Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hoima, Uganda

Friends: Shortly after I returned to my tent after my latest round of vomiting, the British proprietor of the campground Ingo and I were staying at in Masindi pulled up beside my tent in her car and said, "I heard you were sick. Do you need any help?"

"I think I just have a case of food poisoning,"  I replied. " Once I get it all out I'll be okay."

"Are you sure it's not malaria? Do you have a fever or chills."


"Do you have any aches or pains or diarrhea."

"No,  I'm pretty sure I simply ate something that doesn't agree with me and just need to get it out of my system.  I'll be all right."

"I have some antibiotics. Take one of these now and another in the morning. That ought to help."

I thanked her very much and quickly went back to sleep, not waking again until the morning, when I could finally put some desperately needed food into my much depleted system. But I was so exhausted from our five-hour forty-mile ride out of the park the day before on a rough dirt road that I slept most of the day, nearly forty hours straight.

It was not the road, though, that did me in, but rather the swarms of ferocious, attacking flies that relentlessly chased and bit us, not allowing a moment of respite, forcing us to ride as fast as the road would allow to escape this hell. These weren't your ordinary irritating flies that buzz about and might take a little nip, but rather flies with razor blades for teeth and elongated fighter-pilot wings that allowed them to keep up with us even on the descents. There was no mistaking their bite. It was like a deep saber thrust that had us yelping in pain. My clothing offered no protection. They bit through my shirt and gloves and socks. Both Ingo and I agreed it was our worst experience ever on the bike.

Ingo had the misfortune of a slow leak in his rear tire, forcing him to stop every fifteen or twenty minutes to add some air. He was riding a mountain bike with wide hefty tires, while I was on a road bike with narrow tires.  His bike was better suited to the rough road, so he could ride faster than I could and would disappear up the road. I would catch up to him when he paused to reinflate. He needed to put on pants and jacket to protect himself from the assault when he stopped. Watching him flail away would have been a comical sight if I weren't doing the same myself.

At one point he decided to leave his extra clothes on despite the ninety degree heat, but he was soon so overheated, that he shed his extra protection at his next air stop. His t-shirt was wringing wet, utterly saturated in sweat. He had to make a quick, quick change into a dry shirt. I had been on the verge of putting on extra layers myself, but not after seeing that.

The flies were so thick around us we were killing them left and right, snatching them out of the air or smashing them on our skin or on our handlebar bags, where clusters would congregate. They were continually getting caught in my beard. I was frantically waving my neckerchief from side to side and across my back to fend them off, though on the descents I had to have both hands on the brakes and had to suffer, unable to fend them off. They still managed to get in bites on the wind-protected back of my knees and behind my ears and on my back and ankles. This was a hell unlike any other we had endured on or off our bikes.  We knew it must end and that it would be an accomplishment to survive this, but we had to exert every ounce of energy we could summon to get this over with.

I was braking less than normal on the rocky, treacherous descents, greatly increasing the risk of a flat. Finally, my luck ran out and I hit a rock full on and could feel its contact with the rim. It didn't immediately go flat, but before long I felt it softening, knowing that I had indeed suffered a pinch flat. I was summoning the courage to stop and add some air when in the distance I saw a gateway across the road, indicating the park entrance and shelter.  I felt a great rush of relief as if I were a castaway at sea sighting land.

When I at last arrived at the park entrance with a swarm of flies still about me, I was shocked to see a few people standing about without flailing arms.  I rushed into the park office to escape the flies.  My private little swarm came in with me.  I collapsed into a corner still frantically waving my neckerchief.  The ranger on duty grabbed a a branch and started swatting them off me and out the door.  After he cleared out his office he went to my bike and swatted those that clung to its panniers.  Then all was amazingly calm.  I remained cowering and cringed in the corner of the office a few minutes longer, feeling shell-shocked and utterly drained, trying to regain my strength, relieved that the nightmare was over, but reluctant to go back outside until I was absolutely certain it was safe.

During the five hours of being besieged by the flies we were greatly regretting that bicyclists were allowed into the park. When we showed up at the western entrance to the park the day before, just eight miles from the boat launch on the Nile for a two-hour excursion to the Murchison Falls, we didn't know whether we'd be allowed to continue in on our bikes or would have to get a ride. It was one hour until the afternoon boat trip and we had been riding hard on dirt roads since seven that morning to make it in time. One is charged thirty dollars a day to visit the park in 24-hour increments from the time one arrives, so if we missed this afternoon's boat trip it would cost us an extra thirty dollars if we had to take the morning trip.

