There is a hot water bottle lovingly nestled in my bed. No, seriously, it’s tucked in between the comfy, clean sheets, wrapped in its own fleecy hot water bottle cozy looking a bit like a softer, gentler Cookie Monster huggie toy. It’s uncanny. I encountered the nugget of toasty pleasure after taking a nice, long hot shower complete with absurdly beautiful views over the plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park, all the way to the Rwenzori Mountains and the D.R. Congo border. The relaxing shower, in turn, followed a delicious dinner, served by courteous, attentive waiters acutely aware of concepts like timing and service, in a tastefully decorated restaurant, once again overlooking thousands of square miles of pristine African landscape.
After three months in overwhelmingly dysfunctional Rwanda — a world class study in shortcomings and ineptitude, coated in thick, impenetrable layers of stubborn denial and delusions of grandure — this is nothing short of heaven. This is Katara Lodge in Southwestern Uganda, right on the boundary of one of the country’s largest national parks (technically in the small town of Kichwamba). We’ve come here in part in the hopes of adding lions and elephants to our list of sights, in part to get some much needed R&R from Kigali. It’s a splurge, to be sure (albeit still nowhere near as expensive as the really swanky safari lodges inside the park itself, where you’re looking to pay a couple of hundred bucks a person per night), but after stepping across the threshold and into the sanctuary of tranquility and sheer bliss, it’ clearly worth every cent.
The only downside to all this restorative deliciousness? Getting there. It’s a good seven hour drive from Kigali, in no small part because Uganda’s roads are notoriously horrible.
After loading the car with books on tape (well, okay, iPods, we may be uncool, but we’re not complete Luddites), 10 gallons of water, plenty of snacks, and 5 gallons of spare fuel (see, we’re learning), the first big challenge was getting out of Rwanda at all. At the Gatuna crossing 80 miles north of Kigali we were met by a massive wave of southbound trucks, completely blocking all access to the border post itself. Inch by inch, we weaved our way through this key part of the tenuous and inefficient supply chain that connects landlocked Rwanda with the outside world, running around the clock to deliver everything from fuel to food and construction materials from all across East Africa to the small nation with the voracious appetite. Eventually we faced the stern gaze of the Rwandan immigration officers. “Why was my passport so new?” “Where did Lisa work?” Why, oh why, do you give a shit, just stamp the damn thing and move on. My loathing for bureaucrats knows no bounds, and it seems that with every chance they get, they elect to justify my deepfelt hatred with their actions.
Next a visit to the dingy police office, where a disheveled officer was listening to Beyonce on his laptop and the walls appeared not to have been painted since colonial days. This fine law enforcer’s contribution to the global war on terror and organized crime was to note down our car’s vital signs in a huge ledger (because if you make a note of the engine number of every car that comes and goes, the bad guys automatically give up and go home — it’s a universal rule). He then proffered a tiny scrap of paper adorned with an illegible scribble, which apparently was our ticket through the creaky gate into Uganda. Change money at a crappy rate with some unlicensed bandit (Ugandan Shillings run 2600 to the dollar, making Rwandas 640-or-so look downright maneagable. When there are so many zeros on the bank notes that people have to stop and count ’em, you know inflation is getting out of hand), then repeat the paperwork, but with the added pleasure of purchasing three days’ worth of car insurance from a small agency run by five cheerful women, one of whom laboriously put together our shiny new policy on a wonderful ancient manual typewriter. Another tiny scrap of paper with another illegible squiggle, another gate, and in a mere half an hour we had completed the complex and pointless kabuki required to get four people and a car across an African border – not bad; not bad at all, considering it can take that long just to get a menu at a restaurant around these parts.
Once inside Uganda proper, we were immediately met with a torrential downpour and the challenge of having to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. I once totaled a car in South Africa because I forgot how that works, so I was a bit apprehensive at first. But the small matter of left hand/right hand soon took a back seat to simply dealing with the craptacular road itself.
The “highway” heading north from the major Ugandan crossroads at Kabale has been under reconstruction for years (courtesy of the European Union), and while they’re making the African equivalent of progress, it remains a study in awful. Unlike in Rwanda, there are thankfully far fewer pedestrians and bikes on the Ugandan roads with which to contend, but you’re still faced with a lethal gauntlet of county-sized potholes, rocks, speed bumps, trucks, goats, cows, car wrecks, and general chaos. Once you turn off the “highway,” of course, things only get worse.
We finally reached Katara Lodge shortly before sunset – thoroughly bruised across body and soul, and slightly amazed that our crappy old car had made it in one piece. To be met at the lodge with smiles, moist towels, a snack, a drink, and to be allowed to simply sit for a bit and take in the tranquility of the lodge watch the sunset was nothing short of perfection.