Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, Part 3

The afternoon of my last full day in Queen Elizabeth National Park I took a boat tour of the Kazinga Channel.  I didn’t expect much.  I thought maybe I’d see a few hippos and some birds.  My mistake – the channel was packed with wildlife.  We floated slowly by elephants feeding on plants in the water, herds of African buffalo mingling with hippos, crocodiles sunning themselves on the grass, monitor lizards that looked like small Komodo dragons, and an incredible variety of birdlife.

 

Hippo Grazing

 

Flock of Birds Behind African Buffalo

 

Egyptian Goose

 

Elephants in the Water

 

African Fish Eagle in Flight

 

Hippo Close-up

 

Flock of Birds

 

Two Kingfishers

 

And then our boat’s engine failed.  One hour into our two-hour cruise we were dead in the water.  The captain radioed for help, but by the time another boat came to tow us back to the dock our two hours were up.  Nobody said anything about a refund or a chance to go out again.  I don’t like being the squeaky wheel, but I also don’t like being short-changed.  I asked the captain if we’d be given a ride on another boat.

“No,” he said, smiling at the strange idea.  “Sorry.”

“Then do we get some of our money back?”

“No.  Sorry.”

His responses made me feel more comfortable being the squeaky wheel.  “We only had half a trip,” I said, “and I don’t think that’s fair.  Who should I talk to about this?”

The captain told me I should go to the front desk of the Mweya Lodge.  It took 15 minutes to explain the situation to Andrew and five minutes to drive back to the lodge.  At the front desk I summarized what had happened, careful to maintain a friendly tone.  “I should get some of my money back,” I said.

The woman at the front desk looked scandalized.  “We’ve never given a refund before!” she exclaimed dramatically.  First the hiking shoes incident, now this.  They must have considered banning me from the lodge.

A manager walked up and told me there was room on another boat leaving in 10 minutes.  Did I want to go?  Yes, perfect!  Ten minutes later I was back on the water.

On the second cruise I sat in front of two women from Tasmania, both in their early 20s.  It turns out they were planning to go gorilla tracking in a few days, and one of the two, Kirby, said she was concerned about the amount of hiking involved.  Five years ago Kirby was in a near-fatal car accident that shattered both her ankles and left her in a coma for 10 days.  She spent over a year in a wheelchair, and even now walking long distances was a challenge.  Kirby’s doctors have predicted that her ankles will gradually break down and that within 15 years she’ll be back in a wheelchair.

“What an intense experience,” I said.  “You should write a book.”

Kirby laughed.  “I did.”  She self-published her story and sells the book on-line.

The boat made it through the entire cruise without any engine trouble and I had a great time photographing all the different animals.

 

Elephant in the Water

 

Yellow-billed Stork Feeding

 

Kingfisher with a Fish

 

Goliath Heron

 

Monitor Lizard

 

African Dwarf Kingfisher

 

Young Heron

 

African Fish Eagle on a Perch

 

Crocodile Returning to the Water

 

Gray Heron Taking Flight

 

Kingfisher on a Perch

 

Yellow-billed Stork in Flight

 

Saddle-billed Stork

 

Hippo Yawn

 

Back at the hostel I ordered another Coke from Judy.  “Are you traveling alone?” Judy asked.

“Yes, just me.”

She shook her head sadly and adopted a sympathetic look.  “Well maybe next time you can bring your friends along so that you can have fun.”

That night I ate at the Mweya Lodge again.  The outside area was closed off so I grudgingly sat in the main dining hall, and not until I met Andrew in the parking lot after dinner did I understand why they’d kept us inside.  Swarms of countless tiny flies filled the air.  Every light source was darkened by the buzzing hordes.  I couldn’t take a breath without inhaling some of them.

 

Flies Swarming a Chandelier at the Mweya Lodge

 

Andrew and I ran to the car.  “Many bugs,” Andrew said.

“Yes, many bugs!” I agreed.

“Sorry?”

Back at the hostel my room had already been invaded.  I made the mistake of turning on my light for a few seconds, immediately doubling the insect population.  I unfurled my mosquito net over my bed as fast as I could and dove in to escape the swarms.  Safe at last, I fell right asleep.  The next morning all the flies were dead.  Tiny bodies covered the floor of my room like thick gray dust.

Andrew and I had one more game drive before heading back to Kampala.  After checking out of the hostel we spent almost three hours hunting for lions in the park’s Uganda Cob breeding ground.  We’d almost given up hope when a guide in a nearby safari van noticed a group of Cobs signaling the presence of a predator.  “It must be lions,” said Andrew.

Eventually a lion head rose from the high grass.  And then another, and another.  They were very far away, and after seeing so many lions up-close in the Masai Mara I struggled to work up the appropriate level of excitement, but I did enjoy watching the three lions walk lazily across the breeding ground.

 

Lions in the Grass

 

Watching Lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park

 

African Buffalo in Queen Elizabeth National Park

 

Uganda Cob in Morning Light

 

We left the park and began the long haul back to Kampala.  When we stopped for lunch I was finally able to laugh at the amazing volume of Andrew’s smacking, given that I knew it was the last time I’d ever have to endure it.  Andrew may not have been perfect, but I felt really fortunate to have had him as my driver.  He was friendly and helpful, and for five straight days he got me where I needed to be safely and without any significant problems.

As we drove that afternoon I realized that in southwest Uganda I may have been as close to the heart of Africa as I would ever get.  No Kurtz for me, apparently – just wild mountain gorillas, friendly mongooses, elusive chimps, and spectacularly loud smacking sounds.