Uganda - Close Encounters of an Animal Kind
Dec 30, 2004
The shared taxi dropped me off on the side of the highway. A dirt road led into Queen Elizabeth Park. Hiring a private taxi to take me into the park would be expensive, so I decided to try to hitchhike. Surprisingly, I waited only two minutes before a brand new red SUV stopped to pick me up. Inside was an American family who work at the US embassy in Kampala. It was novel being in a SUV being used for what they are supposedly designed for; bouncing along down a dirt road. We stopped several times to take photos of elephants, and they even gave me chocolate chip cookies.
I have great hitchhiking karma. In New Orleans, Ayesha, Tim and I caught a ride in a stretched limo, and cruised through police barricades and closed streets directly to Bourbon Street in the middle of Mardi Gras. In LA, left by my boring coworkers and stranded after the bar closed, I caught 40 mile ride with Spanky the drummer from Jumpin' Jimes, that night's headline act. Now, this ride into Queen Elizabeth Park, with chocolate chips and elephants, moves into 3rd place on my list of my most memorable hitchhiking experiences.
The family stopped at the luxury hotel, and I walked on to the hostel. It was quite basic, with plain rooms and shared bathrooms, but it was surrounded by a great diversity, and strangeness, of wildlife. Warthogs always hang around the guesthouse. They're mean-looking, little beasts with tusks and boney protrusions on the sides of their faces. But the tough image is ruined as they gaily shuffle around on their knees, eating off the ground.
Of course, there were marabou storks too. The huge, ugly birds walked by, flew by, and occasionally wandered into the restaurant. As if being 5' tall, and ugly as hell, wasn't strange enough, one day I realized that their knees perplexingly bend backwards rather than forwards.
The warthogs and storks were everywhere, but there was much more wildlife. A group of monitor lizards hid under a bush next to the hostel, and came out in the afternoons to sun themselves. Scores of small, brightly colored, birds flew around chirping. And once, a school of 100 mongooses casually walked past. Inside the guesthouse there was wildlife too - geckos lined the walls, and every night a bat flew laps up and down the hall.
In Tanzania, I decided that I'm not a fan of truck safaris. It felt a bit like a zoo, but instead of a wall, the truck forms a barrier between you and the wildlife. In Queen Elizabeth, I wanted a different experience. I tromped off by myself towards the campsite, and then kept walking. I followed a dirt road, but had no idea where it led. This was the adventure that I was looking for. There was no truck; no barrier. Just me and the animals - mano a animal.
On the way to the campsite, warthogs and marabou storks were omnipresent. Everywhere I looked, there were groups of warthogs or storks - usually both. The storks also filled the trees and flew overhead. It was all so unreal, I don't think I would have been surprised if a warthog also flew overhead. I reached the campsite, and found a dozen waterbucks lying in the grass. My macho, world-traveling, mine-field-walking, image is going to take a hit when I say this, but waterbucks have the cutest heart-shaped noses.
Once past the campsite, I was completely on my own. I walked past waterbucks and bushbucks. There were, of course, more marabou storks and warthogs, but they mostly stay near to civilization where they can feed off people's leftovers. As for larger animals, there were signs. I found elephant turds, lion tracks, and a rotting, stinking skull of a warthog that lions had killed. After finding the rotting skull, I began thinking that walking alone might not be a good idea. A lion, or an elephant could effortlessly tear me apart.
I'm pondering the danger, when a huge beast jumps out of a bush and lands inches from me. The thing is 8 feet tall, and weighs almost half a ton. It's not a lion, nor an elephant. It's a male waterbuck. He has that cute heart-shaped nose, but also massive pointed horns capable of skewering me like a shish-kebab. Fortunately, he's as terrified of me, as I am of him. The moment he lands, he desperately jumps away from me, as I jump away from him in the opposite direction. Ridiculously, we both almost trip over our own feet and fall over. The waterbuck keeps running while I stand in place, stunned. It was like a scene out of a slapstick comedy, though I didn't start laughing until my heart stopped racing.
I turned around, and headed back to the hostel. At the ranger station, I signed up for a nice, safe, boat trip.
