On Safari, Struggling with my Inner Tourist

Monday, July 26, 2004 | Kampala, Uganda (map)

Guide on termite mound during an early morning game walk in Murchison Falls National Park
After saying our goodbyes to our many friends from the English classes and among MHI's staff in Goma, I accompanied Edouard, Dr. Sussman, and Lisa for a few days of wildlife watching in Uganda. We began in Kampala, where Friday night's dinner out in the lively Kisimenti district offered a stark contrast to somber Goma.

Saturday morning, we awoke early to a panorama of the Kampala skyline. Across the city's rooftops, where pigeons reign in America, colossal marabou storks loomed like gargoyles, their wings outstretched to bask in the dawn sun.

In the company of Mr. Parvez Malik, the Kenyan owner of Afri Tours, we drove north from Kampala. The asphalt turned to a rich ochre-red silt near Masindi, from where we continued a few hours further to the entrance of Murchison Falls National Park and our destination: the Sambiya River Lodge. A troop of raucous baboons greeted us on the roadway near the lodge.

The lodge reminded me of the "authentic" luau and tribal dances I saw in Hawaii a couple of years back—that is, completely staged for the shallow amusement of the average tourist, who is unwilling to expend much time or effort in the pursuit of cultural discovery, and who is pleased with supposed "exotic" and "tribal" pomp and circumstance. A superficially African air cloaked the Sambiya Lodge. Its grass roof "huts" and "bandas" and its big game-inspired lunch menu were only African enough to allow us Western tourists to delude ourselves that our experience was akin to "native life" without forcing us to leave our mental safe zones.

During our stay, we were ushered about quickly from place to place, one animal to the next, never pausing long enough to study what was before us—only long enough to photograph it. If the façade is all the tourists' families can see in pictures back home, the façade is all the tourist needs to see. Superficiality is photogenic.

A small herd of warthogs grazed in the brush behind the lodge's main hall. After lunch, I crept near to snap some photographs.

* * *

That afternoon, we visited the park's namesake, Murchison Falls, where the entire Victoria branch of the Nile River is compressed to a chute no more than seven or eight meters wide, so slim that the river spews out horizontally like an open fire hydrant.

Edouard and I followed a guide to an outcrop downriver, from where we could see the falls in full. A dead hippopotamus, flesh bleached white by the sun and water, lay on the bank far below, one of the falls’ many victims. According to our guide, no human has ever survived a trip over Murchison Falls (though, of course, several have tried).

* * *

On Sunday we awoke early and set off in the rain for the day's safari. Termite hills dotted the landscape, huge umber mounds rising out of the savannah's grasses. As the rain slowed, we began to spot a number of antelope—waterbucks, Uganda kobs, and haartebeest. Small songbirds in shades of mustard, crimson, and brilliant blue were plentiful.

I hung out of the van’s window, only my legs inside, scanning the landscape as we drove. Suddenly the guide braked hard, and shouted "Lion!"

Directly in front of the vehicle, a pride of six to eight lions—females and adolescents—roused themselves from their roadside nap and padded ahead. Now ignoring our presence, the lions slipped in and out of the grasses as our vehicle followed. A few trotted ahead, paused momentarily to sniff the air, then quickly loped into a brush patch. Within seconds, a desperate squeal issued from the bushes, followed by a blur of terrified warthogs and swift lionesses! Apparently aiming for a hunting lesson and not a meal, the adults abandoned the chase to the adolescents, and the warthogs soon escaped the young lions' clumsy swats.

As we cruised onward across the plain, a head and long, spotted neck emerged from the grasses. An imposing female giraffe stared at us from beside the road. Apprehensive but not threatened, she glided a few meters away and began munching leaves from a low acacia tree. Her neck hinged at the shoulders, mechanically, like a graceful, spotted construction crane, as she stooped to lick at the brush.

* * *

Lisa and I spent the afternoon with a gaggle of German birdwatchers, cruising up the Nile by boat toward the falls. We passed literally hundreds of hippos, this environment's most dangerous animals. (Not even lions or crocodiles dare aggravate one.) Whenever we neared, the beasts twirled their petite ears and snorted jets of air and water skyward in an unmistakable sign of warning.

Crocodiles squatted among the reeds of the riverbank, and hissed when our boat approached too close, which the captain made sure to do several times. We glimpsed monitor lizards and Colobus monkeys in the trees, and the Germans swooned over eagles, storks, shoebills, hornbills, warblers, weaverbirds, woodpeckers, and kingfishers. The safari experience, I decided, is about the most quintessentially dorky tourist activity imaginable in Africa, but the grandeur of this environment is quick to overwhelm such jaded notions.

Back at the lodge, we ended our day with a filling meal, which Edouard taught me to supplement by snatching the termites flitting around our heads and quickly gulping them down. I managed a few crunchy, bland bites before deciding I just was not that hungry. Some of the lodge's workers produced a melodious frenzy on a few handmade instruments and offered the guests dancing lessons, rounding out a long and vigorous day.

* * *

Monday was my last day in the country, and the last day of my whirlwind tour of central Africa. Covered in umber-brown dust from the drive back to Kampala, the Sussmans and I said a warm goodbye to Edouard, who has returned to Goma.

As we flew from Entebbe, on Lake Victoria's northern shore, that evening, across the lake lightning crackled down from purple thunderheads.

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