Unforgettable Uganda

Unforgettable Uganda

Words:

Teena Gates

Photos:

Cormac Farrell

Tags:

Concern, "Teena Gates", Uganda

Back in November 2012, Teena Gates took on the Tri Uganda Challenge with charity Concern.


It involved 220km of rough and ready cycling, 14,178 feet of calf-crunching climbing to reach the summit of Mt Elgon and 20km of shoulder-taxing kayaking on the White Nile.
 
Here she tells us about her adventure and what it meant to her. 
 
The third flight in two days is over at last and we peel ourselves from the plane at Entebbe, Uganda, and saunter down the steps, thrilled at the beauty of Lake Victoria in the distance. Swinging my rucksack onto one shoulder, my climbing boots whack me in the head and my down-filled summit jacket trails from my pack as I set off across the runway to the arrivals building. Then it hits me. Pulling off my Concern hoodie, I gasp for breath and I wonder how we’ll all manage to climb a volcano, cycle hundreds of kilometres and kayak on the Nile through this stifling African heat. 
 
Already we’ve caused a stir. It’s the first time a charity team has tackled this tri-adventure, it’s only the second time that it’s been attempted and TV crews from Uganda and Kenya turn up unexpectedly, to follow our progress.
 
Twelve hours on a bus after our briefing at the Concern HQ in Kampala, we get our first glance at Mount Elgon, the extinct volcano that we’ll be climbing. As we roll bumpily into Budadiri, we’ve already reached 1,340m. We’ve over 3,000m more to climb by foot and that begins tomorrow at 5.30am.

Headaches, nosebleeds, dizzy spells and nausea – we grin over the rims of our coffee cups with puffy eyes, running a mental checklist of our ailments and the gear packed in our bags for the climb ahead.
 
Our Uganda National Park guide, Moses, holds a very serious looking gun as he leads us through the lush vegetation to the start of the bamboo fields on day one of our two-day hike to the summit. The heat is intense as we climb and scramble, but each boot releases the scent of wild mint, sage and sorrel, with blue delphiniums and red hot pokers that could have been taken from my granny’s garden, growing here, wild and free. 
 
Monkeys swing above us in the trees and coffee plants grow along the trail as the sound of water gurgles on its way to the villages below. Our team of porters push ahead to make camp as thunder sounds and the rain that’s been threatening all day releases its force. Tired legs find new strength as we pick up the pace, anxious for food and shelter.
 
Aches and altitude

Altitude kicks in with the dawn. We’re hurting. Headaches, nosebleeds, dizzy spells and nausea – we grin over the rims of our coffee cups with puffy eyes, running a mental checklist of our ailments and the gear packed in our bags for the climb ahead. It’s tougher today, the vegetation sparse and the red mud changing gradually to sooty black, glittering in the sun. I realise I’m walking through the ancient eruptions of the now extinct volcano. 
 
As the day passes, the soft suck of our boots on marshy ground is replaced by the hard tap of our walking poles hitting rock. Soon we’ve left the earth behind and we’re climbing and scrambling, racing ahead of the expected rain to finally win a summit clear of mist. Photos, cheers, stunning views and a quick turnaround as the ominous rattle of thunder and approaching rain clouds send us on our way back down the mountain.
Concern have been working in Uganda since 1990

 


Jambo!

“How are yoooo? Jambo, jambo…” The excited cries of Ugandan children running beside me will be the brightest memory of my first day on the bikes. I will also remember the shock and pain of the first ‘big’ hill. Lungs burning, the way frosty air catches your breath on early morning winter runs in Ireland. But no frost here. I thought I would die as the sun beamed down and I pushed ahead on tired legs.
 
Passing through Buwarassi village, Nakussi Village and several schools with smiling, running children, by lunchtime we’d reached Namayonyi Vocational School where we were bringing presents of school supplies and a football. There are 1,112 children and 20 teachers in this World Vision school and a plaque on the wall dating the buildings to 2008. The children were having a craft lesson when we arrived, and they delightedly took our photos with their cameras made from clay! The football was produced and we sang songs and ran exhausted with the children in the sun, before finally saying our goodbyes and heading back to the bikes to calls of Olé, olé, olé…
 
Over hundreds of kilometres, the bright smiles of the children and villagers encouraged us as we cycled through Nabongo Village, and further to Dube Rock. Then 20km out from our camp at Nabweyo National School, ominous storm clouds gathered and we skidded into camp, wheels spinning. We dumped our bikes in a muddy heap and ran, laughing, to wash under the water sluicing off the school roof, rejoicing in the rain. Local women and children seeking shelter nearby looked at us in baffled amusement, then laughed and waved, enjoying our joy.
 
‘Meltdown Mountain’ marked our last day on the bikes. As a group we named it as it burned its way through our soul. I can’t begin to tell you the slog, the heat, the sweat, the agony of pushing tired muscles onwards and upwards for what seemed like hours, to finally collapse in a gasping heap before the chuckles of shy children playing in the village at the top. 
 
Girl in a red dress

As we sat to catch our breath, I noticed a little girl wearing the faded scraps of a red velvet dress. If only I knew the story of that dress and what child wore it, in its first glory. But this little girl and I could only speak the language of smiles. I grinned at her, and shyly covering her mouth with a dusty little hand, she grinned timidly back.
 
During our 10 days in Uganda, there were constant reminders like that, of the reasons why we had come here. Traditional skills on the land have been lost through years of war, followed by years living in camps and Concern tries to change that through education. It runs projects to find clean water, and teaches health and sanitation. It helps communities to help themselves and I’m glad to be associated with that.
 
Finally we roll downhill and away from Meltdown Mountain, although the rough trail proves a bruising encounter for some and we drastically slow the pace. Within a short period of time the farmland grows richer and the air becomes sweetly perfumed. Suddenly I see the Nile, vast and inviting. Before long I’m swimming – hot skin embraced by the warm, soft, lazy water. I’m safe near the shore and happy to watch the fearsome currents out further. That’s for tomorrow.
 
My world turns green and crashes around me. My buddy Vera, sitting behind me in the two-seater kayak screams “Paddle, paddle!” as the sun disappears and the massive wave hurtles down around us. Gasping for breath we make it through, but again and again the Nile comes after us, as we battle our way down the river, until finally the mountainous white crests plough over us and it’s over. We’re pulled under the river, then shortly rescued and brought to the shore.
 
 
The Concern team succeeded in its massive challenge to climb a volcano, cycle hundreds of kilometres and kayak on the Nile, and already the difficulty is beginning to fade into memory in a glow of African gold. To see the beauty of Uganda, the splendour of the Nile, the great reserves of a country waiting for its time in the sun. Things sometimes don’t happen the way you expect them to in Africa, and sometimes Africa completely surprises you. I have learned enough to realise I know very little. I hope we’ve done a good job for Concern and the girl in the red velvet dress…
 

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Back in November 2012, Teena Gates took on the Tri Uganda Challenge with charity Concern.

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