Fort Portal is located around 4 hours drive west from Uganda’s capital. It’s an area of natural beauty, gateway to several national parks and the starting point for many gorilla tracking expeditions. Sitting in this peaceful, laid back town, it’s hard to believe that just beyond the mountain range lies the Democratic Republic of Congo, and all its woes.
As with all of Africa, Uganda was carved up by European powers with no understanding of the systems in place already. So I think it’s equally important to say that Fort Portal lies in the Kingdom of Tooro. The monarchy here (as with much of Uganda) still exists. While the king has some influence he has no political power.
We’ve long wondered what the connection between Uganda and Colonel Gaddafi is as there is a huge mosque named after him in Kampala. It was in Fort Portal that we got our answer from a patient local. “Oh yes, he had an affair with our King mother!” Whaaaaattt??!?! As it turns out, Colonel Gaddafi had a female member of the Tooro royal family (not necessarily the king’s actual mother – Ugandan family lines are blurred) as a concubine. He also explained that Gaddafi had paid for the Tooro palace and mosque. Now, he could have been pulling our legs, but seemed very serious, so we’ll take him at his word.
Getting to Fort Portal was in itself an adventure. After trekking to the central post office in Kampala with packs on, we were told that the post bus no longer runs there. No problem, the private bus company is only a half hour walk away. It was your typical developing world bus station – complete chaos. After being pushed and pulled in many different directions, shoved onto and off of a full bus and being fiercely defended by a local woman (“don’t touch her!!”) we found ourselves sitting on a bus to Fort Portal. Two seats back sat a UPDF soldier with his AK-47. ” Well, I guess this bus isn’t getting hijacked” I thought.
The buses only leave when full, so we had another 45 minutes to watch the hawkers and buy supplies. There were so many hawkers on the bus that I have no idea how the company even knew when it was full. Some of the items available for purchase: solar panels, food, drinks, handkerchiefs, bed sheets, mobile phones, a set of cooking pots, hair clippers, and my personal favorite, a copy of the Ugandan land act.
All seemed to be going well until about 2 hours into the journey. We stopped and the front of the bus emptied out as it was filling with fumes. It was here that we met Derrick. A few seats behind us, he interpreted the situation for us. “These guys, they don’t know what they’re doing. The bus is broken but they’re just making it worse.” Fast forward half an hour, “They say another bus is coming. They are lying. We need to find another way to Fort Portal. Wait… I think I know that guy. Follow me!” he shouted as he ran off towards a parked ambulance. The driver was Derrick’s friend and for a small fee was happy to drive us to Fort Portal. Brilliant!! In Uganda it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
“I love Africa,” grinned Derrick as we zoomed past traffic, which moved aside for us, due to being in an emergency vehicle. “When I hear that Africans have gone to Europe I don’t understand. Why would you freeze to see scenery, when it is so beautiful here?” Peeking out through the ambulance’s curtains, I could see he had a point. Tea plantations gave way to lush vegetation leading up the mountains, whilst baboons played by the side of the road.
Pointing at the baboons, Derrick told us that once he was riding his bicycle here and they grabbed his back wheel so that he couldn’t pass. Another time they had thrown a huge stick at his friend. This reminded me of a local news story we saw last week. It detailed how a convoy of MPs had been attacked by a group of baboons. I wouldn’t mind setting baboons on some of Australia’s politicians at the moment!!
One of the highlights of our stay in Fort Portal was the hostel we stayed in, YES Hostel. At $20 for 3 nights it was an absolute steal and is situated in a valley popular with bird watchers. There really were some amazing looking birds there. Whilst it’s a half hour walk on a hilly dirt track to the centre of town, the peace of the valley is well worth it, as is the firefly show you get walking that track in the early evening.
Near to us was the botanical gardens (bear with me, I assure you the subheading is justified). So, on a promise of some interesting wildlife and plants, we donned our walking shoes and traipsed off up the hill. This is where things got weird. I should warn that the following content is a little graphic.
You have to hire a guide as it turns out, though at 10,000 USH per person it was hardly prohibitive. Our guide however, was an interesting character. None of the paths marked on the map actually existed and everything he said was about sex. Every plant was a sexual dysfunction remedy or looked like genitalia according to him. It was like we had stumbled on to an internet pop up ad. Some memorable quotes include:
” Make sure you fuck the girl to the max or if you have no woman you may go for masturbation or bestiality ”
” You will have a 24 hour erection”
” This tree has some side effects. You will have to dry the bed evey day or the fruits of your desire will stink ”
” Vaginal drought ”
After assuring us that the villagers were friendly, he led us through a group working in the trees. One man was shouting at Leckie, wild eyed. We asked for an interpretation and kind of wished we hadn’t. “If you give me your wife, I would kill my mother and my father.” Well, I’ll decide who I’m given to thank you very much, and murderers aren’t high on the list!
As the tour ended and our guide departed we could finally let out our laughter and talk about what on Earth just happened. How did a trip to the botanical gardens turn into this?
We’ve also been really lucky, in that Derrick took us to an awesome local club called Bar Africana & Bites. As we entered a woman grinned and exclaimed, “you are welcome”. Their BBQ smoked pork was amazing, and even better because there was no cutlery (a sign of a true local joint). It was a little awkward when they turned the music off to watch the news and the first story was about Western powers trying to influence Uganda’s government roles.
The best thing about the night was a story Derrick told us. In the traditional African style it involved spirituality and a message, and I’ll leave you with it.
There once was a woman, Derrick’s aunt in fact, whose husband died. As he died he told her that she should not be with another man until their youngest son was 18. Soon after her husband’s death, the woman slept with another man. That night, her husband came back in spirit form. He said, ‘I told you not to do this until our son was 18. Please do not do it again.’
For a time she heeded his words, but as time wore on she began to think she had imagined the spirit and a few years later she slept with another man. That night her husband appeared again, with other deceased family members and told her that if she did this again they would take the children away. Knowing that the family members were dead, she thought that for them to take the children, then surely they would die too.
The next day, afraid for her children’s lives, she went to the witch doctor, who invoked the spirit of her dead husband. You could tell it was him because he spoke in English, a language the witch doctor didn’t know. To prove himself, he told her that his grave was broken and she must return to their village to repair it. She returned and found that sure enough, there was a giant crack in the grave. She knew now that the apparition was real and didn’t sleep with another man until the son was 18.