“Beware of the tse tse flies. If they bite, you will get high fever, muscle aches and rashes. You may not even wake up from your sleep.”
We sat in the back of our minivan, getting briefed by Sam who was our tour guide/driver to the safari.
“They are attracted to bright and dark colours. Do not wander into bushes during the day. Do not expose skin.”
I remember before the trip someone had told me that an African trip is incomplete without a safari. And while I do not completely agree with that statement, I would say that an African safari will definitely be an enriching experience. Sure, they are a bit expensive, but try to fit that in somehow. You will not regret it.
When on a safari in Africa or anywhere else in the world, you are bound to get a sense of what mother nature intended the world to be like before we came around and fucked things up.
Into the Wild
In the early 1900s, villages around the Murchison National Park had to be evacuated because of an epidemic caused by the deadly tse tse flies. The disease, popularly known as Sleeping Sickness, did not have any cure at the time. Nor does it have today.
“Today we will drive to the park and see the Murchison waterfall. Then, we will go to our campsite for the night. Tomorrow, we will go on our first game drive.” Sam continued on, as our group, two Germans girls, two Israelis, a Canadian guy and I, listened on with utmost disinterest.
Soon, the engine of the minivan roared to life and the 5-hour drive to the park began. We drove out of the busy roads of Kampala, leaving behind its noise and pollution and got a glimpse of rural Uganda. We passed school going children, churches and mosques, women carrying hay on their heads, wooden houses and small villages.
The roads of Uganda are an attraction in itself. We could see the highway in front of us, winding left and right, up and down for miles. In the distance, beyond the fields, villages and trees, were beautiful green mountains.
It was a long drive and to pass time, we got to know each other a little bit, listened to music, had our packed lunch and caught up on some sleep.
By the time, we reached Masindi, we all needed to step out and stretch our muscles a bit. Masindi is a useful little town on the outskirts of the Murchison National Park where people heading to safaris can enjoy a warm meal and a cold drink. It has a few run-down motels and some very friendly locals. (Too friendly?)
Sam reminded us that this was the last stop and if we needed something, this was the place to get it. The six of us took a walk around the market and stocked up on snacks and water. Bananas were in abundance and ridiculously cheap.
After our shopping was done, we stopped at a gas station where Sam refueled the van for the journey ahead.
“Do you think we have enough time for a beer?” David, the Canadian guy, asked as he walked up next to me, untying his ponytail.
“Probably not. But I have some waragi.”
“I don’t know. But it looks strong.”
I showed him the small bottle I had bought from the market, more out of curiosity than out of thirst.
“It’s gin.” He said after smelling it and taking a little sip. “It’s pretty good. Here..”
He passed on the bottle to me and I took a quick shot and immediately regretted it. A burning sensation went down my throat and into my stomach, setting on fire everything on the way.
“Hmm.. nice.” I said, putting up a brave face.
The Animal Novelty Theory
After about another hour or so of uneven, unpaved roads, we reached the main gate of the park. Guards, carrying scary machine guns, opened the pipe-gate and our safari officially began.
This was my first safari so I didn’t know what to expect, but I learnt from the first half an hour that novelty of some of the animals depreciates really quickly. Baboons, warthogs, monkeys seemed so exotic the first few times we saw them. We stopped and took pictures, stared at them with amazement, watching their every move closely.
“Look there is a baboon on the road!” we shouted excitedly.
“Oh my God! Did you see that warthog?” we asked each other.
“Squirrels!” The German girls screamed.
And a few minutes later, as the novelty wore off, we nagged Sam to drive to the waterfall faster. Scores of baboons and long tailed monkeys scattered in panic from the dusty path of the minivan while in the back, we took turns to take shots of waragi.
Falling for the Falls
Water gushed out of the gorges, with lush greenery all around, as we stood in silence for a few minutes to take it all in. From the top of the Murchison Falls, the peaceful Nile that I had seen in Egypt a few years back, seemed so restless and angry. The sound of the water, punctuated by the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves, was such a welcome change from the honks, beeps and smoke of Kampala. The cool breeze instantly relieved us of the fatigue from the tiring and boring journey up to the park.
“This is the world’s most powerful waterfall in terms of water force.” Sam announced as we sat on the boulders around the waterfall.
We could see the water, rushing out of the waterfall, and then quietly flowing on through the park towards the evening sun. We stayed there till the sun slowly set in the distance and a starry night descended upon the African savannah.
Sleeping under the stars
The rest camp was not as rough as we thought it will be. The accommodation was quite basic. Two people shared a small tent. Though not much to choose from and a tad expensive by Ugandan standards, they had food and drinks as well. More importantly, they had bon fire at night. We had our dinner of pumpkin curry and rice, sitting by the fire while watching a warthog, that had wandered into the camp, rummaging through the dustbin looking for food.
