Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Albertine Riches

We’re flying south over Uganda, at an altitude of seven thousand metres, when our pilot starts to descend. Below us the River Nile snakes its way through lush green vegetation, shimmering in the equatorial morning sun as it churns up white froth around the scattered islets and cataracts that obstruct its course toward the Albertine Rift Valley. 
My clients, a veteran Hollywood producer and his son, are glued to their windows in anticipation of buzzing the legendary Murchison Falls. I have visited Murchison on many occasions, but this is the first time I’m seeing it from a bird’s eye view. Here the Victoria Nile forces three hundred cubic metres of water per second through an indestructible gap only seven metres wide, before flowing calmly westward into Lake Albert. Our Cessna 421 descends to less than a thousand metres over “Devil’s Cauldron” whereupon we’re able to pick out individual crocodiles on the banks, waiting patiently for the chance of a meal. Murchison never fails to deliver.

I am a gorillaphile (strictly platonic, I can assure you), the result of a career in gorilla conservation spanning two decades that took an immense toll on my life and steered me in directions I could never have foreseen. For the past six years I have been taking travellers over mountains and through jungles, trekking gorillas in the Albertine Rift.
Whether it’s organising a human caravan before setting off on expedition by foot into the jungle - enlisting the services of local porters, security guards, chefs and a priest - or making sure the helicopter arrives on time, I take care of it. And I have been fortunate enough to trek with some interesting people: celebrities, movie producers, company CEOs and polymaths. There’s no better time to get the benefit of a genius’s mind than after he or she has spent an hour with the gorillas. 
Uganda is a country very close to my heart. She is rich in culture and biodiversity, and has abundance of wildernesses within half a day’s drive of the capital: woodlands, acacia savannahs, vast dry grasslands, swamplands, high-altitude afro-montane forests, evergreen forests, lakes the size of countries, and lush, primordial rainforests where chimpanzees and gorillas have lived for eons. The bird life is second to none. More than 1,100 avian species range through Uganda, which is more than three quarters of all the birds ever recorded in sub-Saharan Africa.
I own and operate my own company in Kampala, Gorillaland Safaris, which holds no assets but a website, and incurs no overheads. Thus I have the freedom to scale my safaris up or down, according to my clients’ needs. I take tourists who want to visit Great Apes in their natural habitats, and experts who are searching for a rare sub-species in a remote habitat. 
Typically my safaris are with couples, sometimes groups of four, whom I accompany by car into the Albertine Rift for four or five days spent tracking primates in primordial forests, and staying in sublime eco-lodges. Spending long periods in remote locations with people you don’t know can be a stressful, especially if they’re passive aggressive types who blame every problem in Africa on their guide. Usually the combination of rare fauna and flora in far flung places, and my tireless wit, are enough to keep the road journey lively. “Name the ten countries with just four letters.” That can keep a car full of clients occupied for hours. “OK, now the five countries ending in ‘L.’” Few jobs offer more satisfaction.
But few are more disappointing. Like a soldier on the front line, I can go for months without seeing any action. During the lean times I try to relax with my mates at the Corner House in Ntinda, a suburb of Kampala. Ambition is a sore subject but the conversation is always stimulating. Then, as the funds diminish, my life partner Kigongo and I must find ever ingenious ways to survive, staying at home, eating just rice and beans and feeding the dogs fishmeal. Nevertheless, in times of drought I know I am still learning, yearning, going deeper, and that this will ultimately make me a better safari guide. And I am reassured by the fact that, however challenging, I live in the one place on earth I always yearned to be, the heart of Africa.

There is untold magic in these forests. I can remember once years back trekking through the Congo side of the Virungas, Africa’s oldest national park. My friends Popol and Gapira were taking me to see a gorilla group whose incumbent silverback had recently been shot and killed by soldiers.  These days this is a rare occurrence, and I point it out simply to show how unpredictable gorilla behaviour can be. Uniquely, after the death of the previous silverback, a wild, un-habituated, ex-lone silverback had subsequently assumed leadership of what was a group of habituated gorillas (those familiar to human presence). 
As we approached, he became quite agitated and refused to allow us any closer, yet he could not convince the other gorillas to flee. He screamed and beat his chest and thrashed about the vegetation like a demon. Eventually we gave up our pursuit and sat down in a dried-up riverbed, a sunny, meandering rift through the otherwise pristine afro-montane forest. All at once the gorillas began to emerge from the trees and cross the riverbed, just a few metres ahead of us: large, black, shaggy, charismatic mammals that moved silently and stoically like shadows. They wanted to see us. It was the very first time that I felt their kinship.
Following a 50% hike in the price of gorilla permits in Rwanda this summer to $750, trekking Mountain gorillas in the Congo, which costs only $400, has become popular again. The Rwandese were fond of saying Congolese gorillas emigrate across their border because they feel safer on their side of the volcanoes. Now gorilla tourists are headed in the other direction, for the cheaper tracking fees. While these do seem like high prices to pay for park permits, sadly there are just too few gorillas in the wild, and their habitats too fragile to charge any less. 