Compulsively, I avoid anything popular. The more people that go, the less that I want to be there. It comes from having hippy parents who trained me to strive to be different: "fight the power", "question authority". Usually, this is a good thing: I walk down the less traveled path which gives me unique, amazing experiences. But, the well beaten path may be beaten for a reason. Sometimes, marketing is the sole reason something is popular. Other times, places have been ruined by their popularity. But many things are deservedly popular. I'm now consciously trying to find the right balance between searching for places untouched by tourism, and visiting spots that are amazing, despite the crowds.
Everyone does the boat trip at Queen Elizabeth Park. They all say it's fantastic. I contemplated going, or not going, but the price tipped the balance. It was one of the first affordable tourist activities that I found in East Africa. I imagined the boat trip would be nice and safe, but even before we launched there was excitement and danger. A large, and deadly cobra slithered from under rocks next to the pier and disappeared in the murky water. Girls from an overland truck tour had to be convinced to get on the boat - they were ready to retreat to the safety of their truck. Minutes after departing, we had more excitement - but this part was planned. The boat came up to a group of hippos, almost near enough to touch them.
Hippos in water are confident and docile. On the land they're nervous, twitchy, and are the deadliest animal in Africa. If you get between them and the safety of water, ironically, the massive beast will get scared. They react by running you over, and you have no chance against a 3 ton monster charging at 25 mph.
We passed by more hippos in the water, and many buffalo on shore. It was heaven for a bird watcher - but, once again, I'm not a birdwatcher. Birds of all shapes and sizes were in the water, in the trees, and on the shore. But the only birds that I'll remember were the impressive, and beautiful fish eagles. The boat trip, it seems, is designed so that it ends with an incredible finale. The boat turns around just before a peninsula packed with an incredible density of wildlife. In a tiny space there were hundreds of birds, a score of buffalo, and a dozen hippos. It was spectacular. I snapped away until my memory card was full, but unfortunately, I couldn't seem to do justice to the scene with my camera.
As we disembarked from the boat a ranger told me for the past 3 nights lions had been hanging out near this pier at sunset. I got excited and made up my mind in a flash - "This is finally my chance to see some lions! I'm staying right here until the lions come by." Apparently, I'd not quite learned my lesson that animals are bigger than me, and dangerous. But, sunset wasn't coming for hours so I had plenty of time to devise a plan for seeing lions, without being eaten by them.
I started my stakeout. I pulled a book out of my bag, and began reading. Twenty minutes later, a fish eagle landed on a tree a couple of yards away. I took that as a good sign, and waited.
As the sun started to set, there were still no sign of lions. The sun slipped beneath the hill behind me, lighting up the puffy white clouds. The cloud's reflection in the water glowed. It gave the valley an amazing, beautiful, soft quality of light. To add to the beauty, a rainbow appeared behind the clouds. And then, to make the moment more special, a lightning storm began in the distance. Lightning and rainbows; It was an amazing sight.
I watched the lightning and rainbows until the clouds turned pink. Then, I rushed to the top of the hill. The sunset was in front of me, behind me, and directly overhead. The sky turned a rich blue color, and cotton-candy pink clouds hovered over my head. Gradually, the sky faded from blue, to deep orange. The sunset went through three very distinct phases: clouds lit up over the water, pink clouds all around me, and a deep dark orange. Each phase was completely different, and each was equally spectacular. Once again, I failed to see lions, but this time I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sunsets that I've ever seen.
I decided to treat myself to an expensive dinner; something I rarely do. The luxury hotel had a price fixe dinner that while very expensive for Uganda, are really rather reasonable. There were 3 courses: soup, chicken and dessert. I had eaten at some of the best restaurants in Milan and San Francisco back when I had a job, and money. This meal could not compare with those. The presentation was good, but the soup was watery and the chicken a bit bland.
Eating dinner by yourself, gives you time to think. For a moment, I was sad, thinking of fantastic restaurants all over the world where I could no longer afford to go. But, reflecting on recent experiences, I quickly realized how wonderful this new life is. I have freedom, and leisure - that much is obvious. But, until this meal it hadn't sunk in that I eat well too. The fresh pineapple in Nyakalengija was a delicious as any desert you'll find at Aqua in San Francisco. And the 80 cent street chicken in Kasese was damn good too. I live a good life!
