Monthly Archives: October 2015

RAINING SPIDERS

It was just after 18:00 so I hit the shower, knowing dinner was at 19:00. As I had moved into the chalet that happened to have a roost of bats in the bathroom, two remaining bats flew about. I turned off the water and commenced to towel myself dry. Being it Wednesday meant it was hair-brushing day. Quite an exciting event for me, as you can imagine, since I rarely brush my hair.

I began, as usual, on my right side when something made me look up, the brush getting caught in the hair and me having to yank on it, pulling my head back and up. And that’s when I saw a new tenant had arrived. Unlike the bats who can be seen and felt what with all their swooping and flying about and the mountainous piles of bat shit everywhere, this new tenant was the very silent type.

I didn’t like it one little bit. And not because it had eight legs and eight eyes. I can deal with that. But when those figure eights combined with the body become big enough to cause a combined solar and lunar eclipse, then we have a problem.

Surprisingly, I didn’t run off screaming. And not just because the two bats were swooping below knee height just outside the shower. Really, I was rooted to the spot out of sheer terror. If I was considered a white person before, I was now transparent. I’d never seen a spider that big – or anything of that size, for that matter – seemingly just hanging around lazily on the wall. It must have weighed like a rhino (3 tonnes).

What the fuck was holding it up?!?

And this isn’t the kind of spider to weave webs either (thankfully, otherwise we’d all be in a tangled, sticky mess). It builds a nest.

A.

Fucking.

Nest.

I reckon most of the poo in this place is from this fella. It’s big enough to compete with dinosaurs for the biggest pile of shit.

I finished brushing my hair and nervously put on my pants, never taking my two eyes off its eight. Then, even more nervously, I walked out among the bat (and probably spider) shit to get the camera to take a photo of it. As I came back around the wall that separates the room from the bath something else caught my eye.

At first, I thought it was a giant wasp. But then the shadow of it on the wall showed the hairs of its legs, revealing it to be what I was suspecting it to be. I raised the camera, zoomed in, focused and took a shot. Looking at the outcome I quickly wished I hadn’t.

It was another eight legs with eight eyes, perhaps slightly bigger than the fella in the shower (this thing was so big I needed to walk to Kampala for it to fit in the lens). I swallowed slowly and then went and took a photo of the shower spider (also taken from Kampala).

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The one in the shower

I suspect both spiders are on steroids. They’ve probably worked out with Arnold Schwarzenegger back in his hey-day. I imagine the conversation to be something along the lines of,

“Hey, Arnie, check this out, four dumb bells at a time. Whatchya got?”

Arnie doesn’t answer. Just throws his dumb bell at the spider. The dumb bell deflects off it. It doesn’t even flinch or blink any of its eight eyes (it then swallows Arnie, injects it with a parasite, coughs him back up and manipulates him to become Governor of California many years down the web, playing puppet master).

 

 

 

I backed away into the room to put the camera away and cursed the zipper on the tent that didn’t work. I stood there staring at the broken zipper and cursed it. Those spiders seemed to be the kind that ate whole tents. And mosquito nets. And quite possibly bats (which might explain the sudden departure of the previous ten. I reckon these two tag-teamed them. And only two survived).

In fact, they were so big they could wrap themselves around the moon and still have a leg on Earth. They could eat Pluto and still have room for dessert. They were so big they could sit on the eye of the huge storm on Jupiter and stop it from storming. They could tip the rings of Saturn. They were so big that if a spy satellite took a photo of it then Obama would get a call from the NSA saying,

“Sir, it appears the planet’s been swallowed up by a large arachnid.”

“How big is it, Special Agent Smith?”

“Well, sir, we can’t see any land masses or oceans. Can we shoot it?”

“Yes you can!”

I was contemplating on asking to sleep in my former dwellings when I stopped myself.

‘Mate,’ I told me, ‘this is Africa. This is the bush. They don’t wanna harm you –’ I hope – ‘so just relax, go have dinner, come back and get under that mozzie net as fast as you can and go to sleep. Savvy?’

Savvy.

At the restaurant a ranger was around. I explained about the spiders.

“I’m not killing it,” I said firmly. Especially as I didn’t have access codes to nuclear warheads or sharks with freakin’ laser beams – the only two things that could kill these fuckers. If I killed them, we’d need to have a barbecue as they’d be able to feed the entire population of Uganda.

“Just take a tissue and hold it –” began to suggest the ranger when I cut him off with,

“I ain’t holding this thing with a–” fuckin’ – “tissue, rafiki.” I wasn’t even going to hold it with lead gloves. “See my hand?” I placed it on the post. “Whatever is not my hand is how big it is.”

“Then just leave them,” the ranger laughed. “Just let them live. They won’t harm you.”

“I just hope they let me live,” I countered.

These guys move and it might shift the planet off its axis. Trying not to think about my new tenants, I sat down for dinner. Finishing up I headed back to the bat cave. Earlier, I had stepped on a thorn and the end of it had lodged itself in the bottom of my foot. I knew I could easily resolve the issue by grabbing my tweezers.

Which were in the bathroom.

