Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, Part 1

Andrew and I drove from the mountainous agricultural land around Kisoro down into the broad savannas of Queen Elizabeth National Park.  Little children waved at us and yelled “Mzungu!” (the Kiswahili word for foreigner).  We often passed groups of women carrying the large yellow jerry cans Ugandans use to transport water.  Most of the women wore their hair very short, only a little longer than the almost-shaved heads of the men.

 

Sunrise on Southwest Uganda

 

We stopped first at the Ishasha sector in the far south of Queen Elizabeth National Park.  Ishasha is known for its tree-climbing lions, and after picking up a guide we drove out to search the trees.  We circled every tree the lions usually climb.  No luck.  “Sometimes the lions go somewhere we cannot find them,” said the guide.

 

Ishasha Gate

 

Uganda Cob

 

Grey Crowned Crane

 

From Ishasha we drove north to the park’s Katunguru Gate, located on a long strip of water that connects Lake Edward and Lake George.  The road from the gate to the Mweya Hostel, where I’d be staying for the next two nights, cuts right through the park.  Just a few minutes past the gate a group of elephants crossed the road in front of us.  “Many elephants!” yelled Andrew.

 

Elephants Crossing the Road in QENP

 

We stopped to watch them for a while.  After about five minutes most of the elephants were out of sight.  “Ready whenever you are,” I told Andrew.

“Sorry?” said Andrew, still confused by my accent.

“I’m ready to go whenever you,” I said slowly, pointing forward.

“Elephants are very dangerous,” warned Andrew.  So we waited.  And waited.  A lone elephant stood about twenty feet away from the road, and Andrew – always cautious – didn’t want to risk driving past it.

“Will elephants really charge a moving car?” I asked, trying to push things along.

“Sorry?”

I repeated myself until Andrew understood.

“Oh yes,” he said.  “Elephants are very dangerous.”

After another five minutes of waiting I nudged him again.  “Have you ever known anyone who was in a car that was attacked by an elephant?” I asked.  I repeated the question until Andrew told me that yes, about ten years ago he read in a newspaper that someone’s car had been knocked over by an elephant.

The elephant finally took pity on me and wandered off.  Andrew waited until the elephant was about 100 feet away and then he gunned it, sending gravel flying as we raced past an animal that wasn’t even paying attention to us.

Five minutes later we came across another group of elephants.  Andrew turned off the engine and settled in for a long wait.  I told myself that Andrew has been working as a driver for 20 years and must know what he’s doing.  Sure, in Kenya we drove right up to big groups of elephants, but maybe for some reason the elephants in Uganda are more aggressive.

Just as I was using that line of thinking to calm myself down, another SUV coming from the opposite direction saw the elephants and immediately pulled up alongside them, no more than ten feet away.  Tourists leaned out the windows and took photos.  The driver of the SUV wasn’t even watching the elephants; he was squinting to see our car, probably trying to figure out what we were doing.

I stifled the comments flooding my head and turned towards Andrew.  His expression didn’t change at all, but after the SUV drove off he started our Land Cruiser, braced himself to run the pachyderm gauntlet, and then floored it.  A couple of elephants, startled by our dramatic peel-out, turned slowly to look at us.  Other than that we survived unharmed.

We soon made it to the front gate of the park’s Mweya Lodge, a charming, modern hotel that overlooked the Kazinga Channel and Lake Edward.  “Wow,” I said, “that place is a lot nicer than I thought it would be.”

“Sorry?”

I repeated myself until Andrew understood.  “No,” he told me, “that is not for you.”  Andrew explained that I would be staying at the Mweya Hostel, not the Mweya Lodge.  We turned away from the achingly beautiful lodge and drove only about a minute before arriving at the dumpy, run-down Mweya Hostel.  The two hotels were located far enough away that the lodge guests were sheltered from the unsightly hostel, but so close that it was impossible for the hostel guests to avoid comparisons.

