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Thursday, December 7, 2017

On Safari in Uganda

On the Road in Uganda

I guess I should have turned off the flash!

Sunday November 26th

I’m driving down a twisting two lane highway in Rwanda a Toyota Land Cruiser.  Pretty Penny is in the back bopping to the sound of the Zack Brown Band blaring from the back speakers:

“I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand 
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand 
Life is good today Life is good today…”

On the road to Kigali

 Peter, our guide and driver, downshifts as the Toyota Land Cruiser drifts into another hairpin turn narrowly avoiding a flipped semi – the third one we’ve seen on this stretch of highway.   He’s pushing hard to make Kigali before dark.  No one wants to be driving this road at night.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This African FAM tour began two weeks ago in Entebbe, Uganda.  For those of you not in the know, a FAM tour is short for Familiarization tour.  This particular FAM tour is sponsored by Great Lake Safaris and was arranged for me by my friend Raza Visram  at AfricanMecca Safaris.     

Tuesday November 14th – Entebbe, Uganda
There are five us in our happy little group: four travel agents, the aforementioned Pretty Penny from the tour company, and myself – the only travel writer in the group.
Guess which ones are in our group
Debbie and Rick are a couple of travel agents from Toronto.  Marilyn is a travel agent from South Africa, and then there’s Sue Ellen.  Sue Ellen’s from Texas – and like Texas, everything about her is bigger than life.   She’s a woman of replacements: hips, knees and husbands.  She’s had four of them so far – husbands – not hips.

Peter, our guide and driver, has picked us up early.  Our first order of business is the  41.5km  (about 20 miles) to Kampala for an orientation meeting at the offices of our host, Great Lakes Safaris.  Normally this drive would take a little over an hour, but because of rush hour traffic it takes closer to two.

Great Lakes offices
The offices are in the “better” section of Kampala – better because the road has less potholes and there are actually bits of green on either side of the road.  We enter the Great Lake Compound through a locked gate and our treated to a modern two story building nestled in a nicely landscaped lot.  A half dozen land cruisers are parked in front of the building – several of them being worked over by mechanics in monogramed coveralls.

We are introduced to the staff then ushered into the corporate office for  brief meet and greet with Amos Wekesa, the owner of the company.  Amos is a Uganda success story, having risen from very humble beginning to running a company with revenues over 6 million dollars. 

His staff refers to him in hushed revered tones. They inform us about his business acumen, his religious devotion, and charitable contributions in both time and money.   Through his companies he helps Indians who were forced to flee Idi Amin return and resettle in Uganda.  Did I mention that he played competitive tennis until a few years ago?  There are rumors of a foray into politics in the future.  During the slick video presentation I happen to refer to him as “Famous Amos.”

A sudden hush fills the room as the staff considers my glib comment.  After a few moments they smile – they like the moniker I’ve bestowed on him: the name sticks – he’s now “Famous Amos” for the rest of the tour

After the video presentation we’re rewarded with loot bags filled with brochures, t-shirts and other swag as we’re escorted back to our land cruiser.   

Our tour officially begins with a seven hour ride to Murchison Falls. Early in the drive it becomes readily apparent that Sue Ellen, the Texan lady,  likes asking questions – lot of questions about sixty an hour.  She has affected Penny’s Ugandan accent.
“Pee-tah!  Oh Pee-tah!” she bellows from the back of the Land Cruiser, “What kind of tree is that?”
“Pee-tah!  Oh Pee-tah! Is that an elephant?”
“Pee-tah!  Pee-tah”
And so it goes… endlessly.
"Pretty Penny"

She also peppers Penny, who also works for Great Lakes Safaris with questions.  Sue Ellen is a big fan of “The Big Bang Theory,” so she can’t just call Penny once.   It’s “Penny…   Penny…  Penny…:

Peter patiently answers all her questions as I grind my teeth.  But I do notice that he is driving faster - passing cars with increasing frequency – missing oncoming traffic by only a few inches.
Do I denote a death wish here?

When Peter is finally pulled over by a cop with a radar gun I offer to get out and help him with the cop.  Anything to get out of the car.

“I’m somewhat of an expert about radar guns,” I inform Peter.
There was a time a few years ago that I fought every speeding ticket I got – and won them all.  At least my tickets.

When I was on a road trip with Max, Harry and Alex some years ago, Max got pulled over by a Mountie when he was travelling about three hundred miles an hour down the Island Highway.

Max claimed he was an expert at getting out of speeding tickets and got of the car to talk to the Mountie.  I could see he wasn’t getting far so I got out of the car to help.

