I’m touring Uganda anticlockwise, starting from Entebbe. It's a return visit, as last time I only dipped into the eastern corner, to Jinja and the reputed source of the Nile, from Kenya. This trip has begun with a bang. Literally. Twice. I woke up to find that a coke bottle had exploded in my fridge. There was a mess of sticky brown ice to clear up. Then my taxi turned up to take me to the bus station and the driver brought the tail gate down on my head. I now have a dent in my throbbing left temple. If I'm lucky I will get a black eye to match the one I picked up on my last trip, to Tunisia.
Finally, on the bus, the bus driver denies boarding to a young guy who looks as if he had a rough night. But more importantly he doesn't have a ticket. The would be traveller doesn't take it very well. He empties his daypack and trolley bag and throws the entire contents at the bus. It's not the best of starts.
Add to that the queues at Heathrow. Terminal 5 is heaving. It takes an hour in the check in queue, 20 minutes to get to the entrance to security and 20 minutes in security before I get airside.
I've already had a run in with my favourite airline (not) BA, who have given my paid for exit row seat to someone else. They rarely answer the phone, but I managed to get through to customer services which I discovered is now in Cape Town. Though they haven't been able to train the staff yet. It's an hour there before I finally get to speak to a supervisor who sorts the problem. I'm now in the exit row by the toilets, treated as a gangway by all the passengers. The plane is old and the screens tiny with wavery pictures and touch screens that send you back to the beginning of the film all the time.
Thank God for Qatar Airways on the second leg. Polite, modern, spanking clean, entertainment that works and heaps of food. Though masks are demanded on both legs.
Immigration in Entebbe is the usual African chaos, with no adherence to any form of queuing rules. But I'm eventually in and out again and Hannington and James are waiting to greet me. Two guides just for me! Happy-go-lucky James is a trainee along for the ride and ready to polish his skills.
The official languages in Uganda are English and Swahili. But Hannington and James speak to each other in Luganda, as do most of the Ugandans. It's the language of Buganda, the largest of the Ugandan kingdoms, centred on Kampala. And Uganda derives its name from Luganda (Yuganda). Uganda has four main kingdoms and many more chiefdoms. These are credited with maintaining a strong culture of good behaviour amongst the friendly and affable people. The kingdoms are the Toro, Buganda, Bunyoro and Busoga.
The road round Kampala, east and north, is generally good, especially on the new toll section, but the traffic is slow through the urban areas, the road lined with small bustling markets. The buildings in the small towns are constructed wild west frontier style, with high brick stepped facias and shady pillared verandas. Stacks of red bricks stand drying in the fields. Most of the embellishment relates to advertising for telephone companies. Open air pool tables with thatched awnings. And solitary petrol pumps guarded by hopeful assistants.
All manner of dress: traditional with headscarves western long and short and nearly all immensely colourful. Chickens in cages, huge green hands of bananas strapped precariously onto bicycles, families of up to 5 crammed on motorbikes. Motorcycles and scooters are called “bodabodas.” They’re cheap transport.
Further on, long horned cattle and flattish agricultural country, red termite hills erupting at various intervals. Plenty of maize and rippling sugar cane. The cane is being harvested and loaded onto top heavy trucks which lumber past. Cassava, mangoes, bananas. The cassava is drying by the road in pieces or pounded. Rows of bean and coffee processing plants. Tall fan like papyrus, used for roofing and decoration It's placed outside buildings to signal a party. Watch out for it!
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established in 2005 to reintroduce rhino into Uganda. Uganda was home to both the black rhino and the northern white rhino, but both indigenous species were wiped out by civil war, poachers and plain habitat mismanagement ,by 1982. Six southern white rhino were initially donated by Kenya and Florida(!) and the population is now 33. It's the only place in the country where you can find rhinos and it's a convenient stopping place on the way north, 100 miles from Kampala.
We creep out in single file to see seven of the pachyderms (have to get that word in somehow), in two groups, slumbering peacefully. Mostly young males, farting and snoring. There's a female Luna, who is pregnant. When she has her baby, the males will have to form their own group as she won't be looking after them any more.
There are also warthogs (Pumbaa of course) skipping around, and the odd bush buck sliding out of the bushes.
