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davidedric

DRC and Uganda - a retrospective

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davidedric

Here we go – a retrospective trip report

 

This is a three week trip undertaken at Christmas time in 1983, in Uganda and the DRC (then called Zaire). Of many trips that I have taken in Africa, this was the first and most extraordinary. However, it was not my wife’s first trip. In 1969/70 she taught in Uganda for a year between school and university doing Voluntary Service Overseas (for any US readers, similar to Peace Corps), so for her it was a chance to see again a country she had grown to love. For me it was a chance to partly fill a missing year (we had been an item even back then).

 

I’ll apologise just once for the quality of the photos. They are scanned from old slides, taken with high ISO film, and of course without benefit of auto focus or image stabilisation. They are what they are! In the film days, one didn’t take quite so many pictures, either!

 

The report will be in two parts. This first will set the scene, and cover the journey through Uganda, across the border and into Zaire. The second part will cover time spent with the pygmies of the Ituri forest, and the ascent of the Ruwenzori.

 

Since this won’t be an area that many have travelled, and it was thirty years ago, I want to set the scene a little. At this time, the president of Uganda was Milton Obote, in his second term. It was about four years after the overthrow of Idi Amin, largely by an army from Tanzania. Though the part of the country where we were was relatively quiet, there were military road blocks every few miles, and the soldiers were tense. There was a lot of fighting and killing in the north of the country. DRC, in contrast, was peaceful (unlike today), and the eastern DRC is a very long way from the capital, Kinshasa. However, there had been very few white travellers in that part of the world since the Belgians had left in 1960, most of the few whites there were missionaries. Many of the people we met seemed never to have seen white faces before.

 

The lingua franca in that part of the world, both sides of the mountains, was Swahili. However, on the Ugandan side some English was spoken and on the DRC side some French, which is how we could communicate. Fortunately, their French was about on a par with mine!

 

Perhaps best to start with a couple of maps. I know some members have been to Uganda, but probably not many to eastern DRC, so here we are, with our route mapped out in red. Map 1 shows the route from Entebbe to Beni (and return), and Map 2 our route inside DRC.

 

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We left Heathrow on Uganda Airlines one and only plane. A venerable Boing 707. The Crowned Crane is the national bird of Uganda, so the plane was named “The Flying Crane”, a pretty accurate name J. It’s the only time I’ve taken off on an international flight with passengers sitting in the aisles.

 

 

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We flew into the main Uganda airport at Entebbe. The bullet holes were still visible from the Israeli rescue raid in 1976. Definitely no photography there! There were sixteen of us, and we camped on the shores of Lake Victoria, not too far away.

 

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The trip was sold by Explore Worldwide, but was actually put together by a white Ugandan, John, and his wife, who had bought and converted a truck for the purpose. Here are John’s wife and friend – you will see the truck later.

 

 

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It would have been quite impossible to travel without someone local with connections, and who had the necessary “permissions” to get through the road blocks

 

While we were camped there, a local priest, who knew John, pitched up on a motorbike to say Hi. My wife was able to ask him how were things in Namilyango, the school where she had taught. You can imagine, he was more than a little surprised, but assured her things were well!

 

So we set off through Uganda. Bought our food in local markets, and passed by many villages. The locals were curious, but generally friendly

 

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We headed for the border. We passed through the Queen Elizabeth National Park, but sadly most of the game had been eaten by the various armies, so there was just the odd buffalo and antelope to see, though the Ruwenzori mountains made a lovely backdrop.

 

 

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And you can’t be too careful……

 

 

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The first main obstacle was the Kasinga channel running between lakes George and Lake Albert. My first experience of an African river crossing, and appropriately hair raising.

 

 

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But we made it intact, and headed further. Then, on to the border and a very long wait until we were allowed through – I would be pretty sure that some consideration changed hands to ease our passage. Still, I remember lying there in the sunshine, watching weaver birds nesting overhead, and not able to believe where I was – felt like I was in a documentary.

