Uganda Blog 2012

Well Grounded in Ethiopia…
My big brother Raymond knows how to fly – a real-life pilot. He did some gliding too and once when I was a little girl, he talked to me about turbulence. He explained it was like driving a car fast along a bumpy bog road. Even though you bounce up and down, you’re not going anywhere, just bumping up and down on pockets of air. I was really glad we’d had that chat, as with my eyes closed tight, my stomach lurched again, as the plane bucked and plunged, ploughing through pockets of air somewhere between Frankfurt and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia

Several hours of snatched sleep and three movies later, my climbing buddy Vera grabbed my arm excitedly to show me the dawn through the window. Such a pity I couldn’t see it from my seat! Yawning and putting the seat back up for arrivals, I stretched out cramped legs and thanked the universe for making me a shorty.

The boys looked like their knees were wrapped around their ears. Off the plane into a cold, crisp, but sunny morning. No rain here in Ethiopia, that’s waiting for us in Uganda. Two buses later, we piled out onto the Tarmac a five minute walk away from the plane we just left….and minus one member of the team.

Subsequent inquiries suggested James, or ‘Jam’ as we call him, was on a different bus. It’s been 20 minutes now and we’re still waiting for the bus to transport Jam the five-minute walk from the plane, which has now taxied away. But it’s pleasant sitting here on the runway in the early morning sun. Can’t really go much further without him really. After all, Jam’s leading the expedition….

Hello Entebbe….

The blood curdling scream ripped through the air, as the flight from Ethiopia to Uganda landed heavily on the runway at Entebbe, ripping Concern buddy Vera, rudely from her slumbers.

The third flight in two days over at last, we peeled ourselves from the plane and sauntered down the steps, thrilled at the beauty of Lake Victoria in the distance, with the breeze from the water delaying the effects of the heat.

Hoisting my rucksack onto one shoulder, with my vitally important climbing boots whacking me in the head, and my down-filled summit jacket trailing from a spare arm, I set across the runway to the arrivals building. Shortly I’ll turn on the SPOT satellite tracker, so that you can all see satellite photos of the team at work.

No rain here this afternoon, despite the forecast for extended storms. Then it hit me. Pulling off my concern hoodie, I gasp for breath and wipe the perspiration from my brow. The heat is stifling. Already I’m sweating. This is different, this is something I’ve been worrying about. I’ve hiked and climbed on frosty, icy glaciers and on rain-soaked Irish hills.

But how will I slug it out in this heat? A multi-discipline challenge lies ahead over the next ten days. I’m about to find out if I’m up to it…

Arriving in Uganda

I eat two half avacados in a week. But Zoe from Concern visibly struggled to process the information, as I struggled to explain it better. Our brains crunched through the sticky, honey-coated gears of tiredness, until triumphantly I exploded “I eat one whole one”. The entire group burst into giggles as we all confirmed that two days of traveling between continents had taken its toll.

We’re staying in a lodge tonight, pure luxury compared to what’s yet to come, when we switch to the tents. We’d rolled down our mosquito nets earlier, and entering my grass-thatched hut, I rolled into my bed with a sigh of relief. The first bed I’d slept in for 2 days.

As I snuggled happily into the thin pillow and pulled my sheet around me, I scanned the net for intruders. And then I saw it. The killer spider lurking in the corner, glaring at me with menace. For a moment I contemplated sharing my bed with my hairy friend, and then the conversation from dinner about the range of poisonous spiders in Africa flashed back across my mind.

Leaping to action I jumped towards him, prepared to crush him from existence; and then I hesitated, not through sympathy or fear – but if he was poisonous, would he kill me back while my fingers squeezed him. My brain raced. Could I knock him down, then flick him to the floor and stamp on him? But what if the flick was uncontrolled and he took refuge undiscovered in my sheets. With a flash of clarity I tore a page from my guidebook and approached again. Moments later the deed was done.

