Slip slidin’ away


‘On — and off — the many wet roads of Uganda.’

I wish I had a nickel for every time my mother told me that I “wasn’t made of sugar, so I wouldn’t melt.” Maybe I’d have enough money by now for new rain gear.

Because ours sure got a workout on our African Adventure. In fact, we’re home now and I’m still reminded of how wet it was. My boots are gunky, my clothes are moldy-funky. My socks? Let’s not speak of my socks. You can probably smell them from wherever you are. And it wasn’t even the Rainy Season.

These boots, freshly-applied with waterproofing goop, are made for stompin’. Through mud and puddles and unspeakable gunk

But back to that “not made of sugar” deal. If that’s the case, then why did I attract so many ants? Tiny, nasty little bitey ants. The kind that swarm all over you if you’re not super-careful — and if you’re on a hiking trail where you can’t see the little buggers. (Not like in this video, where they’re on a road in plain, avoidable, sight.)

Nope. If you’re on a trail, particularly a wet, steep, slippery trail, they have a habit of sneaking right into and under your clothes and chomping away. While you flail helplessly and try desperately to keep your balance.

Me, soaked to the skin (which is being savored by teensy ants), and trying not to slip off a cliff

The ants can be nasty and itchy, but not dangerous, like, um, snakes. (We saw a particularly gruesome serpentine specimen one day, but I did not take a video or even a picture of it. Didn’t stick around long enough. Me, not the snake.)

Even elephants slip on those muddy trails. This was one huge skid mark. I should have included something for scale. Like a yardstick. Or a freshly-caught fish

Speaking of danger, we did have a truly scary moment on the road from Entebbe to Masindi. It was raining (natch) and this huge, overloaded truck (similar to the one pictured stuck in some mud at the top of this post) skidded out of control on the non-paved clay-like road surface and barreled right toward us. In order to avoid said truck, our van driver, the Intrepid David, went into a controlled skid of his own that almost — just almost — launched us over the side and into Ugandan Oblivion. Or, if not Oblivion, into a ditch where we’d end up suspended upside-down by our seatbelts. (A condition I have, in fact, experienced — and never want to try again. See ‘Here’s Your Trouble’ for gory-yet-hilarious details.)

But back to those trails. They were steep and they were muddy, but they were where the birds were. (Especially this very cool bird called the Grauer’s (African Green) Broadbill.) So that’s where we went.

The Dude and Alfred ponder the mists from, like, a thousand feet up. Yup, there were gorillas in there. Birds too

It was a thousand feet down to this swamp where the bird hung out. (Yes, we saw it — and its nest; with a baby bird head peeking out! I’m pretty sure The Dude snapped a picture. I’ll share it if I can ever get it off his camera.) And it was a thousand feet back up too.

At the bottom, where the marsh (and the baby African Green) was. It was pouring; Dude was smiling

Rare bird seen and noted, steep trails slipped on and surmounted, we staggered into our rustic lodge (the kind where electricity was, um, optional) and toasted our soaked boots by a roaring fire. Kind of like marshmallows, only not stuck on sticks, and not so sweet smelling.

But back to that mud-bound truck pictured at the top of this post. It was indeed stuck — could still be there, for all I know — and blocking our trail something fierce.

What to do, what to do? Well, David the Intrepid Driver had a plan. He would go around said truck, but to do so would mean plowing through a vast (and deep) Mother of All Puddles. (He knew what he was talking about — he donned knee-high rubber boots and tested it, almost sinking to his hips. Honest. I saw him take off a boot and pour water out of it. Yuck.)

So. Anyway. He got us all to remove ourselves from the vehicle. (He didn’t have to ask me twice), then gunned it.

You can see the result right here:

Vehicle safely — yet extremely muddily — maneuvered through the muck and past the stuck truck, we were on our merry way to yet another adventure.  Speaking of which, I’ve got to load up the Toyota and get myself to the dump. Er, ‘Recycling Center’. Heady times.

Amagansett, New York. June 2018

Dude, we’re not in Kansas anymore


’Though the sky sure as heck looks like we might be’

I thought I might have to skip a weekly blog post (quel horreur!) but it looks like I have internet here in Uganda, at least for the moment — the key words being ‘for the moment’.

So this’ll be a quickie. Mainly photos, with a witty bit of banter as filler. (Fingers crossed on the ‘witty’ as well as the internet access.)

