During one school holidays, four of us young teachers from our school in Kenya took ourselves on a memorable safari in Uganda. We planned to visit both the Queen Elizabeth National Park at the foot of the Ruwenzori Mountains on the Congo border and then travel up to the Murchison Falls National Park, also visiting the site of Speke’s discovery of the source of the Nile at Jinja, where the Victoria Nile emerges from Lake Victoria. With not much room in the old Peugeot 203 saloon car belonging to one of our group, we set out grossly overladen despite having a large roof rack – a couple of tents and four sleeping bags, four camp chairs, picnic table, cooking equipment, minimal spare clothing, and food for our week long trip left little spare space (no room for luxuries like camp beds), especially as the two men typically insisted on including a reel-to-reel tape player with a selection of mainly Abba and The Seekers collection tapes, plus a crate of beer! “We don’t want to die of thirst, do we?”
Our first stop was in Kampala to stay the night with the American parents of one of our pupils – a delightful family, but we were somewhat surprised to be greeted at the door by a voice in the background saying, “Randi, go take a shower”. We recoiled somewhat, but on realising that this was directed, not at us, but at their young son, we quickly recovered our equilibrium and settled down to enjoy a cultured evening discussing world events and their probable outcome, to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Being in the centre of a city we had very little sleep and were eager to move on. The scenery changed rapidly from native shambas (smallholdings) to more open plains with only the varied wildlife and occasional herd of native Ugandan Ankole cattle with their immense horns being herded along the road.
Occasional stops to break the monotony and ease our cramped limbs prompted games of individual cricket in the road, which itself made for an interesting wicket as the surface was anything but smooth, and it certainly did curtail the run rate! With only one fielder on each side of the road we needed all the help we could get. An upturned bucket did duty as a wicket. Luckily all four of us were equally keen on cricket so it was no surprise that the men had smuggled a bat and ball into the car, enabling the budding Bothams, Hadlees, Lloyds and Khans to exhibit their skills to an uncomprehending audience of bewildered birds and the occasional periscope-necked giraffe, peering in utter amazement over the flat-topped acacia trees. We were somewhat dismayed though, on rounding a corner, to see a herd of elephants very close to the road, as we had earlier bought a whole hand of 32 delicious little, fat, red “ladies fingers” bananas which were roped on top of the roof rack in easy reach of inquisitive trunks, so we daren’t stop long to take their photographs!
I’m afraid to say, however, that just after we had entered the Park we encountered a large flock of yellow necked spurfowl (cousins of the ubiquitous guinea fowl) in the middle of the track and with a delicious supper in mind, we “couldn’t avoid a collision”. We had to pluck them surreptitiously that evening and bury the evidence before a game warden came to visit us on his rounds.
Our camping ground was on the edge of the Kazinga Channel connecting Lakes George and Edward. This was a truly magnificent site with views of all the wildlife visiting the waterside, including elephant, buffalo, hippo, numerous buck and antelope, and the famous tree-climbing lions of that particular area, who were actually taking a day off from this strenuous activity and were lying comatose under some shady bushes. My well-thumbed bird book (Roberts) was in great demand over the whole safari for identifying new and interesting sightings. It had led a charmed life having survived floods in Amboseli Game Reserve; being nibbled by the hungry family of baby dormice which I was rearing; being defaced by the droppings my adopted young coucal (water bottle bird); culminating in a sojourn of several weeks in the odiferous hut of a native tribesman who had stolen it from my car when parked at a local beauty spot, while we were picnicking in the Rift Valley some years before.
However it was the hyaenas which caused us trouble. That first night I was awakened by a noise at the foot of my sleeping bag and was assailed by the most pungent smell of rotten flesh. Grabbing my torch I shone it at a pair of eyes which immediately reversed out of the tent flap. Rose, who was sharing the tent, then woke up and we caught sight of the rear view of a hyaena taking off into the surrounding bush. The two men, aroused by the kerfuffle came, belatedly, to the rescue and we discovered that the camp kitchen area had been looted. Pots and pans, tinned food and dishcloths were strewn around and we eventually discovered the missing kettle in the bush 20 yards away, though we never did find the saucepan lid! The loose food had, luckily, been stored in our tent and would have been next on the agenda.
