Among the Best No Matter How Much
They Try to Talk You Out of It!
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block
animals here are still suffering from decades of poaching, we were told
repeatedly. So many endangered species are still being replenished.
Our wildlife are still fearful of humans and tend to hide more than
in Tanzania and Kenya, it was further explained. After all, the government
has only recently been devoted to protecting the wildlife. And if that
wasn't enough deterrent, we were going out in the heat of the afternoon
sun and surely all the animals would be hiding out in cooler domains
And so began our first game drive in Murchison Falls
National Park in southeastern Uganda as part of an ElderTreks Tour,
which promotes "Small Group Exotic Adventures for Travelers 50
Immediately as we entered the park, a handsome water
buck sprinted across the road followed by an assortment of other antelopes
and a number of elephants standing around oblivious to the clicking
of cameras around them. Shortly thereafter, we were immersed in baboons,
cape buffalo, giraffes, warthogs and the occasional hyena.
I don't know if the lowering of expectations was intentional
but its effect was to electrify everyone in the van who oohed and ahhed
at the sheer numbers of animals we encountered and led to the exclamation
of one experienced safari-goer to declare, "This is the best safari
Enhancing the trip even more was the lack of multiple
vehicles taking up prime real estate in which to view the animals. Twenty
vehicles a day versus the dozens found in Kenya and Tanzania, though
our guide, Hamm, predicted that eventually Uganda would catch up. "Well,
it's kind of nice to be a pioneer," observed Nancy Burnett from
And unlike other safaris I've been on, in Uganda the
game drives are by land and water. On one along the Nile River in Murchison
Falls, our guide proudly announced that there were 450 different species
of birds but after he pointed out the first few, I couldn't help but
think, "Oh god, we still have 446 to go." I'm obviously not
a birder. However, of the animals he mentioned we might see baboons,
hippos, elephants, crocodiles and buffaloes we saw them all. And
that included, to the extreme joy of everyone on board, the elusive
shoebill, of which only 8 pairs exist in the park, who preened and posed
at great length for the cameras.
We took a short walk off the boat onto savannah grasslands
where we sprinted between numerous piles of assorted dung and footprints,
which were alternately identified as coming from hippos, elephants,
lions and water bucks. No actual animal sightings but I did sense they
were all lurking nearby. Still pretty heady stuff.
On a second boat trip along a different part of the
Nile, we saw more land animals than on the first river trip and better
even than some safaris: baboons, hippos, elephants, crocodiles, warthogs,
cape buffalo and antelopes all by the water's edge.
Initially, I could only see only the tiny ears of the
hippos peeking above the water until a big splash announced the arrival
of another 6000 pounds into view. You don't want to mess with a hippo!
And I've seen crocodiles in the past but usually had to rely upon a
guide to identify the snout sticking out of the water. Not here. We
saw multiple full-length crocs soaking up the sun on shore and staying
around long enough for photos before slithering away into the river.
These were very obliging animals.
The Kazinga Channel Cruise in Mweya brought us into
contact with the highest population of hippos in Uganda, plus of course
their standard neighbors: more buffaloes, elephants, crocs and the de
rigueur abundance of birds. We were all gaping at a particular family
of elephants -- or Ellies as they are more affectionately called --
with a baby of mere months so small you could practically take him home
and put him on a display shelf.
Oblivious to this unusual occurrence, the one birder
in the group was staring in the other direction, waxing enthusiastically
about the black-winged stilt in his sight. When teased about not even
seeing the ellies, he deadpanned: "If elephants could fly, then
I'd notice them." Such is life with a birder
But by the end
of the trip, even I could recognize a common black and white kingfisher!
Right in front of the elephants were the barely submerged
tips of hippo ears and I cringed at the thought of what one elephant
misstep might do to them until I remembered the multi-ton enormity of
the animal attached to them. I suspect the ellies purposely step gingerly.
