Uganda: Fever and Fortune

IMG_6335The lioness crouched beneath the acacia tree, the long blades of golden grass perfectly hiding her muscular frame from the kob some twenty yards away. The African sun beat down on this beautiful patch of rift valley, framed by the Rwenzori mountains that straddle Uganda’s western border with Congo. As hot as it was, I still had chills from the night before. Early explorers to central Africa feared disease even more than the wild creatures that stalk the savannah by night. Malaria, Typhoid Fever, and a myriad of other maladies struck down more than their fair share of adventurers, but I had no idea that I too would fall ill. With the swiftness of an African thunderstorm, my body temperature shot up, my appetite vanished, and my head ached with every pothole on Uganda’s dirt roads. My fever had spiked the night before with the Captain running the shower most of the evening to alleviate my burning skin. I half joked that we should return to Bwindi to see the traditional healer that we had met in the village. If it hadn’t been for the antibiotics we’d brought I shudder to think how bad it would have become. But now that the worst was over I banished the lingering pain and focused on the hunter that crouched in the grass.

IMG_6343The kob stood alert, their oversized ears twitching in the breeze. The lioness crept closer using the long grass and the prevailing wind to conceal her approach. Our guides, Simon and Paul watched through their binoculars while I tracked her with the fast glass of my new Canon lens. Suddenly the kob lept up; almost as one they sprinted away from the hidden predator.

IMG_6347We traveled west, skirting the edges an expansive grass sea. Acacia trees stood as sentinels as kob and Ukapi grazed warily beneath them. The dirt track Paul guided our crusier over turned rougher and, as always in the Ugandan frontier, we never saw another soul. With my fever receding, I reflected that this was one of the most rewarding aspects of exploring this remote part of the world. In contrast to South Africa or Kenya with their crowds jockeying for photo position, Uganda remains much as it was when Stanley trod its virgin plains

IMG_6306The wind blew gently through the long grass, just enough to take the sting out of the savannah’s sparkling sun. The Captain and I disembarked from the SUV, my boots raising small dust clouds on the dun colored earth. We had arrived at a small ranger station on the far western edge of the park, a lonely outpost staffed by a handful of Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) paramilitary forces. The slight breeze made for a surprisingly bucolic atmosphere, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to pull out our packed lunches and eat, despite the fact that there were no fences of any kind between us and Queen Elizabeth’s large population of lions, leopards, and cape buffalo.

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IMG_6370The grass drew close to the small shack that comprised the ranger station but the warm sun and gentle breeze belied any sense of foreboding. The Captain quickly devoured his bag of dried fruit and chapatti bread, while the UWA officers lounged in the sun with their assault rifles hanging in the dust beside them. I filled up quickly, so I asked our guide Paul if the rangers would like the rest of my lunch. He smiled in the way only a Ugandan can, and said that they would be very happy to share my meal.

IMG_6313The captain leaned against the Toyota and surveyed his surroundings with a satisfied air. To the east, the savannah stretched into the distance, a sea of khaki-colored grass and African dust. But just now it was the west that had captured his attention. “How far are we from the Congo?” Paul laughed as he replied, “You see that tree down the westward slope? That tree is in the DRC.” I was shocked. I knew we were near the western edges of Uganda, but I had no idea just how close the border was.

IMG_6310 To the west the land sloped down toward a river that marked the border of Queen Elizabeth Park. And civilization. Eastern Congo remains one of the most lawless places on Earth, with the state holding almost no sway and various armed militias imposing their own version of the law. I now saw the dual purpose of the UWA soldiers. They were rangers in the truest sense of the word, not only protecting wildlife from poachers but also guarding the frontier from incursions from rebel factions. Indeed, gorillas and guerillas held equal sway for the heavily armed gentlemen quietly feasting on what remained of my lunch.

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