A Trip to the New-Old World, Part 5
On Safari and going solo
My eyes strained and my forehead scrunched up. The harsh blue lights of the solar+generator-powered outpost camp burned intensely over us. The camp manager returned to the table, shaking his head.
Mistah Travis, A mistake was made. There are no more trekking expeditions this period.
You could see the rhinos eh? Rare black rhinos, only here in Uganda — come come, let’s see who’s going to see the rhinos tomorrow.
“It’s ok, sir. I wanted to see the chimps. I’ll join the other game drive in the morning. Appreciate you checking around.”
1st world problem in the 3rd world.
Aw, poor white-boy tourist can’t study human evolution ancestors like he wanted to since his freshman anthropology class?
The game driver, Noor— comfortable with all creatures big and small —stood and walked. He motioned for me to join him. We walked and he spoke in a low voice.
Noor: My friend Sam knows of a secret place in the forest. We are friends since little kids (he motioned with his hand to a few feet off the ground). He may be able to take you. I can call him.
I nodded with excitement. Noor stepped closer and grasped my wrist.
(As the African tradition goes for anyone when speaking about anything important — It is not uncommon to see men holding hands or wrists as they walk and talk)
Just between you and me, the camp should not know. They will expect you to be coming back to Kampala with me.
No promise my friend, but I check for you, ok?
“Wow — Ok Noor. Thank you.
I’ll ride with you in the morning. No matter what man, you’re a hell of a driver.”
I felt oddly at peace. All this hippie-script meditation and yoga-everywhere flow must have paid off. Trust in the unknown, adaptation, the power of people everywhere. The adventure so far and wherever it went from this point was a privilege.
Expectations — be gone.
The safari game drives had already been surreal.
We started with a short hike to Murchison Falls — a supernatural focus point where the entire Nile River squeezes into 2 colliding waterfalls. The second one was man-made at some point by a European dude named Murchison. The locals call it something different (imagine that)— the Devil’s Eyes — as each waterfall forms an eye when viewed from below.
Illness and disagreements via sacrifice were settled here — a guide left us to the imagine how and what.
Each night, we slept among roving hippos and warthogs. The warthogs especially were looking for any scent of food. Campfire songs and conversations settled those of us secure enough to join.
I managed a decent sleep after the hippie circles. Covered in insect repellent, 1/2 my brain lay listening for a high-pitch buzz of malaria transporters —and somehow fine with the rustling of other wild things outside the canvas tent.
In the mornings, I was the early-riser-dude doing yoga, finishing with a head stand.
I managed to wrangle a bag of boiled eggs from the kitchen staff for a to-go breakfast most days.
The Water Life
We fought the river flow from a mile or so down the falls, heading back to the origin force of the Devil’s Eyes. Hippos and crocodiles and thirsty herbivores galore — oh yes.
The numbers were incredible.
I started to realize this was common — a sharing of the riverbank and water as a universal resource among the animals.
On to game-drive
My group was a mix of fearful Midwesterner Americans and a scattering of Austrians, Germans, Italians, and a Palestinian (Karawan, a freshly graduated doctor in Israel— who I’ve borrowed some pictures from, as I was often too caught up in the wild things to take pictures)
While the experience was at risk for insulation via tourism, Noor and his thin-shelled van pressed the limits — much to my delight and often the trepidation of the others.
Spring bucks and smaller game dotted the landscape at first.
Then, a furry brontosaurus appeared.
Giraffes are straight-up incredible.
Like alien tree pruners, they have evolved to own a layer of edible tree leaves 20+ft in the air. Their herbivore instincts still overrode any comfort level they had with the safari vehicles. We could only get so close.
They float in slow motion as they move, their vivid spots contrasted on a sheen of skin-like-canvas, rippling over muscles steering legs as long as their prehistoric neck-limb.
The group chattered and then came to near-silence. If the insanity of the giraffe’s height was fading, the immense bulk of 2 male elephants near the path put our size as mammals in quick perspective.
Soon after, we stumbled upon a bull only feet from the trail, and cautiously crept past him as he shifted — patiently watching us, ready to obliterate, yes wise and owning his power. We could hear his fist-sized molars crunching through young branches. The flexible agility of his trunk wove and felt, choosing and expertly securing, guiding the chosen stalks back between the 5 ft tusks.
Water buffalos were banded together in packs. Noor described them as outcasts and “losers” forced out of their families and harems by young bulls. They find each other and live out their older years together, peaceful and caring for each other. The expulsion creates an equality — a band of brothers in trust to protect each other from predators and loneliness.
The idea of old bachelors banded together in friendship and their expulsion by younger alphas — also a Western male human struggle— made me smile. The all-or-nothing power structure of the species creates a balance in community. The older males come to peace and mimic the non-aggressive bonds of females — or at least my idealism simplifies it this way.
