In Uganda, The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Oman was disappointed we didn’t see a lion – almost as if it was a reflection of his masculinity. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said, a tone of defeat pervading his voice, as he swung our jeep back toward the lodge. I was spending a couple days at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. The park is filled with ample amounts of water buffalos, hippos, wart hogs, elephants and variations on the theme of horned bovines. There’s a large troop of chimps, as well as a sprinkling of cougars. But, so it seems, it’s not a real safari unless it’s a lion safari.

I’d always felt that the wildlife of Africa got far more attention in travel publications than the people of Africa. For this reason, I eschewed going to Africa. But I’d never been on a safari and felt like it was time I see what it’s all about, to do some wild animal gawking that wasn’t in a zoo. For the most part, I was enjoying myself. I saw mountain gorillas and chimps and everything else such a safari has to offer – everything except a lion.

All that changed the next day.”Look,” said Oman, as we were driving through the park. He slowed the jeep to a gentle stop and pointed to a tree where a flock of large birds had planted themselves. “Vultures. That means there’s a kill nearby,” he said. “Which might also mean there’s a lion near.”

​And then 10 seconds later: “There it is! I see its tail!” Sure enough, lying in the tall grass next to a dead buffalo was one male lion. The panels on the roof of our jeep came off and I was snapping pictures of the partially viewable beast. It was just the lion and us for a few minutes. And to celebrate Oman busted out a bottle of vodka and poured me a cocktail. But what seemed like seconds later, a van full of Germans pulled up. “Oh ja, ein Löwe!” they said. And then a French van: “Un Lion!” The Italians followed: “Leone! Leone!” And, as an added bonus to the spectacle, some American hippies: “Whoa, trip out, man, it’s a lion.”

Telescopic lenses were unpacked, safari goers climbed on the roofs of cars, the sound of digital cameras snapped in the distance. With my prime position in front of the beast, some safari goers asked if they could join me. I obliged. “Zis ees very abnormal,” said a German man with a camera lens the size of a bazooka, who had made a home on the hood of my jeep. “Ze female al-vays makes zee kill.” Just then two school busses full of Ugandan school children stopped. Even though they live in a land where lions are indigenous, they weren’t cavalier about seeing the big cat. They screamed and hollered at the lion, which was lying down, its head sometimes visible through the tall grass.

There were now at least a dozen and a half safari vehicles and two school buses parked on the dirt road, about 60 feet from the cat, who was still only about 20 percent visible. An elephant strode by on the other side of the road, which got the crowd’s attention for about 39 seconds before aiming their gaze back at the lion.

I wasn’t exactly sure what we all wanted the lion to do. To stand up? To stand up and dance? To stand up and dance to The Tokens’ classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“? Whatever it was, the growing crowd was becoming impatient. “Hey lion!” someone yelled out. The Italians clapped their hands, hoping to startle it into action. The hippies began honking their horn. The lion was unfazed.

An hour had gone by and it had hardly moved a paw. I began paying more attention to the crowd that had gathered. The German photographer, who was on his umpteenth safari, was similarly unfazed by the lazy lion. “Zis ees normal,” he said when we accidentally made eye contact. “He eats and zen he must make a rest.”

I had enjoyed myself thus far but I began wondering what the point of all this was. With several dozen people standing around, how different was this from a zoo? Sure, I’d found the experience hitherto fairly rewarding but my encounter with the jungle’s piece de resistance was the most anticipated and least satisfying on my trip.

About 90 minutes after first spotting the lion, I looked at Oman and nodded. He knew it was time to go. We roared our engine and slowly pulled onto the road, leaving the miasma of photo lenses and binoculars behind. I’d seen my lion. My safari was apparently complete. Oman had done his job. He was happy.

The Best Cup Of Coffee In Uganda

Knowledge, as they saying goes, is power. True. It also leads people to become annoying know-it-alls, Nobel Prize winners, dictators and/or plumbers. For me, though, it just made me a coffee snob.

Let me explain. I’ve always appreciated good coffee but I didn’t really know what made coffee good and not good. But in December 2011, a magazine sent me to Ethiopia to discover why the coffee of this East African nation was so great. I traveled there with Intelligentsia Coffee’s Geoff Watts. Mr. Watts, introduced to me by the owner of a coffee house in my neighborhood, is possibly the most important coffee buyer on the planet. Geoff was on a mission too: to buy superlative coffee for the hip coffee roasting company (which just opened its first outlet in New York City, by the way).

