Monday, August 07, 2006
Conquering the Elusive Giraffe
Many a year ago now, myself and three fellow Peace Corps volunteers set out on an ill-fated trip to see giraffes in neighboring Niger. Just about everything imaginable that could go wring did, and I never got to see any giraffes.
But this weekend I was redeemed! I booked a weekend safari to Murchison Falls national park in the northwest of Uganda. I had wanted to go last weekend, but I couldn’t get Friday off work, and besides the park is only about 20 miles from the Congolese border which would not have been the greatest place to be if the entire region collapsed into armed strife (again) following the Congolese elections last weekend.
So I blew off work on Friday and joined 15 fellow tourists in two vans for an eight hour drive north. The other people in my van were a group of four Israeli tourists, who were very happy to have picked this particular part of Middle Eastern history to take a six month vacation, a Canadian medical student, and teenage American aspiring wildlife photographer, and a Kiwi Blue Helmet working in southern Sudan (Kiwi Blue Helmet: a United Nations Peace Keeper of New Zealand-ish origin). The trip was basically uneventful, except for the tsetse fly store we have to transverse right before we reached the lodge. As tsetse flies have painful bites and are carriers of river blindness, we had to close the windows. But as it was boiling in the van with the windows closed, we would open them just a crack to get some air. Which was fine and dandy until we hit one of the crater-like potholes on the road (occurring every five to ten feet), which would bounce the windows open, letting in the some of the swarm that followed the van. We would then have to slam the windows shut and try to kill the ones that got in. I had two kills. I Kiwi Blue Helmet had none, which just goes to prove the conventional wisdom that UN Peace Keepers couldn’t hurt a fly.
We arrived at camp and were shown to our tents. I got to share with Blue Helmet (who was, despite my constant teasing, an incredibly nice guy). We were given a stern warning that warthogs and hippos were common features inside the camp. Warthogs will find their way into any tent where there is anything edible. You are financially responsible for all warthog tent damage caused by edible things, including something as benign as an empty Snickers wrapper. Hippos were a bigger deal. They tended to feed on the grass in between the tents at night. Should you encounter one on your way to the bathroom at night, don’t approach it and climb a tree if it tries to approach you. (I don’t know about this. Hippos kill more people per year than any other wild animal in Africa. The trees didn’t look like they would support the weight of a healthy child, much less a full-sized adult with a determined hippo at the bottom, as hippos weigh as much as your standard SUV.) There was a poor older Dutch woman who was so scared that she insisted that a bucket be brought into her tent. Fortunately the rains had come recently so there was other grass to eat in places outside the camp. Midnight Hippo Bathroom Blocking is apparently a big problem in the dry season.
So Friday night Blue Helmet and I and a bunch of the other guests got rip-roaring drunk in the safari bar because there really isn’t anything else to do in a tented camp in the middle of no where in northwestern Uganda. We wanted a thunderstorm roll in across the forest and played guitar and drank Tusker, and just generally acted like colonialist frat boys.
This all caught up to us a few hours later though. After crashing in the tent somewhere around 1 am, somewhere before six am feel this blinding white light in my eyes and hear someone asking repeatedly if I am awake. Blue Helmet has his military issue flashlight two inches from my corneas. He is still drunk and thinks this is great. He jogs off to shower as I drag my bones out of bed and into my clothes. Blue-y and I had gotten a little too smashed and had forgotten to order breakfast for the morning. He had a couple of granola bars and a can of peaches in heavy syrup. We made do. Before you feel bad for us, we weren’t the most hard up of the previous nights drinkers. Xavier, an adorable little French 22 year old kid with a snaggletooth, walks over to us after we finish our breakfast and are hunkered down in the predawn light waiting for the van.
Xavier: Wot iz zis?
Blue-y: Its paa-ches, mate.
Xavier: Zwhere iz zit from?
Blue-y: New Zealand mate.
At which point Xavier picks up the can containing the remaining syrup and walks away contentedly drinking it.
The safari game drive itself was incredible. We saw herds and herds and herds of giraffes, a bunch of elephants, cape buffalo and warthogs, things of varying sizes with hooves, a small pride of lions enjoying something that was until very recently in its abbreviated history something with hooves, birds of every color, ill tempered monkeys, etc etc etc. We had one really big score though. We saw a leopard. They are almost impossible to see in the wild. It was sleeping up in a tree until our van and the pack of gawking people with camera hanging out of it, scared it down. It dashed off into the deep brush, and, as if to prove my theory that pintades (guinea fowl) are the dumbest creatures in existence, four of them dashed after it.
After the game drive I went back to the tent to crash. I was hurting a bit from the night before and wanted to grab a quick nap before the afternoon trip to the waterfalls. I had been asleep for about a half hour when I feel the tent shaking and hear a grunting noise. I think that Blue-y is screwing around with me because he knows how hungover I am and how desperately I needed to sleep. I sit up with homicide on my mind and look out the tent window. A warthog is trying to eat the grass under my tent. I could have unzipped it and slapped him on his porky ass. He eventually walked off and I went back to sleep.
The afternoon was a boat cruise up to Murchison Falls themselves. As we boarded the fairly sizable boat with somewhat questionable sea-worthiness, the captain pointed out the life jackets. This was a mere formality as it turned out because we saw hundreds of hippos and nile crocodiles on the three hour trip. As I mentioned earlier, hippos are huge and dangerous, and the nile crocs are 10-25 feet in length. Drowning would be the least of your problems if you happened to end up in the river.
After a far tamer evening, I spent my second night in the tent, and then headed out in the morning. We were supposed to do some hiking around the top of the waterfall, but it was pouring rain so the trip was brief. Although Blue-y and I managed to get our act together enough to breakfast this time, Xavier apparently had another long night. He took a beer along for the morning hike in the rain.
Then it was back to Kampala. On the way out of the camp, we drove though a big herd of baboons, using their big bare red asses to show us that they thought of us driving through their morning hang-out. We stopped for matooke for lunch, the staple meal of Uganda (it is green bananas, cooked slightly, then mashed into a paste. With enough salt it and the appropriate sauce it really isn’t all that much worse than some of the things that Mom boiled or microwaved for us as kids…) And then back to the city. Then back to work for my final week in Africa (this trip).