Let’s start with that picture up top, showing an extremely scary (at least to this Former Midwesterner) sky. Some of our intrepid birding band were actually on board that little mainly-metal lightning-bait boat and insisting upon chugging upstream to clap their eyes on the Murchison Falls—no matter that the sky looked like the one that whipped Dorothy off to Oz. But cooler heads prevailed. Thank heaven for our Hipster Birder Leader, who insisted on herding us all safely to shelter, where some disgruntled mumbling ensued while we waited out the maelstrom. We (finally) did get to chug on up the Nile.

We missed the Falls, but not the boat. Thank you for not making me a Lightning Rod, dear Hipster Leader (the guy at left, not behind me. Duh)

On the Nile, we found plenty to amuse, including crocodiles and hippos. And (of course) plenty of birds, pointed out by our afore-mentioned Leader, who was himself a rare specimen—a birder sporting not only Hipster Headgear, but a beard, a ponytail, and plenty of tatts (though none of birds, I noticed.) He was also really into martial arts.

Our Birder Leader’s back, displaying a description of a martial art called ‘Grappling’ (somewhat obscured by strap supporting assorted essential gear for something called ‘Birding’)

Speaking of ‘backs’, back to the Nile. Where we found plenty to compensate for the lack of waterfalls. Here are a few highlights:

Hippos! Look up to about eleven o’clock past the hat (those are Birder Directions, by the way) and you can just make out a sneaky guy (or gal, who knows?) peeking at us

The Dude checks out the hippos, in between oodles of birds. There were crocs, too — and not the ugly shoe kind, either

The next day, after riding across the Nile on a rather creaky-looking ferry, we ventured into the safari-esque part of the park. (We’re speaking here of Murchison Falls National Park. In Uganda. When I get a chance, I’ll put in some useful links. Cross my crocodile-fearing heart.)

We’ve got the whole world in our hands. Well, in between us, anyway. This globe marks the spot where the ferry crosses the Nile. The Victoria Nile, that is

That safari part of the Park had its daunting moments as well. For one thing, we (mostly) weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle, otherwise we might find ourselves a snack for a lion (though we didn’t see any) or a charging target for a Chad Buffalo. We saw plenty of those—though no, I don’t have a photo. Maybe The Dude has one. On the camera that never relinquishes its photos.

Okey-doke. But then where do those ruts lead? And why are they there?

Since I have a bit of internet time left before we take off for a bird-beladen (is that a word?) afternoon, let me finish with a few shots from the following day, when we traveled to yet another National Park (name to come when I can look it up). But here is a sign we saw along the way. Check out the bottom admonition closely:

Check out the warning on the bottom of this sign. I’m opting, personally, for the ‘be faithful’ option. Crossing my fingers that The Dude concurs

In this particular park, there is a rather famous road called The Royal Mile. This is because the last King of Uganda (the one who lost to the British in a long war) used this road to do his Royal Birding. Kidding. He used the road to get to what is now known as Lake Alberta. (You can bet it wasn’t called that when the king used that road to get to it, though.)

I’m fuzzy on the details of the war that he lost, but there was something in the story about how this king failed to get all the other area leaders on his side. They turned on him (sided with the Brits, actually) and, well, there you go. Sounds kinda familiar, huh? Hold on to your pride, while the enemy divides and conquers. And now everybody in Uganda speaks English.

The picture is almost as fuzzy as my memory of Ugandan historical details—but this is The Royal Mile, lined with birders with bins instead of bad Brits with guns

There were, of course, zillions of birds as well as other creatures — some monkeys, some chimps, some bugs, even some dangerous trees. Though this one tree was only dangerous to other trees. I think. It’s a fig that starts as a seed that wafts on the breeze to land in the upper branches of some innocent, unsuspecting host. The fig seed then feeds on moss and such, sends down vines, surrounds the hosts tree and, um, strangles it. Gulp.

The tree behind me strangled its host tree. Instead of me

There were bugs, too. I didn’t hang around long enough to find out if they were dangerous. But everybody took a picture of this one. I’m thinking it’s because she (I’m anthropomorphizing here) was so pretty. Fashionable, even.

This bug dresses in Lily Pulitzer, so how dangerous could she be? (I didn’t try to find out)

Well. Time to go. Today we spent the whole morning with a band of chimpanzees. Honest! I promise to tell you all about it next time. Unless another storm gets me. Not to mention a snake or a bat or a gorilla. Yes, we’re seeing gorillas — on Saturday.

