Gulu – inspiring kids, bush camping and rock climbing!

By Jenny Farmer, September 2012

Saturday morning, 5am, Orion clear in the sky. It’s time to get on the road to Gulu. The Mountain Club of Uganda (MCU) is off on another weekend away! Dawn comes as we whizz up the nice road to the Masindi turn-off, but for once going straight on instead of my usual left turn towards Murchison. The road immediately gets a few more potholes. Passing the mesmerising Karuma Falls, white water churning its way down through forested banks, we crawl slowly over the bridge to watch as much of the river as we can. The road to Gulu gets worse, with the last 60 km slowing us down as we try to keep our little car from becoming lost in the potholes, but eventually we arrive into Gulu, very excited to finally be visiting the town so talked and much heard about.

After a quick vegetable shop in the market, which is bursting with huge eggplants and bright bunches of greens, we head off to find The Recreation Project (TRP). Heading out of Gulu on the Nimule/Juba road, some in the car almost can’t believe we’re on the main road to Sudan- it’s more of a dirt track than anything else.  About 8 Km out of town we spot the tree sign for TRP, and excitedly head off the main ‘road’ towards a eucalyptus patch. Nestled amongst the trees in the cool shade is TRP, a project set up to bring trust and fun back into the lives of Gulu’s children (and adults!). Amongst the eucalyptus was an adventure assault course, climbing wall, leap of faith, zip line, and a challengingly titled ‘Impossible Wall’. How much fun! We instantly become big kids, wanting to give everything a try! But first, lunch- the staff at TRP kindly share their beans and rice with us, much appreciated after our morning of no breakfast. After lunch we’re invited to join TRP’s group of the day- 40 kids from a neighbouring school. We start the afternoon with a session of Boomachakala- all in a big group making silly things of ourselves as we dance around in writhes of laughter. We then hit the climbing wall, a 9 meter mahogany wall, with a range of challenging routes that we give a go. Some of the kids come and join us, a great feeling of team work and support as they are encouraged up the wall with MCU belaying them up. We give the irresistible leap-of-faith a go, clambering up a eucalyptus tree trunk 10 meters tall, teetering at the top before launching ourselves into the air to catch a trapeze- scary, but exhilarating!

Having heard about a good camping spot and potential rock climbing at Fort Patiko 40 minutes north of Gulu, an old slave trade post that then became one of Samuel Bakers forts, we decide to set off in search of it accompanied by a local boda driver Tony- an energetic charismatic guy with a lot of stories to tell. Minor pause for his puncture, and so by the time we really get on the road the sun is starting to drop pretty fast. We cruise along the dirt road, arriving at Patiko at dusk in time to greet the LC1 and his friends. After a quick discussion and negotiation, we are allowed to proceed with promises of full protection and back up from the local police post if anything were to happen to us! We turn off the road and take a small track through the tall grass. By now it’s dark, and the track becomes trackless, taking our car into the unknown. We eventually decide to stop and abandon her in the bush as we walk the final few hundred meters on foot. Unloading our stuff for the night we head out, through the tall grass and then tadaaa, a big rock! We clambered up the sides, laden with kit while Tony rev’ed his motorbike up the 50° slope of the huge granite rock.

Walking across the top there are lots of little pools in the rock surface, and we come across a terrapin running between two- caught in the light of Tony’s motorbike. The rock is intriguing in the dark, lots of boulders silhouetted in the torchlight. We find a grassy spot, at the base of a second large granite rock on top of this one, so settle to make camp here. Tents up, the guys head off in search of firewood with some of the local kids who have joined us, while V and I get to chopping up the giant vegetables bought in Gulu market. The fire roaring away, we settle around it for warmth and stories and get to cooking dinner, frying up the veggies and throwing in some rice. Hey presto- paella! Plus some freshly chopped avocado. Lying around the fire as we digest, enjoying a waragi and sprite, Tony tells us tales of the LRA and the experiences of the communities around us. You can’t help but wonder what the lives of the children sitting with us must have experienced.

After a sleepful night in the tents, we awake at dawn to watch the glowing red ball rise over the woodland horizon. Such beautiful calm, as we sit perched on some of the boulders. The view around us is amazing, as we hadn’t seen it in our night-time arrival with big stretching plains scattered with hills and distant rock silhouettes. Gulu really is beautiful.

Firstly a breakfast of crunchy nut cornflakes, milk and passion fruits, then, yay, off to explore the rock! We walk off around behind camp, scrabbling up the east side of the rock through a whole medley of different sized boulders piled up and around, finding a big python skin at the top of one. We clamber across and up the side of a bigger rock, discussing climbing and bouldering options. Atop of the biggest rock- the views are amazing across the semi cultivated plains far below us. There’s another big rock to our right, with a face too smooth for climbing. But the rock we are on seems to have potential. Charlie, Tony and I run off to get the climbing kit from the car where it was abandoned the night before. Relieved to see all four tyres are still intact, we race back up the rock again with all the kit- it’s sunny and hot already! As we discuss the route options, Charlie sets to making a safe anchor at the top of the rock. Dan is the first to rappel down, spending time at the bottom trying to find a route up.

We all get to descend down in turn, selecting slight variations of the route up which we name ‘Atimo Recreation’- meaning “I did it”! And in honour of TRP. On my ascent I get a bit daunted by the tricky looking start so Grace heads down to help me with an improvised foot hold! After the first meter, the climb is much more manageable, but still requires thinking about foot placement to get up the face. It’s great to be on the rock face, with the massive views around. Too soon I reach the top, taking the trickier route to the left on the final few meters, rather than the easier route to the right- nothing like a bit of a challenge when you’re balanced 30 meters high off a rock!

