The Miss Tourism Uganda pageant organisers have found a new way to teach and test the thrill-seeking contestants by sending them on a three-week tour around the country. The 15 girls have embarked on one of the most testing journeys as they run through the vast savannahs of Murchison Falls National Park down to the daunting Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park.
They have already been to River Nile waters at Jinja – some have even tried bungee jumping – and early next week they will embark on an Eastern leg to include a hike on Mt. Elgon before winding up with the unpredictable Kidepo Valley National Park.
After the taxing road trip, the girls will fly to Netherlands for a holiday courtesy of Bavaria brewers next month. “We have an obligation to equip the contestants with knowledge of Uganda’s tourism potential before they can go out there as our ambassadors,” said Tourism Minister Maria Mutagamba. “Practice is the best education. By the time they return, they will be accomplished tourism cadres. Can you imagine they have already beaten me and many other Ugandans to gorilla tracking?”
My job as a journalist has been plain simple: follow the 15 girls as they solve challenges given to them by their chaperon Sarah Nyamwenge while they race across unforgiving landscapes, tough terrains, never ending grasslands and through rivers across Uganda. We have been through all this together as family.
We started the journey from the National Theatre in Kampala on a relatively tedious afternoon of September 9 but things started to take shape as conversation took root in the 30-seater bus. We arrived at Paraa Safari Lodge in Murchison at around midnight. Everyone just went to bed and the following morning we proceeded to the delightful Chobe Safari Lodge where we had a sumptuous lunch in the main restaurant overlooking the mighty River Nile.
While the main purpose of this enchanting structure is to serve as a base for travellers who come to tackle the jungle-rich Murchison-Karuma area, Chobe looks more like a 5-star metropolitan boutique hotel. You could, actually, read the word “wow” on every girl’s face as they scrambled for photo opportunities, especially around the lodge’s gym and swimming pool which “border” the river. This area was voted among the best gyms in the world by CNN.
With no game drive activity, the boat ride in the morning of September 11 was the ultimate substitute as the girls got up-close with some fierce beasts like crocodiles, hippos and a host of birds. It is always a smooth sail on the water until you get off the boat and start hiking to the top of the falls.The girls did well with only one failing to reach the top as she was given a piggy ride on the back of one of the guys in the group.
The boat ride cost us valuable time as we would leave for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park a little late than the scheduled departure time. We drove through Fort Portal and through Queen Elizabeth at night. Many of the girls struggled to stay awake but those who stayed looking were rewarded in Katungulu area of Queen where we spotted a lion pride on the hunt.
A couple of hippos hang around the road but it was clear the lions were after a pair of buffalos.
It was the perfect opportunity fancied by wildlife photographers but we didn’t have the professional gadgets to allow us follow the pride.
The sun rose as we entered Kihihi in Kanungu District just a couple of miles away from Bwindi. The real thrill starts here. Though the roads are bad especially on rainy days (it rains here regularly), excitement easily overtakes nerves as you drive through Bwindi’s dramatic routes snaking gracefully through the jungle, tea fields and sky-touching hills.
Because there are no traffic signs, drivers here have a suicidal leaning to drive above 100km/hr speeds without hooting even when negotiating sharp corners – they only brake hastily when they bump into approaching traffic. Over an hour of this unpredictable Russian roulette will fray your nerves.
What waits on the other side is well-rewarding though; a chance to see one of the most-sought after animals on earth – the Mountain Gorillas. We tracked one of the habituated families called Kyaguriro which is led by the dominant silverback called Rochina. Seen through the Ruhija gate of the park, Kyaguriro consists of seven juveniles, a three-month baby, seven females, one blackback and an extra silverback. It is called a silverback because of the swath of silver hair that adorns his otherwise dark fur and the blackback is an adult male yet to get that silver hair; females remain black.
Our group was divided into two tracking sets on two different days. The group that tracked on the first day was lucky as it took them just 10 minutes into the jungle to locate Kyaguriro. Sometimes it takes even a whole day to spot a family. Those who tracked on the second day can testify. Much as it didn’t take them a whole day to locate the gorillas, it took a daunting task to slop and climb back up a huge hill from one of the deepest valleys in the forest – just near the centre of the forest, a place called Mubwindi.