We drank and talked until we realised that it was really late and we needed to get up early in the morning for the game drive.
“The animals go into hiding and will be harder to spot when it gets hot.”
Jerks in the Jungle!
We got up early next morning, took a ferry to the other side of the river where we found that our minivan, with its roof opened, had magically transformed itself into a safari vehicle. We stood on the seats we had sat on the previous day and readied our eyes and cameras, as the van slowly drove into the deeper parts of the park.
The park stretched for as far as our eyes could see, dotted with trees and shrubs of different sizes and colours. The sun was slowly rising up the bright blue sky. It was a pretty picture. Nature had dressed up for the party.
Within the first hour, we spotted a lot of gazelles, antelopes, baboons and warthogs. But soon the Animal Novelty Theory kicked in and we demanded answers from Sam.
“Where are the lions? And elephants? And giraffes?” We asked poor Sam.
“Keep your eyes open and don’t make noise.” Sam whispered from the front.
Sensing our restlessness, Sam started telling us about the trees and the history of the park while his eyes darted around, looking for more animals.
“There is a village on that side.” He said pointing out the window. “There are a lot of fishermen there.”
No one cared.
“And there is an air strip beyond those trees that the government officials use when they come for inspection.”
“Maybe the animals flew away to Kenya from that air strip.” One of us joked cruelly.
And here, I have to put in a word for Sam. That dude never gave up. While we joked, and munched on beef samosas in the back, he was constantly on his phone with the other guides, looking for leads.
He stopped a couple of times, looking for animal foot prints. At one point, he even touched some animal dung near the road to check if it was fresh.
“If it is fresh, then is still nearby.”
“What was it?”
We laughed at him for touching animal poo and asked him how many animals he can identify just by touching and smelling their poo. Quite a lot it seems.
(In hindsight, it’s a surprise Sam didn’t leave us in the jungle.)
Patience pays off!
From my very limited safari experience, I have come to realise that when in the forest, you’ve got to have patience. The guides, the drivers, the locals do not control the movement of animals. This is their turf. They go where they want, when they want.
And this is what makes spotting a lion or a group of elephants that much more special. You are never assured of spotting your favourite animal on a safari. It ain’t a zoo! All you can do is, keep your ears and eyes open, trust the experience of your guide and hope for the best.
The energy of the van had gone down and we had resigned to taking pictures of trees to keep ourselves entertained when suddenly, the minivan screeched to a stop. A hyena had crossed our path and hid behind the long grass nearby. We waited patiently for it to come out but it didn’t. It sat there for a while and then disappeared into the grass.
“Did you see that?”
“Oh gosh..That was so cool!”
I caught a glimpse of Sam watching us on the rear-view mirror. He had a smile on his face, as we checked our cameras to see who took the best picture.
With lifted spirits, the van started moving again. All of us, now looking around for more animals with renewed interest. Few minutes in, and I am particularly proud of this part because I saw it before anyone else did, I saw something move in the distance.
Elephants and Giraffes!!
It was an elephant!
“There’s one more right behind it!” Someone else exclaimed as we saw a couple of elephants ambling through the bushes in the distance.
“Wild elephants can be very dangerous if they feel threatened” Sam advised, as he parked at a safe distance. We watched as the two elephants ignored us completely and walked away.
Few more minutes of driving and we saw a group of giraffes, just hanging out in the sun, eating leaves off trees. One of them just passed from the front of our van, no fucks given.
“Are giraffes dangerous?” I asked Sam, as he joined us in the back.
“They are very strong and very peaceful. But if you get too close to them, they will kick you.” He said, letting out a little laugh. “Even lions are cautious around them.”
We stood watching the group for several minutes. It was a scene straight out of a Lion King movie.
As the giraffes slowly walked away, Sam took his seat and started the engine. Next stop was the watering hole. This was the place where animals from around the park came to drink water and take a dip to cool themselves.
We passed the mating ground of gazelles, where lots of them just sat around in the grass and watched us pass by. It seemed they had come out to see us humans just as we had come out to see them!
“Son, look at those humans.” Somewhere in the herd in front of us, a Papa gazelle must be saying to his son.
“Yes, they look so weird, don’t they? Standing on two legs like that… Ughhh…” Mama gazelle joined in.
“But mom, what if they kill us and hang our heads over their fireplace? I read that they consider that courageous.”
“Son, humans without their guns are just a bunch of sissies. Take away their guns and the lions will be feasting on them every day. Hell, I’ll gore them around myself.” Papa said.