A while later, I was in Uganda, an East African country not particularly known for its java. I was staying at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park. When I commented on the coffee, one of the employees said they grow and roast the coffee themselves. A few hours later, I was standing in front of Nicole Simmons, the director of the program. Simmons originally came to Uganda to study the troop of 20 chimps that live down in the gorge near the resort. She liked it here and when the opportunity came to run the program, she jumped at it.The rub, though, was that she didn’t know much about making coffee. So she went to work, reading as much as she could about it. She recruited 11 women and one man, all residents of nearby villages, to bring in their plucked coffee cherry (which is always written about in the singular), where they would de-pulp it, shade dry it and then roast it.

“The problem with Uganda,” Simmons said, “is that there’s no quality control here. Even when a coffee maker or roaster stays there, you taste the coffee and it’s not good.” Simmons shrugs, adding. “This is Uganda.”

Another thing about Uganda, or at least this part, is that it’s below 1,300 meters sea level. That means it’s technically not highlands and it means quality Arabica beans can’t grow. It also means she’s stuck with robusta beans, which are far inferior. “It’s perfectly okay,” says Simmons. “Robusta is indigenous to this area. We do a lot of quality control and so this means we can either do a very good robusta or a mediocre Arabica.”

She walked me over to a bucket of water and a bag of cherry. “The kind of quality control we practice is this: we only put cherry in a bucket of water. Whatever floats, is probably a bad one. And then we only put fully ripe cherry through the machine – if it’s too green it makes the coffee taste bitter.” It’s a temptation among coffee farmers to turn in all the cherry they’ve plucked, even the green ones, since they’ll get paid based on the amount they turn in. The rub, though, as Simmons pointed out, it leads to poor quality coffee.

The only way to get Omwani Coffee (as they’ve named it) has been through Tank Coffee in the UK – though it doesn’t seem to be available on their site at the moment.

About a third of the women in the collective are HIV positive, and earning the extra money from this side business means they can now afford medicine when they couldn’t previously.

So, it turns out, a little knowledge of coffee saves lives too – and that’s a good thing.

New Long Distance Hiking Trail To Open In Africa

If you’ve already crossed the Appalachian Trail off your bucket list, hiked the length of New Zealand along the Te Araroa and walked through the Alps on the Haute Route, then I may have found your next big adventure: a new long-distance hiking trail set to open in Africa early next year that will give adventurous travelers an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a famous 19th-century explorer.

The Sir Samuel and Lady Florence Baker Historical Trail will stretch for approximately 360 miles from Gondokoro – near Juba, the capital of South Sudan – to Baker’s View, which is located near the shores of Lake Albert in western Uganda. The route follows roughly the same path that Samuel Baker used on his expeditions to explore central Africa, which took place throughout the 1860s and 1870s. Baker’s wife accompanied him on those adventures, which is why the trail has been named to honor her as well. In 1864, Baker made the greatest discovery of his career when he became the first European to set eyes on the massive body of water that he would name in honor of Prince Albert, the late consort of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Baker’s View marks the location where the explorer first caught a glimpse of Lake Albert itself and those hiking the trail will get to relive that moment a century and a half later.

The new trail is the pet project of explorer and anthropologist Julian Monroe Fisher, who recently walked most of the route as part of his Great African Expedition. Fisher is working closely with the Uganda Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife & Antiquities; the Uganda Wildlife Authority; and the Ministry of Wildlife, Conservation & Tourism for South Sudan to make this project a reality. The trail has the full support of the descendants of Samuel Baker as well and Fisher credits both RailRiders Adventure Clothing and Costa Del Mar Sunglasses for helping to push this project along.In June, Fisher will return to Uganda where he will begin placing historical markers along the trail to mark important locations from the Baker expeditions. Backpackers will then be able to follow the route and actually stop at those places, possibly even making camp in the same spot that the explorer and his wife did. All of this work is preparation for the official launch of the trail in January 2014, which will come just in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the explorer’s discovery of the lake.

While many of the great long-distance hiking trails across the globe are designated for trekking only, one of the more interesting things about this trail is that it will allow for mixed use. That means mountain bikers can ride the route and even 4×4 vehicles will be granted access. The route is reportedly very scenic, remote and largely untouched by modern conveniences, which should be a major part of its allure.

In addition to being a great attraction for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travelers, the trail is expected to be an economic boon for the communities that surround it. South Sudan in particular is struggling with having enough funds to help its development process as the country emerges from years of conflict as the newest nation on Earth. The influx of tourist dollars that could come along with the trail will be especially beneficial for that country.

I’m sure news of this trail will be most welcome amongst trekkers and mountain bikers alike. It sounds like it will be a beautiful and challenging hike that should prove popular with those who are truly looking to get away from it all.