In the calm that followed the killer spider hunt, I pondered if he really was a killer… My hairy intruder was really no bigger than a pea. I’m feeling rather guilty now. Poor spider. Killer me.


Concern HQ Kampala….

We’ve caused a bit of a stir.

We’ve just been told that TV crews from Uganda and Kenya will be joining us on our challenge. We’re here to raise awareness for Concern, and the work they do here, so it’s good to know it’s working. Our group is the first charity team to tackle this tri-adventure here in Uganda, and it’s only the second time in the world that it’s actually been attempted. That’s getting us plenty of notice.

Today, we met the Concern staff at their offices in Kampala to learn more about why we’re doing this; why we’re climbing a volcano at altitude, camping and cycling for hundreds of kilometers and kayaking at the source of the mighty Nile.

Photos: The Concern Group in Kampala (top) and the traffic on the way to their office (bottom).

We learned how communities here have lost their traditional farming skills through years of war, followed by years living in camps. Concern is helping with clean water programmes and training projects. Their health and sanitation programmes also tackle HIV and Aids.

The work of NGOs here is even more vital, with the recent freezing of Irish Government aid payments after the discovery of a problem with the accounts in Uganda. The charities and NGOs working here are not affected, but still it means there is less money to go around.

Concern is quick to point out that the discovery was made by Ugandan officials themselves and flagged, and this itself is progress. The Irish Government will be debating the Irish Aid budget in coming months. Everyone here hopes they will return.

Listen to Teena’s report for 98FM News:

With Irish aid to Uganda frozen until the end of the year, the work of NGO’s in Africa is more important than ever. This week, 98FM’s Teena Gates has travelled to Entebbe with a group of Concern volunteers who are taking on a physical challenge to help raise awareness of the problems experienced in Uganda and the work that’s been done to help.

Kampala to Budadiri

We’ve spent nearly 12 hours on a bus since leaving the Concern offices in Kampala. It’s tough, cramped and dusty; but not physically challenging and the talk of the camera crews joining us has given us something new to be excited about. But when the laughter and chatter eases, we all find ourselves looking out the windows of the bus, with the mountains growing ever larger above us.

We’ve already reached 1340 meters . We’ve over 3,000 meters more to climb and that will be at foot. The real challenge begins at 0530 Uganda time. The rain has finally arrived, so our first day on Mout Elgon will be a long, wet, ten hour slog, before camping overnight and starting for the summit the following day. No blog, we won’t have signal. But you can follow our progress through the satellite picture feed.

Mount Elgon Attempt…

Pale lime green lichen fronds of Dead Man’s Beard sweep down from the trees arched across the trail, contrasting with the burnt orange of the flowers spiking up from the forest floor.

The shady natural arch is as graceful and as complex as any church alcove. Almost merging against the canopy, the man in camouflage green holding the gun, foiled by the cathedral setting of the mountain trail above.

This is our Uganda National Park guide, Moses, who is standing framed against the mountain, poised to bring us from the lush rich vegetation to the next stage, the start of the bamboo fields. We’re now close to 3,000 metres high on our extinct Volcano, Uganda’s highest peak.

We’ve been walking up steep inclines and scrambling cliffs in intense heat, but the rewards far outweigh the discomfort. Every boot releases the scent of wild mint, sage and sorrel, with blue delphiniums and red hot pokers that could have been taken from my granny’s garden, growing here in wild abundance.

Moses, and his colleagues, Mosesx2 and Paul point out the coffee plants growing along the trail, the ‘everlasting’ Ugandan flowers that bud in all seasons, and the different types of trees and shrubs that grow amongst the lush vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Around us with every step, the sounds of water gurgling as it chases its way down to the villages below. Our team of porters have pushed ahead to prepare our camp for the night ahead. Thunder sounds and the rain that’s been threatening all day releases it’s force and tired legs find new strength as we pick up the pace, anxious for food and shelter and the luxury of a thin mattress on a mountain 1,700 metres high.

