Uganda Days 19-22: A Weekend in Sipi Falls
I'm back! I tried my best to post this on Sunday evening, but by the time I got back it was already quite late, and as you're about to find out, it's a long one. Better late than never!
If I had to describe my Friday in one word, that word would probably be hellish, followed closely by horrific and abhorrent. To say that this weekend got off to a bad start would be an understatement in the extreme. It really began on Thursday. After I'd posted my blog, I started to feel ill. I was up literally all night; and yes, I do mean "literally" literally. I have never been as ill as I was over the course of Thursday night (or if I have, it was long enough ago that I have no memory of it). It must have been something I ate, either the steak in my sandwich at lunch or (more likely) the eggs I made for dinner. Early on Friday morning it felt at least like I was past the worst of it, though I was still feeling awful.
Needless to say, the weekend trip to Sipi Falls came very close to not happening, but I was determined. I started getting ready, but I had to take it easy, go slow, proceed with caution. Thankfully I managed to get down some oatmeal and toast, for which I was relieved, since I honestly think that nothing I ate on Thursday was ever digested. Seriously guys, it was a horrible night.
By late morning I was finally ready to go. I took some medication—partly for the illness, partly for the journey on which I was about to embark— and called an Uber, who tried to pick me up in completely the wrong neighbourhood, despite the fact that Uber runs on GPS. Now even more delayed, he drove me to the bus terminal downtown. Or rather, we made it to a street or two away and then couldn't move because of the traffic. I would have taken some pictures or video to show you, but at this point I was sill preoccupied with keeping my food down and mentally preparing myself for the chaos. Since we weren't able to move, I got the driver to cancel the trip right there—blocked in, mid-turn—and got out of the car to walk the remaining short distance to the bus terminal.
Unless you've been to one of the bus terminals or taxi parks in Kampala, there is simply no way to imagine what it's like, and no way for me to convey a sense of it. "Chaos" isn't strong enough, but that's the best word I've got. The period of time from the second I opened the car door to when the bus was pulling out of the terminal may have been the single most chaotic thing I have ever experienced.
I had a backpack and a carry-on suitcase, both locked, plus my phone and my wallet in my pockets. The goal is to hold on to all of this at once, securely enough that no one in this mayhem can get it from you. Not an easy task. There was not a moment on that street when someone wasn't trying to offer me (ostensibly) a hand or a ride or something else. Several different boda drivers and guys selling bus tickets actually grabbed my luggage as they did so, at which point all you can do is tighten your grip on the suitcase and very aggressively tell them you don't need any help, nor a ride, nor any other kind of interaction whatsoever, so back off. When you're carrying your laptop, camera, wallet, ID, credit card, even your passport, in a situation like this, the adrenaline kicks in.
I made it to the bus terminal without losing anything. Keep in mind that the street spills into the bus terminal and vice versa, and the bus terminal is the same kind of chaos, just with more buses. The security guard out front actually made me open my suitcase so he could check it. You should have seen me hunched over it on the table, ready to take action if anybody tried to snatch anything.
Once I was through security, I had to find Aliana, who was waiting in the offices of the coach line we wanted to use, YY Coaches (we'd heard they were the best). More people trying to sell me tickets, more people grabbing my suitcase, more telling them off as aggressively as possible while staying in motion at all times. I made my way up a small spiral staircase and found the YY office and Aliana. By the way, "office" here means one of a hundred small, open rooms which I don't think have ever been cleaned, let alone empty. And even less pleasant was the bathroom a few doors down—I'd been rehydrating all morning on account of the night I had, so I didn't really have much choice before getting on a bus for four or five (or six) hours. Not even going to try and describe what the "bathroom" was like.
One of the guys working for YY then leads us down to one of the waiting buses, where we pay the equivalent of $6 each and get on board. Picture a Greyhound, but add about a decade of grime, an extra seat in every aisle, plastic covers on the seats, and a cardboard floor.
Oh, and whatever climate you were imagining, add about 20 degrees and the B.O. to match.
