Tag Archives: hiking

Visa in 30 Minutes or it’s Free

Well it’s not free but getting a Chinese visa has been one of the easiest things I’ve done recently. Actually getting to the office is another story.

The first thing to know is that the visa office is not in the Chinese Embassy proper. It’s in a small office complex near Georgetown in Washington DC. There are two problems with this. The first is that the building is completely unmarked in any way. 2201 Wisconsin Avenue is a gray building, no flags or signs or anything. If you didn’t write the address down you’re going to have trouble. The second issue is that the office is located in one of the few areas of the city not served by a metro stop. The two closes stops are each about two miles away, not too far but not close either.

One of the sights close to the visa office is the US Naval Observatory, the home of the national president. Using my amazing powers of planning and Google Maps I decided on taking the slightly more complicated walk from the Woodley Park/Zoo metro stop to the office since that would lead me right past the Observatory complex. Why not? Get my paperwork done and do a little sightseeing. My other option was to get off at the Tenleytown stop and follow Wisconsin straight to the office. The safe but boring option.

Making my way to the office from the Woodley Park stop was an exercise in futility to say the least. Google Maps makes it look like there’s a nice circular road that surrounds the Observatory. Right before that road is a small park with some foot trails to hike though. It didn’t help a whole lot that it rained the previous day, lots of mud and wet leaves to manage.

But I was getting close to the road. I had a map on my phone and was tracking my progress through the park. I finally got to where I would be able to reach the road….. and there was a big ole fence. Sometimes I don’t let things like fences stop me often going over or try to slip through. However the vice president’s abode is not one of those times. I can be daring, but I’m not dumb. I don’t want any Secret Service attention.

So I followed the fence and using my map I slowly worked my way out of the park and got on to a proper road. The Observatory complex actually forced me to go about a mile out of my way so I spent an extra thirty minutes trying to make it to my destination.

I finally got to the office at 9:35. The office opens at 9:30. I felt pretty good that I made it so early even after getting lost and battling some messy trails in my nice shoes. I walked into the office, got a ticket with my number, and noticed there were fifteen people ahead of me.

I settled in for a long wait. It is the government after all. They never can work quickly. I pulled out my Kindle and listened to numbers be called. They were actually going through all the numbers quite quickly. People who didn’t respond within thirty seconds of their number being called were just skipped, on to the next person. The visa officers were not there to waste time. Far sooner than I expected my number was called.

I made it a point to have all my paperwork organized before I left the house, the information about what is needed is easy to find on the embassy’s website. I passed over all my papers, the lady helped me fill in some parts of the application I wasn’t sure on and then I was done. Unfortunately they weren’t able to rush job the visa so I could get it the same day. I was required to return in two days to receive my passport and visa, so I made plans to come back into the city. I gathered my belongings and walked out the door. As I left I checked my watch. 10:05

Kibuye and Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Kibuye, Rwanda might be the prettiest town in the whole country. Built into a series of hills surrounding lake Kivu, it is extraordinarily beautiful. It is a bit of a resort town for more well off tourists, but there is a guest house on the other side of town, take the road down the right as you leave the bus station and reach the fork. Walk down until there is a shopping center to your right, across the road there is a guest house for an affordable guest house. I’ve forgotten the name, but here it is on Google Maps. And then you can go here for food. It’s a small buffet style restaurant where you can get lunch for about a dollar. It’s a local place so it’s all Rwandan food, lots of rice, potatoes, and matoke.

Kibuye doesn’t offer much in the way of attractions, just lovely hiking through the mountains and swimming in lake Kivu. There’s also a small genocide memorial in front of the church. So instead of wasting more time, here are a few pictures.

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Ssezibwa Falls

Surprise, surprise, another day trip out of Jinja. This will be the last one since I’m leaving Jinja in a few hours to head to Mbale. Since I’m leaving Jinja it also means I might have trouble accessing the internet.  I have a handful of posts queued up to be publish so you’ll get a chance to read something for a while.  Anyway on to the trip.

We decided to visit because it was fairly close, only about an hour and fifteen minutes away by taxi, but it is a little closer to Kampala than Jinja. You’ll find Ssezibwa falls in Kayanja right on the Kampala – Jinja highway. When we went up there, after about an hour and a half I got nervous and asked the driver where Kayanja was. The driver said that it was further along the road, but a passenger next to us said we passed it. Since I trust passengers more than matatu drivers or conductors, I demanded that they stop so we could head back. We caught another taxi going the other way and it stopped in Kayanja for us. The original matatu would have taken us all the way to Kampala even after we specifically said we were going to Kayanja. Moral of the story, get a window seat and look for signs because your driver might not stop for you.

