Walk to the animals
Getting personal with rhinos, chimps and hippos in deepest Uganda
UGANDA is a forest of words. Its billboards grow as tall as pine trees. I squint and shade my eyes against the high African sun and try to understand. ‘‘Grow faster, grow stronger,’’ declares one. ‘‘Drink fresh water,’’ exhorts another. And then, puzzlingly: ‘‘This land is not for sale.’’
Outside the capital, Kampala, these outsized slogans continue along rural roads to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where signs display the outlines of rhino shapes and simply say ‘‘Beware’’.
I’m with a group keen on getting as close as possible to Uganda’s newest rhinos, reintroduced here after the last of the local populations were wiped out in the 1980s. According to our guide, Opio Raymond, some of the sanctuary’s rhinos come from Kenya. Others are from Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. One is even named Obama.
Another sign looms, this one comes with the addition of emphatic capitals. ‘‘Should the rhinos show any signs of annoyance, MOVE NEAR A TREE IF AVAILABLE. AND BE READY TO CLIMB.’’ All of the trees I can see are scrawny. They look like trees that rhinos might eat for a snack.
‘‘These are white rhinos, though they may look grey,’’ says Raymond, as we form a line. We are told there are anti-poaching rangers who carry rifles, but it’s lunchtime for sanctuary staff and Raymond is not armed.
He spots a female rhino behind some bushes. ‘‘Bella,’’ he says. Raymond flaps his hand for us to approach. From what we can see through the branches, Bella isn’t alone. There’s something squat crowding in below her belly. ‘‘Baby,’’ says Raymond simply. ‘‘Time for nurse.’’
Then Bella moves. There is a scuffle. It is on our side of the bush. ‘‘ MOVE NEAR A TREE,’’ we think. ‘‘ BE READY TO CLIMB.’’ Aside from bushes, there is grass, and some kind of weed. Maybe we could climb into Raymond’s arms.
There is a thump. Is this a sign of annoyance? Bella’s prehistoric horn is lowered — it’s an ominous pose. One of our group is a man who earlier told us matter-of-factly that the battery in his pacemaker was dead.
I look at Bella, and then at the man. Their eyes are now locked. Bella turns a hoof. We wait. Nothing happens. Crisis averted.
Later on this holiday, I book into the Chobe Safari Lodge in the Murchison Falls National Park. The lodge is set on terraces overlooking rapids along the Nile River and I start exploring at once, picking my way down the reedy banks. The sound of my flip-flops frightens some bright blue lizards. A mongoose pops up its head and swiftly disappears.
There are ripples in the muddy water. Ripples made from rocks? No, not rocks. This is the Nile. I see sets of eyes. Two here. Two over here. A bubble pops. There is an extended, resonant sound, something like a bassoon.
‘‘Hippos,’’ says the porter, blandly, leaving me with the key to my canvas accommodation. ‘‘When darkness arrives, they come to sleep under your tent porch.’’
While I am watching, one hauls itself up on land. It begins a yawn. ‘‘An open mouth,’’ I have read in my guidebook, ‘‘may be a sign of aggression. Hippos are among the [African] continent’s most deadly animals. They have bitten humans in half.’’
The next afternoon, I am with a tour group and we’re gearing up, binoculars in hand, for a walk in Kyambura Gorge to see chimpanzees. Our guides, Jimmy and Henry, look like infantrymen in dark green uniforms and boots. Henry has an automatic rifle. ‘‘Just for keeping safe,’’ he says.
With this, we begin our slide down a path. My sneakers scoop up some kind of beetle, several pebbles and a sharp-edged stick. With so many trees overhead, the gorge is as dim as a museum. Shade is changing everything, as if a candle has replaced the sun. Real and imaginary merge.
After hours of criss-crossing Kyambura, Jimmy points out a knuckle print from a chimp that has passed by. And then a chunk of fruit that a chimp has used ‘‘as a cup’’. It starts to rain. We stop again and again to scrutinise the canopy. Not one shape. But somehow I am tingling. The hair on my arms is on end. Chimps are up there, I am sure. They are disciplined and quiet, keeping just out of view.
At the bottom of the gorge, I realise why I have been so tightly alert — hippos have been watching us, eyes and nostrils visible, as we come down to their muddy lair. We step out on a fallen tree trunk to cross the chocolatecoloured river at the bottom of the gorge. They watch as we scramble and slip, gripping branches. They blow baritone bubbles; surely, they are making plans.
We return to the lodge at night and are driven in golf buggies down to our tents by the Nile. We talk of Africa in the dark. We stare at reeds and river. There is a slice of moon. It picks up shapes spread along the bank. One silhouette is close to someone’s tent porch. ‘‘Hippos,’’ whispers a woman. ‘‘Do they ever chase?’’ ‘‘Yes, they do, ma’am,’’ says the golf buggy driver, braking so that he can talk. He tries to restart the engine