Murchison Falls Safari

We woke up at 6, and took hard boiled eggs and bread from the hotel to drive to Murchison Falls. This was unusual as almost all of our meals have been relaxed. My first photo was of the glowing orange water-color sunrise patterns on blue sky background. We saw many baboons who scampered off the road when we approached. The road was red dirt, sometimes morphing to a sandy yellow and then back to red, with lush brilliant green vegetation. Larry opened up the top so you can sit on the back of the seat and look out for animals. This was exhausting as the vehicle jerked around but fun. We took a ferry across with the car, eating the eggs at that point. Larry told us more animals would be on the other side. Juggling camcorder, camera and occasionally recorder was complex but manageable most of the time.

The ride in to Murchison after the river was tremendous and I was incredulous at the number of different animals I was seeing.

A pond had hippopotomous in it; all you see are flat round brown lumps on the top of the water. Later we saw many more, large groups, and heard their occasional antiphonal snorting and grunting from different sides of the hippo cluster. I heard they come out of the water and spend all night eating grass. They can be the most dangerous animal, however. All sort of antelope: culb, water buck, Jackson’s Hartbeest, dikdik. Two of them have horns with braid-like pattern, and you distinguish them by how they curve. The small dikdik looks very alert and worried. They can all run very fast when threatened. This savannah area is mostly grassy, with coconut palms and other trees occasionally. Finally, off in the distance we saw giraffes, which to me was unbelievable, that outside of any zoo, these improbable creatures could actually exist and survive. They seemed to hang out in pairs or small groups, and sometimes a couple would be together with their heads and necks alligned. They let us come to about 50 feet before they would start to turn and walk away. The red anthills, actually built by termites, started to take on castle-like and strange shapes with many towers. Before they had been mostly rounded, 3 or 4 feet high, but they were bigger in this area, maybe 5 or 6 feet high.

The warthogs were hilariously ugly, sort of pig-like animals with curly fangs(?) on each side of the face and a long thin tail with a pouf of fur at the end. I never did get a good head-on picture, but a group did cross the road in front of us. We had seen elephants in the distance off and on, and finally the road, which was getting more difficult to navigate due to ruts and holes, took us closer to them. A monitor lizard, several feet long, was just next to the road on my side of the vehicle. Many kinds of birds, not just the storks that find home in Kampala, but many birds I have no names for. I kept seeing Lake Albert in the distance, with Congo on the other side, and finally we arrived at the boat launch well after noon and had lunch at a 5 star hotel with a great buffet, and desserts! These were
well-earned after struggling to stay balanced for hours while the truck lurched and jolted us, sometimes making me grunt loudly, while trying to take pictures and video. Jim bravely drove for a while and gave Larry a rest. Joanne’s headache had become difficult, and I found one tissue – covered advil in my pocket which she welcomed. Fortunately that and the coffee seemed to help. Sitting in the outside area of the restaurant, we had a view of the valley and swimming pool below.

Next Joanne, Jim and I had a three hour boat ride to Murchison falls, seeing all the animals we had seen earlier and more, including crocodiles, lying by the water with their mouths staying open. Apparently this is to cool themselves. We were less than 10 feet from hippos in the water and they stared at us and sometimes snorted. Groups of 10 or twenty African elephants, or water buffalo, clustered by the water, eating grass and hanging out. Sometimes they would have a bird or two on their backs. White egrets, or other birds eat bugs off them. We finally got close enough to see Murchison Falls in the distance, and right there was a small island with a tree and a cluster of weaver birds fluttering, singing around their nests. Since the boat motor was turned lower I hoped the recording would be usable. I had recorded earlier on this boat trip with the shotgun mic, and will have to see if the boat noise obscures the bird sounds.

Every time I turned there was a new amazing thing on this trip. This vibrant eco-system has to be one of the most unique and varied on earth, and being in it for a day gave me an extraordinarily joyful and expansive feeling.

Back from the boat ride, we had news from Larry that on oil-truck had overturned (we’d seen it driving on the way in), and was completely blocking our exit road. So we needed to take another way out that would take 3 extra hours, and had to leave right away. So the hoped-for drive up to the top of the falls would not happen, and we were looking at arriving back at the guesthouse at midnight. I had wanted to record the falls in particular, so this was a little disappointing, but tiredness was taking over so I was ok with the change.

This even more difficult road with washed out areas, deep ruts, and huge bumps had us at crawling speeds at times. But, this less-used road took us even closer to the wildlife. We never saw lions despite my careful looking, but so many other animals were nearby. Elephants even crossed the road in front of us! Of course, we stopped. I can’t imagine what would happen if you hit one. Probably the car would be wrecked, and they would charge, leaving you in a pretty terrible situation.
They must have been 10 feet from us. More giraffes, and some of teh best pictures came from this time photographing them. A young giraffe with its mother was off to the side, and near the end in a very nice moment, several elephants, including a mother and baby, let us be very close to them for several minutes without moving away. I have video on my iphone of that since my camcorder battery had worn out.

This day may have been the most exciting of my life. Falling in love with Africa, is similar but different than falling in love with China as I did in 2003 in places like Hua Shan, Xian, Huang Shan and Yushu. You can’t be the same having experienced this place, a feeling of how life goes on in the wildest, freest place on earth, where humans are not dominant. But while it feels joyfully free, it does not seem completely ‘wild’ when you are there. Every animal has its uniqueness, its places for play and strategies for eating and and caring for babies that are natural and intelligent.

After exiting the park, putting us more east than we had been, we had to travel on Gulu Road. We passed through many Acoli tribe villages, with round clay buildings with grass roofs. I enjoyed seeing women in traditional colorful dress, sometimes carrying things on their heads. The road was disintegrating, though, and the two-way traffic often barely (if at all) fit on the road. With the many bicycles and walkers, this seemed to me a dangerous situation in the darkening light toward evening. This went on for hours, as it became darker. Fortunately most people wore light colors, but those who did not faded into the road and were hard to see. When we had to veer to the left (driving on the left side of the road in Uganda) to avoid oncoming traffic sometimes the road had been eaten away and so we hit the edge with a hard and loud jolt. We didn’t hit anything due to Larry’s amazing driving skills, but for me, used to wide US roads with lines, lights and shoulders, it was at times terrifying. After some hours we reached a police checkpoint. They were relaxed and waved us through. Apparently the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) had been active in those areas before.

We stopped for dinner around 9pm at a small placed near a gas station and had chicken which was good, and chapati. Joanne wanted wine because she would fly on to Paris tomorrow, so she and I had some bubbly white wine with an Italian name from the convenience store. We stopped later to put the fuel Larry had brought into the truck with help from some people who sell charcoal by the road. A woman in a pretty dress calmly asked me if I wanted charcoal. The three of us caught some rest on the way back, and the roads improved. Lights started appearing and we arrived back in Kampala at the guesthouse before 11pm, dirty and exhausted, but still in a state of excitement.

Hippos and Elephants from boat

About marahelmuth

Composer / researcher specializing in computer music, professor at CCM, at the University of Cincinnati. Embarking on a trip to Uganda April 13, 2011. I will be working with Teach and Tour Sojourners, who arrange tours in the parks and reserves and lectures at universities. On the tours I'll be recording wildlife sound and video, to be used in future compositions.
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