Midday brings the heat, plus some threatening clouds. Our time with the Gulu countryside is almost up, as a road trip to Kampala beckons. We pack up the kit, take down the tents, and head back to the car which we drive a bit out of the bush before ladening it down. We reach Kampala in 6 hours from our spot in the countryside, in time for our ritual post-trip dinner feast in town. Gulu had such a range of fun and adventure to offer us, we will surely be back again.

The Recreation Project is a charity based in Gulu, working to inspire youth to overcome fear and patterns of war through active healing experiences. TRP welcomes all individuals and groups to pay a visit to the project. TRP can be contacted on 0784526649. Check out their website for more info:

Mount Elgon – Community trek

By Lucy Beck, June 2012

While Kampala is truly a great, vibrant and exciting city every now and then I find nature calling and the serious desire to be out in the fresh air surrounded by greenery. One such urge compelled me to join the MCU and sign up to their Mount Elgon trip at the start of June.

The 3 day hike starts from Budadiri from Rose’s Last Chance guesthouse, a basic guesthouse with both dorm room accommodation and individual double bedrooms, run by the really lovely and helpful Rose. There is a prescribed 3 day hike that Rose offers but they are also very open to changes, amendments and additions and you can sit with your allotted Mountain guide to discuss. Due to limited time we condensed the 3 days into 2.

The walk culminates at Sipi falls -descending down the side of the waterfall into the swanky Sipi River Lodge and offering some spectacular views of Sipi Falls as long as you make sure to keep an eye on where you’re placing your feet!

The rest of the 3 days involve ascending and descending the numerous hills and ridges surrounding the base of Elgon, through local villages and with some spectacular views of the park and surrounding greenery. Word of warning, however, I mentioned that we condensed the 3-day trip into 2 days which basically meant we did the first 2 days in 1 and led to a grueling 10 hour hike on our first day with limited rest stops. As a result Liam my boyfriend cultivated some pretty awesome blisters on the little toes of both feet which meant he hiked the 2nd day in flip-flops and with the help of a cane! So if you really do only have 2 days be warned its not for the faint hearted / unfit and it may be better to just organize some shorter day hikes with Rose. In order to properly enjoy the surroundings and views I would strongly recommend splitting it over the 3 days as suggested!

Sleeping during the hike involved pitching up in the grounds of a local school at the top of one of the many hills on the way with some unbeatable morning views across the whole valley. Clearly Muzungus are a bit of a novelty here as no sooner had we fallen exhausted to the ground than we were surrounded by a semi-circle of fascinated onlookers who proceeded to watch our every move (or in our case, groan) until sunset! Luckily the hardest part on the hike comes on the first day with a steep ascent up to 3000 metres and then along a ridge. From here on in there is a steady pattern of climbs and descents along switch back trails and down through banana and coffee plots. Along the way our guide Wyclef also gave us the options of visiting a smaller waterfall and climbing a small peak nearby Sipi – all these are optional and depend on your strength and energy. On our final day all the hard work became worth it when we rounded on Sipi falls and as we sipped our post-hike sodas gazing up at the waterfall.

The cost of the 2-day hike was 150,000 UGX per person which included all food, tent and sleeping mat hire (we had our own sleeping bags but they are also available to rent from Rose), accommodation in the Guest house, our guide Wyclef and 2 porters to help carry provisions. This is a veritable steal compared to the full Elgon ascent, as you don’t have to pay the daily park entry fees. Unfortunately there is no hot water in the showers at Rose’s but she will boil you up some if you ask, for a refreshing bucket shower, and apart from that the shower rooms are pretty decent. She offers tasty local food including some great breakfast donut variations and a fridge stocked full of sodas and beer. All in all I would definitely recommend it as a shorter, cheaper and (potentially!) less strenuous alternative to the full Elgon ascent.

Getting there: Mbale is the nearest big city to Elgon national park. It’s around a 5 hour drive east of Kampala and thankfully the roads, especially the last leg between Iganga and Mbale are great. Budadiri, where the hike starts from, is about another 1 hours drive into the national park down some pretty bumpy dirt roads and here the Pajero 4×4 came very much in handy! There are 2 ways to get from Mbale to Budadiri – the better route takes you along a relatively good road up to Sironko. While Budadiri can be quite hard to find, if you phone Rose she is more than happy to send someone to meet you in Mbale and show you the way.

What to bring: Although we were pretty lucky with the weather and didn’t have any rain its still advisable to bring proper waterproofs and waterproof bag covers for your backpacks just in case. Food provided is restricted to basic meals so you may want to bring snacks to keep you going along the way. You can buy water from Rose’s before you leave but be warned that there are limited places to refill / restock along the way so it may be worth bringing some water purifying tablets if you can find any. Finally – make sure to bring some cash, especially smaller change. The people living within the park live at the very minimum subsistence level and the community element of the hike means that you will interact with the local communities on your way and as a result may be asked for money to help in the building of local schools / with those families that have suffered misfortune. Giving is obviously not mandatory and you don’t have to give a lot but keep aware that you will most likely be prompted. The same is true of the guides and porters on the hike, tipping is expected, they are also all local to the area and many of them struggle to find consistent guiding work due to the high number of guides so they rely heavily on tip money.

When to go: peak season is mid-June/ July till around September due to the weather (i.e. not too hot, and not rainy). Outside this period we were told few people venture to Budadiri and while the roster of local guides would probably be thrilled to get visitors out of season it may prove trickier for any lone travellers looking to hook up with a group, and the walking, much of which is up and down hills could prove tricky in rainy season.