 

 

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Into Zaire, and though there weren't many travellers, “donnez moi” was a common cry:

 

 

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At this point I’d like to introduce you to one of our group, Tony. Tony was a painter and decorator from Yorkshire, and somewhat larger than life (on a previous trip he had been severely reprimanded for climbing Kilimanjaro in his sandals). Somewhere in eastern DRC there is a generation who think that “Eeh bai gum” is a traditional English greeting (apologies to non-English readers), and who even know the first verse of “On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At”. Happy days. Tony will crop up again, later. This is one of his audiences:

 

 

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The landscape in that part of the world is quite spectacular, even away from the Ruwenzori. It was pretty wet, and the roads were dire.

 

 

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We got out at this stage, in case the truck went over the edge. It was a long way down.

 

 

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Fields were extensively cultivated, but whereas in earlier years the land had been terraced and appeared to be farmed sustainably (the sign is another give-away where we were)

 

 

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The newly planted fields were clear cut from the forest. They look fertile, but is it easy to imagine that it would not take many rainy seasons until the top soil would wash away. I do wonder how things look now.

 

 

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As we travelled, we camped in or near villages, and were often treated to some impromptu entertainment. To be honest, it seemed a little nerve racking at times, since we had no idea what was really going on

 

 

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Eventually, we made our way to the provincial capital, Beni, and had our last sit down meal for a long while. You might remember, this is Christmas, on the equator, and the sight of an artificial Christmas tree with artificial snow will stay with me J

 

 

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And so onward and upward. Next stop, the Ituri forest, Mount Hoyo and the pygmies.

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michael-ibk

 

 

felt like I was in a documentary.

 

So do I - absolutely fascinating report. And your photos are super, I very much enjoy the distinctive feel they help convey for this trip. Looking very much forward to much more!

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Game Warden

Fantastic reportage and photos @@davidedric - it has a National Geographic feel to it. Safaritalk is becoming home to some excellent historial content :) Looking forward to the rest 

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Sangeeta

You have the most captivating writing style, @@davidedric - what wonderful glimpses into a time gone by. Thank you for taking the time to do this!

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pault

Excellent. Love it. Great 80s-style pictures.

 

Just out of interest, what was the "point" of this trip? How was it sold? I get your wife bought into it because it was a return to Uganda, but what about the others? Scenrey, or just a travel adventure, like the old "hippy" journeys that started off Loenely Planet? Did you have any idea where you were going (other than "Uganda and Zaire")?

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davidedric

@@pault Hi there - I guess it was basically about travel and adventure. I'd always wanted to see Africa since watching "On safari with Armand and Michaela Denis" on B&W tv in the fifties. We had a two page flyer setting out the trip, so we did have a general idea, but I don't think we realised how far off the beaten track we would be.

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Zim Girl

Wonderful stuff - the picture are great especially the ones in the villages.

 

We drove from QENP to Entebbe in 2006 and absolutely loved it.

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pault

A two page flyer! Fantastic.No online-review induced stressed out trip planning in those days! As I currently stress about whether X, Y or Z is the best accommodation choice in multiple locations, that's a reminder that the some of the best experiences have been fairly unexpected. Food for thought.

 

Or perhaps it's just the fever that I have - I am sure my wife hopes so. :)

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TonyQ

@@davidedric

I am loving this report. The photos do realy create a sense of time - scanned film as a particular look. It is a fascinating area, particularly at this time. The truck looks unique!

I travelled on 2 Guerba trips around 1990 in trucks (Tanzania, Zimbabwe) but by no means of the beaten track like yours - a real adventure. We went to Uganda in 2005 so it is interesting to see the difference (wildlife had recovered a lot in QE)

I am looking forward to more!

Edited by TonyQ

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Soukous

This is amazing @@davidedric

From the moment I saw Liz's photo I realised that you'd been travelling with a friend of mine.

