Bob Hope and Bing Crosby traveled a lot of roads together. During the 1940s and 1950s, the crooning duo traversed the Road to Singapore, the Road to Zanzibar and a smattering of other exotic roads in a series of classic Hollywood comedies.
For all their silver screen misadventures, Hope and Crosby never traveled down the road to Gulu, but they should have. This road is worth its own movie.
Gulu (pronounced goo-loo) is one of the larger cities in northern Uganda, and it serves as our destination on Day 5. Watoto operates a children’s village, a baby home and a few farms in the region, so we’re headed that way with our full team (Steve, Vicki, Sarah and me) plus Judy, our hostess, and Lorenda, a nurse, whose husband works for Watoto. She is going to help Judy prep the guest houses for large groups of volunteers.
Along with Simon, our driver, seven of us launch into the morning sun filled with anticipation. Seven people. One van. One stretch of road. What could possibly happen?
Let me set the stage.
Gulu is about the same distance from Kampala as Oklahoma City, Okla., is from Dallas, Texas. It’s about three hours as the crow flies, but we ain’t flyin’. See, the road to Gulu is so difficult to traverse (for various reasons) that it takes between six and seven hours.
Here’s why – it is one of the worst “roads” in the world. You doubt me? Hang on. You’re in for a bumpy ride. First, you have to get out of Kampala.
I continue my tradition of humming Jesus Take the Wheel (still having trouble mastering the second verse), while Simon, our resident automotive Houdini, zigzags through traffic/mayhem. He squeezes a van through spaces more suited for a unicycle, all while his facial expression registers … what is that? Oh, yes, boredom. He looks bored. Wait. Did he just nod off? Is he not seeing what I’m seeing? Seriously, we passed a bus with the phrase “I am sorry” painted on the front.
As copilot (a self-assigned title), I harness my powers of concentration and focus on the road, pumping my imaginary brake and clenching my jaw, because this is clearly helping Simon drive safer.
An hour will pass before we actually slip out of the chokehold of Kampala traffic and onto Gulu road. That’s not an official name. Again, no street signs.
Gulu road is just two lanes that run north and south. The actual road starts off in excellent condition – quality blacktop that frankly outpaces any Oklahoma highway. We hit construction soon, and the problems emerge. First, no cones, no barriers, only a few flagmen. To keep people from driving on the unfinished roads, they put sizable rocks, like land mines, across the smooth surface. Sure, you can drive on it, but be prepared to dislodge a small boulder from your muffler.
The further north we drive, the more the landscape flattens. The valleys near Kampala give way to the savannah of the north. The landscape is still lush and green. In the swampy lowlands, bulrushes (papyrus) pop up in vast fields. They stand about 8 feet tall and resemble oversized dandelions. I envision the motion of our passing van stirring a cloud of giant puffy seedlings.
The shoulders of Gulu road are constantly filled with pedestrians, usually carrying the standard yellow jerry cans for water, fruit or anything else you can imagine. Families walk. Kids walk alone. Every mile of the road, someone is there – walking and carrying.
We pass several small communities, all of which seem to fall from the mold. The thick vegetation that borders the road clears, and a series of one-story buildings line the road for a few miles. They remind me of shops along a main street in an Old West town – interconnected porches with a few windows facing the front. One noticeable difference: whole buildings have their stucco-like finish painted a single color and don a company’s logo. They are building billboards. In every town, several buildings have the trademark “Airtel” red and white. Again, Uganda is a country of contrasts – traditional fruit markets clash with constant branding for cell phones.
The halfway point comes quicker than I expect. We stop at a brightly colored, open-air restaurant that serves North American-style food. I am told this is the best and only bathroom break (politely referred to as “making a short call”) until we arrive in Gulu in another three or four hours.
Let the record show that my mother and sister are tough women who can do just about anything, but they could never make this trip. Their hamster-sized bladders would have required several awkward roadside stops. I thank God for my father’s genetics at this moment.
Soon after the stop, the road begins to deteriorate, and, by deteriorate, I mean disappear completely.
First, the width gives way, shrinking and re-expanding from two lanes to barely 5 feet wide. The edges transform from clean lines to something resembling an uncrimped pie crust that rolls ahead of us for miles.
The explanation is simple. As vehicles, especially large trucks, pass on the narrow road, they are forced off the blacktop and onto the orange packed clay of the shoulders. Every time they run off the edge, it chips off a little more of the blacktop.
All of this is bad enough, but then comes the potholes. Let me correct that. Chicago has potholes. These are moon craters. I’ve seen people spelunk into smaller holes than this.
These two significant road conditions combine to force drivers into a constant weaving pattern. Simon navigates us between and around potholes/craters and the road’s edge, which – at points – is a good 8- to 10-inch drop.
This is like an endless game of Frogger, except we’re not trying to cross the road; we’re on it for hours. The other problem is everyone else is weaving, while speeding up rapidly and decelerating inches before the next pothole/crater. Thus, Frogger combines with a version of vehicular chicken. Ah, the new Ugandan sensation – Fricken.
We cross the Nile River, and I realize it’s not brown like the pictures we see of the Nile near the end of its journey in Egypt. Here, closer to the source, it’s blue-green and churning with whitecaps. Dense vegetation runs right to the shoreline, and small, sporadic islands topped with overgrown greenery dissect it. I find myself awed by the beauty and power of the Nile.
Up the road, we pass an overturned truck surrounded by a swarm of people. Most Ugandan trucks are overloaded, so they become top-heavy. Clearly, this truck’s wheel caught the edge of the road, swerved and flipped.
As we near Gulu, the road begins to disappear altogether. The orange clay sub-road bleeds through the asphalt in large messy chunks. Road crews with makeshift fillers attempt to patch holes, but this is like bailing water from the Titanic with a teacup.
As the road disintegrates, so does the ride. The constant jostling is like an angry chiropractor tinkering with our skeletal systems.
Seven hours after seven people boarded a van, we arrive at the Watoto guest houses – sore and tired. While I never once saw Bob Hope or Bing Crosby, the Gulu road surpassed its billing and provided its own memorable adventure.
However, the day was not done. In a few short hours, I’d meet an 8-year-old boy who would change my life and redefine how I walked all my future roads.