One thing that amazed us was how gregarious other visitors to the game parks seemed to be. On arrival at the empty camp site, a clearing the size of a polo ground with no definable boundaries other than the natural, thick bush, we set up camp in one corner and lo and behold not one, but two other sets of campers arrived, and with virtually the whole of Africa to choose from, they parked themselves right next to us. We were distantly polite, but made it plain that we didn’t suffer from the “day trippers to Margate” syndrome, and actually came camping to get away from society and enjoy the solitude. Naturally when driving around the parks one homes in on any other stationary vehicle just in case the occupants have spotted something of interest, but that is only a fleeting alliance. The only concession made to civilization was that the two men insisted on shaving every morning – and what a ritual that was. An extra kettle of water had to be boiled and a spare saucepan was commandeered for use as a basin. The one precious 4 in. square mirror was propped up in the centre of the picnic table and hey presto – the makers of Old Spice would have (presumably) paid the earth for the resulting genuine photo, but it sadly went missing before we could make our killing.
A couple of days later we sallied forth towards the town of Fort Portal where we had been invited to drop in to see another set of parents, Dutch this time, who lived at the nearby Kilembe copper mines. However, we were at a distinct disadvantage in visiting such a house-proud hostess, having had little in the way of ablutions for several days and the first thing she did was to put sheets of newspaper down on the chairs before we sat down to a vast spread of pastries and cakes. Food for the Gods! Her husband then insisted on driving us on a tour of the open cast mine along hair-raisingly narrow tracks around the edge looking down hundreds of feet to the workings below. Our destination that night had been suggested to us whilst chatting to one of the game scouts the day before. It was a seldom used permanent, if very basic, camp site used by the civil service District Commissioner on his administrative rounds of the area, where we were able to stay overnight by dint of bribing the guard with cigarettes and a generous backhander, though he insisted on our sleeping all together on the floor of one of the rondavels (circular tin huts) for safety. We spent the next day exploring the road over the foothills of the Ruwenzoris (Mountains of the Moon) towards the Congo, but this was in itself rather dangerous due to the internal war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribesmen. On our return we stopped off at the Toro Game Lodge for some much-needed liquid refreshment and met a big game safari group led by the son of long-time friends of mine in Kenya. He immediately stocked us up – unbeknown to his clients – with extra food delicacies to relieve the monotony of our basic rations. All most welcome, needless to say.
Then on to our major goal, the famed Murchison Falls National Park. An amusing episode happened early on when having to slow down while a troop of monkeys were crossing the forested road, and to be treated to the sight of Mum chasing after her errant youngster who was dilly-dallying in the middle of the road and who got a hard spanking as a result! Paraa camp was eventually reached after an interesting crossing of the Victoria Nile via a ricketty ramp to drive on and off the equally ricketty ferry. By the time we arrived we were feeling so dishevelled, dirty and frankly smelly that the next morning we cheekily asked the receptionist at the swanky Lodge nearby if we could rent a room for half a day to have baths and wash our hair, promising not to touch the beds! Luckily she saw the funny side and agreed to our request. Oh what a difference that made, and with a set of clean clothes into the bargain we felt ready to tackle anything. “Anything” being a trip up the Nile in a boat with the posh lodge guests to the bottom of the falls. Crocodiles infested the river along that stretch and were so used to people in boats that we could get within a couple of feet to photograph them when they lay, sunbathing on the bank. We even surprised a lone elephant grazing along the edge. Having taken masses of photos of the spectacular two falls from below, some of us opted to climb the path inland to emerge at the top of the narrower falls (the official Murchison Falls) where the river forces itself through a 23ft. wide gap and plunges 130 ft. to the bottom. The power of the water hurtling through the gap has to be seen to be believed.
The return journey back home was uneventful, with only a slight detour at Jinja to see the stone slab which stated that; Here Speke discovered the source of the Nile. Actually the stone had to be removed from its original site when a vast hydro-electricity dam was built there. “Uneventful”, that is except for one episode which could potentially have landed us in jail. We had decided that it would be a good idea to smuggle some of the ridiculously cheap locally-brewed gin, known as waragi, through the Uganda/Kenya border checkpoint – merely a couple of armed policemen – although we knew we might be searched, but as no one had bothered to do this on our entry into Uganda we hoped to be lucky. How to hide the four bottles? Being less well-endowed in the chest area than Rose, I volunteered to enlarge my outline with the bottles, two each side, hoping that they would not rattle if I had to get out of the car and that they would not show beneath the man-sized shirt which I had hastily borrowed. Whew! What a relief when we were waved through without causing any suspicion, and how we celebrated for weeks afterwards while we reminisced about a truly memorable and exciting safari.