A tri-nation celebration

Across cultures and ecosystems, Robert Upe takes a 2000-kilometre road trip through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

There's a thunderclap and in an instant raindrops the size of marbles are pelting down, turning the dusty red Ugandan soil to sticky mud. The storm soaks me faster than I can tie a shoelace.

Before the equatorial downpour, a drumming band had been playing in the sapping heat next to the rapids at Bujagali Falls on the White Nile, where crowds of tourists and locals come to see the death-defying "jerrycan kids".

The drummers scatter, cowering from the rain under a thin canopy of trees, and the locals take off in their mini vans that slip sideways in the new mud on the rough road to the city of Jinja.

I'm left standing next to the river with the bare-chested kids who, daily, jump into the water and risk their lives for a few shillings from astonished onlookers. Clutching a plastic jerrycan, sometimes plugged watertight with only an avocado, these young men are washed through foaming rapids that flip rafts and are rated the highest degree of difficulty.

Rafting is big business in Jinja and the kids who plunge into the fast-flowing water are just a sideshow in the town, which was devastated in the 1970s by the country's brutal despot Idi Amin. Apart from expelling Asian business owners and sending Jinja into economic ruin, Amin's henchmen dumped so many bodies into the water that they clogged the Owen Falls Dam. It is a few kilometres up river from where the kids take their leap of faith and near Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.

With a backward roll, I plunge into the river, but I'm not in it for the shillings.

The humidity is stifling during a three-hour raft trip on a section of the White Nile that is wide and languid. We float by small islands that provide sanctuary for kingfishers and cheeky weaver birds that flit in and out of small holes in their oval nests dangling from branches.

Our guide steers us through mild whitewater and tells how rafting, adventure tourism and an influx of backpackers have buoyed Jinja. Beyond Bujagali Falls, he says, the White Nile provides the biggest, most thrilling and safest grade-five rapids in the world.

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A new and controversial dam will flood some of the land beside the White Nile and change the flow of the river. It will force the jerrycan kids to find a new place to perform but rafting will be largely unaffected, operators claim.

Our rafting guide is unflappable until police fine him 40,000 Ugandan shillings ($13.50) for carrying the rubber raft on the roof of his mini van. This is something he does almost every day on the same road past the same police patrol. The raft is well tethered and doesn't look hazardous, certainly not like the clapped-out motorbike that rattles past with six crates of chickens and two chairs in a wobbly stack. Oh, and there goes another motorbike with three long benches teetering across the seat and into the line of traffic. It's not the money that bothers him but the day of red tape that will be required to pay the fine.

I'm on a new 2000-kilometre road trip with adventure-travel company Peregrine Adventures and along the way there have been frequent heavy-handed police patrols like the one that catches our rafting guide. The police lay metal spikes on the road to slow the traffic at their roadblocks in Kenya and Uganda and sometimes have AK-47 rifles slung across their backs, but mostly they smile and allow our 15-seat overland vehicle past without question.

Spikes aside, until about three years ago it would have been difficult to undertake a road trip like this because of bureaucratic pig-headedness. "It was a nightmare to cross the borders [between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda]," says Peregrine's man on the ground in this part of Africa, Kristofer Zachrisson. "It would take five hours to get through a border crossing but now there is better co-operation and a push to revive an East African community. There's even talk of a joint visa."

Our road trip starts in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where we leave behind the honking horns of peak hour for serene Lake Nakuru in the Rift Valley, about 160 kilometres from the city. This lake is full of honking pelicans and pretty pink flamingoes. There could be a million of them. Possibly 2 million.

The birds aren't alone. There are giraffes, rhinoceros, baboons, gazelles and buffaloes in the national park around the salt water. As we watch three lions stalk a baby buffalo separated from its herd, I berate myself for not buying a tie from a roadside hawker earlier in the day. I hardly need a tie on a game drive but they cost a measly 35¢ each.

Our guide for the cross-country trip, Charles Nyaga, also known as Mr Charles, says many Kenyans live on the equivalent of $1 a day; the government aims to have clean water - and computer literacy - for everyone by 2030. I have already seen evidence of the living conditions of some, as children scoop water from culverts or puddles and desperate men run beside vehicles to try to sell sweetcorn, charred on roadside fires, for 5¢ a cob.

The lions sit in a row next to a tree and are in no hurry for the baby buffalo, so our driver, Anthony Kabanya, aka Mr Anthony, starts the truck and we idle off for new adventures.

Along the way, throughout the 15 days, children run beside the truck shouting "mzungu, mzungu" in amazement. Used throughout east Africa, the word means someone of "foreign descent" and the greetings come with waves and smiles - and perhaps the hope of a handout. One local in Uganda says the sighting of mzungu will result in excited chatter in households for days.

Along the way there are many oddities. An overloaded truck speeds by with the prophetic words painted across its side: "It's better to die standing than live kneeling." We see goatherds, women with heavy loads balanced on their heads, open-air butcheries, beauty shops in tin sheds with dirt floors, coffin makers displaying their best boxes and business names that could come straight from an Alexander McCall Smith novel: Equator Motors, Mama Boy Shop, Seven Happy Widows Enterprises, Uncle Sam Investments, Jerusalem Body Works and the Peace Gospel Church.

