Monday, June 28, 2010

Safari at Murchison Falls!

Note: if you want to see pictures from the safari weekend, check out my facebook profile or visit:

It is an uncomfortable feeling when you find yourself in a position where you're well-being is completely out of your hands. For those that are afraid of flying, I would imagine this is why. Something bad could happen to you (even if it probably won't), and there's nothing you can do to prevent it.

That's how I felt staring into the eyes of a four ton rhinoceros yesterday. Only about 25 feet away, we crossed paths in an open field near Murchison Falls National Park in northwest Uganda. I was immediately struck by his massive girth. When you see an animal in a zoo, or even from a car on safari, it's difficult to gauge just how big it is. But put yourself on a level playing field, and the size disparity smacks you in the face. She was huge!! Even worse for my well-being, she was grazing with her new-born baby named Obama (more on this later). A wild animal will do just about anything to protect her young. When you're talking about an 8,000 pound rhino, I shudder thinking about what "anything" might be.

Of course, just like flying on an airplane, the chances of encountering any real danger were slim. Rhinos are peaceful grazers, and the two that I saw contently munched on grass, occasionally glancing up to look at their observers, before returning to lunch. They rarely act aggressively, and that's for the best, as their massive horns, almost prehistoric in appearance, could do serious damage. After about thirty minutes of watching them in silence, we moved on. It was a fitting end to an incredible weekend on safari in Murchison Falls.

The journey started on Friday, as five friends and I loaded into a van and made the five hour trek from Kampala to Murchison Falls. On the way, we picked up another friend in a town (more like an intersection) called Kafu. While waiting for her, I engaged some of the local merchants selling meat on a stick. We discussed the World Cup, they asked what America was like and if I could bring them a mzungu girlfriend, and I ended up selling two of my safari-mates for 500 cows. Unfortunately, the transaction was voided.

Upon arriving at our lodge, we drove to the actual falls themselves, a truly amazing sight. At this point in the Nile, the wide river converges into a gorge about 20 feet wide, causing the water to rush through with incredible force. I'm not sure how water force is measured, but Murchison Falls is the most powerful waterfall in the world. We hiked around the falls, took in the sights, and then retired back to the lodge for the evening. Wake-up calls for the safari were scheduled for 4:30 am the next morning, so we needed our rest.


We arrived at the beginning of our safari just as the sun was rising above the Nile, making for a beautiful African landscape. Only one problem: it was 7 am, I had already been awake for two-and-a-half hours, and there was no Starbucks for about 5,000 miles in any direction! Oh well, I persevered. We set off into the park, our driver David at the helm, and seven eager mzungus riding along in back. Almost immediately, we spotted a gigantic mass about 100 yards off the road -- an elephant! Whatever haze I was in due to a lack of caffeine was shaken off immediately. I can't describe the feeling of seeing one of the mythologized African mammals in the wild. After seeing them for years in zoos, the real thing is magical. Here they are, on the savanna! As I muttered to my friends over and over again, "this is so cool!"

We continued on through the park. The terrain was hilly, with wide swaths of grassy fields interrupted occasionally by collections of trees. We came across wildebeests, warthogs, antelopes, water buffaloes, a leopard (but very far away), lots of different species of birds, and my favorite, giraffes. Seeing a herd of giraffes slowly amble across the landscape is a truly incredible sight.

Perhaps the funniest moment of the day came near the end of the morning safari. David, our hilarious Ugandan guide, is an ornithologist, or bird-watcher. Books about East African birds were strewn about his van. Whenever he would see a new species, he would stop the car and excitedly tell us all about it: what it ate, where it lived, who it was rooting for in the World Cup, etc. "Boringgg," I thought, but kept my mouth shut because David was so excited, and I needed him to get back to Kampala.

As we were riding along, David screeched the car to a halt, and pointed out a small, red-chested bird on our right. It was about the size of a pigeon, and not much more interesting, at least to me. As he was talking about its qualities and preferences, I noted something out of the corner of my eye, and it kept getting bigger. An elephant appeared from behind the brush and was crossing the road about ten meters in front of us!

"David," I screamed, "pull the car up! There's an elephant right there!"

David looked at me, perplexed. "First, you all take a picture of the bird. Then, we go."

"David, if you don't pull this frickin' car up right now, I'm getting out! It's walking away!!"

My safari-mates laughed hysterically. Our guide looked at me with a combination of pity and annoyance, and then moved the van forward. Luckily, we were able to see the elephant up-close, and I snapped some great photos.

In the afternoon, we took a cruise up the Nile to the base of Murchison Falls. On the way, we saw hundreds of hippos, elephants drinking on the banks, and a few crocodiles. The day was beautiful, the river teeming with wildlife, and the beer on the boat was cold. Nothing could have been better.

My night ended sitting by candlelight at our lodge (there was no electricity), listening to the USA-Ghana soccer game on the radio in Lugandan while David alternated between translating, laughing at me, and falling asleep. When he told me that the U.S. scored the equalizing goal in the second half, I'm quite certain I roused the park's entire elephant population sleeping far away as I ran around the grounds of the lodge, wearing my American jersey, screaming U-S-A! Alas, the game ended badly, but I'll always remember the circumstances listening to the game. Much more fun than just watching in a bar.

Early on Sunday morning, our group awoke early and, with two guides, went chimpanzee trekking through the jungle. I was very excited to see our closest genetic cousins in their natural habitat. We were rewarded early on in our trek, as our guide spotted two chimps eating at the top of tall tree. We strained our necks and, using binoculars, could see the primates lazily lounging, eating fruit, and then tossing the rinds to the ground below. I was hoping to have a "the chimps are just like us!" moment, but alas, they were too far away to enjoy any such revelations.

We trekked on, but unfortunately, came across no more chimpanzees. Still, walking through the dense jungle, listening to the sounds of wildlife hidden in the thicket and watching us from the trees, was amazing. So often, we seek experiences that bill themselves as "wild," when in fact they are just slivers or imitations of nature. Even on my safari a day earlier, I felt shielded. We were, after all, sitting in a car, able to drive away at any minute should an animal act unpredictably. It's rare that we truly immerse ourselves in untamed surroundings. Walking through the jungle, my friends and I did just that. In an expansive jungle that seems to go forever, you feel very small.

Finally, just before heading home to Kampala, we had our run-in with the rhino. I became very excited to learn that the baby rhino, the first rhinoceros born in Uganda in almost 30 years, was named Obama. Hunted to extinction in the country in the 1980's, rhinos are just starting to make a comeback with the help of the Ugandan government and devoted conservationalists. Obama the Rhino's mother was born in a zoo in the U.S. and his father born in Kenya, making his name an obvious choice. See? Obama makes history in more ways than one.

I will be posting pictures and more thoughts from the safari weekend later this week. Hope everyone is well!

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