My driver Patrice and I have made countless journeys across East Africa together. But our favourite direction out of Kampala was always due west. Few places can thrill like the Congo. On one occasion we took the journalist, Geoff Carr, to meet a tiny, isolated population of gorillas in the Congo, thought to be a unique sub-species. Once across the border the road took us up a steep, 900-metre incline, to one of the highest Rift Valley escarpments. There we parked the car and climbed to the highest, Mount Tshiaberimu. 
Camp Kalibina, at 3,000 metres, took two and half hours to reach. It was an arduous climb and at times the incline seemed too steep to overcome. The last of our expedition arrived after nightfall, and gathered around a blazing campfire. “Are they a unique sub-species,” asked Geoff, who was writing a piece about Great Apes.
“Whether they are or not,” I explained, “Mt Tshiaberimu is still a conservation area of great scientific importance. The relative isolation of this gorilla population makes it is a vital reserve in the gorilla gene pool.”
The next morning, with a light rain falling, we set off downhill on our gorilla trek. After an hour tramping through the forest, the scent of decay and fresh growth bursting from every footfall, we found them foraging in a bamboo forest, a small group consisting of a Silverback, mature female, adolescent female and infant male. Compared to the other sub-species I’d encountered, if indeed these are another sub-species, Tshiaberimu gorillas are somewhat diminutive.  
Typically, while the adults busied themselves elsewhere, the youngsters paid us their full attention. On this occasion, however, I noticed something quite odd. The female was more interested in Patrice than anything else, tugging at his clothing and looking him up and down. A ranger tried to discourage her, but every time she retreated she was accosted by her younger brother, a third her size, who goaded her to return. She would then apparently pleasure herself, before charging back to grab Patrice by his trousers. To cap it off, she tried to follow us when we left, and it took a good deal of effort to dissuade her. In my twenty years observing gorillas, I’d never seen anything quite like it. 
It is possible to visit the Mt Tshiaberimu gorillas by arrangement with the park authorities, the Institute Congolaise pour la Conservation du Nature (ICCN), though permits are rarely issued.  This has more to do with the lack of demand, than the fragility of the ecosystem. The Trek I did with Geoff is one that anyone can do and was well worth the physical effort.  However, if and when Tshiaberimu becomes a popular destination, ICCN would be wise to seriously limit the number of permits available – there are only 21 gorillas on that mountain.  

Some wildlife encounters no one wants to experience. The Tumbu fly, one of Africa’s few remaining man-eaters, is a case in point. It derives its scientific name Cordylobiaanthropophaga from the Greek word for ‘eater of men.’  Hardly a safari goes by when I don’t return scarred by this creature.   
Unbeknownst to you, as you sip sundowners on the lodge veranda, this insect is laying up to 300 eggs on your drying clothes in the service area out back. If not properly ironed (yes, that’s why they iron them), your smalls may have a nasty surprise in store for you when you next put them on. Once the eggs come into contact with your skin, the larvae hatch and burrow into your flesh where they feasts on you until adulthood, about three weeks later, after which they abandon you for the life of a Tumbu fly. 
One time on safari with John and Margot Paterson, an good-natured couple from Queensland, we were seated by the pool in a remote lodge in Serengeti when I noticed a boil-like contusion on John’s side. It was a Tumbu fly alright, nesting in his torso. No worries. I told him to apply some vaseline to it and the larva would soon wriggle out for air, whereupon he could remove it with a pair of tweezers. After he returned to Australia John wrote, “The most interest generated by far has been the tumbu fly story. I will dine out on it for many years.”
Whether it’s helping a client overcome the notion, let alone the experience, of an insect that lays her eggs in a human host, or the trauma of falling into a pit latrine, sense of humour is a big part of my job. Often locals have the last laugh. I once guided fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and her husband Barry Diller into gorilla country. Their entourage included half a dozen male associates from the industry. After they had all arrived on the tranquil shores of Lake Kivu, and were safely in their hotel suites, the receptionist declared, “Never before have so many men checked into so few rooms!” 

Safaris are not always a laugh. Fortunately, mishaps tend to occur before the client arrives. Once in early 2008, Patrice and I found ourselves in a very tight situation. We had been lolling about Kampala between jobs, getting rusty, and I decided we needed to hit some big open country. Our plan was to drive a thousand kilometres to visit my schoolmate at his lodge in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. Once there, over a succession of sundowners, we’d pick his brains about quality safaris and the best wilderness experiences.
Our route would take us past Lake Victoria and through the Rift Valley in Kenya, stopping overnight in Nairobi before continuing to Tanzania. Now, I’ve always prided myself in staying abreast of local politics, yet somehow, as we set off at dawn on Wednesday January 16th, three weeks after the Kenyan elections, I failed to anticipate what we were heading into. 
It was an election strongly marked by tribalism, as the KANU Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki attempted to fight off Luo challenger Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement. At least 1,500 people were killed and 300,000 displaced during the rioting and bloodshed that followed.
The fact that we encountered only on-coming traffic along the typically busy thoroughfare should have been cause for concern. But we continued blithely on. The only other traveller we met, crossing the border at Busia, told us the road was passable but warned, “Up to and beyond Kisumu you should garland the car with leaves and branches, indicating your support for Odinga. But you had better throw them away before you reach the Rift Valley. That’s Kibaki country.”
Within a few kilometres we encountered a gang of surly Odinga supporters, gathered around a stack of burning tires in the middle of the road. We were travelling in the company’s brand new Land Rover Discovery III, Patrice’s pride and joy. As he tried to steer it through the gauntlet of angry youths, they began to beat and rock the vehicle, brandishing rocks over its shiny black flow-coat. 
In desperation, and with the zeal of an ODM activist, Patrice began to chant, “Kibaki must go! Kibaki must go!.” I too chanted, even louder: it was all we could do to stay alive, or at least save the Landy. Eventually they let us pass, but along this slow and treacherous road to Kisumu we would encounter a dozen more roadblocks, manned by increasingly drunken and ornery gangs of youths. Every one was a white-knuckle ride as we tried to determine the right speed and attitude needed to proceed. It was a wonder we made it to Nairobi alive that day.

Gorilla tracking is regularly listed as one of the “50 things to do before you die.” Spending time with your hairy mountain cousins is certainly a gratifying experience. I never tire of it. Having visited the easternmost (Bwindi) and the westernmost (Cross River) gorilla habitats before I was ten years old, I’ve made it my life’s ambition to trek through every one of them. I normally take clients to Bwindi in Uganda and Volcanoes in Rwanda, but if it’s safe we can visit any number of gorilla parks across Central Africa. For instance, I’ve just prepared a 10-day itinerary to trek gorillas in Dzanga-Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic, which includes three days in the forest living and hunting with a community of Baka pygmies. 
Trekking gorillas in not an exact science. As they move around the forest at will, a trek can sometimes involve hours of arduous climbing in difficult conditions. When the movie producer and his son trekked up the steep slopes of Mt Karasimbe in Rwanda recently, they threatened to abandon the trek several times. They were however speechless when after a three-hour walk we finally found Suza Group. The gorillas were in a glade in the Hagania forest. It had begun to rain, which compelled them to hide under bushes and trees in order to avoid getting too wet, and remain stock still as we wandered between them. It took me a moment to notice that one female was nursing infant twins. Maybe it was the strain of the climb, but I was moved to tears when they both gazed up poignantly at me from her arms. No other animal looks at you that way.

When people ask me if I will ever go home, my usual response is, "And where exactly might that be?" Growing up as I did, at more than thirty different addresses on four different continents, ‘home’ is an abstract idea. A tenth-floor council flat in North London was once ‘home’ for twenty years. It had a breathtaking westerly view, and I would stare out the window and imagine a herd of wildebeest stampeding over the dark horizon to rescue me.
One gloomy winter's night in 1991, while I was riding the number thirteen home, a job ad in The Guardian caught my eye: "Digit Fund seeks UK director to set up a London office." The Digit Fund, the ad explained, had been established by the American anthropologist Dian Fossey for the protection of Rwanda’s Mountain gorillas. My heart skipped a beat. Could this be my ticket back to the Bright Continent?
I applied straight away. The fact that I’d already cut my teeth working as a fundraiser for a number of London charities, and had a background in Africa, worked in my favour, and I was called to interview. It was time to rent Gorillas in the Mist. Few prospective jobs come with a feature-length Hollywood movie. But I could not have known, as I watched a DC 3 descend between the majestic Virunga volcanoes with Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) on board, that twenty years later I would arrive at the same airfield aboard a helicopter chartered by the movie’s producer. Time paints a bigger picture. 

Uganda, my adopted country, is experiencing a transformation at 50. So am I. We have much in common. An auspicious start squandered by decades of abuse, emancipation, then a long period of painstaking recovery, which ultimately led to the reemergence of new and exciting opportunities, have made us what we are today. 
Oil is this country’s greatest new opportunity, manifest by the platforms along the eastern shore of Lake Albert that I catch sight of as our Cessna climbs steadily towards the Mountains of the Moon. The pressure is on to harvest the Albertine Rift’s rich oil reserves. How long before the platforms number more than the species of large mammals?
Will the biodiversity survive the bonanza? Conservationists are working closely with the government and the oil companies to make sure it does. Certainly less reliance on charcoal could have a positive impact on a country that has seen its forest shrink dramatically over the past 40 years. 
Or will the nation succumb to the ‘resource curse’ that has frittered away the wealth of many other oil rich nations? The oil reserves are not predicted to last more than thirty years. What then? 
Uganda must handle all her natural resources with care. The livelihoods of many depend on it. The country has seen annual tourism revenues double in the past five years to $800 million, which is not far off what the oil will earn. No surprise there, as she offers a wealth of unique attractions, especially in the Albertine Rift Valley, one of Africa’s richest areas of biodiversity. A number of fabulous new lodges have been built and infrastructure is improving all the time. And she is a gentle, graceful nation, despite her troubled past. Her citizens are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people you will meet in Africa. 

A much shorter version of this article was first published in The Guardian

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Albertine Rift: A Schism in Great Ape Solidarity

The Virunga volcano range, as seen from the Space shuttle Endeavour
Space, the final frontier…” So proclaimed Captain Kirk at the start of each episode of Star Trek. But what was the first frontier?