Each row had two seats on the left and three on the right. We were in the very back row, which was a stunning six seats across. They don't leave until every seat has a person in it. The whole time you're in the terminal, there are also three or four hawkers going up and down the aisle trying to sell you things. And then once the bus finally started moving, for what must have been the first hour or two, some guy (who I assume worked for YY) did a series of product advertisements in the style of The Shopping Channel. He would take out a sample, then explain how great it was, and then walk up and down the aisle trying to sell it, before moving on to the next one and doing the same. I lost count of how many products he brought out. Here's a particularly illuminating example: he was selling tubes of toothpaste. Benefits include cleaning your teeth. And you know what? People actually listened to this whole thing thoughtfully and then arrived at the decision to buy the toothpaste. As if the thought of using toothpaste was an innovation they were hearing for the first time in this live infomercial.
The time that I spent on that bus was one of the worst times I have ever had. I was still feeling vaguely ill, the kind when you know the only thing holding it back is the medication. The weather was hot and near 100% humidity, as always, and worse on the bus. We were wedged in with zero personal space. The guy to my left decided to keep his bag between his legs and manspread the entire duration of the trip, and frequently (almost neurotically) leaned well into my airspace so he could look down the aisle, despite the fact that there was no view of outside whatsoever. Much of the journey was spent on dirt roads, and I don't know how many hundreds of speed bumps we went over. Some of the speed bumps were so violent that everyone, myself included, were airborne a couple of inches off their seat. For any who didn't know: I am prone to motion sickness in vehicles on a good day.
I don't remember how long the bus ride lasted—probably about five hours—and I actually have no idea what Uganda looks like between Kampala and Mbale. This is because I had my eyes closed the entire journey, hands and bag on my lap, concentrating extremely hard on not being sick or passing out. I can't tell you how relieved I was to finally reach Mbale and get off of this nightmare bus. But the journey wasn't over yet.
Sipi Falls is still an hour past Mbale, so we had to find a taxi (what they call a "private hire" here) to take us there. Thankfully, Aliana has a connection with some people who own a hotel in Mbale, and they had arranged for us to go with a driver with whom they are familiar. We waited in the YY office (very similar to the one in Kampala) for one of the hotel staff to fetch us and guide us to the hotel.
The person came and brought us to the hotel, and shortly thereafter we were on our way. This was the last leg of the journey. That alone was cause for some relief, and the view as we drove out of Mbale lifted our spirits a little more as well:
By the time we arrived at the lodge, it was dark. We checked in and were shown to the accommodation we had booked. It's called a "banda", and it's basically a small round hut with a pointed roof made of wood, a hobbit-size door, a couple of windows, and two twin beds inside. And no ensuite; toilets and showers were a short walk away down a gravel path.
First of all, let me just say that I knew what we were booking when we booked it. At first glance, the banda was actually quite a nice little place to stay, cozy, perfect for a couple of nights up in the mountain. Then within a few seconds of turning the light on, we noticed a few spiders. Also not the end of the world—I've gotten used to dealing with them over the past few weeks, and I had certainly expected spiders in a place like this. Then I turned around and saw a spider on the wall near the door. This was by far the single biggest spider I have ever seen outside of a zoo, and bigger then some of the ones I've seen inside the zoo. It must have been as big as my open hand. And it was thick and black, not like those spindly ones with the stringy legs.
The lodge employee—bless his soul—quickly grabbed something (I don't remember what) and smushed it. But at this point, even I was freaked out. I think that after the night and the day I'd had, and after finally reaching our destination, this thing finally tipped the scale. Long story short: a few minutes later the manager/owner of the place came down to greet us and we asked whether any of the cottages were available. I wasn't optimistic, because he had told me in an email that this banda was the only thing left for two people this weekend, but we were in luck. One of the cottages was only booked for Saturday night, and he generously offered to put us up in there tonight. We'd have to go back to the banda tomorrow—assuming the people who booked the cottage didn't cancel—but he said the staff would give it a really good clean. I can't tell you how relieved and grateful we were. The cottage was a big step up from the banda.
