After all the starts and stops that I’ve come to expect as we prepare to set off on a journey, we are ready to leave the gas station, fortified with a full tank, money, air time for the cell phones, juice, the newspaper, a case of bottled water and a picnic lunch (brought from home). We had been sidelined by a stop at the local craft shop and some impromptu shopping through the window of the van—great long stirring ladles, made by hand from wood from somebody’s back yard, but on consideration, a little too big; squares of lace that came from who knows where, but are part of what this man is carrying, and just what Irene has been looking for. They negotiate a price that pleases her, she takes them through the window and tucks them into her bag, and we pull out of town heading west.
It’s another bone-jolting ride on dirt roads. I’ve learned to make sense of the rhythms of this countryside—great expanses of empty land with virtually no signs of habitation, interspersed with the dense huts of IDP camps. We pass through the most forested areas I have seen in the north. Abitimo says that the rebels were particularly active in this area because of all the cover. I strain to see signs of habitation in this lonely land.
We hit the paved road that leads to the game park, but within just a few miles come to an official looking sign directing us off to the left. We are skeptical, but a local assures us that this is a good road to get there. It’s more of a track, taking us directly through the middle of an IDP camp. Little round huts that belong by themselves out in the countryside, each under their own mango tree, are jammed up on top of each other. Some of the roofs are covered with plastic. I remember hearing stories of fire in the camps, how the soldiers, or the rebels would set one on fire, and the flames from the burning thatch would spread from one hut to the next, destroying what little these people had managed to save and scrape together. There must have been fire here.
There are clothes spread out on roofs to dry, some pigs, a lot of little children, women gathered in spots of shade, a latrine thrown together from pieces of scrap metal, one saying “USA”. People smile and wave as we ease our way through on this rutted path.
Once past the camp, the situation looks no more promising. We scan the road, if one could call it that, for signs that other vehicles have been on it, see some faint indications, and continue on, trusting in the report that this was a good road. It goes on and on. We eat our picnic lunch, carefully wiping our hands first, and seeing the wipes come away brown with the dust that is everywhere. It is chicken–there must be one less in the compound today—and the ever-present bottled water that we drink so much.
After about an hour, no signs, no building, no crossroads, no other vehicles, we come to a bar across the road—the entry to the game park. After a bit a man comes down to let us through, and we start seeing animals almost immediately. What a thrill! Four different kinds of deer and antelope, warthogs with their babies, big birds, then a giraffe in the distance, water buffalo, even a glimpse of an elephant. It’s like being in the middle of one of those nature shows on public TV. We come to a fork in the road—no sign. For some reason the driver chooses to go left. As we drive on and on, I calculate how long it will take to retrace our steps if it was the wrong turn. But he was right. We crest a ridge and see the River Nile laid out below, then come to the very fancy resort that we can’t afford, then the booking place and the ferry.
Abitimo bargains with the man who handles bookings. Her guests from the US, she argues, have been doing important work in Gulu; they have been supporting local institutions for years. They deserve honorary Ugandan status. Evidently she is persuasive enough; I am impressed. An enormous crane stalks around the kiosk with maps and animal photos, and a baboon family, complete with little baby on mother’s back, investigates the litter bin.
We pick up a guide and head out the way we came in for a real tour. He knows just where to go, and it gets even better. An elephant comes up close enough to scare us, and two giraffes amble across the road right in front. Great expanses of rolling open land spread around on every side. We head down closer to the river to look for lions. There’s an incredible feeling of peace in this expanse of low tawny grass dotted with trees. I choose to believe that there are lions there watching us, invisible in the grass.
We ask how this game park could be carved out of so much seemingly arable land. Abitimo says that the British had originally planned to locate Gulu town here, on the banks of the Nile (white people having this thing about building settlements by rivers, she adds with a twinkle), but the tse-tse flies forced them to reconsider. There are settlements right on the edge of the park and poaching has been a problem. The rhinos are gone, though a breeding program and plans for repopulation are underway. Tourism is not a concept that makes much sense to those trying to live off the land. Attempts are being made to change this, by plowing a percentage of the game park’s tourist income back into the local villages, hopefully providing a greater buffer for the wildlife.
We’re back to the booking place on the river in time to catch the last ferry. I can’t help but think of our first Nile crossing, on the trip north from Kampala that now seems so long ago—the crashing danger of whitewater and the menacing threat of soldiers. This is a different Nile, calm and quiet. Ours is the only car on the ferry, and we cross under a serene and lovely sunset.
The Red Chilli Rest Camp is funky, but there is good food out under a great thatched patio roof, toilets that flush, and the first mirror I’ve seen in over two weeks. And white people. I haven’t seen so many white people since the London airport. It’s disorienting. Timothy suggests that we talk in Spanish, try to pass as Mexicans. The power goes off in the middle of the night. We wonder if it’s a fluke, or if they turn it off every night after the fans have cooled down the rooms, to save electricity.
After a very British breakfast of tea with bread and jam, the morning boat ride down the Nile is another serene and lovely time. It is still and smooth, with more wonderful birds, and crowds of hippos and crocodiles. We find hippos and crocs sun bathing together on one sand bar. Though baby hippos would make a tasty meal, the crocs prefer fish, and the hippos seem to know it. We are told that this water safari has no equal and we can believe it.
Back in the car we eat up the hardboiled egg and chappatis that the Red Chilli packed for us, washed down by water that Chuck had thought to filter from the running water in the cabins into bottles he’d saved from dinner last night. Once again the roads are narrow, dirt, unrelieved by any other signs of human presence. This side of the Nile has fewer animals, but provides access to the incredible falls out of Lake Albert—all the force of the Nile crashing through a seven-meter cleft in the rock. It is the most powerful force of water in the world, sending spray three stories high. We can look down the river to where our boat had to turn around this morning, to the peaceful water beyond. It is an awesome sight, and we linger. Some care has been taken to welcome visitors—a picnic pavilion, tidy little latrine, signs and steps leading down to the view, railings and warning signs. But we are absolutely alone. There are no other cars, no ranger, no buildings, no souvenirs or snacks. It’s just us and this incredible place.
Piling back in the van, we discover that we’re down to our last bottle of water. The food from lunch is long gone. We have to wind our way back to the place we turned off for the falls before heading south and out of the park. It’s hilly and the road is badly washed out in places. Two or three times we come to a stretch where it has been paved for several hundred feet, just enough to make the combination of hill and curve passable. The land appears to be completely empty. We hit the main road, still dirt, but wider. Passing through a forested area, I see the great thick looping vines that call up visions of Tarzan. At other places it is all grass interspersed with trees. The grass has a bluish shade that makes it look a little unreal. Termite mounds dot the landscape like great orangy-brown sand castles far from the shore. I too am far from home. After more than three hours, no buildings, just one other car, we arrive at the gate that marks the edge of the park. There is a little souvenir shop where we eagerly buy dusty bottles of soda and water from a low shelf in the back, too grateful for anything wet to complain about its warmth.
Through the gate, the change is instantaneous. There are people on the road again, houses. There will be food. I soak up these signs of ordinary human life, breathe a sigh of relief. The game park has been wild in more ways than one. It’s an adventure I wouldn’t have wanted to miss, but I have to acknowledge that I, who am general so scornful of tourist amenities, have finally met my match.