John & I used to work together at the start of the 1980's.

I remained in Kenya and then moved to Egypt whilst John went back to the UK to set up Equatoria Expeditions.

We remained friends for many years although it is a while since I've seen him.

 

what memories this brings back.

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Kitsafari

There have been quite a few walks down the memory lane from ST members, and each has been most enjoyable, so thanks @@davidedric for another walk into the past.

 

wat a far cry modern-day safaris are from the old-day safaris (via trucks)! what an amazing adventure.

 

do you miss those days when it was simpler, hardier but more thrilling not knowing what was around the corner? in fact that question should be addressed as well to @@twaffle and  @@hakank and @@Soukous and all those who had done safaris in those days.

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Soukous

On my To Do list @@Kitsafari.

get a scanner and start scanning those old slides.

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davidedric

@@Soukous what an incredible coincidence. I had forgotten Liz's name till you said it. For old times sake, here is a picture of John with some African friends (I think we had given him a bit of help with the beers, mind you :) )

 

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Soukous

Yes, he was very fond of his sideburns.

 

John always did have a passion for tinkering with vehicles, seeing what he could come up with. When everyone else was using tarpaulins he built his own wooden canopy for his truck.

 

Thank you so much for the memories.

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Atravelynn

This is very cool. I especially enjoyed the trip down "mweya lane." Tony must have been a real hoot. Real treasures you have scanned in here. Thank you!

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hakank

Wow, fascinating stuff and magnificent pictures :) I especially like the picture of the two girls with children and their arms stretched out for some "matabish" - in Kinshasa you would always hear "Mondele, donnez moi ta caisse" wherever you went. Also, the hairdo of the left girl, in Kinshasa you could see some pretty advanced hairdo creations. Looking forward to part two!

 

lingala dictionary:

matabish = tip

Mondele = whitey / white guy

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davidedric

First, a sort of apology. I had intended to make this a two part report, but once I started to write about the pygmies I felt that they deserved a chapter on their own. So this is their story – the final part will be “The Ruwenzori and home”. Sounds more like a Tolkien novel every day J

 

We are now heading north from Beni, on the road to Mount Hoyo, following the line of the Ruwenzori.

 

The Ruwenzori are a continuation of the volcanic chain, known as the Virunga mountains further south in Uganda and Rwanda. Down there it is possible to see the mountain gorillas, and it was said that there were gorillas in the Ruwenzori, too, though we saw no signs.

 

On the way we walked up a big hill, called (I think) Chibaremu to get in training for the big walk later. It was about 3,000m high, as I recall, and quite a slog. Just getting to the bottom was a bit of a trial, especially if you don’t like crossing water:

 

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We couldn’t take tents to the bottom, so we took sleeping bags, ground sheets and attempted to construct a “gorilla nest” and cover. I don’t think any self-respecting gorilla would have slept there, and it’s a good job it didn’t rain. Anyway, we walked up and down the hill (no pictures, not much to see, really, except bamboo) and headed on.

 

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Whilst thinking about this trip report, I did a bit of research on Mount Hoyo. It seems that back in colonial era it was a popular tourist destination with abundant animal and bird life, but long since abandoned except for the few who still live there.

 

We turned off the main (dirt) road and headed up a track. After a few hours we heard a most unearthly singing, and out of nowhere we were surrounded by pygmies. They all clambered aboard, maybe twenty or so, and took a ride back home. This was the time we became aware that personal hygiene does not appear to feature highly in a pygmy’s priorities J

 

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And so on up to the pygmy village.

 

A few words about the pygmies, and I apologise if that is no longer the accepted term. They live a rather primitive life. Their huts are just made of grass and leaves, quite different from the mud houses that you see in the rest of Africa:

 

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Pygmies are indeed short. I’m about 5’6” (1.68m), and a pigmy man barely reached my shoulder. My wife is only 5’ 1/2“ (the ½“ is important!), 1.53m, and ladies just about reached her shoulder. For the first time in her life she felt tall! They are also tough as teak – I most definitely would not pick a fight with a pygmy.