Mount Elgon – The Summit…

The campfire and the singing ran late into the night, but that didn’t stop the early shout at 0530. Hot water boiled on an open fire doesn’t stay hot for long when it’s poured, and our Concern team has learned quickly that a hot coffee is worth the extra 2 mins spent huddled in our tents.

We’re hurting today. Altitude is kicking in, we’ve had headaches, nosebleeds, dizzy spells and nausea, and this morning, as the suggestion of a sunrise hovers behind the trees and hills surrounding our camp, we grin and peer over the rims of our coffee cups with puffy eyes, running a mental checklist of our ailments, and a mental check on the gear packed in our bags for the climb ahead.

We’re blessed. The rain has cleared during the night and the emerging dawn brings with it the promise of good weather ahead. We head briefly to our tents to change our gear. Dumping out our down jackets in place of lighter fleeces and waterproofs, ensuring we’ve still got hat and gloves in the pack. It will still be cold up there, just not as vicious as first expected. The change takes minutes, we’re working fast now, the whole team aware that time is of the essence.

The sun bursts across the trail as Moses leads us out from camp on our final attempt at the summit. The warmth seems to give us new strength. Tired legs loosen and become warm and we stride out with rhythm. Those of us with walking poles find we’re charting the terrain as we look at where we place out sticks.

After a day of tapping through red mud we suddenly notice the earth is darkened to sooty black and glittering in the morning sun. We realise we’re seeing the evidence of ancient eruptions from our now extinct volcano.

Soon we can also ‘hear’ the change of terrain, as the soft suck of the poles on marshy ground is replaced by the hard tap of the stick hitting off rock, and soon we’ve left the earth behind and we’re climbing and scrambling. Ahead we see the final summit clear of mist.

It’s such an occasion. Uganda is possibly suffering some of the most rapid effects of global warming of any country and the rainy season which was once seasonal, is now very unpredictable.

Rain was forecast for our climb, and we’d been prepared to climb in mist without views. But here ahead, achingly close, is a clear summit beckoning against the ominous rattle of thunder and approaching rain-clouds.

The team stopped briefly, dumping extra water and food from our packs, fleecing and gloving up for the blast of cold ahead, and then as one – we went for it.

Striding out and climbing upwards, the pace was slow – as it should be – when working hard at altitude. But we move steadily. The rain chases us, but we push against it, into the sun.

Two days of climbing and a night camping out at 1,700 meters. Plenty of sore legs, sore skin, stomachaches and cramps – But as a team, as one, we made it. In bright sunshine, 15 Concern Uganda Tri-Adventurers summit Mount Elgon. Singing….

Our first challenge completed, now we need to get back down this mountain – and roll on the bikes, for 200km of cycling rough trails until we change for kayaks at the mighty Nile.

Signal and power may be patchy for blogging; but you can still follow our progress by satellite tracker and if you ‘like’ any of the pages here on this website, you help us raise an extra €1,000 for Concern.

Listen to Teena’s 98FM News report from Mount Elgon!

A group of 15 Concern volunteers are causing a bit of a stir in Africa this week.

They’re trying to raise awareness of the work the Irish Charity does for projects in Uganda.

And they’ve put together a multi-adventure challenge to get people talking.

98FM’s Teena Gates reports…

“How are yoooo?, how are yoooo?, Jambo, Jambo”

The excited cries of Ugandan children running beside my mountain bike; the bravest reaching out to gently tap my arm, before screaming with fright and running off to the delighted laughter of their more timid buddies. The children will be the brightest memory of my first day on the bikes, leaving Rose’s Place in Budadiri, bound for Dube Rock over 50km away.

I’ll also remember the shock and the pain of the first ‘big’ hill. We’d had a great taster of the bikes last night, cycling 7km down to Budadiri from the foot of Mt Elgon. And this morning’s start was another fun downhill run, until the downhill ran out and we started our ascent.

