Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Ritchies' Farewell Tour: Stage 3, the Nile from Murchison Falls to Lake Albert, some shoebills and a minor misadventure

It was a good hour and a half's drive from the Murchison Falls Park entrance near Masindi to our destination, the wonderful Nile Safari Lodge. The first time we did this journey, over two years ago now, we slithered and skidded through the sticky red mud under torrents of rain and with three very wet Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers in the back of our pick-up  This time, our third visit to Murchison, the road was dry and smooth - great for Stuart's normal ninety miles an hour driving until we met deep ruts in the road. Recent rains had carved out deep rivulets running diagonally across our path. We slammed on the brakes and jolted our way nose first, down into these mini-ravines and up the other side.

Although there is less big game in the southern reaches of the park than across the other side of the river, there were enough animals around to remind us that this is tropical forest after all. Every so often we encountered troops of baboons who wandered off lazily, noses in the air, offended at our intrusion into their long red sitting room.

We were delighted to see a pair of Southern Ground Hornbill. For the first time I managed to get a clear view of the splashes of bright blue on the female's wattle, making her a handsome consort for her red-splattered husband.

Bumping and rattling over the ruts, we arrived at Nile Safari Lodge, 'paradise' as our friend Angela described it. Difficult to believe that the broad powerful river below the verandah is the same river which joins the Mediterranean at Alexandria.

We were lulled to sleep by the sounds of grunting hippos, creaking branches waving wildly under the weight of vervet monkeys and the raucous croaks of frogs.

Woken by a few early morning grunts and warbles from our neighbours, Angela and I were ready to be picked up at the jetty at 7.30 on the dot for our trip to the delta. Here the Nile joins Lake Albert before turning north towards Sudan. Stuart, however, felt no need to renew his acquaintance with African wildlife. A full Ugandan breakfast was on the cards for him.

So this is an account in reverse order of life on the Nile and its banks, starting with a trip downstream to the west and ending up at Murchison Falls to the east.

We slid quietly down river in the Wild Frontiers boat. Papyrus lined the nearest banks, with acacia trees further back. Do-it-yourself islands endeavoured to grab a foothold on the riverbed, some, like the one below, even supporting a colony of weaver birds on its new-grown branches.

Water lilies floated gently. The powerful river became more and more sluggish as it merged with the swamp.

Various creatures lurked amidst the lush grass and papyrus on the banks: on the left an Egyptian Goose and on the right a Purple Heron.

Smaller birds fluttered between the branches, including various species of kingfisher: here, the omnipresent Pied Kingfisher and a beautiful little Malachite Kingfisher. Below these, a pair of blue-breasted bee-eaters perched among the papyrus stalks.

Some animals remained firmly on land. There was no way these  Black and White Colobus Monkeys were going to get their feet wet. You can see one peering curiously through the branches on the left, while all you can see of the one on the right is its long dangling tail.

The Patas Monkey gazed down from its prickly perch and the waterbuck watched calmly as the humans floated by.

A young Monitor Lizard sunned itself on the trunk of a tree.

Meanwhile huge Goliath herons - the world's largest herons - stood majestically in the grass, far more impressive than their Common Squacco cousins. A Black-headed heron surveyed the river from a tree-top vantage point.

High in the branches the raptors lurked, peering down on life below, here a Tawny Eagle and a Grey Kestrel. Below that an African Fish Eagle

Many of the animals, however, were as comfortable in the water as on the banks. We came across a couple of wallowing elephants.

Slightly nervous about our proximity to the elephant above, I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed when, with an expression of supreme boredom, it looked us over, turned round and moved sedately into the undergrowth.

As we neared the delta itself, we came across pods of hippos. They took one look at us and fled with wild splashings.

None of this activity appeared to perturb the fishermen who calmly carried on with their work.

In the far distance, we could make out the shadowy outlines of the Blue Mountains of DR Congo: beautiful to view but very difficult to photograph!

However, we did manage to photograph something very special: a shoebill, in fact more than one shoebill. These strange birds look prehistoric. We almost expected to catch sight of a group of dinosaurs in the grass behind them.

One look from those primeval eyes, and the observer just wants to slink back into the river.

Time to turn round and aim upstream, past the African darter, flapping its wings to keep cool.

A quick turnaround for Angela and me - off the boat, into the restaurant, a tasty and substantial lunch and then off to catch the UWA boat upstream. Stuart felt it was his duty to stay by the swimming pool and interact with the vervet monkeys.

