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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A wild weekend in western Uganda

Friday, September 10, 6 a.m.
Harrison  was waiting with a white Toyota Landcruiser, safari pop-up top, spare tire and jack. My hand disappeared as he shook it. Big ol' paws. He took the bags and began gripping the wheel as if it was a toothpick, as we set off for the Bwindi National Forest, the mountain gorillas, other primates, birds, and species, and whatever other fun laid in our path.

Screaming thru the pre-dawn hours in the capital, we raced against the onset of rush hour. The sky turned from ashen charcoal to purple and then crimson behind us as we turned passed roundabout after roundabout, going from boarded up markets and honking boda-bodas to lush green pastures of farmland, banana trees, and the occasional rivulet that signaled countryside peace.

By seven we were in the free and clear, bounding west towards nature. Soon there was farmland, children in turquoise and violet school uniforms, girls' and boys' hair cropped to the skull, walking to primary schools all over the village roads of gravel, clay and dust, as morning broke over the equator. 

This trip was different from many others I have taken in a foreign country. And I had my first visitor since arriving two weeks before. I had picked up Jean in Entebbe, after her trip through Mongolia had left her on the precipice of one continent. Another beckoned. And with her experience on the road, I figured we could handle whatever obstacles came our way. 


(This section is rated NC-17)

It's hard to put in perspective how weird this journey really was. We had baboons dropping out of trees out onto the highway. Roadkill included three zebra, several dogs, a woman, a buffalo, and several other mammals. Our driver contracted malaria somewhere between Kabale and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and was slouched in a lodge couch each night, swigging mango juice to offset the fatigue. An elephant nearly charged our landcruiser. A mountain gorilla snarled at me when I got too close to its young. We got a flat tire in between two towns so small we couldn't find them on our map, then watched as scores of children showed up out of thin air, more to stare at a white man than at a damaged tire.

Moving southwest towards Masaka, we were spotting heron, egrets, eagles, cranes, and other birdlife all over and above the tarmac highway. A "Look at that!" or "Oh my God!" were commonplace after breaching Kampala's borders. But this particular groan, this scream from the backseat was different. What Harrison and Jean saw (and luckily I had missed) was a whole different sort of road sighting. 
A dead woman, lying on the side of the road, just after dawn, ten minutes before reaching the equator, stunned us. Harrison put his hands up to his face. I looked back to try to glimpse what the others had seen. Jean's mouth was agape, staring straight ahead, trying to make sense of the awful spectacle. 
"Can we go back? Shouldn't we call someone?"
"The police will pick her up shortly," Harrison slowly retorted. "She must have been crossing the road in the darkness..."

Later it was explained that nobody stops for death in Uganda. As a white man, stopping is as much an admission of guilt as a plea for help. Doing so in a small village is tantamount to culpability. If the blame hits you, and you're surrounded, there's nowhere to go. And there are no judge and jury in these parts of town. The message was clear. Not just from Harrison but from other expats: You stay and you die. So we pressed on. 

Within minutes we were at the equator. A small circular monument and even smaller urinal marked the geographical highlight. I paid 300 shillings (about 16 cents) to get a man in a torn jacket smelling of banana liquor to guide me toward the rest area so I could make sense of the ride and summon the strength to put a smile on.

Our mood perked up some as we entered what used to be Lake Mburo National Park. Harrison pointed out several waterbuck and zebra out in farmlands, grazing a few hundred feet from the road. 

Towns we passed had fruit markets with colorful displays, idle men and women eying the backseats for potential sales. Harrison stopped to buy fried bananas as dozens of boys carried meats on sticks, onions, bananas and soft drinks and shoved them in our faces. The fried banana thing: an incredible snack. It filled me up for three hours. Why don't we do that in the states?

We continued to glimpse wildlife until Mbarara, when the tarmac road evened out a bit and we began to see a change in weather as we headed for the foothills of Kabale. It was raining when we arrrived and - for the first time - I could sense we were nearing our destination. Just beyond the road leading us out of town and up into altitude lay Bwindi, home to half of the world's 700 mountain gorillas, many of them just minutes from where we'd be sleeping.