The lights at the end of the stormy tunnel. Maybe there’s a pot of gold at the end. Which this is — the end, that is

Kibale National Park, Uganda. May 2018

Stalking the wild Shoebill


‘On the hunt for a Ugandan bird as big as Idi Amin’

This morning I got locked in a bathroom. I mean seriously locked in. The kind of locked in where you beat on the door till someone hears you, but, worried that no one will, you actually consider clambering on top of the tank and climbing out the window — except the window has bars on it. Then someone finally does hear you, but that someone doesn’t speak English and it’s ages before a gang of guys comes with tools to break you out.

The bathroom in question was located on the banks of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Entebbe, which is in Uganda. Where Idi Amin used to be Head Dude and Dictator. Idi is long gone, but there are still plenty of ways to scare visitors. Like making a bathroom door that locks just dandy but, well, see above.

Once I emerged from said potty prison, unharmed except for a severely wounded dignity, our little Band of Birders boarded (more than a tad belatedly, due to my bathroom emergency) a local boat that was supposed to take us to a swamp so we could search for a rare bird called the Shoebill. My fellow birder/boaters had put the finishing touches on their potty jokes and had arranged ourselves on deck when a gigantic black cloud blew in and our leader, thank the Birding Gods, decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue.

While waiting patiently in an abandoned shelter for the storm to pass, our saintly leader happened to remark that in fact it was a good thing that I got locked in the bathroom — otherwise we would have already left shore — and been out on the open water when the storm hit. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing. No, not a good thing at all.

Gimme shelter. Nothing dampens The Dude’s birding ardor. Here he waits patiently for the torrent to subside. Yes, he’s laughing — probably about me getting locked in the bathroom

Anyway. I’m writing this in the Boma Guesthouse, where they do (obviously) have wifi. But it’s getting late in Birder Hours (it’s, like, 9:49!) and I have to get this done so I can schedule it to post tomorrow (yes, you can do that, unless you screw it up, which I’ve done) because tomorrow (usual Posting Tuesday) we’ll be staying in a place that (and I quote) “has seen better days”. I’m doubting it has running water, much less internet.

So I’ll skip the parts, funny though they are, about how we got to the boat that got us to the dugout canoes that got us to the swamp. And skip right to finding the darned Shoebill.

Yes, dugout canoes were involved. You may recall that this is not my first experience with dugout canoes. This is, um, my third. Once on the Amazon, and once in Panama. In fact, I’ve now been in dugout canoes more times than I’ve been in regular, normal, non-dugout ones. As someone who has never been what you’d call comfortable around water, I’m hoping I can break this habit, and break it soon.

But, as the only way to find this elusive Shoebill was to get into dugout canoes and roam around a swamp, that’s what we did.

The view from my canoe of one of the other canoes — stuck in the reeds and such. Note that our Boat Guy is standing precariously in the front so he can search for the Shoebill

The canoes had motors, but we couldn’t use them much, because a) it was too shallow, and b) because the boats kept getting stuck in the reeds. When we got stuck (a lot) the Boat Person in the fronts of the boats (see photo for how that guy/gal perched up there, mainly so he/she could scan the horizon for that darned Shoebill) would hop out and push the boat, kind of like the way Charlie, Humphrey Bogart’s character in The African Queen, would hop out and push said African Queen. Only I don’t think our boat-pushers had to worry about leeches. Snakes, yes. Leeches, no.

I know this because our guy got out once to scout ahead, encountered a snake, and soundly beat it with a long pole he kept on hand for occasions such as this. (He also said it came in handy in case he stepped into a ‘hole’ in the swamp and sank in over his head. Which happened. Three times.)

Well. Our three boats were supposed to stick together. It would be a shame if one boat found the Shoebill, and the other boats missed it. But our boater/guides assured us that this wouldn’t be a problem. They had cellphones, you see. If one boat found the Shoebill, they would just alert the other boats. Piece of birding cake.

Let’s just say they fudged a bit. Our Boat Guy did have a cellphone, which he used. A lot. Little did we know the other boats didn’t have cellphones. So who knows who our guy was talking to. Maybe his Mom? Anyway, our boats got separated. For hours. And I know I’m prone to exaggeration, but not this time. We were seriously separated for about two hours. Two hours of sort-of paddling, sort-of pushing, sort-of motoring through a swamp.

At one point one of the guys in my boat said he had to ‘go to the bathroom’. (Me, I think I’ll never ‘go to the bathroom’ again in my life after being locked in one.) I told him to ‘go ahead; I wouldn’t look’. He didn’t take me up on my non-offer.

We, of course, didn’t know our boat wasn’t communicating with the others, and finally decided that if we couldn’t find the Shoebill, it was time to find our way out of the swamp. After about another hour, we emerged, only to see both the other boats filled with fellow birders wildly gesticulating. One was doing so because they had found the Shoebill (!) The other folks were frantically signalling — because their boat had run out of gas.

The Object of our Attention, stolen hot off The Dude’s camera: a bird as big as a Volkswagen. Hard to miss, once you’ve found it. But there’s the rub

I’m thinking that the Shoebill was pretty darned well worth the trouble. (I mean, take a look at that thing!) And I’m also thinking that those boater/guide guys and gals won’t get booked again by our Birder Company any time soon.

Near Lake Victoria, Entebbe, Uganda. May 2018

Out of Africa (but not out of stories)


‘How could I resist sharing these tidbits with you?’

‘Jambo’, everybody! And other forms of greeting. It’s considered less-than-cool to photograph people in Kenya and Tanzania, at least not without their permission. (I’m totally on board with this; I only mention it to explain my lack of people-in-the-scenery shots.) But it is the ‘done thing’ to say ‘jambo’ to everyone you meet. It’s Swahili for ‘hello’, and it’s pronounced sort of like ‘jumbo’, so the first time someone said it to me, I was rather taken aback. But then I got into the swing of things, and was ‘jambo’-ing like crazy.

Little kids in school uniforms got a real kick out of this. They’d wave gaily at us as we passed by in our safari-mobile, shouting back ‘how are you?’. (At least they didn’t shout ‘shikamo’, which is the greeting used when meeting an elder.) Such waving and smiling! I’ve never felt so much like a Clinton County Fair Queen in my life. Continue reading

Spotting the leopard


‘You should have been here yesterday’

First things first. Yes, yes. I know that the picture at the top of this post is not of a leopard. (Though leopards, not lions, according to our Amazing Guide Donald, are the cats one expects to find draped in trees. Though only one at a time. Leopards, apparently, are loners. Lions like being with other lions. There were actually two more lions draped in this one tree. I just couldn’t fit them into the picture.)

'Let sleeping lions lie', I always say. At least when I'm this close to one

‘Let sleeping lions lie’, I always say. At least when I’m this close to one

While lions, contrary to the evidence in that photo, do not exactly grow on trees, we were very lucky safari-goers, lion wise. We saw not only lions sleeping in trees, but lions sleeping in the grass.  And sleeping on these huge rocks called ‘kopje‘. (For you ‘Lion King’ movie fans, that’s where the Big Boss Lion lived.) We even saw lions not sleeping. One rather large male even crossed the road right in front of us. Each of us remained very still, and tried not to look like a warthog, which is one of his favorite foods. Continue reading

Safari, so good.


‘Our African Adventure gets off to a roaring start’

You can’t just wave a magic wand and wish yourself to Africa. Even if it is Someone’s Dream Trip, you still have to get there the old-fashioned way. Which is modern air travel.

Now some of you readers may fly first or business class, or even on private jets. In which case, I ask you most kindly to skip the comments section this week. Or I just may bring you back some unwashed fruit, and chuckle demonically while I watch you eat it.

Because, not to sound ungrateful for the amazing opportunity to go on a trip like this, let’s be honest and say that getting to Africa, by coach, New York to Amsterdam to Nairobi, all in one go, is definitely not half the fun.

I will skip the sordid details — the toddlers who, when not shrieking, played percussion with the tray tables, starving in the Amsterdam Airport and finding nothing to eat but cheese. (They sold cheese in every store, bless them. If a sign said ‘Electronics’ it sold electronics. And cheese.) And I will most definitely skip the stealth gas attacks from the sleeping man wedged next to me on the 9-hour flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi.

Aaaaaah. The anticipation. That's Nairobi National Park out the window

Aaaaaah. The anticipation. That’s Nairobi National Park out the window

Because, guess what? We’re in Africa. And it’s pretty darned terrific. Continue reading