Weighing dangers: Risk Ebola, or drive Africa’s killer highways?

I usually don’t buy newspapers in Uganda, but this particular one was hard to resist. “Ebola: Mbarara, Fort Portal on High Alert”…

I usually don’t buy newspapers in Uganda, but this particular one was hard to resist.

“Ebola: Mbarara, Fort Portal on High Alert” the headline screamed.

Being parked in a battered Toyota pickup on the side of the road in Fort Portal, you might understand my sudden interest.

At the end of each month, African Community Technical Service interns get a full five days off — partly as compensation for our six-day working week and partly to give us the chance for some sightseeing.

Four of us had decided to attempt a Canadian-style road trip, and had met with modest success. We drove from Mbarara several hours north to Fort Portal, touted in the Lonely Planet as “portal to places that offer sublime scenery, abundant nature and genuine adventures.”

We then navigated 20 kilometres of washed out dirt road to arrive at a tranquil campsite on Lake Nkuruba, one of half a dozen crater lakes in this part of western Uganda.

The campsite was everything that we’d hoped for: cheap, quiet and equipped with flush toilets. We spent a few days walking through small villages, visiting waterfalls and photographing monkeys (though not necessarily in that order).

A funny thing about this country: even in the most remote area you are never alone. 

This was demonstrated perfectly as we hiked through the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains up to the park boundary (too cheap to pay the US$20 entry fee? I think so).

Scrambling up a dusty footpath, surrounded by tall grass and the occasional banana plant, our progress was heralded by the non-stop ‘how are you’ chant of children.

We couldn’t often see them, but we could definitely hear them.

As one group of children simultaneously grew hoarse from exertion, another group would take up the call.

Camped on a small patch of grass that night, we fooled ourselves into believing that we had climbed high enough to escape civilization, if only temporarily.

This fantasy, of course, was shattered five minutes later as a large brown cow trotted past our tents, followed by a man, two barefoot children and a woman with a baby on her back and firewood on her head.

The next day, both pleasantly tired and suitably humbled by our ‘hiking’ efforts we arrived back in Fort Portal.

While the rest of the group set out in search of road trip supplies (small bags of roasted nuts and corn, bottles of Aqua Sipi and handfuls of caramels), I stayed in the truck to watch in fascination as a crazy man carried on an incredibly animated conversation with himself.

It was then that the middle-aged newsman stopped at the truck window and offered me the paper.

 “Do you want to buy this newspaper?  There is Ebola and I am worried!” he exclaimed, beaming from ear to ear.

I snorted at the incongruity of the news and his expression and passed him some shillings, joking that under normal circumstances I would shake his hand but that now perhaps we should institute the ‘Ebola Salute’ (which I invented on the spot) just to be safe.

He doubled over laughing at this, then ambled down the street, saluting me periodically as he went.

Now don’t get me wrong. Ebola is no laughing matter. It has a high fatality rate and can be extremely contagious. The last outbreak seven years ago killed several hundred people. It’s just that Ugandan newspapers have a lively mix of ‘real’ news, gossip, and wild speculation — a kind of news/National Enquirer hybrid.

The others soon returned to the truck and we discussed our options. We could either stay in Fort Portal for the night, banking on the exaggeration of the alert or we could undertake an hour or two of night driving in order to make it back to Canada House, our base in Uganda.

A quick call to our regional director settled the issue: we were under no circumstances to remain in the ‘hot zone.’ Off we drove.

There was a certain sense of urgency among us as we began the drive back. 

Surely we were just erring on the side of caution? Hand sanitizer began the rounds nonetheless, and I began a mental tally of everyone I had interacted with over the past several days.  Had the gas station attendant’s eyes been abnormally red…?

Half an hour later, our nervousness fled as we spotted a mother elephant and her two babies wandering through the grass not 50 metres from the road.

Real wild elephants!

There was only one real option at that point. We indulged in 10 minutes of pure, unadulterated oooh’ing and aaah’ing, camera clicking and leaning out the windows of the truck further than was necessary or even comfortable.

As night fell our elephant elation was once again replaced by worry, although this time the feeling was due not to Ebola but rather to the highway situation.

By day, roads in Uganda are manageable (if somewhat chaotic). By night they become downright dangerous.

This danger stems from a multitude of factors: the absence of streetlights, the lack of shoulders, the unwritten ‘headlights optional’ rule, poorly marked speed bumps and vehicles that defy all road rules almost as a matter of principle.

And just let me add that it is nearly impossible to see a Ugandan in dark clothes riding a bicycle without any reflectors or lights in the middle of the road at night.  How can the cyclist even see where he’s going? It’s a complete mystery to me.

For the next hour and a half, all non-essential communication ceased.  Once in a while someone would scream something to the effect of:

 “10 o’clock — man carrying bananas!!!”

“Straight ahead — motorbike with no lights!!!”

“Watch out for the bus – it’s coming at us!!!”

I responded to these directions by simultaneously turning on the high beams and slamming on the brakes, slowing our truck to a crawl so as to manoeuvre around the obstacle.

At least, I think it was a crawl.

The dashboard lights weren’t working and we had rigged a headlamp around the steering column so as to give me periodic glimpses of the speedometer.

We had a handful of close calls and were run completely off the road once, but finally, thankfully made it back into familiar territory.

We breathed a collective sigh of relief as I turned the truck onto the small road leading to Canada House.

This sigh turned into one last group scream as another truck hurtled past us with less than a foot to spare. All in all, probably not as much like a Canadian road trip as we’d hoped, but exciting nevertheless.