Though I went to Uganda for volunteer work, as soon as the word ‘safari’ slipped into my head, I knew I had to spend money on myself.
I contacted various travel agencies and repeatedly heard “maybe” from them. I was frustrated and unsure. The more challenging it became to book a safari ticket, the more I wanted to go. Finally I found plans that were secure. I was going to Queen Elizabeth National Park for three days.
The safari would have been ridiculously expensive, as each tour has a set price. However, the travel agency had set me up with three girls from Holland, making the tour cost about $350 per person.
I met the Dutch girls that Monday morning when Dominic, our Ugandan guide picked us up. The girls were lean, tan, and blonde. They had been staying near Kampala and working in an orphanage for four months and were looking for a vacation.
Dominic drove us west from Kampala for seven hours. The girls spoke to each other nonstop while I read. By the time we reached the park, the sun was setting. “We will go on an evening game drive before you go to the hostel,” Dominic said.
We drove slowly along a bumpy path, all of us peering through the dusk to try to see movement. I was silent, trying not to disturb any creatures. The Dutch girls held their cameras in their hands, and after losing patience, they cried out, “YOO HOO! ANIMALS!”
We saw several distant monkeys, a few elephants, waterbucks (like normal male deer but with better horns), African buffalo, a wounded hippo who’d ventured into the sun to dry out, and countless warthogs.
I’d recently seen Broadway’s production of The Lion King, all I could think of was the soundtrack. “When I was a young wartHOOOOGGGGG!” my brain screamed on repeat.
After the drive, Dominic took us to our hostel, which was located a stone’s throw from a stunningly beautiful hotel called The Lodge. The Lodge had an incredible view overlooking two nearby lakes and the waters connecting them. Our hostel was set back and had no view. It was dingy, cheap, and perfect for sleeping in. I shared a double room with one of the Dutch girls. As soon as I was awake, I’d leave my hostel. I spent my free time at The Lodge, sitting on the patio with a book and a glass of shitty red wine, pretending I belonged.
Our first morning at the park began at 6:30 a.m. We yawned as we climbed back into Dominic’s van. The roof could pop up, still providing shade but allowing us to stand on the seats, pop our heads above the van, and watch the sun rise.
The terrain was hilly in a gentle way, with random patches of plants. Dominic explained that in the middle of each plant grouping was a cactus that provided enough natural water to create a mini oasis. All other land was dry and golden, while in the distance, the blue Rwenzori Mountains rose up. Again, the Lion King soundtrack repeated in my head.
Almost immediately we drove past a herd of elephants. I was fascinated. I had spent time at the visitor information center the day before, and I’d read that elephant’s ears were shaped like Africa. Looking at the herd, all I could see was waving grey flags of Africa everywhere.
The Dutch girls were always discussing who eats who in Uganda. Hippos are vegetarian, but violent, and so still a threat to anyone who startles them or intrudes in their space. Elephants, it turns out, don’t eat or harm anyone. They just eat huge amounts of grass and drink water like nobody’s business. They live until they are 70 or 80, dying at a large size.
“What about the babies? Aren’t they tempting to lions,” I asked.
“The babies are more protected than the President,” Dominic said. “Nobody touches them.”
There were other safari groups driving, and we idled along behind them, all stopping together to point out distant hyenas, or to watch the antelopes stare at us while we stared at them. “It’s a lion restaurant,” said one of the Dutch girls, and Dominic laughed.
The girls wanted badly to see lions, and eventually, we stopped behind the other two vans to view some. I could see the other tourists pointing at a distant brown speck. It didn’t look like a lion, just a blotch that occasionally shifted.
“Dominic!? Can we drive up and see the lions??” one girl asked in her animal-calling voice. The passengers in the other vans looked over at us and chuckled. I was slightly embarrassed and hoped I didn’t look like I was one of them. Going off the driving path was forbidden and fineable, making her question a stupid one. The other tourists began putting their binoculars away and lowering their heads back into their vans. Slowly, all the other vans drove off.
“Let’s just wait here,” Dominic said. After the other vehicles were out of sight, he started the car, turned off the path, and headed out across the land.
“Dominic, you’re the best!” One girl squealed. I felt instantly fortunate to be in a group full of cute girls from Holland. We drove up, paused long enough for a few photos while Dominic nervously looked over his shoulder, and then drove back to the path. The two lions there were extremely aware of us, and stared intensely. It felt nothing like seeing lions behind glass at a zoo. But to me, they still just looked like big, beautiful kitties.
