Robert said the drive down to Bwindi from Kampala would take about eleven hours. He was spot on to the minute.
Rather than trusting the public transport we had booked a driver. There is one bus every other day from Kampala to Butogota, leaving the traveller to manage the remaining 17km to Buhoma, the gateway to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, on their own. The buses we saw on the roads failed to fill us with confidence; the weekend of my arrival one had crashed, killing several of its passengers. Robert and his Toyota Landcruiser arrived at Laura’s house at 6.30am.
We chuntered out of Kampala – it must have taken ninety minutes before we were clear of the traffic-clogged streets and bustling markets. Thereafter the road ran straight south-west, rising and falling over the corrugated terrain. On top of the ridges brick-red termite mounds clustered close to the road’s margins. Down in the valleys were patches of marsh choked with papyrus and haunted by egrets. Stalls stood at the roadside displaying brightly-painted basketware or neat pyramids of sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
We stopped for the obligatory photo opportunity at the Equator - two concrete hoops set at a slant either side of the road. We had a comfort break at the tomato-red Aid Child Café for a chai (4000 shillings each – fairly expensive, but profits from the café go to help children suffering the effects of AIDS). In the attached craft shop I made a note of prices for comparison at a later date.
We headed off again. After Musaka the termite mounds died away. There were a couple of police roadblocks, but otherwise the open road was the domain of packed coaches, lorries belching black fumes and motorbikes, gaily-dressed women sitting side-saddle behind the driver. The road margins were busy with locals walking or pushing cycles laden with cassava root.
At one point we drew to a halt to view a flock of sixteen grey crowned cranes as they pecked at the grass. These majestic birds are the national symbol of Uganda – one even appears on the Ugandan flag. Soon afterwards we paused again to have a look at an open patch of water down to our left. According to Robert this lake did not even exist three months previously, a testament to the amount of rain that had fallen recently. Scanning the lake with binoculars we were able to spot several examples of birdlife among the drowned trees and half-submerged tussocks of grass. We saw grey herons, white egrets, brown open-beaked storks, even a marsh harrier.
Having been impressed with the birdlife I was then promised bigger game. Laura cautioned to keep my eyes open to the left of the road as we passed Lake Mburo National Park in case we saw any zebras. I scolded her for getting my hopes up… then asked for Robert to stop the car because I had seen some! There was a herd of a half-dozen or so zebras placidly grazing as I crept up to photograph them.
Back on board we reached the bustling Mbarara, capital of the Ankole. We had been seeing the characteristic Ankole cattle at the side of the road for some time. These cows are blessed with mighty lyre-shaped horns which seemed to get bigger and bigger as we neared Mbarara. The most impressive were easily the length of a man’s leg.
Everyone stops at the Agip Motel in Mbarara for lunch and use of the toilets. We were no exception. They sometimes have a full buffet on for 20,000 shillings, but not on that day. Instead I paid 10,000 Ush for a toasted sandwich of ground beef and carrot and onion in soy sauce which was very tasty. I accompanied this with a 2,000 Ush bottle of Stoney Tangawizi, a local ginger ale (made by Coca-Cola unfortunately).
The road from Mbarara through Ntungamo and on to Rukungiri was the best yet. It even had road markings! After Rukungiri, however, all bets were off. The remaining two-and-a-half hours to Buhoma would be on dirt tracks.
I was thankful for the Landcruiser’s four-wheel drive as we jolted up slopes, around plunging ravines and over pre-fab bridges, the waters swirling brown beneath us. Then, suddenly, the wildness of the terrain would be supplanted by bucolic scenes of gentle hills, green meadows and black-and-white cows at pasture. It could almost have been a snapshot of the English countryside, were it not for the fact that the fields were speckled with red termite mounds. We made our way up to Kihihi, and then south – Kanyantorogo, Butogota. Tea plantations appeared at the side of the road beyond the houses. And then on into the little township of Buhoma. Souvenir stalls and the gateways of lodges lined the had-packed red earth that served as a road. And off to the left stood the forbidding deep green wall of the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest.