Friday, March 21, 2014

Murchison Falls - Day 4

Our fourth and last day on safari was another early start, with only about 15 minutes to gulp down breakfast before we hit the road. The rush was so that we could make the first ferry to the other side of the river and start our journey back to Kampala. The ferry was not far from Paraa, at the same place where we'd taken the boat safari. We were among the first vehicles in line, most of which were trucks and construction vehicles associated with the oil exploration in and near Murchison Falls National Park.

The ferry was essentially a flat boat with a motor, with a few railings and chains to hold onto. We made it onto the first boat and negotiated places to stand among the vehicles. There were two women on the ferry with us who had also been at Paraa. We'd noticed one of them the night before because she looked so incredibly done up, which is out of place at a safari lodge. At dinner the night before she'd had on a natty outfit, her wig was big and perfectly coiffed, and she was bling-ed out to the nines. One of her rings was about the size of her hand. What caught our eye wasn't the seeming out-of-place adornments so much as the way she carried herself. She was cool and confident and just made you think she felt entirely comfortable with herself. We loved it and decided she was our inspiration for aging gracefully (if not for her fashion style).

After five minutes on board the ferry we watched the mad rush to get off the boat first and hit the road. We dawdled a bit before loading into the van and taking off, and we paid for it by being stuck behind slow-moving vehicles for quite a while. Our first destination was the top of Murchison Falls. Though still in the park, we saw almost no wildlife. I can only imagine this is because they've gotten tired of the construction vehicles coming through twice a day every day. This is a touchy subject in conservation circles here, and I understand entirely why there are concerns. Aside from the odd antelope and monkey, we saw no wildlife in the remainder of the park, probably about 50 kilometers (I may be wrong - it could be more or less; it just felt forever because the road was full of washboards, another construction vehicle hazard).

Murchison Falls consists of a 7m gap through which approximately 11,000 cubic feet of water pass every second to get to a 43m drop. It's quite impressive, even on a cloudy, dreary day such as the one we had.

We walked the hundred meters or so down to the observation point (again, I'm completely making up that distance - it wasn't terribly far, but it was rocky and steep in parts, but with a good trail) and took our photos and marveled. As is typical in this part of the world, it was possible to get perilously close to the falls for photo ops, though none of us was keen to balance on slippery rocks for this purpose.

Waterfalls are always impressive but sometimes a little disappointing when you're right up close, not to mention difficult to capture in photographs, and this one is no different. Definitely worth seeing if you're here, but it's just slightly underwhelming at the top of the falls.

As we started to trek back up to the car, who should we see but our favorite pair of ladies! Our bouffant beauty was making her way down to the view points carefully but determinedly, stopping to ask us if it was worth it to go all the way. It was, we assured her, and she and her friend continued on. Love it.

We got back in the van and made our way back toward Kampala. We stopped at Zziwa Rhino Sanctuary but decided not to do the rhino trek (we were all pretty tired). It's a pretty neat operation they've got there, though, and definitely worth a visit. Our only other stop was at the same gas station we'd stopped at on the way here, where we got cold drinks and settled down for lunch.  We'd ordered packed lunches from Paraa, but as we opened them we had the final let down. There had been several choices, and we'd gotten a selection of them, but each of them was severely lacking in what it had promised. Instead of the quiches, assorted fruit, various sandwiches, etc we had been promised, each box held two apples, a grape juice box, a very dry cake, and a lackluster sandwich with questionable contents. None of us ate very much.

The rest of our trip to Kampala was thankfully uneventful and mostly free of traffic, and we got home in time to regroup and run some errands. Murchison Falls is not the best park I've been to in Uganda (Kidepo has that prize thus far), but it's worth a try, especially if you include Chobe lodge in your travel plans.

I think a sunny day would have made these photos more exciting...

Deceiving perception; this is looking down the falls toward the lower part of the Nile

The closest viewing area to the falls is in the center of the photo on the right-hand side.

Monday, March 10, 2014

But I don't need to check out...

I haven't been blogging a lot lately, not so much due to being busy as to not being particularly inspired. I'm at the eight month countdown for leaving post, and it feels like everyone expects me to check out or acquire short-timer's disease sooner rather than later, which I don't really feel the need to do, at least for many more months. My colleagues might disagree, but I think I did a pretty good job of not checking out mentally in Jeddah until the last few weeks, and even then to a much lesser degree than many others! Truth be told, I'm not counting down from Kampala. This is a great post, I love my job, I love my house, I'm comfortable. And the things that drive me crazy about Uganda won't go away just because I leave; they'll just manifest themselves as other things in Lebanon and make me nostalgic for the good old days in Kampala.

Part of the issue is that while I'm leaving post this year, I'm leaving several months after the mass exodus that is summer transfer season, so I don't have the same sense of urgency/relief/stress that others are feeling right now. I'm looking forward to having more time to prepare for pack out (let's see if I use any of it wisely!) and less competition for GSO and other resources for actually checking out. Sadly I'll miss some good friends who are leaving this summer, and I'll have the inevitable but depressing task (that's not the right word, but you get the idea) of welcoming new people to post, making great new friends, and then leaving them in a few short months. This always happens, but it still sucks. One perpetual feature of FS life that not a lot of people talk about but everyone experiences.

My EER is well under way, so I don't have that pressure hanging over me right now, and our mission's big project for the spring will be over next week. I will have significant overlap with my successor but still need to work on SOPs and brain-dumps, and there are always long-term projects to work on.

So I like to call this unintended blogging hiatus a result of the eight month doldrums, but, really, it's just life. Because these aren't really doldrums, anyway; I'm not depressed/anxious/resigned or any of those things.

I could commit to posting a photo or quick story every day, but that's not really my style. I can only commit myself to so many things without losing momentum on all of them, and I'm trying to be good about working out, so I'm sticking with that one for now. I still have some travelogues to get up and will work on those, but the next trip is probably three months away, so until then expect a lot of cat stories/photos. (Followed by a safari-filled visit with my mom later this summer!)

Anyway, there's my random brain-dump for the day, probably brought to you in part by my being home sick this afternoon. I have been feeling off since Friday with no real symptoms I could put my finger on except fatigue, so I took advantage of a slow(ish) afternoon to come home and try to get better. And on the ride home I figured it out. As I squinted through my sunglasses because the sun was still too bright, it hit me. This is a migraine. Without the headache. It all made sense. Fatigue, light and sound sensitivity, a bit of nausea, and crankiness. None of them diagnostic on their own, but together - pow! I did have a headache yesterday but not a bad one or on par with a migraine, so I didn't connect the dots. Sure enough, two Excedrin Migraines and a cat nap (literally - they're still in my bed) later, and I am feeling much more like my old self. I don't get migraines very often anymore, thank goodness, and I very rarely get silent migraines, but it's not unheard of. I am feeling very empowered by having figured this out and addressed it, if you can't tell ;-).

So, there you have it. My caffeine-induced rant for the day (week, more likely).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Murchison Falls Day 3

We woke up early on Sunday, but not nearly as early as we wanted. For some reason a lot of Ugandan tour operators and lodges aren't geared toward the early morning drives, which I think can be some of the best! A lot of lodges want you to eat breakfast first and then go out. So that's what we did Sunday, arriving for breakfast as soon as they opened, and had a quick fuel up before heading out.

Our drive was fun but not awesome; we found out later that the one group who went out before breakfast saw lions but nobody else did. Sigh. Our first big sighting was hyenas, not too far into the park. We saw one, then two, then soon the entire pack of six was visible. They marked territory, sniffed things out, posed for photos, and then took on up the road onto bigger and better pursuits. I've never seen a large pack of hyenas so close before; the ones in Amboseli were pretty far away in a mud pit. Very cool!

A few giraffes and quite a few DLTs crossed our path as we made our way to the river, where we reveled in birdlife, hippos, and buffalos. We saw a beautiful saddle-billed stork in the marshy area by the Nile and the usual egrets, yellow-billed storks, and assorted others. Another safari vehicle was taking a break nearby, its occupants getting out for a stretch. One woman had ventured away from the group right up to the river's edge. We kept waiting for a hippo or croc to get her, but she survived another day. Stupid.

We moved on, or tried to, as a giant herd of buffalo crossed the road in front of us. We were held up about five minutes waiting for them to move on, but, as buffalo are want to do, they kept stopping and staring at us. Not nature's smartest creatures.

We meandered back to the lodge without seeing any more predators, just the usual range of DLTs and assorted ungulates. We dispersed upon arriving, some napping, some lounging, but all relaxing for a lazy Sunday morning.

After lunch we hopped in the vehicle and headed down to the boat launch for our trip to the base of Murchison Falls. We boarded the low-to-the-water but sturdy aptly-named Hippo boat and headed off.