A clerk showed me to my room:  two single beds, a dirty chair, a window with no screen, a fan, and more mosquitoes than I could count.  No bathroom.  “I’m supposed to have my own bathroom,” I told the clerk.

“We don’t have any self-contained rooms,” he said.  “Everyone uses the shared bathroom.”  The clerk then showed me to the shared bathroom, although I could have found it myself by following the stench.  It was a closet with a squat toilet.  The door had no lock.  At least no normal lock – a bent nail on the inside of the door could be swiveled in a way that prevented it from being opened from the outside.  Fancy!

I wasn’t expecting a presidential suite, but this hostel was much worse than the travel agent had led me to believe.  I felt my anger rising.  I was perilously under-caffeinated.  If I was still three years old I would have thrown a temper tantrum.  I needed to cool down.

We’d passed a group of mongooses on the way in, so I walked back to see if they were still around.  Not only were they still around, it turns out they had no fear of people.  When I placed myself in the path of the group they just passed right around me, sometimes walking over my feet.  I’d always liked mongooses (influenced, no doubt, by all the times I read Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi as a kid), but I’d never even seen one before that day.  And suddenly I was surrounded by them.  I loved it.

 

Mongoose in QENP

 

Mongoose Roughhousing in QENP (Video)

 

Surrounded by Mongooses in QENP (Video)
 


The mongooses brought me back around.  They reminded me that I wasn’t traveling around the world to stay at nice hotels.  I was traveling so I could see mountain gorillas in the wild, watch the sun rise on the Virunga volcanoes, and unexpectedly find myself in the middle of a group of friendly mongooses.

When I returned to the hostel I discovered a warthog family grazing on the grass outside my room.  The mom, dad, and child all knelt on their front knees as they grazed.  I stopped about 15 feet away to watch.  Had the mongooses not reeled me back in, the warthogs would have.  I approached a little closer, but the mom took a couple of steps towards me, locked her eyes on mine, and grunted.  I got the message and backed off.

 

Warthog Dad and Kid Grazing by Mweya Hostel

 

Warthog Dad Grazing by Mweya Hostel (Video)

 

Before dinner I went to the hostel’s bar for a Coke.  The waitress regarded me with an angry scowl, but I’d finally learned a few things about meeting people in Uganda.  “Jambo!” I said, using the Kiswahili word for ‘hello’ and giving the waitress a friendly grin.  “How are you?”

A broad smile immediately replaced her scowl.  “Jambo!  I am fine, thank you.  How are you?”

“I am fine, thank you.  What is your name?”

“My name is Judy.  What is your name?”

“My name is Rob.  Nice to meet you Judy!”  And only then did I order a drink.  Those kinds of simple social niceties don’t come naturally to me, but in East Africa a little small-talk can make a big difference.  From then on Judy always greeted me by name and made a point of being helpful.

Andrew joined me as I drank my Coke.  He said I’d be eating breakfast there at the hostel, but they’d arranged for me to have lunch and dinner at the lodge.  Andrew insisted on driving me to the lodge for dinner that night – even thought it was just a five minute walk – because the park officials don’t like people being outside on foot after dark.  “There are many animals,” Andrew said.  “Even leopards.”

“Now I definitely want to walk!”

“Sorry?”

“Nothing.”

“Sorry?”

I strolled wide-eyed through the luxurious Mweya Lodge.  Strange looks from the dapper lodge guests made me conscious of my dirty T-shirt and frayed shorts.  A ridiculously lavish buffet filled seven tables in the dining lodge.  I chose to sit outside at a table overlooking the channel, where hippos were beginning to leave the water to spend the night grazing on the surrounding hills.

About halfway through dinner I heard loud voices from the inside dining area, and through the glass I saw an animated group of well-dressed couples laughing and toasting.  My mind flashed to the scene in the movie version of Into the Wild where Christopher McCandless passes the patio of a trendy Los Angeles bar and finds himself entranced by the young, happy faces that seem so familiar and yet so foreign.  I finished my five-star dinner and returned to my one-star hostel, where I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.