“Yes, and these humans do not have those guns. They are even afraid of stepping off their van.”
“Yeah, these humans are harmless. They just stare at us for a while, take pictures and drive away. Watch out for those tse tse flies though. Those fuckers are for real.”
Breaking the Rules!!!
We saw a herd of hippos chilling in the lake like it is their personal jacuzzi. For the first time, Sam allowed us to step off the van and walk around a bit. On the other side of the lake were a couple of huts where some fishermen families lived.
It was a beautiful spot.
Just then, Sam’s cell phone buzzed and he jumped back into the van, and waved for us to get on. He had got a lead on some lions!
For the first time during the game drive, he drove fast, while constantly talking on the phone.
I swear I heard a deer say, “Yo, what’s the rush?”
We stopped after about 10 minutes and slowly left the dusty path and drove into the short grass. Our speed suddenly reduced to a minimum. All of us quiet as corpses.
And there they were. Two of them. Resting under a tree. Barely even giving us a glance as the van slowly moved closer.
“The lionesses are the hunters. The lion is the leader of the pride and its duty is to protect it from other lions.” Sam whispered to us as we looked on in awe at the two lions.
Few minutes in, Sam whispered back. “We have to keep moving. We are not allowed to drive off the path. I’ll be in trouble if the rangers get to know.
Hungry, hungry hippo!
After the game drive, and an hour’s rest at the camp, we took a boat ride on the river. We saw the falls we had seen the previous day, from the bottom. We saw a larger herd of hippos, a lone elephant taking a bath, lots of parrots, an eagle and other colourful birds that I don’t know the names of. We also caught a glimpse of a crocodile which quickly got out of our way and hid itself.
We explored the Nile till sunset and then returned to our camp, passing a few baboons, one of whom threw poop at me.
“Fuck you, fucking baboon!”
That night, while we were having yet another plate of pumpkin curry and rice after a bout of cheap brandy, a hippo wandered into our camp.
“Don’t flash light in its eyes or it will charge at you.” Sam advised as we gathered around the animal with our torches. “Don’t make any noise. Turn off your flash!”
It walked around, feeding on the soft green grass around the campsite and walked away into the darkness. We could still hear it when we went to bed, growling somewhere nearby, munching on the fresh grass.
Next morning, I visited the Ziwa Rhino Camp while the rest of the group headed back to Kampala with Sam. Rhinos from different parts of Africa had been rescued and brought to the camp. There are currently around 15 rhinos in the camp, one of whom, who is half Kenyan, is named Obama.
Joel, the guide at the camp, asked me to be very quiet while walking through the bushes.
“We are walking?”
“Yes. Sound of engines will intimidate the rhinos.”
“What if one of them charges at us?”
“Find a strong tree and hide behind it.” Joel advised, confidently.
I still wonder sometimes that if a rhino comes charging at me, will I have the presence of mind to identify a strong tree, run to it and hide behind it…before the rhino gores me to smithereens?
Anyway, we cautiously walked through the bushes, brushing off the low hanging tree branches from our faces. I got poked by thorns and stepped in mud a few times and every time I made a sound, Joel shushed me.
I hated Joel. Still do.
We saw six rhinos strolling around on the tall grass, chewing on them lazily.
“You are lucky to spot them all together. They are usually harder to spot.” Joel whispered as we stood a few hundred meters away. Needless to say, I had already spotted a strong tree.
(Did you know a group of rhinos is called a crash?)
We followed the group for a while, as it walked on towards a mud swamp.
“Which one is Obama?” I asked.
“The one in the back, with his tail wagging.”
Back to civilization
That evening I returned to the bubble of pollution and noise and as much as I liked my safari group, it was nice to travel alone for a day. I checked back into Red Chillies Kampala, where rest of the group was also staying for the night. Over dinner and drinks, we discussed our day.
“We saw more gazelles and warthogs!” David, said sarcastically. “Then we drove back here.”
“We had a nice lunch though.” Veronica said, defensively.
After dinner, I went back to my quiet spot on the terrace and reflected back upon the last few days in the jungle. My first safari experience had come to an end, and as great as it was, I was glad to be back in the city with all its modern conveniences; TV, warm food, clean showers, proper toilets, fresh clothes, internet, a nice bed.
My right leg had been bitten in numerous places by some unknown jungle insect which I did not think much of at the time. I don’t think there was much you can complain about up on that terrace, engulfed in the calmness of the night.
And as much as I wanted to stay there for a few more nights, my bags had been packed to leave Kampala early next morning and I was looking forward to seeing a little more of this beautiful country.