SABA Episode #13 — Rwenzori Trekking & Uganda’s Interventions in Congo (Plus John Hunwick’s Crazy Stories)

John Hunwick truly has a story to tell! During the first hour of our Zoom call all participants pretty much just listened to his African adventures … Hearing it all is indeed the benefit of joining us live on Tuesdays (7pm Rwandan/8pm Ugandan time) during live sessions that feed SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA — as always, Episode #13 represents merely a fraction of all the tales told.

The final 18 minutes (you can play them above) are entirely devoted to the mountain project by our Muzungu [white man]. John considers Rwenzori Trekking Services his life’s greatest achievement, and it’s hard to argue with that. Still, there is some competition … For instance, in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis, Hunwick rescued over 270 children and set up an orphanage in the southeast of Rwanda. Yet this is one of the chapters he isn’t eager to discuss.

In this blog post we are sharing three other stories related to John, and they start in the East Africa of the 1990s. Our guest does not fancy sharing much about his previous life in Australia, mostly because he was deeply involved in the military. He simply says he once took a bus and forgot to get out on time, so he found himself in Africa. But Hunwick does stress that he grew up in remote areas, that life without smartphones was better than the one we live today, and that his folks only got a TV set when he was 16. You know, stuff that you might expect from a 73-year-old Mzee [respected elder]…

Backpackers Hostel & Campsite

In the olden days, before the profile of a typical visitor to Uganda changed dramatically, Kampala’s Backpackers was an institution. From 1993 on, this hostel was where one got the latest travel information, met potential trip buddies, and slept for almost no money.

John Hunwick owned it, and that was a blessing and a curse. He would work on it constantly, adding surprising new features and upgrading his lushly green plot on, what were then, the outskirts of Uganda’s capital. For example, right within his one-storey building (the top was reserved for his personal quarters) John built a fountain, and outside of it he erected grass-thatched cottages where you could have fun with visiting monkeys.

Then again, it was barebones in some significant ways. Want a mosquito net in the dormitory? Bring one! Toilet paper? Come with a roll. Wanna charge your gadget? There are no sockets around. John knew his budget-conscious clientele, their stockpiling of free stuff (including pillow ”borrowing” for the long bus ride to Nairobi) and other peculiar features, and acted accordingly. If you got him on the wrong foot, you wondered why this man was in hospitality. On the other hand, if you knew how and when to approach him, there were many stories to be entertained by and insights to appreciate.

Most of all, Backpackers existed when nothing comparable did. Before John entered the accommodation business, a shoestring customer’s best bet was the YMCA, and that came with the obligation to empty the rooms every morning for classes to take place. In fact, the YMCA was where John first stayed in 1990, camping on its compound. One could hear gunfire regularly — the current government was still pacifying the country — but that was not a biggie for John. When a bullet penetrated his canvas, however, he decided it was time to get accustomed to the YMCA classrooms …

In September 2021 Hunwick closed Backpackers in Kampala. Covid. But he believes the closure may be for good.

Gorillas for 11 Dollars

In 1991, before it was even possible to track gorillas in Uganda, he flew to Burundi and found his way to Rwanda. At the border the soldiers searched his gear, found a kerosene stove and believed it was a land mine. John went through some uncomfortable gunpoint moments, but a Catholic father fortunately came along, explained what the thing was and gave our hero a lift to Butare (today’s Huye).

Once he was in Rwanda, it wasn’t that difficult to reach Ruhengeri (today’s Musanze) surrounded by the volcanoes, but to get his gorilla tracking done was another story altogether. The townsfolk told him where to hike to find the Rwandan army at a road block. He got arrested but thankfully ran into an English-speaking captain.

The captain was proud to hear that Hunwick had come to see Dian Fossey’s mountain gorillas. He promised John the soldiers would organise it for him because the park rangers had been chased away by violent groups. An accommodation solution was found, one of the better looking lodges … but still with a mortar hole in the roof. The following day John was taken to see the gorillas in the bamboo of Volcanoes National Park, and it was a fantastic experience.

Excited that a Muzungu had come to do this activity, the mayor of Ruhengeri had come to celebrate. John asked him how he could return to Uganda. He was told that the only safe way to cross the border was through the Virungas. A guide led him to the top of the Volcanoes, then he descended into Uganda by himself. John was happy to partake in this adventurous border crossing but immediately looked for the Immigration office in Kisoro. They were rather disbelieving but did stamp his passport.

Hunwick kept the gorilla tracking receipt of USD 11 for many years as a precious souvenir, but unfortunately lost it (follow this link to today’s prices that are more than 100x higher now).

Bwindi Massacre

In March 1999 John got a phone call from Zambia. A backpacker hostel over there had picked up a radio transmission from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, by some tourists saying they had been attacked. John happened to be at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office, and this was how the terrible news reached the people in charge.

Later that evening John decided to drive to the incident site himself. He reached Butagata near Bwindi at 3:30am. He rested in his car a bit and early in the morning continued towards the national park gate where he found burnt vehicles and houses. He took photos that would later help the investigators.

But his own conclusions are different than those you may have read about. He does not believe that a group of Rwandan rebels would arrive from Congo to destabilise Uganda and punish English-speaking countries that were supporting Rwanda’s regime. According to John, they did not really intend to kill the eight tourists from America, Britain and New Zealand. The armed and drunk thugs came because they had heard that two people from the tourist group were trying to buy Congolese diamonds. They assumed they had a small fortune on them, and showed up for the money. The Muzungu victims were kidnapped to provide a buffer between the thieves and those were expected to chase after them. An overweight lady with a medical problem was let go — the rebel commander was compassionate enough for that — but when some other tourists started to feign sickness they were murdered instead …

It was John who used his fish filleting knife to pry open the cockpit door of a tour guide’s Cessna that was to evacuate the survivors, and then the same tool was used to start the plane. When the second aircraft came, John would again play a crucial role — firing his pistol to scare the crowds off the airstrip and allow the plane to take off. To top it all, Hunwick finally helped deliver ammo to different UWA outposts around the park …

The Bwindi tragedy would end up hurting Uganda’s tourism industry for many years. If you ever wondered why gorilla trackers are now accompanied by plentiful armed personnel, this is why. But the times have changed and John Hunwick shares Uganda’s very different present reality in the podcast. With some rebels in Congo thrown in too. Don’t miss.


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