Unusual Event: Uganda’s Royal Ascot Goat Races

This weekend, Uganda will be hosting their Royal Ascot Goat Races. Held at the Speke Resort on the shores of Lake Victoria, this annual tradition has been going on since 1993. According to BBC Travel, it came to be when a local sailing club decided to put on a quirky fundraiser, borrowing inspiration from a Zimbabwe horse breeder who held a pig race in his garden for his birthday. The club swapped pigs for goats, creating a successful event that draws people from all around the world. As the races grew, the club began to model the event after England‘s Royal Ascot horse races, complete with over-the-top outfits and awards for the best-dressed man and woman and most elaborate hat.

On September 1, 2012, the race will mark its eighth year. Although goats may not be the fastest animals in the world, the prize awarded to the winner is 30 million shillings (about $356,379). Additionally, spectators can bet on the races to win money of their own. And even if someone bets on a losing goat, they’ll still “win,” as proceeds are donated to a local charities.

For a more visual idea of the Royal Ascot Goat Races, check out the video above.

A Writer Returns To Uganda Without Ever Leaving

I’d been looking for an excuse to leave Kampala for a several weeks. After our guard stole my roommate’s bankroll and the security company asked us to decide whether he should be fired or pistol-whipped — we settled on the latter after both protesting and soliciting his input — I’d been tasked with a story about health care that required me to loiter in a hospital where amputees dragged themselves down the halls from ward to ward. I was young and these slight horrors planted the seeds of anxiety: I was convinced that the waiters at the expatronized Ethiopian restaurant, who al-Shabab would murder a few years later, had become rude and that the screeners at the gates of parliament had taken an unhealthy interest in my press pass.

When my less-than-encouraging editor offered me the Murchison Falls story, I took it immediately. I’d never said no to him and it was finally convenient to say yes. I didn’t want to be at home anymore. My half-built compound had been all but taken over by a group of construction workers, men who wore their muscles like wet suits and sweated accordingly.

Murchison Falls National Park had once been renowned enough for its plentiful wildlife to attract the Queen and the Prince of Wales, but the last few decades had been hard on the area around Masindi and Lake Edward. A series of rebel armies — anti-Milton Obote, anti-Idi Amin, anti-Yoweri Museveni — took up residency in the hills near the Blue Nile. After a Lord’s Resistant Army soldier gunned down a British tourist on safari in the park in 2005, the State Department issued a warning and the slow trickle of adventurous Europeans stopped altogether. Most of Joseph Kony’s boys fled the scene of the crime and the few elephants, crocodiles and hippos that hadn’t been eaten or used for target practice were finally left in peace.

%Gallery-151569%I was to report on the resurgence of tourist arrivals in the park and interview some of the park’s staff and visitors. A National Parks functionary assured me that this trend was real and handed over a study that I felt sure had been fabricated for my reporting pleasure.

In Masindi, a bumpy 10-hour bus ride from the capital, I hired a skeletal Toyota with a cardboard floor for the ride to the campground inside the park. Despite lengthy negotiations — me pointing out that the car’s floor was made of cardboard, the driver pointing out there were no other options — I agreed to spend $75 to get in, leaving me with $60 to get back out.

“Easier to get out than in because you find friends,” the driver assured me.

“Are you going to come pick us up?” I asked. Skepticism must have leaked from my voice.

“That depends,” the driver said, declining to elaborate further on how he might be swayed.

I handed over the money and found a campsite as far from the group of aerosol-happy tourists in safari gear as possible. I shooed away a small family of warthogs, pitched the glorified sunshade I planned to use as a tent and fell asleep.

I woke in the version of Africa I’d fantasized about before coming to Uganda. God rays spotlit acacias and Africans were all but absent. The earth seemed to arch its taught back towards the sun. I met with a guide who told stories from the bad old days when the crocodiles were pockmarked from machine gun fire and I took souvenir pictures for an unrelentingly photogenic German couple. A park boat ferried us to the falls, where the spray created a miniature jungle eco-system populated by a playful troupe of Mangabeys. Water buffaloes nestled together in the shallows and a hippo hollered back at our boat’s engine, showing a broken fang.

A skittish Kob fled the yawning snap of a crocodile’s jaws as I took notes for color.

In the afternoon, I snuck away from the other tourists and climbed a hill towards the Paraa Safari Lodge, which sat clean and empty on top. The pool water bordered on opaque and the hunting lodge feel of the cavernous foyer was undermined by the blue glow of cheap fluorescent bulbs. Money hadn’t returned with the tourists and I was forced to flee an overly friendly concierge, who demanded I pay him “only $100” for a night’s stay. Back at the campground, the Mzungus had gathered to watch a storm come in over the savannah.

The wind kicked up and the rain hit before the clouds were overhead. The family of warthogs we’d treated so brusquely the evening before took shelter in the lavatory, frightening a drunk backpacker who peed on her leg as she hussled out into the storm. My sunshade-tent crumpled under the first downpour, filling with mud. I tried to pull it upright again and threw a tarpaulin over it, but the rain snapped a pole and the entire nylon contraption found itself in a rusting bin.

