Up close with the lions, crocodiles

February 29, 2008

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MURCHISON FALLS, UGANDA – We’re in the middle of East Africa’s savannah, about to be eaten by nearby lions.

Our co-ordinates are as follows: Somewhere in an unknown field. It’s brown. With those flattopped acacia trees. The Nile River is close. A dusty dirt road, which we left about 20 bumpy minutes ago, is some other way.

We’re protected in a plucky Toyota van, a four-wheeled beast, almost always white in these parts, often seen among Africa’s big game. In front is our park warden, Ahmed, holding our final insurance, an AK-47 automatic rifle. Beside him is our eloquent driver, Stephen.

“Every day is different,” he says. “New things. New people. New stories.”

Most of this day’s stories, since I ask, relate to what lions eat. The answer is meat. Any meat, as long as it’s fresh. If it takes minimal effort to hunt, bonus. Papa and Gramma, my wife’s parents visiting from Canada, sit behind Jean and me, with our two year old Jon and four-year-old Elizabeth. We had thought that leaving our university home in Mukono, eight hours and one flat tire away, for a safari was a good idea. Now maybe we’ll get eaten together, a family meal-deal.

“Why do they like intestines so much?” I ask, getting a nervous laugh from my father-in-law who blurts out that I’m just like Jon, “Always asking why.”

“They probably find that the sweetest part,” responds Ahmed.

We know at least three lions are lurking around, barely out of view. I’ve just photographed one. And we know the cause of this dilemma is still beside us: another Toyota, a green one with a viewing roof for tourists’ heads to poke through, now helpless, unable to start. Two more Toyotas huddle nearby for help, and some brave souls, exposed, are out pushing the stalled van. Video cameras, including mine, are brought out to shoot this vital home entertainment.

It could be worse. It could be night, when lions usually hunt. In daytime, just keep eye contact, says Ahmed, and all is fine. Some 45 minutes away is our lodge, Paraa, a wood and stone hideaway with old suitcases and chests and illustrations of Livingstone and some Africans in a boat fighting a wild hippo. The Brits built it in 1954, almost a decade before Ugandan independence, and two before Idi Amin ravaged this country, when its last wild rhinoceros was killed and the elephant population was sliced from 10,000 to 500.

Ahmed tells of two guards outside the lodge eaten by lions in 2006. Just their skulls remained.

That was around the time lions killed a Ugandan girl in the bush.

But this is Africa, and Murchison Falls National Park, which takes up a piece of earth twice the size of P.E.I., has enough space, I figure, for us, the three lurking lions, and the other 195 or so that apparently roam free.

They’re just one of the 76 mammal and hundreds of bird species at Murchison, where the showcase falls feature a section of the Nile, 50 metres wide, squeezing through a six-metre rock cleft, crashing and cascading several storeys into a thunderous roar.

Thus the Toyotas and tourists.

Ahmed says Canadians, like Aussies and Americans, are the easiest.

Many stop at Paraa to lounge amid the leather and mahogany and buffet meals like yesteryear’s bourgeois, up with the sun for game drives, then later, with sunscreen and Tilley hats and monster camera lenses, on the Nile to see elephants and hippos and whatnot from a boat.

Back with the lions again, the strong-arms finally get that stalled van pushed to start and we all drive off over the bumpy grassland.

But it’s that boat ride in the crocodile-infested Nile, against rocks near the falls, without lifejackets or dinghies, craft tilted as everyone gathers to one side for viewing, that was the day’s bigger danger.

Such is the cost, and reward, of adventure tourism. It’s something that Ugandans could really sell to the outside world now that nobody’s going to neighbouring Kenya for awhile.

So when you’re at London’s Heathrow, just hang a southeast to Uganda’s main airport in Entebbe, and grab a short flight up to the lions. It’s a different getaway. But it beats saying cheese in front of the Eiffel Tower.

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February 29, 2008 • Posted in ,
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