This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, January 04, 2012 was originally posted on January 09, 2012.
DAY 6: “What trip are you booking?” I asked the eastern Asian face at the tours office of the hostel in Kampala. She had been calculating Ugandan schilling exchange rates in the cost of an upcoming trip.
“Murchinson,” she replied succinctly.
“I’ll see you there then,” I said. I had previously booked the same 3-day safari tour before my rafting excursion near Jinja (rhymes with ninja).
She extended her hand. “Maggie.”
By the end of the first day of the tour I’d discover she was not exactly a succinct person at all — in fact, quite the opposite. Oh, that and the fact that she’d go missing in the African jungle.
IT WAS WINSTON CHURCHILL who called Uganda the “Pearl of Africa” for its beautiful landscape. Fast forward a hundred and five years, and Lonely Planet placed Uganda in their list of top ten countries to visit in 2012, and it’s clear, once you get a lay of the land, why that is. Geographically fortunate, Uganda offers a big diversity in fertile landscapes and ecosystems, from gorilla-inhabited rainforests to savannahs reminiscent of the Serengeti. This diversity of landscapes is experienced in different national parks, but I would only have time to see one — the country’s biggest — which includes marsh, savannah, and rainforest: Murchinson Falls National Park. But before entering the park on our three-day tour, we would visit two points of interest first.
There were four of us on tour: Alice, a lawyer from London who had traveled to Uganda with a Ugandan friend, and joined the backpacker tour since she felt the tour offered at her upscale hotel was overpriced; Jean (pronounced the French way), an IT guy from Belgium, originally from former Belgian colony Burundi but adopted by Belgian parents; and Maggie whom I met at the hostel tour office, a huge animal lover from Singapore — she even worked at the Singapore zoo — who had quit her job to follow her dream of travel. (She had just completed a three-week overland tour through southwestern Africa with a friend and was now traveling on her own.) Then there was me. Driving us was a friendly Ugandan man named Geoffrey, who would bring us to places with different guides.
“THEY ARE CALLED WHITE RHINOS, but actually they are called wijd rhinos, the Dutch word for ‘wide,’” said Kawesi, our first guide, at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. “They are wide rhinos, but they are called ‘white rhinos’ because of a slip of the tongue of the White man.” Wide features included the head and body, anatomically useful to be a grazer.
If you remember Arizonan Niko (from the road trip across America), he respected the rhinos in his home decor as a symbol of strength. “It’s the only animal that can’t walk backwards; it only walks forwards,” he said. “It’s the only animal that always puts out fires instead of running away.”
However, the might of the rhinoceros is sought out in other ways — violent ways by poachers — so much that rhino horns are a prized possession in black market jewelry and Chinese medicine. Rhino horns are even stolen from European museums because of their high value on the black market — they’re more valuable than gold — and the demand for them has outlived its unsustainable supply.
Decades ago, the white rhinoceros had been such a commodity for poachers in Uganda that in 1982 they had been entirely extinct from the country. It wasn’t until 1997 that an initiative to breed them back into existence in Uganda began.
“I apologize if you are coming from those countries, but it is a fact,” Kawesi said, looking at Maggie after his talk about rhino extinction due to the demands from Yemen and China. I don’t know if she got the hint, but it’s not like she supported it.
“[A rhino horn] is just keratin,” Maggie argued later on in the minibus. “They can just take their hair and fingernails and boil it in water.”
Talking about rhinos is one thing, but seeing them is another. Geoffrey drove us into the bush where our group head on foot to search for some rhinos. In about fifteen minutes, we encountered three sitting in the shade away from the heat of midday. We were there with another tour group — a group of Europeans who all seemed to have heavy telephoto lenses — and we all kept a safe distance away, perhaps 50 ft.
“They’re dormant, but they’re not stupid,” Kawesi warned us.
In front of us was Justice, age 2, with his mother Corey, age 14. Hiding in the bush was a third: Obama, age 2 years, 7 months.