While there’s no fossil evidence to support the theory, it is believed that at the end of the Miocene epoch, seven million years ago, the common ancestor to gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans was forced by climatic changes in the Congo Basin to migrate eastward. She may have been bipedal and even more humanoid than gorillas: something of a ‘Humarilla’.

Eventually the jungle came to an abrupt end and the land dropped away into a vast inland sea. She had reached the western escarpment of the Albertine Rift Valley, and the ancient Lake Obweruka, the first of the great lakes to be fed by the Katonga and Kagera rivers. 

As the Humarilla made her night nest, while the shadow of the escarpment moved slowly eastward across Obweruka’s waters then into a faraway forested land that faded into darkness, the Rift must have seemed as impassable as outer space. 

Lake Edward, as seen from the western escarpment of the Albertine Rift Valley

Two million years later, brachiating and palm-walking across the Congo basin jungle with their promiscuous females in tow, our homo-chimp ancestors were much more predisposed to conquer Africa’s geological obstacles. Whether they passed north or south of the 550 kilometre-long Lake Obweruka is a matter of speculation, as they certainly weren’t equipped to swim across it, but in due course they left the rainforest for the woodlands and savannahs of East Africa’s high plateau. 

The gorilla’s story is more sobering. It has to do with rising escarpments, rain shadows and changing river courses. Confined to more specific forests, as climate change caused a reduction in suitable habitats, gorillas got hit hard . 

Around half a million years ago two land bridges emerged across the Rift: the Rwenzori mountains and the Virunga volcanoes. Meantime the eastern escarpment began to rise, eventually cutting off the flow of the Katonga and Kagera rivers which diverted northward to create Lake Victoria. The rising escarpment also created a rain shadow that allowed the forests to thrive again. While the once vast Lake Obweruka then broke up into lakes Kivu, Edward and Albert and the Albertine Rift turned arid, the lush rainforests on the other side must have seemed inviting to the gorillas.

Genetic data confirms the mountain and lowland sub-species of the Eastern gorilla diverged 380,000 years ago. Presumably the mountain gorillas, the only populations found east of the western escarpment, used the Virunga land bridge to cross the Rift. Suffice to say by 10,000 BC, at the end of the last Ice Age, all Eastern gorilla populations had settled into their present habitats, though back then they were much larger and interconnected. Still, never again would mountain and lowland meet.

Then, between 1000 and 500 BC, the Second Bantu migration saw humans begin to move southward from the shores of Lake Victoria into the Congo Basin. The natural path for them to follow was the Albertine Rift Valley where they began to grow bananas. This brought them into direct conflict with the gorillas in the forests, who had hitherto seen  only the occasional Batwa pygmy. After that Eastern gorilla populations went into steady decline.

But when did the Virunga mountain gorillas settle on the cold, windy volcanic slopes that now connect the two sides of the Rift? Until 100,000 years ago the volcanoes were far too active for this to have been a viable habitat. Could it be they were on their way back to the Congo Basin from the forests of the eastern escarpment, and are the decedents of Bwindi gorillas? We will probably never know the answer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Road to Buganda

Tell the King that I am about to die for his people,
 that I have bought the road to Buganda with my life.” 
- Bishop Hannington, on hearing of his impending execution

“Best we tackle the Mau Escarpment now, in the twilight boss,” said Sam my driver, as he geared down for the vertiginous gradient ahead, “to keep the engine cool.” Sam and I were on the Mombasa-Kampala Highway, driving north-west in the direction of the Ugandan border. “There’ll be some night driving,” he continued, “but we should reach Eldoret by 8 o’clock.”
Dark clouds had begun to gather above the towering escarpment, blotting out the fading light and bringing the day to an abrupt end. It was a grave portent, if ever there was one, not to continue up that road. But, ever the optimist, I replied, “OK.” I was gladdened by the weather. Northern Kenya had been experiencing very dry conditions, and this was the first rain in over a month. It was undoubtedly a welcome relief to local farmers.
Initially, we had intended to stay at Lake Nakuru in the Rift Valley but, after circumnavigating the town’s main roundabout - a journey which took the best part of 30 minutes while the drivers of two matatus, parked side by side in the middle of heavy traffic, argued - we had decided to push on up over the escarpment. Our main concern now was the vehicle.
We had spent the previous night in Nairobi. In the morning, while I fumed about the cowboy who’d rented us the Land Cruiser, Sam tried unsuccessfully to mend its air filter, which caused the engine to overheat. Having been unable to leave until the afternoon, we now had no hope of covering the 660 kilometers between Nairobi and Kampala that day, and were simply trying to put as much distance behind us as possible before it got too dark.
Though the car's engine temperature remained manageable, the higher we climbed the escarpment, the more menacing the tempest outside grew. In no time we were being pummeled by a torrential downpour, cascading from the 3000-meter-high slopes of Mt Londiani like broad sheets of mabati roofing. It was only then we discovered the Land Cruiser’s windshield wipers and headlamps were also defective. Before long we were driving blind. 
In darkness, and with a veritable waterfall pouring over the windscreen obscuring the winding road ahead, it was impossible to continue. Sam tried tailgating a passing truck; its abundance of reflective panels would serve to guide us through the gloom. But the truck moved away too quickly, and we were unable to keep up. 
“Let’s pull over,” said Sam anxiously, “and wait for the rain to stop.”
“It doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon, rafiki,” I replied. “And I don’t fancy spending the night in the car, on the edge of a mountain road. But we have no choice, we must pull over..." 
As we sat there in the downpour, I began to reflect on the road beside which we were now precariously parked, the Mackinnon-Slater Road. Why had it been built in the first place? The quick answer is, to connect the Swahili Coast to Uganda, where told there was a great a kingdom at the source of the River Nile. 
I began to research the subject and discovered that in a few short years after this route was opened up, it had become the main road into the heart of Africa. Described in detail by its pioneers, and I have collected and woven together relevant quotes from a number of accounts of the journey, from between 1894 and 1912, in order to give you, the reader, a sense of what it was like for those early travelers who opened up the Road to Buganda.