To get there meant having to face Pinky and The Brain (I guess the upside is that they don’t party all night and play heavy metal music. Or try to take over the world).

I took a deep breathe, rounded the wall that separates the room from the bath and looked up to the rafters. The two bats were gone, out on their nightly hunt or to find new dwellings. Or eaten by the arachnids. I was kinda hoping the bats would come back. They gave me a heightened sense of security against the spiders. But neither bats nor the second spider I had seen were there.

Shit.

Nothing worse than knowing what’s up there but not seeing where it is. I then looked in the shower and that tenant was also gone.

Fuck.

Their movements have probably caused an earthquake and a major landslide somewhere on the other side of our blue ball. Possibly the oncoming El Ninõ could be attributed to them.

I nervously grabbed the tweezers, went and sat on the pile of mattresses in the room and removed the end bit of the thorn before I turned off the lights, flicked my headlamp on and scoured the tent for any possibilities of sixteen large, hairy legs and bright eyes and then, faster than the lightening cracking across the horizon I slipped under the mozzie net and lay down, wrapping the sheets air-tightly around me

At 22:00 I was already nodding off. At 01:30 it began to rain and didn’t stop until sunrise (what are these clouds drinking?  ). I’ve been awake for the duration, listening to the thunder, the machine gun patter on the tin roof, the lightening lighting up the sky, all the perfect ingredients for a night of terror with two of the galaxies largest arachnids just hanging around outside my tent.

I think I maybe going bat shit crazy.

Bat shit spider crazy.

Perhaps it was all a figment of my imagination.

Lemme check the camera.

The one in the rafters

The one in the rafters

Nope, shit was real.

*I’ve found it to be called a Rain Spider. It’s the biggest non-tarantula spider and, er, well, quite harmless [its bite is compared to that of a bee sting, tested on guinea pigs. Although the guinea pigs died within 3 minutes, it was found that they died from shock rather than the venom. I mean, if you were faced with something that had the leg span of 7cm and a body length of 3cm (doesn’t sound like much but meet them in person) and you might possibly die of shock as well].

It hunts lizards and insects. Its from the Palystes genus (from the Greek word, meaning ‘wrestler’). But I didn’t know it at the time. Still, doesn’t mean I’m gonna toss a frisbee to it anytime soon (probably eat the frisbee anyway).

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Uganda | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

ZIWA RHINO SANCTUARY

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I heard a thundering rumbling behind me. I looked up and found that I was surrounded by blue skies so it couldn’t be thunder. I turned around and froze. Charging at me like a runaway locomotive was a 3-ton white rhino, our planet’s second largest mammal. Its horn low and aiming for my quarter hind.

Shit.

I turned and sprinted, my heart and lungs doing there mightiest best to co-operate with my legs, dancing my bare feet between the fallen thorny branches of the acacia trees with the elegance of a drunken Russian ballerina.

White rhinos are quite fast and can reach speeds of 45 K’s an hour.

The ground shook and trembled as it charged closer. I could feel hot breath on my calves. I spotted a tree and shimmied up it to the highest branch. Plonking onto a sturdy branch, I watched the rhino below screech to a halt, snort, circle the base of the tree once, linger and then turn to retreat to where it was munching on short grass.

I panted a sigh of relief and tried to control my breathing when I heard a low growl beside me. I froze and then turned to face the leopard who’s branch I’ve inadvertently found myself sharing.

“Excuse me.”

“Huh?” I snapped out of my daydream as the ranger began to explain the five indications that a rhino might tag you as a threat and decide to charge you:

“First, it will raise its head and hold it up for longer than usual.”

A rhino’s head is its heaviest body part which is why they only eat short grass – 150 kilos of it daily. Saves them from lifting their head any higher than needed – except when it’s about to charge. They’d be quite the eco-lawn mowers in large parks and stadiums. Especially as, unlike elephants who poop everywhere, rhinos pick one spot and they all poop in it.

“And they drink between 60-80 litres of water daily,” continues the ranger.

The second indication? “Its tail will coil up and then it will scratch the earth with one of its forelegs. The fourth indication is when it mock charges you.”

I mean, if something mock charges you it’s pretty much a given that the mock charger – in this case, a full-sized African White Rhino – doesn’t want you around. Sometimes this warning is repeated before the final clue,

“When the rhino fully charges at you. Now,” the ranger grinned, “are we ready to see some rhinos?”

On foot and standing no more than the safety required distance of 30 meters? Sure, after an intro like that, how can one resist?

These pachyderms are, like elephants, short-sighted but have acute hearing and sense of smell. They mature at the age of 8 (females) and 10 (males) and will continue to grow throughout their lifetime – spanning 45 years – a time in which a single white female can produce about 10-12 offspring.

But a White rhino isn’t actually white. You may have noticed that rhinos in general tend to be grey. Even the Black Rhino. So what happened? Well, the Dutch settlers of South Africa rightfully named the White Rhino, Wyd rhino which means, surprisingly, ‘wide’ due to its lips being wider than the pointy, parrot-beak like one of the Black rhino (we’ll get to its naming as well).