From Kabale to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The drive from there was curved esses, zigzags, sliding in and out of potholes deeper than craters. Toddlers the size of cornhusks held machetes in their small hands, sweeping hacks out of thin air to clear plants from the path. Shouts of mzungu were coupled with waves from our roadside audience. It was as if we were in our own private parade, celebrities sheerly by the color of our skin. 

The children's exuberance, spirit and happiness cannot be underscored driving past these villages. Kids literally leap from their doldrums, put down whatever they were doing, and CHASE our car. Some went into an impromptu dance and song, singing "Going to see the Gorillas...GORILLAS...GORILLAS!!!" in the local language as our car rolled up the hill and boys tried to keep up with their adorable, pudgy, shoeless legs whirrying as fast as they could.

Then, in an instant, we were there. The forest swept majestically in front of us as we rose, then dipped, then climbed a steep incline filled with pot holes until a sign for "Gorilla Safari Lodge" appeared past a small creek 1.5 km from the forest.

Julius and the rest of the staff greeted us with fresh juice, hot towels, and a tour of the 10 room lodge, just opened a year before. There were only three other guests staying in the units, leaving us to roam free, relax, and enjoy the serenity of the surroundings. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010 aka Gorilla Day

We were hiking by 9 a.m. The advance team of trackers had left an hour before, starting first with the location of the gorillas from the day before and following the trail from there. We got wind of their locale and then headed off through the jungle, stepping over creeks, logs, safari ants, and past ivy, eucalyptus, leafs the size of Idaho, and unidentified poo droppings. 

Ninety minutes later we came upon the beasts. 

For the next sixty-five minutes we got to sit within precious feet of them. 18 gorillas in all. Two silverbacks. Lots of babies. The head of group snarled at me. The others were so unaffected by our presence it was laughable. An amazing, amazing time. And it felt like we got quality time with them. Just five trackers, three guides, and 18 gorillas. In the middle of a Ugandan jungle for 65 minutes. 

I'd highly recommend it if you're ever near here.

Sunday, 7:40 a.m.

I hated to leave this beautiful, mystical, mountainous paradise. The thunderstorms started minutes after returning from our gorilla tracking. Minutes turned into a two hour downpour, riddled with sizzling lightning and calamitous thunderclaps, trouncing the dark skies with, well, thunder. 

Nonetheless, we were packed and on the road by 8 a.m. Harrison once again sheepishly showed up out of thin air, weary from a night of malaria-riddled sickness. I really did feel bad for the guy. A large box of Mango Juice and four pills was his only respite from the rigors of playing tour guide for four days. Not a great time to fall sick with malaria. 

Soon, the thick, lush, forest gave way to crater lakes, hills, hot springs and then savanna. Eucalyptus were exchanged for scrubs, euphorbia and flat, clay roads. Gorillas no longer around, but plenty of other spottings. Like elephant, hippo, buffalo, kob, waterbuck, baboon. So much going on and my neck hurt from the swivelling.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

We did a boat launch that netted thousands of hippo, buffalo and one crocodile. Birds of every color, shape, and size flew amongst them, sometimes sitting and playing on the hippos backs. Uh, no thanks.

We did a game drive the next morning but didn't manage to find the pride of lions frequenting Kisenyi Plains. Not a huge setback after all we'd seen. 

After visiting the Queen's Pavillion, we spotted this guy on the tourist outpost's wall.

The long drive back to Kampala

From Queen Elizabeth, we drove through Kasese (an unremarkable, dusty town of no real significance) then on to Fort Portal (extremely provincial but scenic). A buffet lunch and then east to Kampala. 300 km of driving. Nothing to do but go home and resume normalcy, a work week, and life in the capital. 

But we still had to get a flat, coast into a random village, avoid losing our shirts, and get back home in one piece.

The last 64 kilometers were the toughest. Our spare rattled down a road under construction. It was dark, we were hungry, Harrison had malaria, and all of us needed a shower and rest. Traffic in Kampala hit us square in the mouth. Soon the dusty clay of suburbia turned to the manic cage fight of a drive through an urban traffic jam, zooming boda bodas coming at us from all directions like bats on heroin. 

1 comment:

  1. Death is so much closer to us here than it is in the U.S. Matt.