Driving Uganda

If you’d ever told me that I’d write a blogpost about an episode of Top Gear, I’d have laughed in your face. Yes, I’ve sporadically watched the show, but given as I can’t drive, let alone own my own car, its attractions are limited. Most of the joy I’ve drawn from it has been its theme tune and the fact that I can’t hear it without remembering my sister dancing to it clad in a yellow catsuit in a school dance show about 13 years ago! However, on Sunday night/Monday morning, I started receiving a flurry of tweets about a Top Gear special, featuring Uganda. In fact, more than that, just hours after we’d been to the ‘official’ source of the Nile at Jinja, the team were challenged to find the actual source of the Nile. Bizarre.

So, clearly catching up on this programme had to be high priority on returning to London. (Once I’d caught up on two weeks of Call the Midwife, obviously.) I watched it last night, and was fascinated…

Top Gear Africa special

Roads had been a hot topic of conversation while we were in Uganda. At our security briefing a month before leaving, road accidents were identified as one of the biggest risks on our trip – we were given strict instructions about the quality of vehicles we could use and the importance of seat-belts. We spent a lot of time in the vans (6 hours reaching Soroti, and at least an hour’s driving each way in order to reach the villages each day) and their quality was varied. Bex spent most of the week dosed up on Qwells thanks to travel sickness. One of our scariest moments was on the very first day, when we had to do the last 90 minutes of the drive to Soroti in the dark, on unlit roads whose surface was virtually non-existent. Reaching Ogongora required much jolting over roads that were more like overgrown footpaths. We had 4×4’s and decent suspension, but my hips still bear the bruises sustained from banging into the car door handle repeatedly.

The risk of a programme like this, so soon after our return, was that I would be irrationally incensed by the men’s actions. After all, Clarkson isn’t the world’s most sensitive man and what on earth would they make of the poverty so hugely in evidence at the sides of the roads they drove along?

Fortunately, it got off to a good start. Within minutes of watching Clarkson et al begin their challenge, I was laughing. They had all bought estate cars for under £1500 – estates? We were in proper hard-core vans with local, knowledgeable drivers and we struggled. How on earth would three Brits cope? Then there was the scenery – it was delightful to see it again a matter of hours after actually being there. I continued laughing as they gloated over how much better the roads were than they’d expected – little did they know just how quickly they would deteriorate.

Their first issue was in fact the same first issue we faced – the traffic of Kampala. Our start was delayed by nearly 2 hours on the first day because the vans got stuck in traffic. We were surprised, but soon realised that traffic in the Ugandan capital is on another level to anything I’ve ever seen in London! (Unlike the Top Gear team, we did not have to overnight in a traffic jam.) At one point our driver tailgated an emergency vehicle to get past a very, very long line of traffic. Obviously, I don’t condone such behaviour, but I bet Clarkson would!

However, there were moments when I found myself yelling at the TV. Particularly at the point when they stopped somewhere for the night and Clarkson was not complimentary about the hotel they found. Well, what the flip did he expect to find in rural Uganda?? Did he know that (in all likelihood) just metres away from the bed he found disgusting, people were sleeping without even a mattress? Really, who gives a toss about how a car is performing when people are living below the breadline? I guess the same could be said for every regular episode of Top Gear set in the UK…

Lake view from the roadOne of the stunning views we witnessed during the drive from Soroti to Mbale on Sunday morning. 

Despite all of this, it was a good watch and I will be tuning in next week for part 2. It makes me wonder what I’d have thought about the programme, had I watched it before the Ugandan trip was even mentioned – would I have got annoyed and angry? Possibly, and probably for good reason. Would I have sighed at the beauty of the Uganda countryside? Probably not. Would I have kept pinching myself to remember that only 36 hours previously, my feet had stood on that land? Obviously not.

[Incidentally, in other Africa related TV news – yes, I am aware of the Richard Curtis drama Mary & Marthaabout malaria. It’s downloaded, but I suspect I won’t watch it until things are a little less raw. I suspect I’ll find next week, with all the Comic Relief documentaries, quite hard work.]