Along came the early English settlers of South Africa and mispronounced Wyd for White. I mean, could they not tell that the beast they were looking at is grey? You can see that it’s grey from space. Perhaps because during that time, in the late 19th century, there were only about 20 Wyd Rhinos left in South Africa and so the English probably just assumed their colour was white (I wonder what kind of shock they got when they saw they were actually grey?).

The Black Rhino was named due to it’s enjoyment of wallowing in mud, hence giving it a darker tone. Put through your local car wash, and its the exact same colour as it’s bigger cousin, the Wyd Rhino (the Black Rhino is the smallest of the five remaining rhino species).img_6570

Rhinos are highly intelligent and live in social families called a crash (don’t ask). One large dominant male will visit each crash he has spurned. A female will give birth to a 50-kilo calf after a gestation period of 16 months (second longest after the elephant – 22 months). It will then separate her calf from the crash to raise it (perhaps to give it a crash-course on life) until it’s strong enough, usually after three months.

In the 1960s about 700 rhinos roamed Uganda. Enter Idi Amin who ruthlessly dictated over the land until his downfall in the late 70s and today the numbers are just below twenty. Two are in the Entebbe Zoo, the rest at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, located just outside of Nakitoma village (pronounced Na-chi-toma) on the road heading to Masindi.

“We keep all our rhinos under 24/7 watch,” informed the ranger. “They are being poached for their horns which are big in Vietnam where they believe that the horn holds medicinal powers to cure cancer (it doesn’t), hangovers (it doesn’t) and resolve impotency (it doesn’t)”.

Perhaps if the Vietnamese drank less they’d not only suffer from less hangovers but less impotency issues.

Rhino horns are made of keratin, the same substance that creates our hair and nails. Essentially, it’s just a massive dreadlock that can weigh in at 12 kilos (and you thought maintaining your hair was a hassle?). If it had any medicinal value, we’d all be cutting our nails and hairs and having keratin health drinks every time we had a big night out and couldn’t ‘rise’ to the occasion.

The plight of the rhinos is a very serious one. Not only are they one of the most endangered species on earth, they’re also the least researched of our land mammals, a job that the rangers of Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary have undertaken and discovered that, like elephants, a rhino will mourn a fallen member of its crash.

Today there remain five species of rhinoceros (the word comes from the Greek: ‘Rhino’ meaning ‘nose’ and ‘Ceros’ meaning ‘horn’) listed from the biggest to the smallest: The White (Wyd) Rhino, the Indian Rhino (which uses its teeth to defend itself rather than its horn), the Javan Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Black Rhino (as of late last year, 2014, believed to be extinct in the wild).

img_6596The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary has gone to extraordinary lengths along with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to protect these majestic animals we know so little of. For more information visit their website:

www.rhinofund.org/

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

WASP A MATTER?

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“What the?” I stared at the eagle-sized wasp that had somehow made its way onto my right thigh – which was wrong on all levels – not my thigh. The wasp being there.

I was sitting outside the reception of the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary surfing the web when I noticed the purple-redish insect climbing to the top of a pole that, upon closer inspection (but not too close. After all, there was an eagle-sized wasp on it), I noticed happened to be a spear on display.

 

I figured if it was climbing rather than flying it must have reached the end of its life cycle as it had fallen several times to the ground only to resume its climbing. Keeping it in my peripheral, I continued to surf the web while pushing the pet warthog, Farki (which means, ‘pig’ in Afrikaans) away from my bag which she kept mistaking to be some sort of food supplement (she was hand-raised and never got the hint when released into the wild).

When the wasp was on the ground again it was making a beeline (see what I did there?) towards my feet.

Wasps are omnivorous, was my immediate thought. And why shouldn’t it indulge itself for its last supper on a hearty, meaty nomadic thigh? I know I would if I were in its place. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I wasn’t in its place. Unlike bees, wasps sting rapidly multiple times. And won’t lose their stingers like their smaller, kamikaze honey-making cousins.img_6684

I lifted my feet from the ground and continued to work when, a few moments later I found myself staring at the yellow face – which looked like the Transformers logo – from its locale on my right thigh. I slowly set down my laptop , never taking my eyes off the alien-looking creature as it began to explore the outskirts of my shorts.

I quickly wrapped them tight so as to not allow it to enter the safe where the family jewels are kept (I only have one pair of underwear which I use for special occasions. This wasn’t a special occasion).

The movement caused the wasp to raise its abdomen high, like a contortionist from Cirque du Soleil, the stinger glinting in the equatorial sun, a UV ray reflecting off it.

“No, no, no, no,” I repeated repeatedly. “Please no,” I continued to beg. I wondered if I could just grab it by its abdomen but then I didn’t know if wasps also carry a mean bite since they eat meat.

I figured that since it was possibly dying and low on energy then I could flick it off me, perhaps towards Farki who might mistake it for food and leave my bag alone. It’s not that I wanted the thing dead. I hate killing anything living (except mosquitoes. Genocide the lot of ‘em). Even accidentally stepping on ants bums me out but it must be nearing its end if it didn’t have the energy to fly, right?

Or maybe it just didn’t have enough meat in its diet.