At first I kept up well, feeling strong and confident, even when the sun gathered heat and the factor 50 sunblock started rolling down my face. Keep the pedals turning, work the gears, slow it down but keep on moving. My mantra worked with each ascent.

Click here for Teena’s LIVE satellite tracker!

No downhills in-between though, and I could feel my confidence begin to wane, and then we turned a bend and she was there before me. I pushed and heaved as I dug in, determined to make it to the top. I wasn’t going to walk. My legs cramped and my heart pumped in the intense heat, and one by one the other cyclists passed me out calling encouragement along the way.

My breathing was laboured as I huffed and blew, my lungs burning, the way frosty mornings catch your breath on early morning winter runs. But no frost here, I thought I would die as the sun beamed down. A couple of the lads shouted to change my saddle, and eternal thanks to Dave who grabbed my bike and did it for me. He raised my perch up two inches, and when I hoisted myself back into the saddle, I could hardly touch the ground with my toes, but what a difference. The hamster spinning legs were gone, my breathing eased and finally I made it to the top.

Passing through Buwarassi village, Nakussi Village, and several schools with smiling, running children, by lunchtime we’d reached our first planned stop Namayonyi Vocational School, where we were bringing presents of school supplies, toys, beads and a football.

1,112 children and 20 teachers, in the World Vision school, a plaque in the wall dating the buildings as a recent build from 2008. The children were having a craft lesson when we arrived, and they were expecting us. They gathered in a massive pool, holding up cameras to take our pictures as we took theirs. A moments’ hesitation and then closer examination revealed their cameras were made with clay!

Cleverly crafted and brilliantly executed, as our children bent and knelt and pressed the clay shutters, laughing wildly at the scale of their hijack. The laughter and giggles continued for an hour, our football was produced, we played ball, ran exhausted with the children in the sun, and sang songs, before finally saying our goodbyes and heading back to the bikes to calls of Ole, Ole, Ole – the universal Irish anthem spreads even further afield today….

The cool of the wind rushed up to whip my face, and the front wheel of the bike jarred as we leapt from rut to rut, ploughing through cavernous potholes, gathering ever more speed as my reckless downward flight brought me ever closer to the edge.

I could see the rough, gouged trail veering to the right above, and my fingers tensed the brakes, but I could also see the incline further up the path and good sense battled with the temptation to hold the speed that would bring me halfway up the next hill.

Before the battle could be lost or won, the bend was upon me. Instinctively I figured that braking now would be painful, so I clenched teeth and butt and leaned into the turn. The handlebars pushed against me as I leaned with all my strength, and with inches to go, I made it through and shot halfway up the next hill.

I love the rush of heading downhill at break-neck speed, but as the heat of the sun continued to intensify, I found the uphill slog increasingly hard. One hill was so steep that the front wheel of my mountain bike kept rearing up towards me. Wheelies, impressive but hardly helpful!

There were times when I was forced to walk, and exhaustion wasn’t far away as we cycled through Nabongo Village, when again the kids came out to play, their bright smiles and laughter encouraging us on.

Finally, Jam, our Earth’s Edge expedition leader gave us the nod; just 6k left to our overnight camp at Dube Rock primary school. New legs again as we pushed up the last stretch to the school grounds nestled against the view of Mount Elgon, scene of challenge number one.

Scores of children greeted our arrival with the now familiar “How are Yooo?” and laughter. After chat and laughter we set to the tents, getting them secured as quickly as we could, as the sun disappears before approaching clouds and the menacing rumble of thunder.

No sooner was the last tent pole punched into the hard, red, earth when the heavens opened and Uganda threw a violent storm at us. We huddled briefly under a canopy laughing and drinking cans of Coke, but the deluge continued and welcoming the cold rain on our hot, sun-baked skin, we ran into the rain and showered under the downpour.