We dropped our stuff off inside the cottage, then headed back down to the main house for dinner. I was starving, since yesterday's food didn't count and I'd had almost nothing today. Dinner here is always three courses plus coffee or tea. We started with soup, followed by some chicken (if I remember correctly) with rice and veggies. Honestly, it's all a blur. Whatever it was, it was great. For dessert we had some kind of sweet apple cake-y thing, which was good, though I couldn't stomach very much of it at the time. And sadly, because of how I was feeling, I went for tea instead of coffee. Still good though.
After dinner we returned to the cottage. It was a vast improvement over the banda, but we still decided we should inspect the place and get rid of as many critters as we could. So for a little while we went around, corner by corner, stomping out spiders and ants, and a few giant black flies, and a centipede (the worst), and possibly a beetle. Afterward, we cleaned ourselves up and got ready for bed. If there was any doubt about how disgusting our day was, it was confirmed at this point. I wiped my face off with one of those cotton pads, as I always do when I'm not showering at night. When I pulled it away from my face, it was completely covered in a dark, red-ish brown colour. It was like wiping off a few days' worth of over-applied makeup. Someone on the bus had commented that we'd gotten some sun during the trip, which I thought was strange, since there was no sun on us at any point. Turns out, it was grime. I don't know if it was the bus, the people, the air, or a combination of all of it and more, but when I saw that cotton pad, I was slightly horrified. I went through another two, trying to get most of it off. We also soon discovered that it was in our noses and ears too—it's rather unpleasant, blowing into a tissue or using a q-tip and have black stuff come out.
Sorry for how gross this is...just wanted you to have an appreciation for what the day was like!
Anyway, after cleaning up as best we could, we decided to watch a movie and crash. We watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I'd seen when I was very young and disliked at the time, but this time I actually really enjoyed it. Strange, but good. And then, finally, we went to sleep.
You might say that being offered the cottage yesterday evening was the moment when things started to improve; but the moment when I knew for sure was Saturday morning, about thirty seconds after waking up. As I mentioned, we had arrived in the dark, so all we had seen of our surroundings yesterday was whatever the lamp illuminated in front of us as we walked to and from the main house. Then I woke up this morning, turned off my alarm, looked up, and saw this:
We could hear the sound of water falling last night, but we just assumed that was because of where we were—it's called Sipi Falls, after all. And it's not like there are street lamps or anything, so even when we looked our that very window last night, all we saw was black. This morning was like waking up in a different place. Here it is a little closer:
From our cottage to the waterfall, it was nothing but green. Amazing, though already we were feeling the sting of having to give up this cottage soon and spend the next night in a banda. This only increased as we got ready and showered, since we'd be giving up an ensuite too. But for now, we were just happy to be there.
Once we were all showered—and I can't describe what a relief that was, after the previous day—we went down for breakfast. Accommodation here is always half-board or full-board, and they serve all the meals in the main house, which looks about as cozy inside as you could imagine. I should have taken more pictures from the inside, but this is walking up to it from our cottage (which is further back and more secluded).
We sat down for breakfast outside, just under that roof:
It was barely 9 or 10 o'clock and this day was already getting better by the minute. Breakfast is always the same. First, they bring out the coffee (or tea, of course). Coffee is grown locally, and it's excellent. Next, they bring out a plate of fresh fruit: mango, pineapple, banana, orange, watermelon. This is accompanied by a bowl of some kind of granola mix, also delicious. After that, they take your order for eggs and bring those out with sausage or bacon, as well as a glass of fresh fruit juice.
It was all amazing. It doesn't sound like anything particularly special, but it was all fresh, and tasty, and healthy. Not to mention the setting in which it's served. We weren't there for long, but breakfast quickly became my favourite meal.
Once breakfast was finished, we inquired about a hike. Today was essentially our only day here, so we wanted to make the most of it. We arranged a local guide—you definitely need one here—and soon we were on our way, water bottles filled and camera in hand. This was at the very beginning of the hike, as we were making our way to the trails:
And this was taken from a few metres further along the road—five minutes in, and I was already enthralled:
We had decided to book the hike that takes you to all three of the waterfalls here (no, the one outside our room doesn't count). The first half of the hike would take us to the first one and back, then after lunch at the lodge we would set out for the remaining two.