It didn’t have the energy needed to take to the air but it sure had some fight in it to hold onto my pants when I tried to flick it away. And, in slow motion mind you, as it began to raise its abdomen, it brought it down straight into my thigh.

Repeatedly.

Now, I may or may not have yelped and ejected myself from my seated position, scaring Farki off (that’ll teach her to munch on my bag) but I can neither confirm nor deny this accusation (my lawyer says, “No comment.”). But I did manage to flick it off before it got another sting in and watched it climb the wall – way on the other side from where I was sitting.

I then limped towards Angie, director of the sanctuary, and asked her, “Have you got anything for wasp stings?”

“Onion,” she said. “Take half an onion and rub it on the stung area. It’ll absorb the venom.”

I’d never heard of this method. I’d never been stung by a wasp before either. Of course, as my thigh began to swell I was game for any remedy – besides amputation. A moment later, half an onion was produced and I rubbed it on the stung area, already turning as red as the Ugandan soil.

Incredibly, the stinging and burning sensation vanished almost immediately. I continued to apply the onion for the next half hour, went and tracked some rhinos with a ranger and by dinner time (the onion was not involved in dinner) I had forgotten about the yelping incident of being stung by an African wasp.

Except in the morning when the redness was still there and the itchiness of it began.

But still, onions! Who knew?

*Despite the fear they sometimes evoke, wasps are extremely beneficial to humans. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed upon by a wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic larvae. Wasps are so adept at controlling pest populations that the agriculture industry now regularly deploys them to protect crops (National Geographic).

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Conservation, Uganda | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

HITCH HIKING IN UGANDA – PART III

© Rohini Das, 2015

© Rohini Das, 2015

“Where ya headed?” I asked the driver. He was the first one to pull over after I had walked half the length of Kampala on Bombo Rd to reach Amuka Lodge, about three hours north-west of Uganda’s capital.

“Bombo,” he said.

I wasn’t sure how far that was but if it took me out of this boda-boda-taxi ridden city, I’d be in a better position to hitch a ride.

“Can I go with you?” I asked. “I’m trying to reach Nakitoma.”

“I don’t know where it is,” he said. “But you can come.”

His wife was in the front seat and in the back was another fella. “Have you got room in the boot for my bags?”

He looked at the others, laughed and drove off, leaving me to stand dumbfounded, fighting not to drop my jaw as the amount of CO2 in the area was enough to embarrass China. His tail lights grew smaller into the distance.

Hope you get three flat tires you shitty fucker, I cursed him.

Oddly enough, the morning had begun better than I could hope for. I had left Kibuli (pronounced Chibuli) at sunrise, watching the big orange ball rise steadily in the east, casting an orange hue over the city as I walked downhill to reach the main road.

Behind me I could hear the wheels of a car. I turned to face the red Volvo station wagon and flagged it down. It’s rare that a woman would stop for me. Even rarer when it’s two. But Barbara and June took me to Old Kampala on their way to work.

“I’m just dropping June off at her work,” Barbara informed me. “She manages a hotel. Have you taken breakfast?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said, settling into the backseat.

“Then let me get you some breakfast at the hotel because you don’t know when you will eat.”

“That’s very kind of you,” I grinned, feeling a great start to the day. Even the grey clouds that had escorted the sun’s rising were dispersing.

I was presented with not only a tour of every unoccupied room in Ruhuka Inn (which means, ‘Place to rest’) but also a breakfast of an onion omelette with two slices of buttered white toast and a thermos of tea with milk (I don’t do milk so I passed on the tea).

June figured I’d like to watch some Al Jezzera but the staff member in charge of the TV put on the English Premier league. Not that I follow the football but it’s good to get an update as the majority of Africans practically worship the English league. And it was good to see my team, Liverpool, win it’s game.

I thanked June and hit the road. I predicted a long hike as I passed the jammed traffic lining up all the way to the other side of the city.

When my guitar bag was hit by a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) I got pissed off, cursing the driver. I kept walking, ignoring all the requests of riders wanting to take me. The dusty red-earthed sides of the road clogged my lungs along with all the exhaust fumes of the standing cars as I hiked downhill and then uphill, my shirt drowning me in my own sweat.

Even my pants where absorbing my body fluid.

Another boda-boda clipped my guitar bag, the rider almost getting jousted by the neck of it. I whipped around and said, “I’m not fucking invisible, mate. You can see me from space so open your fuckin’ eyes.”

He appeared embarrassed and sped off, his passenger trying not to giggle behind him.

When the third boda-boda clipped Ol’ Red I was ready to decapitate someone.

Finding cars with open windows that were jammed in the congested traffic I asked for directions to Bombo Road, the highway that would take me to Amuka Lodge and Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.

“I don’t know it,” said every driver I asked.

I began to doubt whether I was saying the name of the place right. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d mess up the pronunciation of a place (hitching to Kisumu I kept calling the place everything but Kisumu. Luckily, I was hitching with Rohini who took care of the names of places, scolding me lightly).

It was just the day before that I had been emailing with Angie who offered me three weeks volunteer work in exchange for food and bed at the lodge.