Queens (and a King or 2) of the jungle
The next day, in the heat of the afternoon, we took on a ranger Noor knew. He walked near the path, scouting the area around his park outpost. Smiling, he climbed aboard and I shook his hand.
We go find some lions maybe, eh?
A collective gasp, and then a cheer let out from the group. We looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
Really?! It seemed so rare, so out of reach. Surely they were miles away from the game.
Random encounter for a National Geographic photojournalist, maybe — not something for so many Westerners on a “safari” ride.
Noor and his lion-taming ranger spoke quickly in what seemed Lugandan — a predominant dialect of Ugandan language. The ranger pointed to the right, and Noor carefully steered up and over dirt lip into the flatlands.
Lions will be sleeping now. We may find some in the bushes.
Sure enough, 20 minutes of careful and cautious driving later, the ranger pointed.
A creature stirred in the shadow of a scrub tree just ahead of us.
With held breath, we rolled slowly alongside the bush.
And there she rose — a lioness — intense and focused on the intrusion. The framed caravan suddenly felt thin and pathetic. Her muscles rippled with each shift-step.
Her eyes were huge. She was huge. Her breath hummed into a near-growl.
Here she was, only a few hundred yards from live game. Spring bucks and antelope grazed within line-of-sight, alert with a necessary skittishness.
Nervous, our luck pressed, it was time to move and leave her in peace. We all breathed out as some distance fell between us and the 300lb queen.
It was just beginning though — we had found a pride. And, like us, they were much more confident in a group, almost comfortable with our passing.
A young male let out a deep, slow grumble as we skirted his den — it resonated as a crisp warning through our silent awe. A female feline face appeared next to him in the bush. She stared through with confident power in the rest of her afternoon.
In the cool of the next morning, we returned to the pride’s turf and found a hunt in progress.
Through some communication among the pride, the lionesses split up into lovers and hunters. Smaller game kept a safe distance, much further away than the day before.
A Single lioness distracted a water buffalo, openly exposed and in direct sight of the beast. Other females crept through bushes and flanked the buffalo and some nearby game. They broke their focus and all turned to watch — a HUGE male slowly descended into the valley.
I lowered my phone camera and used my caravan-mate’s binoculars.
“My god, look at him.” he exclaimed as he passed the binoculars over to me.
Some 500 lbs of over-confidence, he seemed to annoy the females by his interruption more than inspire admiration. He was full of himself. Big power and he knew it.
Even hundreds of yards away, I imagined and quickly suppressed the daydream of being outside the vehicle. A naked, relatively slow mammal with a big brain — where would I go? Climb a tree? The females would be my biggest threat.
I took in the scene. What a privileged life! Here they have full ranger protection within the reserve, bountiful game, water, shade and no fear — despite some intrusions some curious homo sapiens in their protective safari tanks.
Of all the animals, I expected the lions to be the most inspiring or noble somehow. The lioness owned the hunter role. Other than the physical beauty and magnificence, their raw power, the males were assholes with huge egos.
It was all real — the proximity.
What you see on TV nature specials — they really are that close. They really do co-exist. Hunting, and grazing, and competing in due turn. Each adapted to survive, to escape or prowl or hunt or fend off.
The rear-curved horns of the game made sense suddenly.
If running, being pursued, your horns should let you thrust backward to shuck-off flanking cheetahs or lions or leopards — and never stop running, right?
The height of the giraffe, the mass of the elephant, the bachelor groups of water buffalo, able to move at 30mph and protect each other — all made sense.
To each their own. To nature its balance, sense, and flow — purpose and adaptation in all things.
And somehow, the meek (humans) have inherited the earth.
We pulled away from each animal a little too quickly for my inner child’s wide-eyed awe to find closure.
Their eyes haunted me. Each set — the wise elephants, ego-heavy and predatory lions, the soft and observant giraffes — nearly dropped my camera. I was a little kid looking for connection to the ZooBooks animals I had studied in waiting rooms.
Back at the Camp
Cut back to the opening scene: last night and day at the outpost.
Semi-bad news = no chimps.
Still, I talk about being adaptive all the time. I have a goal to explore, see real, wild habitat without the protection of a safari truck.
I have skills and a goal. I feel damn good.
Time to hack this, make a go of it.
Noor called Sam. Sam called his tracker friend, an ex-park ranger, who went to check on certain areas for the chimps.
By late morning, he found enough evidence to predict there might be a group in the Western forest near some sugar cane patches.
And so it was.
My slightly illegal, respectful to the animals, and oh so unpredictable wild chimp adventure was on. Just me, a retired ranger and the natural-sweet-toothed chimps of the greater Budongo forest.
At a random crossroads, on a back-road route, Noor shook my hand, handed me my bag and a piece of paper with Sam’s cell phone number. Spotty cell networks made it more of a polite gesture.
It was just the scenario I hoped for — so many unknowns. Freedom in adventure.