Category Archives: Travel

Visiting the Lofoten Islands – Norway

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The Lofoten are arctic islands. They are dramatic in every respect. From the jagged mountains that stretch out of the impossibly blue seas, to the never setting sun, right through to the eye watering prices they ask for their locally crafted ales. Incredibly, everyone I meet on these islands seem oblivious to it all, quietly going out to their work which seems to be mainly farming or fishing.

Maybe because of the never setting sun, but these islands hold a timelessness. The islands support some of the oldest mountains in the world that stand as watchman over every day’s activities. Time ebbs and flows intertwined with just the occasional break for dried fish, homemade waffles or, I’m told, the alarming local specialty –lutefisk!

At any time in the never ending day you can glance up in any direction to see mountain peaks. Often they are lit with unworldly pinks and oranges as the sun roller-coasters through the sky dipping precariously close to the horizon before soaring back up to warm this unlikely mild arctic climate.

As you travel along single track roads every house you pass seems to hold the archetype of the Norwegian Grandmother with the smell of waffles wafting through the air by every open window. Step away and this sweetness sits in juxtaposition to the smell of the sea salt mixed with ever present the potent ever present fishing industry clustered around every port.

The coastline dominates both the industry here and the geography. Wherever you are on these small island it seems you’re always close enough to hear the sea perpetually lapping against the shores. The same back and forth that defined these islands for millions of years that offer a reassuring promise that they will do for a millennium to come.

With waffles seemingly cooked continuously and with the sun refusing to set, the need to distinguish between breakfast, lunch and dinner melts away like the soft, sweet brown cheese that melts into the hearts of the freshly cooked waffles. As a visitor, it’s hard not to melt into this routine of existing.

Despite all this, despite the magnificent mountains, despite the crashing sea that stretches out in every direction, despite the spectacular light that shines a warmth gently onto everything we do, despite all this, everyone I meet seems unaware of it. Or at least, only interested only in making sure we, the visitors, are well fed and enjoying our time here.

Dried fish and wet shores, a warm sun perpetually in a cold sky, such massive mountains on such a small series of islands. In a way this juxtaposition of life, land and beauty makes perfect sense. In many ways little seems to make much sense on Lofoten. The one thing you can say for sure though, is that everything on the Lofoten Islands is dramatic and that if you haven’t already, you should visit.

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24 hours in the UK

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Last year when my plane touched down at Heathrow coming back from Uganda I was met with a wonderful scene to welcome me back to old blighty. Queuing to enter the terminal building, what the British do best, an elegant determined woman pushed to the front of queue – sacrilege! One chap next to me notices that I have clocked this queue jumping outrage and chips in with the comment, “fucking French huh”.

What a welcome back to the UK – baseless xenophobic queue based hatred all performed to the backdrop tinny Christmas carols under a smattering of drizzle!

This year I was a smidgen disappointed to find no Christmas carols on repeat but delighted to make it out of the airport without witnessing any casual racism.

Once back in the hills and valleys of the ‘West Country’ though I took little time to head out for a walk. Thinking that this is what made the UK amazing I walked with uncharacteristic clear skies and meek winter sunshine hitting the frost covered ground. I was in a buoyed mood striding across farmer’s fields and down hidden valleys following bubbling brooks.

This mood was lifted further though with what truly makes the Great Britain great. With every dog walker passed a friendly ‘good morning’ was chirped followed by a compulsive observation of the uncharacteristically good weather: “wonderful day for it” or “you couldn’t ask for a better day” before then swiftly apologising for their dog who would be eagerly sniffing my trouser legs.

These small interactions last less than a few seconds but make up an integral part of the DNA of British culture.

Warmed by the simple pleasant jollity of rural British life I stopped in the open fire warmth of a local pub – the Woolpack in Slad – where I had arranged to meet family.

Sat sipping local real ales on slightly uncomfortable wooden furniture (why is that both pubs and churches consider it a virtue to have furniture that in other walks of life would be considered completely unfit for purpose?) I watched dogs curl up on the floor close to their owner muddy wellington boots. With a low warm afternoon winter sun breaking through the window I sat back with family around me and listened to the impromptu piano/saxophone performance that only added to the ambiance.

Outside, after a hearty pub lunch, we strode up Swift’s Hill which enjoys some of the finest views in the region down over the Slad Valley across the market town of Stroud and out to the Severn Valley and across to the Black Mountains in Wales. A few clouds clung to the horizon to exaggerate the sunset as wonderful pinks and oranges were thrown over the fields and footpaths.

It felt like the weather was welcoming me back to the UK, giving me 24 hours of pleasure before it inevitably resumed in the monotony of drizzle that everyone seems to perpetually believe might stop at any moment but so rarely does.

Walking back over the fields I make a decision to call into another pub on the way home. Instead of live piano/saxophone renditions, this pub instead has the unmistakable sound of football coming from the TV screens. Excited to be able to watch my national sport with my fellow countrymen I step in and order my pint of warm frothing ale.

Looking for a place to sit I approach a stranger with the prerequisite of “excuse me, I am terribly sorry, but would you mind if I possibly took a seat” motioning towards one of five empty seats surrounding him. Smiling warmly the man looks up from his Daily Telegraph with impeccable replicable manners and says, “Please, it would be an honour”.

How wonderful is that – being told it would be an honour for me to sit next to him.

Buoyed by these little interactions I sit happily watching Arsenal score four goals with the return of their star striker – Giroud. In an unspoken acknowledgment I suggest to the man next to me through nothing more than eye contact that I was happy, that I was delighted to be back in the UK and that in that moment I could think of nothing I would rather be doing.

Responding to this the man next to me commented in a perfect middle England accent, “Typical isn’t it”. “What’s that?” I responded. “The fucking French keeping such an English institution like Arsenal afloat” he sneered.

Sigh.

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Filed under Gloucestershire, Social comment, Travel

Living the best day ever

This is a cross-post of an article that I wrote for the Africa edition of ehospice news reflecting on the lessons learnt from Hendri Coetzee’s book ‘Living the best day ever’. 

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Palliative care, by definition, is both a science and an art form that involves accepting the reality of death. What you have left when you accept this is what the profession calls ‘preserving or improving the quality of life’.

Never before though, have I been challenged to re-examine the concept of ‘quality of life’ than when reading Hendri Coetzee’s book: ‘Living the best day ever’.

Hendri Coetzee was a South African living in Uganda perpetually searching for the best day ever. This search led him to become a legend throughout the extreme sports and exploration world.

In 2004 Hendri led the first ever complete descent of River Nile from source (Lake Victoria) to sea (the Mediterranean). The 4,160 mile trip took four and a half months and crossed two war zones.

Coetzee was also the first person to run the rapids above the Nile’s Murchison Falls, a section of river filled with some of the biggest white water in the world, and holding one of the highest concentrations of crocodiles and hippos.

He would go on to complete this section of river a further seven times and he remains the only person ever to run the section by himself. He also ran large sections of the upper and lower Congo River, walked 1000 miles along the Tanzanian coast and was the first person ever to snowboard the glaciers in the Ruwenzori Mountains.

In short, his résumé was one of the most impressive in the business.

It was not, however, his outlandish adventures that makes Coetzee’s book such a challenge for anyone to read, but his burning passion for life. Deep within all of his adventures was an intertwined journey to accept the fullness of life – to be able to appreciate it to its full. Only by understanding and ultimately accepting one’s death, Coetzee believed, can we truly experience a ‘quality of life’.

Speaking to some, and by no means all, palliative care patients I have come across a stillness – a deeper happiness – that I have rarely seen elsewhere. It is a happiness that comes fundamentally from within, a spiritual or psychological wellbeing.

Does this come from an acceptance of one’s own death?

Early on in the book, when undertaking the Murchison Falls section of white water, Coetzee writes: “In our society we avoid the thought of death as if recognition alone could trigger the event. Thinking about your own death is seen as a sign that mentally, all is not well. Some people live their entire lives with the sole purpose of minimising the chances of it occurring to them, instead of preparing for the inevitable. After avoiding the issue for so long, it is almost soothing to invite death on my terms.”

Reflecting on this, I wonder how many palliative care practitioners spend their professional hours encouraging patients to think about their deaths, to make preparations and to become comfortable with the idea whilst then perpetuating the myth in their own lives that life is infinite?

I only speak for myself when I write that I am too often guilty of this self-delusion.

To live a truly high ‘quality of life’ do we have to be comfortable with the idea of our death? I don’t know.

For Coetzee though, this acceptance was clearly linked to the life he chose to lead. Writing about his desire to keep going on clearly dangerous expeditions he wrote: “Psychoanalysts may diagnose a death wish, but missions like these enhance the appreciation of life. It is no coincidence that death and rebirth are related in all forms of religion and spirituality. When you accept that you are going to die, and it will be sooner than you think, it becomes impossible to merely go through the motions.”

Even the acceptance of my own inevitable death cannot push me to actions that so invite the prospect of death earlier than it otherwise would arrive. There is too much to live for to put my life on the line in search of living just that one day to the extreme – in the search for the best day ever.

That said, it is imperative for the palliative care community to understand the full spectrum of thought that exists out there. Just as there are people who are terrified of the concept of their own passing so there are people like Coetzee that can write the following words:

“Death is coming for us all…the day we will have to face the crossing will come sooner than we think. I hope my day is many many years away, but… I don’t want to make the greatest leap in life in a vague dream. I want to have the chance to look it in the eye, to say: ‘You have had me in your sights all your life, but it’s on my terms that I come.’ Tibetans believe that one can find enlightenment at the moment of your death, as long as you prepared yourself for it during life…I have had the best day ever more times than I remember. So yes, I believe I am ready to die if that is what is needed to live as I want to.”

Hendri Coetzee was pulled from his kayak by a crocodile deep inside the Democratic Republic of the Congo and his body was never recovered.

At the end of his last ever blog entry though, after completing a section of river that many assumed impossible to kayak, he wrote: “We stood precariously on a unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day.”

I have no idea if – when it came – Hendri Coetzee was prepared for his death. It is clear though, that he lived life to the full and died in way he had to have expected.

Not many of us can say that and for that alone ‘Living the best day ever’ is worth reading. I think we can all learn something from Hendri Coetzee approach to both life and death.

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Filed under Health, Social comment, Travel, Uganda

On international media representation of Uganda

The international media today picked up comments from Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, saying that Uganda’s tourism industry should rival that of Spain’s.

His comments, made in Uganda’s ‘New Vision’ newspaper were then picked up by Agence France-Presse (AFP) and published in global news platforms such as The Guardian.

After reading The Guardian article I did something I very rarely do – I read the comments section.

The first comment came from one Herman Lategan and said:

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Other early commenters followed a similar theme in their comments:

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Whilst I find the hateful and widely misinterpreted rhetoric of anti-homosexuality in Uganda deeply worrying I equally find it sad to see a country lumped with such a characteristic as its one defining feature.

Equally, I am not convinced that by choosing to not visit Uganda (let alone leaving comments under Guardian articles) you are doing anything to help alter this hateful and misunderstood rhetoric that is a much larger than just Uganda.

What I do know though is that Uganda faces a huge image problem in ‘the west’ and these comments, at least in part, are a symptom of this.

This image problem is one exasperated by painfully fictitious portrayals in the media such as the one in Series 2 of the Newsroom that I have just finished watching (other than the lyrics of Band Aid 30 I struggle to think of anything recent that is so crass).

Or, closer to home, try searching Uganda on the Guardian’s home page. All you will find are articles about the anti-homosexuality bill, the hunt for war-lord Josef Kony or bizarre novelty pieces quoting some supposedly hilarious thing an official once said.

Whilst all legitimate issues to cover they are, by themselves, playing into a mainly false perception of what Uganda is like.

In short, it’s crass, it’s unhelpful and it represents a form of low level journalism that I dislike. And importantly it’s all people in the UK (my home country, the place I love most), hears about Uganda (my home, the place that is pushing for that top spot in my heart).  

I find that really fucking sad.

I was about to write something along those lines in the comments section when this well-intentioned comment, one which many in Uganda would see as a balanced response but many in the UK will read like trolling, popped up.

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I wasn’t sure I had the stomach to ever enter into the comments section of The Guardian let alone on a subject like this and so I headed back here to the safe shores of Hynd’s Blog.

Sane and respectful comments welcomed!

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Filed under Media, Travel, Uganda

70 years of mountaineering in Uganda

An edited version of this article was published in Saturday’s Daily Monitor – Uganda’s best selling independent newspaper. 

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As the late afternoon mist draws down the valley the spectacular peaks of the Rwenzori mountain range are left tantalising exposed, reaching high up into the bright warm sky. The image of snow packed glaciers glistening on rocky mountain tops so close to the equator is one of the many wonders of mountaineering in Uganda and is cherished by those lucky enough to witness it.

Standing atop these majestic snow covered peaks is an experience that only a few have managed and perhaps, due to melting glaciers, only a few more will have the chance to see. Many perceive these peaks as too cold, dangerous or difficult to reach, but since its inception in 1945 the Mountain Club of Uganda (MCU) has been accessing and documenting the foothills and the peaks of this magnificent mountain range.

Soon to celebrate its 70th birthday, the MCU has undertaken renewed efforts to expand the Club and to fulfil its core mission: to encourage everyone in Uganda to enjoy, explore and celebrate the outstanding natural beauty that Uganda has been blessed with. This inevitably includes the mountaineering jewel – the range of the Rwenzori Mountains, but goes beyond this to cover all areas of the country.

Charlie Langan, the current President of MCU, talks keenly of the diversity of mountaineering in Uganda, saying, “Although the Rwenzoris provide an impressive challenge for anyone, Uganda has so much more to offer. From the hills of Agoro in the north, to the spectacular peaks of the Virungas in the south west, from the crater lakes of Fort Portal in the west to the peaks of Kadam and Napak in the East, Uganda has something for any level of fitness, enthusiasm and experience. At MCU we are here to help people get out and enjoy the outdoors in this incredible country.”

The MCU was first founded in the Geography Room in another of Uganda’s long standing institutions, Makerere University in Kampala.  The Club was originally founded as the Uganda section of the East African Mountain Club by Rene Bere along with students and lecturers but soon developed into the ‘Mountain Club of Uganda’ – a name that it still proudly bears today.

Indeed, it was in these early years that the MCU laid down the foundations for mountaineering in the country. Deo Lubega, the Club’s Patron who has been active in MCU for over 25 years, reminds newer Club members that it was the MCU who between 1949 and 1958 built a circuit of six huts on the Rwenzori Mountains as well as a hut on Mount Elgon and on Mount Muhavura. At the time the Club was dominated by expatriates but very early on decided to offer training for interested Bakonjo porters to offer formal porterage services on the Rwenzoris as an alternative source of income.

As such in 1960 Timothy Bazarrabusa became the first Ugandan to climb Margherita peak, 5,109m above sea level – the highest point in the Rwenzori range and Uganda. Bazarabusa went on to become the President of MCU and later its Patron and a key advocate for mountaineering in Uganda.

In 1972 MCU Presidents Henry Osmaston and David Pasteur published the “Guide to the Rwenzori’s”- a definitive guide to the range and its history and peoples. Along with Andrew Stuart and James Lang-Brown, these were some of the key figures in the history of mountaineering in Uganda who have documented and explored the mountain areas of Uganda.

Since that time the Club has held a commendable but somewhat discontinuous existence, due to political instability and restricted access to the mountains due to civil unrest. Today, as the MCU turns 70 it continues to build on its proud history and to open its doors to members old and new.

Langan, the current MCU President, commented, “In the last few years the Club has grown from a handful of people interested in mountaineering to a vibrant and diverse community of people eager to enjoy the outdoors. We have spread beyond simply walking and climbing and now regularly kayak on the river Nile, mountain bike through forests and villages and of course, meet up regularly to socialise with like minded friends.”

This ethos of encouraging others to enjoy the outdoors has also driven the Club to try and document the potential for climbing, walking and other activities in Uganda. Just as the Club proudly published a ‘Guide to Rock Climbing’ in 1963, so the Club is today editing the final draft of an updated guide to encourage others with a sense of adventure to leave the comfort of Kampala to head out and explore the extraordinary outdoor environment that Uganda has to offer.

More information:

Web: www.mcu.ug
Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/mountainclubofuganda
Regular events: http://www.mcu.ug/?page_id=19

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Some reflections on learning to kayak on the River Nile

Paddling past 'The Bad Place' on the River Nile

Paddling past ‘The Bad Place’ on the River Nile

I have always loved the outdoors and growing up I occasionally ventured out onto the flat waters of the River Wye, close to my parent’s house in the UK, to do some paddling with my local scout group.

As much as enjoyed these ventures out into the pleasant surroundings of the Wye valley, kayaking remained for me a sport that failed to conjure the passion or excitement of other sports I loved in my teenage years such as mountaineering, football or skiing.

When I moved to Uganda then, it took me almost a whole year until I was persuaded by friends into trying my hand at white-water kayaking on the River Nile.

In retrospect my biggest regret is that I waited this long to try it. Equally though, it was far from love at first sight, or perhaps a more appropriate axiom, all plain sailing from the start.

Getting off the water at the end of the first lesson I knew that a seed had been planted that had the potential to grow into a real passion. I made a conscious choice, despite feeling apprehensive, to give this seed the best chance possible to grow and booked myself onto an additional four lessons with the kayak school ‘Kayak the Nile’.

At that stage, I can remember distinctly feeling that my enthusiasm for kayaking could go either way. As much as I enjoyed the adrenalin of kayaking my first rapid, I also remember a few hours earlier the less pleasurable spluttering for air as I first attempted an upside-down ‘t-rescue’.

Looking back on the last 10 months of padding, I can see though that it was as much the spluttering for air moments, the times I had to work hard, to persevere at practicing skills as it was the exciting splashing down rapids that have helped grow my initial excitement into a real passion.

The hours I spent alone in mate’s swimming pools practising, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, my flat-water role and the sense of achievement at now rolling in (quite) big white-water stands as just one illustration of this.

Unlike some friends that I see now out on the water I don’t feel like kayaking came naturally to me. It took me a bit longer than what I have observed to be ‘normal’ to start feeling relaxed out on the water and especially upside-down.

Even now, 10 months after starting this sport, I still feel panicked when I move into territories that are new to me. Just last weekend I went to surf a wave that was much larger than I was used to and this filled me with an apprehension that, at least in part, dictated how I kayaked on the wave.

It only seems fair at this point to give a virtual hat-tip to the instructors of ‘Kayak the Nile’ who seemed to instinctively know that when I said my goal was to ‘feel in control on the wave’ I was not just referring to the physical challenge of staying up-right but the psychological one of staying relaxed and confident.

Without the careful and consistent guidance of the instructors I am convinced that my seedling of passion planted on that first lesson could easily have been flushed away at any moment.

For as much as I am grateful to the instructors though it is an interesting reflection to note that learning to kayak is also a lot about learning to understand and control yourself. It is not just about taught new skills.

It might sound like an exaggeration to say kayaking teaches you to ‘learn about yourself’ but from a personal experience I can say that one of the most rewarding parts of learning to kayak has been the journey of learning to stay psychologically more in control (for I still don’t feel 100% in control) out on the water.

My passion for kayaking on the Nile though goes beyond all of this.

There is something really profoundly special about being about being on such a huge powerful expanse of water.

Out the Nile I feel something comparable to how I do in large mountain ranges. I feel a sense of my own size and vulnerability in the grand scheme of nature, I feel a sense of wonder at the amazing beauty that surrounds me and a sense of profound appreciation that I am lucky enough to have experienced it.

Even the experience of being near the Nile the night before feels magical. I love waking up after camping on the banks of Nile to see the strong sunlight breaking through the trees with the sort of intensity you only really get on the equator. I love lying in my tent hearing the powerful sound of the water in the rapids carving itself through the rocks in the Nile. I love the, admittedly quite hippy, idea that kayaking is about harnessing the amazing power of nature and working with it.

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Most of all though I think enjoy sharing this passion with people. I love seeing friends do their first lesson, first roll, or first trick on a wave. I love watching those with less experience than me and seeing them progress as much as I love watching those with far more experience than me and feeling that mixture of aspiration and dread about what I might, or might not, be able to achieve in the future.

When I move away from the paddler’s paradise of the River Nile I have no idea if this passion will stay with me but I do know that at this moment I really hope it does.

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Video: ‘This is Uganda’

There are lots of reasons why I love living in Uganda. Equally, it never ceases to frustrate me the distorted and perpetually negative way Uganda is so often portrayed in my home country of the UK.

It is partly because of this I wanted to share this video I have stumbled across. Not because it encapsulates ‘Uganda’ like the title suggests but because it gives just the smallest of glimpses of some of the many wonders that Uganda holds.

If nothing else I hope that it will entice more people by to come and see for themselves everything this place has to offer.

This is Uganda – 2014 from Anne und Björn Fotografie on Vimeo.

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2014 Banff Mountain Film Festival comes to Kampala

The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour is being held in Kampala Uganda at the National Theater on the evenings of the 2nd and 9th September 2014. The tour consists of an incredible collection of short adventure films from across the world.

You can buy your tickets from the theater box office.

Not convinced yet?

Check out this preview:

See you there!

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Filed under Media, Outdoors, Photography, Sport, Travel, Uganda

One novel way to avoid paying a bribe to traffic police in Uganda

I got that all too familiar feeling in the bottom of the stomach that I get when faced with confrontation with authority. A traffic policeman waved me into the side of the road with a stern, if slightly comic, reproachable look on his face. Walking calmly up to the car I can remember hearing the heavy clump of his standard issue boots on the hot cracking concrete as he approached my car window.

Sat looking forward through my dusty windscreen I prepared mentally for the relentless burst of enthusiasm that had served so well before in dealing with traffic policeman. I had of course not done anything wrong but I knew from experience this was not enough to avoid trouble.

I knew the drill. The best way to escape either an arbitrary fine (an offense in Uganda is ‘the inconsiderate use of the motor vechicle’) or in many ways worse, being forced into paying a bribe, was to speak in a friendly, informed and most importantly, relentless way.

From previous experience I knew the subject matter wasn’t important, and so I rehearsed in my head…The weather, wonderful. The place I am going, I heard it is magical. The place I have come from, even better. My friends first experience of Uganda, perfect!

The policeman leaned on the passenger’s window:

Traffic policeman: ‘How are you today?’

Just as I was about to launch into my boundless tirade of optimism my fiancé started speaking:

My fiancé: ‘Ahh, I am well ssebo (sir), how are you? Today is the perfect day for being in Uganda I think. You know ssebo, I love you Uganda so much. I love it so much that I have learnt the national anthem. Do you want to hear me sing it?’

She then breaks out into the national anthem. I sit and watch. I try not to smirk at the ludicrousness of the situation. Most of all though, I try to read the policeman’s face. Looking on I am caught in a mixture of apprehension to what the policeman’s reaction would be and, utter awe for my fiancé’s formidable friendliness.

Questions started to swim to the tune of national anthem in my head…Is this pushing it too far, to literally and totally inexplicably start singing the national anthem?

Of course not.

Within a few lines the policeman starts to join in. The contort reproachable burrows that were resting on his forehead relax and before long he is positively beaming as the two of them are singing in unison.

With a big smile on his face, the traffic policeman waved us off wishing us a good day in English to which we subconsciously respond in unison with the Luganda, ‘bera bulungi’ (good day!).

At this point I glance in my rear view mirror I can see the policeman taking the concept of jollity to a whole new level.

I can’t guarantee this approach works with all law enforcement officers, but on this occasion on this particular stretch of road in Uganda, it worked a treat!

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Talk by adventurer Julian Monroe Fisher in Kampala. 27th Feb 2014

The Mountain Club of Uganda (MCU) are putting on a FREE talk by the world renowned adventurer, Julian Monroe Fisher. The talk will be at 7:30 in Athina Club in Kololo, Kampala.

Please do share this event with friends and family.

Hopefully see you there.

Talk

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VSO: The life of an accompanying partner in Uganda

In January 2013 I moved to Uganda with no job. Why? To be with my fiance who was volunteering with VSO. Within VSO I had the official title of ‘accompanying partner’. This is an article that I wrote for the VSO blog about what life is like for an accompanying partner. 

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Sat on a fold-down seat I felt the flow of night air leaking in through rust holes of the dilapidated bus that had come to pick us up from the airport. The bus jerked forward with every change of gear as we made our way through the still busy streets of Kampala in the early hours of the morning. Sat with a dozen VSO volunteers from around the world including the UK, America, and the Philippines, I joined in the slightly constrained conversation as everyone simultaneously tried to chat to other new volunteers, take in their new surroundings and also contextualise the myriad of thoughts and feelings that rushed through their heads.

For me, as an accompanying partner opposed to a VSO volunteer, I was the exception on the bus. I was the only one without something lined up, a structure to fit into, and a sense of knowing what was going to follow. But, just like the other volunteers, I had the support of the astonishingly well organised VSO Uganda office.

Taking part, and being made to feel part of, the first week’s in-country training was incredibly important to me. As an accompanying partner I was specifically invited to take part in all the sessions and to feel part of the ‘VSO family’. It meant that for the first week I had structure, a formal and informal support network, and also a chance to ask all those questions that had been queuing up in my mind: How much is the bus into the centre of town? What should I say if someone asked me what my views were on issues around religion, sexuality or politics? How do I greet someone in Luganda and how many people in Kampala use Luganda as their first language?

Even though I didn’t have a volunteer placement lined up, I did have a plan for what I wanted to do in Kampala – and that was to find a job.

As such, in the following days and weeks after the in-country training I used the little Luganda I had attained already to charm my way past bored looking security guards into different offices of NGOs to leave my CV and covering letters with receptionists. Those early days of walking Kampala’s dusty streets were a real learning curve for me. Coming from working in the Middle-East I had to unlearn the reserved habits I had picked up and learn to embrace the Ugandan enthusiasm, friendliness and passion for life. In retrospect I am pleased that I had those couple of weeks to get to know the city that would become my home in my own time.

Just over 5 weeks later I was invited for an interview at the African Palliative Care Association. The role was to become their Communications Officer which included editing the online health news website, ehospice. Just 6 weeks after arriving in country I started work in their office just a few kilometres from our new house. Everything very quickly seemed to slot into place and my previous life in the Middle-East and London seemed a long time ago.

With the small matter of the job sorted, this enabled me to spend more time looking into the rest of life in Uganda. Very quickly Anya and I joined the Mountain Club of Uganda and headed out into the mind blowing countryside that Uganda has on offer. In the last year we have visited Uganda’s many national parks to spot the big game, learnt to kayak on the rapids of the river Nile and explored some of the highest peaks the region has to offer. Uganda has so much to offer and Anya and I have every intention to explore as much of it as we can in our remaining time here. (See our blogs to see more of our travels).

Thinking back to that bus journey from the airport with all the new VSO volunteers seems strange now. The strangers that I was talking to have become close friends and in some cases almost like family. The streets that flashed past the window have now become my home and I don’t even notice the rickety old buses that lurch around Kampala’s congested city streets.

Steve blogs at www.stevehynd.com and tweets at @steve4319.

Steve’s partner Anya is a VSO volunteer Education advocacy officer working at the Forum for Education NGO’s of Uganda. She blogs at http://anyawhitesideblog.wordpress.com/

VSO welcomes applications from couples wanting to volunteer together, however we respond to demand from overseas partner organisations and it is rare to receive a request for two volunteers for the same location at the same time that will match both of your skills.

If it is not possible for both people to volunteer with us, the other option is for one person to volunteer (it could be either of you) and for the other to go along as an accompanying partner. This is fairly common and it is usually possible for the accompanying partner to find paid or voluntary work when they are in country. In this case we would only cover the costs of the VSO volunteer, but we would do our best to ensure things like accommodation are suitable for two people.

Find out more about volunteering abroad with VSO.

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Book review: Jason Burke – On the Road to Kandahar

Road to Kandahar
OK, so I am a little late on this one. Jason Burke’s ‘On the Road to Kandahar’ was published nearly eight years ago back in 2006.

Back in 2006, a number of very well respected authors and critics reviewed it.

Jon Snow writing in The Observer commented:

“Burke is not the first to identify the folly of mythologising al-Qaeda into a Soviet-scale monolith with a capacity to destroy the West. But what he does more effectively than most is to use the personal experience of a decade and a half of reporting across the Islamic world to identify the consequences of the West’s flawed response to 9/11.”

Leni Wild writing for IPPR commented:

“Burke highlights the huge diversity that exists in the Islamic world. Whether in Kurdistan, Kabul or Kashmir he encounters a full spectrum of beliefs, worldviews and perspectives…What makes this book stand out is that he does not overlook the radical and destructive use of Islam in various regions. Suicide bombings, honour killings and the other acts of violence carried out by some Islamic militants are all described as ‘abhorrent acts’ which are used to send public messages to communities.”

And so I too add my list to the names of those, mainly on the left, who have enjoyed and I dare say even learnt a bit reading Burke’s second book.

What inspired me about this book though was not Burke’s incredible insight as described by Snow or Wild, the self-evident wonderful use of flowing near poetic language or even his admirable ability to summarize insurmountably complex issues but his ability to draw the very real human side out in each of his anecdotes.

Talking to an unrepentant failed suicide bomber in a cramped prison cell Burke resists the temptation to throw around cheap generalised adjectives – at no point do you read that he was ‘radicalised’ ‘indoctrinated’ ‘alienated’. Instead Burke encourages you to see what he sees – the moustache that ‘looks like it could be used to clean shoes’, the drawn out expressions in tired faces, or the incongruous western clothing worn.

Real expressions, clothes and facial hair worn by real people.

Although the theme of the book is an extension of his first book, ‘Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam’ (2003), the theme for this follow up is much human orientated. Whilst his first book explored how the development of Al-Qaeda as a concept influenced both people and institutions, this latter book flips this analysis and looks at how people interact with different concepts within Islam – including the globalised jihadist ideology associated with Al-Qaeda.

It is this deeply personal approach that makes ‘On the Road to Kandahar’ so accessible even when exploring subjects such as suicide bombings.

Written in the first person Burke encourages a trust in the description of the flawed and multifaceted people he meets along his travels because of his own willingness to acknowledge and laugh at his own flawed and multifaceted approach to war journalism.

As well as the often farcical situations he puts himself into, you’re also exposed to his thoughts in deeper more poignant moments. One of which that stands out in my mind and sets Burke apart from other gung-ho macho war correspondents is when, on returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, he openly talks of having to step outside overcome by the emotion after seeing young girls back in school.

It is a genuinely touching moment in a book dominated by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

‘On the Road to Kandahar’ takes you on a journey to Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Britain, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and back to Kurdistan and Pakistan and without realising you pick up snippets of history and politics along the way. But unlike much of Burke’s articles or his first book, you feel that the politics, history and social analysis are just footnotes to help him better describe his time, his passion and his love/hate relationship with all that he has seen and all the people he has met over the last two decades.

I was once told that an argument is only as strong as the opposing view it takes on. What Burke has done is compiled a wonderful celebration of the diversity of life that is framed in some of the darkest contexts that the last two decades have produced.

For this alone – it is a literacy triumph. 

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Nile River Festival 2014: Sun, beer and some mind-blowing kayaking

DSCN4853
Well over two hundred faces looked on. Each face, for different reasons, stared intently out at the flowing river. From the bank the competing kayakers stood with tops off drying themselves in the afternoon sun eyeing up their opponents bobbing in the water as they waited to take to the rapids.

Spread out over the rocks spectators sunned themselves with cold beers in hand as excited children pushed passed unsuspecting viewers to get perilously close the water’s edge to ensure the best view of the unfolding spectacle.

Sat on the banks of the River Nile, this incongruous group was there to watch the freestyle competition on day three of the white-water kayaking festival, ‘Nile River Festival’.

No one left disappointed.

The festival, now grown into a four day event that attracts competitors from across the world including Russia, the UK and of course the home grown talent of Uganda, is an annual highlight for tourists and extreme sports junkies alike.

The spectators stood on outcrops of rocks on the banks in the bright afternoon sun watching on as competitors such as Sam Ward, team GB coach and co-owner of Kayak the Nile, took to the ‘Nile Special’ rapid to compete against some of the best kayakers from around the world.

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As the afternoon progressed, the crates of empty beer bottles stacked behind the bar started to grow as the sun slipped behind the opposite bank of the river. The kayakers who had not progressed passed the earlier heats now encapsulated the spirit and ethos of the festival by staying, supporting and joking with the remaining competitors.

Out on the river the final four competitors were doing their all to raise a cheer from the crowd and to impress the on looking judges. If the faces of some of the local children who sat huddled together completely engrossed at the competitors acrobatics were to go by then all four kayakers deserved to win.

Despite the Ugandans getting the inevitable loud cheers for every trick completed it was the Brit, Sam Ward, who, after a long afternoon’s performance, came in victorious in the men’s competition.

As the event came to a close streams of children squeezed past the legs of the flip-flop laden spectators who now scrambled up the dry banks of the river – a task made no easier, but certainly more funny, by the afternoons beer.

The Nile River Festival provided an extremely satisfying afternoon filled with sun, beer and some mind-blowing kayaking.

My advice…keep an eye out for the Nile River Festival 2015. But if you can’t wait until then, why not drop Sam at Kayak the Nile an email and give it a go yourself?

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Adventure holidays and trips in Africa for 2014

This article was written as part of The Guardian’s ‘Adventure Sports Series’.

Kayak the Nile
From kayaking the Nile and mountain biking in the shadow of Kilimanjaro to exploring Africa’s amazing national parks.

Jinja, Uganda, is a town on the banks of the Nile that is gaining a reputation as the extreme sports capital of east Africa. This is, in part, thanks to the range of whitewater rapids on the nearby stretch of the river Nile.

You can read the whole article on the Guardian Travel site by clicking here >>> 

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Me and you – we’re not that different are we?

Like a cartoon caricature a small boy creeps along the pool side with a plastic cup full of water in hand. His older brother stands with his back to the sun and the approaching prankster. His brother holds a book in hands and his eyes dart back and forth over the words as he enjoys the warm afternoon sun on his back.

His little brother, now just meters from him lets out a small giggle as the excitement builds in his mind. The older brother absorbed in his book fails to register this tell tale sign of up-coming mischievousness and continues to devour the words in front of him. With the cup of cold water now raised to head height the younger brother takes the last few steps forward towards his victim. Through years of learnt behaviour the boy starts to run backwards almost as soon as the cup leaves his hand and splashes cold water all over his brother.

The older brother stands with wide eyes as his brain tries to catch up with what has just happened. And then, after a few exaggerated seconds, he sets off in pursuit of his younger brother in an elaborate chase.

I sit back in my chair and laugh to myself as I watch the two young boys disappear off behind a nearby building.

And so the old phrase, kids will be kids, once again proves to be true.

Consistently one of my reflections of working and travelling abroad has been the universality of children’s behaviour. As much as we are taught to learn about our differences, when you make a silly face behind an adults back at a 6 year old they will let out a small giggle. This has been proven to work almost everywhere I have been. It’s as true for my nephew and niece as it is for street children in Kampala.

Just try and find me a 6 year old who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to pour a glass of cold water over their brother’s head!

While most except, even if they don’t celebrate, these similarities between kids across the world few seem to be interested in finding similarities between people like me and you – adults.

Whenever I travel I always find it fascinating to observe the often stark similarities that also exist between adults.

This habit has only been exacerbated by my recent work in palliative care.

Inherent within palliative care are human issues that impact on us all. Love, loss, and death are things we can’t escape.  Although we all respond differently to these emotions, and of course our cultures shape these responses, there are also marked similarities.

The look in the eyes of someone who has just lost someone they love is found in the villages of Kampala the same as it is in inner-city Ottawa. I have seen this first hand.

This then begs the question why we are interested so much in the differences between us and so uninterested in these striking similarities?

In the last few months I have been lucky enough to spend time in some wonderful cities around the world including Johannesburg, Ottawa, London and Kampala. Invariably when I’ve returned and met up with friends and family one comment will crop up in conversation before long…

It must be a bit different being back [insert place name] after coming from [insert place name]

Now this might just be me, but whenever people say this to me I can’t help but to think… ‘no, not really…’

This liberal ‘aren’t we all the same deep down’ flow of consciousness isn’t intended to undermine some of the problematic differences between us (some people have access to clean running water, millions don’t…some people respond to loss by lashing out, others devote themselves to helping others) but it is to say that I think it wouldn’t hurt to sometimes take stock of the similarities we see between us and celebrate them.

After all, this is what makes us human!

I can’t help to think that celebrating these similarities might also make us that bit more tolerant of our differences when they do crop up.

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Learning to kayak the Nile

Waves crashes over the front of the kayak. All around, white water sprays up into the air. The relative calm of the flat-water section that follows this 100 meter long rapid seems like a long way off. Every wave that hits the side of the kayak holds the potential to knock this novice kayaker out of the boat and into the white-water. A few minutes later, the perilous waves that were surrounding the kayak are replaced. Now, all around are the ecstatic grins of the other first time white-water kayakers who have just completed the grade three rapid, aptly named, ‘Jaws’. This is just day one of the introduction to white-water kayaking course on the river Nile in Uganda run by Kayak the Nile.

Located a few kilometres to the north of Jinja, arguably the adventure tourism capital of East Africa, the Bujagali Lake offers a more tranquil start to the beginners learning experience. This large section of flat-water provides a picturesque area for first-time paddlers to practice their kayaking skills. The course begins with an introduction to basic kayaking techniques as well as safety and rescue techniques.

The credentials for the instructors passing on their knowledge couldn’t be higher. Out on the water on this morning offering instruction was Emily Wall, two times British Champion.  Perhaps more importantly than her experiences of competing at the highest levels of freestyle kayaking though, is Emily’s patience and obvious enthusiasm for teaching beginners.

Photo by Sim Davis

Out on the water, metaphors are used liberally to explain the movement and science behind kayaking. Whether it is through skiing or surfing Emily finds an analogy that relates to each of the would-be kayakers. Joanna Reid, a British nurse volunteering in Uganda, said after the session that, “Emily was world class and has a gift for teaching. She always made us feel safe. It was Emily and the team that made the day really enjoyable…”

But it’s not just the instructors who make learning to kayak at the source of the Nile special.

To start with, the water is dam released, making the rapids accessible, fun and relatively predictable 365 days a year. Every day you can expect an impressive 1600 cumecs meaning that you know you will have big volume rapids to learn on.

Secondly, the average monthly temperature in Uganda varies by less than two degrees meaning that most days you can expect the temperature to rise to the high twenties, but significantly, little more!

In short, it’s always shorts and t-shirt weather and not wet suits.

Lastly, the range of rapids on the river offers everything from grade 1 to grade 6 with an almost infinite number of lines into the rapids. With the right instructor there really is something for everyone, regardless of confidence and ability levels.

Explaining why she chose the Nile as her home for teaching kayaking, Emily said, “I have kayaked across five continents, yet I’ve chosen to call the Nile home because of the awesome training ground it provides for kayakers of all levels. The white water we have here on the Nile is unique; not only are the rapids warm and deep (with no rocks or crocs), the sun shines and the water flows all year around!”

Photo by Emily Wall

Photo by Emily Wall

In the afternoon then, the beginners head out to explore what this ‘training ground’ downstream of Bujagali Lake has to offer. Of course, fresh faced kayakers are not thrown straight into a grade three rapids. Most of the afternoon is spent practising breaking in and out of fast flowing water (and invariably putting rescue and swimming skills to practice).

But, as the afternoon draws on so the sense of excitement in the groups grows. The group of first-time white water kayakers paddle to a few hundred meters short of the ‘Jaws’ rapids. The river’s immediate horizon has spouts of white water kicking above it and there is the unmistakable sound of water crashing against rocks. Emily, with an ever calming voice gives the internally good advice, “whatever happens, stay calm”. Before adding, “Just keep an active paddle in the water and you’ll be fine”. And that was that.

With a healthy dose of luck and everyone vehemently following Emily’s suggested line through the rapids every learner kayaker comes out of the rapids the other end. Most, if not all, of them are still in their kayaks. But everyone, without exception, has the unmistakable grin on of someone who might have just stumbled across their new passion, white-water kayaking.

Photo by Emily Wall

Photo by Emily Wall

More information:

Visit: www.kayakthenile.com/
Follow: www.twitter.com/kayakthenile
Email: Info@kayakthenile.com

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Hidden Gems Travel Tales – An Anthology

Hidden Gems Travel Tales - An Anthology of Travel Writing EntriesOne of my travel articles has been published in the book “Hidden Gens Travel Tales – An Anthology“.

It will be available for free download on the 5th an 6th October 2013. The rest of the time it will cost £0.77 with all income going to the British Red Cross.

To buy the book click here.

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Driving in Uganda – fun, but not always easy

Rachel (185)The windscreen started misting up as the sun finally disappeared over the horizon leaving the four of us in pitch darkness. Both the wheels on the right side of the car were in a foot deep ditch. The mud that surrounded the car was comparable only by the amount that was inside the car carried in by feet and hands after an unsuccessful attempt to dig and then push the car free from its ditch.

We were sat a few kilometres inside Kidepo National Park in the north-eastern corner of Uganda. Famed for its packs of lions, buffalo and hippos, we could have chosen better places to have got stuck after dark.

We could also have chosen worse though. We had just completed a 12 hour drive through the remote Karamoja region of Uganda from Sipi (in the very south east) up to Kideop (in the north east). The drive had been beautiful but also, at times, very remote. At least here in the national parks there was Uganda Wildlife Authority staff to help us out.

Over the phone:

“Hi, we are stuck in a ditch, could anyone come and pull us out?”

“Of course”

“Great, thanks. How long will you be?”

“Maybe 2 hours, we have to wait for the river to go down.”

“Oh”.

This was first we had heard of any river. Normally I wouldn’t have balked at a river crossing. Truth be told, I actually quite like them. The problem on this occasion was that the windscreen, after 12 hours a shudders and judders now moved about an inch to the left and right and, significantly, about 1/4 and inch back and forth.  Our short term solution, with the kind help of a chap that called himself a mechanic, was to stuff strips of cut up flipflops between the dashboard and the windscreen.

I can tell you now, this is/was a less than adequate solution. When splashed going through puddles, pools of water seeped in to the car. As such the foot wells were soaked.

In short I just wasn’t convinced about going through a river that needed to go down before anything (tractors/army trucks etc) could get through.

The water though remained a secondary concern to the immediate issue of being stuck in a ditch.

Helplessly we sat and waited out the 2 hours until Major Livingstone turned up with 15 soldiers and pulled us free from the ditch. As we departed we asked about the river. Their response:

“There is nothing to worry about, there is no river. Just go straight.”

So, we ventured on through the thick mud. In about 700 meters, we came to a river that in our headlights looked alarmingly fast flowing and had downstream from the crossing a meter or so high waterfall.