When we arrived in Kayanja we asked a boda driver where the falls were and he pointed down the road although he tried hard to sell his services to us. There is a small dirt road heading down a hill that intersects perpendicular to the main road, but no sign pointing towards the falls. That’s the road you need to take. We headed down the road and caught up with some Slovak tourists who were working in Kenya and visiting Uganda. They didn’t have much good to say about Kenya so maybe I’ll end up skipping it. There are two signs on the road pointing the way to Ssezibwa Falls resort. Like we learned in Mabira Forest, always follow the signs for the resorts and hotels. The walk took about two hours and luckily for us the sun was not so merciless. All in all the walk wasn’t bad.

Eventually at the end of the road is a gate with a guard. There is a 5000 UGX entrance fee which was not unreasonable considering how nice the area is. The first thing you notice is the waterfall which is about fifteen meters high. It’s no Niagra or Victoria Falls, but still pretty amazing. The falls are part of Ssezibwa River that flows between Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga. Around the falls are a couple of places to relax and some trails to follow. The trails are not that long and there unfortunately there is no swimming allowed in the pond at the base of the falls. It is a nice place and definitely worth visiting, but it is more of a place to relax than anything else. You can climb up the hill and over a bridge that looks over the falls from the top however. That is one of the highlights of the whole area. There are also a few small caves in the area to explore, but no hardcore spelunking. The Ssezibwa Falls Resort is said to have some activities such as guided tours and canoeing, but we didn’t take part in any of the that due to the cost.

The legend of Ssezibwa Falls goes back to a woman named Nakangu Tebatesa who was a wife to Nsubuga Ssebwato was expecting twins. Instead she gave birth to a branching and it is said that the spirits of the unborn children still inhabit the area. As such it is a spiritual place for many local Ugandans. I didn’t see anyone praying or making sacrifices to the river so I can’t vouch for what goes on, but maybe you’ll get lucky and see what I missed.

Since Ssezibwa Falls is so easily accessible from Kampala and Jinja, if you skip it when visiting Uganda you’re missing out. It may not be the greatest attraction in the country, it probably isn’t even the greatest waterfall (Murchison Falls should take that honor, when I make it up there we’ll see), but it is so cheap and easy to visit if you take public transportation that you need to go.

Mabira Forest Preserve

The first thing you notice when you pull into Najjembe is a swarm of blue vested men and women surrounding every matatu trying to sell drinks and snacks ranging from grilled bananas to the ubiquitous meat on a stick. As we twisted and contorted our way out of the minibus and onto the dusty road, we had bowls and sticks and bottles thrust into our face. I bought myself a large, grilled chicken breast and wing on a stick for about eighty cents because on one hand I felt a bit bad for these people who all sell the same things and whose job is to chase travelers when they stop for a few minutes and on the other I didn’t have breakfast and I needed a bit of fuel for the hike we had planned.

A break in the tree canopy.

This was our second attempt to reach Mabira. In our quest to avoid over done touristy resort spots we didn’t take the proper turn off the first trip and instead walked about five hours through the villages in the area after we realized our mistake and didn’t feel like doubling back. Now the plan was to follow the signs for ‘The Rainforest Lodge.’ There was one right in Najjembe where the matatus pick up and drop off passengers and another large one up the road pointing directly to the resort. Knowing this we intended to at least visit the lodge and ask them where to go.

Happily tramping up the hill munching on my delicious grilled chicken, we passed for the second time the school where dozens of students ignored their classes to stare at the mzungus through the windows. Up the hill in the blazing sun until we reached blessed shade where the forest proper began. Soon we hooked a left onto another with a large sign for the lodge urging us on. A bit more travel in some sort of fairy tale like setting; nice wide road, green trees and vegetation on all sides, butterflies flitting around left and right, and enough bird noises to make John Audobon proud then the immersion was temporarily spoiled by a gate with a guard who had a visitor book for us to sign in.

Up to the lodge we went. We stopped at the reception desk to ask for some information about the hiking we were looking for. The woman working the desk informed us that the trails were not marked and there were no guides available. We thanked her for her time, left to explore the rest of the resort compound, and immediately went to work on proving her wrong. We didn’t come a second time just to get shot down by some bogus reason as poor trails. We followed the paths down past the cabins where guests stay, and right past the sign pointing to the swimming pool and on our left was a little footpath leading away from the resort.

Figuring we’d either strike gold with a proper trail or have it peter off in a couple of meters leaving us no choice but to turn around (we’re persistent, not stupid) we ducked onto the path to see where it lead. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be a very nice trail. The trails in Mabira near the Rainforest Lodge are well defined and maintained and even though the receptionist claimed they weren’t marked, there were blue ribbons tied to many trees, especially where the trail changed directions to prevent tourists from wandering off into the sea of green never to be seen again. After a couple hours of hiking we came to the conclusion that all the trails lead somewhere, either back to a different part of the resort or to the road leading down to Najjembe. So getting lost was not a major concern allowing us to truly enjoy the jungle.