Before today, I had never really been on a hike before, not a real one. Everyone's walked through the woods at some point, but this was much different. And it's funny, before today I always had this sense that walking sticks were mostly just for show, but I don't think I would have made it through the day without one. Some of the hike was horizontal, but much of it was going up and down narrow, rocky paths, balancing on stones, finding small footholds on a steep incline, and trying not to slip. There was even a ladder!
I'm sure it wasn't strenuous by hiking standards, but it certainly wasn't a cake walk by my standards. Turned out to be a pretty good leg and core workout, though. That was actually one of the things I liked about this weekend—a lot of good, healthy food and a really active day. After the past few weeks, it was revitalizing.
Of course, the setting helped too, especially after three weeks in dirty, hazy, noisy Kampala. This was maybe about halfway to the first waterfall:
I'm not sure how long it took to reach it, partly because my watch battery died at 11:15 but mostly because I wasn't paying attention. As you get closer, you can start to feel the water in the air, and the ground turns to mud. I'm glad I bought waterproof hiking shoes, because a couple of times I sunk almost the height of my shoe into the ground. By the time you're this close, you're getting soaked by the spray:
Now that I've gone through the trouble of describing how strenuous (and muddy) the hike was, let me tell you about the two local boys who came with us. One's name was Peter, and unfortunately I can't remember the other's. I think they live near to where that first picture was taken, as we were setting out. They just started following us and ended up coming all the way to the waterfall and back. They told me they do this about four times each day they're not in school. They were probably about 10 or 11 years old, if I had to guess. Oh, and they were barefoot form start to finish.
We then walked all the way back the way we came and made it to the lodge in time for a late-ish lunch, which was some kind of meat pie with vegetables and mashed potatoes. I also had a nice cold beer. Then a few minutes of resting up, and we were departing for the second half of our hike. This half was a little less demanding than the first, which was nice.
The first stop was the smallest of the three waterfalls (the one this morning was the tallest), which was a fairly short distance away. Here it is from a distance:
Until now I haven't mentioned all of the locals we encountered on these hikes, especially in the second half. You'll pass by different kinds of houses and huts, most (if not all) of which were built by hand. Many of the plants and trees you see in these pictures are actually crops—coffee trees, beans, potatoes, probably more. We passed so many people, and I think it was one of my favourite things about the day. It's so interesting seeing how people live. Again, it's a whole other world. The best are the kids, though—almost any time you passed one, even very small children, they would wave and say hello, and do so repeatedly as you went. So friendly.
Before too long we made it to the bottom of the first waterfall of the afternoon. It had a man-made cave behind it, which apparently the locals used to use as a hiding place during raids by other tribes. Now it's just a hiking destination. It's always fun standing behind a waterfall.
Our next stop was the top of this waterfall. Thinking back, I'm just realizing how much different scenery we saw during these hikes. The first half in the morning was dense and jungle-y, with a lot of incline. The second half had some of that too, but it also had wide open spaces and rows of crops on hillsides, and more.
When we made it to the top, the view, as ever, was incredible.
What you can't see in that picture is everything that was going on behind. Locals were lounging around, some cleaning or gathering water in the streams, children playing. A little further back was what our guide called the "natural swimming pool". Basically, there's a really deep spot (twice as tall as our guide, apparently), though not very large, at the bottom of a mini-waterfall, where people often jump in and swim. And just behind that, some kids were playing a soccer game.
There was so much more happening, too. It was fascinating.
Our last stop was the third and final waterfall. This one is the second-tallest, at 80-something metres. I think the tallest was about 100 metres and the shortest was maybe 60-something. At the bottom of this one, we found a perfect rainbow. You can't really tell by the picture, but it was so bright in real life.
With three waterfalls down, it was time to head back to the lodge. In the end, I think we spent about five hours hiking today. By the time we were back, it was nearly 6 o'clock. We decided that we wanted to watch the sunset from one of the nearby cliffs, which we'd heard would be amazing. So we quickly arranged a couple of bodas to take us there and arrived with plenty of time to watch the sun go down. I could try to describe it to you, but I won't bother. These will do a better job.
Sunsets always look better in person, and photos can never truly capture the scale of a place, but I'm not sure either of those facts has ever been more applicable. I couldn't (and still can't) believe how far you could see. The pictures, again, don't show it. The land just stretched out into the distance, on and on and on. And it was all green!