“Excuse me, officer,” I interrupt. “But is that an MPH model 7 radar gun?”
“Yeah, what’s it to you?” the cop replies sensing trouble.
“I’m an expert on that model.” I offer. “How fast do you think my friend here was going?”
The cop looks at the readout.
“120km an hour.”
“Oh, no. no. no,” I reply. “That’s not correct.”
“What do you mean?” asks the cop.
“I know for a fact that he was going much faster than that!”
The cop collapses in gales of laughter.
“And you call this guy your friend?” he asks Max as he hands him a three hundred dollar ticket.
Pulled over by the cop

“Stay in the car,” orders Peter.

I watch in the side mirror as Peter utilizes the Gorilla defense.   We’d been informed if a gorilla appears ready to attack you should immediately divert your eyes, look down at the ground, and assume a submissive posture.   I call this the husband defense.  It usually works with my wife when I’ve done something wrong.

It seems to work in this case as Peter comes back smiling.
“He only gave me a warning,” he states as he climbs back into the car.

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” offers Sue Ellen.
“Why would he shoot me?” asks Peter.
“Well first of all, you took your hands off the wheel.  Then you got out of the car – that’s a no no.  And then you’re black.”
“Really, “ states Peter.  “I hadn’t noticed.”  
“It’s called ‘DWB’  Driving While Black.  It’s a capital offense in ten states.”
Did I mention Sue Ellen voted for Trump?

And so it goes as the hours mount up:  “ Pee-tah!  Pee-tah!”
“ Penny… Penny… Penny…” 

About four hours into the trip Peter turns left onto a dirt road.  This is the last pavement we’ll see for nearly a week.

Our itinerary calls for us to make a stop at the Ziwa Rhino sanctuary, but as we are already running a couple of hours late a group decision is made to forgo the sanctuary and add the time to our scheduled chimp trek at Budongo Eco lodge – our destination for the day.
Budongo  "Eco" Lodge

As it is, we still arrive at the lodge late in the day.  The lodge more resembles a rustic backwoods fishing camp than an upscale safari camp.  We don’t have time to check- as there is only a couple of hours of daylight left and we want to experience some wildlife – particularly after 8 hours on the road.

We drop our luggage in the lodge and meet the park ranger who has been patiently waiting to lead us on our walk.  Evidently late in the day is not the ideal time to go looking for chimps as they are busy preparing their tree nests for the coming night.     

After an hour the ranger finally spots a single chimp high in the canopy snacking on figs.  In the failing light I can’t spot the animal so I resort to the tactic that worked so well for me in the Amazon. 
“Here,” I say as I hand my camera to the guide. “Would you mind taking a few pictures for me?”

Night falls like thunder on the equator, and after a few moments it’s darker than the inside of a cow.  We have to use the guide’s one flashlight and several of our cell phones to light our way back to the lodge and dinner.

After dinner we are escorted to our cabins.  In the beginning of what becomes a trend I’m escorted to the most distant cabin – maybe several hundred yards from the main lodge.  There are several forks in the trail and I’m convinced I should have left a bread trail to find  my way back.

In my cabin I find that the word “eco” in Budongo eco Lodge does not stand for “ecological” – but rather “economy.”

My cabin is spacious and sparsely furnished – with a couple of beds and a chair.  The washroom can be charitably described as ‘early port-a-petty.’  I’ve been in a few hundred rooms in my travels, but this is the first that sports a urinal.  The Spartan shower drains through a large hole in the wall down to the forest floor.  Oh well, it’s only for a few hours – I have to be up at 4:30am to make our 5:30am departure.    

Forget the bidet.  I got a urinal!
Around 3:00am my prostate demands I attend to it.  While I’m attending to business a large rodent runs across my foot.  I have a “thing” about rats.  With Indiana Jones it’s snakes – with me it’s rats.  I spent the remaining two hours huddled in my bed armed with a large handled shoe horn prepared to do battle with “Ben” the giant rat.  

In the morning I complain about having to share my room with a large rodent and suggest they could rectify the situation by putting some screening on the holes in the wall or raising the cost of the rooms so rats wouldn’t be able to afford to stay there. 

I’m told that this lodge is “Famous Amos’s” favourite resort – as it was his first.  They tell me there are plans to build an upscale version next to the existing ‘budge’ lodge.  I’d wait for the new digs – if I were you.

Tomorrow is busy, we have a game drive, and a boat cruise up to Murchison Falls.

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