Saturday, January 16, 2010

An Elephant For Tea

Ostrich. Kidepo Valley National Park

We'd spent New Year way up North in one of the remotest areas of Uganda, past Gulu and Kitgum and their lingering IDP camps, and even up past the land of the Karamojong - Ugandan tribal pastoralists as famous for their cattle as they are for toting AK47s to keep the cross-border cattle-raiding at bay.

IDP camp between Gulu and Kitgum

Kidepo Valley is made up of rolling savanna plains and bush, sandwiched between craggy mountain ranges on the Sudanese and Kenyan borders. The park offers bush camping in two wilderness campsites, with nothing more than a pit latrine and a shower room to have some privacy with a jerry of water (but you bring the water with you). We'd come for the bush camping but little did we know that Uganda's best kept secret was secret no more.

Kidepo Valley

The day we arrived in the park, we stopped at the UWA headquarters en route to pick a wilderness campsite, only to find out the campsites were full. One had a posh temporary tented camp in it, which we knew about in advance. But the other site, the one we were planning to take, had apparently been taken by a group of 29 - mainly families with young kids and a close personal relationship with Christ.

So, the options were to camp at the UWA village, where the staff live and there were some bandas for rent as well, with the background hum of the generator and the daytime metallic pounding of the truck workshop. Or, depart for a campsite full of kids and guitar-toting Christians.

Well, we figured, If we set up our tents facing out over the valley and stick fingers in our ears we can just about imagine we're in the middle of the bush and so we set up our carefully angled New Year's 'Bush Camp' at the UWA village with the sound of a distant welding torch the only clue that we were slightly closer to civilisation than we'd hoped for.


We picked a large acacia tree for shelter, and having checked with a ranger that the spot was reasonably safe, set up camp. That afternoon, whilst building campfires and reorganising the minibus after our two day journey to get there, we saw more wildlife than I went onto see on any one game drive later in our days in the park. Within minutes, a side-striped jackal appeared and slunk his way past us. Later, a pair was seen, one without a tail, which gave it a curious air of poodle amongst the other jackals.

Side-striped Jackal

Patas Monkey on a termite mound

Then, a small group of Patas monkeys lollopped across the grass in front of our tents and settled down for a grooming session. Two buffalo, caked in red mud, grazed at the firebreak line, where the shorter grass gave way to waist high grasses and reeds. A magnificent male waterbuck lay lazily about 100m away, chewing thoughtfully on the grass and giving us the eye, whilst herds of giraffe and elephant passed by on the horizon. Later, when night fell, a herd of zebra turned up, which we only noticed when someone flashed the minibus lights by mistake, momentarily illuminating the group of stripes in a mirage-like apparition.

Jackson's Hartebeest

So, whilst we had been a bit annoyed that all of Kampala had had the same idea as us and Kidepo was over-run with visitors, forcing us to camp in the village, we ended up delighted with our running wildlife sideshow, waiting to see what would pop up next.

R eyeing up BulBul. Or was it BulBul eyeing up R?

And earlier that afternoon, about 50m away at a ranger's hut, we had also spied the famous "BulBul". A semi-habituated African Elephant, BulBul has been a visitor to the UWA village in Kidepo for many years. The rangers claim (and we later witnessed) that he comes every day to drink his 'brew' (in reality, eating the peelings and fruit husks discarded by the village brewery before the things begin to ferment and become boozy) and has also been known to knock down the door of a UWA banda when he can smell Posho being made inside (a sticky mushy mealy mash).

The first day, BulBul kept his distance, deciding to stick to his tried and tested diet of posho and brew. But on New Year's Eve, when we were peacefully mooching around our camp and a few of us were peeling potatoes for lunch, for no reason at all I can remember, I suddenly looked up to my right and saw BulBul, about 15 metres away and approaching with purpose.

Elephants - they may be big but they can sneak up on you pretty damn quietly. My sister tells me it's something to do with having enormous flat feet.

Uhhhhh.... Guys. Elephant approaching, I managed to stutter. Maybe it was that slo-mo that kicks in in weird situations but noone seemed to react straight away.

Guys! BulBul! Pick up your cameras and head for the bus! He was quite close by now.

BulBul at our picnic table

I gathered my own camera bag, looked at our pile of foil wrapped potatoes for lunch and gathered up those too, and jumped on the minibus. Clever, our driver (yes, his name really was) jumped in the driver's seat and started the engine. We backed off by 20m from our camp but BulBul was now right where we had been sat. He looked at the table filled with clean camping bowls and mugs. His trunk delicately felt around for something less plastic and more edible - no such luck - and several of our bowls fell to the floor. He sniffed at a black bag I'd forgotten I'd left on top of the catering box.

Oh no I groaned.

What's in it? asked Rich.

I was just sorting out our fruit and snacks for the journey tomorrow. That's got all our bananas and mangoes in.

We watched in dismay as it was deposited from trunk to mouth and swallowed, black bag and all.

One bag down...

Quite a crowd had gathered to one side from the UWA bandas - part laughing at the muzungus in their safari bus, watching an elephant trash their camp, part raising the alarm to gather help.

In the meantime BulBul took a step forward and knocked a chair over. In front of the chair were two bags. My heart sank.

What's in those bags? asked Rich, me being chief food monitor on our excursions and me having just re-ordered our food supply and organising the bags for the journey back down.

One's a rubbish bag I was about to throw away, and one's got the Doritos and our remaining chocolate bars in it... I trailed off, willing the inevitable not to happen.

No prizes for guessing which one BulBul took a fancy too. But it seemed he inverted the bag just a moment too soon. He got all the Doritos, and the packet of novelty crisps I'd bought just for the name ("Big Ring"), but two little shiny packets of purple dropped onto the grass at his feet. The Dairy Milk was saved!

BulBul makes his exit...

Since the UWA crowd had sounded the alarm, a truck roared up to see off our hungry visitor. Bu tactically reversing the truck at BulBul in short, sharp bursts, the driver managed to finally see off the elephant who trotted off down the road in a huff. We felt quite bad. Whilst we would miss our Doritos this was by far the most interesting animal encounter we'd had all trip and it seemed a shame to chase BulBul off when we were the visitors.

Turns out, the big tall Acacia we were camped under was also his tree. The helpful ranger who had smiled and said "No Problem" when we asked if it was a good place to camp had failed to mention this.

Poor BulBul. He must have thought us most ill-mannered. Camping under his tree then chasing him off with a big scary truck...


Bette said...

awesome photos and i love the bulbul story!!!

Kathy said...

Elephants are majestic beings that make you hold your breath while watching them when you are on Africa safaris

Kathy said...

I wish I could go on safari holidays and see these majestic animals wild and free in Africa.

Anonymous said...

Africa safaris are the best places to see these majestic animals. No site is more spell binding than see these gentle giants roam free and know that they are protected.