“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one.” (Beryl Markham)
I felt new. Newly washed. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have a long lovely bubble bath after…wait for it…a three-day African safari in the depths of the Ugandan jungles.
We reached Murchison national park after a morning at Ziwa sanctuary tracking rhinos. I don’t have to tell you what a rhino looks like, but I sure want to tell you that it feels pretty freaking awesome to look at a two-horned two-ton rhinoceros and its baby strolling about a few metres from where you stand. All you have to do is hide behind a few trees and bushes, and watch. I asked the ranger who accompanied our group of six (Shivi (yes, she is my pal from the Egypt trip), Nusha, Neel, Piter and Tosh) what if they spot us; we were on foot and rhinos were heavy and quick enough to trample and outrun us at 45 kmph. But he told us that these animals had eyes on either sides of their heads and so couldn’t see too well beyond a few metres. So, we were safe. Unless we made noise. Because rhinos could hear very well. And well, we were a very noisy bunch of people with at least one of us coming up with a slapstick remark every now and then that would drive the lot to hysterics. Piter made sure he got a snap at every location where we spotted a rhino; Shivi and Tosh had launched into a protracted conversation with the ranger about its gestation period and other info of that ilk; Neel was going over the top to get the best photos of the lot- lying flat across the forest floor just to catch the best shot from behind a huge bush; Nusha was shushing everyone whose volume levels promised to drive her precious rhinos away while I…well you know what I must be doing…I was trying to avoid all the dung and crap that comes with a jungle safari that promised to ruin my spotless clothes.
Don’t get me wrong. We did have our moments. We spotted cactus-like trees that had candelabra-shaped leaves and similar scientific names and poisonous fruits. We followed Obama (the progeny of a Ugandan father rhino and an American mother rhino) about a feet apart – mom, dad, baby and watched them lazing around, eating leaves and making their ponderous way into the wild.
When we finally made our way to the national park, we found that the final ferry had left for the game ride. Let me explain how it works. So, you go to the national park and check in at your camp. We stayed at a camp called Red Chillies in cottages called Catfish, Barbel and Pangolin where wild boars roamed like stray dogs and signs like ‘beware of hippos’ were awfully common. On asking, we found out that hippos often like to take a stroll through the camp in the night. Real comforting, I must say.
Then you go and book your ferry ride that would take your hired vehicle over to the other side of the Nile, for which we were quite late (you know how good I am at being on time) so we started asking around for a boat ride over to the other side. After cursing the restaurant (where we had lunch) for delaying us and ignoring our photoshoots that also might have delayed us, we finally managed to make our way to the other side.
THE OTHER SIDE
The other side was just like its namesake in the saying : ‘the grass is greener on the other side’. Because the grass was actually greener on the other side. And much more. I mean, on one hand, you have grass. Then you have trees. Then you have grass and trees and more grass and more trees. And it just multiplies. Grass, trees, forests, hills. Green, olive green, mint green, pear green, parakeet green, emerald green…you name it. And then the sky. It was heart-breakingly beautiful and clear blue- baby blue, electric blue, turquoise blue, sky (hadn’t expected that color, duh!) blue, teal…you get my point. We stood on the seats of our vehicle and peered out of the open roof, ignoring the bruises on our stomachs, arms, legs, neck, backside, frontside, etc. as the jeep bumped along the rocky terrain and the puddles and the like. But the view…mother of god, the view was colorgasmically (that’s a word I just invented, thanks) breathtaking. I think I found happiness for some time. You can buy it too, for $200.
I also fell in love. With the giraffes, foxes, baboons, wild buffaloes, and varied kinds of deer ranging from the okapi, bush buck, water buck, oribi, kob and the Jackson hartebeest. Then there were the huge African elephants who eat 300kg worth of food daily and the guinea fowl and the vultures and the…wait for it…lions! When we reached the spot where a lot of jeeps were already clustered to watch the lions at their thing, we hadn’t imagined we would actually see them up close. I remember my safari at Gir in Gujarat when we could see the lionesses lazing about six feet away from our vehicle, separated by a ditch, just in case they decided to attack. But this time round, they were strolling past us, barely a few metres away. It was Neel who first pushed his head out of the window, placed his feet on the window till and climbed aboard the roof. I didn’t need further invitation. We had been told not to get out of the car but no one told us to avoid sitting atop the car roof. So, one by one, all of us (as soundlessly as we could) made our way up to the roof, settled ourselves on the highly uncomfy rails of the luggage rack and sat down to watch. Wildlife gazing, baby!
The lion king and the lioness queen took their own sweet time to make their way into their lair. It is one thing to look at tamed leopards and touch domesticated snakes and a completely different thing to see wild beasts passing you by like you are the intruder. It was fascinating. I could have spent all day there.
All of us were under the spell and didn’t want to come out of it.
And then we met Obongi.
We didn’t ‘meet’ meet him. We just became aware of his presence when we came to the edge of the river at 8 pm to row back to our camp. We couldn’t have met him because it was pitch dark and I couldn’t see the next person. I could only see a blinking firefly and the stars. It was the ranger who told us about Obongi. He was supposed to be stubborn and he roamed the park at will after sunset. There was a large thick tree that had been sliced in two. It turned out that Obongi, the elephant, had done it in one of his rages. That gave us enough reason to bid goodbyes to the animals at the park, even the adorable giraffes, yes.
