Exotic birds and unhappy taxi drivers

04-11-2011

The Mbarara Road suggests a route to some Brigadoon-like place in the Western Isles. The real Mbarara is only slightly less romantic as it sits beside the Mpanga Forest Reserve where red-tailed monkeys and bush pigs can be found. The road takes us from our own district of Masaka eastwards to Kampala where we have been for the last couple of days.

After persuading a taxi to take us from Kiwangala to Masaka we found ourselves on board the bus for Kampala by late morning. The wait wasn't too long this time. About an hour and a half after boarding, the log under the rear wheel was rolled away and the driver jump-started the bus down the taxi park. It was soon evident as we rolled onto the potholed Masaka centre that this was another vehicle where suspension and shock absorbers (besides a hand-brake) have become optional extras.

Soon after leaving Masaka the road crosses a flat papyrus marshland as it skirts the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Beyond that the flat red soil has been given over to sporadic smallholdings growing local produce. Among these we spotted two great crested cranes, the national bird of Uganda, standing among the tall grasses. These are supposedly very rare and shy birds so getting a sight was something special. Later and not for the first time, we crossed the equator with its tourist building and entrepreneurs demonstrating water swirling in opposite directions either side of the line.

Our reason for visiting the big city is to find the requirements for visas in Uganda. The local immigration office in Masaka had been polite and helpful but only as far as suggesting we make the trip to Kampala and ask there. So Mrs R has found us a hotel near to the main taxi park in the city where allegedly a taxi can be found to take us out to the main immigration building. Fortunately, our room is away from the main road and continual traffic noise. Less fortunately, it overlooks a car mechanic's with an air compressor that fires every second all night long. Sleep, like any kind of peace in Kampala, has proved elusive. There is also a puddle of water drifting across the floor from a drip in the bathroom. On the bright side, we do have hot as well as cold running water.

This city is one to be endured rather than enjoyed. The taxi park yesterday merged in with the solid mass of traffic that is the road system. The place is so full of minibuses that when occasionally one wants out, the other five hundred have to inch back and forward across the potholes to make room. We discovered later why so many taxis were huddled together, none of them setting out on any kind of journey. After sitting on a bus that was in the middle of this parking lot, with vehicles on all four sides and clearly going nowhere soon, we headed out on foot and up to the Jinja Road which is the main artery east towards the immigration building.

Immigration, once we had passed the police security checks outside the building, tested our skills in patience and diplomacy. However, we emerged eventually with the information we needed. Rather than take the bus back into town, we decided to walk and took time to enjoy some of the small shops which we didn't have time to see during our previous visit. A series of book shops, among the sagging shelves of school texts, had a copy of Allan Quatermain by H Rider Haggard which Mrs R bought to read by torchlight back in Kiwangala.

We had seen a news headline suggesting that not only were the taxi-buses less than pristine, the taxi drivers are revolting as well. There has been a running dispute between the taxi drivers and the Uganda Taxi Drivers and Owners Association over the collection of daily fees. Earlier this week there had been injuries and arrests after trouble had flared up. Yesterday, we were fortunate to be back in our hotel when trouble reared its head again with gunfire not far away and from where we had passed only twenty minutes previously.

When the crowd all start running in the same direction at the same time, something is happening. Our next-door workshop closed its steel gates and a fog could be seen drifting over the area of the taxi park. We are reading in this morning's headlines that tear gas was fired after one of the drivers had refused to pay the fees which would allow him to leave the taxi park. It seems he was beaten and died on the way to hospital. The other drivers started rioting. Fortunately, shortly after the drivers began rampaging and fighting with the police, a heavy downpour cleared both tear-gas and protesters and, as seems to be the way of things here, normality was restored soon after. The crowd outside our hotel drifted on their way and the traffic started flowing into the centre again like water finding its natural level.

Tomorrow we head back to Kiwangala and the relative peace of the country, where hopefully we might find some sleep.