I can honestly say it was the most awe-inspiring place I have ever had the privilege of seeing. It was ridiculous.
Once the sun had set, and once we could tear ourselves away from this place, we took the bodas back down to the lodge for dinner. It was quite late by the time we were eating. When it gets dark, they put out real gas lamps on all the tables, and along all the pathways outside as well. You can hardly ask for a more relaxing dinner.
Now the moment we had been worrying about in the back of our minds all day: a night in the banda. We had long since checked out of the cottage, and unfortunately for us, the next people had indeed shown up today. We had also already spent a bit of time inside the banda, in between hikes and meals. So far, no massive spiders. Certainly many, many little ones, but we managed. When we came back from dinner, we did our inspection, just like we'd done in the cottage the night before. Naturally, we found far more spiders in this one tiny banda than we had in the entire cottage, which was twenty times the size. But still, we didn't have a choice really. For me, it wasn't that bad in the end—that is, after we got rid of everything we could find. The banda was essentially open to any insect or arachnid that felt like coming inside, but we did our best to keep up. We watched another movie, The American with George Clooney, which was pretty rubbish. And then we turned out the light, tried not to imagine that giant spider crawling over my face, and went to sleep.
I didn't sleep very well, though it wasn't because of spiders, but rather just because the bed was a couple of inches too short for me. Other than that, it worked out alright for the night. In the morning, I had to shower, which meant walking outside and down the path to one of the shared ones. But this was actually surprisingly nice.
We then headed up to the main house for our last breakfast here, which was very sad. After such an amazing day yesterday, I was dismayed at the thought of returning to Kampala and working tomorrow. But our ride wouldn't be here for a few hours, so we could enjoy Sipi a little bit longer. Speaking of which, we had arranged on Friday for the guy who drove us from Mbale to Sipi to take us all the way back to Kampala today, rather than go through Friday's hell in reverse. That whole experience was just too much...enough that we were perfectly happy to pay a little extra for the driver to take us back.
Both Aliana and I had been hoping to get in a bit of relaxing and reading this weekend, which up to now we had not had the chance to do. So after breakfast I ordered my last Sipi coffee, Aliana got a tea, and we sat out front reading until it was time to go. For a trip that very nearly got cancelled, and despite the experience of getting here, I was extremely sad to be leaving. It was fantastic in its own right, but made even more so in comparison to Kampala. Yes, I've been acclimatizing to life in Kampala, and it's alright—but this weekend was such a nice break from all the noise, the chaos, the people, the dust, all of it. Sipi Falls and Kampala could not be more different.
Our driver came around 1, and we drove down the mountain and back to the hotel in Mbale. After a very quick bite to eat—I ordered tomato soup, but it was pink and tasted like strawberry, so that was weird—we were on the road again. I can't say much about the drive. Once again, I had my eyes closed almost the entire way. This was partly for the motion sickness, but mostly because I just wanted to listen to some music and try to rest a bit. It had been a very tiring weekend, for about every reason you can think of.
We arrived back in Kampala in the evening, and by the time I was being dropped off, it was dark. It felt strange to be back in this apartment, like I had been gone for much longer than two nights. I think it had something to do with how different Sipi is from Kampala—they feel like they should be further apart.
I made some dinner and unpacked, then sat down to write this blog. My plan was always to finish it Sunday night, but we got back later than I thought we would and it has turned into a much longer post than I imagined. So I gave it a couple of hours (which only got me part of the way through Friday), and crashed for the night, very much not looking forward to a Monday at work.
I guess since I'm writing this on Monday, I might as well include a little blurb about today. There isn't much to say, especially considering the rest of this post. I went to work, somehow made it through, and came home, all the while wishing I was back in Sipi, and a little bit out of sorts due to the abrupt change in scenery. I suppose it couldn't last forever. After work I came home, made dinner, then sat down to finish this, which is what I have been doing for the last four hours. It's taken a long time, so I hope it hasn't disappointed!
Even before we departed from Sipi, I was thinking about going back for another weekend at some point. Hopefully it works out...if the opportunity presents itself, I'm there. But for now, good night!