Fort Portal, Uganda
We leave Bwindi National Park and drive north, along the border between Uganda and the Congo, to a region of lakes named for British monarchy: Albert, Edward, George. To the very north, Lake Albert is the source of the Nile River. Farther south, Lakes Edward and George are joined by Kazinga channel. And, of course, the largest, Lake Victoria, is to the east, on the border with Tanzania.
We spend a few hours on a boat on Kazinga channel, cruising past crocodile. hippo, buffalo and many, many birds. The surrounding park is named for another British monarch, Elizabeth, and it is here that we have the first of several unusual animal encounters.
The first happens when we stop to watch a baboon family who are crossing the road. Unafraid, they all begin to walk toward the vehicle. Thinking it charming, we lean out the open windows, wave and call to them. The dominant male suddenly jumps on the roof of the truck and lunges toward the windshield. This is way too close for comfort! I hurriedly roll the window up. Craig has been standing with his torso and head out the top of the open roof, seeing it all from a bit of a different perspective. Anticipating the baboon’s leap, he bangs on the truck roof, the baboon jumps down and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Later in the day, we encounter a group of elephant crossing the road, which is nothing new or surprising. They get separated with the females and juveniles on one side and the two males on the other … and us in between. The one male shuffles his feet and flaps his ears to show his displeasure. The second male goes a bit further and begins to charge the vehicle behind us. Both vehicles end up accelerating down the road with the elephant in hot pursuit.
The next day we are driving through a town and are slowed down at an intersection on the highway when out of the ditch to our right a hippo charges up onto the road, closely followed by another hippo, both screeching. It is quite rare to see a hippo out of the water during the day as their skin is super sensitive to the sun and they burn very easily. This is why they spend their days submerged in pools and only come out at night to feed on the surrounding grass. Everyone in the town and on the road begins running away. The hippo is the deadliest animal in Africa as it kills more people than any other, with the exception of the malaria mosquito. At night, when you can’t see them, hippos trample any and all who get in their way. Back to the marauding hippo. They tear through a school yard just as it is filling with kids getting out of school at the end of the day. More screaming and scattering. And now parents are running to the school yard to make sure their kids are ok. In all of the commotion we lose track of one of the hippo. The other is next seen crossing another road and heading into the grass. Mudima, our driver who has lived in the area for all of his 30 years, says he has never seen anything quite like it. We wonder what it is that makes the animals in Uganda so aggressive?!
Maybe because we are so close to the Equator? We have used this to explain a variety of phenomenon, such as why the tides and surf are so weak, why the sun sets at the same time every day, why the storms are so violent, etc. Anything unexplainable is blamed on being so close to the Equator. Surely it makes the animals more violent as well?
We end two brutal days of driving, on the worst roads ever, at a rather British looking lodge called Ndali. Sure enough it is owned by a Brit named Aubrey and his Ugandan wife, Clare. Turns out Aubrey’s grandfather bought the property in the 1920s and used it as a Eucalyptus farm until Idi Amin stole it from him in the 70s. Amin’s successor, Museveni, much to everyone’s surprise, has returned property seized from foreigners to their families. So Aubrey’s father acquired the property in the 90s, turned it into a lodge, died shortly after and left it to his young son.
It is a bit of Britain in central Africa. Thatched roof cottages decorated with flowered curtains. Memorabilia from colonial times in the main lounge. Fish and chips for lunch, roast beef for dinner. Two dogs attach themselves to us soon after we arrive and we find them sleeping by our cottage, following us around the property, sitting with us at meal time and even leading us on a walk around the lake that is adjacent to the lodge.
Sitting at the top of a green hillside, the lodge commands some spectacular views of the surrounding country. Green as far as the eye can see. And more bananas than I have ever seen. Bananas on trees, in trucks, in the markets, by the roadside, being carted on bicycles, on motorbikes, in carts, on heads. Bananas everywhere! They are not the sweet kind we are used to and are the starch staple for most Ugandans.
The villages we see along the road are all quite grim looking, partly because it is the rainy season and the mud is pervasive. Mud huts crumbling and sinking into the ground. Muddy children running everywhere. People with no jobs and not much to do sitting under trees, on front stoops, on the side of the road. Weary looking women carrying babies in slings and water jugs on top of their heads. It looks as though they are all just barely scratching out a living.
The average number of children per family is 7. Africa has the highest proportion of the population under 20 compared to other continents. The average age of the population in Uganda is 15 years, the lowest on the planet! Life expectancy is 50 yrs. Although there is enough food and lots of water, most villagers have little money, education or opportunity. We wonder what they think of us as we drive by in our safari truck. Reassuringly, the guides and lodge staff we talk to say that tourists are welcomed and that tourism is seen as an economic driving force for positive change and a better future. We certainly hope so, for the sake of all of the friendly, happy children we see everywhere.
Our final animal encounter is with the primates in Kibale National Forest. We spend a half day there in the company of vervet, colubus and red tail monkeys, baboons and chimpanzees. Mostly we are there for the chimps. Our closest cousins in the animal world, we share 98% of their DNA. Hard to believe that only 2% makes such a difference!
We hike for over 3 hours before we come upon them, high in the trees, lounging on branches and eating figs. As we crane our necks watching them, the group descends to the ground and we excitedly follow them through the dense undergrowth. From time to time they stop, turn around, and look, but mostly they keep their distance. I manage a few slightly blurred photos of a mother with her rather large infant on her back.
These are our last days in Africa.It will take some time for all that we have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt and done to really sink in. Home is beckoning and we look forward to returning to our sunny garden, our cats, Commercial Drive and friends. We will see Donna & Ron in London in a few days and hear about their trip to India. And Jeanne & Don will stop in Vancouver on their way home from their South American adventure. Life will return to normal. At least until our next journey.