About Me

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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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Solo Safari

I had to test the Blue Caribou before I cross borders. I had new tires, new shocks, ample time and easy access. Murchison Falls National park was only 210 kilometers of tarmac away. Yeah, it was the rainy season but only the last third of the road was unpaved. It was my nearest and best chance to figure out if I could hack this safari thing without local expertise and security.

Turns out I can, sort of.

I drove until dusk on Saturday, sloshing the last 7 kms through sludge and mud that spun me in every direction possible. My car looked like it had made love to a hog for an hour when I parked it at the Nile Safari Lodge. I must have looked haggard because the staff eyed me contentiously through the prism of a group used to different clientele. More refined. Less muddy. Less sweaty.

And I was camping, which meant they were getting about one-tenth of the income from my arrival as from the other guests sipping wine as their three course meal was being prepared. I had a gas stove, a can of baked beans, bread rolls, three oranges, cereal, milk, and plenty of ramen for the weekend.

The ten minute walk to the campground with Bernard was a stark reminder in the social class system of safari adventuring. The unspoken sentiment of my trek into the nether regions of the campsite was "Get this smelly far, far away from our high-class customers. And make sure he stays there."

I had two security guards who stood guard while I drank a beer, cooked my food, and picked their brain for the sounds of the park at night. Bats flew in between us with unnerving regularity. Hippos honked from the riverbed just below our perch. And after one beer and a sloppy plate of bread and beans I was ready for the sack. I had to be at the jetty at six thirty to cross the Nile for a game drive, which meant I had to break camp and pack up all my gear by six at the latest.

I nearly missed the ferry. And when I got there I felt a bit out of it, minus caffeine or any sustenance since the night before. I poured myself a makeshift iced coffee from bottled water and instant starbucks, peeled an orange, and waited while six cars crossed the Nile onto the northern park of Murchison.

The day was all about giraffes. I have never seen herds of giraffe anywhere in Africa like I do at Murchison Falls. At one stretch there must have been thirty grazing at the hollow of a valley of acacia and borassis palms. A beautiful, beautiful sight it was. Two herds of elephant passed by early on the drive as well. But no lions. No leopards.

At eleven, with the midday heat making most of the animals retreat to the shade, I followed suit, crossing the ferry back to Red Chillis for a hot lunch, a beer, and a quick shower.

I had forgotten about the pet wart hogs sleeping next to my car. I walked too close past a group of them and nearly lost my big toes as three chain-smoking Britons had simultaneous coronaries.

An hour before, as I was waiting at the ferry in my car, I stepped outside to get some fresh air with a box of orange juice in my hand. From the passenger side of my car, a baboon emerged and started straight for me with a purposeful gait. Those SOBs are about as scary as any animal from four feet away. If you look up bully in the dictionary there is a photo of a baboon. I dropped the juice box and retreated from it as fast as possible. Once the box was on the ground he took it in his incisors and hopped to enjoy the treat, going full "Teen Wolf" into the middle of the box until the juice was lapped up in his salivating tongue. I watched in dismay. There went my vitamin C for the weekend.

Despite the setbacks, I had an epic day doing two tours of the park in my car. I had it mind to see cats, only cats, and nothing back cats. And by cats I don't mean tabbies. I mean leopards and lions. But of course you can say you want to see cats and not even sniff one. This time of the year the savanna grasses are at their highest. This makes a lion sighting a really tough chore, especially with my low-clearance vehicle. Despite searching high and low, not one. Leopards are even more reclusive. They hunt at night and sleep in trees during the day. Trees that hide their skin very very well. I literally looked up every tree in neutral for the better part of the entire afternoon. Fruitless. What irked me even more was that an Indian family had spotted two at 7:15 a.m. that same day. So they are there. It's just a matter of knowing where to look, when to look, and how to look. Follow movement. Look for discoloration. Be still. Wait.

At sunset I raced for the turn off to the "Top of the Falls" campsite, 12 km off the main murrem road. I had thirty minutes of sunlight to navigate the slippery slope, find the campsite, park, and set up my tent in time. But as I turned left onto the dirt road and admired a salmon-streaked sky across the Nile, I ran into six buffaloes blocking the road; the large bull in front was a good fifty yards in front of the others. As I emerged into his view he stopped dead, eyeing me sternly. Then he started walking towards me.
I put the car in reverse immediately, weaving maniacally between s-curves the way I had come. The buffalo continued at me with venom. All the way back to the turn-off, as it happened, where I had no choice but to drive 20 kms back the way I came to the next closest campsite.

An hour later I was sharing the story with a local guide, who kept me company during a violent thunderstorm. Violent enough to shake the tarp free from my tent, leaving me with the unenviable choice of  a) sleeping on wet canvas, wet mat, and wet sleeping bag, or b) sleeping in my car.

I chose b, woke up with six to eight fresh bites the size of dimes and drove back furiously towards Kampala as soon as I had downed a cold water mixed with instant coffee.


  1. Matt- I am so excited for you that you may be meandering your way down to Malawi by car to see Heidi. What an adventure. I wish I could go with you. Missing Africa!

  2. Awesome. I wish I were that brave to go camping solo in the midst of African wildlife.

  3. Thanks, Runks. I hope I make it to Malawi too. Heidi, you have to try at some point. surprisingly liberating to go it alone, turn off the engine and just listen to the park sounds.