February 17th, 2015
Our goal over the next couple of days of our unforgettable Ugandan adventure was to find the Circle of Life.
It seems strange to describe a country as ‘exciting’ or ‘exotic’. All places are exotic and strange in their own way. Someone from Uganda may find Cardiff exciting! The justification I can think of for East Africa is that it is home to many of the world’s most interesting birds, reptiles and mammals.
After bidding farewell to Rob and Sophie, we started our drive to the Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). The park, named after the Queen’s visit in 1954, is one of the most popular in Uganda and home to many animals I've only previously seen in a zoo.
Visiting QENP requires doing something I’d never done before: crossing the Equator. Technically I crossed it on our flight to Uganda as we touched down in Rwanda, but I never left the plane. That’s my point of view on the matter and I'm sticking to it. The Equator is marked with two circular monuments on either side of the road.
We paid our fee to take Pumbaa into the park and then started to explore. We drove along a dirt track for an hour or so, scouring the landscape for animals of all shape, size and shade.
We bounced along, assuming that all of the animals would be down at Lake George, cooling off and having a drink. Bounce, bounce, bounce…skid to a halt. Why? Well, this…
An astonishing sight. More so that they kept on coming.
Soon after this wonderful interruption, we arrived at a jetty on the edge of Lake George to take a boat ride along the 40km Kazinga Channel; an estuary of sorts that links the national park’s two main bodies of water, Lakes George and Edward. If you’re thinking at this point that there is a particularly English feel to some of these names, you would be correct. They were named by Henry Morton Stanley, a British explorer, in 1889. Many other lakes, including Victoria and Albert in Uganda, were named by Stanley.
Within minutes of departing (once the driver had woken up), we were greeted by a herd of jet-black water buffalo, all guzzling water in the humid afternoon heat.
Alongside the mass of buffalo, minding their own business, were the first of many hippopotamuses that we saw. The hippo was the animal I was most excited about seeing and I wasn't to be disappointed, even though they didn't really do much.
More than anything, I think it is their sheer size. They are enormous units, often weighing in excess of 3500 kilograms. Their long yawn draws copious amounts of air into a huge mouth. Yet for their size, the hippo’s eyes and ears seem almost comically small.
I was amazed at how all of the animals we witnessed on this boat ride seem to accept the others and share territory. Water buffalo, waterbucks, hippos and elephants would all be within mere feet of one another, yet never feel threatened. The only skirmish I saw was two water buffalo locking horns. Their numbers are recovering after Uganda’s infamous dictator, Idi Amin, decimated their population through hunting and negligence.
Of course, this list of friendly and cooperative animals doesn't include the Nile crocodile, which is starting to recolonise in the region. At the very end of the trip we saw a croc, at least 8 feet in length, slink silently into the water. We didn't stick around to find out its target; after all, it was hungrily staring at our boat the whole time.
Plenty of birds joined us on our adventure, often swooping around the boat and hovering near both humans and native animals. I particularly enjoyed seeing the ibis taking a breather aboard a hippo. My favourite bird was the black-and-white kingfisher, which was able to hover gracefully in the sky before darting in any direction it fancied.
We found an unfortunate kingfisher trapped in a fishing rope (the park allow some local tribes to live in the park and fish). Our boat pulled alongside, the captain took the fish back to shore and released it, at which point the bird rediscovered its amazing ability to fly. This effort from the captain almost made up for him accidentally running over a hippo which tried to surface under our boat.
We also saw more elephants as the boat cruised along the channel. Their population is also recovering from the Idi Amin era, when their numbers fell from 4,000 to roughly 150.
The hippos, however, stole my heart. Lazy, large and very proud of it. We saw an incredible amount of wildlife in a matter of hours which I've never seen before outside the confines of a zoo. It was an incredible experience to see the animals of Africa in their natural habitat. Well, almost all of them. Our next trip was to find the King of them all…
Love you all,