Walk to the an­i­mals

Get­ting per­sonal with rhi­nos, chimps and hip­pos in deep­est Uganda

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

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


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