‘You’ll be laying cement and doing some other construction if you can handle that,’ she wrote.

‘Sure,’ I replied. Not that I’ve ever laid cement but, ‘I’m a quick learner as long as someone shows me what and how to do stuff.’

It was after what felt like 8 K’s walking in hot, equatorial sun that the car that was heading to Bombo stopped for me and then sped off.

So it’s gonna be one of those days.

I had rested by a service station in order to dry out my drenched clothes. After an hour I picked up my gear and continued to hike at least two more K’s before William, a technician with Aqua Life, a mineral water company, picked me up and took me, “Six miles down the road,” he said. “To Mutungo.”

If it took me outta Kampala, I’d ride a dead camel just about now.

“Do you know where Nakitoma is?” I asked, almost embarrassed to say the word.

“Yes,” he said.

Finally! “No one knows the place!” I exclaimed in excitement. “I thought I was saying it wrong.”

“No,” he grinned, “you are pronouncing it correctly. But it is very far.”

Mate, I thought, I’ve been travelling over land and sea from Australia to here. Mars is far. Three hours outta Kampala? That’s like a walk to the corner shop.

Once we reached Mutungo hitching was a breeze. Within ten minutes of being dropped in the roadside town, I hitched a ride with Tony and Nelson, coffee farmers on their way to a plantation.

“We are headed to Luwero,” said Tony, after he got off the phone. “It’s about 60 kilometres from here. From there, you can catch a lift to Nakitoma.”

“You know where it is as well?” I asked, my eyebrows rising.

“Of course,” he said. “Tell me,” he continued after learning that I was heading to the Middle East after Africa, “are you not afraid of the Islamic State?”

“The Islamic State should be afraid of me,” I grinned as he and Nelson erupted in laughter.

He asked me about the Aborigines of Australia and I informed him how, like in any Western country where the white man has stolen the lands of the indigenous, they have very little rights and access to education and health care. We parted ways in Luwero where I walked through the town. A smiling couple in a VW Golf stopped at an intersection and took me five minutes down the road. It was better than walking in the hot sun.

Thanking them, I walked downhill when James pulled over in his Nissan Navara, hitting the brakes hard.

“I’m heading to Masindi,” he said. “I know the rhino sanctuary. I can drop you there.”

A telecommunications engineer, James is divorced with three daughters. “I want two more children. But I want sons,” he grinned. “I’m getting married in November.”

“Congratulations,” I congratulated him.

He was of the Moyo tribe, from the northern reaches of Uganda. We pulled into a service station in Mijera, a major security hold where I met Pascal, his brother who works with the defence forces.

“What’s with all the security in Uganda?” I asked. “It’s like everyone’s paranoid here.”

“There are elections next year,” he said, “and the politicians are campaigning. And there is also Al Shabab.”

“Is Uganda a democracy?” I asked as James placed a dark black tea before me and a Rolex.

Unlike the watch, a Ugandan Rolex is an omelette fried with onions and tomato (also with potatoes and cabbage, pending on where you get it) and then wrapped and rolled into a chapati. It’s my new food addiction.

Pascal smiled uneasily and looked into the distance, trying to figure out how to answer my question.

“It’s OK,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “I get it.” Democracy was a loose term in Africa.

“Are you a Christian?” he suddenly asked.

Uganda’s population is 84% Christian. It doesn’t explain why it houses the second largest mosque in Africa – the Gaddafi mosque overlooking Kampala – but that’s the way it is.

“I’m agnostic,” I said carefully.

“What does that mean?”

“I believe in Karma.”

“What is that?”

“You do good things, good things happen to you.”

“So who created the world?” he asked, slightly taken aback.

I love this question. “The earth is 4 billion-years-old, my friend,” I began. “It was created when stars collided creating an explosion that formed gases that created the planet we now call home. The Bible, which is a book with good moral and ethical stories, is just a book. But it claims that god created the earth five thousand years ago, right?”

He nodded.

“Then how do you explain the scientific proof that the Mayans pre-date the Bible? The Aborigines of Australia? Their history goes back 50,000 years.”

Pascal’s jaw dropped as James laughed.

“You are lost, my friend,” Pascal said.

“No, mate. I’m quite found, actually,” I grinned.

“It’s science,” James backed me up.

“Do you know what dinosaurs are?” I asked Pascal.

He shook his head, misty eyed in disbelief.

“You know what a crocodile is, yeah?”

“Yes, of course.”

“So basically, a crocodile is the last remaining dinosaur. These are huge creatures that became extinct 65 million years ago. The crocodile has been around for 200 million years, my friend.”

Pascal leaned back in his chair. He looked to James and then too me.

“Just now,” I was on an unstoppable roll, “in South Africa, a species related to us was discovered. Its bones date back three million years. In Ethiopia and Kenya bones were discovered of our ancestors in the 50s and 60s dating back two million years.

The Bible is just a book with stories.”

He stared at me flabbergasted. “Why do you not tell this to everybody?” he demanded.

“I’m not a preacher, mate,” I said. “If someone asks, then I’ll tell them what I believe in. If they don’t, I won’t force it on anyone. You believe what you want, Pascal,” I put a comforting hand on his arm. “And as long as you’re happy and comfortable, that’s cool. I don’t judge.”