Again on the phone:

“We’ve reached the river”

“Don’t cross it”

“We weren’t going to”

“I will get the tractor to pull you through”

“Thanks”

Half an hour later and the tractor turned up. 10 minutes later but over 15 hours from the start of our drive we arrived at the campsite.

The next few days were filled with wonderful safari drives around the park. Lions were spotted and generally a good time was had by all…that was…until…we got a puncture.

Of course, a puncture is a bit of a regular occurrence driving in Uganda and so, eager to be all manly, I jumped out of the car to change the wheel. I pulled the spare wheel cover off to be met with, not the spare that I had checked just weeks before, but a blown out a tyre.

The only explanation I can think of is that someone must have swapped it at a garage when we weren’t looking. As a swore under my breath it was pointed out that a second hand spare tyre might fetch you about 125,000 UGX (just under £30),or to put into context, about half the average primary school teacher’s wage.

So, back on the phone:

“Hi, yeah. It’s us again.”

“Hello”

“We have a flat tyre”

“Sorry”

“And our spare tyre has been swapped for a bad tyre”

“Sorry”

“Can you help?”

“We will send someone”.

Two hours later, some very friendly UWA officials did turn up and then drove us an hour outside of the national park to the nearest trading centre (to the untrained eye it might have just been a small village but we were assured it is a trading centre).

Half an hour and 15,000 UGX (£3.50) later our tyre was fixed and back with us.

As the UWA staff left us, they departed with eternal advice:

“Please try to not get stuck again”

Exploring Uganda is incredible fun and it holds a variety and depth of beauty unmatched by anywhere I have travelled but, and this is a big but, it is not always easy.

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My love affair with Kampala

I am on an elongated honeymoon with city in which I live, Kampala. A rational mind living in this city would see the congestion, the number of motorbike accidents, and the levels of petty theft, but the mind of a lover is anything but rational.

My mind sees green hills, standing pert overlooking the beating heart of the city centre. It sees the taxi buses that serve as the blood flow of the city, bringing life to each of its extremities.  It sees the millions of people swarming through this landscape, each like an atom of the body, for a limited period, an inseparable part of this wider being – Kampala.

The irrationality of my mind was brought into focus a few days ago when I was walking back from work over one of Kampala’s hills. On this occasion the weather was close and heavy. It had been raining most of the day and it felt like there was more to come.

On this day, a thick mist was rising from the sodden ground and dancing in the air with the heavy low clouds. Walking through this was like entering a steam room as the thick air stuck to the inside of my lungs.

For most in Kampala, their thoughts in these few minutes were on finding shelter before once again the heavens opened. My mind though, was caught in that moment, enjoying it, literally breathing it in.

I stopped and stood, just for a few seconds, and watched the moisture lift from the ground and glide through the overhanging tree branches. Through the mist I caught glimpses of other houses and people making preparations for the inevitable downpour. But for those few seconds, it felt like I was alone in the city.

The air of Kampala was slipping into me, dissolving the distinction between the two of us, for a few seconds making us one.

Of course the sky then opened dropping heavy thunderous balls of rain. Every other resident was dry under shelter as I was striding through the streets with thick red mud clinging to my feet.

Somehow though, I didn’t mind, I still enjoyed it.

As with every honeymoon, I know this will all end. I know there will be a day where I will be walking the streets and feel my wallet slip from my pocket as the sun burns that bit harder onto the back of my neck  and I will long for nothing more than the soft comforting embrace of the temperate valleys from which I am from.

But that day is not here yet and so, just like every other lover around the world, I will continue forwarded, blinkered by the beauty of all that sits around me appreciating it to its fullest.

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Time travelling in Uganda

Ssese 1There is a generation for whom Goa (circa 1990s) holds a certain reverence – a timeless perception of freedom. The sight of bronzed bodies tattooed with Indian gods bouncing in near hypnotic ecstasy on Goa’s beaches is an image that is engrained onto a generations psyche.

These days are gone though. Today Goa has replaced the hallucinogenics for chilled beers and cocktails. And it is not just the mind altering substances that have changed. So too has the music and perhaps more importantly – the ethos.

The freedom of Goa (circa 1990s) is gone and it is a fool’s game to try and replicate it. It was with hesitance then that I walked into the Hornbill Campsite on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria, and my first thought was ‘Goa’.

On first impression, the ‘Goa ethos’ seems alive and well in this run down beachfront campsite.

The German owner sits in a string hammock, his grey hair pulled back into a lose ponytail. He wears ripped jeans and a t-shirt that proclaims the divine nature of cannabis and looks very, well…’Goa’.

Across from the owner a wooden hut’s door swings on its hinges in the afternoon breeze. Inside the hut sits a simple single bed that can be hired for a nominal charge. The outside of the hut is painted with murals of faces that stare out through integrated maps of Africa and are decorated in a psychedelic array of colours.

Ssese 2In the early evening light, the owner’s eyes follow an abundance of wildlife that drifts through the campsite. Birds flitter between tree branches, chickens scratch and peck in the lake-front soil and monkeys rustle in the bushes just behind the bar.

Walking into the Hornbill campsite really does feel like you have time travelled back to Goa circa 1990s.

On closer inspection of this alternative reality though you begin to see that at best, this isolated campsite is a reflection of something that has come and gone.

The hammocks look older than their owner and the murals painted on the wooden shacks are fading in the sunlight.

As the sunsets on this small strip of idyllic beachfront, so what remains of the ‘Goa illusion’ also disappears.

Next door a Justin Timberlake club remix shatters the night’s silence and reminds everyone within the near vicinity that these islands are not just a hippy get away but are also used by a growing group of Ugandan fasionistas.

Sat around the campfire that night, bottles of cheap red wine are passed around between strangers as the conversation meanders over the top of distant music.

Speaking to others sat around the fire it is clear that the Islands get mixed reviews. For some the Ssese Islands are a flashback to an ethos and way of travelling that has come and gone. For others though, this flashback is a faded reflection and the Islands are crying out for new energy, infrastructure and most importantly, investment.

Uganda is not going to be the next Goa, but it has got the most earth shatteringly beautiful Islands perched in middle of one of the biggest lakes in the world that could be the perfect backpackers get away. To utilise this though, something though has to change.

Ssese 3

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