Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In The Rainforest

Welcome to The Rainforest Lodge.

At the beginning of the day, I said to everyone: "No hiking or trekking." I just wasn't in the mood. I'm not up to the challenge.

But the girls wanted to go into the rainforest. Me? I'm not too keen on being in a place where animals and insects can crawl all over you. I enjoyed camping in the woods when I was younger, had my Land Rover and carried a gun.

In another life (or maybe this one), I think Isaiah was/is a tribal leader.

Instead, we've got Clare's Toyota Corona and Isaiah is navigating it along a rutted and sometimes rocky dirt road - the kind of road that I would relish driving my Land Rover on but not a five person saloon. We slide, bump, grind and crunch our way up the hills, around corners and up to the Rainforest Lodge, an eco-friendly resort in the middle of the rainforest.

It's actually a lovely place with dining facilities, pool and nice huts outfitted with all the necessities. You'd think you were an old-time Englishman on a safari in Africa - it's that nice. But what they don't have is television, telephones or internet.

Clare chooses Fanta.

The resort is broken down into sets of suites in individual buildings separated by stone walkways through the rainforest. They're not close together so you can get a feeling of privacy and then gather at the communal areas for food, drink and fireside gabbing.

I think it's pretty cool and imagine Nacho, CapSwell, TheSeed, BrowserMetrics and our families taking over the resort. Would be cool.

And so does Daphne and Alice.

Of course, the downside is that it's also The Rainforest. Meaning that there's all sorts of wildlife to watch and that are watching you, sensing who is the weakest of the group and when everyone's backs are turned, they strike!

I told Alice, if that Leopard comes running, I just have to stay ahead of you!

Source Of The Nile

Oh yeah, just moving a tank. In three pieces. No problem.

I've spent a week now on Kampala's slow-moving, traffic-jammed streets and the feeling of rocketing along Jinja Road at 100kph is slightly unnerving - especially when the pavement is pocketed with potholes, wavy surfaces, debris, people and the little Toyota Corona is packed with five of us and we're careening past hawkers, buses, livestock and even overwide trucks hauling massive tanks in three sections.

Once we break out of metropolitan Kampala, the road opens up and Isaiah (my driver) is gunning it for all its worth. By any estimate, 100kph isn't that fast, but here in Uganda, as we pass wreckages of other vehicles simply abandoned on the side of the road, I wonder if it isn't a death wish. I probably wouldn't drive this fast here.

Police recruits - at The Source Of The Nile.

Maybe it's because I've started off on the wrong foot. After the mornings' thunderstorm explosion, it's been pouring in the capital and when faced with a two hour one-way drive across the country or lounging and being catered to by world-class staff, I think I'd rather stay at home.

Outside the city, the weather clears up and it's bright and sunny. Gorgeous. Large fields of sugar cane blow lazily in the wind, ready for harvest. I miss seeing sugar cane. Years ago, back in Hawaii, we used to see sugar cane growing all the time, until American labor rates, combined with government subsidies for corn made sugar an unprofitable business in America and brought High Fructose Corn Syrup to dominance.

I wonder if they harvest the sugar like they did in Hawaii: by burning it. That's when I spot a crew in the field, hacking away at the cane with their machetes. In Uganda, they do it the old-fashioned way: hard labor. The workers strip the leaves from the cane and then chop each stalk, piling them onto a truck. It has to be grueling, physical work. But in a world where labor is cheap, sugar is still profitable.

Daphne doesn't want to go in the boat.

After the sugar comes tea trees (or perhaps tea shrubbery) planted in long rows. I've never seen tea before and I'm fascinated. My understanding is that they simply pick the top leaves and let the tree (shrubbery) continue to grow. They look manicured to me. These trees are for black tea - evidently the only tea that matters here in Africa. God Save The Queen!

From there it's miles of dense rainforest, pocketed by outposts of humanity. It's not the wild jungle you expect like along the Amazon but more forest looking. And unlike American forests, there are leopards in here awaiting the forlorn Muzungu tourist wandering about.

Clare is unafraid and ready for the boat.

After a few mis-guided directions from grumpy Boda Boda drivers, we find our way to The Source Of The Nile. It's a quiet tourist spot with not many tourists: mainly our group and a squadron of Uganda Police recruits whose female sergeant is constantly trying to get her troops to stop taking pictures and get back to the bus.

It's a bit of a walk down a stretch from the parking lot to the landing, along the way vendors sell all sorts of handicrafts and what seems to be decent prices. I'd like to buy some items but I'm very conscious of baggage limits when traveling.

Mahatma Ghandi assures us the boat is safe.

While this is The Source of the Nile, it's not actually "The Source". To see that, you have to rent a boat from anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000 Shillings, or between US$65-110. Not too bad for dollars but kind of expensive for Uganda. After some negotiation for the bigger boat, Clare and Daphne negotiate the price down.

However, I don't think any price is good enough for Daphne. It's her and Alice's first time on a boat and they're a bit skittish. We try to assure them that it will be okay. Alice asks me if I can swim if the boat sinks. I tell her: "Yes, I can swim. But I would probably die here."

It's not quite the reassuring message she was hoping to hear.

The blue and yellow boats have actually sunk to the floor.

And it's true. If our boat were to sink in the middle of the Nile, with the way the current is running, I probably wouldn't survive - especially if I tried to swim. I would have to remain calm and hope the swiftly moving water brought me downriver to shore. Otherwise, if I tried to swim against the current? Forget it.

The boat is an open deck, twin Mercury 60 engined skiff that's plenty roomy and plenty powerful for our tour. We cruise the edges of the river where we see birds, a monkey and the spot where John Speke "discovered" the Nile. I always find it curious that white men seem to have "discovered" places where other people already have formed civilizations.

We see monkeys!

Finally, we make our way to a small island at the mouth of the river where Lake Victoria begins to pour into the Nile. This is the true Source Of The Nile. How do I know that? Because there's a sign.

Off to one side a tree on a concrete pylon marks the "Zero Point" of the Nile where it begins it's long journey across Northern Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. It's a journey that will take the water we see at that moment four months to make. Incredible.

On the other side is a bubbling of fresh spring water. It's another important point of the Nile where fresh water mixes with Lake Victoria to produce what I'm guessing is Real Nile River Water. I want to drink it to see if it's good but I know that will only lead to misery. I pass.

Fresh spring water bubbles up at The Source Of The Nile.

There's a small gift shop on the little island and I think the people actually live there too. A little cat scampers by and I snap a picture of it for Ana before getting back in the boat.

The tour continues with more wildlife, a couple of lizards and a bunch of horny longshoremen at the Jinja docks who call for the girls to come join them. To them, I must look like a Muzungu Baller: big man, three women, a driver, a boat driver and a nice boat. Yes, I think I must be on my way to a meeting with President Museveni...

Here Lake Victoria begins its drain into the Nile.

With Isaiah, Alice, Clare and Daphne at the Zero Point.

A cat pic for Ana.

A lizard climbs out of the Nile.

Some fowl.

Workers at the Jinja docks unload freight off the ferry from Tanzania - a 23 hour journey.

This marks the spot that John Speke "discovered" the Source of the Nile.