Source of the Nile
King M'tesa of Buganda
The source of the Nile had been an inspiration to many for centuries, and the object of much curiosity since Speke discovered it's exact whereabouts in 1862. The Baganda, who lived in its headwaters, having been described variously as “the nicest [people] in all Africa… always happy and smiling,” “incurious before a stranger,” and who had “developed something like organized government,” were of great interest to Europeans. 
The explorer Henry Morton Stanley described M’tesa, the King of Buganda, as “an intelligent and distinguished princewho if aided in time by virtuous philanthropists, will do more for Central Africa than fifty years of Gospel teaching, unaided by such authority, can do.” 
In 1875, Stanley published his now famous multiple-column letter in the Daily Telegraph, which proclaimed many great things about Uganda, but most importantly called on missionaries to come and convert the ‘Waganda’: “Now, where is there in all the pagan world a more promising field for a Mission than Uganda?...Here, gentlemen is your opportunity: embrace it! The people on the shores of the Nyanza call upon you.” 

During that time Uganda was to become the clarion call for all those wishing to bring to Africa what its first true explorer David Livingstone coined the ‘Three C’s’: Christianity, Civilization and Commerce. To begin with, little was known of the great kingdom Speke spoke of on the western shore of the vast inland lake that he had named ‘Victoria’, after his own monarch. The problem no one was quite sure how to get to it.  
 J.D. Mullins, in The Wonderful Story of Uganda (1908), explains the remoteness of the place: “African travel was still a great undertaking, whose conditions were known to very few; Uganda lay at the distance of at least seven hundred miles from the nearest missionary base; the temper of the chiefs whose territory must be traversed was unknown; communications were uncertain, the climate dangerous. Altogether there is no part of the world which could now afford such a 'leap in the dark' to missionary enterprise as did Uganda thirty years ago.

The Northern Route
One thing European travelers to Uganda all had in common for the first two decades of journeying to Buganda was the road they took into the country. The old slave-trading route from the Swahili Coast to the interior started in Zanzibar, passed through Tabora, and then followed the southern shores of Lake Victoria to approach the Kingdom from the south. It had long been used by explores and missionaries, but in 1885 James Hannington, the bishop of East Equatorial Africa, on his first trip to Uganda, opted to try an as-yet-untravelled ‘northern route,’ which roughly followed the same course as the present-day Mackinnon-Slater road, connecting Mombasa with Kampala. 

Hannington saw many advantages to travelling this way: the new route was north of the boundary between German and British East Africa, linked his existing mission stations, and was shorter and seemingly healthier for the traveller. He was gravely unaware of the disadvantages. He did not receive the letter sent by Alexander Mackay, the Church Missionary Society’s chief representative in Uganda, insisting he wait to be collected by boat from Kisumu. King Mwenga, M’tesa erratic son and heir, suspected the bishop was coming to ‘eat the country,’ and, as the first person to use this ‘back door’ into the Buganda Kingdom, he had Hannington speared to death in Busoga for his impertinence. Thus, the bishop became the first of many martyrs in the cause of bringing Christianity to Uganda, while opening the present route from the coast.
The travails that followed Hanington’s execution, most notably those of Mackay and Captain Frederick Lugard DSO, the Resident and chief representative of the Imperial British East Africa Company in Buganda, have been well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say, their tireless efforts to provide an “antidote of imperialism to the malaises of savagery, paganism and the slave trade,” paid off when in November 1892, just three short decades after Speke’s discovery, the Union Jack was raised in Uganda, and Britain proclaimed a formal protectorate over the region. 
As the protectorate's first governor, Sir Gerald Portal made his inaugural visit that same year. In his book The British Mission to Uganda in 1893, he describes the scene as the human caravan left the coast for Uganda. 
The long line of white-clad and black-skinned porters, bearing on their heads loads of every colour, size, and shape, slowly winds in a single file along the narrow path like a brilliant and gigantic serpent, now almost dazzling to look upon under the rays of the morning sun, now gliding in dark and mysterious silence through the cool shade of a wooded valley.