We shook hands as Pascal continued to sit, slightly shocked by having his religous world shattered as James and I walked back to the car.

“I think I disturbed him with my science,” I said.

“He is too religious,” said James.

“You’re not?”

“I’m an engineer. I believe in god but not everything in the bible is gospel.”

We hit the road and a half hour later I was dropped at the Amuka Lodge, James going about 15 K’s out of his way to make sure I made it safely through the bush.

“James, safe travels, my friend,” I shook his hand. “Hope you get those two sons.”

“Thanks for the company,” he grinned as he pulled away.

I was greeted by Jarrad who does T-shirt printing and manages the bar. After putting my gear away in the chalet I had lunch cooked by the talented David and then dived ankle deep into the cement job I had arrived to do.

Four hours later, we finished up, I showered and met Angie and her son, Duan.

“We took over this place about nine years ago,” said the South African native. “We have a stable number of rhinos (numbers are excluded for protection), leopards and cerval cats. We recently discovered that we have honey-badgers too.”

“Oh, those things are ferocious,” I said, recalling a few videos I had seen about them.

“Just when you go to bed,” Angie warned, “make sure you have a flash light as the rhinos do come into the lodge.”

“What do I do in the off-chance that I’m charged?” I asked.

I knew how to handle a predator. In theory, if a predator charges at you, you charge back. Why that freaks them out? I guess they don’t expect it from a puny bi-pedal. But non-predators? They’re more dangerous than predators because if they charge at you, your only option is to run. And non-predators run much faster than us puny bi-pedals.

“Climb a tree or hide behind an anthill,” offered Angie.

Nothing better I like doing at night than climb a tree.

I had dinner of potatoes and chicken wings, a glass of white wine (I was feeling posh) and then I walked back to my chalet with my flashlight on.

It was the longest walk of my life as I turned almost 360 degrees in search of rhinos.

“They’re very quiet,” Angie’s voice echoed in my head.

“The rhinos don’t lift their legs high enough,” Duan had said as I eyed the knocked-over bricks lining the pathway. “It’s a constant job to put the bricks back.”

It’s gonna be an interesting three weeks.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Conservation, Hitch Hiking, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

HITCH HIKING IN UGANDA – PART II

© Rohini Das, 2015

© Rohini Das, 2015

“So you’re a reverend?” I asked Emma, who stopped for Julia and I just before the bridge that crosses the Nile River at its source from Lake Victoria.

Julia, from Germany, was heading to Kampala and I invited her to hitch with me. When hitching with a female companion, it’s best to play husband and wife. For safety and to avoid awkward questions.

So for the next two hours I was married too Julia, answering Emma’s question of, “Are you related?”

“No, she’s my wife,” I grinned as we crossed the Owen Dam bridge over the Nile, the very dam that killed Rippon Falls, where Specke had discovered the source of Africa’s mightiest river.

Kampala, Uganda’s capital, was only about an hour away. We joined the truck that took that morning’s rafters to their white-water activity with Nile River Explorers. The driver dropped us at the roundabout that either leads into Jinja or heads to Kampala.

We walked down the road and were about to set up just past a service station when a para-military officer brandishing a formidable AK-47 appeared outta nowhere and suggested we attempt to stop vehicles elsewhere.

Turns out the Ugandan police don’t like it when you try to hitch outside of their barracks.

We walked down the road and just passed the first section of the bridge I managed to flag down Emma.

“I’m a priest,” he said. “A Catholic priest.”

I’ve always wanted to meet a Catholic priest and ask them a question that had been boggling my mind. It wasn’t keeping me awake at nights but I was curious.

“Can I ask you, as a man of god,” I worded my question carefully, “you’re not allowed to marry and have children, right?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile.

“But doesn’t the bible say that you must pro-create?”

He thought for a minute. “Yes, it does. But to be able to devote myself to the Lord, I must sacrifice having a family.” He then went on to explain that, “In order to become a priest, you have to do medical tests. If it is found that you cannot have children, then you cannot become a priest.”

Wait a minute, “Your ultimate sacrifice is not to have a family,” I pushed lightly, “but if you’re incapable for whatever reason – medical or infertility – then you can’t become a priest?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I frowned. “But if we are all created equal in the eyes of god, then isn’t that discrimination?”

“It is not,” he countered. “To be able to become a priest, to enter the service, I have to sacrifice in order to devote myself to the lord. But if I cannot have children for the reasons you state, then what am I sacrificing?”

Human touch? Love? Going out on weekends? Safaris? White water rafting? Pedophilia? The list is endless. “You choose to devote your life to the service so isn’t that a sacrifice in itself?” I pushed.

“Er, yes,” he stumbled, “in a way but it is not how the church operates.”

“Of course not,” I said. It totally contradicts its own belief, discriminates and goes against the very words it preaches.

Emma focused on driving for a minute before I figured maybe it would be best to change the subject.

“You have siblings?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m one of nine children.”

“Nine?”

Jesus, what is it with this country and the amount of kids produced per family?