There were two young men at the gate. One said we could continue on our bikes and the other said we couldn't. After making a phone call, we were allowed to bike in and were told we could bike out on the main road the next day to Masindi, so we wouldn't have to double back on the eighty-mile stretch of dirt we had just come in on. That was great news at the time. We were hoping to camp above Murchison Falls with our bikes, but that region of the park is thickly inhabited by buffaloes, making it too dangerous for bicycling. The northern half of the park across the Nile is also off limits to bicyclists, as that's where the lions and elephants are.

We made it to the river just minutes before the boat was to leave. It's fourteen seats were booked, but we were told we could sit in the bow if we wished. We had no problem with that. Just across the river we could see elephants grazing at the water's edge. The boat headed for them. In the foreground were several dozen hippos mostly submerged with just their ears and nostrils poking above the water. For the two hours to the falls we passed a school of hippos every few minutes. An English school boy among the passengers kept gushing, "This is the coolest thing ever."

There were wart hogs and gazelles and crocodiles at the water's edge as well. Many of the crocs had their mouths gaping open facing the breeze to cool off. We stopped in the middle of the river at a mound of rocks about a quarter of a mile from the falls, not as close as we would have liked, but as close as this boat could manage in the swift current. The Nile compresses from being several hundred feet wide to just about fifteen feet through a very narrow gorge creating what is called the fastest torrent of water on any river anywhere. This waterfall was featured in the Bogart/Hepburn film "The African Queen" from 1951.

The campground back at the boat launch was packed with travelers. Ingo was able to speak German for the first time in two weeks. A young Englishman, a recent college graduate, invited us to share his dinner of rice and vegetables that he was cooking over his camp stove. He said he had plenty to spare. He was eager to hear about our travels. We were warned to hang our food from a tree, as wart hogs meandered through the campground. Even as we were setting up our tents a mother water hog with three little ones started nuzzling our panniers that contained food.

We were up late, contributing to my fatigue the next day. Our hard push to escape the flies was a near all-out effort, as much as the rough road would allow. That five hour, non-stop effort left me utterly depleted. I gave it everything I had, almost as if it were a matter of life-and-death.

More than two days later now, I'm still not fully recovered. I was so exhausted, only wanting to sleep, I was concerned I might have contracted sleeping sickness from the flies, but these don't seem to be carriers of the disease. We had a final thirty-five miles of dirt road to Hoima today.

My tires have taken such a beating from the last four days on rocky dirt roads they finally gave out with one flat tire after another, three in all. The sidewalls on my rear tire had separated from the wire bead in several places. My spare emergency fold-up tire couldn't take these roads either and blew out shortly after I put in on. But miraculously we met a guy who could sew the sidewalls together out in the middle of nowhere. It just has to last 125 miles to Kampala and then twenty-five to Entebbe.

I was lucky to have had the company of Ingo, while I recovered at the Masindi campground for a day-and-a-half. Though I was too exhausted to eat and my stomach didn't seem eager for food, I forced down some spaghetti. I was even too exhausted to walk three blocks to one of Masindi's several Internet outlets.

We had passed through Masindi on the way to Murchison a couple days before, but skipped the Internet hoping there'd be some in Butiaba, a fishing town on Lake Albert, which Uganda shares with The Congo. We knew there were guest houses in Butiaba and that it was the largest fishing village on large Lake Albert,  named for Queen Victoria's husband, but it was so distant from civilization it had no electricity other than a few places that had small and noisy gas-generators.

At night the town was pitch dark other than a stray kerosene lantern here and there at a small store or cafe. Barely visible people sat in the middle of the road in the dark selling fish and sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, the guest house we pitched our tents at was one of the few places in town with a generator to power a television set in its bar. It was a Saturday night, so the generator buzzed until one a.m. We did get the owner to move it behind a wall, somewhat muffling it.

Even though the town was on a lake, there was no running water other than from a couple of pumps throughout town. Most people just went to the lake to fill their five gallon jugs. I took a bath in the lake. Ingo was a bit leery of parasites so just poured some water over himself from the meager bucket we were supplied with.

We haven't had an easy, leisurely day since leaving Jinja, each day a memorable adventure, requiring an exceptional effort. But no complaints from either us, as we end our days quietly satisfied with our progress, though hoping that the next day will not be so hard.

Later, George


Unknown said...

Yikes George. This sounds like a rough phase of the tour. I have never dealt with flies like that - pretty horrendous, esp. when combined with dirt roads and flat tires. It will be nice to get some more rest soon - the home stretch!

Take care of yourself!

Matt said...

An adventure indeed. Sorry you had such an ordeal. Best of luck as you continue down the road.

T.C. O'Rourke said...

Good grief, George. Have you ever considered a 2 week vacation lounging about at Club Med?