I am sure that my desire to come and live in Africa was in small but significant part (- there were other influences of course – ) influenced by my author hero of my teenage years, Gerald Durrell who was a naturalist and who travelled the world researching animals and writing about his experiences. His most famous book is ‘’My family and other animals,’’ which documents his early childhood in Corfu where his family had relocated in the early 1930s.
I grew up wanting to be like him – an animal researcher, later I wanted to be like Diane Fossey, and then like Jane Goodall. Until my last years at school, I wanted to live and work in a national park in Africa, or perhaps in India (I wasn’t very specific.) And then my curiosity about people got in the way, and I ended up with the wonderful career that I have. Nonetheless, my soft spot for wildlife remains soft. So it was fortunate that I met and married Brian – a zoologist by training and an insect obsessive by habit. Brian has an instinct for ecological story-telling. Since Miss A and Little Roo were tiny, he and they have done nature walks, looking at the slugs and slimy things that have inhabited our local environment and learning about their habits and their habitats. We have housed worms, and toads in the utility room in England and June Bugs in the living room. Both girls have inherited Brian’s animal-fascination.
So imagine what happens when we all find ourselves in one of the most biodiverse corners of one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It sometimes borders on madness. Imagine the scene when we walk home from the guest house where we have had supper. It is dark, it is bedtime for the girls, but in the gutter just outside the house we find a MOLE CRICKET…. what could be more exciting. The strongest creature in the world, weight for weight, it’s a grasshopper-type thing with huge front legs modified for burrowing in mud and pushing it aside, like the paws of a mole. It is almost impossible to hold this little creature in your hand as it prises apart your fingers to make its escape. On mole cricket nights, there is no such thing as bedtime. On the mornings when the girls find a chameleon, specially one when it is moulting, then there is NO SCHOOL (or else, I just accept that chameleon love is a kind of school.) Yesterday we found a pachyderm dung beetle (that is a dung beetle that likes elephant dung) that was at least 8 centimetres across. If flew in a bumbling, buzzing way, like a huge drunken bumble bee until it crash-landed on the floor. Everyone abandoned their hot supper to investigate. After much attention, we put it on the ground to scuttle away, and the poor creature took defensive action, and found a brick to bury himself under. We could see him scraping and scrabbling, lifting the brick with his back until he got a place of safety. A few seconds later, we lifted the brick. All that was left was some finely scattered earth to show that the dung beetle had hidden himself there. We could talk of nothing else all evening. And that is to say nothing of what happens when we find army ants, or toads or singing bell frogs or dragonflies…..
Our explorations of Uganda have allowed us to visit several national parks. And in fact we have one of the most special on our doorstep, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Over the past year, the girls have got to know the guides and the staff there. There is a short walk in the margins of the forest. We are almost always alone when we go there. It takes us beside the stream on a cleared path with thick forest on either side. Every visit offers a new adventure. It is probably only a mile or so in distance, but can take us more than two hours as we look under each leaf, or log or loose piece of bark. Once I have had a phone call whilst I am back at the hospital, from Brian to say that they have just found ‘’this enormous snake, maybe two metres long, they didn’t see its head or tail, it was as thick as a man’s arm….Isn’t that excitiing….?’’ Sometimes I get a call to say that they are turning back because there are too many baboons on the path.
Beyond ‘our own’ forest, we have been privileged to visit several other of Uganda’s national parks. From the intimate and wild experiences of Lake Mburo and Ishasha and Maramagambo forest, to the spectacular expanses of Murchison falls. As a result, the girls can distinguish a Ugandan Kob from a Hartebeest at a hundred paces, and Little Roo’s piercing voice can be heard to correct people, ‘’no its not, it’s a hadeda ibis….’’ On our holiday in the last week, we have woken to rhinos outside the window, and tried to go to bed whilst hippos block the way to our tent. Perhaps our favourite place has been on the fringes of Kibale forest (famous for its chimpanzees), where our friend, Julia, a researcher, has enabled us to stay. We have been able to take part in the community bird club which her team has helped to set up. Along with seventeen local children and young people, we have been shown how to distinguish the appearance and the calls of red eyed doves, emerald cuckoos, plantain eaters, sunbirds and blue turacos. Her brilliant guides have initiated us into the beautiful mysteries of the myriad of butterflies that turn this forest into such a magical place.
As we have got to know more about the wildlife around, so my own two creatures have become increasingly feral, running bare foot in the dust, climbing trees and hunting for chameleons. I am very very happy to witness the wild-ing of my children, in every sense. I sometimes think we are becoming as eccentric and as fortunate as the Durrell family all those years ago in Corfu, and what a celebration that is for all of us.