At 5:15 a.m. Herb rapped on my door. I had overslept. I slipped sleepily into the shower and within fifteen minutes we were on our way to the hotel to pick up the rest of our crew to drive north for our safari at Murchison Falls National Park. Herb had packed the van with our things and I asked him if he had it all and he said yes so off we went into the beautiful country side of Uganda. It is a stark contrast to the city life, and once outside of the city we wonder why in the world we are not staying out where the air is fresh and the birds have early morning choir practice. Seeing the country this trip tickled me in new ways because the land we are buying for the orphanage is 15 kilometers outside of town where the children will be able to breathe fresh air and hear their own thoughts.
When we arrived in Masindi, Herb stopped for breakfast at the Masindi Hotel which was established in 1923 and has been visited by people like Humphrey Bogart and Earnest Hemingway. It has beautiful wood carvings everywhere in the hotel. There is a bar named after Hemingway and that shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s probably the only place in the hotel he parked himself. Hemingway used to hunt big game just like Herb Cook, the owner of the guest house where we are staying and our personal safari guide. Herb grew up in Congo his whole life, lived there for missionary work with his wife Ellen, and also did some work in Kenya before settling in Uganda. His parents were missionaries and their meat came from the big game, mostly buffalo and hartebeest that he hunted. Herb has fantastic stories about his adventures growing up as a rough and tumble boy in Africa. My sons were on the edge of their seats begging for more, drooling with jealousy. He kept us hooting with laughter the whole trip over the shenanigans he performed as a boy. And if you look closely while he tells the story and see in his grin you can see the boyish look that suggests if given the opportunity he’d do it again in a minute. Herb Cook has become a living legend in my house of boys.
For me, I looked around me at the hotel and opened all of my senses and hoped for the same inspiration to write that Hemingway received decades before. I am still dreaming of writing the memoir about our adoption of Kira and the orphanage. But first the children’s book will be written to hopefully generate some funds to support the orphanage building project that is up and coming. I know God will provide a way and I am willing so we’ll see how this project progresses.
When we arrived at the park entrance Herb greeted a long time friend of his who was keeping the office, Geoffrey. I was soon to learn that Herb knows EVERYone, the guides, drivers, boat drivers, front desk clerks, chefs, waiters and even the guide at the falls. Trust me, it is good to be in Herb’s group. We have to pay per person to enter the park, and it was 215$ so I went to the back of the safari truck to get the money out of my suitcase, but it wasn’t there. When I realized it had been left behind at the guest house I panicked. All the money was in the suitcase. I approached a panic attack thinking we would be sitting there got sweaty and fidgety. Herb talked to Geoffrey who agreed to let us through with the promise that someone would be arriving to deliver the suitcase. But then our kids opened their wallets and found enough American cash to get us through. Herb got on the phone and everyone in town began to scramble to find someone trustworthy to deliver the case before we had more payments to make. I felt so stupid. And as it always happens, in Africa no one points blame, they just change the plan without making a scene or seem. It is just part of the fabric of living here. Since it is a cash only society, there were no more options.
As it worked out after considering every possible person and scenario, Adams and Elitia took this as an opportunity to go on safari for their first time ever. They drove to Masindi stayed the night and arrived at the boat launch in time for the boat ride on the Nile River. It was exactly at the moment when I had to pay for the boat and was out of money. Thank you God.
Arriving at Paraa is always like putting on someone else’s diamond necklace for a few days, especially after working hard in the city. We enjoyed a lunch overlooking the Nile River, laughed raucously at Herb’s tales of hunting and being hunted as there seemed to be a lion always keeping an eye on him while he was shooting the food the lion preferred to have for himself.
At three in the afternoon we climbed back into the safari truck, popped the top, hired a guide who was also a long time friend of Herb’s and we hit the dirt road in search of wild game in Africa. It has the possibility at the beginning of the ride to be the most exciting adventure of or lives and everyone was reverberating with anticipation. The boys sat up top in the back of the truck, and Whtiney and I crunched into yoga positions to sit on the metal grid at the front of the truck. It’s just so hard to describe how wonderful it is to be able to see in all directions from up so high. The air was warm turning cool and the breeze was refreshing.
We saw all sorts of Antelope, water buffalo, hartebeast, kobs, waterbuck and birds. But we were waiting to see the top five. First we saw the long graceful necks of the giraffe feeding from their favorite thorny trees where they slip their long tongue between thorns to get the favored delicate leaves. They pose so prettily, and don’t seem to shy away as much as the hippos who sink into the water at the sight of our boat passing. The elephant we saw were off in the distance mostly in the bushes and uninterested in investigating our presence. I hoped and hoped for a fantastic elephant encounter like we had the first time on Safari when a young bull thought seriously about charging us. But this trip the only amazing sighting of elephants was from across the river when we could see over a hundred of them across the hill eating from the trees through the haze of distance.
