We were met at the entrance of the resort by a waiter holding a tray filled with clean, damp washcloths and tumblers of lemongrass-ginger juice. “You are welcome,” he tells us. One-by-one we are welcomed by four other employees. They are each wearing a uniform of khaki pants and a short-sleeve shirt with a khaki, brown, and green African print. Like the juice, they are classy, subtle, sharp.
At the check-in desk they ask us if we’re planning to go on safari in the afternoon. We are, of course. “What would you like for lunch? You could have full lunch or light lunch?” After some back-and-forth, we decide on the light lunch: tuna and tomato sandwiches on freshly-baked bread, plus a house salad, bananas, and ice cold Coca-Colas. From the shade of our table’s parasol, we admire the subdued, earth-toned garrison-fort architecture of the two-story bungalows resting in the field of trimmed grass, acacias, and mango trees that slopes down to the placid Albert Nile. Off in the distance, a few pairs of fishermen paddle their canoes; in the banks’ wetlands we can infer the wildness of the savanna nearby.
The hotel staff helps us to contact a safari guide for the afternoon: “We like to use this company. The owner is German, and he is friends with the owner here, who is Belgian.” On the phone the guide tells us that he will pick us up at 3:30. He said that we shouldn’t leave earlier because all the wildlife rest during the middle of the day.
Murchison Falls National Park was established in 1952 by the British colonial government. At 3,840 km2 (1,483 sq mi), it is the largest of Uganda’s ten national parks—close to the size of Rhode Island, larger than Yosemite National Park. It includes savanna and low-elevation forest, plus Murchison Falls. The falls were named by the first European to come across them: explorer Sir Samuel Baker in 1864. He named them after renowned geologist Sir Roderick Murchison, who was then president of Britain’s Royal Geographic Society. The national park area encompasses the end of the Victoria Nile (Queen Victoria, 1819-1901) as it feeds into Lake Albert (Prince Albert, 1819-1861) and becomes the Albert Nile. The park has been visited by Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway. It was also one of the settings in the movie The African Queen (1951) with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
Before and after Murchison Falls was declared a national park, the colonial administration used the area as a large game reserve to attract people to go on hunting safaris. The park was the site of mass animal poaching under Idi Amin and was then part of a larger conservation and tourism effort in which the Big Five game animals to hunt (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses, and buffalo) became the Big Five to see and photograph. Over 50,000 people visit the park each year, and over two-thirds of them are foreigners (PDF).
To enter the park, you must purchase a permit at the gate and be accompanied by a certified safari guide. As with most big game parks, you are required to stay in the vehicle at all times. On the park’s dirt roads you pass Land Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers, and other rugged four-wheel-drive vans and SUVs modified with covered view decks and luggage racks.
Our safari guide Osman picks us up at 4:00pm or so in a four-wheel-drive Toyota van that had been patched up quite a few times. “Are you guys ready?! Let’s do this!”
Before setting off, he asks a few questions to assess what we are looking for, taking extra precaution to see whether or not we are birders. “I’m not very good at birds, but there is another guide who can join if you love birds so much.” No need.
Just outside of the resort we pass two farmers harvesting ears of white corn covered in pale green husks. Ahead of them we have to park for about fifteen minutes as a herd of elephant cross the road. Osman points out that the matriarch leads and stops at the road crossing to wait and protect the others passing by. Ignoring the objections of Osman and another guide, a pair of men on a motorcycle leap ahead impatiently before the herd has fully passed. We wait for a wider berth and set off.
We make it to the gate of the park, which is a stone’s throw away from the resort. We haggle for lower entry fees: “We are residents. We are students. We can speak the language.” We triumph. It helps our egos more than anything else.
Immediately we see gangly giraffes, hulking water buffalo, nimble mohawked warthogs, and three species of antelope we can’t yet identify. November is the tail end of the rainy season, so the grass is two to three feet high and mostly tan. We stick our heads out the sunroof and beg Osman to stop every half mile or so. “Ooh, I saw something in the grass.” “Yeah, it’s another antelope.”
Osman is affable and loves his job. He doesn’t find the same safari tour monotonous. He studied IT at university and lived in Kampala for some time before getting into the safari business with his uncle. It’s a stark change in lifestyle, being stuck in a tiny town not knowing the language or having many friends, but he’s taken to it. A nature drive is ever a joy, as far as we can tell.
My wife Nancy and I are Americans who have been living in Uganda for over a year. We take occasional vacations, usually to see different attractions the country has to offer: mountain gorillas (check), chimpanzees (check), elephants (check), mountain peak (check). We had yet to see savanna wildlife like giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, shoebill stork—not to mention the Big Five. Aren’t these the main benefits of residing in East Africa?