“Yes,” he grinned. “I’m one of two boys. The rest are girls.”

I contacted my couch surfing host, Michael, who I then passed on to Emma to figure out where to drop us. Julia was staying with a friend and we reckoned we might catch up during the next few days before her flight back to Germany.

“I will drop you at the Centenary Bank,” Emma said. “He will come to collect you on a boda-boda.”

As we entered Kampala, passing the Mandela National Stadium, I quickly concluded that the traffic here was about 12 times worse than in Nairobi or Zambia’s Lusaka. We thanked Emma for the ride and wished him all the best.

“Well,” I said to Julia, “I guess this is where we divorce.”

Laughing, she headed up to the post office which has a cyber café while I waited for Michael, who arrived a few minutes later. We each got onto a boda-boda and I held on for dear life, considering a life of serving the church the way my driver was riding.

Kampala is quite the hilly city. In fact it means,’ Seven Hills’ on which it was built (now spread to 13). After about 20 minutes we made it to Mike’s place where I put my bags down and he explained that, “I’m going to Entebbe to say goodbye to some French friends that are leaving.”

“OK,” I said and 20 minutes later he left me to his pad.

I’m always impressed by anyone who’ll trust me enough to just leave me in their home. It happened to me in Thailand when my host went to a mediation retreat and she left me with not only her hilltop home overlooking the Gulf of Thailand but also her scooter.

I met Julie who lives with her boyfriend in the unit next door.

“If you need anything, she can help you,” Mike had explained. “She also cooks the food.”

Paul, son of the landlord showed up in the evening.

“I play rugby,” he said upon discovering my Aussie roots.

“Sorry, mate,” I said. “I don’t follow the rugby.”

“I also like watching the cricket,” he tried to warm up to me.

“Yeah, I don’t do cricket either,” I said. “I like surfing, football, basketball, volleyball and anything underwater.”

He explained the things to see in Kampala. “There is the Gaddafi mosque, the second largest in Africa, the tombs of the Buganda Kingdom, the old taxi park – also known as ‘Organised Confusion’ – and one of the biggest markets in Africa.” He grinned. “In Kampala, everything is walking distance.”

“Perfect,” I said. “I like walking.”

We were about a degree above the equator and it was pretty hot in the city but still, no better way to get to know a new place than using your own two feet. He wished me well and I made an outline for the next day – find tour operators and see if I could barter a gorilla trek or anything else and perhaps head west towards Murchisons Falls National Park.

Cities just aren’t my thang.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Uganda | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

UPSTREAM WITH A PADDLE – OR ALEX

IMG_6219“Do you want to go for a paddle?” Alex asked me.

A young lad of 22 from the Musoga tribe, I had met him when I casually walked down to the banks of the Nile seeking adventure.

“Won’t say ‘no’,” I grinned as I stepped into his leaky canoe and  paddled upstream towards the Owen Falls dam. “What do you do?” I asked him as we glided on the still waters of the Nile, close to the bank.

 

IMG_6172A bright blue malachite kingfisher with a long red beak, darted along the banks with us as it fished, resting on the low hanging branches.

“I’m studying in Kampala,” Alex said. “I want to be a doctor.”

We stroked upstream towards a cave where, “There used to be three caves,” explained Alex. “But now there is only this entrance. Because of the dam it made the other entrances fill up with water. See?”

He pointed to the top half of what would appear to be the entry point of one the previous exposed caves.

Dams were a problem on the Nile. They’ve caused tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the Blue Nile, almost leading to all-out war and also with Uganda along the White Nile. But the biggest concern was not for the existing dams but for the one about to come further downstream, towards the rapids.

It was a controversial idea that the government had approved. Thing is, if they do go ahead with it, it will kill Jinja, a huge tourist town that probably brings in most of the tourism dollars for Uganda. White water rafting is growing in its popularity but without rapids to create the white water rush, it’s just rafting. Which I’m sure might be appealing to some but for the adventure seekers, it won’t cut the gravy. And this approved dam will kill the rapids, destroy half of the nature in the area and the income for the town of Jinja and its people.

The malachite kingfisher continued to follow us as we spooked darters, cormorants, open-bill storks, egrets, herons and sandpipers. We paddled all the way to the dam that also acted as a bridge across the river at the mouth of Lake Victoria.

Back in 1862, John Hanning Specke, along with Richard Francis Burton, set out on a mission to find the source of the Nile. These two were the Bradgalina of their time, in the days where being an explorer of foreign lands was the highest celebrity status one could achieve.

Burton loved languages and immersing himself with the locals. Upon reaching Lake Victoria, the two separated. I could imagine the conversation going something like,

Burton: “Right, I’m going to set up camp here for the next few weeks.”

Specke: “Marvellous thought, old chap. I shall continue on the quest for the source of this damned river (see what I did there?).”

Six weeks later, Specke returned with the announcement that, “I’ve found the source. Named it Rippon Falls. I’ll see you in the Queen’s country.”