Make no mistake, Mabira is the jungle. We visited primarily to see some monkeys and were not dissapointed. For most of the time we were there we could hear evidence of them, rustling of trees and general hooting, but it was a couple of hours before we could properly spot a pair. They are quick dashing through the canopy overhead along the branches, blink and you miss them. Wildlife photographers just got a whole lot more respect in my mind. Not only is the window for viewing so short, there are trees and all sorts of others plants between you and the subject that just make it difficult to see anything. So more power to them for making it work.

Again, make no mistake, Mabira is the jungle. If we found out the fun way with the monkeys, we found out the hard way with ants that climbed into our shoes and up our pants and starting biting us. Those little buggers can sting. And they don’t stop either. They keep gnawing at the same spot until you tear them off physically. I had one of them going to town on my inner thigh. I couldn’t roll up my pants high enough to reach it and couldn’t grab it through the pant fabric. So I did what any rational human being would do, dropped trou in the middle of the Ugandan jungle to teach the bastard some manners. I decided I need to buy a pair of boots from one of the second hand shops here. I like my normal running shoes for every day use, but I plan on spending more time visiting jungle parks and preserves. With a pair of boots I’ll be able to blouse my pants
like a paratrooper from Easy Company to keep bugs from crawling up my legs. It’s that or use bug repellent, but that’s cheating in my opinion.

Mabira is easy to get to. Leaving from Jinja the matatu ride was less than two dollars and only took about thirty minutes if heading towards Kampala. Let the conductor know that
you want off at Najjembe and the driver will stop for you. Follow the signs up to the Rainforest Lodge and check out the trails. So easy to access that it makes a really convenient day hike out of Jinja, we left Jinja around 10:30 and returned in time for dinner. If you want to make a proper trip out of it, there are two lodging options, the Rainforest Lodge which is pricy to the tune of almost two hundred dollars a night and the Little Kingston Campsite is aimed at budget travellers.

Kalagala Falls

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Man washing at the base of Kalagala Falls

With the construction of the Owens Fall Dam (also known as Nalubaale) in the mid 1950’s and the Bujugali Dam finished in late 2011, Rippon Falls, Owens Falls, and Bujugali Falls have all been submerged in order to provide steady hydroelectric power for Uganda. These were all world class rapids that are now completely underwater. Luckily there still is one place available for top notch white water viewing and rafting. Approximately forty minutes north of Jinja by matatu is Kangulumira, a mere three kilometers from Kalagala falls.

Kalagala is another one of the easy day trips to make out of Jinja. Simply visit the bus park, ask for the Kangulumira minibus, and hop off at the bus stage where the driver stops for you. There is a sign for a whitewater company pointing down the road through town. Hike down the road for about an hour or hire a boda and you’ll be right there. Alternatively you can take a fancy ride with one of the adventure companies in Jinja if you have more money than sense.

One of the best parts of Kalagala is the price. It’s free. Upon first arrival in the area there is a big rock you can climb on to view the falls. More of a big rapid than a proper waterfall, Kalagala Falls is probably only seven or so meters tall at the highest point. But it is still an intense place to see all the water rushing past. You can climb right down to the edge of the water and very close to the falls with the available paths, but be warned the hill can often be slippery and the rocks near the water are always slick. If you lose your balance and fall into the raging whitewater you’re in for a world of hurt.

Aside from the falls proper there are a couple of nice rapids to view but the hidden gem is a small swimming area quite off the beaten path. Kalagala doesn’t get many visitors anyway so you’re almost guaranteed some privacy. To find this area you follow the road you walked in on until you see a big gate for the whitewater company whose sign you saw in Kangulumira. Then promptly turn back around and less than twenty meters from the gate as you walk back there will be a small trail cut into the vegetation on your right. It is a little difficult to notice the first time but when you find it and walk down you’ll emerge with a view of some rocks and rapids directly in front of you and a placid looking Nile to the left. On the left you can climb into the water if you’re so inclined although be warned, the water current is much stronger than it looks. Stick close to the rocks and the shore line to avoid the strongest bits and have something to grab in case you lose it. If you try swimming against the current you’ll understand how powerful the river actually is. It looks like it’s doing nothing, but I tried to swim against the current and literally could not move forward. Swimming further out from the edges could be disastrous.

Kalagala is very much worth the day trip from Jinja. Pack a small lunch and water. Even though it is a bit of a new tourist spot with the whitewater companies running their launches from the area, there are no shops near the falls to get anything and it can be a long, hot, sunny walk from Kangulumira. You’ve been warned twice but a third time won’t hurt. The current is strong and the rapids are dangerous. Think of how comfortable you are in the water and then play around at half that level to stay safe. Since the Bujugali dam was built so recently, the tourism development around Kalagala is non-existent so don’t make any plans to stay overnight in the area. For less than five dollars round trip just take a minibus up in the morning and return in the afternoon. One last time, don’t do anything stupid in the water. You might see locals swimming through the rapids, that doesn’t mean you’re able to. They’ve been doing it their entire lives.