We have talked to Ugandan friends about wanting to visit the different national parks of the country, tossing around travel ideas as one does to court a friend. But we are only close with three or four Ugandans who are even mildly interested in visiting the parks, and one of them is a safari guide. Most other people consider it an extravagance, and an uninteresting one at that.
We stay in Gulu, which is a two-hour van ride from the entrance to Murchison Falls National Park. Gulu used to be flush with foreigners who worked with non-profit organizations giving humanitarian assistance after a protracted conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government. There are still many more foreigners and aid workers per capita in Gulu than anywhere else I’ve visited in the country, and
their our presence gives the town the eerie feel of an experimental laboratory or temporary site for a jaunt at Good Work in Africa.
We stay in a “less white” part of town, and most of our neighbors are market vendors, tailors, motorcycle taxi riders, and tradespeople. When we moved in, we were open with them about wanting to visit the parks nearby. We wanted to go on safari, of course. The topic came up when we discussed times when we could hang out together:
We should visit my village.
We should make wang’oo (traditional bonfire storytelling).
We should visit the old colonial fort together.
We offered, “We should go to Murchison. It’s just near.” Crickets. It’s difficult to read into a silence among people you’ve just met, but we read that such a trip would be expensive and, to a degree, off-limits.
It was a motorcycle taxi rider who gave it to us straight: “It’s only whites who go there.” The feeling of that comment and any conversation about the national parks remind me of living in the white part of town in the US and wishing it weren’t the white part of town. I am the demographic these spaces cater to.
My friend Andrew informs me:
For you people, animals are exotic. For us, we grow up with them in the village. Why do we want to go somewhere to see a giraffe? For what?! For you, you get excited about monkeys. For us, monkeys are a nuisance, they steal our maize. And they are just like us: boring! Why do I want to pay to see a chimpanzee? If I had the money, I would go to Times Square. For us, we would prefer to see the city. We want to see New York, London, Manchester, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro . . . other places you see in the movies. For us, when we have holiday we go to the village, or we make a barbecue. I’m not interested in safari.
Our safari ride with Osman is like a National Geographic special: one animal after the other. Rolling savanna liberally sprinkled with big game.
Look at the momma and the baby over there!
Do you see all those elephants under the tree?!
It’s crazy how they just kind of look at us and aren’t scared.
I like the Jackson’s hartebeests. They have weird-looking heads.
I love how the antelopes’ butts bounce up and down when they run.
Oh, man, I wouldn’t want to get near those buffalo!
Osman gives us details on behavior, feeding, mating habits, and ways to differentiate among species. He also goes through a mental checklist to make sure we see the key attractions. At the top are lions and leopards, each of which is scarce and difficult to locate while the grass is high. Thus, we hustle and try to cover enough ground, scanning the dense branches of the sycamore fig and baobab trees to spot a leopard. Osman asks other safari guides if they have found any leopards or lions, and we soldier on until we reach the Nile to rest, try to see a hippo or shoebill stork, and head back.
We do see the shoebill stork—solitary, blue-gray, lanky, and slight with a wide oversized beak making it the perfect walking croquet mallet for Alice in Wonderland. Osman beams with satisfaction: “They eat mainly fish, frogs, snakes, and other reptiles.”
After spending some time near the Nile, we rush back because it is getting dark, and we are supposed to be out of the park before nightfall. Osman’s last triumph is two separate encounters with a lioness and a juvenile lion whose pale bodies cross the road in front of our headlights. It’s exhilarating. No one is more pleased than Osman. Lions (check).
After another safari drive and boat ride the next day, we finish our tour with a leisurely morning of fresh coffee, buttered rolls, watermelon, pineapple, and Facebook status updates. The hotel staff compile our various expenses: nights stayed, packed lunches, bottles of water, glasses of wine, and three-course dinners. They convert the US dollar rate into Ugandan shillings, and we sheepishly hand over the bills.
The driver we hired to take us to and from Gulu picks us up and courteously asks us about the trip.
It was so nice! We saw two lions and hippos and so many antelopes.
We had to watch out for the baboons. We saw them take food from inside the car of another group!
It was beautiful inside the park. We couldn’t believe all the animals that were there!
It was a wonderful trip. Very special for us.
It is a short debriefing. We refrain from asking him if he’s been inside and from suggesting that he take his children.
We spend the rest of the ride silently pondering the roadside blur of towns, villages, market kiosks, street vendors, and small plantations while snacking on plantain chips and ice-cold Coca-Colas.
Featured image: Giraffes. Photograph by Kevin Gibbons.