Laughing and screaming before drinking hot enamel mugs of coffee from the camp chefs who managed to continue preparing supper, despite the rains. Things sometimes don’t happen the way you expect them to in Africa, and sometimes Africa completely surprises you. A couple of hours later, we’re sitting out under the stars eating beef stew and rice, and life has never tasted as good…

The Bikes – Day 2…

Today was a bum day.

It didn’t mean it was a bummer, it means we were spending a lot of time talking about our bums. 90km distance to cover and while our Earth’s Edge expedition leader, Jam, assured us that was “mostly flat”, there were other menaces to deal with.

Do you remember going to the beach as a child and tracing your toes along the hard wave ripples left in the sand by the departing tide? Well add some craters and potholes and a good scattering of rocks, and you’ll get the idea that today’s cycle was hardly a cruise in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

We’re all beginning to feel the effects today and there’s a lot of heroism around, with many of us aching, but no-one prepared to give up their bikes.

The early morning start was memorable too, squeezing into the cold, wet, clammy, cycling shorts and trainers, which were drowned in the rains of the night before. Hitting the road shortly after 0630, the sun still wasn’t warm enough to dry the kit, but the cool was welcome and we put in a fast 60km before lunch.

Afterwards, we needed to dig deep to climb back in the saddle. But the chorus of encouragement from the local communities we passed gave new life to our legs.

Sometimes it was hard to respond, with our heads down and pedals straining, but we needed to remember that while we’d been listening to the calls and laughter for hours, for each generous local, our passing was over in seconds. With their huts facing out to the trail, we were practically cycling through their front yard, and it was important to wave or smile our thanks.

20km out from our camp at Nabweyo National School, ominous storm clouds gathered behind us and we picked up the pace. At some point in our minds we knew we couldn’t sprint 20km, but some primal instinct spurred us on. As the lightning met the thunder and the deluge began, the trail turned to mud, but ever faster we flew, until finally, spinning wheels we skidded into our camp, dumping our bikes in a muddy heap, to run back out into the African rain.

Washing in the downpour we noticed the water sluicing off the roof of a nearby school and ran, laughing, beneath it. Lads and lasses lining one side of the eave, rejoicing in the rain. A row of local women and children seeking shelter under another, looking at us in baffled amusement. We laughed and waved to them and they laughed and waved back.  Today was a bum day.

Meltdown Mountain

That’s what we named it as a team, as we finally reached the top, and threw the bikes down heaving, trying to suck air back into our lungs. As one, we felt we were melting in the African sun, our faces dripping down onto our dirt-caked charity T-shirts. The incredible melting Concern/Uganda Tri-adventure team.

The third day on the bikes was incredibly tough, the trail incredibly rough, the heat incredibly intense.

I’ve found more time for contemplation though. After days of hills and breakneck downhill runs, busting more bruises into the saddle-sores, the discomfort and effort has produced an almost trance-like state, and I realise I’m observing more around me.

It’s Sunday, and you can see the locals have dressed up for various church services, as we cycle through their villages. It seems to highlight the number of children wearing rags. A bright-eyed smiling tot of around 3, in a scrap of red velvet smiling shyly at me as I pass by. Another in a mud-stained lacy frock, that could have made it down the aisle in Dublin for someone’s Communion – many years ago. All barefoot, and many in scraps of torn shirts, the colour long since disappeared. It makes me want to fly home, pack my wardrobe and rush it back here. But children dressed in rags isn’t the problem. So many children lining the route have swollen stomachs. Could that be malnutrition? When we’re cycling through such lush vegetation?

It’s a timely reminder of why we’re here and the work Concern does in teaching people to return to the land. Traditional skills are lost through years of war, followed by years in camps. Concern tries to replace those skills, it runs projects to find clean water, and teach health and sanitation. Concern believes in helping people here to help themselves. It’s empowering the communities it helps and I’m glad to be associated with that. We all here find ourselves catching quiet moments of sadness beneath the chatter and the encouraging banter. We wish we could do more, but at least it’s a start.

