Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Fabled Kisiizi Falls

In the morning J and N. went off to the clinic for the day. P. returned to the hotel where I presented him with my Bradt Uganda guide and showed him the map of Queen Elizabeth National Park. It looked to be only 50 or so kilometers from Rukungiri, but P. confirmed it involved backtracking before continuing north and once we got to the Park, he didn’t think his sedan would be able to handle the rough dirt roads. Ishasha, in the southern section of the Park and home to the tree-climbing lions, looked closer and more accessible. P. called one of the campsites, but they said it had been raining and the roads would definitely be unmanageable in P.’s car.

So we shut the book and I announced I was going to walk around town. P. liked the idea and we set off on foot. Though Rukungiri is bigger than most of the villages we passed through, I quickly realized our walk through town would take all of twenty minutes.

The day yawned before me. I spent ten minutes in an Internet cafĂ© and when I came out, P. said, “We go back?” and I shrugged and said, without much hope, “Do you think there’s anything else to see?” P. responded “Let me ask someone.” What I love about traveling with P. is he takes care of business. He’ll talk to anyone to get the information we need and never puts me in the uncomfortable position of trying to communicate with people and look like an idiot Muzungu.

P. stopped a man nearby and he asked what we’re looking for. Since we didn’t really know, we told him, “anything worth seeing.” A second man stopped and suggested a hotel. We shook our heads. We were not particularly interested in visiting another hotel. The first man suggested a second hotel. “Anything else?” P. asked. The second man said rather casually, “Well, then there are the Falls.”

It’s a tactic I might use on a small child, asking with excitement if the small child would like to go pick up my dry cleaning with me or watch paint dry and then in a bored voice say, “Or we could ride the ponies.”

Of course I wanted to go the Falls!

The man said they were 30 kilometers away, which P. and I agreed was not so bad. It was only 10:30 AM, J and N. would not need to be picked up from the clinic until 5:00 PM at the earliest, and still I figured we would be back at the hotel by 2:00 PM. P. got directions and we walked back to the hotel to get the car.

For the first 15 kilometers we were on the paved, surface road. Then we turned off onto a dirt track. We passed through a village and then rode through hilly farmlands without a house in sight. Five kilometers in we passed a large farmhouse and then another couple of kilometers on another small village. If I thought Rukungiri town was the middle of nowhere, these people were in the middle of the middle of nowhere. We passed only the occasional pick-up truck carrying a bed full of workers. There was no water in sight.

Ten kilometers in we crossed a small bridge over a swamp of standing water. We took this as a good sign. The Falls could not be much farther. We came upon two men with a herd of cattle and asked them how much farther it was to the Falls. They thought maybe another ten kilometers. We went on.

After another seven kilometers, we passed through another village and stopped again to ask how much farther. An old man told it was about ten kilometers.

“Still?” I asked P.
“That’s what the man says.”
“This is turning out to be very far. Should we turn around?”
“We have come this far,” P. said and went on.

We crested a hill and could see the dirt track stretch out before us and pass between two hills. “It must be beyond those hills,” P. said. But when we got to the hills, there was nothing on the other side except another small village and still no water to be found. Ahead of us the road turned from its dusty, pale, hard track into a soft, dark patch of fresh earth. A tractor stood on the side of the road, but had not yet matted the road. “If it rains, we will be stuck on the other side. I will not be able to pass over this again,” P. said. Both ahead and behind dark clouds shadowed the horizon.

“Will it rain soon, do you think?” I asked.
“Very soon,” P. said.
“Maybe we should turn around.”
“We have come this far,” P. said and drove on.

By then it was close to 12:30 and my stomach started to grumble. I ate an apple. Lunch was a long time away. We had driven 40 kilometers and I began to think how typically Ugandan the situation was, for someone to tell us something was 30 kilometers away and have it turn out to be much more than that. An easy trip quickly morphing into a long adventure. We stopped another man and asked him how far to the Falls.

“The Falls?”
“Kisiizi Falls?”
He considered it and then said, “25 kilometers.”

I was distraught. “P., it’s too far. We should just turn around.”
But we had come this far.

We found a gas tank in the middle of a dirt track on the side of the road. A man pumped gasoline into our tank by turning a lever. We asked how far it was to the Falls.

10 kilometers.

We drove another ten kilometers and yes, finally hit the town of Kisiizi. P. stopped and asked a man how to find the Falls.

“The Falls?” Blank stare.
Yes, Kisiizi Falls.
More blank stare. “You should ask someone at the Hospital.”

I was quite sure now the fabled Kisiizi Falls was an elaborate joke played on Muzungu tourists. Let them drive 50 kilometers into the middle of nothingness only to find more nothingness. We parked by the Hospital, a fairly substantial complex of buildings and bandas with a handful of Muzungu doctors walking around in white lab coats.

We accosted a small boy to show us the way to the Falls, but he seemed confused on which direction to go. An older man came up to see what the problem was. After what seemed to be a rather elaborate set of directions, P. asked a question. The man sighed and took off down the road, waving for us to follow. We passed through the hospital grounds and a series of fences that brought us through a cow field. The man walked at an increasingly faster pace until he was practically jogging across the field.

Finally I heard the Falls. The man trotted up a hill and I fell behind to take pictures. When I came up to the top, he and P. were deep in conversation in Luganda. I caught my breath, took pictures, tried not to think about when I might eat lunch, and tried to look grateful for finding the Falls. I paid the man less than a dollar for his troubles, which he seemed very happy to receive, and he left.

After such a long journey, P. and I felt like we had to put some time in at the falls, appreciating their beauty. The path ended a good distance from the water with no negotiable path down. The falls themselves were thirty to forty feet high and it seemed impossible to reach the top from where we stood. I felt five minutes were sufficient.

And then we left and drove the 50 kilometers back to town, during which time I was in a sort of hunger-induced waking sleep that made the return trip go by rather quickly.

1 comment:

Fango said...

From what I have read and what I can guess, that story is fairly typical of your time in Uganda, but... that should go in some book some time! Wow. Good telling. I'm glad you kept going and I'm glad you didn't get stuck by rain.