with a smile. “This is Uganda.”

Hours later we still have not arrived at Paraa Safari Lodge, within Murchison Falls National Park, a hotel that was favored by both England’s Queen Mother Elizabeth and Ernest Hemingway, who, in Hemingway-esque fashion, survived not one but two plane crashes nearby. At this point, though, I would rather fly with Hemingway than endure another hour along the road, which seems to be little more than a cratered trail.

“How much longer until we reach the highway?” I ask Ali, my driver.

“This is the highway,” he retorts.

It is dark by the time we reach the lodge, where, with a glass of Glenlivet in hand, I look out from the terrace into the jungle. “That ride wasn’t so bad, was it?” asks Sylvia.

Now that we are here, no, I tell her.

“Good,” she says, “because we have to do it again tomorrow.”

Mercifully the next day begins with only a short ride from the lodge to a dock on Lake Albert to await a ferry. We are not alone; a dozen or so Ugandans are on their way to work. We also are joined by a like number of baboons, each of whom appears to be in an agreeable mood. This is fortuitous, because an adult baboon’s fangs can be 8 inches long, and they are attached to jaws as strong as a gorilla’s. Thus armed, a single baboon can easily fend off a leopard, and three or four of the dog-faced primates can shred a big cat in minutes. However, the locals seem oblivious to the potential danger; they are entertaining themselves by tossing rocks toward the baboons, who react by running excitedly in circles.

I am wondering how long the baboons will put up with the teasing, when the ferry arrives to carry us to the opposite shore, where a launch awaits Sylvia, Ali, and me. We climb aboard and slip out into the world that Churchill described.

On the bank of Lake Albert, an armada of crocodiles the size of Buicks laze in the morning sunlight, hanging their jaws open to cool themselves. A handful of them slip into the water as we approach, their tails slowly churning like fat snakes. Farther along, the sun glistens off the backs of perhaps a hundred hippos. With only their eyes, ears, and nostrils visible, they bear an eerie resemblance to the crocs. A warthog with tusks like ivory sabers trots along the shore, keeping pace with the boat. “A warthog that size is dangerous,” says Jimmy, the launch’s pilot. “With those tusks it can kill a lion.”

Up ahead, a half-dozen buffalo glare at us balefully. These, Jimmy explains, are also to be avoided, as they are bachelor buffalo, without a herd and very aggressive.

“The best way to see the animals is from the water,” Jimmy continues. “There is no dust, no bumps, and you are not likely to surprise poachers.” However, he adds, nobody in Uganda swims. “Nothing good can come from swimming,” he says. “It is not part of our culture. It is dangerous enough to be on the shore. But once in the water you are at the mercy of the crocodiles and hippos.”

There is less to fear, of course, from birds, so Jimmy steers his launch toward a rocky outcropping, where a flock of black-headed weavers are spinning grass into nests. More birds in every color imaginable appear in rapid succession, faster than Jimmy can name them. “Look, there’s a spur-winged plover. A woodland kingfisher. A pied kingfisher. A black crake. A red-throated bee-eater.”

The various kingfishers seem to transform into little darts as they fly by, stop in midair, and then dive straight down into the water. A fish eagle regards us imperiously from above, and farther ahead, a pair of elephants, a mother and a baby, splash in the shallows before affectionately intertwining their trunks. “When Amin was in control, he sold licenses to hunt every kind of animal: rhino, elephant, lion, antelope,” says Jimmy. “We were in danger of losing our wildlife. Now Amin is gone, and the animals are coming back.”

As Sylvia promised, the road from the west shore of Lake Albert to the Ndali Lodge in the Kibale Forest National Park proves to be another obstacle course that takes some six hours to complete. Ndali itself is the kind of place sometimes described as “atmospheric.” That is to say, the accommodations, in separate stone-and-thatch cottages, are rudimentary, with no electricity, just candles. However, over the rim of my glass is a spectacular view of the Mountains of the Moon, the eerie, snowcapped mountain range between Uganda and the Republic of the Congo that once was thought to be the source of the Nile.

Ndali has enjoyed tremendous cachet among Britain’s royal-watchers ever since England’s queen mother visited in 1954. Two years ago, her great-grandson Prince William stayed here. Indeed, after dinner, in the candlelit murk, Ndali’s owner, Aubrey Price, suggests that the queen herself, a chum of Price’s mum, might helicopter up during the Commonwealth festivities. In the absence of the royal family, though, the big draw is Kibale’s chimpanzees.