Finally we roll away from Meltdown Mountain. Downhill, thankfully. Although the rough downward trail proves a bruising encounter for some and we drastically slow the pace. Within a short period of time the farmland grows richer and the air is strongly and sweetly perfumed.

We turn into a tiny narrow strip of baked earth and follow it forward against the call of frogs and the freshening breeze, promising us that water is near. My pace quickens again, and there’s a grin splitting my face, I feel I’m close to our journey’s end. A local youth running beside me explains that the sweet ‘jasmine-like’ smell is the flower from the coffee bushes growing all around us.

Suddenly I see the Nile, vast and warm and inviting, spread out in front of us. The trail disappears down a bank and we’re supposed to dismount. I can’t help myself. With the end so close in sight, I can’t abandon ‘Thunder’ my self-named bike that has both tortured and saved me for many days and over 200 kilometres.

Together we edge and slide our way gingerly down the last slope until I’m on the beach. And finally out of the saddle, I’m in the Nile and swimming. Warm, soft, lazy water. I can see the fearsome currents out further. But here I’m safe, and happy, and refreshed.

Later we’ll take leaking, ancient wooden boats across to Hairy Lemon Island where we’ll camp tonight before the last stage of our challenge – to kayak a rapid, further up the river.

But for now – Mt Elgon and the bikes – two challenges complete and I’m spending Sunday afternoon swimming in the Nile. Meltdown Mountain is a memory.

Listen to Teena’s report for 98FM News

A team of Irish volunteers have been blazing a trail through Africa this month.

They’ve been climbing a volcano, cycling over 200 kilometers and kayaking in the Nile, to highlight the work being done in Uganda, by Irish charity, Concern.

98FM’s Teena Gates is with them…

A Hairy Wave…

My world turns green and crashes around me. The sun shuts out as the massive wave hurtles down on us. My Concern Uganda buddy Vera is behind me in the two seater kayak shouting through the roar of the wave, “Lean forward and paddle, paddle” and we’re through, over the edge and on our way through our first grade 3 rapid.

We bob up through the powerful Nile current, pulling hard on the paddles to keep our beast straight as we hurtle towards the second roll and the white water comes for us again. I’m slapped backwards by the force of the wave, the kayak bucking and rearing and trying to unseat us.

Pushing forward, shoulders straining and paddle getting purchase, we battle through again heading for the third. We’re more than half way down, and excitement builds. Vera screams with triumph and we push again, but we’ve slipped off the line and the white’s got us, we’re in the rough, mountainous white crests plough over us, and I can hardly catch my breath, tiring now, but so close, we can nearly see the eddy, the calm, the end.

And then it’s over. I’m pulled from the kayak by the wave and I’m swimming, legs up, hanging on to the paddle, acting out ‘stage 2’ of the instructions to the letter, but burning disappointment at being ‘flipped’ so close to victory. But in 3 hours on the Nile, there were lots of swimmers, and later I realise how far we’ve come.

We made pretty good progress on a pretty big wave and I’m suddenly dying to get back on the Liffey in Dublin to try out those weirs. Liffey Descent here we come…

Hairy Lemon Island was the base for our kayaking challenge, a paradise undiscovered that I’ll definitely be returning to. A chap from Cardiff who joined us singing over ‘a pig on a stick’ told us you could stay, camping for a year here for 800 pound sterling, meals included.

Might be difficult to find my way from the airport but definitely worth the effort. It was a lovely place to stay, with our tents facing the sunrise over the Nile. It was a very special place, and definitely it was a fun way to end our grueling ten day challenge, but it was also a reflective place to end our trip.

To see the beauty of Uganda, the splendour of the Nile, the great reserves of a country waiting for it’s time in the sun. We’re counting down the hours to the end of our African adventure, with three flights and three countries to come, before we wave a final goodbye to new friends and new colleagues.

Already the difficulty of our three very physical challenges is beginning to fade into memory, in a glow of African gold. I hope we’ve done a good job for Concern. I’m definitely not finished with my Ugandan adventure.


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