Later that day, we went on a boat cruise. It was about 3 p.m. and I’d already had one safari under my belt that day. I converted the time in my head, realized that it was seven a.m. in Milwaukee, and felt fortunate to be boarding a boat.
We floated along the shore, bobbing alongside so many groups of hippos and buffalo. They rested in the shallows, flipping their ears, dipping into the water, and occasionally pooping (didn’t they notice there was a boat of tourists with cameras watching?).
Near the end of the boat ride, we approached a village; the only one permitted in the park. On one side of the national park was a crater lake with salt deposits, so the village residents were all fishermen or salt collectors. As we boated past, we waved at the locals. The boys waved back, stripped down to their shorts, and swam in the lake. I was so confused. Hippos, these so-called vicious beasts, were so close, yet the boys didn’t seem to care. Perhaps these animals only feasted on tourists who were dumb enough to doubt the animal’s ferocity.
Later that day as I walked from my hostel to the hotel, I crossed paths with a warthog. I did not underestimate it. I stiffened, and hardly breathed as it walked past me. I crept slowly behind it and watched it walk into the hostel’s garage. There was a car inside and I doubted the warthog could fit in with its big facial tusks, but it did. As soon as it disappeared into the shadows, I heard a series of crashes. I could only imagine how startled a person would be to hear a commotion in their garage and find a warthog causing a ruckus inside.
The next morning we had our last animal adventure: a chimp trek.
Now, when I signed up for the safari, I had asked about what kind of shoes to wear on the trek. “Are these okay or do I need boots?” I’d asked.
The tour agent looked at my sandaled feet. “Oh, those are okay!” So I’d left for the safari with only one kind of footwear.
We left the hostel and rode to the Kyambura Gorge. It was ginormous. It was as though the earth had torn, creating a crack filled where lush plants grew below the dry ground. The gorge stretched out so far that I couldn’t see the ends. What I could see, though, was that every other tourist was rocking hiking boots, khaki shorts, fanny packs and water bottles. I was bra-less, wearing a tank top, gauchos and sandals. Fuck, I thought. Maybe if I don’t speak no one will know I’m American.
We hiked down the muddy trail, slipping occasionally and holding onto trees as we walked. There were several paths, sometimes treaded into the ground, but sometimes made from two by fours. There were bridges too. A river ran along the bottom of the gorge, and almost all the ground was wet.
“The chimps use the bridges,” our hiking guide told us. “They cannot swim, so they either swing across the river in the trees or walk across the bridge.” Our guide was carrying a massive gun, which made me nervous rather than calming my nerves. “This is just in case we run into an elephant or something. The sound will scare it away from us, but no elephants should be here at this time of day.”
We never did see an elephant, but we saw tiger tracks. The chimps rustled over our heads, but they were so far up that it was hard to see details.
We hit a point in the path where the ground went from damp to puddled. Our guide paced back and forth, trying to figure out a way across. Finally he settled on just marching through it. He stepped across, and held out his hand, helping everyone cross over. I stepped up at the end, wishing I had boots and wondering what was in the bottom of the puddle. I held his hand, stepped in with one foot, and stepped out with a broken sandal.
“Oh no, um… my shoe…” I tried to say. The guide hadn’t noticed and had spun and marched to the front. I hobbled along behind my group carrying my sandal and trying not to let my bare foot hit the ground. “Um, my shoe broke,” I said again to the guide.
He looked, grabbed it, and walked off. The Dutch girls looked at me sympathetically, and then walked on. I limped behind them. We reached another bridge that we had to cross to get out of the gorge, but this one was natural; it was a fallen tree. One by one, people inched across, sometimes on their knees or butts.
I walked up, wearing my one sandal, praying to not fall in the water below. Before I climbed onto the tree, the guide handed me my sandal. He’d stuck the broken part back through the hole and tied it around a small stick with grass. I gently tugged on the formerly- loose strap. It was secure. “Oh! Thank you!” I said.
After safely making it across the tree, we climbed up the muddy trail back to Dominic’s van. Once inside, I settled into my seat, prepared for the seven hour drive back to Kampala and the real world of caged animals.
(written primarily in 2008)