The safari begins

January 23, 2014
10 p.m.
Harvesters Reaching the Nations compound
Yei, South Sudan

We’re still back at Thursday, January 16. Kitty and I were driving north toward Murchison Falls National Park with our driver Isaiah (or Isaac) and our companions Francesca, Eliane, and Thierry.

Isaiah kept stopping at various towns to buy supplies. At one point he bought a half-dozen pineapples, which the vendor placed right on the roof rack without tying them down or bagging them. At another point, he bought a case of bottled water. And at a third stop, a vendor handed him a brown paper bag.

I asked, “What have you purchased this time?’

He laughed nervously. “Mzungu food is not enough for me,” he said.

Now I was curious. “Well, what is it that you like so much?”

“Pork ribs!” he said, with gusto. I don’t know what he thinks white people eat — salads? — but I said, “I love pork ribs.” He laughed.

After the final stop, we left the asphalt road and lurched onto a dusty red-dirt track that continued almost due north. After a few miles, we stopped at a gate in the wilderness. We were at the edge of Murchison Falls National Park. Isaiah paid our fees and we continued.

Almost immediately after we entered the park, we saw our first monkeys. I think that Eliane first spotted them, high in the trees. Fortunately, Isaiah was a good guide and was able to identify all the animals that we saw over the next two days. He stopped so we could take a picture of the monkeys, and then he stopped again to show us an enormous spider hanging over the road, and then we drove on and he stopped again from time to time to show us various antelope-like creatures — a Ugandan kob, a hartebeest.

But there were not a lot of animals at first. Murchison Falls National Park is divided across the middle, from east to west, by the flowing White Nile, which is known here as the Victoria Nile. South of the river, there are relatively few animals, because poachers in decades past hunted almost all of them for food. Most of the animals are in the northern part of the park, across the river, which is carefully managed by Uganda Wildlife Authority officials wearing uniforms and carrying military weaponry. They keep the poachers at bay and the tourists slightly awed too.

So on that Thursday, we were entirely south of the river. We did see some old water buffalo resting in a wetland, and some warthogs, and quite a few birds, but no big game animals. We finally made it to the namesake waterfall, where we stopped to eat our bag lunches and hike to the view point of the falls.

At Murchison Falls National Park, you are never really alone — at least, we weren’t. We were with our guide, but when we were ready to walk along the trail to the foot and then to the top of the falls, a young female ranger accompanied us. She told us that a British explorer named Baker had discovered the falls as he searched for the source of the Nile back in the 1860s. After he left Lake Albert, one of the African Great Lakes, he paddled upstream for several more miles until he discovered this great cataract — a cut in hard rock through which the river plunges dramatically. He named it Murchison after the president of the Royal Geographical Society in London.

We walked to the foot of the falls and took pictures, and then up to the top for more. I wanted to put my toes or fingers in the water, but the force of the falls is so great that I was actually worried that I would lose my balance or slip.

We returned to the van and continued on.

After another hour or so, we finally made it to the Red Chilli rest camp, just a few miles downstream from Murchison Falls on the south bank of the river. The Red Chilli camp consists of a couple dozen tents and a dozen or so “bandas,” those round, one-room cabins that I described in an earlier post. The bandas are the hight of luxury in the national park, because they have solar-heated water for hot showers, and they have fans with electricity until midnight. That means going to sleep with a fan blowing — a real treat. And the showers were well appreciated. I was absolutely covered with red dust. When I wiped my face with my handkerchief, it looked like I was wearing my mom’s foundation.

Red Chilli also has a “restaurant” of sorts — think “tiki bar” decor with three entrees on the menu. We ordered our takeaway breakfast for the next day, enjoyed a hot dinner with our safari companions, and retreated to our banda. Just outside the door, a warthog was snuffling, moving quietly through the brush. I tried to take a picture, but it was too dark.

The next morning, we were up early. The Red Chilli rest camp is a quarter-mile from an eight-car ferry, run by the national park, that crosses the Nile at a broad and shallow point. The first ferry is at 7 a.m., and if you are looking for animals on a safari, you need to be out early. The big animals hide when the sun comes out.

So we were in our van at 6:30 or so, and we were down to the river to await the first ferry. We ate our takeaway breakfast — ham and cheese sandwiches, plus sliced pineapple — and watched the sun rise over the river. It was beautiful.

And on our way across the river on the ferry, we had our first sightings — right there, near the north landing of the ferry, were half a dozen hippos soaking in the shallow water. It was thrilling!

As soon as we landed on the north bank, we took off over rutted, dirty tracks on the lookout for animals. I didn’t know what to expect, but I guess I wasn’t thinking we would see much. We had been joined at the ferry by an employee of the Uganda Wildlife Authority — a pudgy man named Emmanuel, whom I liked very much. I told him that I wanted to see a giraffe, and that’s all I was asking for. He said we would see a giraffe.

But meanwhile, he kept pointing out boring animals like kobs and little Bambi-like deer and more water buffaloes. And warthogs — we saw so many warthogs over a three-day period that they completely lost their wonder. And then, suddenly, we saw one of the other vans had swerved off the road, directly past a sign that said, “Stay on the road. Penalty for going of the road: $150.”

We pulled up next to the other van, and there we saw him — the prize sighting — a full-grown male lion, sitting lazily in the shade of a great bush. Deep inside the bush, we could see another lion, who was undoubtedly his mate. I snapped away, taking several pictures. It was thrilling. But soon our driver reversed and returned to the dirt road.

Emmanuel later told me that two of the other vans had been caught off road and had been fined $150 each. I said with a straight face, “It’s a good thing that we did not do that.”

“Yes,” he replied. “A good thing.”

But I was befuddled. Wasn’t Emmanuel an employee of the wildlife authority? Why had he sanctioned us going off road? Who ratted out the other vans but not us?

After the lion sighting, we saw some giraffes loping across the savannah in the distance, and I was so happy. And then, as the sun was starting to get hot, we made it to a place along the north shore of the Nile where the river forms a shallow bay. In the bay were dozens of hippos, and there was a whole herd of water buffalo coming down to cool off in the water, and the scene was something out of Wild Kingdom. It was peaceful and beautiful.

We got out of the vans. The nursing students asked me to take their pictures on their iPhones. Thierry and Eliane wandered off to see some animals a couple of hundred yards away. I chatted with Emmanuel, who carried his gun just in case the hippos or water buffalos decided to charge us. “You don’t shoot AT the animals,” he said. “If they charge, you shoot above their heads. That will scare them off.”

From Emmanuel, I learned so much about wildlife management — how the Uganda Wildlife Authority works with neighboring tribes to reduce poaching, how they use controlled burns to clear brush and create the savannah environment that many animals prefer. I guess I had thought that large animals in Africa were wild and free, but that’s not really the case. I thought again and again of our American national parks — Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite. In America and in Africa alike, the key to the survival of large mammals is twofold: Preserve and enhance the environment, and convince the citizenry that live animals roaming free are more valuable to them than are dead animals.

After stretching our legs, we continued our drive, slowing making our way back to the ferry landing. After a while, I was getting very uncomfortable. It was hot in the car, and we hadn’t seen any elephants, and there were dozens and scores of these Uganda kobs everywhere, which excited the driver no end because the kob is Uganda’s national animal. But to me — meh, it’s a little deer.

We made it back to the ferry and returned to the rest camp. And I had a little nap before lunch. Our river cruise was scheduled for the afternoon.

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