 

They grow some crops, mostly maize and sorghum, and hunt birds and monkeys in the forest with bows and arrows. They also grow, and smoke, a deal of marijuana. It is probably a good job – they are about the most obstreperous and argumentative lot I’ve ever come across J

 

One afternoon (we were there two or three days) we went down to the village for a couple of demonstrations.

 

First bark cloth, hammered out from the bark of a tree. I don’t think anyone much wears it any more, but without natural fibre it was a way of making cloth. Doesn’t he look pleased with himself!

 

 

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The on to the poison arrow demonstration. They use some kind of root, which they pound, and then bake onto the arrow heads. The arrow with the three points is for birds, and the other for monkeys. Fascinating. I was acting as leader because my French was marginally better than the others’, so I got to keep the arrows. I also traded a shirt for a bow, so I had the full set. In fact I still have them and they are hanging on the wall behind me as I am typing this. I elected not to declare the arrows at customs J

 

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There had once been an hotel near the pygmy village, which is where we pitched our tents, though only the dining room remained intact. It was rather poignant. Every evening, the waiters put on their uniforms and laid out the cutlery, and at the end of the evening put it all away again, because, of course, nobody ever came. On our last evening, tired of reconstituted spaghetti bolognaise, we decide to eat there. So we all trooped in, sat down and were served – you’ve guessed it – reconstituted spaghetti bolognaise from the truck. Of course there was no food: they never had any guests.

 

The pygmies took us out into the forest a couple of times ”hunting” – as if a dozen Europeans galumphing about the forest would ever find anything. Still, it gave us a chance to see the environment on foot

 

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And how they could track down and collect wild honey (it is honey, honest, I tasted it!)

 

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We also discovered that a pygmy could be standing next to you one second, and disappear completely the next. These were surely still a people at home in their environment.

 

One evening the pygmies put on a dancing demonstration. The price had to be agreed with the hotel “manager” (no idea what he really did). This picture gives an idea of pygmy size and negotiating style.

 

 

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And then onto to the dancing – I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves. Look out for the old man with arrows wrapped in banana leaves – they are the poison ones.

 

Starting with a tree climbing demo

 

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And on to the dancing

 

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This was some kind of monkey dance. It was uncanny how they could move and seem like monkeys.

 

 

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We finally left the pygmies and headed off back through the forest to the main road.

 

 

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We had agreed to take with us a lady who was suffering badly from malaria and was going to visit the hospital in the nearest town. When we got to the town and pitched camp, she decided to stay with us for the night. She felt happier with us than the Bantu, who lived in the town.

 

Next the last stage of our journey – the Ruwenzori ascent, and back to Uganda.

 

 

 

 

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Zim Girl

I am really, really enjoying this.

What a fantastic adventure.

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Game Warden

Awesome. @@davidedric - I've merged this report with your previous one so as they stay together and not get lost. It is my idea once finished to pin this retrospective report, along with the Lake Paradise with @@twaffle's and my own article about Martin and Osa Johnson put them into a subforum together for historical Safari stories.

 

(Do add part 3 to this report as well. Thanks)

 

Matt

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Game Warden

There's an interesting Wikipedia article about the Efé people, (pygmies) of Ituri Forest here.

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davidedric

@@Game Warden Hi Matt. Thanks for the flattering comments, and love the idea of the sub-forum - my report won't be of much use to anyone planning a trip! I can see the sense in merging the two parts. Only thing is, no-one can see that part 2 has been added (I myself thought it must have been pulled and was expecting a warning, till I twigged what had happened :) )

 

Using your super powers, could you amend the the post title to say something like "Part 2 added , DRC retrospective", or whatever?

 

Thanks for the Wikipedia link - very interesting.

