This past Easter weekend, my new friend Judith and I took a break from big city life to get some air in Uganda’s eastern mountain range along the border with Kenya. Sipi falls was on the menu, as it seemed easy to get to and a reasonable deal for two broke wanderers.
Sipi Falls is gorgeous. It is a place where the Sipi river flows out of Mt. Elgon national park and down into the town of Sipi and the surrounding villages. The high-aspect topography (I was thinking “shelfy” but that’s not a word) surprises the gentle creek with a trio of sudden, near one hundred foot drops, making for splendid scenes and cool swimming holes among banana and coffee plantations. The glory of the falls has earned it a place on the back of Uganda’s 10,000 Shilling note.
The pair of us decided to try and hitchhike to Mbale, the big city near the base of the whole mountain zone. We made it a fair distance in the cab of a container truck with a pair of kenyans. I gave them some smashed Mars bars for their help before disembarking at Iganga
From there we took a fully loaded matatu through a thunderstorm at blistering speed all the way to Mbale. Thing about matatus, any request to slow down is merely chuckled at. Even the stone faced locals became a bit worried once we had a narrow miss with an oncoming truck.
We stumbled around Mbale and found a hired car which took us up the slope to Sipi. The ride reminded me of Flagstaff road back home in Boulder, only more lawless. late in the afternoon we were dumped off near some guest houses which promised camping sites for us.
A man named Tom, whose job it is to befriend tourists, befriended us immediately and took us on a hike to the bottom of the grandest of the three falls. The one which can be seen from miles around. The one of the back of the money. We arranged with him a tour of the other falls the following day.
The thing with the falls: they are not in the national park as we had thought. Instead they are simply spilling between many plots of private plantation land. Originally, the folks around here didn’t like people stomping through their fields, and so barred them from entry. But once someone came around and offered a cut of money for each group going through, they gladly opened the way.
I spent a cold night under my little tarp and under my little blanket. I was happy for the opportunity to sleep outside, especially in this region where biting bugs were hard to find. In the morning, we topped out above the uppermost fall and all the villages. Behind this hill, the national park began, and in front of us, a magnificent view of the countryside opened up. We met some young boys and cow herders dragging their critters to and fro before descending into the subsequent shelves and following the river over cliffs.
On the way down, I asked our guide what a certain dried, shredded plant matter might be, which was spread out on tarps in many of the small villages. Yeast! for the local brew. I asked to stop somewhere so I could sample it. We found a mud hut with a woman inside, the brewmaster. The stuff is called kamek and is made from mashed, fermented corn. When cool, it is a thick completely unfiltered sludge of, well, fermented corn mash served in an old tomato paste can. It is sour and bitter with grain, and maybe 10% alcohol. The unpleasant taste is coupled with a dry gritty texture not unlike sawdust. When served hot, it is exacthy the same, only watered down with boiling water and sucked from a central tea pot – hookah style – through an old hose which probably was a brake line from an old Land Rover or something similar. I put down a fair amount with our guide, reasoning that along with a buzz, I was getting enough carbos and fiber to fill my need for lunch and dinner.
Once the hike was over with, I elected to stick around our guest house, Twilight, while Judith rolled away on a boda boda, determined to reach the national park. I sat around a read some book, played some music, and tried to ignore the Pakistani men, all of them car salesmen out for the three day Easter weekend, who so obnoxiously overtook the place with their pop tunes and great numbers. Tom, who also ran the guest house, offered me a room for the price of a campsite since it was raining like crazy. I enjoyed writing by candle light, comfortable on a top bunk, as a storm raged outside.
The next day, we took the same route we had taken to Sipi in reverse, with much the same luck in finding daredevil drivers. We lingered in the city of Jinja, where the Nile lumbers out of Lake Victoria. We tried to find the source, but encountered a closed gate which requested ten thousand Sipi-falls-emblazened Shillings for passage to see the source of the Nile. Tourist trap! Instead, I took a crappy shot of the visible part of the worlds longest river which I will call the source of the Nile. Who will know?
For the two of us, it was great to get out of the chaos of Kampala. Frankly, sitting here at an internet cafe in a busy district, I can’t wait to get out again.