We caught the boat with plenty of time to spare. In fact, the staff arrived at the exact second we were supposed to be leaving. (Now, that's a mzungu thought!) It took some time to get started. We set off in one small boat which then turned out to be far too small to take on the number of passengers waiting on the opposite bank. Not rocket science, that calculation, especially as we were all pre-booked. So back we went, swapped boats and set off again.

Now Stuart and I are great fans of the UWA rangers. They are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and keen to ensure that you appreciate and respect the wildlife as much as they do. Unfortunately, the words 'almost all' are missing from that statement. The government has recently decided that soldiers should be 'trained' as wildlife rangers. This may be a simple measure to ensure that resources are used as effectively as possible, particularly in those national parks which border sensitive regions like DR Congo. Or, there could be a political reason, who knows. Anyway, on our boat trip upstream, the 'ranger' was clearly not one of the usual ones.

She was able to parrot off the facts and figures about the obvious animals and the Falls themselves. However, she was pretty hopeless at spotting and pointing out the wildlife so that the passengers could also see them. In fact, chatting to her mates seemed a preferable activity. At one point I ended up identifying birds for the passengers on the bottom deck as she had disappeared upstairs for reasons of her own. How different from the wonderful Wild Frontiers guides we had been with in the morning.

Nevertheless, we had a good trip all the same. We saw herons, fish eagles and kingfishers. Below you can see a spur-wing plover next to, I think, a grey kestrel.

Here you can see some tiny red-throated bee-eaters, fluttering in and out of their nesting sites in the cliffs.

A yellow-billed stork stood preening itself.

Some hippos were lumbering about on the land.

The banks upstream are steeper than at the delta area and the tree cover thicker. Elephants moved about in groups among grazing warthogs and waterbuck. They looked like huge grey boulders.

And then, at last, there were the Falls themselves.

Magnificent from the bottom but spectacular from the top, as we saw a couple of days later, on our way home. At first, all you hear is the deep roar. Then, as you approach the Falls, you see what looks like a wild highland river.

But gradually, as you move down stream, you see the enormous power of all those gallons of water pouring out of Lake Victoria, into Lake Kyoga, down through the various falls and rapids to the Karuma Falls, then down the Victoria Nile to Murchison Falls. Our visit took place during the rainy season. When we had been at Lake Victoria a couple of days earlier, the water was higher than we had ever seen it. And now it was all pouring down Murchison Falls.

As the spray rose higher and higher, so the rainbows sparkled more and more clearly.

And there at the bottom, the River Nile went on its way, gradually losing momentum as it reached  the papyrus swamps at Lake Albert. And, as for us, we had to be on our way too.

Not so fast, said Fate, as we bumped along the rutted track. Indeed, not.

The engine started cutting out and then smoke, yes smoke, not steam, began pouring out of the bonnet. Some cables were on fire. A previous repair to the battery had been carried out using an old wire coat hanger. This, alas, had now given way. We couldn't turn the engine off, put out the fire, raise the windows or lock the doors. We stood behind our car while swarms of tsetse flies stung us right through our long-sleeved and long-legged clothing. And, no, our mobile phones didn't work. So, we turned our backs on our vehicle, hoping that it wouldn't blow up, that baboons wouldn't get inside and wreck it or that reckless thieves wouldn't find some method of spiriting it away.Thoughts of camping out with tsetse flies, buffalo, hyenas and leopards for company did not appeal.

We were lucky. Only 20 minutes or so later, along came a four-by-four which dropped us at the junction with the 'main' track. We were told later that this was the LAST vehicle to drive along that track that day. Then we hitched another lift with the 'Jesus bus', a school outing crammed with children five to the seat. Given the circumstances and our extreme gratitude, we did not think it appropriate to point out any safety considerations.

All's well that ends well. Our stalwart colleague Dan, who runs the Link office at Masindi, made it back to the car with mechanic in tow and managed to move it. Next day, by some miracle,  the ingenuity of Ugandan mechanics got it working again. Except the handbrake, that is, but then very few cars in Uganda have working handbrakes.

Well, when Hemingway crashed his plane into Murchison Falls, he stayed at the Masindi Hotel, built in 1923 by the East Africa Railways & Harbour Company. And so did we. After all, why stop a tradition?

Time for coffee and, perhaps, something stronger later on. Hemingway would have approved.

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