The hot Equatorial sunshine doesn’t get this Brit in the Christmas mood. In Kampala, schoolchildren dressed in polyester Santa hats play in the brass band outside a shopping centre. You will continue to see these hats worn around Uganda all year. Team it up with a second-hand Lloyds TSB staff uniform from Owino market and “eh! you are smart!”
Off to de Bush
It’s a five-hour drive from Kampala to Fort Portal. Beyond Kampala, the roads are good but slamming on the brakes for the unmarked speed bumps is jarring. We drive the last hour bumping down potholed marram tracks in the dusty wake of the Landcruiser, rushing to put the road behind us as the sun sets.
Kibale Forest closes in on us for the last few kilometres. We arrive in darkness at Julia’s inside-outside house, a collection of timber shacks, thatch and dirt floors.
Kari is freaked out. It’s her first trip to Africa and her first night in Uganda. It’s dark and the night air pulsates with the sound of insects. We push the dogs off the heavy wooden furniture and Kari sits uncomfortably. She’s scared of insects, scared of the darkness, scared of snakes. (Note to self: do not mention the green mamba we saw here on my last visit).
The steps of the wooden ladder creek as we climb the five metres up to our bedroom, a thatched treehouse on stilts, open on three sides to the forest. Late at night I’m awoken by unfamiliar nocturnal noises. I lie there trying to imitate the animal’s call so I can identify it in the morning. (Do I remember it? Of course not…)
And then the chimps! It can only be them – they sound like they’re killing each other. The noise echoes through the forest as some kind of ruckus kicks off in the trees. What drama queens. I sit up and see layers of mist beneath the tops of the trees. The noise quickly subsides and I go back to sleep.
As day breaks, the exotic sounds of the forests stir me from a deep sleep. A hornbill flies out of the forest toward me, squawking. Speckled Mousebirds tumble and play in a bush below us. There’s a whirr of wings next to my pillow and a rustling as Bronze Mannikins tickle and scold each other in the thatch above us. It’s just magical, I want to lie there and listen forever, seduced by the sounds of the forest.
Happy Christmas from Kibale Forest
But how do you roast a chicken in the middle of the forest? Our man Bahati is on the case, quite literally. A child’s metal packing case – a boarding-school trunk – is converted into an excellent bush oven! Julia has made lifelong friends from her gorilla and chimpanzee tour leading days. Janet, one such visitor, has loaded her case with Christmas goodies: Christmas stockings for the kids (their first), cranberry sauce, bread sauce, scented candles and crackers. Food aid to Africa? Count me in.
We pop into the local church to wish everyone Happy Christmas. The delighted pastor invites us to sit on hard wooden benches at the front of the church. The congregation stare at us as Simpson translates. His language skills come in handy: born in Bushenyi, south western Uganda, he can easily converse in the local Rukiga.
On the hills to the left of us is a wall of ancient green foliage, as far as the eye can see. Keen eyes can see the occasional movement in the trees as troops of chimps, baboons and monkeys forage for food.
“Every school holidays I would tell my friends I was going back to Africa – and at the start of every new term, there I was, still in Europe.” He came to Uganda as a doctor with International Medical Foundation. “This is the African jungle of Tarzan and my boyhood dreams. It’s finally come true.” It’s an emotional moment.
A seasonal Safari
Driving south from Fort Portal, the boat trip on the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park is a must. The Uganda Wildlife Authority guides are welcoming and knowledgeable but it’s difficult to keep track of the large numbers of different species at the water’s edge: waterbuck, buffalo and elephants mix with hippo, pelicans, spoonbills and Saddle-Billed Storks.
I’ve been spoiled for game drives so when the rest of our party rise at 5.30 am I opt to stretch out in the huge bed. My forfeit? Our lucky group see lions – and two kills! I’m so excited for my young Ugandan friends’ first time on Safari. There are so many firsts on this trip: first time to see an elephant, “it has very big ears” says Simpson; first time in a boat, where Amos’ sharp eyes pick out a submerged crocodile, barely visible; first time camping.
But I’m not allowed to tell you about the other first for our little group: love at first sight … a multicultural Christmas celebration indeed!
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