Further north, gorgeous rolling velvety hills. The road is a big dipper as we venture on to Murchison Falls. Here, astonishingly, is a two lane highway but they’re still constructing it, the rust-red soil churned up, the edges lined with JCBs. More hard work in the heat. The Chinese engineers always immediately distinguishable in their straw brimmed hats.
Murchison Falls is the biggest national park in Uganda. The Nile runs east-west through the centre, with the game congregated in the northern areas, which are mostly exceptionally pretty emerald savannah, dotted liberally with fan palms. Who wouldn't want to live here ?
The lodge in the park is packed. They must be grateful for the custom. Things are only just reopening after Covid. This is Hannington’s fourth safari this year and his sixth since 2019. There are lovely sweeping views from here, down to the river. This is the Albert Nile which links Lake Albert with Lake Victoria. Although landlocked, Uganda consists mainly of the Nile Basin and is at the heart of the African Great Lakes. Lake Kyoga is the largest entirely Ugandan lake, and also notable is Lake George. Uganda shares Lakes Albert and Edward with the DRC and the huge (and largest lake in Africa) Victoria, with Kenya and Tanzania.
The eponymous park falls are billed as the most powerful in the world. They’re not very high, but still spectacular, as the Nile is forced through a six metre wide channel, thundering into a churning cauldron. You can view from up top or down the bottom. The latter involves a surprisingly long three hour boat trip. Two hours upstream and one back. There are crocodiles, elephants, antelopes and heaps of hippos to entertain us.
The elephants, protective of their babies, are much more unhappy about boats than they are cars and bundle the little ones away rapidly, forming a protective barricade of elephant backsides. They swivel back as soon as we pull away. One baby hippo unintentionally uses its mother as a waterslide. The boats keep a wary distance from the hippos and from the falls themselves, when we finally reach them. The impact causes plenty of foam and current and the zoom lens is required for any meaningful shots.
A road takes us to the top of the falls, where you can peer over the edge (almost) and get a real sense of the power of the boiling waters cascading over the edge. There’s a fantastic view back along the Albert Nile. You also get soaking wet and have to avoid the clouds of buzzing tsetse flies. Unluckily I've worn blue ( in addition to not donning my cagoule) and acquire four stings.
Safaris in the park are delightful and the game prolific. Giraffe, elephant and buffalo arrange themselves round every corner. Antelope abound. The square jawed Jackson’s hartebeest is the largest. Water bucks and bush bucks pose obediently. Kobs are the Ugandan equivalent of impala, redder brown without the distinctive black vee on the rump. They are abundant, flinging themselves across the tracks with gay abandon. The diminutive oribi, with their two tiny horns, follow suit. They make good prey for leopard, who can drag them up trees easily.
A large leopard has draped one a across a branch and lazes 20 metres up, every so often switching position to gnaw at another chunk. It's entertaining for the punters, as the relieved guides vie to get their clients to a reliable sighting. Every time we meet another van we have to stop and check what they have seen. There are a lot of vans. And there're already a gratifying number of ticks on my animal and bird checklists.
Our journey south again involves a stretch of unmade road lined with traditional villages. Square and circular huts with grass thatched roofs. (They're selling rolls of the stuff by the roadside ) Tilling the soil with metal hoes looks like very had work.
Toddlers wave excitedly. Children and lines of women trudge along the roadside balancing yellow waterfilled Jerry cans on their heads. Too many villages still don't have pumps or wells. There are also a few large gated mansions. Hannington says they belong to government officials.
The road signs are British style. So are the many sleeping policemen (in every town and village ) and the speed cameras. The lollipop ladies here use red flags instead of circular signs to escort children across busy roads.
Hoima is the centre of the oil industry. This where all the companies and construction folk have based themselves. It's the nearest city to the game park. The Chinese have built all the roads round here to give them access to the newly found oil. Sadly, they found it in the middle of the park. The issue was debated in parliament, but money won of course. The animals are being moved to other areas. Let's hope they like their new homes.
Hannington has no watch and little idea about distances. He underestimates wildly. So our ETA is usually way off the mark and lunch eaten long after my stomach has started rumbling. He’s not always easy to understand. When Ugandans speak English, they often replace “l” with “r,” so play becomes pray. A toilet stop is usually a short call. Though there’s also the long call.
Further south, the scenery increasingly gorgeous. Hills and mountains. Emerald tea plantations. Climbing up to Fort Portal, a tourist city with green cloaked views in every direction. We’ve just crossed from the Bunyoro kingdom to Toro. The king’s palace at Fort Portal has the best view in town.