I needed a place to add a few final thoughts about Uganda - square pegs that didn't seem to fit into the round holes of my stories.
The powerful Ugandan sun deserved it's own paragraph. Uganda is a country with an average elevation of over 3000 feet. The altitude keeps the temperatures moderate, but makes the sun more powerful, with less protective atmosphere between you and the sun. Uganda is also directly on the equator, giving it some of the most powerful sun anywhere. In Myanmar where it was over 100 degrees every day I sweat a bit, but some days in Uganda I felt like I was baking. Cool days with a hot sun, give you some strange effects. After a year in the sun, I rarely sunburn anymore. But, my dark colored shirt would soak up the sun's rays until it got hot enough that it felt like the shirt itself was burning me.
The equator is bizarre. Instinctively, when trying to escape the hot midday sun we go to the shade of a truck or a building. But at noon in Uganda, there is no shade. Trucks and building have no shadow. Our instincts are wrong, and that's confusing as hell.
It sounds absurd, but at times I would actually wonder where the sun went. Again, instinctively, I'd look at my feet to determine the direction of the sun. But you have no shadow either, and without a shadow I felt lost. I'd look up to find the sun, but would fail to find it there too because it was directly overhead. Once again in Uganda, I'd look ridiculous. Before realizing my mistake, I'd make a complete circle looking for the sun.
There is a question that someone is going to ask, so I'll answer it now: Sorry, but I did not check to see which way water on the equator circles a drain.
"Third world" is a term that applies less and less. Few countries, if any, fit neatly into the box we've described as the "3rd world". Uganda certainly isn't one of them. Kampala has a modern downtown with skyscrapers, and the country has good roads. After the horribly bumpy ride through Kenya, I was thrilled by the smooth new roads in Uganda. But what shocked me was Uganda's strict smoking regulations. Everyone thinks of Uganda in terms of war, and jungle. But the society has reached a point where there are government mandated smoking sections. "Third world" implies chaos -- You can't have smoking sections in the 3rd world!
But Uganda isn't quite first world yet either. Ugandan friends in Kasese told me there are large fines for smoking in a non-smoking section. And, should you not be able to pay those fines, for this minor offense you'll be sentenced to 2 weeks of hard labor digging trenches. That's in the wet season. In the dry season, the fine is much more negotiable as there is less digging that needs to be done. The smoking regulations are harsh, but thankfully, for the moment at least, drunk driving is still legal.
Somehow, I got trapped in Kampala for more than a month. I lost my passion for travel. My stomach was still giving me trouble, and I didn't have a plan where to go next. The tourist prices of East Africa left me uninspired, and 10 months of traveling months must have left me tired. Finally, I escaped Kampala and scraped together a plan to head to the Kenyan coast. It was a warm and sunny day. With a pack on my back, and a dirt road and blue sky ahead of me, I was transformed. A smile came to my face. On the road again. Off into the unknown... happy and free.
I entered Uganda with a surreal sunrise: bunny rabbits and baboons. I left Uganda with an amazing sunset. The view from the bus was amazing. The sky filled with pastels: pink, turquoise, orange and blue. The flooded rice patties were bright green with the water reflecting the colors of the sky. It was beautiful, and a perfect way to exit country #50.
I think the term "3rd world" applies less to the infrastructure of the country and more towards 2 things: the per-capita income level (still extremely low in most of Africa) and the amount of corruption in government (still extremely high in most of Africa). Building skyscrapers only shows the government wants to court foreign business, but it does nothing to illustrate how well the rule of Law is applied. It's the corruption that kills most initative in Africa.
Julia - Feb 16, 2005
Your observations about our instincts and searching for shade and forgetting where the sun is are fascinating. I love it when I'm surprised by the things I think I've got down.
Yeah, I had no idea that a simple thing like the equator could be so disorienting.
Sarah - Oct 11, 2005
Your comments on instinct really resonated with me. When I visited Alaska I had a similar experience because most of us base what we do and when based on how much light there is. We go indoors when it gets dark etc. But in Alaska (at the time of year I went) it is light well into the night. So I would wonder how I could be feeling so tired when it was so bright and then look at my watch and be shocked at how late it was. I also loved to hear that the bucks have cute heart shaped noses =)