J.D. Mullins adds, “Sometimes a thousand men, gathered together from Zanzibar, Mombasa, and the coast strip, would boisterously start off on a thousand-mile tramp, from which many of them never returned.” 
He paints a grim picture of the challenges they faced as they marched farther into the interior: “Heat like that of a furnace; yet a damp heat, producing physical exhaustion and mental depression...insects that fly, insects that crawl, insects that bite, insects infesting everything...centipedes, snakes, and beasts of prey...such thirst as no dweller in temperate climates can imagine; fever and other tropical diseases, recurring again and again.
Zanzibar was eventually replaced by Mombasa as the preferred starting point, and upon arrival by steamer from Europe many found the coastal port “remarkably pretty.” C.W. Hattersley, in Uganda by Pen and Camera (1907), marvels at its “white houses of the Government officers, and traders, contrasting with the vivid green of the foliage, and the blue sky and sea,” and the way they “all combine to produce a very pleasing effect, as the sun is shining brightly almost every day in the year.” 
Ultimately, every traveller expressed relief at having left the balmy coast and entered the ‘Big Game Country’ beyond, a feeling well conveyed by Portal’s account. “As we walked along that morning over rich pastures and rolling downs, breathing mountain air exhilarating as that of the Scottish Highlands in August, the flagging spirits of the men, somewhat sulky at having been defrauded of their promised rest, rose at every step, until great herds of antelope were seen galloping away as the echoes were roused by some ringing - and usually obscene - Swahili chorus.
Wildlife was much more abundant in those days, and sighting a rhino was a common occurrence, as C.W. Hattersly describes, in A Boy's Life in Uganda (1900): “One morning I was in the rear of the caravan, and was rather timid, as I had no gun, for there, only 500 yards away, was an enormous rhino with its calf. Providentially we were down wind, and the rhino cannot see far. Its brain is not highly developed, and it only goes for what it sees. We took good care to to attract its attention, and he did not even look up. If he had been disturbed, we should have needed long legs. He can run at a marvellous speed in spite of his unwieldy body. He charges anything and everything.
Back then the journey from Mombasa to Nairobi took no less than one month, and was fraught with attacks by lions and native warriors. When Portal first passed through ‘Kikuyu Land’ in 1893, the settlement we know today as Nairobi was a highly-barricaded fortress called Fort Smith, with only a handful of white settlers living there. 
One European marched in front, one in the rear, and one in the middle of the long line. The Wa-Kikuyu, as we knew, seldom or never show themselves, or run the risk of a fight in the open, but lie like snakes in long grass, or in some dense bush within a few yards of the line of march, watching for a gap in the ranks, or for some incautious porter to stray away or loiter a few yards behind; even then not a sound is heard; a scarcely perceptible 'twang' of a small bow, the almost inaudible 'whizz' of a little arrow for a dozen yards through the air, a slight puncture in the arm, throat, or chest, followed, almost inevitably, by the death of a man.” 
By the time Captain E.G. Dion Lardner arrived in Nairobi by train two decades later, the place had been completely transformed. “There are some 5,000 whites in the place, but most of them are non-residential. The entire population is about 20,000. The shops are well stocked, and there are few things you cannot purchase...The town is improving daily, and stone buildings are rapidly supplanting the original wooden shanties and tin erections. ...Nairobi has a great future as any rising city in the world.”
Although Nairobi served as an important supply stop, most travellers were eager to march on to Uganda, and soon they were traversing the Rift Valley, passing lakes Naivasha, Elementia and Nakuru. This had once been one of the most treacherous legs of the journey, where Maasai moran regularly raided their human caravans, and took a heavy human toll. But by the end of the 19th Century, settlers had begun to arrive in the highlands in droves, and the Rift Valley was set aside for white farmers. 
Sir Gerald Portal paints an idyllic scene of the early days of the settlers: “As we sat that night in greatcoats round a blazing fire, we agreed that it would be impossible to feel ill in this district, and that if only communications with the coast were a little simplified, as they easily could be, no life could be more delightful than that of the first European settlers on these plains, with magnificent scenery on every side, clear streams of water, a practically unlimited extent of the richest pasture, any amount of what is now probably the best and most varied shooting in the world, and a complete immunity - at least for the present - from telegrams or 'interviews', circulars or companies, dinner-parites or duns.
However J. B. Purvis, in Through Uganda to Mount Elgon, writing fifteen years later believes that it is “quite an open question whether the white man will ever be at home in the African Highlands; that he will ever be able to build up here, under the direct rays of the Equatorial sun, a strong, contented, self-supporting, permanent, white community.” 
Hattersley is much more optimistic and shows that by the turn of the century the white man’s presence in the Valley was already quite evident. “A number of settlers are turning over the ground and planting coffee, rubber, wheat, maize, and fibre for making ropes and rough bags. It is quite surprising to see the number of white faces at the various stations we pass, and in a few years' time it looks like being a white man's country. 
Purvis on the other hand asserts that, whatever the Highlanders achieve in Kenya, “We must not forget that Uganda is not, and probably never can become, a white man's country.” Lucky for Uganda!
As they climbed out of the Rift Valley, none of our early travelers failed to remark on the obstacle posed to their journey by the wintry Mau Escarpment, where Sam and I were still stuck, waiting for some let-up in the unceasing rainfall. 
Sir Gerald Portal: “It was rather difficult to imagine ourselves almost exactly on the Equator, as we shivered that night in bed, covered with all the blankets we could muster, on the top of which were heaped coats, flannel shirts, and clothes of any sort which might help to keep in the heat, while most of us went to bed wearing two or more suits of night garments besides.”
C.W. Hattersley:  “You would sometimes find the pail of water outside your tent had a covering of ice in the morning; and careless porters who had neglected to wrap themselves up in their blankets, or who had foolishly sold their blankets to obtain beer, were sometimes frozen to death.“
J. B. Purvis: “The cold was intense, the path, bad at any time, became slippery and difficult to negotiate; the rivulets became mighty torrents, and the porters were in despair. We coaxed, we threatened, we helped with loads, and carried men; but I believe a dozen succumbed as the result of that downpour.
Eventually Sam attempted another tailgate. This time the lorry driver moved slowly enough for us to remain close behind him, and we all crept up the escarpment like a lost elephant. In time we reached the Nandi Plateau, where our journey seemed to go on blindly for hours through the rain. Just when Sam’s knuckles were beginning to look like those of a muzungu, he suddenly lit up. “Look, ahead,” he cried. Through the splashing windshield wipers we could just make out the distant lights of Eldoret, glittering on the moisture-laden horizon like submerged treasure. The rain had not yet to cease but at least now we’d be able to get out from under it.   