On Sundays in the townships throughout Uganda, well-dressed people walk to church in the roadside dust or mud; there are rarely footpaths. Children look uncomfortable in three-piece suits instead of their usual tattered shorts and T-shirts, women wear high heels and Sunday-best frocks, and the men are in their finest pinstripes, Florsheims and trilbies.

Despite the strong showing of Christianity, Mr Charles remarks that witchcraft is still practised in some areas, particularly among Kenya's Luo communities. The Luo are cousins of the Masai and it's at the Masai Mara - Kenya's most famous game reserve - where we tick off the "Big Five": the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo and elephant.

The "Big Five" is not a reference to the size of the animals but to the fact that they were the most difficult to hunt on foot. Mr Charles says hunting has been stopped in the 1500-square-kilometre Masai Mara National Reserve, which borders Tanzania. The penalties are severe. "Poachers will be shot," he says.

In the rolling grassland we see vultures silhouetted in iconic acacia trees at sunset and zebras, gazelles and cheetahs stalking along the Mara River. The river provides a spectacular setting for the great annual migration of more than a million wildebeest between July and September. As the animals cross the water on their annual pilgrimage for greener pastures, crocodiles attack en masse.

Engrossing animal encounters are not limited to the Masai Mara. At Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda we cruise the shore line of the Kazinga Channel - with soft drinks and Tusker beers in hand - for close encounters with water buffaloes and hippos that look a bit silly when they yawn. Elephants come down to the water to drink and crocodiles lie still in the shallows.

At Uganda's Kibale Forest National Park, where there is a long-term chimpanzee research project, we follow a ranger along narrow tracks into thick vegetation where we would surely become lost without him. These chimp visits are regulated, with no more than six people permitted at a time and a limit of one hour with the primates once they are found.

It's not long before we're with them. At first there are a few distant glimpses through the trees but soon the forest explodes into noise. In his book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, Andrew Westoll describes the noise of chimpanzees as a "pant-hoot". It starts quietly with hooting sounds and builds to an almost frenzied crescendo. As we follow them, some chimps come almost within reach when they descend from the trees, but mostly they stay in the canopy.

The mountain gorillas of Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans are tougher to reach. The gorillas, made famous by zoologist Dian Fossey, are in steep jungle where the ground is a quagmire, stinging nettles are everywhere and a machete is needed to negotiate the tangle of vines.

The gorilla family we find is constantly moving and there's no rest as we sweat, fall in the mud and scramble to keep up. There is some eye contact but after they are assured by our presence they continue on their daily routine of searching for food and grooming each other. The young stay in the clutches of the mothers and the big silverback that leads the pack eyes us every now again to make sure we keep a respectable distance.

Like the chimpanzees, the time with the gorillas is limited to one hour and soon our gorilla guide is leading us out of the jungle and down the terraced mountainside fields. Farmers live in simple mudbrick huts and till the land for potatoes and other crops.

Back at the truck, and sucking on a filter-tipped Sportsman cigarette, Mr Anthony reveals the secret to a long life. "Eat local food, live simply," he says. His grandmother ate only maize, bananas and sweet potato and she lived to 120.

We get word from another safari group that the baby buffalo we watched at Lake Nakuru did not live a long life. The three lions killed it before it returned to the safety of its herd.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Emirates has a fare to Nairobi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1929 low-season return including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Nairobi (5hr 10mins). Australians obtain a visas on arrival in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda..

Touring there Peregrine's Best of East Africa 15-day road-trip safari starts in Nairobi, Kenya; and ends in Kigali, Rwanda, and also operates in reverse. The tour costs $6555 a person, twin share, and includes transport, accommodation, game activities, entry fees, most meals and an English-speaking local guide.There are a few long days on the road and the conditions vary from smooth highway to bumpy jungle tracks. Optional extras include hot-air ballooning over the Masai Mara, about $US500 ($481), and White Nile rafting at Jinja, about $US115 for a half day in grade five rapids. Phone 1300 854 500, see peregrineadventures.com.

Staying there This is a selection of accommodation used by Peregrine.

The Nile Porch has tented shelter on a hill overlooking the White Nile near Jinja, Uganda. The en suite tents with flushing toilets have real beds and there's an outside hammock and private porch. The roar of the river is constant, but the power is not. See nileporch.com.

The Chimps' Nest near Kibale Forest, Uganda, has rustic cabins surrounded by jungle. At night you need an escort to the main lodge for dinner because of the presence of elephants and buffaloes.

There are two remote treehouses, 10 metres high and among the monkeys, that are not part of the Peregrine offering, but you can upgrade if you don't mind a 30-minute trek in the humidity.

The Nile Special beer at the main lodge is mostly warm but, at 3000 Ugandan shillings ($1), there will be few complaints.

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