Gorillas can climb trees, but are usually found on the ground in communities of up to 30 individuals. Watching them is easier and calmer than watching the chimpanzees as the gorillas are gentle. Despite their obvious physical power, gorillas are generally calm and non aggressive unless they are disturbed. Our rangers did well to keep everything under control as they employed some sort of “gorilla language” which incorporates a greeting and submission or show of no danger.
The Tourism Ministry employed five crew and cameramen along with two tourism policemen to protect the contestants.
In every game park, the crew was joined by experienced Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guides; however, in Bwindi the girls also needed porters to help carry their food and drinks, and sometimes even give a hand. No animals or people (aside from minor scrapes and scratches) were hurt during the experience in Bwindi – a big relief. But one of the toughest tests was the cold weather at Ruhija, and it is the only thing many felt relieved to leave behind.
In fact, temperatures vary as you move from one place to another – the girls, though came prepared, each carrying a suitcase and a backpacker. From Bwindi, our next stop was Mweya Safari Lodge where a cultural troupe surprised us with a lively welcome.
After dinner, the girls joined other tourists to dance with the cultural performers.
For contestants, this trip has provided them a shot at derring-do as well as a chance to realise the power of camaraderie. The girls have held debates about tourism issues and they have also composed a song in different indigenous languages for Uganda’s tourism. They will also compete in a cooking competition that involves local dishes. “The core purpose of this pageant is to inspire thousands of Ugandans to get out and do something,” said the chairperson Miss Tourism Uganda Pageants, Ms Irene Zikusooka. “Domestic tourism is what was on our minds as we started this, and what better way than using the beautiful faces of Uganda to show us how to do it.”
The expedition has been recorded on video and it will be cut into DVDs to be screened on television later. One thing for sure is that even when the girls eventually burn all the fuel in their tankers, their reserve tankers filled with adrenaline will keep them going.
Many of them have admitted that the pageant has done them a favour as a few had been to a game park.
This was also evident during the auditions at Sheraton a couple of weeks ago where all of them struggled to answer tourism/ conservation-related questions. As it stands now though, they are already teachers – ready to teach fellow Ugandans who have little knowledge of what this beautiful place has got to offer.
After the European trip, the main finale gala will be held on October 26 at Sheraton Hotel Kampala. Africa continues, Miss Tourism Uganda presents an opportunity to enable us to reveal to the world our many beautiful facets, from the bustling city of Kampala to the idyllic upcountry towns, fantastic weather, hospitable folks, breath-taking landscapes, abundant wildlife and the sun-kissed beaches.
Add that to the country’s unique melting pot of cultures, and what Uganda has to present becomes an endless list. Uganda has some of the best experiences to offer in Africa when it comes to leisure and adventure tourism and yet that section attracts very few tourists.
Miss Tourism, being a blend of lifestyle and culture, the organisers believe that it will help stimulate the interest of young Ugandans in what their motherland has got to offer hence helping the cause of domestic tourism. But like most pageants, the organisers have to be on their guard to avoid the aftermath controversies that can easily bury even the most prospective projects.
The chairperson Miss Tourism Uganda Pageants Ms Irene Zikusooka, is however positive that the organising committee will be professional and transparent at all times. They have managed to borrow the skills of fashion guru Santa Anzo to groom the beauties in cat-walking and fashioning.
The committee has members from the ministry and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), who will help to guide the pageant participants in their respective disciplines. Several industry players have also pledged their full support and it seems like the pageant has finally come back home to people who understand and rules of the industry.
The contest is open to all unmarried Ugandan women, aged between 18 and 29 with a minimum of A-level education and with a height of at least 5 feet 6 inches. Auditions are done and the girls will enter boot camp next week.
The chosen 15 will be presented to the public during a fundraising dinner on September 6 before they are taken back to the boot camp where only ten will be chosen to contest in the finale slated for October 5 in Kampala. The winner will be groomed into a speaker who will represent the country at Miss Tourism World.
The only African to have won the crown was South Africa’s Angela Beck in 2003. The contest has set its mark in more than 76 countries today and Uganda, known as one of the best tourist destinations in the world, aims to send a participant every year.