Victoria Nyanza
I have seen the lake, sir, and it is grand!” - Frank Pocock, during H.M. Stanley’s 1875 expedition to Lake Victoria
Behold, the shimmering shores of Victoria Nyanza (Nyanja being the original name for lake), also known as Ukerewe, meaning the Eye of the Rhino, Nalubaale, Sango, and Lolwe.  Although Ptolemy spoke of Egypt’s Nile draining from a range of snow capped mountains that he dubbed the Mountains of the Moon, situated between two vast lakes in the middle of Africa, the first recorded account of Victoria came from Arab traders plying the interior for slaves, gold, and ivory. The Al Idrisi map from the 1160s, clearly depicts Lake Victoria, which it attributes as the source of the Nile. 
Our route completely bypassed Victoria, farther north towards Mount Elgon, but early travelers had to stop in the port of Kisumu and cross into Uganda via the lake in a canoe. 
J. B. Purvis describes the scene as the boats arrived to collect him: “Around a jutting promontory comes into view a picture that might have dropped from fairy-land… A flotilla of canoes such as we have never seen before, long and graceful, coloured red with earth, and prows adorned with the horns of antelope. Each vessel is propelled by twenty paddlers or more, who, the moment they catch sight of us, put additional zest into both song and work, and send their frail-looking craft skimming towards us.” 
According to Hattersley, “The European passengers generally sat in the middle of the canoe, the floor being composed of twigs laid across to keep passengers from the water which was always in the bottom of the canoe, and on the top of the twigs a lot of loose grass was spread. A rug on the top of the grass provided a seat or couch, and a bag of bedding or a tent as a rest for the back made it quite comfortable.” 
Even the lake journey, it seemed, as Purvis points out, could be quite perilous. “Nothing will induce our paddlers to face the open sea; they know its moods too well - its sudden squalls, its terrible storms that lash its ripples into mountainous billows that would at once engulf their cockle-shells. They make for shore at the first sign of 'weather' ; and, of course, the traveller must encamp on land at night. Here he makes the acquaintance of Africa's scourge, the mosquito; and more likely than not he will receive a nocturnal visit from the hippopotamus which in the day-time is too shy to seek exercise and sweet potatoes.” 
In time canoes were replaced by steamers, just as the human caravans were replaced by the Uganda Railway. The new mode of lake transport afforded J.B. Purvis the luxury of “stepping from his carriage on to a handsomely found Government steamer......Our journey across the Lake [is] in what is more like a trim, well-kept private yacht than a trade steamer. Everything on board is spick and span; and the dusky sailor-men move about in an alert fashion that speaks well for the kindness and ability of their officers.”  
Not surprisingly, our travelers’ first glimpses of Entebbe, the seat of colonial power in Uganda, after such an arduous journey from the coast, is the subject about which they wax lyrical the most. J. B. Purvis describes his first impression: “Beautiful, perfectly beautiful! is the verdict of whoever views Entebbe, Uganda's port, from the deck of the steamer. And, if possible, more perfectly beautiful when viewed from certain vantage-points on shore.
Captain E.G. Dion Lardner had scarcely finished his breakfast, “when some one shouted out 'Entebbe.' I ran round to the starboard side, where a beautiful view met my gaze. Wonder of wonders! could this be the fever-stricken spot which I had heard so frequently and vigorously maligned?
“Splendidly situated, overlooking the great lake, it appeared in the distance as a mass of trees, parks and gardens of flowers...The first thing to attract my interest were the fine golf-links, which do great credit to the noble sportsman who laid them out.”
Hattersley goes on to describe the warm welcome awaiting him and his family. "Everybody salutes you, most of them kneeling down to do it, and on all sides you hear, 'Olanyo?' '('How are you?') 'Wasuze olya?' ('How did you sleep?') 'Kulika nyanja!'  ('Congratulations on your lake-journey.') This latter really means, 'We are glad you have crossed the lake safely.'”