We were at the edge of the river waiting to cross. Sadly, all the boats had gone. The ranger stood with us while we tried to contact Moses, our driver, who was on the camp side. Obongi stood like a formidable shadow and thoughts came unbidden into my mind. Scary thoughts of being stranded on an island in a night so thick one could cut it with a knife. I started thinking of the horror movies where something or the other always happened when groups split up in order to think better because Neel actually had set off in the direction of the boat presumably to check if he could row. He is known for being the maverick and risk-taker of the group.
The minutes ticked by slowly as we saw the lights popping out in the distance and more darkness setting in. I was afraid of even walking a few paces because I literally had no idea what was in front of me. I might step on a fox or a boar and squeal out a ‘sorry’ in response. Or worse, the obverse may happen and they wouldn’t even say sorry after squishing me to a pulp. Such peaceful thoughts.
“We should not have paid the guy all the money in advance.”“Stay away from the river.”“You paid it.”“Did not. I asked you all before doing so.”“Stay away from the water. There are hippos in it.”“You should not have wasted time hogging!”“You took an hour to bathe!”“How does that even figure in all of this?!” “Can you stay away from the water for God’s sake??”
You see, when all the fun is had and done, you need to go to your camp and rest. Have a few beers, a couple of pizza slices and go to sleep. What you shouldn’t do is get marooned on a park island. Because then, something like the scene above might happen.
“He is here!”“Moses!”“Dear dear Moses parted the waters and came to get us.”
The arguments were put paid to. And we stumbled onto a boat, promising to bash the boat guy we had hired in the morning who had left us alone.The stars had suddenly populated the sky like little gems of silver.
Twinkle twinkle little star,May the good things stay where they are…
We reached the shore hand in hand, found the bonfires lit at the camp and chattered late into the night before fatigue hit us and we hit the hay.
My prayers were answered.
Okay, I must admit it wasn’t as poetic as that. We did not just hit the hay. We first had a tussle with the lizards outside the door of our cottage. Neel and Shivi shooed them away with some branches and tucked Nusha and me into bed. I also made faces when the tap water reeked of river and algae. Then we saw a wild boar near the camp peacefully roaming around like a dog and I scuttled away thinking of how Robert Baratheon must have been slayed.
The day of the trek to Murchison falls dawned bright and sunny. Which was not what we wanted. We wanted the day to be like the previous day- slightly windy, slightly cloudy. The boatman asked us at the outset what animals we wanted to see as if he had them in his pocket and would present them as soon as we expressed the need to look. We were in the wild. And there is a certain reality and mystic in the beasts coming at us in their own natural wild ways.
And come at us they did. The African darter, pied kingfisher, the little egret, the big egret, weaver bird, Abyssinian ground hornbill, guinea fowl, African jacana (or the Jesus bird- it is so called because it flies as smoothly as Jesus walked on water), yellow-billed stork, black-billed barbet, hadada and a load of names we couldn’t hope to remember. Then he showed us something we have been wanting to see for very long. The Great Nile crocodile. Well, the croc was asleep, thank heavens for that. It was gestating for over two months. Then we saw the hippos in their leisurely baths, almost submerged in the water, coming out only to jump in again. Very cute, round, roly-poly things, hippos.
Morris, our boatman, dropped us off at the base of the falls from where we were supposed to start our trek. Orange and black chameleons crossed our paths as we made our way to the top. Tosh followed them as they seemed to do push-ups with an endearing flick of their heads. We reached the gushing water where the White Nile forces its way through the rocks between Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert. And stayed there. For over two hours- climbing trees, making swings out of branches, satiating the nature photographer in us and basically just chilling out with a bottle of special Nile beer.
But of course, that wasn’t wild enough for us. We wanted to go into a proper forest, you know, where people get lost and out of which horror movies are made. And so we headed to Budongo Forest Reserve for tracking chimpanzees.
The word is wild. Wild trees and brambles and fungi and mushrooms sprouted from god only knew where. The forest was dark, predictably, even though it was bright daylight outside. The trees formed a thick canopy that only let a sliver of sunlight cross to light up a chance dew drop on a stray leaf.
Leaves. Well, leaves were in abundance. Strewn all over the forest floor. There was literally no clear path and we had to chop our way through the jungle to track the chimps, which emanated shrill sounds that chilled you to the core. Everything was newly washed, the rain had seen to that.
Did I tell you about the unpredictable weather in Uganda? One moment, it’s raining cats and dogs and the next, it is a merciless solar trauma. But we were in a trance and also in pain from craning our necks upwards to look up at the chimpanzees which flitted from branch to branch and didn’t seem to want to come down.
But they did. And made us scatter like flies. You know, chimps can be naughty. And to invade their homes is a naughtier act than any and might invite a session of lice picking by our dear primal cousins. Neel and Shivi found some berries that the chimps enjoy and as Robert (our forest ranger) told us, these fruits were edible- so if you are ever stranded in a forest (the possibilities of which miraculously increase in Africa), you should eat what the chimps eat. Nusha and Piter were posing with an Iron Throne-lookalike tree while Tosh was helping me keep my balance as I fought to take photos and videos, avoid entangling branches and not fall all over myself and lag behind, all at the same time.
On our way back, Moses, who had been our kind kind driver for the trip, was really happy, I think. Because for once, none of us was talking. We were in a drop-dead-asleep mode, completely knackered. Animal tracking and wildlife watching is not easy, you see. But nothing worth experiencing is ever easy, is it? I think just for a moment there, the Spirit of the Wild had taken over us. As Boyd Norton said, “There is a language going on out there- the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops and chirps have meaning derived over eons of expression…we have yet to become fluent in the language- and music- of the wild.”