The other side of Fort Portal the scenery is better still, as we skirt the Ruwenzori Mountains. The country sits at an average of 900 metres above sea level. Both the eastern and western borders of Uganda have mountains. The Ruwenzori mountains are the tallest range in Africa and contain the highest peak in Uganda ( Alexandra - 5,094 metres). Winston Churchill famously referred to Uganda as ‘The Pearl of Africa'. He was right.
There’s a bad day on most trips, or at least one that isn’t as good, and my first day in Queen Elizabeth Park is it. The Bush Lodge just outside the park, at Kazunguru, insists that my reservation is for a tent, not the Banda hut with en-suite by the water, described in my itinerary. The small, sweltering tent on offer has an outside shared ablutions block five metres away. No thanks. They argue that no Bandas are available, until I show them my itinerary hard copy and then there suddenly is one. Hannington says that the office of his company agree that a Banda was booked.
There are tranquil views from the veranda, of crocodiles and hippos in the Kazinga Channel, which separates Lake George from Lake Edward. It’s forbidden to walk alone to the huts at night. Escorts are required, as a pair of warring hippos wander the grounds constantly after dusk.
Chimp trekking in the Kyambura Gorge is the first activity here. It’s not as frenetic as the tracking in Rwanda and only involves sliding down a rainforest covered gorge and crossing two bridges over hippo frequented rivers. The first bridge is rickety, with slats missing and the second a fallen tree. Thankfully, the uniformed ranger, with his AK 47, is happy to assist. But the chimps are similarly uncooperative and stay firmly in the tops of their trees, peeing down from above. They are not really habituated. A second group, the other side of the river, are even more elusive. There’s a very cute tiny baby, but sadly my photos show him peering round his mother's backside. It's not pretty viewing.
Later, we go on a game drive, but there is nothing to be seen. Just a couple of water buck and small herd of kob. The dry yellow savannah stretches to the mountains and Hannington spends two hours driving us literally round in circles, searching for a lion and cubs he’s been told were there this morning. The only good bit is the sunset over the Ruwenzori Mountains. Very disappointing and I’m not happy. Hannington responds by sulking all through dinner. His parting shot - the office have told him that they think there was a mistake with my booking and they agreed to two nights out of the four in a tent. I told him I’m not leaving my Banda.
Next morning, Hannington tells me that I definitely have to move. I’m still not convinced, but the hotel manager says Hannington’s known all along that I should be in a tent. That’s what was booked and I was only in a Banda as a favour. I’ve read that Ugandans don’t like confrontation. Never shout at a Ugandan. But I do and there are tears (on my part).
To cut a long story short, I’m now in another lodge. It lacks the rustic charm of Bush Lodge and sadly there are no views at all from my room. But it’s a little palace with two enormous beds and a long thin bathroom. The toilet isolated at one end like a throne. The electricity can go out at any time for 4 to 24 hours. It’s known as load shedding. Most of the lodges have their own generators but of course those are known to play up too. My shower and hair wash is cut short mid lather tonight.
The game drive next morning is a little more productive. There are a herd of buffalo, a lioness (from a distance) and some hippos playfighting. There’s queue of vans along the track, a sure sign that there’s been a big cat sighting. But Hannington says I’m not allowed to look. These vans have paid for ‘The Lion Experience’ and the rangers have tracked their prey down for them. No money, no lookee.
In the afternoon, a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel. This is where all the wildlife have escaped to. The banks are lined with elephants, consuming their requisite 100 litres of water a day and in the interim squirting the liquid, or dust, over each other. The many babies have a great time rolling in the mud and linking trunks. The groups of buffalo lounge in the water, a wary distance from the elephants. The hippos can’t decide whether to duck or take centre stage, alternating between the two.
There are scores of different birds, crowned cranes (the national bird of Uganda featured on the flag), yellow billed storks, great and lesser pelicans, three types of kingfisher, fish eagles (one makes an audacious dive and scoops up a fish in his talons right under our noses. He’s much too fast to photograph). Cormorants, goliath herons, great herons and the boringly brown hamerkop (but notable because they have the biggest nest in the world according to our guide and their name refers to their hammer shaped head) and marabou storks, (on the Ugly 5 list along with the amusing pumbaas of course). The warthogs are everywhere running along with their tails erect like car aerials. The name pumbaa means stupid in Swahili. That’s even more unkind than putting them on the Ugly 5 list. We meander along the channel, waterside scenes the whole way, to a fishing village and back again.