 

Dave

Edited by davidedric

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Sangeeta

Totally captivating stuff. The retro sub-forum is a great idea. Your pith story would also be an interesting pin.

 

David - your instincts were very good in giving this a chapter to itself. Those vertical shots of the high forest canopy and the short stature of the pygmies just jumped out at me. What a wonderful trip this must have been.

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SafariChick

I'm also loving reading this report - thanks so much for sharing it, so interesting!

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Atravelynn

Your people/cultural shots are absolute treasures. I know I used the word before. The tree climbing and dancing are fantastic. You may have some of the few photos of this, and such captivating ones.

 

"Every evening, the waiters put on their uniforms and laid out the cutlery, and at the end of the evening put it all away again, because, of course, nobody ever came." Poignant indeed.

 

"reconstituted spaghetti bolognaise" is such an odd punchline.

 

Wonderful stuff here!

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davidedric

Part 3: Rwenzori and home (with a couple of twists!)

 

A couple of corrections. I have discovered that the spelling of the mountains has changed, and I now should write Rwenzori (rather than Ruwenzori). In an earlier part of the report, I referred to the Rwenzori being an extension of the Virungas. In fact, a bit more research tells me that though they follow the same line, they are a separate upwelling and are not directly of volcanic origin.

 

Staying with the Rwenzori. They were first mentioned in European writings (as the “Mountains of the Moon”) by Ptolemy in the second century AD. The first modern European to record seeing them was Stanley in 1889, though it is thought earlier explorers had passed that way but not been able to see them because they are so often shrouded in cloud. The Africans, of course, knew they were there all the time.

 

The last part was mostly about people. This is more about landscape, most of the people are our little group.

 

After we’d waved goodbye to the pygmies, we set off back down the road. Turned along another side track and up to “base camp”. Like Mount Hoyo, this had also been a holiday area, and there was a half completed hotel at the bottom. No windows or anything, but nice to shelter without needing to pitch tents. Don’t think anyone tried the swimming pool, though.

 

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In the morning, the porters were chosen. You can see that they all turned up wearing their Sunday best. Once they got the job, they all very sensibly went back home and change into something more suitable.

 

 

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We’re off. John and Liz, the tour leaders stayed behind, and I must admit we did feel rather vulnerable heading off into the unknown. The first day is mostly a hot slog, much of it past shambas or farms. Greetings were an odd mixture of language. Typically

“Hujambo?”

Ça va?”

“Nzuri”

 

In England we are used to paths being “graded” – that is, they zig zag up the hill side to take the steepness out of the slopes. Not here – it’s just straight up and down.

 

 

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As an aside, when I saw the way some of these youngsters could run up hills, I became convinced that these parts of Africa could produce runners like those from the Kenyan highlands given the chance.

 

And so up to the first of three huts. Any Europeans reading may well be familiar with mountain huts such as are found in the Alps. These were similar, and though they had been well trashed, they provided much needed shelter.

 

I recall standing there, looking out at sunset across the Congo basin, and thinking that forest carries on almost unbroken for 2,500 kilometres till it reaches the Atlantic. Makes you feel very small.

 

 

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The next day was tough, very tough. It was mostly through tree heather. This looks like regular heather, except that it is twenty feet tall. The “path” was really just where some moss had been worn away from the roots, and often we were going hand over hand up the roots. We were already up around 3,000 metres, altitude was becoming an issue, and the temperature moved between very hot when the sun was out, and cold whenever a cloud came over. I hope that these pictures give some impression:

 

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The guy in the uniform was our armed guard, Kanyunzo. Don’t think we really needed one, but he came with the package! Finally, we came out of the heather

 

 

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Up to the second hut. My wife, Margalit, looking very pleased with herself. Sorry about the camera shake, I was probably shivering! It was so cold that we took our water bottles into the sleeping bags with us, to prevent them freezing solid.

