Saturday, April 14, 2012

A symbol of Uganda by the shores of Lake Albert

We're gradually getting around the Rift Valley lakes with their bizarre Victorian names. We reached the southern shore of Lake Albert on Easter Day while visiting the Semliki Wildlife Reserve. And we'll be only a watery hop, skip and jump away from Lake Albert's northernmost bay when we visit Murchison Falls again in May. Mind you, the lake is 160 kilometres long and the bits in between are not all that get-at-able. There is no road around the lake and we will probably not risk a boat trip, what with Lake Albert's notoriously sudden storms, the poor safety record of the local boats and the fact that half the lake belongs to DR Congo.

Lake Albert is on the centre left, with a dotted line through it showing the Congo border
We drove to Lake Albert through wooded savannah, passing through herds of grazing buffalo and Uganda kob.

We met a few fellow travellers, some making better and some slower progress than us. There was no stopping this lorry, with the bizarre message 'Grow more cocoa', a crop we have rarely if ever come across in Uganda. It was hurrying along loaded with goods for transport to Congo and matooke to sell at the village.

Other travellers were in less of a hurry. This hamerkop had stopped for a drink.

Some pedestrians slithered along slowly, knowing they'd get there eventually. This is Uganda, after all, where no one hurries and tomorrow is always another day.

Others just waddled determinedly towards the water.

As we neared the lake, we started seeing mud and pole huts arranged within compounds as well as a few more solid-looking brick buildings with corrugated iron roofs.

We were surprised to pass what appeared to be a large army encampment - until, that is, we remembered that this was border territory. The soldiers' housing was pretty basic - grass-thatched mud huts and shelters - but it looked as if it had been erected relatively recently.

We realised we were getting close to the lake when we spotted these African open-billed storks (or at least I think that's what they were), a whole flock of them pecking away at the grass.

And then we were there, at Ntoroko, the main fishing community. We were quite surprised at the size of the settlement given how isolated the place is. However, I think the village counts as one of the poorest we have seen in this part of the country, with lots of crumbling single-roomed grass-thatched mud houses and grubby children wearing tattered adult clothing, the people too poor to photograph. The ducks looked healthy enough, though.

Scavengers of various kinds were working their way through the numerous garbage heaps. I was shocked to see so many baboons so close to housing and children, for these animals can be dangerous.

The dominant male was clearly taking his responsibilities seriously. Not an animal I would care to mess with!

One small baboon, just like a human toddler, was delighted with the bit of red plastic he had just dug out of the rubbish. He quickly ran off with it and climbed on to his mother's back to keep his trophy safe.

Some of the scavenging marabou storks were taller than the children.

Rather disturbed by what we had seen, we hurried through the village and made for the more attractive prospect of the lake and its birds. Not many people were out and about, just the occasional fisherman. The small boats pulled up on the shore had been covered with sand to stop the wood splitting in the sun. You may just be able to see the Congolese shoreline, a dark blue strip along the horizon.

The young man in the boat below had just returned from fishing and was removing his catch. Once the boat was empty, he set off again, punting across to the opposite shore.

Various larger boats with outboard engines were crossing from one side of the lake to another.

True to expectation, birds of various kinds were getting on with their daily activities, fishing, flying around, doing a bit of paddling - just a normal Sunday morning for a bird.

Egrets of one sort or another dominated the scene: elegant great white egrets with lovely almost swan-like necks and their near relations the little egrets.

This long-tailed cormorant (or possibly black heron or egret - I make no claim to be an ornithologist!) was keeping a good lookout for a quick snack.

The sacred ibises were paddling around looking for shellfish.

We had come across several of their black hadeda ibis cousins out on the savannah. We see a lot of hadeda ibises in Kampala. They fly around our flat, making an unbelievable racket with their loud cawing.

There was constant movement around us as birds took off and alighted, swooping down over the water and then rising again. I think the bird below is a great cormorant, while the monstrous one below that, looks like a marabou stork.

However, the loveliest birds, from my point of view, were the kingfishers.  I completely failed to snap a glorious deep turquoise malachite kingfisher. However, I was luckier with the grey-headed and pied kingfishers which generously condescended to pose.

Even this weaver bird thought a little rest looking over the lake was a pleasant way to spend a few minutes on a Sunday morning.

However, it was soon time to wend our way through that dispiriting village again. Back in the car, we drove through the rubbish heaps.

And then, in one of those wonderful moments which we'll always remember, we saw a completely incongruous sight.

Majestic crested cranes, Uganda's national bird, lording it over the waste heaps.

What better symbol could there be of Uganda?

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