Almost immediately we saw two young elephants drinking water from the river and occasionally hiding in the foliage. Very cute. The trip was what you'd expect - lots of hippos and birds, the occasional crocodile, and ungulates grazing on the banks. It was wonderful. We didn't see any Shoebill storks, though, which was very disappointing, but I am hopeful I'll see one on a next trip.

We saw lots of bird nests in the cliffs, ingeniously camouflaged in natural and not-so-natural holes. Quite a few patas, colobus, and vervet monkeys were visible or at least audible as they played in the trees. We saw the elephant from the day before with the injured leg. He didn't look great and, in fact, as we were heading back to the launch he was lying down in the water. I really hope he was just resting.

The large schools of hippos were often content to just let us go by, though some insisted on standing and walking away from the boat. There were dozens of little ones, including some grazing on the banks with their mothers, which was a nice treat to see!

We passed the marker for the site of Ernest Hemingway's 1954 plane crash at Murchison Falls, the first of two crashes that day for him. Before long we docked against a small island in the middle of the river, the massively powerful Murchison Falls in sight a few hundred meters away. The power of the falls creates a great deal of foam, which was concentrated in this part of the river but visible even farther downstream. Very cool!

We headed back to the launch, seeing some of the same and some new animals. Getting back to the vehicle we elected to do a game drive rather than head right back to the lodge.

We had a good afternoon for giraffe sightings but not for much else. Or maybe I just took less photos of the same antelope we'd seen for two days. Sometimes it's hard to tell or remember. We did have an almost lion sighting, circling a lone male for an hour, though we never saw him. The other vehicle that got to the site a minute before us swears they saw him and they also circled with us, but I'm not sure they really did, because I've not known lions to be quite so good at (or inclined for) hiding.

Heading back to the lodge we enjoyed one last Ugandan sunset and then had a lovely last dinner with lots of laughter and stories.

The highlight of the evening happened a bit later. S and I had taken our showers and gotten ready for bed. We were in our respective beds reading by the light of our Kindles when we heard a commotion outside. S ran to the balcony and called me out. An adolescent elephant had made his way into the lodge grounds and was enjoying a meal of flowers and fresh water. He had apparently been there about 15 minutes already, according to E&A next door, who had been watching the whole production. The elephant had eluded the guards' efforts to scare him off and herd him off and instead turned on the spigot for the hose and was merrily drinking from it. When we arrived he was starting to get annoyed at the guards' efforts and was retreating quite unhappily, pulling down branches as he went. While perfectly capable of stepping over the fence at the edge of the property (right under our balconies!) he instead went through in one last act of defiance. Quite entertaining!

Early morning hyena

Two hyenas!


Heading on to greener pastures

Love the dust/smoke in this photo - adds to the ambiance.

Saddle-billed stork

This is where the silly tourist was standing

Slow-moving herd
Buffalo crossing


Not feeling very social


Injured leg ellie :-(

Still favoring that back leg

Nesting croc

Bird nests in the cliffs

All the holes are nests!

More nexting

Base of Murchison Falls

Foamy water

One of my favorite pics :-)

Hemingway's crash site

Pretty hippos

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Murchison Falls - Day 2

Day 2 in Murchison Falls started with waking to the sounds of hippos grunting in the water. We got dressed and packed and headed to the main lodge for breakfast. We had allotted 90 minutes for a leisurely breakfast and checking out, but the bajillion course breakfast was even more leisurely, and we ended up leaving about 30 minutes after we'd planned. Meanwhile we watched the hippos (back in the water) and chatted and enjoyed being one of only two groups of guests at this impeccable lodge (the other group was a quiet British couple).

Finally we were back in the van on our way to the other side of the park to our second lodge. This necessitated leaving the park and driving around to another gate because the one road through the park was currently impassable. There were plenty of various antelope (which we now just call DLTs, short for deer-like things, a term coined during last year's Kidepo trip and one that comes in very handy), a few giraffes, and some monkeys as we drove out of the park, and then we got back on the main road and drove around to the other side. As we got closer to the park again we started seeing elephants in the fields and swamps and stopped a few times to take photos. One particular elephant, very close to the road, was balancing on three legs and had his back left leg crossed around the other back leg, nursing a very nasty wound from a poacher's snare. We all winced and cursed the poachers and wished him well. He'd feature again later in the weekend...

