From Lake Victoria to Mount Elgon

We left Kampala early on the Sunday morning. We had eleven days of hard driving for over 1,600 kilometres before us: east to Jinja, Iganga and Mbale on the slopes of Mount Elgon; north through Kapchorwa to Moroto in Karamoja; south-west through Soroti, Lira, Luwero, and back to Kampala.

While I was taking the eastern route, my Ugandan colleague was taking the western one: down to Kabale on the border of Rwanda, up to Fort Portal and the Mountains of the Moon, and back through Masindi near Lake Albert. Between us and across the whole country we were observing a wide variety of civic education activities: radio listening groups, road shows, and community-based theatre.

I had hired Roger, the taxi driver who had greeted me through the railings the first morning I went down to breakfast at the Speke Hotel – ‘Heh, Mr John! Long time!’ I was confident about Roger – I knew his careful driving. But I was less confident about his car – an ordinary, low-slung, two-wheel-drive Toyota saloon. But I showed him the route, and he said, ‘No problem, Mr John, we will make it. No problem’.

Since it was a Sunday and early morning, the traffic out of the city was very light by Kampala standards – these days it usually takes you more than twice as long to drive the 36 kilometres from the airport at Entebbe to Kampala than it does to fly the 693 kilometres to Entebbe from Nairobi.

Just after the bustling township of Mokono, Roger pointed to a complex of factories and warehouses. ‘We call that China City,’ he said. It was there that the Chinese have set up a paper mill, factories for mattresses and fabricated construction materials, and a hostel for their workers. So the Chinese are doing much more in Uganda than building a number of the roads we were to travel on.

It is only 82 kilometres from Kampala to Jinja, so even though there was an afternoon meeting to attend, there was time to check into our hotel and enjoy a sun-downer drink before a lazy dinner in peaceful garden setting.

Jinja is Uganda’s second biggest town. But its main attraction is not the town itself but its setting – at Ripon Falls, the point where the great Nile River flows out of Lake Victoria. So you can stand on the spot where John Hanning Speke first felt confident that he had found the European explorer’s Holy Grail. And you can wonder at the fact that the water you are seeing will eventually reach the Mediterranean, after a journey of 6,500 kilometres through desert wastes.

Though on not nearly such a grand scale, the hotel where I stayed can certainly claim to be one of Jinja’s attractions. After enjoying an overnight at the Gately Inn at Entebbe last November, I had booked its sister establishment in Jinja – the Gately on Nile.

It’s a delightful place: a small, very welcoming, well-ordered and homely hotel: a colonial-style bungalow set in a beautifully lush garden. Across the road the Gately has cottages and lounges that overlook Lake Victoria. But I was happy to be in one of the rooms in the old house. And I certainly enjoyed the tranquillity of the garden, watching the many birds flitting in and out of the flowering bushes – and relishing my cold Nile Special beer.

Bed and breakfast costs USD.80. The garden restaurant serves both Continental and Thai cuisine. And if you want more information about the place, the website is www.gatelyonnile.com.

The next day we drove on across the watery plains to Mbale, at the foot of Mount Elgon and at an altitude of 1,200 metres. To get there you divert left a few kilometres beyond the sprawling town of Iganga and take the 100 kilometres of straight and good tarmac.

My fondest memory of Mbale is a conversation in the bar of the old Mount Elgon Hotel. It was in the late 1990s, and it was with a UPDF soldier.

‘You know, a few years ago, I couldn’t have been drinking on my own in a place like this,’ he said. ‘But now we are the people’s friends.’

This time in Mbale I stayed in a very different hotel – the Mbale Resort. I also met a Ugandan soldier there – a smart and articulate young officer. We chatted at breakfast. I told him about my encounter with the soldier many years before.

‘Yes, that’s true,’ he said. ‘After the years of horror during the regimes of Amin and Obote, the Ugandan army had to redefine itself and reach out in a very different way to the people.’

Talking of reaching out, I think the Mbale Resort has over-reached itself. Half of it is an amazing pile of glass walls and carpeted floors – the half once managed for a time by the Protea Group of South Africa. But I think the occasional people I saw in its huge lounges and bars would have felt more relaxed, and certainly less isolated, in the little Gately on Nile.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation