I feel like I need to write a caveat. My recent posts have been about the many pleasures of living here. I just want to say that I do do some work some of the time, really! It is just more difficult to write about work than to write about the lovely things we find to do outside of work. Of course I need to respect patient confidentiality, and the hospital’s institutional integrity before I write about it, so it is slower to write, and to be able to post.
That said there’s been no work this week, and we have found plenty of time to do lovely things as a family. My trip to Kampala went so smoothly, that I still had a few off days with the family left over. On the spur of the moment, we decided to drive to Ishasha National Park to take a look at the wildlife. Ishasha is on the border with Congo. The Ishasha river represents the frontier. It is only a couple of hours from here, though it has a completely different ecosystem. Whereas we live in the mountainous forest, Ishasha is savannah land.
Close your eyes and picture …. grasslands, Acacia trees, herds of antelope, large horizons, blue skies, fluffy clouds… that’s Ishasha.
Travelling there as a family isn’t quite so romantic as it sounds. There are some quite spectacular potholes and gulleys on the way which means that the driving requires attention. It’s hot, and the bananas are squashed because someone sat on them. The girls in the back of the car say ‘’ are we nearly there yet?’’
But my goodness, it was lovely. We arrived at the park gate in the late afternoon, as the sunlight was getting more golden, and the shadows were getting longer. As a ‘Foreign Non Resident’ I am entitled to a reduced park entry fee, and I think the park staff were glad to see a family arrive with young children, in a Ugandan registered vehicle. Most visitors are from overseas, coming as part of tours. The lady at the desk told us where to find our accommodation. She said that we should first turn right about 500 yards down the road, then drive on a few kilometres. Other visitors had reported lions in that area. Not a chance to be missed.
And there were indeed lions. Six of them, sprawling languidly in a large old fig tree, draped over the branches like domestic pussy cats on the back of an armchair. From time to time, one or other would open their eyes, stare intently at us, then yawn and go back to the serious work of resting. There were four cubs in the family. They would stretch and turn and change branch, swish their tails, then settle back down paws dangling. They were muscular, and their paws were obviously powerful weapons. We parked our car under the tree and watched them do very little for a very long time. It is quite something to see such magnificent creatures in the wild.
There are about 40 lions in Ishasha. It is one of only two places in Africa where lions routinely climb trees. The other is in Tanzania. No one knows why they do it here (although in fact all lions can climb) . There are lots of hypotheses – to get away from the flies, to be at height to be able to scan the horizon for prey (our lions were certainly not scanning!) and many other notions. The lions can live for 15 years in the wild. Apparently our family were two adults and four cubs. The cubs were less than a year old, so not able to hunt for themselves yet.
We left the lions so they could meditate on the expansive view and went to find our accommodation.
We stayed in the simplest and cheapest accommodation we could find. The Uganda Wildlife Authority owns two small huts called bandas which we could rent for the night for 40 000 shillings (about £8.) For that sum, we had beds, bedding, bednets and lovely big solar torches for when the sun set. Scola from the UWA who met us explained that we should only move around by car as the hippos (notorious for their bad temper) come and graze around the huts. We went down to the main camp for supper. The camp is made of a number of mud and thatched bandas, one of which serves as the canteen. We had beans and rice and chippatis as the sun set and the fireflies came out and flashed spots of light into the darkness.
There were maybe 40 bandas in the camp, and the armed men in military fatigues sat under a thatched roof watching TV by satellite. It was explained to us that it this was largely a military camp because of the proximity to Congo. Congo from this side of the border sounds like a completely lawless and frightening place.
Two armed guards were allocated to guard our hut for the night. They accompanied us from our hut to the long drop loo a hundred yards away, and kept a respectful distance. All night long, they lurked a bit eeirly in the shadows. The girls were happy that there were people to protect us from the hippos. I was glad too though I wasn’t so worried about hippos.
We were up to see the sunrise. Everything felt very still and suspended for a pause between night and day. Then went for a drive in the very early morning.Our guide, Scola was knowledgeable and observant. We had a wonderful bumpy drive through the grasslands. The variety of birds, grasses, butterflies was breathtaking. I suppose that is what wilderness is. Where nature is left to itself, there can be abundance not possible where humans get in the way. We saw the very elegant Ugandan Cob – a muscular antelope with beautifully curved horns that make it look like a well built dancer. We saw elephants in the distance (quite easily mistaken for huge boulders) a rowdy family of baboons and a stuttery, stop-starty gaggle of mongooses (mongeese?) As we were heading for the park gate, Scola got news that there was a leopard to be seen. This is an ultra-treat as leopards are scarce and very elusive. But there it was, up a tree, resting. Some kind tourists also enthralled lent us their techy binoculars so we could really see the spotted beauty.
Possibly my favourite wildlife experience of the whole weekend was when Brian pulled the car up suddenly to avoid hitting a teeny chick which had toppled over in the ruts of the track and which was wiggling its outsize orange legs in the air and cheeping frantically as it couldn’t right itself. Brian picked it up and it sat in our hands for a few minutes until we released it to scurry away into the long grasses.
We drove home, stopping in Kihihi for a touch of car maintainance. A most memorable 24 hours.