Uganda, Part 1: Geography

I haven’t posted in a while, but I assure you there is a very good reason for that. For two and a half weeks just before Christmas, Kailee and I have been on a journey that stretched our world view far beyond anything we had previously experienced. At the insistence of, and with a lot of help from, a wonderful woman named Zilla who took care of my grandfather in his final years, we made a trip to her home country of Uganda to meet her family and the people who surround them, see the country and its wildlife, and learn about day-to-day life in a place that is about as far as you can get from anything we have ever known. Since I got back, between various other obligations, I have been trying to figure out how to adequately condense our experience into a digestible combination of words and photos. I’ve decided it’s not fully possible, but I’ll give it a shot.

I think the best way to do such a thing is to post a small series, in which each post will focus on a different aspect of the trip. This first post will be an overview of the land, the vegetation, and what sights we saw while we were there.

Our first view of the country was at night, when we landed in Entebbe, which is just south of the capital city of Kampala. Entebbe sits right on the shore of Lake Victoria, which is the 2nd largest freshwater lake in the world, right behind Lake Superior. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see that area, as we landed at night, spent the night in a hotel, and got up the next morning at 4:30 to drive 8 hours to Arua, a city in the northwestern corner of the country where we would be staying. As a result, I have exactly zero pictures of Lake Victoria.

We did end up staying in Entebbe again on the last night of our trip, which was good because we got a chance to go for a little walk in the evening and check things out. If we had more time, the first thing I would want to check out is the botanical gardens along the lake shore. There are a whole series of them, and the plant life as well as the birds that live there are pretty darn cool. At least at the point where we were, though, you had to go into the botanical gardens to get to the lake shore.

We hired a driver to take us up to Arua, and on the way we got to see a whole lot of the country. Uganda is about two thirds the size of the state of Montana in terms of area, so it’s not that big of a deal to drive across it.

Immediately when we got into the more rural parts of the country, most of which was ranch land, we started to see people walking everywhere. Most of the women were carrying things on their heads:

Carrying

Additionally, it is worth noting that the majority of Uganda is very green. This may have been partly because of the fact that we came just after the end of the rainy season (it didn’t rain once while we were there, as the dry season had just begun). They don’t really have hot or cold seasons (ie. summer or winter) just a rotation of rainy and dry.

We took a detour on the way to Arua to drive through Murchison Falls National Park, in hopes of seeing some wildlife. The wildlife will merit a post of its own, but the scenery and the changes in ecosystems were pretty cool as well. Soon after entering the park, the forest started to get a little more dense:

Creek

It was very pleasant, and although we were warned that the mosquitoes would be very bad, we encountered very few of them. It was great habitat for monkeys, and we did see a couple in the trees.

About halfway through the park, we took a ferry across the River Nile. The Nile has always, at least to me, had a bit of a mystical aura, like it only really exists in history books, so it was pretty surreal to load onto the tiny little ferry and be right on top of it. Here is the ferry landing. They ferry holds eight cars on each trip, provided none of them are too big.

Ferry Landing

After we crossed the ferry, the landscape changed a bit. The dense forest gave way to grasslands, and there were a whole lot of palm trees.Antelope3

That’s an antelope crossing the road. They were all over the place in the park.

Also, the road in the photo is a pretty typical road for most of the country. A couple of the major highways are paved, but for the most part, they are dirt, and you can’t really tell in the picture, but they are pretty rough. There are huge ruts and potholes all over the place, and in the city it is even worse.

We did see a lot of trucks in the park, and we found out they had discovered oil and were setting up a drilling operation. While this is good news for the country’s economy, it’s pretty sad to think how it could potentially affect a lot of the animals that we only saw in the park. Sadly, it seems that bringing money into the country is the number one priority, and the protection of wildlife habitat has been largely ignored. For more information on drilling in Uganda, check out this article:

With that, we made our way the rest of the distance to Arua, which is nestled right up against the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and not far from the border with South Sudan. The city itself has a population of about 60,000, but the Arua district, which includes all the surrounding villages, has between 500,000 and 600,000 people. The population in the city itself is quite dense. Many people live in extended family households, most in relatively small dwellings.

The history of Arua – and of the West Nile region that it is part of – is quite interesting. For many years in 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was essentially swapped between the Congo, Sudan, and Uganda, but 2014 marks 100 years of the region being a part of Uganda, and this is a big milestone that was brought up several times while we were visiting.

Due to its location, and the current political climate in South Sudan, Arua is home to a lot of Sudanese refugees. It is also a commerce hub for the northwestern part of Uganda.

Additionally, Arua district gained a bit of notoriety in the 1970s as being the home of the third president of Uganda, Idi Amin, whose regime was marked primarily by brutality and human rights abuses.

In Lugbara, the local tribal language of Arua, the name translates as “in prison.” This is the result of a long-closed prison that sat on top of Arua Hill, which incidentally was exactly where the house we stayed in was located. Well, right below a hotel that was owned by one of the family members. The hotel is fully operational, but there are still improvements being made. Here is a building in progress, with a view of the valley in the background.

 

Architecture

I will discuss our experience in Arua in more detail in a later post regarding the people and customs of the area, but for now, let’s close the geography portion of the trip by heading back to Murchison Falls National Park, where we visited Murchison Falls itself, which is quite the spot. At only 23 feet wide, it is the narrowest point on all the 4,132 miles of the Nile. To add to that, there is a concurrent 142-foot drop, which creates a spectacular amount of spray up on the banks. It was pretty cool.

Jesse Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls 2

 

And with that, I bid you all a very happy new year. I made it to midnight for the first time in many years, so I was pretty proud of that. More to come on Uganda later.

 

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