Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Days of Kings and Leopards

We've just returned from six days exploring Queen Elizabeth National Park out west. Despite both suffering some unknown virus from the day we set off (where's that swine flu tester kit, anyone?) it really was quite spectacular.

Where the Rift Valley curves southwards to meet Lake Edward, this amazing park stretches out in several different directions. When you come over the Kichamba escarpment, the view takes your breath away. Miles of flat savannah grassland stretching out across the Rift Valley floor, from the densesly forested Kyambura Gorge in one corner to the flat mirror like expanses of Lake George in the other. And we didn't even explore the park's nether regions - the wilderness of Ishasha, seperated from the DRC by a shallow river, with it's great plains of Topi and tree-climbing lions. We wanted to head down that way but we a) ran out of time, and b) felt it would be wasted on two very ill people.

Yes, the dream trip turned into a bit of a nightmare. Firstly, we nearly never left, as every hire car we tried to take had some inherent problem. The first one, which we picked up Saturday evening, had a problem with the alternator or the starter or something - it wouldn't move on Sunday morning when we were due to leave at 8am. Nothing else was available to later on so we picked up the next one at 4pm . We drove it a few km and had to turn around as the wheel bearings were on their way out, and you could turn the steering wheel 180 degrees before anything much happened. As we know from Ugandan roads, the ability to swerve (around potholes, cyclists veering into the middle of the road, or massive suicide buses that play chicken with smaller vehicles) is actually quite key, so as we fancied staying alive we took that one back too and demanded a new one. So finally, we ended up leaving Kampala at 5pm on the Sunday (when we were already meant to have got to QENP by then) in an ageing Mitsubishi Pajero. The horn didn't work, the air con was broken, there were massive cracks in the windshield and there was no handbrake, but other than that, it was fine. So we took it and got moving, and it did us proud all week.

The next problem was our health. I'd come down with some bug on the Saturday before leaving Kampala. R came down with the same thing on Sunday night. We ended up spending most of the week feeling rotten. As our fevers spiked at over 38 degrees (38.9 on our last night for me) and we had to turn down the chance to try out lots of lovely safari activities, the week turned into an exercise of checking timings, mileages, prices, directions and what kind of footwear is necessary, before going back to our room at Simba Safari Camp to collapse in a heap. I felt like a guide book editor and decided that I could never do a job like that - it takes all the fun out of travel.

But we still managed to be blown away by our location and what we saw. The sheer epic scale of the park, coupled with our inevitable sightings of game despite not really trying to spot any, gave us the thrill we had when we first went to Murchison.

We sat in Tembo canteen (or rather, R lay on the cool concrete of the low wall to ease his fever) and watched herds of elephants cavorting in the shallows of the Kazinga Channel on the opposite bank. We faced down am extremely grumpy matriachal flump with a high pitched trumpet on the Main Track to Mweya peninsula (R reversed quite quickly).

We did a bizarre high speed game drive on the Kasenyi plains with an understanding ranger ("Look, we just want to note the mileages of the tracks you might pass by on your average game drive, we won't be stopping to look at the animals unless they actually jump out in front of the car") where we whizzed round the open tracks of the Kob hunting grounds, wild stretches of grassland studded with Euphorbia trees, or Candelabras, as they are sometimes known. Without trying to spot game, game comes to us. Within 1km of driving off the public road, and at 10am, far too late for good game viewing by most people's standards, we pass a family group of eight lions.

Then, one late afternoon, we are trying to cool our fevered brows with a rest in the rooms after a long and hot day trialling a community village walk in the foothills of the Rwenzoris, and visiting the Bakonjo Kingdom's palace where I met a living, working, tribal King (his name was Charles and I have the photos to prove it), when we get the call. The Chief is free to meet.

The Chief is a key post within the Uganda Wildlife Authority - every National Park has a Chief. And nothing really happens in that park without having the Chief on side. This was our chance to pitch our plan, so off we went. Take two paracetomol, jump in the car, and race down to the Park HQ to meet the Chief. After a good meeting, the sun was setting. Chief lives on site, at Park HQ, so he has nowhere to drive that will take him anywhere after dark. But we have at least a 45 min drive back to our Camp. So off we race, R watching the track and me scanning the bushes left and right ahead of the vehicle. Our track passed along the banks of the river and I was concerned about hitting a hippo that would be coming up to graze the plains at night.

Before long, we had made it off the park tracks, having passed close to, but not into any wandering hippos, and had reached the public road that linked to the sealed road that ran to our camp. By now it was quite dark, and we thundered along, R braking violently for the odd bird of prey that would sit, pensively, in the centre of the dusty track, eyeing us up as we barrelled towards it, then flying off at the last possible minute.

As we neared the tarmac road, we saw a small amber glow on the side of the track. R mentioned it and suggested it was someone walking, carrying a lit cigarette in their hand. Well, that's what it looked like from a distance, and we'd seen plenty of brave locals casually wandering the public roads, which given the amount of lions about, is actually quite, quite brave. Or stupid.

Anyway, the orange glow got a little closer, and it had a shape to it. Within the space of a second or two, we realised it was an animal. At first we thought it was a lion, as it was a big, muscular looking thing. Then our headlights picked out its spots.

It was a leopard

There is something about spotting a leopard. This one was our first (and possibly our last). They are shy, solitary, nocturnal animals and seldom seen on your average game drive. Our boss has lived in this country for ten years, and up until a day or two before we saw our leopard, she had never seen one, despite going on countless game drives.

And here we were, a year into living here, fifty yards from the main tarmac road from Mbarara to Kasese, and there was a leopard in front of our car. The thrill was greater than when I tracked gorillas (you kind of know they're coming, so while they're amazing to watch, it's no surprise to see them there). And it was more beautiful than seeing lions. There is something very aloof and casual about the leopard.

Our spotted cat gracefully slunk off into the savannah, clearly not rattled by our presence.

We, on the other hand, were extremely rattled. We manouevered the car round to try and prolong the experience of watching the disappearing leopard. I intermittently scrabbled in the dark footwells of the Pajero for my camera, then realising any pictures would be crap and I was much better off just enjoying the moment. We were both nervy, swearing with excitement and awe, and kept telling eachother what we were seeing in that simpleton way you hear people talk on home videos where they capture natural disasters or other unexpected events.

That night we told anyone who would listen that we'd seen a leopard. We're still telling people. And I keep having to remind myself that earlier in the day, I shook hands with a King too.

And there's not many places you can do that...


Alicia said...

I love your stories.... I lived in Tanzania for quite some time and i can relate to a lot of what you are saying...loved going on safari in the Serengeti...watching the wildlife in their natural habitats is truly amazing.
Glad I found your blog..


Anne-Marie Weeden said...

Thank You... I like you "Feel your boobies" logo - do they do t-shirts with it on?