Elephant and hippo sightings on the Nile

January 24, 2014
9:20 p.m.
Harvesters Reaching the Nations compound
Yei, South Sudan

I’m still describing what happened a week ago, on Friday, January 17.

After our noon meal in the Red Chilli rest camp, our whole safari group, including all the nurses from Vermont, piled into our vans and returned to the ferry landing on the Victoria Nile. This time, however, we didn’t cross the river. Instead, we boarded a pleasure craft floating at a dock on the south bank. It was completely open on the sides, but there were both lower and upper decks. The upper deck had a cloth awning to shield it from the sun. Kitty and I climbed to the top.

Our group was not the only group on the boat. There were also a group of Calvary Chapel missionaries from the eastern Washington state. I chatted briefly with one of their members — he told me they were in Africa to “share the love of Jesus” with the Ugandan people, which seemed a little odd to me since almost the whole country is already Christian, and surely those who have resisted the Christian message so far would be better evangelized by a fellow Ugandan rather than an American in a T-shirt and short pants. But he also told me that they were helping to support well-drilling in small villages in northern Uganda. This is something that I fully support.

Kitty and I have walked through numerous tukel villages, and of course none have running water. In virtually every case I’ve seen, women get water for their families by walking to the nearest public pump and then carrying five-gallon jugs home, often on their heads. Naturally, the more wells, the shorter the distance between your house and the nearest pump. I hear that many pumps are broken — few people know how to repair them. The smartest groups teach people how to repair wells — a marketable skill with which a man can actually earn a living for his family.

Our boat set out from the dock and started moving up the Nile under diesel power. And we were rewarded almost immediately with sightings of hippos, elephants, and crocodiles, all on the north bank. For a couple hours, the whole boatload was entranced. We saw an entire elephant family grazing next to the river. We saw more monkeys and a few baboons. There were so many hippos that I stopped counting. We saw marvelous birds, some at close range. It was grand.

Eventually we made it all the way to the base of Murchison Falls, and a few people from our boat disembarked so that they could walk up to the top. Someone said that they would be driving back to the place where we had begun the voyage.

Then, for the next hour, we motored back downstream to where we had started. It seemed long. We had been out in the sun, for the whole afternoon, and many people dozed in their chairs, including me. I wished I was back in my banda, napping on a real bed. But still — a lazy afternoon on the Nile, watching wild animals come down to the water to drink and eat. It was very, very cool.

That night we again ate in the Red Chilli rest camp restaurant — there no other options — and we went to bed early, worn out.

The next morning our whole group checked out of the rest camp and gathered our takeaway breakfasts and lunches, preparing for a long ride back to Kampala. The Vermont nursing students were fool of indignity this morning — a new group had come in late the previous evening, and they had taken up several tents on the edge of the property. Indeed, we had seen them in the restaurant the night before, and I had tried to figure out where they might be from. They were white, and they spoke English among themselves, but with an accent that was hard to place. Finally I decided that they might be South Africans or maybe British-Zimbabweans. But in any case, they had partied late into the night, keeping awake all the other people who had been sleeping in tents. Furthermore, a hippo had lumbered through the camp in the night, grazing the edge of one of the tents occupied by the nurses, and the new people had foolishly shined a flashlight on the hippos.

They had warned us: If a hippo comes into the camp, do not shine a light on it! Back away slowly!

I was terribly disappointed that I had not witnessed the bold hippo, but on the other hand I was glad for our fan and my earplugs — I had slept right through the drunken commotion.

We left the camp and drove down to the ferry landing once again, but this time, there were about 10 cars, vans, trucks, and jeeps in front of us — and, as you will recall, the ferry has a capacity of eight vehicles. So we had to wait while the ferry crossed and then returned, and finally we crossed with the second group.

This time, we were headed north or northeast toward the northern edge of the national park. And this time, I was pretty excited because we saw more elephants, more giraffes, and some amazingly huge birds. After about an hour, we got to the edge of the national park, passed through a manned gate, and drove out onto tarmac.

The rest of the day seemed interminable to me. For a long time, we drove eastward along the northern edge of the national park, finally stopping at a smaller waterfall upstream from Murchison Falls. It was great to stop and stretch our legs — the hike to the falls and back took about 45 minutes or so. But then we had to get back in the van and drive on and on and on, southward, back to Kampala.

The roads in Uganda proved to be of mixed quality. Some were decently paved in asphalt. A few were under construction, and we drove for miles and miles on gravel, but at least we could see that there would eventually be a good road in place of the gravel. Other roads were paved but full of potholes the size of bowling balls or even bigger. Rarely did we see any roads that had a painted center line, and I don’t think there are any shoulder lines in the whole country. So our driver, and all the other drivers, tend to drive down the center of the road, weaving in and out among the potholes at great speed. Of course, they can’t avoid all of them, so the weaving motion is accompanied by great crashes as one wheel or another hits the bottom of a gaping hole. Furthermore, Ugandans never run their air conditioning, if their cars are even equipped with it, so the windows must be kept down. But as you pass other cars or dirt or gravel roads, the other cars kick up vast clouds of billowing dust, so you shut your window temporarily — for 10 seconds or so — as you speed by. Within an hour, your clothes and your face and arms are covered with red dust.

As a result, driving in Uganda is the opposite of relaxing. Even as a passenger, you have to stay alert, shutting and opening your window repeatedly as you pass other vehicles. And the driver is constantly swerving left and right across the road, honking at motorcycles, beeping a friendly warning at the pedestrians that are always, always walking along the sides of any road.

Two notable things happened on the way back to Kampala:

First, we saw some interesting snippets of village life. There were a lot of tukels under construction along the road in northern Uganda, and I was interested to see how solidly they were built. But there also seemed to be a lot of charcoal being made. I only wish I’d been able to snap a picture of the fires along the road where people were bringing wood to be burned into charcoal. And even more, I wish I had a picture of the immense loads that women carry on their heads. Some had tree branches that were 25 or 30 feet long, balanced perfectly on their heads as they walked along. In some cases, a man walked alongside, carrying literally nothing.

Second, we were stopped by a traffic cop. Ugandan traffic police wear uniforms of sparkling white trousers and shirts — honestly, considering the dust, I have no idea how you could keep a uniform so dazzling. But when we were pulled over, our driver was angry. What had he done? We had no idea. It’s hard to believe he was speeding.

The driver jumped out and spoke to the officer. They walked back to the rear of the van, where one of the van windows had broken two days before, and had been replaced with some plastic sheeting. The traffic officer seem to be displeased by the repair job, but it had just happened. What were we to do?

My first thought was that this officer was looking for a bribe from the white people, but I couldn’t be sure. He poked his head into the side door of the van and spoke to me. “Where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Um, America?” I responded.

“No, no,” he scolded. “Where are you coming from TODAY?”

“Oh,” I said. “The national park.” Where else would a vanload of westerners speeding south toward Kampala be coming from? It’s not like northern Uganda is chock-full of tourist attractions.

He turned away and wrote up an elaborate ticket, which he gave to Isaiah, the driver. When the officer finally shooed us away, Isaiah got behind the wheel, slammed shut his door, and took off without a word. I think all of us were afraid to ask him any questions — he looked too peeved.

We made it to the Red Chilli hostel at about 5 p.m., and I was exhausted by the drive, but Kitty and I had no time to rest just yet. Moses, the young man who had driven us from the airport to Kampala on the night we had landed in Uganda, was back, and he was ready to take us on the final leg of our day’s journey — to Jinja.

Jinja is the town sited at the point where the White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria on its 4,000-mile journey to the sea. It’s been a resort since British colonial times, but it’s also been a manufacturing center ever since the first hydroelectric plants were built at the head of the Nile, taking advantage of the year-round flow out the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. Kitty, who spent a week in Jinja last year, wanted me to experience this relaxing town, where she had discovered a modestly priced and quiet resort — one that offered pizza, ice cream, and a swimming pool. That’s where we were headed.

It was about two more hours in the car from the Red Chilli hostel to Surjio’s Pizzeria and Guest House in Jinja. When we got there, we had one of their signature dishes — a really good chicken tandoori pizza, and we were done. Fortunately, our rooms looked right out on the pool, and the grounds were landscaped beautifully. I was ready for a couple of days NOT in a car.

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