A hippo in a bush OR The Queen Elizabeth National Park safari story

My previous blog, Uganda Marathon 2019: a race like no other, was necessarily wordy – there was much to be said. As the title of this post may suggest, this part of my Uganda trip will be better told in pictures. On parting ways after our holiday together, my friend @maurofm09 left me with a USB drive full of his awesome pictures. The words of this post are mine, the images are his.

Keen to explore more of the country that had so beguiled us during our marathon experience, I had arranged for a Ugandan tourist guide to pick us up from Masaka and take us westwards to the Queen Elizabeth National Park – the second largest national park in Uganda, set in the heart of the African Rift Valley. My connection to Meddie, the guide, was tenuous to say the least: he was recommended by a friend who had done some trekking with him a few years ago and had referred to him as “a legend”. We had conducted all arrangements via WhatsApp so, on the morning in question, Mauro, Ben and I waited nervously, hoping he would show.

Show he did and, smiling welcomingly, ushered us into the Toyota MPV that would be our second home over the coming days. It was huge and boasted the kind of comfort that only the excessive cushioning and plush upholstery of a 1970s Japanese vehicle provide. Well played, my friends from Nagoya!

Tired and bruised leg muscles hoisted us into our seats for the 5-hour journey ahead, a journey which consisted of admiring the flora and fauna as it passed by the window, the occasional 20 winks (like 40 winks but half as restorative) and wondering how fast it was possible to drive round a tight bend on a gravel road before death became inevitable.

 

As the motor of our van strained and coughed on the steep slopes of the surrounding hills, the idea of a plain with savannah grasses and abundant wildlife seemed like an utter fantasy. But then we crested a hill and there, stretched out before us, sprawled a vast blanket of dappled green. A jeep had flung up a trail of dust in the distance beyond the hardy branches of myriad acacias, and the heavy clouds stooped low until they met the silver filigree of a lake upon the horizon – this was fantasy made reality.

A few, short but bumpy moments later, we pulled into the driveway of Bush Lodge, our home for the next three nights. Set on the banks of a wide waterway and consisting of a central restaurant and social area surrounded by cabins and glamping tents (covered by wooden roofs), the lodge was ideally situated for both land and water safaris.

After an afternoon of damaging friendships by playing cards, as night fell, we returned to our tents. When only 20 feet from our respective beds, one of the lodge staff shone a torch at a bush immediately to our left and motioned for us to stop. No sooner had we done so, a colossal hippopotamus strolled casually out from behind the bush and plodded its way towards the water. Bearing in mind hippos kill more humans in African than any other animal save the mosquito, we felt repeating this close encounter to be unnecessary,  and made a mental note to check for large mammals before using the toilet block in the middle of the night.

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The hippo – preferably seen during the day, from a vehicle, through a camera lens

With most savannah animals taking siestas in the midday heat, early morning is often a good time to hit the safari trials in search of activity. Rubbing the sleep from our eyes and cursing the easy availability of Nile Export in all regions of Uganda, we climbed aboard the Meddie-mobile, lifted the viewing roof and headed into the park as the gloom of night shrunk westwards and the sun, still hidden by the horizon, yawned and stretched.

We were in luck: Nature was awake, and she was glorious!

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“I have the best horns ever” – Impala
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“Yeah right!” – Water buffalo
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Who cares about horns when you can have mud!!” – Hippo

We, like the animals we had just seen, took a midday siesta (for, contrary to popular belief, only mad dogs go out in the midday sun), then readied ourselves for safari #2 – views from the water.

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Elephants can drink up to 50 gallons per day!
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The majestic Fish Eagle
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You should cover your mouth when you yawn

In addition to the photogenic beasts above, we saw kingfishers on low branches, watching intently for movement in the shallows, hammer-head cobs, weaver birds, more buffalo, and a whole host of other creatures, great and small. In fact, the only minor downside to the boat safari was that animals didn’t just come to the water to drink – it also seemed a favourite spot for “self-enlightenment” (doing a poo, if you’re not a fan of euphemisms). Large animals produce lots of waste and, during our two hour trip, we witnessed at least three species adding to the water’s mineral content. Still, I’m not sure Armitage Shanks do an elephant toilet, so they have little choice.

No words needed

 

A group of our new friends from the Uganda marathon were also, through sheer serendipity, staying at the lodge so evenings were full of mirth and good cheer (and more Nile Export which, in turn, led to more mirth and more good cheer – it’s  virtuous cycle).

Uganda is renowned for, among other things, the gorillas that inhabit some of its dense forests in the north and the west. Made famous by naturalist, Dian Fossey, and her book Gorillas in the Mist, catching a glimpse of these fascinating creatures has become quite a favourite with tourists. As a result (and quite rightly), authorities have limited the number of visits to these habitats through an annual permit scheme. As ever, where demand outstrips supply, prices have risen – this once-in-a-lifetime experience does not come cheap.

Rather than splash the cash, we had made the decision to go in search of chimpanzees instead which meant another early morning, this time with a trip back to the dense woodland of the deep mountain valleys we had passed before reaching the Rift Valley. It had rained during the night and the view that greeted us as we dropped down towards the rainforest from a mountain pass was simply magical – the diaphanous morning mist was woven into the topmost branches of a forest canopy that stretched, uninterrupted, into the distance.

Poetry, however, soon turned to practicality as, on the heels of our less than talkative guide, we scrambled down steep slopes, through dense undergrowth, branches clawing at our shoulders and vines trying to snag our boots. Finally, however, a path appeared, the undergrowth fell away and we were walking among stout tree trunks.

If truth be told, the chimpanzee part of the chimpanzee tracking was a big anti-climax – we saw only one chimp – a loner called Victor – whose tree-top perch was so high that he was only just visible and, when a nearby tribe finally gave away their position by shrieking loudly, we were told that by the time we got there they would be long gone. I couldn’t be sure, but I got the feeling that our chimpanzee guide was making monkeys out of us.

That said, the walk among the vast trees was beautiful and almost made up for the disappointment. Almost….

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Proper Indiana Jones stuff!
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A sunbeam finds a gap in the foliage

Having said our farewells to our comrades that evening, we went to sleep in the knowledge that the next day would be spent almost entirely on the road – an eight-hour journey back to the airport in Entebbe. And yet, perhaps to apologise for our chimp letdown or just simply because, as we drove away from the lodge, Uganda had arranged for a send-off. Within a mile of each other we saw baboons, monkeys, hippos, elephants and even a crested cranes.

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Uganda had given us smiles and laughter, moments of empathy, natural beauty in abundance, enough animals to warrant building an ark, and a new appreciation of the strength of the human spirit.

A bone-rattling eight hours later we were checking in Entebbe International airport, Ben to head home, Mauro and I to hop across the border into Kenya. And I’ll tell you all about that in the next post.

 

 

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