 

 

 

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Fortunately, we did have help to clean out the porridge pan. We did have some fresh meat on the way up, but the goat bought it the first night, and the pig the second night.

 

 

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The next day was the final ascent. To go further would have required fixed ropes, and they had long ago disintegrated, so hut three was our goal. Up and back down to hut 2 in the one day. The going under foot was easier, but it was hard going at over 4,000 metres. This is where you enter the “Alpine Zone” – a completely surreal landscape of giant lobelias and giant groundsel. It would not have looked out of place on the set of Doctor Who, especially when the mist came down.

 

 

 

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Six teen of us started at the bottom, but only six made it to the top. The rest succumbed to exhaustion or altitude sickness, but you probably wouldn’t have been able to guess at the start who would come through OK.

 

First, myself (in the middle, check out those shorts and legs, ladies), Tony and Adrian, and another girl who took the picture. Tony, on the left, had decided that because it was Christmas he would wear tinsel round his hat.

 

 

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Then Margalit and another chap followed us. Margalit says she probably wouldn’t have made it but for meeting Tony on the way down who gave her a boiled sweet and told her “Get on up there, lass”. I couldn’t work out how we came to have this picture, because I was on my way down by then, but Margalit tells me that I gave her my camera so that she could have a record, too.

 

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A view from the top:

 

 

 

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We stopped overnight at the second hut. It was Christmas Eve, and Tony had a couple of surprises for us. First he had brought some carol sheets out, so that we could all have a carol service:

 

 

 

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Then we discovered that he had been carrying a miniature Christmas pudding all the way from England and up the hill. So we had a teaspoon each. The guides and porters were completely baffled by all of this.

 

This was on the way down – the smug looking ones are the ones who made it!

 

 

 

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We made it safely down to the bottom, though the descent over the tree heather was a complete nightmare. As you can see we were a bit grubby.

 

 

 

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The chief guide had brought a bunch of “everlasting flowers from the Alpine Zone for Liz. (Googling makes me think these are Helichrysum orientale)

 

 

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Back to the road, through the villages

 

 

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We reached the border, went through the usual three part army/customs/immigration on the Zaire side, and into no man’s land to the Uganda border post. First twist. The immigration officer had gone home to his village for Christmas, and taken the official stamp with him. Fortunately (very fortunately) he knew we were coming and had a left a letter for John. So we were let in, but then had to head off through the road blocks as illegal immigrants, looking for the immigration man, which was a touch nerve racking. We did find him, got the stamps in our passports, and down the road to Entebbe. We stopped and did the usual touristy things:

 

 

 

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We do have a picture of Margalit standing in the very same spot from all those years before (though the paint on the sign was a bit brighter then.

 

And finally, we returned to the campsite by Lake Victoria where we had begun.

 

 

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We had left a day to spare to allow for any unexpected delays, and a final twist. While we were hanging around, the priest who we had seen on the very first day, and who Margalit had asked about the school at Namilyango, turned up again, this time in a car he had borrowed. We went over.

“Get in”

“Where are we going?”

“To Namilyango, of course”

I still get a shiver as I am writing this. So off we went, to see where Margalit had spent that year, and which I thought would always be a gap in our time together.

 

It was Christmas, so the students and most of the staff had gone home for the holidays, but we saw the convent, where the nuns/teachers lived – even signed the visitors’ book!

 

 

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The classroom where Margalit taught

 

 

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The garden where she picked papaya for breakfast

 

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And the house where she and the other girl Jo lived (we are still in touch with Jo).

 

 

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Margalit knocked on the door, and could say to the African teachers who lived there “I used to live in this house”

 

 

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Truly, a special moment, and a memorable end to a memorable trip.

 

So, back to the camp site, goodbye to Lake Victoria and Uganda, and back onto the “Flying Crane” for the journey home.

 

Thank you for reading,

 

Dave

 

 

 

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Edited by davidedric

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