she said (Uganda): TIME KEEPS ON SLIPPING, SLIPPING...
March 10, 2016
The next morning we left Kidepo onwards to Murchison Falls National park for more safari'ing. Now this is where our itinerary gets really tight whereby (I never said that word ever before Uganda by the way....they say it all.the.time there) we were leaving Kidepo for the 5 some odd hour drive south to Murchison, do our boat trip down the river to Murchison Falls right away, sleep, do an am game drive, drive out of the park while stopping at the viewpoint at the top of Murchison Falls before driving directly the remaining 5 hours back to Entebbe straight to the airport to catch our 11:45 pm flight to Rwanda. We were initially only planning to visit Kidepo in the 3 remaining days before our flight to Rwanda, however, when I inquired about the possibility of adding a whirlwind one night trip to Murchison "on the way" back to Kampala, the tour operator guy and our driver David assured us to no end that this was no problem and he would "put together a program" (something else they only say in Uganda) for us so we could do everything we wanted in Murchison and get to the airport to catch our flight. True story, never trust a Ugandan around anything related to time...
We drove and drove and drove until, what should have been a sure sign of things to come, we arrived at the road leading into the gate closest to our safari camp...only to find a river running across it.
Oh ya, that happened. It was wide and any hope of crossing was promptly crushed when our driver asked a kid riding down the highway on a bicycle what was up. The answer...it rained quite a bit yesterday and not only was the river wide, it was deep as well. Ironically, in spite of trying so hard to see elephants in Kidepo, as all this was going down there was just an elephant out in the field at the other side of the highway. Oh ya, not even in the national park boundaries, just hanging out wherever it wanted in probably some farmer's field. Seriously, never try hard for anything because I think the mere act of trying precludes any possibility of it happening. Anyways, so here we were stranded by a river with an elephant nearby with the only option being that we would have to drive all the way back to another park gate on the other side of the park and then the 43 some odd km back to basically where the river stopped us which added almost 2 hours to the trip. So long boat trip to the top of the falls tonight.
We arrived in the park but turns out it is divided by a (legitimate) river so we had to wait for a ferry to take us across to the other side where our camp was. Ok I use the term ferry loosely, more like a slab of metal creating a barge like structure that cruised from one dirty, dockless bank to another.
And you had to pay a decent price to get on the ferry. And the ferries only run at certain times so we were stuck on the wrong side of the river for about an hour just waiting with all the other tourists and locals. As we waited there was this group of warthogs, one having one gimpy leg so he just wandered around on his two front knees because every time he tried to stand up he failed.
It's a wonder the thing is still alive. And there were a big old family of baboons who, let me tell you, must be flipping intelligent because they knew how to get into anything. There was an open top UWA safari vehicle but there with snaps holding the plastic top in place. Well those baboons actually just scaled the side of the truck, undid those buttons and climbed right in.
Not long after, we were just sitting around when we heard frantic screaming coming from a nearby van. Turns out there was a family in there who were joined by stealthy baboons who climbed through the windows!
With it being almost dark by the time we got to the ferry after our super detour (curse this Ugandan darkness at 7 pm) we were forced to go directly to our safari camp. At first we were quite charmed by what seemed to be this little brand spanking new basic traditional mud banda just outside the park gates, until we realized the level of shoddy construction that went into it. The bathroom door didn't even close so we all had to shower with the door open. The light switch didn't actually deactivate the light bulb so the light stayed permanently on. Oh well actually that was after we had repeatedly requested a lightbulb because there was none in there...we understand why now. There was mesh wire between the top of the walls and the roof to presumably keep the mosquitos and creatures out, however, it was sealed to the same level of a single kleenex stuffed into a shoe. There was holes everywhere with no even attempt to seal things up, once again, another "just for optics" moment in Africa. And now I can't remember the reason for this but after something like 5 days without a shower (I think maybe it had to do with ice cold water in ice cold places maybe? Or let's be honest, maybe just my all to common choice to not shower because I just don't feel like it) I was pretty pumped to finally have one which I did here. And I was so impressed because the water was actually warm. Perfect. Until I got out and my hair was feeling just a little weird and sticky-ish even though I even splurged and used conditioner this shower. Well now, that's because the shower ran with a little bit of water aaaand a lot of dirt. So in a fine showing of irony, I finally showered after 5 days...in mud. Now all of this would have been totally manageable without complaint had we not been paying each 50USD for full board (accommodation and 3 meals/day) which means they literally swept up, making 150USD for bare bones accommodation for one night! Total rip off. Hello Murchison.
That evening with nothing else to do after our approx 9 pm dinner (SO glad for those in transit snacks we bought at the gas station in Gulu because we never ate breakfast because the cook at the camp in Kidepo "didn't make breakfast that early" at the time we left and we didn't stop again until we got to the camp in Murchison...so first proper meal of the day was sooo late! We survived off chips, cookies and various bread products. We felt a little ill.) we just hung out at the camp for a few drinks and even David joined us. And he really came out of his shell that evening and we talked about everything under the sun from jobs to the fact that the government of Uganda gave every single family in the country free mosquito nets to fight against malaria but so many families don't use it for its intended purpose but rather for such things as fishing nets or cages for their chickens...hmm. All of a sudden after 48 hours straight together, he was our friend. And so were the camp bats apparently because the buggers kept circling our heads over and over, all night. Now on a logical level, I understand the common explanation that "they'll never hit you bc of their sonar blah blah" though, when they pass seemingly very flippantly within feet of your head, you start to doubt this quite severely. And then you doubt it ever more when they are moving AND you are trying to walk to the bathroom at the same time..I'm sure they can avoid a stationary object otherwise they would have become extinct by now BUT how can they possibly predict my movements to not hit me as I MOVE!?! They didn't...but they could have.
With our expected delay of the river washing away our road, David "re-programmed" our day so that we could basically do everything in a single day instead of split between two days. The plan was to do our am game drive first thing in the morning, do the boat trip to Murchison Falls in the afternoon and then hike to the top of the falls right after and then David would pick us up with the SUV from there and head out back to Entebbe to catch our 11:45 pm flight to Kigali in Rwanda. The way he explained it, it still seemed doable and David was confident so we were feeling confident too having put our trust in this Ugandan person who obviously knows what is possible in Uganda much better than we do. Here is where I tell you that for the love, if it seems too good to be true, maybe it is.
So for the third excruciating morning we were up early again, this time at 5:30 once again in the pitch darkness to catch the first ferry over to the other side of the park where the game drives happen. And we had to pay for that cursed ferry again for like 15 bucks and I could literally throw a rock to the other side of the river it was that close. Haha while on said ferry, mom ended up get "stolen" by an entire African family that wanted to take photos with her, presumably because of her novel bright blond hair. She said it was really weird because they actually forced their kids to hold her hand haha.
On the right side of the river, we picked up another quirky, nutty UWA guide and were on our way for our game drive. Murchison was lovely but with not nearly as serene and stunning scenery as Kidepo. It lacked the mountainous backdrop of Kidepo and was mostly just a vast rolling hill grassland with a scatter tree or bush or, most interestingly random, palm like trees scattered throughout.
Rando fact of the day, these trees are not native to Uganda but they arrived here by the poo of migrating elephants from Sudan. Besides the poo palms, it all reminded me a bit of of a prairies plain and I literally found myself involuntarily singing "Home home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play" (and then later, "Hakuna Matata") in my head. Still beautiful but not as incredible as Kidepo. Though what Murchison lacked in scenery, it more than made up for in sheer quantity of animals. Animals literally everywhere. We saw everything (besides zebras bc they don't live in this park) that we saw in Kidepo and where in Kidepo we worked so hard to find giraffes, we literally couldn't get away from them in Murchison. Close giraffes, far giraffes, eating giraffes, walking giraffes, mama giraffes, baby giraffes.
Right close to the road we saw three adorable babies who were so curious about us but also terrified and for a moment we existed in a constant closer/farther dance with a lot of eye contact. It's true, we made eye contact with giraffes. We were still on our endless pursuit for a lion/leopard so as much as it was amazing to drive through this field of literally hundreds of what I call "baby deer" (they obviously weren't and had their very own specific name that I didn't bother to listen to, again, because I really don't care), as our guide informed us, their very presence and calmness likely precluded the presence of any big cats.
Damn it. Again, as hard as we looked for elephants in Kidepo, the elephants here just found us. And not just a handful, like an entire herd of papas, mamas and babies. And the entire herd literally crossed the road directly in front of us and continued on across the land towards water.
It was actually truly majestic and you easily could have watched them move in their big gliding gaits forever. Except there was still one massive male elephant complete with huge tusks who stood alone of the side of the road, as we were told in summary, "because he is so big he has no threats so he doesn't worry about being alone". Well we sat and watched him, like say from about 15 feet, just as he watched us. Until he decided he didn't like us anymore because all of a sudden he looked directly at us, flared his ears out and started to move towards us.
Oh shit, we've been here before. The guide basically commanded our driver to "move!" so he gunned the engine and got out of there. Only once we were at a safe distance and the elephant was no longer after us did our driver bust into maniacal, nervous laughter. It was obvious by his response that situations like that really didn't happen every day so feeling pretty glad it ended how it did instead of the ending that I can only visualize in my head (and have, obviously!).
It's almost the end of the day and we still haven't seen a lion yet despite the guide's best efforts. So when the guide tentatively says "slow down, stop", we're feeling pretty optimistic that he's seeing something lion-related. He gets out of the car and slowly moves towards this puddle of water in the ditch and we're all, like, sitting on the edge of our seats in the car waiting in extreme anticipation for what super exciting thing the guide has seen. When all of a sudden, not even joking, he launches himself into the puddle and grabs at something before coming back to the car empty handed but, also, in maniacal and I mean out of control maniacal laugher like a child. I guess he saw a big fish in the puddle and tried to catch it but it slipped away. For real. Haha we're all like wtf we don't care about a fish on safari but I bet for him having seen all the safari animals 100 times over, that misplaced fish was more exciting than those safari animals have been in like 10 years! It was utterly bizarre nonetheless. Our guide truly was a nutty human and you can tell a bit of a rogue guide as well. In our quest to find lions he just had our driver drive off the truck tracks, wherever the hell we wanted even though it's totally against the rules of the park. At one point he sees the safari car ahead stopped pointing at something way out in the field (off the tracks of course) and when he asked what it is, the other guide says, "vultures". So being a rogue and all, we just once again totally disregard the tracks, leave that other safari group in our dust and take off off-roading through the field to get a closer look at what the vultures are at. Turns out the disgusting creatures were tearing apart the caracas of one of the "baby deer". At first our guide thinks it's a fresh leopard kill which we're quite excited about meaning that a leopard is likely close by but eventually settles on the idea that it was sick and died of natural causes. The telling factor between both those options? No idea. We look at this twisted, gutted thing casually for a minute (some of us looking through our spread fingers, hands covering face) and then take off again in continued pursuit of some (we'd even take one at this point) lions.
We off-roaded some more around some bushes and eventually, there it was, a lion, barely visible laying down in the bush. We go really close like 7 feet and stop the car and my god, a female sits up and looks directly at us.
At this point we're torn between dangling every limb and every camera out the open vehicle window to get a better view and closing the window and ducking for cover. It was all a little frenzied. The decision was made for us when the guide very cautiously, slowly, and purposefully said "slowly, roll up your window" which Bridger did as I frantically tried to get around him to snap away but also tried to move slowly, visions of lunging lions and paws coming through windows keeping me in check. Unfortunately by the time the window was up and we could actually safely snap away, she was gone ending our tiny encounter with a lion with only this picture to show for it...you can play the game of "Where's Waldo, lion version" if you like.
Quite content with the quantity of animals we saw, we called it a day and went to go book our spot on the boat trip up the river towards the falls at about 12:30 pm. At that point we found out that the boat doesn't actually leave until 2:30 (we thought it was 2), it takes two hours and then at the end of the boat trip we wanted to hike to the top of the falls which would take about an hour and a half and then we would have a, we were told, 5 hour drive back to Entebbe putting our arrival time at 10:30 best case scenario for our 11:45 international flight. At this point David is still telling us that we have time to do the scheduled boat and against all my better judgment, we are inclined to agree for the sake of getting to do everything in the park that we wanted to do. Until we found out about a 2nd option...we could basically hire our own private boat for 130USD (the boat trip costed about 25 each, wtf) that could leave right now. Though we hummed and hawed about that much money, we ultimately decided that the extra money was worth the comfort of having a bit of wiggle room in the agenda so we just did it. Though instead of going on a two tiered ferry as our initial boat trip was supposed to be, now we would be headed down the hippo and crocodile infested river in a little tiny rowboat with a motor. Now here's the thing is that hippos are really territorial and can be really aggressive so I like the idea of a big, double decker boat. My apprehension did not lighten when the guide said this: "Don't worry, when the hippos hear the boat coming they sink down deeper. But sometimes on very rare instances they don't and you hit them, but it is an accident". Whaaaat?! What am I supposed to do with that?! Now all I can see in my head is hippos feet under my boat angrily looking up at us saying "F you!". And if we hit them, my concern is not whether it was purposeful or accidental, it is that he's now going to go into a fit of rage and annihilate our baby boat! It doesn't help! But what are we to do because we just bought ourselves a few hours and a lot of possibilities with this little baby boat, so we go.
As we cruised down the river we saw lots of the same types of animals we saw on our game drive along the banks as well as a crapload of hippos both in the water and walking around on shore.
They actually make a lot of sounds all snorting and hooting and such which I interpreted to mean "Go screw yourself and get out of our space". We even saw a baby hippo on shore and let me tell you, that little fat lub is so cute. I think I have never seen a real hippo in the wild before so that was pretty neat. As we reached the end of the river, for some reason there were massive blobs of foam floating everywhere across it, supposedly because the water was so churned up because of the falls, so we knew we were getting close.
Eventually the base of the thundering Murchison Falls came into view, a massive crevice between two rock walls with water coursing down the middle, literally zig zagging, bouncing back and forth off each side of the rocks.
Unfortunately since the water at the bottom of the falls was so turbulent, you really couldn't get so close so it all looked pretty tiny. The boat trip itself was nice but definitely not a highlight and left us feeling a little disappointed, especially because it was so flipping expensive.
We arrive at the dock near the bottom of the falls and the driver pulled up and said "ok see ya". Wait what?! You're just dropping us off and leaving us here on the isolated banks on the side of a river?! I thought he would be climbing up with us but he literally just dumped us and left. There was nooooobody around. All the better I suppose because there was also a sign that said "Hike to the top of the falls 15USD" which we completely disregarded and started our ascent up. It was shortly into this hike when we realized that Murchison is, hands down, the hottest part of all of Uganda. Like horribly, oppressively hot and humid such that we were drenched in sweat within 5 minutes, a fact so much worse considering we were literally getting into an SUV at the top and driving directly to the airport to fly directly to Rwanda, i.e. no shower and change. Despite expectations of "African hot" before we arrived, we have not experienced this torrential heat in Uganda so far. Truly, Ugandans are very proud of their lovely temperate climate that is, as far as Africa goes, neither intolerably hot or intolerably humid and essentially perfect. Aside from the total misery of being soaked head to toe in your own bodily fluid, the hike up was really enjoyable affording us views of the truly spectacular falls from much closer up.
We didn't pass a single other soul on the way up exceeeept the two Ugandan guys who eventually found us and asked for the payment of that 15 UDS ea. Ugh. After unsuccessfully trying to convince them to pretend they didn't see us, we begrudgingly passed over our money and in the process, also acquired a guide, ugh. We were more than happy to just keep on going by ourselves but he insisted we needed a guide to "show us the best places". We'd have to be a particular breed of incompetent not to find those ourselves with both the signs and the terraced pathways on the hike up. The worst was that we wanted to go straight to the top of the falls viewpoint because we were getting antsy on time but he nothing short of insisted that we go to a view point, a 5 minute walk in the opposite direction we wanted to go, gaaaah! In his defense it gave a pretty awesome aerial view of both the main falls and an accessory "secret falls" as well as allowed us to witness the true grandeur that was the lush jungle setting the falls were nestled within. Once again, mind blown by the greenness of Uganda. Absolutely, incredibly gorgeous.