My last day in Queen Elizabeth Park also calls for patience. Today, we’re in search of the tree climbing lions of Ishasha. They are reputed to wake up early, go hunting and then climb into trees to sleep for the rest of the day. It’s a two hour drive up a very bumpy track to this part of the park. And the lions have been up and come down again when we arrive, according to the rangers. It might have something to do with the fact that they’ve been burning off the long grass and nearly the whole area is a scorched and still smoking. If I was a lion I wouldn’t be that keen on padding across it.
We spend the whole morning driving round in more circles, but the lions are even more reluctant to appear then the rest of the wildlife in these parts. I’ve been told (too late and possibly unreliably) that only one pride remains. A dozen or so cats were poisoned by locals, as they were thought to be taking their cattle. James and Hannington spend a lot of time on the roof of the van vainly looking. The only sighting is a veritable parliament of eagle owls, all surprisingly alert, and a blue monkey. There are a lot of monkeys in Uganda.
James is a little vague over the names (and even more so about the spellings) of the wildlife, so I’ve challenged him to write a list of everything we’ve spotted in both parks. This is my agreed sightings list, in James’ order:
Side striped jackal, crowned crane, egrets, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, ground hornbill, snake eagle, yellow throated longclaw, African jacana, marabou stork, open billed stork, hippo, Rothschild’s giraffe, African buffalo, African bush elephant, nightjars, vervet monkey, patas monkey, olive baboon, black and white colobus monkey, common hare, black headed heron, grey heron, goliath heron, white backed vulture, permanent vulture, lion, leopard, Uganda kob, water buck, African pied wagtail, Egyptian goose, yellow billed black back, slender mongoose, marsh mongoose, white tailed mongoose, common warthogs, long tailed starling, Bunyoro Rabbit (at night, quite rare), blue monkey, red tailed monkey, topi (from a distance), hamerkop, long crested eagle, fish eagle, eagle owls, scarlet ibis, common bulbul, weavers, tawny eagle, bush buck, oribi, Jackson’s hartebeest, side striped jackal, cattle egrets, oxpeckers, red turaco, bee eaters, flycatchers, kingfishers, bustard (careful with the spelling here), guinea fowls (known here as wild chicken), northern common bee-eater, Cooper’s sunbird, black and white cuckoo, barbets, yellow billed stork, pelican greater and lesser, cormorants.
Food in most of the lodges relies on quantity rather than quality. It’s international buffets, pasta and some sort of chicken is the norm. Potatoes here are known simply as Irish to distinguish them from the indigenous sweet potatoes. Dessert is usually a tropical fruit plate: passion fruit, pineapple, watermelon, small sweet banana and mango if I’m lucky. When we stop for lunch its usually heaps of fries and fish (tilapia from the lakes) or chicken. Hannington and James eat what they term local food. Stews: beef or goat with lots of starch; cassava, big (bland) bananas, pumpkin and rice. Some of the lodges are a little more up market in their offerings, tiny pink lamb chops with mustard sauce is my favourite. Pork isn’t served at all in some restaurants. In villages there’s usually a ‘pork joint’- for roast meat. A “rolex” is an omelette (or meat, or vegetables) wrapped in a chapatti. Pan-fried grasshoppers are also considered a delicacy, but I've not been offered those.
It’s a very busy road through from the DRC to Kampala. The scenery is still gorgeous. There are numerous crater lakes in the Queen Elizabeth Park, evidence of past volcanic activity. Indeed, some argue that sulphurous odours indicate that they are still bubbling. Or road takes us through a scattering of these, the mountains beautifully reflected in the still water. Lake Nkugute is said to take the shape of Africa, a newish dam, creates the horn. An old man with a wooden rowing boat is fishing for crayfish, who nip his hand whilst he brandishes them aloft.
More neatly tiered tea plantations. And police road blocks. President Museveni lives in this area and it's apparently also a high risk accident zone. There are almost as many checks as in the DRC. Hannington has his licence confiscated and is made to pay an overdue speeding fine. I have to loan him 150,000 shillings so we can get back on the road. Finally, we make progress. We reach the Equator – I’m having my photo taken at the designated markers, (on some of the several main roads it crosses you have to make do with a small brown sign) when a small Ugandan boy sidles up. His parents are giggling from their car. ‘He wanted his picture taken with a mzungu, (foreigner).’ they call.
