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Hippos, Elephants, Antelope, Giraffes, Buffalo – but no Lions

by Gail Mooney
June 9 2010

We are finishing up the first leg of our journey and will be leaving Africa tonight to head north to Istanbul, Turkey and then on to Warsaw, Poland.  Africa has certainly taken its hold on me and I will surely return.

After getting some good material on Letha Sandison and her foundation, Wrap Up Africa, we decided to get out of the chaos of Kampala and headed out to Murchison Falls Park to experience the “real” Africa and see the beautiful landscape and the animals of this magnificent and mysterious continent.  How could we come to Africa and not get out into the wild.

There were 7 travelers in our group – Erin and I were the only two Americans and we were joined by one young French man, one German man about Erin’s age, one Dutch girl in her late 20’s and two crazy Belgians – one Rastafarian and full of life itself.  I knew within a half and hour of our journey that this would be a memorable adventure.

We left late as usual – African time –and knew it would take most of the day to reach our destination, Murchison Falls.  Getting out of the chaos of Kampala was a constant circus of vibrant visuals.  It was a bit frustrating not to be on my own to stop and shoot as I pleased and I knew that I would need to be content with capturing the images with my eyes and storing them in my mind.  We passed hundreds of people coming and going, furniture for sale sitting in the red dirt, billboards advertising Coca-Cola, cell phone service and HIV prevention, bicycles burdened by loads of bananas and bamboo and women in colorful dress balancing an assortment of objects on their heads as they gracefully moved through the hordes of people.

We finally arrived at the falls and took a short hike to see the magnificence of the

Murchison Falls, Uganda

converging with another river.  Not the tallest waterfall in the world but a powerful one in a setting that defies description.

Murchison Falls, Uganda

No sooner did we get back to the van did the sky let loose in a torrent of rain.  When it rains in Africa – it really rains and the roads quickly become rivers.  We finally arrived at our camp after dark and in the midst of the downpour.  We found our tent after trekking a bit through the mud and given the warnings of the park.  We were told not to keep any food at all in our tent or our surroundings unless we wanted a nighttime visit by the not so friendly warthogs.  And if we needed to make a visit to the bathroom in the middle of the night to make sure we brought a flashlight and watch for wandering hippos.

We got a pre-dawn start the next morning to catch the ferry across the Nile and begin our drive through the park.  We quickly saw a group of hippos

Hippo - Nile River, Uganda

bathing in the river – the first of many that we would see that day.  As we bumped along the dirt roads in our van with the rooftop popped we spotted an amazing array of mammals and birds – baboons by the side of the road waiting to snatch something from us, a herd of Cape Buffalo, families of giraffes and an amazing variety of antelope and bush buck.  Everyone was keen to spot a lion but it was not to be, but the wonder of the landscape and all the other animals quickly took away any disappointment.  After all this was not a zoo or a theme park – it was the African savannah in all its glory and unpredictability.

That afternoon we took a boat ride up the Nile to Murchison Falls and on the way we saw dozens of elephants on the banks of the river.  I’ll never forget the sight and sounds of these amazing creatures as they walked single file along the edge of the river.

After supper that evening, a small group of people of various cultures gathered around a fire.  Some chatted in a variety of tongues, some played guitar and some did magic tricks.  It brought me back to my first travels when I trekked around the world as a nineteen-year-old girl.  And as I headed to my tent I was in awe of the clear night sky – thousands of stars stretching from horizon to horizon.

We had a short but amazing trip to a special part of the world and a place that I will surely return.  Africa sucks you in – it exhausts you – it energizes you – and it creates a special spot in you heart that cannot be described.  One needs to discover that all on one’s own and I’m sure if you ever venture to this great continent– you will be amazed and your spirit awakened.

And so we depart from this great land, our eyes are open, our heart is full and our spirit is free.

Check out our second podcast from Jinga, Uganda – the source of the Nile.

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Adventures on the Nile

by Erin Kelly
June 9 2010

This past weekend we took some time to explore more of the country and went on a safari to Murchison Falls National Park. It was refreshing to escape the congestion of Kampala and head out into open land. It was like being in a different country once we left the city – sprawling plantations, forests, and a night sky filled with countless stars. One of the largest national parks in Uganda, Murchison is said to be the best place to go for your first safari because of the variety of wildlife and topography. I would definitely agree with that statement.

I was first surprised by the size of the park. After we officially entered the park, we drove for at least another hour to get to the waterfalls, and then another hour after that to get to our campsite. But it wasn’t until we went on our game drive early the next morning that I could really see how expansive the park is. Standing in the van with the top popped up, watching the miles and miles of savannah rush by as we searched for game, was exhilarating. I could literally see the land stretch all the way to the horizon, but sadly my camera could never sufficiently capture such a sight. I guess that makes the moment even more special.

We saw a ton of animals, my favorite being the giraffes. The babies looked so fragile, wobbling on their skinny little legs!