“Why is it called Obama? Because of Barack Obama? No,” Kawesi said. “The mother is from America [from Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida], and the father is from Kenya [from the Soreo Ranch], and together they make Obama here in Uganda.”
“Has Obama been here yet? In Uganda?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Kawesi told me. “Maybe you can tell him to come here.”
Yup, I’ll get right on that. (Mr. President, if you’re reading this, quit bowling and come to Uganda!)
After our brief rhino encounter, we continued on in the minibus northbound. I did some math in my head. “If there are only twelve rhinos, and we saw three, we saw 25% of all the rhinos in the country.”
“It’s quite sad, really,” Maggie said.
The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary only had 10 of the 12, but had a capacity for 40. Beyond that, they would try to put rhinos back in the wild — but not without government support. Since the breeding is a private initiative, it will take government funding to protect them in the national parks, something that for now, is a long shot.
“I GUESS EGYPT IS THAT WAY?” Alice commented while pointing north, as we stood on the shore of the Nile — this time at Karuma Falls, our second stop (if you don’t include stopping for cattle in the middle of the road). Mosquitoes were rampant once we trekked on foot from the parking area down to the riverbank, but with a little Jungle Juice (100% DEET formula) it was a bearable experience as the falls roared before us. Our stop wasn’t scheduled to be that long — we still needed to make it to our campsite outside the national park entrance — but it was extended because Maggie had gone missing when she hung back to take some more photos from one area.
“I thought she saw me go this way,” I told Geoffrey, who seemed a little freaked out that he lost a client. The rest of us had made a left turn off the path to get a closer view.
“Should we wait here in case she comes back?” Alice offered.
Geoffrey and I searched the path that followed the river, but couldn’t find anyone.
“Let’s go back,” he suggested. I followed. No one.
“Let’s go back up [to the minibus],” said Geoffrey. No one was there either.
“Now this is an adventure,” I muttered. Geoffery went back down to the river, while we waited. “She probably went down that path,” I told him.
And she did, only to realize she was not following anyone and smartly turn back. She wasn’t the least bit discouraged though. “I saw a monitor lizard and a colobus monkey,” the animal lover raved.
IT WAS NEAR SUNSET when we arrived at the Murchinson Falls Safari Camp, where we were met by Winnie, our Kampala-based tour guide who had gone up a day early. She showed us the lay of the land with a bar/dining hall, and our big camping tents with sturdy beds and mattresses, covered under a thatched roof for that African aesthetic.
“I’m sorry you have to smell my boots and socks,” Jean apologized to me in the guys’ tent.
It was in camp that my safari mates and I had sunset beers, followed by dinner, and conversation around a campfire. We were impressed with our trip so far, and each other’s company, and we hadn’t even entered the park yet. A waterfall on the Nile plus three rhinos was a good start, but bigger waterfalls and more than three animals were yet to come.
“Is there any country you haven’t been?” Jean asked me.
“Mexico,” I answered.
“Ha, that’s the closest one.”
“You should keep it that way,” Maggie said.
Next entry: Alice in Gandaland
Previous entry: A Gentleman's Game
More to come…
Posted by on 01/09 at 02:51 PM
another good one… great pics (btw, i typed in ‘action69’ for this to post)
Posted by on 01/09 at 10:15 PM
Sorry, don’t think I’ll have time to wrap up the next entry before I head out on the Congo-Nile Trail for the next 2.5 days. More to come when I get back!
Posted by on 01/10 at 12:28 AM
is that bar the Snafu of Murchinson Falls?
Posted by on 01/10 at 12:04 PM
I love the new trip! Mexico isn’t bad if you get away from the resort towns - I’ve tried Merida, Oaxaca, Mazunte, and there’s tons of others!
Posted by sara on 01/10 at 02:17 PM
Love the WH bowling shout out!
Posted by on 01/11 at 08:16 PM
Alice in Gandaland
A Gentleman's Game
THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY
Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year.