Mabamba Lodge is up a 20 kilometre bumpy track in the rainforest above Mabamba Bay on Lake Victoria. There are amazing swamp and lake views. I have a small bungalow with views across the rainforest. The jungle noises are loud at night and the monkeys throw fruit onto my roof.
Farida, from Kampala, who I met on the Caucasus train in 2017 is coming to join me for a trip into the swamp in search of the rare shoebill (only 3-5,000 left in the wild). They're sometimes wrongly referred to as shoebill storks, as they've now been classified as a family all on their own. Their closest relatives are actually the pelicans.
We have a motorised canoe, but our crew are young and inexperienced and make hard work of poling through the narrow channels as jacana hop on lily pads and kingfishers and heron swoop by. There are ominous thunder clouds rolling over head. Nevertheless, the boys know the way to a, so very rare, it's almost unheard of, shoebill's nest.
The male is standing guard, motionless and silent, except for a swivelling dinosaur like head and huge beak 30 centimetres long, (shaped like a clog). It's either a monster dreamed up for Dr Who or an offbeat cuddly toy. A very tall one. The bill is sharply hooked to help grab prey. The shoebill feeds on fish, snakes and even small crocodiles and baby monitor lizards, lunging suddenly in surprise attack. This is a solitary and possibly fearsome creature and unsurprisingly receives a mixed reception amongst the locals, who often view them with suspicion.
The baby is on the grass nest, camouflaged by the undergrowth. We can glimpse him when he fidgets and preens. It's difficult to get a clear shot of either, because of all the waving papyrus stalks between us. Sadly, we are not the only people who know about the nest. It's become world famous. We're soon surrounded by other boats, with more experienced navigators edging their craft around us. The twitchers wander all over everyone else's canoes, hefting their huge lenses and raising them in unison every time the baby moves.
One guy has flown specially from France for the event and spent the whole week by the nest. He has four cameras. He tells me that the mother is out hunting for food while dad acts as security, fending off snakes and birds of prey. When mum comes back she feeds the baby and tends to him giving him a shower from her beak and shading him with her wings. Dad goes hunting in the afternoon. He gives his catch it to the female who swallows it and regurgitates it an hour later partially digested, to feed the baby.
Two eggs are laid, on a nest maybe two metres wide, at the end of the rainy season. The parents constantly add grasses to it. However, only one bird is allowed to live, to maximise the chances of survival. If the stronger baby doesn't murder their sibling the mother starves the weakest to death. That's nature.
We're fascinated and would dearly like to see the mother return, but naturally no one has any idea when that will be. The clouds are getting darker and more boats are arriving. Time to depart.
Farida whisks me off into the capital Kampala. 8.5 million of Uganda’s 42 million, population live here. Ironically, the name derives from the impala that are now only found in a couple of small parks in Uganda. The ultimate contrast to the last few days. Traffic laden. Full of fumes. It's one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Bustling with streets of several storied blocks, mini scrapers in the centre. Small malls, open fronted shops of all kinds, a couple of theatres. Farida’s family own some of these buildings. Her father has accumulated considerable property over the years and she points out some of them as we inch past. Further out, villas scattered across he undulating suburbs
There are no stand out sights, but we take in the independence monuments (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894-1962 -they were keen to preserve Nile trade routes), the national cultural centre, a mall (excellent cheesecake), some craft shops and the long established Sheraton Hotel. The beautiful-in-its-simplicity Bahai Temple competes for the best view of town, with the top of the Ghaddafi Mosque minaret . You have to pay to enter there. They won't even let you take a photo from outside unless you stump up. And they've recently started to insist that women wear headscarves and cover trousers too.
There are also, of course, government buildings and the parliament. Uganda has had a troubled history since independence, with tensions arising between the kingdoms, and especially resentment towards the larger Buganda kingdom. Milton Obote, from the north was able to gather enough support over time to seize power. But he was eventually deposed by Idi Amin, who ruled as a dictator, for eight years. It’s estimated that Amin was responsible for the deaths of up to half a million Ugandans. His regime came to an end when Tanzania invaded, in cooperation with Ugandan exiles. Uganda's current president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, took power in January 1986 after a protracted six-year guerrilla war. Following constitutional amendments that removed term limits for the president, he was able to stand and was elected president of Uganda in the 2011, 2016 and in the 2021 general elections
We also indulge in an exceptionally good meal, no banquet, at Izumi, a Japanese-Thai restaurant in a shady street full of upmarket eateries. Farida orders far too much and it's all delicious. Really good to meet up again and she showers me with presents from Uganda. An excellent day !