The on site bandas cost $50 a night so I faced a decision: Stay out in a flash flood the campers had been told might cause “hippo trouble” or have no money left to leave the park. I ordered a beer. A buzz looked like the only buffer I’d be able to afford against the creeping night.

The sky turned a yellowed grey and lightning lashed out at the savannah. Something substantial was moving in the bushes just beyond the tiki bar and the strong smell of the earth turned the Nile Special to borscht in my mouth. It took me two hours to empty the sweating bottle and, when I had, I felt relaxed in a way I hadn’t felt relaxed since leaving the states. I was backed into a corner, but, framed by the view of the dark plain, my quandary seemed both small and natural. Some places demand to be met on their terms.

It was nearly midnight when I noticed that the boisterous clan at a nearby table was speaking American. I moved closer to investigate and saw their reading material, Michael Savage and William Kristol. Along with their plasticene shirts and the Fantas all around, the paperbacks gave them away. I tucked the colorful part of my vocabulary under my tongue and approached them, using a Giants hat as a pretext for conversation.

“Are y’all from the Bay Area?” I asked.

They were and I’d lived there and yes, I knew San Mateo.

“What do you think of Zito’s arm?” the large, bearded man who appeared to be the mission’s leader turned and asked me. Time for the shibboleth.

“He’s just old,” I told him and found myself with a new friend.

Ten minutes later I’d been granted a seat on their plush tour bus all the way back to Kampala and two soft drinks after that I’d decided to spend the last of my cash on a banda. I fell asleep after herding geckos out of the bed. The rain puddled under the door and the bottle cap-sized spiders in the thatched roof girded their webs against the damp.

In the morning, I watched sturdy North Face tents birth the missionaries and helped them stuff their unnecessary packs into the back of the bus, which soon left the campsite behind.

We were standing at the top of the falls, a pit stop on our way back towards Masindi, when a skinny missionary in her mid-thirties approached me.

“I miss San Francisco,” she said.

I agreed that Northern California was a very missable place.

“I do feel like it’s getting ruined though,” she said. “I feel like it is just for the gays now. It seems like normal folk are going to get kicked out. Does it bother you?”

It was a pretty impressive piece of maneuvering. I had to become Judas or admit my base indifference to scripture. I went with honesty and outed myself. “Not at all,” I said.

She looked at me thoughtfully for a while before protesting meekly: “Don’t you want to have kids?”

A few scripted sentences later and I found myself alone. The missionary returned to her group, which buzzed briefly. I blushed into the wind and listened to the monkeys giggling in the trees. Politics stops at the waters edge, but only to take a deep breath before the plunge.

Back in Masindi, the large, bearded man pointed out a low-slung building and said, “Ernest Hemingway stayed there.” His implication seemed to be that this was something we could both be enthusiastic about and he was quite right.

In 1954, Hemingway and his wife arrived at Murchison abruptly as their plane crashed into the savannah. Two days later, after they were rescued by a passing boat, they crashed again in a different plane and Hemingway sustained the head injury that many blame for his depression towards the end. It was a horrible story.

“Goes to show,” he said. “You never know what it’s going to be.”

This folksy wisdom resonated for a second, but no longer.

I’d decided to relish my new role as dangerous interloper. I engaged a 10-year-old on the subject of his middle school love life and the a middle-aged softball coach type on global warming. Though none of these conversations became contentious, they did provide me with the opportunity to join the devil’s team. I picked up my pompoms. Though my impropriety was, for lack of a better word, dickish considering that these kind people we’re doing me a solid, I reveled in the relief of finally, after spending so long feeling vulnerable, being the unknown quantity. By the time the bus rolled into Kampala, I was refreshed to the point of being eager to reenter the Africa I’d fled. The smoggy chaos that had seized my neuroses now seemed like a bear hug.

I asked to be let off in a particularly ramshackled part of town, beneath a billboard advocating against “Sugar Daddies” and shook every right hand on the bus.

“Thank you so much,” I said as I stepped out. “You saved me.”

“You’re welcome,” said the skinny missionary. I clearly wasn’t.

I rode home on the back of a bulky Yamaha and I filed my story a few days later. When I wasn’t happy with the edits, I remembered that I didn’t have a monopoly on fear and told my editor the fudged stats were sitting too high. This protest made precisely no difference, but I felt good enough about it that I bought an extra plate of Ethiopian food for my bruised, inconstant guard.

A few weeks and a few confrontations later, the suspicion crept back in. Still, it never became overwhelming again. To be corned and to corner others was just the way of things. The savannah was never far away.