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If the World is Your Oyster... then in Uganda You’ll Find Many Pearls

Whenever someone wants to do a PR job on Uganda they trot out the fact that Sir Winston Churchill called it the “pearl of Africa.” As with just about all things past and distant the truth turns out to be far more interesting than the myth. Way back in 1907 Churchill was the newly appointed under-secretary for colonial affairs (not a top job in the day). At age 33 he made the arduous journey – by ship, train, lake steamer, by canoe, on foot and even by bicycle. All the sir business and war accolades were still far in his future.

Churchill travelled from Mombasa in Kenya, across Uganda and Lake Victoria and on to present day Sudan and South Sudan, seeing a good swathe of Africa along the way. By then he had already seen much of South Africa, working as a war correspondent during the Anglo-Boer War (including being captured and later escaping from the Boer forces).

He wrote afterwards that the then-kingdom of Buganda was a fairy tale, where “you climb up and at the end there is a wonderful new world.”

To which he added: “The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and, most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere to be seen in the whole range of Africa… For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life – bird, insect, reptile, beast, for vast scale – Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.”

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Between then and now there have been some hiccups, to put it mildly. Today the recollection of murderous dictators is a ghostly one and the land remains as fertile and people as friendly as ever. In terms of overall experience it remains the most rewarding place to encounter mountain gorillas, as well as many other primates, most notably in the “impenetrable” forest of Bwindi. Queen Elizabeth National Park is as good as any in Africa (with tree climbing lions to top it), and Murchison Falls one of Africa’s greatest natural spectacles.

Murchison Falls, Uganda

If it’s the less beaten safari track you are looking for, you need look no further. But one last thing, it was not the illustrious Winston Spencer-Churchill who coined the “pearl” phrase. That had been used since the time of explorers Burton and Speke, and after them Henry Morton Stanley. So there must be something to the time-worn description.

The first version of this article was posted on 8 May 2014 at 11:30 PM.


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