My Lonely Planet, guidebook claims that the Queen Elizabeth National Park is the jewel in the crown of Uganda’s parks, it also claims that the elusive Shoebill can seen at Lake Kikorongo, in the park. This lake is our first destination, the local bird guide there tells me that the Shoebill has been seen there three times in the last five years, I am not sure I can wait for the next off chance.
He did tell me that the bird is seen at Lake George, North East of the park and at Edward Flats in the South of the park, a hundred kilometres away.
At our camp, yet again we were the only ones there, during the day baboons and warthogs patrolled the area, when we leave the tent we have to make sure there is no food in it, we even take out the lemon flavoured washing up liquid and the peach flavoured shower gel, if there is a whiff of food the animals will tear the tent apart to get to it. At night we have elephants and hippos, the eles are browsers and chew the bushes and trees, the hippos are grazers and munch grass, they grip the grass with their lips and pull it, they have BIG lips, and just outside the tent in the middle of the night it sounds scary munching so Helen thinks.
We went to Lake George, and as predicted it was too difficult to get to the Shoebill areas. So we drove round the savannah to try and see the “regularly seen” lions.
After driving round for two hours not one lion, the grass is quite long and easy enough for the cats to stay out of sight, but by now I was in need of a wee, I stopped, scanned all round, got out the and did my business, all the time looking, looking. I thought it would be just my luck with all that time we have been searching and seeing nothing, one could come out of the grass while I am standing there with my, er, my,.. standing there in a compromising situation.
Two days in the North of the park and not a lot to show so now we are heading South, along the track we saw an elephant right next to the road. I slowed down switched off the engine to coast to a stop, Helen gave me the camera, and as we drew close to the magnificent beast, I saw he had his ears flared (not a good sign) and I thought this will be a good photo. But then the silly thing started to charge at us, I thrust the camera back to Helen, I opted not to take a photo of the elephant as it wanted to charge too much. I started the engine, fumbled with the gears, and tried to make a smart getaway, amidst all this panic Helen had the presence of mind to get a photo. Not the best composition in the world, but any photo in a panic will do, as we drove away I was looking in the mirror, and the elephant was chasing us down the track for about a hundred metres.
As we booked into riverside camp, we decided to have a cup of coffee at the canteen (shed) while we were sitting there drinking and watching weaver birds at work, the tranquillity was broken by the roar of worn out diesel engines, and two ancient tanks burst into view. Jokingly I asked the manager of the shed if this was part of the anti-poaching patrol, he told me it was the border patrol, where we eventually put our tent up was only a fifteen metre paddle/wade/swim across the river from the turbulent Democratic Republic of the Congo. So there were armed soldiers and police patrolling the camp and environs day and night.
Having put the tent up we went out looking for the famous tree climbing lions, after a while we got fed up with that so we headed for Edward Flats to look for Shoebill, this is a lowland area and rather muddy in places.
Back in the UK while I was readying the car for our trip, on a whim I fitted a winch, not that we were going to need one, but I just wanted one, but it is a gizmo, a boys toy, during our trip I have spent a fair bit of time crawling under the car repairing things, during this crawling I have seen several serious design flaws in the way I have mounted the thing, and I have worked out how I should have done it. But none of that matters as we are not planning on going into any difficult situations, and I am never going to use it,………………….until now. I am standing up to my knees in gooey sludge, standing outside the car surveying the situation as it stands slightly more than axle deep in the same goo as I am.
This is what you call deep doo doos, and possibly the only thing that going to help us is the defectively mounted winch, and nothing to anchor to except two small bushes. Inspecting the bushes I found one was far too spindly and the other may be up to the job, if we can reach it. We had to run out almost the whole of the fifty metre drum to get to the bush, I was franticly waving hand signals to Helen on the winch control, she was franticly ignoring me as she scribbling down our GPS coordinates, the fact that we had no phone or a number for any potential rescuer seems to have gone completely over her head. But once I got her attention and we started to act a little bit like a team our self-rescue started coming together.
I got the cable round the bush and we started our tow, I asked Helen to keep an eye on the bull bar, I was worried about my flawed design, with me driving and Helen winching we managed inch by inch to pull our two tons of vehicle up the side of the hole and out of this quagmire, as we were creeping up I think the winch master/mistress forgot her duties of making sure the car stays with the bull bar, as her shouting we’re going, we’re going was getting louder and more excited.
But eventually we managed to get the two front wheels up onto terra firma just as the bush uprooted, but from then we managed to drive out.
Helen wanted to turn back but I pointed out that we were across the bog we may as well go on. This we did, until the next bog, I conceded defeat, on the way back I had to stop and walk round in the long grass to find a route round the two difficult places and just drove through the easier ones till we were back on the main track and Helen was happy again.
This also ended our day of Shoebill spotting.
Next day we took the other circuit for tree climbing lions, after one and a half hours we decided to give up and leave. On the way out I felt the need to vent my spleen, and moan about the lack of wildlife and the cost of the park, I know seeing game is the luck of the draw, but this park does not have a lot, and it is the dearest park in Uganda, for us being foreigners it is $35 a day each, and our also being a foreigner is a whopping $150, the only other thing that gets charged that much is an articulated lorry, and there are not many of them out lion spotting.
The staff were all apologetic and said we should have seen a lion, they are all there, perhaps we should have had a guide, as they previously suggested, and we declined. But two people were coming in and they had just hired a local guide, we were told to follow them.
Two and half hours later after going to all the secret places that the guide knows, and I admit we would never have found, nada, zilch, nothing, at the gate I thanked the staff for their help even though it was without success, I also told them about our failure with the Shoebill and they we should have had a guide. I just mentioned the very recent lion guiding episode, everyone laughed and we left.