We re-entered the park around noon and headed towards Paraa Safari Lodge. Along the way we spotted our first Jackson's Hartebeest - my favorite dopey-looking antelope, patas monkeys, our first buffalo of the weekend, and plenty more DLTs. We were greeted by a sightings board which amused us to no end given the hilarious projections of numbers of hippos, deer, and warthogs as well as the lone motorcycle rider. We noted that the only predators on the board were 2 lions, but our guide said they had actually been seen the day before.

Paraa, though owned by the same company as Chobe, is a very different type of lodge. An older lodge, built in a more rustic British colonial style, shows its age in places, and the staff were not as customer-oriented as we'd experienced at Chobe. Perhaps it was because the sheer volume of guests was overwhelming; we were immediately wishing we had another night at Chobe. Our rooms weren't yet ready so we headed upstairs for lunch. The buffet lunch was pretty disappointing after Chobe, but we made it work. 

After checking in to our lackluster rooms, we read/napped/sunbathed until it was time to go on an afternoon drive. We met Grace at four and loaded into the car, roof raised, for our drive. Once we left the lodge and the park gate we soon met a recurring herd of waterbuck who we would see along the same stretch of road for the next two days and then elephants heading from the marshy areas toward the river. It was dusty and hazy here, owing to the dry grass coupled with smoke from seasonal burns. At one burn site, near the airstrip, there were thousands of birds testing the still-smoldering soil to probe for bugs and yummy treats. When it got too hot they'd fly up for a few moments and then fly right back down.

We saw our first (of many thousand) oribi as we went further into the park. These tiny little antelope are adorable, often in pairs, and are seemingly fearless as they only bound away once you're quite close. This all adds up to cute most of the time, but we did see one poor guy who had bounded into oncoming traffic instead of away. They were making the most of the last hours of sunset, often lying in the warm dirt of the road, which was a hazard to driving.

We started seeing more hartebeest, my favorite dopey-looking antelope, and kob and waterbuck. As the dry grasslands segued to hilly savannah and green pastures the herd animals were all on display. We saw a lot of giraffes in the distance, fewer up close.

We made our way toward the Nile, starting to see some pockets of buffalo, spotting an elusive bushbuck family in the dense brush, and scaring a family of guinea fowl. The river was beautiful, with views of fisherman trying to bring in a bit more catch before sunset, a huge flock of crowned cranes flying, and buffalos and elephants in the reeds. We saw pods of hippos, what might have been crocs (from a distance so we couldn't tell), and smoke from burns across the river. Game was relatively sparse here, and no predators were in sight.

As we made our way slowly back to the lodge, the five of us stopped chattering and all intently stared out the windows in search of predators. All of a sudden, as I at least was lulled into a bit of a trance, Grace slowed the vehicle, stopped, and then backed up. "A leopard," he said calmly, as the five of us sprang to action searching for what he'd seen. Sure enough, there in a tree to the right of the road was a beautiful leopard. Probably fairly young as it wasn't very big, chilling in the tree with not a care in the world. He looked toward us dispassionately.

This was probably my best (of three) lifetime sightings of a leopard, but it still required the digital zoom on my camera to get a few good shots. We watched and marveled until another car pulled up behind us. We pointed out our find and moved on, content to let them marvel and watch.

The remainder of the drive was recounting how cool it was to see a leopard, interspersed with watching herd animals and then taking photos of the sunset. We arrived back at the lodge about 30 minutes before dinner. First order of business was to update the sightings board with our leopard! After that we relaxed and sat in one of the lounge areas soaking up wifi on our various devices. Just like college, sort of.

Dinner was better than lunch but not wonderful, but we had a lovely time talking and laughing and recounting. S and I went back to our room, took turns showering, and settled into our beds to read, distant hippo sounds helping to lull us to sleep.

The pool complex at Chobe

What a view!

See hippos in the pools

Ellies outside the park gate; the one on the left is injured

Loving the marsh

Patas Monkey


Jackson's Hartebeest

Buffalo and egret

Yummy palm plant

Symbiosis at work

Run, oribi, run!

The lodge sighting board before our drive

Elephant crossing


Guinea fowl, with babies! Super hard to photograph

Rothschild giraffe

Oribi - love those adorable little antlers!


The Nile, smoke from seasonal burns in the background

Crowned cranes in flight

This guy found something awesome in this brush, he kept going farther and farther in


Love the way they relax

stupid branch!

There's nothing like an African sunset...

The sighting board after our drive :-).