By the time we arrived to the top of the falls where David was waiting for us, you probably could have hand wrung an entire swimming pool of sweat out of our clothes and our hair but it was worth it because the view at the top of the falls was the highlight of the entire park. And it was the only thing in Murchison that was free! It was mind-blowing. You could literally stand on the rocks as the river whooshes by you and drops into the crevice some 23 feet wide and 140 feet down. You could literally feel the mist from the falls as well as the thunderous roar as the water plummeted downwards. Given the proximity and ferocity of the water, it was absolutely insane how there were no fences, no guardrails, nothing but a small sign saying to not go past there. But you could. You could walk right past literally up to the edge and slip, trip or jump in to the crevice (obviously it would be a death sentence but the point is that you could). Not a soul around to even enforce the meek sign to stay back. And we did cross past the sign (carefully!) because it was awesome, though with a healthy respect for nature and edges, we did not go right to the very edge.
For most of the walk up to the top, mom had been behind us stopping constantly and snapping away pictures at a frequency that even blew my snap-happy ways away. So at one point we turned around and mom was just gone. Like, nowhere. Not gonna lie, you really don't want to be standing on the side of a cliff with water rushing by and no guardrails or other safety measures and not know where your mom is. For a fleeting awful moment, I worried. Until I saw her, far off in the distance being chased by David, beelining it back in the direction that we came from. I assumed that she forgot something and was going back to find it. A short time later I realized it was probably her cell phone...which I had because up at the viewpoint she had tucked it into the back of my purse, shit! And I knew she pretty well had all the pictures from all of her trips on there so I was convinced that she would literally walk all the way back to the dock (about an hour hike) retracing every step to find it. Bad because she was probably frantic and also because there was no room in our allotted time crunched day for a backtrack! I tried calling David's phone but he had no reception. So there was nothing to do but wait. Eventually she did come back totally devastated to have "lost her cell phone". Gosh she was SO happy to hear that I had it which was a relief to me because I thought she was gonna be really pissed at me. So everyone was now happy except poor David who had liquified both the front and back of his shirt chasing after her, further reinforcing for us that this was in fact, the hottest place in Uganda. Us and David took a few selfies and a GoPro 360 which was a first for David and, acutely aware of the time, headed back to the car to start our long drive back to Entebbe. But not before digging out our massively dust covered packs from the back of the SUV and changing our sweaty clothes behind a random gazebo at the top of the falls. I then hung my sweat soaked underwear, sports bra and other clothes all over the car in hopes they would dry a bit before having to be packed back up again. Little did David know my bra was hanging on the headrest right behind him haha. In the end, we left the top of the falls by about 4:30 having bought ourselves about an extra hour bonus time by paying for the private boat that left earlier.
The inevitable comparison between Kidepo and Murchison was a tough one. Murchison by far had more animals but in the end I think we preferred the overall experience of Kidepo far more. Where Murchison had many more animals and we finally saw our elusive lion, it was also much more heavily trafficked and everything from accommodation to activities felt so much more price gougey. Where in Kidepo we saw one other vehicle across two game drives, in Murchison we ran into about 20. And we were blown away by everything about Kidepo at every moment where Murchison was a bit more touch and go, some epic hits and some misses. I think just the overall intangible experience of Murchison felt a bit more manufactured where Kidepo had that very raw, authentic feel to it that travelers, whether they say so or not, are always after. Even though there were less animals, the moments when we encountered the animals in Kidepo were just kind of a different level of magnificent and tranquility than Murchison (outside of seeing the elephants in Murchision which were epic). Of course we don't even need to compare at all because they were both awesome experiences and we were SO glad that we got to experience both which is what we would recommend to anyone trying to decide about where to get to.