Welcome to Uganda!
Our march the previous day had been, as usual, over monotonous, burnt, and barren plains, with occasional patches of cultivation round the villages; but now, without any graduation or preparation, we suddenly passed into land of fine trees, of endless banana gardens, of cool shade, and intelligent-looking, chocolate-coloured people, completely clothed from head to foot in graceful togas of bark-cloth.” So wrote Gerald Portal of his final approach to the kingdom.
After crossing the Ugandan border Sam and I stopped to celebrate at the old Malaba Hotel with ‘one, one’ (being on this occasion a refreshing Nile Special Beer each). It’s always a great feeling returning to Uganda. And while bark-cloth togas are now a thing of the past, and ‘chocolate-coloured’ a wholly anachronistic term for the 21st Century, I would thoroughly agree with Sir Gerald Portal’s 19th Century description of Uganda.
“Now, indeed, were we in a land of plenty; great bunches of sweet, ripe bananas were brought to us at every plantation, and distributed to the porters by hospitable villagers without payment being demanded or expected. To us, who had seen no green or fresh food since leaving Kikuyu, the luxury was inestimable; the only serious danger which now threatened us was that the whole caravan should so over-eat itself in the midst of this abundance as to be unable to proceed."  
Like Portal, Sam and I approached our destination from the northeast, crossing the Nile at Jinja.  Even crossing that raging river for the umpteenth time, it did not fail to inspire, and I was overcome by waves of nostalgia, recalling my visit as a child, forty five years earlier, when I first discovered this rich land at the headwaters of a great river. 
Upon his arrival, Sir Gerald also found inspiration from the source of the Nile. “At last, at 11 o'clock on the 12th of March, a muffled roar of water told us that we were approaching the frontier of Uganda, and in a few minutes a steep and rapid descent brought us to ...the very spot where the Somerset Nile leaves the lake, and, severing all connection with its parent by throwing itself madly over the Ripon Falls, sets forth alone on its 3000-mile journey to the Mediterranean Sea.” 
It was all downhill from there. All that remained of our 1,200-km journey from the coast, was our arrival in the Buganda Kingdom, the promised land.
Whereas Portal arrived “on the seventy-fifth day after leaving the deck of H.M.S. Philomel at Mombasa,” our journey, despite its hazards, had taken us just 3 days. Normally the trip is made with just a single overnight in Nairobi. We too would have been home sooner if our Land Cruiser rental hadn’t been such a lemon. Nevertheless, once again, through thick and thin, Sam Kagame had got me home safely, for which I must salute him. 
Sir Gerald too was compelled at the end of his journey to salute his porters, who without faltering nor murmuring had endured the journey “under a burning sun or through a chilling fog, over rocks and mountains, through swamps and rivers, with no certainty of anything to eat beyond a handful or two of the course black flour of mixed beans and corn which had been dealt out to him ...As it was, these half-savage Zanzibaris had performed a feat which could certainly not be equalled by even a picked battalion of beef-fed, cloth-clad Englishmen, and which would probably prove to be beyond the powers of any race of people existing in the world except the despised, crushed, and enslaved East African.” 

At long last, we’d reached our journey’s end: Kampala. Stanley was one of the first Europeans to enter what was then called Mengo, or Rubaga, which he described in Through the Dark Continent (1899) as “crowning the summit of a smooth rounded hill - a large cluster of tall conical grass huts, in the centre of which rose a spacious, lofty, barn-like structure. The large building, we were told, was the palace! the hill, Rubaga; the cluster of huts, the imperial capital!
On first seeing the city at the turn of the century, J.B. Purvis was taken aback by the rapid strides “taken to bridge the gulf between primitive barbarism and Western civilisation.” Captain Lardener meanwhile, arriving three years later, was “rather pleased with Kampala, the ancient capital formerly known as Mengo, [which] today presents a very different appearance to what it did only a few years back, when it was described as a gigantic banana grove. Excellent roads have been laid out, and stone houses are being built everywhere. The local shops are doing a good business, and more traders are arriving constantly as the inhabitants are becoming richer, and, of course, the greater their civilization, the greater their requirements."

The two of us, tired and weary from our long journey, only caught a glimpse of the city, as we slipped off the old road on to the Northern Bypass towards the house in Kisaasi on the outskirts of Kampala where I lived. Compared to the transformation the road to Buganda had undergone in the past 126 years, the Northern Bypass was a welcome but trivial improvement to this time-honoured route. Even so, that last stretch of the road was an abiding song to me, the type herdsmen sing to coax their cattle back home. 
I think Henry Morton Stanley best summed up the feeling: “'Bring out bullocks, sheep, and goat's milk, and the mellowest of your choicest bananas, and great jars of maramba, and the let the white man and his boatmen eat, and taste of the hospitalities of Uganda.”

Sir Gerald Portal, The British Mission to Uganda in 1893 (1894) 
H. M. Stanley, Through the Dark Continent (1899) 
C.W. Hattersley, A Boy's Life in Uganda (1900) 
C.W. Hattersley, Uganda by Pen and Camera (1907) 
J.D. Mullins, The Wonderful Story of Uganda (1908)
J. B. Purvis, Through Uganda to Mount Elgon (1909)
Captain E.G. Dion Lardner,  Soldering and Sport in Uganda (1912)