Giraffes at Murchison Falls National Park

Then there were the herds of elephants, cape buffalo, bush buck, hippos, baboons, and even warthogs. Warthogs were actually frequent residents of the camp, and if you didn’t remove all food from your tent, you were sure to have a visitor at night. Apparently, hippos regularly graze around camp at night as well since the campsite is on the banks of the Nile, but we were lucky enough to avoid any hippo encounters.

Elephants and hippos along the Nile River

As the Nile River is a big part of the park, it wouldn’t be a complete safari without a boat ride on that majestic body of water. Everywhere we looked there were hippo heads emerging from the river, snorting streams of water into the air. We took the boat to Murchison Falls themselves, two waterfalls that are some of the most powerful in the world (with the entire Nile River rushing through two small crevices, you can imagine that the force of the water would be rather intense). Drifting down the Nile at sunset was a perfect ending to an adventurous day.

Overlooking Murchison Falls

Since we were on a “Big Five” safari (“Big Five” referring to elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos), we made a stop on the way back to Kampala at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Rhinos are sadly extremely endangered – they had already been poached to extinction in Uganda in the 1980s and a few had to be imported in order to restore the population. Because they are still being hunted for their horns, there are guards that constantly follow the rhinos around, protecting them from poachers at all times. There are currently only NINE rhinos in Uganda, and after trekking through the bush, we got to see two of them. They are magnificent creatures and it’s a shame that people still want to hunt them down.

Rhinos at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

Our other journey on the Nile was on Monday, when we traveled to Jinja. Jinja is the source of the Nile, so I can now say I’ve been to both the source and the end of the Nile River (in Egypt). We went rafting in the morning and relaxed on the bank in the afternoon, reflecting on our time in Africa.

We’re currently en route to Istanbul, Turkey, and I must say I am sad to leave this beautiful country. I’m so glad that we got to spend time with Letha and see things from an insider’s perspective. I’ve learned a lot about the politics of world aid, the recent history of Uganda and East Africa, the Ugandan culture, and especially the meaning of T.I.A. (This Is Africa). It’s opened my eyes to life in Uganda and Africa in general, and sparked my interest in exploring more of the continent – I definitely plan on returning to the region!

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Heading Off on “Big 5” Safari

by Gail Mooney
June 3 2010

We’ve been in Uganda for more than a week now and time passes quickly.  Maybe because little things take longer than we think they will and maybe because we are so absorbed in our environment, we just lose track of the clock – a nice feeling indeed.

Today we’ll prepare to head off to the “bush” and one of Uganda’s parks –


Murchison Falls


Murchison Falls National Park. The “big 5” refers to the game that we hope to see – elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions and maybe even leopards.  Even though traveling to Murchison isn’t directly related to our project, one can’t come to East Africa and not get out of the city.  So we’ll head off over the weekend to experience a bit of Africa away from the traffic, congestion and pollution of the big city.

Last night we spoke with some folks who had just returned from the park.  One thing I love about staying at our backpacker hostel, The Red Chilli Hideaway


Red Chilli Hideaway


is that the reception/lobby area is like a little U.N. with people from all nations congregating and chatting with each other and sharing experiences and stories of their global travels.  It reminds me of my days long ago when I trekked around the world as a 19 year old.  Of course in those days I was totally disconnected from the U.S., friends, family and any news because I had no Internet, cell phone or even quick access to a land-line telephone call, which left me pretty much isolated from any sense of home.  So, connecting with other travelers on the road was my lifeline to what was going on in other parts of the world.

As I chatted with travelers last night from Australia, Israel, South Africa, Germany, England and the U.S. I was flooded with a lot of déjà vu’s from my past. But I also got some great information about what we’ll be experiencing over the next couple of days.  Some tips I picked up in conversation:

–       Bring a flashlight (or a torch as the Brits say) so when you leave your tent to head to the bathroom in the middle of the night – you won’t run into a random hippo that frequently roam the camp.

–       Don’t have ANY food in your tent – unless you want to be surprised by a visiting





–       Be prepared to slog through the mud as you hike into the Rhino refuge.

–       Be patient – vehicles break down along the way especially this time of year because it’s the end of the fiscal year and most have deferred any auto mechanical repairs until July – the start of the new fiscal year.

And there is one more important tip that I’ve learned since being in Uganda – which I wish I knew before I left the U.S.  I knew that Uganda was pretty much a cash society so I was traveling with U.S. currency.  But what I didn’t know is that the Ugandans will not take any bills that are older than 2001!  So about 1/3 of my U.S. currency was not accepted.  I’ll have to save that for when I get to Istanbul – our next stop.  People are also quite picky about the condition of the bills – if they are crumpled, worn or have any tears in them – they will be quickly declined.

We’ll most likely be “off the grid” for the next few days – but we’ll certainly have some stories to tell upon our return.  And I hope one story I WON’T be telling will be a face-to-face encounter with a hippo.

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