Burton had his doubts. Although the two were equipped with scientific equipment to survey the land, Specke hadn’t utilised any of it. Upon their separate return to England, Specke’s celebrity status rose to that of Beckham’s in his hey-day. Burton argued in the press and to the Royal Geographic Society that had funded the trip that Specke was full of it and demanded a public debate. Specke accepted. Legend has it that on the day of the debate, Specke was out hunting pheasant when he ‘accidentally’ shot himself dead.

More than a year would pass until it was confirmed that, indeed, Specke had found the source of the Nile. A plaque was made in his honour and placed at Rippon Falls – until they built the Owen Falls dam and relocated the plaque.

“The name of my village is Bujugali,” Alex said. “It was named for the waterfalls next to it, but the dam you saw? It has killed the falls. Now it is just the river flowing.”

Seems to be a concerning pattern.

IMG_6209The canoe had a major leak in it and between shooting photos of the wildlife, paddling and waving at the few fishermen in their canoes, I found myself to be the water bailer. We U-turned just after the 80-meter bungee jump from an outstretched crane and allowed the current to carry us downstream back towards Alex’s village river bank.

Red-tailed monkeys jumped between the tree branches. Water monitors evaded my camera lens and kids splashed in de-Nile (see what I did there? Thanks Stacey), striking poses.

“Alex, thanks for the adventure,” I hugged him as we parted ways. “I’m playing tonight at the Nile River Explorers camp. Come down and see me, if you can,” I invited him.

Smiling, he accepted my offer.

As I hiked back to the camp I couldn’t stop grinning. I asked for an adventure and there I was provided.

Don’t ask, don’t get.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

HITCH HIKING IN UGANDA – PART I

© Rohini Das, 2015

© Rohini Das, 2015

Continued from HITCH HIKING IN KENYA – PART VII

“One hundred dollars,” said the immigration officer at the border-crossing.

“What?” My eyebrows orbited. “Since when?”

“Since July 1st ,” she answered.

Up until then, a Ugandan visa was only $50. For some illogical reason, right when they need as many tourists as they can get, they’ve decided to raise the entry fee to a hundred. And neglected to tell everyone. I was stamped in for 60 days and walked through the border town of Mabala, the Mars-red earth dusty like my childhood room. I walked about 2 K’s before Charles, father to six children, collected me.

“I buy second-hand Japanese cars and import them via Mombasa, Kenya,” he explained his ways. “Then I get a driver to drive them to the border where I collect them to sell in Uganda.”

He dropped me off in Tororo, at a bus stop where I met Bob, a mechanic who had been to China and Dubai.

“I didn’t like China,” he said. “Very racist people. And Dubai as well.”

”When people fear something,” I began my two cents, “or don’t understand why something is the way it is – like different skin colour – then that fear is turned into hatred bred by ignorance which then becomes racism.”

He nodded in agreement as we chatted for about an hour before I managed to flag down Andrew and Connie who took me and another Ugandan to Iganga, a hundred K’s down the road.

“We are on the way to a funeral,” said Andrew.

“My condolences,” I said gravely.

Andrew has four kids. “But I want more,” he said, placing his hand on Connie’s. “Connie will give me six.”

Connie looked at him skeptically.

“Does Connie know?” I asked.

“My father had thirteen children,” he said, ignoring my question.

“Thirteen?!?” I exclaimed.

“No, thirty. Three-zero.”

“Thirty?!?” I fell back into the seat.

“My mother gave birth to 16,” he said proudly.

Jesus. Poor woman.

We arrived in Iganga, a busy smallish town as dusty as the Outback. I hiked it, trying to flag down trucks and other vehicles that were not matatus who couldn’t understand why I was brushing them off.

Finally, Samuel took me on board.

“I’m in a hurry,” he said. “So I will be going fast.”

“Fast is good,” I said nervously. “As long as you get us their safely.”

“Always. I hurry but I’m safe.”

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“To a barrier.”

“A barrier?”

“A burial.”

“Oh, a funeral.”

Hmm, two rides in a row heading to a funeral. Must be something in the air. Perhaps the dust.

He began to give me driving lessons, as though I didn’t know the logics of driving on a road.

“You see this lane?” he said, almost pushing a motorbike out of the way. “This is the fast lane. It is for cars that are going fast. He should move to the left so I, a fast car, can pass him. Then, when I pass him, I will return to the left lane to let even faster vehicles overtake me safely.”

“Of course,” I said, trying not to roll my eyes.

He dropped me on the outskirts of Jinja where I began to walk and managed to flag down Steven who had passed me twice on the road. He dropped me off in the centre of town. I spied a pick-up truck with two young locals just sitting and chatting who had laughed when I was trying to get a lift into town.

Pretending like I didn’t recognise them, I approached the vehicle and excused myself. “You guys know where the Nile River Explorer camp is?” I interrupted.

“Yeah,” Holinise said. “Get in, we’ll take you.”

“Wow,” I said. “Thank you so much. I’m not interrupting you, am I?”

“No, we are just conversing,” Denise, the driver, said.

They took me to the hostel where I met Mark, my contact, and in the afternoon I was on the back of the camp truck heading to the campsite on the Nile River. I met Ross, the manager, was placed in the dorm room and began to set up for that evening’s gig.

Good vibes here. Good vibes.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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