Entebbe is located on a Lake Victoria peninsula, 22 miles southwest of Kampala. It was once the seat of government for the Protectorate of Uganda, prior to independence, in 1962. The city is the location for Entebbe International Airport, Uganda's largest commercial and military airport. Entebbe is also home to the State House, the official office and residence of the President of Uganda.
I’m staying at 2 Friends Beach Hotel. Beach is a little bit of a stretch. The lake is so vast, it's certainly like being by the ocean. Don’t swim in the lake (or any of them for that matter), you risk bilharzia. And there is sand. Held in place by netted stone walls that defend against the battering of the waves. A couple of tiny smelly strips allotted to fishing boats. The rest is manicured (well sort of ) covered in trees and requisitioned by the various hotels arraigned along the lakeside road. Its all beach bars and restaurants and I even see stacks of sunbeds. But what with the trees and thatched awnings there's no way for the sun to peep through. There are sunbeds by the goldfish pond like swimming pool directly in front of the hotel though.
An hour in the evening discussing the woes of the world with the owner, Icelandic Hinrik and an English guy from Derbyshire who has made Uganda his home. Both are very content and wouldn’t consider returning to Europe.
But I can't hear the word Entebbe without thinking of the famous raid on the airport in 1977, when the Israelis rescued 100 hostages kidnapped by the militant group of the PFLP-EO and Revolutionary Cells.
It’s still a problematic place. I’m trying to get to Burundi next. The president is flying out today and security is intense. The car is searched thoroughly before we can enter. Vehicles are not allowed close to the departures area. I have to drag my bag uphill on a bumpy track. And it’s not till after check in that I discover that my flight time has been changed for the third time. I’m doomed to spend five hours airside. And that gets extended. They’ve given us free food vouchers and no firm departure time, which is ominous. And my biro has leaked ink all over me and my tee shirt. It’s another one of those days.
Game parks in Zambia are reported to give the best chance of spotting leopard in Africa. So, flying in from the gorillas of the Congo and I’m going to South Luangwa Park to check this out.
It’s now clear skies for the first time this trip and scorching hot. An extremely bumpy landing at Mfuwe, in the midday thermals, on yet another minute plane, brings me to South Luangwa. The National Park marks the end of the Great Rift Valley,. The Luangwa River meanders through the middle from escarpment to flatter country and woodlands, creating a variety of scenic vistas. The plains and ox bow lagoons, are the important parts - where the wildlife concentrates.
It’s a scenic drive to the lodge across palm strewn plains and through several villages, though the poverty is very obvious. There are numerous thatched rondavels, and traditional circular store houses on stilts, as well as mud brick buildings, mainly shops and businesses, with great names, ‘God First Super Mall ‘, ‘The Divine Hair Salon, ‘Shopping Centre’ (the latter all of a metre square) I have a riverside chalet and a ringside seat for the bucks, elephant and hippos on the opposite bank. The river is shallow and sometimes the show creeps much closer. The hippos calling resonates across the water, a brass band tuning up.
There are four-hour evening and morning game drives in an open sided safari vehicle. My guide is Vic (short for Vickson), who has good write ups on Trip Advisor, and the truck is crammed with Italians. My fellow Europeans have no concept of how to behave in the wild and chatter constantly and loudly, shrieking with laughter, smoking and waving their flashlights at all the animals as well (illegally) as at all the passing trucks.
Even they manage to stick to an awestruck whisper, when we come across a young male lion devouring an impala it has stolen from a leopard. It can’t be the same leopard we next encounter. He has gorged on (more or less) a whole warthog (the remains are in his tree) and is so full he can’t move. He’s lying askew on the ground, breathing heavily. I can’t really criticise the Italians for the flashlights - all the safari cars are using them too, choreographing the animals movements like stage performances. The big cats don’t seem to mind. They just carry on placidly minding their own business.