Back on land in Queen Elizabeth National Park, cape
buffalo were happily wallowing in mud which acts as both sun protection
and insect repellant. Considered one of the most aggressive and feared
of the African mammals, I figured that maybe it was compensating for
its very ugly demeanor. The warthog, however, another resident not known
for its good looks, clearly does not have the same compensatory good
fortune. I figure it's just too ugly for any animal to even want to
We also saw staggering numbers of antelopes, literally
thousands of them of all sizes and shapes, each type with its distinctive,
lovely shaped and colored horns from curved to straight, twisted to
rippled, rounded to wavy. The list goes on as far as the antelope can
run. Plus hundreds of giraffes and elephants and a multitude of all
the other usual suspects. Still the greedy passengers in the van continued
to clamor for lions or at least one leopard in a tree. By this time
we had become so jaded, it was "Oh don't bother getting up, it's
just another dozen elephants."
We did spend a lot of time on several drives scouting
the terrain in furtive attempts to spot the big cats. Hamm, our guide,
was feeling increasingly frustrated, protesting that over 90% of the
time, lions are seen.
At one point a line of cob antelope standing in quiet
attention all looking to the right alerted us to the possible presence
of our desired prey good for us; bad for the cobs. After a while,
the cobs reverted back to grazing dashing our hopes in the process:
good for the cobs; bad for us. Eventually, we did track the small family
of three cats to a large cluster of bushes from which a flicker of face
or twitch of tail emerged, but the rest of their bodies eluded us. As
if worried we were getting too close, papa lion suddenly ran out from
the bush to divert our attention. There he stood, a short distance away,
very elegant and stately and full of pride, so to speak, mesmerizing
every inhabitant of the van with the possible exception of the
birder. When we pulled away, he sauntered at a leisurely pace back into
the bush, confident his family was no longer in danger. Hamm breathed
a very audible sigh of relief.
The next day, it was a fresh kill nearby that caught
our attention. Bright red blood still flowed from the poor dead Topi
as did much of his intestines. But the exact nature of the alleged predator
confounded our guide: Not the lions, they would have finished off the
meat; the topi was too big for a leopard to have brought him down. Footprints
near the kill suggested the culprit might be an hyena but Hamm insisted
he would still be there feasting. As we drove away, Hamm kept shaking
his head as he further pondered the mystery.
Later that afternoon, we returned to the site of the
kill only to find it had been pulled into a bush from which the devoured
head and leg were still visible. Only a leopard would have done that,
Hamm concluded. Mystery solved!
Observed Jon Perica, an environmentalist from Northridge,
CA: "The ElderTreks Uganda trip offers the most diverse scenery
and wildlife than any other country in Africa."
And for those still seeking more animal sightings to
add to their list, a trip to Lake Mburo National Park adds zebras, elands
and the ever-graceful impalas to the count. Gorilla-trekking and chimp-tracking
were another awesome part of the tour but are separate stories in their
And it wasn't all animals all the time. We also visited
a small tribal village that was a US Agency for International Development
model of conservation, environmental and wildlife protection, and hygienic
efforts successfully implemented in the most primitive of settings.
An incredibly impressive accomplishment! Plus other cultural exposures
including a traditional medicine man, a modern hospital, a local school
and a meeting with members of an ancient Pygmy tribe. For more information,
Don't even think about coming on this trip if you have
any kind of neck or back injury. There is barely a moment spent in the
van in which you are not literally bouncing up and down and lurching
side to side.
Outside of our accommodations, Western toilets are rarely
available; squatting in the bush or over a hole is a useful skill to
If you're overly attached to electricity, whether for
light or a hair dryer, you might reconsider the trip. Bring a book light
for reading at night and leave your vanity at home.
Showers were available at all the lodges, just not necessarily
in the manner to which you are accustomed.
Except for maybe caveat #1, none of these should deter
you from the trip; just make you better prepared for it.
Where Arid Desert Meets Frigid Sea (Part 1); Namibia
Part II: Where Wild Women Meet Wildlife; Deutsch-Südwestafrika