Still and calm, four lionesses sit down in the open plains of Murchison Falls national park, north Uganda. Their golden coats should blend perfectly with the surrounding savannah grass but rainy season has transformed the park grounds into a vivid green carpet. All the better for spotting lions in.
There are just 130 lions in the whole 3,840 square km park but the colour contrast serves us well on our safari drive. We spot a solitary male too: his paunch, spilling onto the ground like a half deflated water balloon, a stark contrast to the lean bodies of the hunter lionesses. We continue towards the edge of Lake Albert, the Blue Mountains of Congo the lake’s dreamy backdrop. Seemingly a meeting point for some of wildlife’s uglier animals, a pair of primordial shoebills, one pink and red faced, the other purply blue, gather near the water’s edge while three vultures stand sentry on the top of an acacia tree. Hippos peep above the water surface, dragonflies buzzing around their ears. Indifferent fishermen float past the wildlife in their dugouts.
Uganda may not be the obvious destination for an African safari – during dictator Idi Amin’s notorious reign he treated the national parks like his own private hunting gardens, killing off elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos and big cats like he was swotting mosquitos.
A concerted conservation effort means animal numbers are increasing and visitors can now see 76 species of mammal, as well as four of the big five: leopard, lion, elephant and buffalo. The fifth, the white rhino, extinct in Murchison since 1983, is also being reintroduced through the Ziwa rhino sanctuary.
I see everything apart from leopards on my in and out 24 hour safari, and I’m as taken by the countless varieties of antelope – from the unfortunate looking Jackson Hartebeest to the almond-eyed impala – to the many giraffes (in one stretch I count 100 before stopping).
‘They can run up to 60km an hour’ my friend, and guide, Timo tells me. Somewhat off topic, he adds: ‘I like elephants, they are just so massive. I’ve been chased by one – they can run as fast as giraffes too.’ At this point I’m grateful to only see an elephant at considerable distance – but I also know that Timo may be winding me up slightly – not because he’s a bad safari guide – but because he’s also my friend and takes great delight in teasing me.
I first met Timo, (Tim to anyone who met him in his adult life, Ssemakula Timothy in full) when I was on a volunteer placement in Uganda. I was a naive 21-year-old English graduate who thought I’d tick off Africa from my travel list with a 6-month stint in one east african country. ( I know.) He was an 11-year-old skinny boy who lived at Namikosi orphanage, which was attached to the school our team taught at.
Dressed in his Sunday best yellow t shirt and black and yellow striped trackies, Timo would knock, on our gate every Sunday afternoon. At that point he spoke little English so the card game Uno became our means of communication, served up with cups of mango Splash, a fruit cordial that possibly contains no fruit extract whatsoever.
Fast forward to today and Timo is a qualified medical officer, a (newly) married man, with an adopted daughter and another child on the way. I am currently freelance/unemployed, which at times are one and the same thing; and, age 33 and single, I’ve (temporarily!) moved out of my house share, back in with my parents. While I’m still channelling my inner Peter Pan, it’s fair to say Timo is now the responsible adult in this friendship.
Aside from practising medicine he has also just started running a safari company on the side. Savvy Ugandans keep their fingers in a lot of Rolexes: (not dodgy second hand timepieces but a popular chapati and egg roadside snack).
So here we are 13 years later, setting off together at 6am from Kampala. Safari Road Trip! Time to have deep conversations, reminisce, sing along to the radio and fill in the gaps on each others’ lives. Except I fall asleep. (Incidentally if travelling from Kampala also stop off at the Esuubi craft cafe on the Kampala – Fort Portal road as well as buying crafts, the passion fruit and carrot cake is a must – oh and you’ll be supporting the charity that helped out Timo when he was younger).
Missing all the main road travel I wake up for chai at the Masindi Hotel, and sweet toast from the on site bakery. Single-storey with a neatly swept veranda and creamy-yellow painted walls, it was built in 1923 and is the oldest hotel in Uganda.
From Masindi it’s a short drive to the park gates. The first part of the park may not be as beautiful or as full of wildlife but we spot plenty of baboons alongside the roadside and orange-tipped butterflies twirling up in the air like a gentle cyclone. And of course it’s got Murchison Falls.
There may be bigger, longer, more famous waterfalls in the world but the ferocity of Murchison Falls needs to be seen to believed: the might of the White Nile pushing itself through a seven-metre crack of rock before dropping 43 metres. And yet there are no queues to see this spectacle, no tourist stands selling plastic ponchos or novelty keyrings. A waist-high metal barrier stands between the apex of the falls and snap-happy photographers. This is natural scenery at its most primal and it’s all the better for it – just wear shoes with good grip.
For safari tourists the accommodation can be as much a part of the experience as the wildlife drives. I am staying at Murchison River Lodge. My luxury tent is half canvas half house: the bathroom at the back, complete with running water and a hot shower is a welcome luxury but I still get to sleep under canvas albeit with a thatched roof above it, and in a bed with mosquito nets, a safety deposit box and electricity.
After a delicious dinner at the main lodge, where Timo laments the absence of matooke (cooked plantains) on the menu and I welcome the cous cous and fish curry, I follow paraffin lamps on the ground to reach my home for the night. Situated just up from the banks of the Nile I can hear hippos grunting as I fall asleep.
I’ve always said I’m ‘not a safari person’; I come to Uganda to visit my friends but this trip has reminded me of the country’s natural beauty once again. Thanks for the ride Timo.
Safari packages with Calvary Safaris start from $325 per person based on one night stay, including boat cruise, ferry crossing and park entrance fee and meals; excluding drinks and breakfast at the Masindi hotel. For more information, visit Calvary Safari Facebook page, or contact email@example.com and +256754564854.
For more information about Esuubi, including information of their activities, visit www.esuubi.org.uk.