The restaurant at my lodge has decided it might be nice if I eat dinner with Vic. My heart sinks, but I manage to inveigle a table on my own and am just settling into my starter when a large South African ‘Call me JP’, plonks himself down at the bar adjacent and continues to talk all through my meal. He’s smoking too. Doh! He’s unfortunate enough to be driving the Italian group back down to Malawi tomorrow, so I don’t blame him for putting away beer in large quantities. And I pretend to be deaf when he offers to escort me back to my room. We’re not allowed to walk on our own at night because of possible hippo encounters.
The next day Vic has told me we will be on our own. We’re not - a family with one very noisy daughter accompany us on both of today’s outings. So, the noise levels aren’t that different to yesterday’s. The park is parched brown and it’s relatively easy to spot the game when it emerges into the morning sun. We career along various trails, through thickets, across bush and along riverbeds, both sandy bedded and dry and reasonably full of water. The latter is studded with crocodiles lounging. The leopard has dragged itself 20 metres and is still spread-eagled on the ground, rolling occasionally.
Later, we halt to allow a group of elephants (it’s too small to be called a herd) cross in front of us, two babies and two females. One elephant, very curious, confronts me face to face, trunk waving. ‘You should have stayed still,’ remonstrates Vic as I duck. ‘It wasn’t angry’. It’s okay for him – he wasn’t the one in the firing line.
The local pride of lions is ruled over by two brothers who have been named Ginger (because he’s pale - almost albino) and Garlic. I’m not sure they’re very dignified names, but the lions seem to be having a relatively easy existence, sunbathing along the banks of the dried upriver bed. The whole pride has been feeding for several days on an elephant that died last week (of natural causes). The stench now fills the whole area and the carcass has been more or less abandoned to the vultures, but the lions are replete and happy. The females, together with three cubs, are lazing further along the edges of the river. We sit in our car, (and half a dozen other vehicles who have all come pelting in) only a couple of metres away.
This is much too close for my liking; there are no doors between me and the big cats. Vic seems unperturbed, though he does point out that we should not stand up and present an obvious target. And the lions do, indeed, all doze peacefully, the mothers licking the cubs, until they spot a lone kudu advancing. Even though they are not hungry this is too good a chance to pass up.
The largest lioness is immediately alert and on her feet, passing close by our vehicle (we earn a keen assessment) before she lopes away, followed swiftly by the others. Even the male lions bestir themselves. The kudu is having the fright of his life. He shoots off, like an arrow, into the distance and over the river. He’s decided crocodiles are a better option than lions and luck is with him, or the crocodiles aren’t quick enough. He makes it safely to the other side and the lions return sulkily to their sun lounging.
The night’s drive brings a female leopard drinking at a pool and a return to the lions. They are still sleeping in virtually the same spot, with both males sprawled right across the track, trucks making detours around them and parked up all along the riverbank. Garlic is sitting up, yawning and twitching as he summons the energy to set off for the night. The spotlights play around him. It’s just like the opening credits of an MGM movie.
It wasn’t a great night’s sleep. A hippo spent most of it chomping noisily along the other side of the wall by my bed and snorting to his friends in-between mouthfuls. Today’s safari companions are a cute family of Zimbabweans. The three children are quieter than yesterday’s one English girl, though they are very young and rapidly lose their enthusiasm for big game. They don’t understand the rarity value of today’s (painted) wild dogs although the ensuing scramble to follow them is a bit like taking part in a high-speed car chase in a movie. Lucy, the local leopard is quietly perched above a gully and not adding any entertainment value and the lions are elusive today. I can’t say I’m surprised. I think I would have gone and hidden in the scrubbiest, most inaccessible piece of land I could find, if I had been subjected to the indignities that were inflicted on them last night.
My last drive, in Zambia, at night mainly involves joining a line of cars pursuing Lucy, who is out hunting. So, we’re stalking the stalker. She is hiding in a gully, waiting for night to fall, as she’s not super-fast, but to her disgust is given away by a guinea fowl. His frantic clicking call is echoed by the puku antelopes, who are Lucy’s target. Several spotted hyenas are prowling, heading in the direction of the elephant remains. They’re taking over the night-time shift, from the vultures.
By the time I’ve completed five game drives my tally of notable animals is: lion, leopard, elephant, warthog, mongoose, lilac breasted roller, bee-eaters, hippos, crocodiles, storks of varying kinds, monkeys, baboons, impala (of course – disporting the McDonalds’ M on their rear as that’s what they mean to lions), weaver, bushbuck, puku, kudu, waterbuck, vultures, hyena, giraffe (Thornicroft – endemic to this park), zebra (a variety of Burchell’s with stripes all down its legs), wild dog (very rare) and genet. So that’s four out of the Big Five - no rhino here.