Sylvia and I present ourselves at the Kibale National Park office the next morning to pick up the $70 permit that will allow us to go chimp trekking. Our group will be limited to six, and after our forest ranger has made sure that we have pulled our socks over our trousers, the better to deter fire ants, off we go.

Some will say the ultimate Uganda experience is gorilla trekking, but the chimp is no slouch. A fully grown male can weigh 155 pounds or more and can be more than five times as strong as a man the same size—hardly the docile, harmless animal seen in circuses or TV commercials. And while gorillas are primarily herbivores, chimpanzees will kill and eat colubus monkeys.

Chimps are also elusive. We have trekked through the forest for an hour and a half without a trace of anything resembling J. Fred Muggs. I am inclined to call it a day, when our guide motions for silence and points aloft, 50 feet above the ground, where a dark figure is hunched in a tree. After seeing us, the chimp leaps off his perch onto the top of a more slender tree, which then slowly bends, delivering him as smoothly as any elevator to the jungle floor. Once there, he meanders through the forest, seemingly indifferent to our presence yet trying not to lose sight of us. So it goes for about 30 minutes, until he meets up with a half-dozen other chimpanzees, who appear to be his family, and flops down with them in a sunlit clearing.

It is difficult to imagine a more idyllic scene: some of the chimps dozing, a baby chimp clinging to its mother, and others picking tasty lice off each other’s heads. Then a ferocious scream cuts through the quiet. Everyone—humans and apes—holds their breath. We listen to what sounds like something big moving through the forest, smashing branches and trees as it approaches.

The source of the din is a threesome of large adult chimps, who rush into the clearing and, for no apparent reason, begin smacking around the others. I dodge behind a large tree—in case one of the bullies decides that I, too, deserve a wallop—while the little fellow we followed here shins up a tree. The skirmish lasts only a few seconds, before the newcomers move on. Calm settles over the scene once more, and we return down the mountain, leaving the monkeys in peace.

Something has baffled me ever since my arrival in the Ugan­da bush. On safari in Botswana the previous week, the guides had assured me that the local carnivores—specifically lions and leopards—never trespass on the elevated wooden walkways that connect the tents to each other and to the main lodges. But upon arriving at Mweya (the lodge where the hippopotamus would join us for dinner) from Ndali, I notice that the lodge has no such walkways. Sylvia laughs at the notion that these would deter Ugandan lions, which, she explains, are fond of climbing trees. In fact, the lions found in Queen Elizabeth National Park constitute one of only two populations of tree-climbing lions in the world, and tomorrow we would go see some.

Early the next morning, I cautiously poke my head out of a hatch as our driver, Ali, directs an oversize Toyota through the bush. “Some people say the lions go up in the trees to see what’s coming and then jump down on their prey,” says Sylvia, “but that is not so.” Actually, she says, they do it to escape the tsetse flies that pester even the king of beasts on the ground.

After two hours of rolling through the wild without catching a glimpse of the arboreal predators, we return to the main trail. There, almost invisible among the twisted branches of a fig tree, a lioness lurks aloft. The next instant she dives into the brush by the road. Rolling slowly to a halt, we watch through binoculars as she joins four others moving majestically across the grassy plain, their muscles rippling and their mouths open to catch the scent of nearby prey. When we resume our drive, an alarming sight appears perhaps a mile down the road: It is a man, barefoot, in bright blue shorts and T-shirt, and he is heading straight for the lions. It is a good thing for him that we have come along.

“Let’s stop here and give him a ride,” I suggest.

“No, you can’t do that,” Sylvia says. “The people here know this place; they know the lions.”

Ali agrees. “They walk this road every day,” he says. “The lions don’t eat them.”

We argue, but my guide and driver are adamant. It is as if any contact with me, however well-intentioned, would somehow break whatever spell protects him. Finally I give in, and we continue on. The man gives us a smile and a wave as we pass him, and we wave back.

Compared with the ride from Kampala, my trip back should be a piece of cake. Instead of enduring an interminable drive in Ali’s SUV, I will be flying back in a bush plane; my flight from Mweya’s airstrip to the modern world will take only 45 minutes.

When I am in the air, the whole of Uganda unfolds below me. The country is facing a classic conundrum: If its appeal is that it is unspoiled, will it be spoiled by success? I wonder about this and about the village I had visited and the fellow walking toward the lions. But most of all, as my plane flies low over the wilderness, I am trying not to think of Hemingway.

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