Vic's also talked about The Ugly Five. I think this is a bit unkind. It features marabou stork, warthog, vulture, hyena and wildebeest. I’ve seen all of them here except the wildebeest. If pushed I might argue the case for the inclusion of the hippo, which I think is squeamishly ghoulish out of water.
Overall, this is some of the best game viewing I’ve ever encountered, in terms of proximity to the animals. Most of them seem to have become fairly well habituated to humans. Is this ethical I wonder? I suppose this is the only way they get to co-exist in this modern world
As I write, a herd of elephants is grazing across the river, looping the tenderest shooting branches with their trunks. A hippo is infiltrating their ranks. He looks tiny in comparison. And a troop of minuscule monkeys is wandering single file past my chalet door, peering in. It’s firmly closed to stop them staging a raid. And to deter the insects. The tsetse finally got me this morning. Twice.
Next stop, eSwatini
It’s been a very long day. I’m flying from Brazzaville in Congo to Lusaka. As the crow flies Zambia is to the south east, but that’s not how it works. I have to travel north east to Nairobi and change planes and then fly southwest to Lusaka, covering over twice the distance a crow would. What’s more I have to stop en route at Kinshasa. At ten minutes this is surely one of the shortest international flights ever and the subject of sheer terror in case they make me get off the plane and won’t let me back on again. We also stop at Harare on the second leg and Harare isn’t exactly on a straight line from Nairobi to Lusaka either.
When the captain announces over the intercom, ’We’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands’, it doesn’t do much for your nerves. Fortunately, it isn’t too bad. A light aircraft landing at Lusaka has burst a tyre and blocked the runway. It looks as if we might have to divert, but after a few circuits of the city, while they tow it away and repair the tarmac, we land safely and I’m in the land of malls and fast food.
It’s now 1.15 a.m. so it’s technically tomorrow anyway. My visa on entry goes smoothly. I have U.S. dollars. The driver who picks me up insists on waiting for a passenger who subsequently turns out to be fictitious. I wait in the bus with a Zimbabwean who used to be a BBC engineer. He’s playing modern hymns full blast on his phone, ‘so that I can hear it too’. It seems churlish to point out that I’m not really in the mood. And it’s 3.30 in the morning before I get to bed.
David Livingstone was the first Briton to record having set foot on Zambian soil, in 1851. In 1855 he became the first European to see Mosi-oa-Tunya, the waterfall on the Zambezi River, which he named after Queen Victoria - although the Zambian town near the Falls is, in turn, named after him. In 1888, Cecil Rhodes, a mineral rights concessions from local chiefs and Northern and Southern Rhodesia, (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), were proclaimed a British sphere of influence. Northern Rhodesia was later combined with southern Rhodesia to form the central African federation. The discovery of copper resulted in change of emphasis to mining from colonization to farm and Zambia now produces over 13 % of the world’s copper.
Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with, 60 percent of people living below the poverty line, 83 percent of people in rural areas. The economy fluctuates depending on the world price of copper. Nevertheless, in 2010, the World Bank named Zambia one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. After a downturn, the price of copper has started to rise again and tourism has been developed, especially at Victoria Falls, on the border with Zimbabwe and the game parks.
Reading tells me that Zambians are exceptionally friendly, and this is definitely true. Everyone has a greeting or offers help (though there’s also some begging). There are rules about who speaks first and, French style, you mustn’t initiate a conversation before exchanging a greeting. Apparently it’s also fine to call on Zambians unannounced. Though I assume that only applies to friends and relations. It’s generally considered a safe country to visit but there are the usual warnings about taking care after dark and especially out of town.
The two main draws are:
The population of Zambia is concentrated mainly around the capital Lusaka, in the south. The city is another urban sprawl and reading isn’t throwing up any must-sees. There’s a definite western influence apparent. My hotel is surrounded by shopping malls –it looks as if they’re still building most of them – and this seems to be where life in the city is centred. I’ve been for a wander round. It’s all very sixties, even though it’s new and the large Spar supermarket products are displayed along American lines – robust and well organised rather than elegant. It certainly isn’t cheap for such a poor country.
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