Giraffe’s always give me a jolt of joy. I love their simultaneous grace and awkwardness, their gentleness, confidence and gorgeous eyelashes. I always just want to hug one and take a ride on their back through the savannah of Africa.
The first most amazing sighting of our LIFE was when our guide spotted a big cat in a tree. We backed up and sat holding our breath waiting to see what he would do. The gorgeous leopard hopped from branch to branch and stretched out in perfect silhouette against a gray sky to give us a good look at his perfect form. It is so rare to see a leopard that we all held our breath and slowed our heartbeats hoping the show would last and last. It wasn’t long though before he jumped down into the bush beneath the tree. They are shy creatures and if he knew we were watching him he would have disappeared quickly. I have to say leopards are my favorite among the big cats. I like the rounded ears, the spots and that long tail with a curl at the tip.
We drove for several hours taking in the sights of the open land and herds of animals running. When we turned one bend we spotted something under a tree covering. I didn’t want to say what I thought because it could have been a termite mound and I didn’t want to be the one fooled, but I was so pleased when we discovered it was a male lion waking from his day’s slumber. We parked in front of him about six feet away and waited for him to rise as he watched us. He closed his eyes and couldn’t be bothered so we decided to go see if the elephants were having a drink in their favorite spot, and then come back to see the lion when he was ready to get up and begin the night’s hunt.
There weren’t any elephants, but instead about a dozen giraffe. The kids got out of the truck and walked after the giraffe who wouldn’t be caught. After a good stretch we returned to the den of the lion and found three other safari trucks there gaping at the beauty of this male. He was sitting up preening himself, licking a huge paw and wiping his full mane. I wanted to cry because it was so natural and beautiful, just as my little coco at home does on my desk while I work. The other trucks soon drove away, but we were with Herb and he had all night to watch this big cat and we were happy about that.
It turned out there were two male lions in that den. The one we couldn’t see was licking his fresh wounds which we discovered as he walked out later on three legs. He had been caught in a snare, darted to sleep so a veterinarian could amputate and clean the wound for him. The leg had healed nicely but he hobbled slowly and terribly with a fresh bite wound from what seemed to be a hyena (according to Herb who has stories to tell about hyenas). We pitied the old guy and hoped he would see more days than he is most likely to have left in his life. We were told male lions only live to be about eight years old in the wild. I had never heard that before. I felt sad for the old guy and wished I could toss him a meaty bone.
Let’s return though to our gorgeous male who was putting on a show for us. He yawned and showed us all of his teeth, he cleaned himself, stared at us through the long grass, and topped the show with a big cat stretch. We loved him. I secretly wished to stroke his mane and rest against it with my face and then give him a good rub behind his ears like coco enjoys so much. I didn’t want to say good-bye at all, I felt strangely connected to this big cat who didn’t run away from us or become annoyed with our noises. He more than tolerated us, he gave us a good look at what it’s like for a lion to wake up for a night’s promise of hunting. The only thing I wished for was for him to tip his head back and give a good roar. Herb makes a great impression. I have to figure since this was my fourth safari trip, there will be future encounters where the possibility of a good roar will be ever near and promising.
Herb said in all the years he’s been going to this park this is one of the few times a male lion gave us so much intimate viewing time. That coupled with the fact that we saw a leopard, we report that it was indeed a most inspiring safari. When we went in December both times the lions eluded us, and the guides never promise we will find one as there are only 120 lions in the whole park. We need them to feed well on those antelope and buffalo so we can see more and more in the future. Unfortunately the park rangers report that they are not reproducing at an adequate rate and they are concerned.
After our exhilarating experience in the wild of the safari park we perched up high above the river again for dinner and we couldn’t hold back the excitement of our sightings and thoughts that follow such adventure. All of us agreed it was one of the best days of our life. Can you put a price on that?
In the morning we took our time enjoying the morning in the lodge, the sounds from the river below and enjoyed a full breakfast before checking out and heading for the river to see the animals at the water’s edge while we made our way to the gorgeous waterfalls. Adams and Elitia arrived in time for me to pay and we set out on the river. But the motor stalled in the boat and the driver flooded it with oil. We had to be towed to the dock where mechanics fixed it, and we were off down the Nile with an unpredictable motor and a skittish driver. We prayed. The last thing we needed was to stall where a hippo could turn us over, or a crocodile decide we were good enough for lunch. We learned Paraa means “home of the hippo” and true to its name we saw hundreds of hippo, but none of them obliged us by standing up to show off the cute little babies. They were terribly antisocial sinking whenever we came near.
We came around to a bank where the biggest croc was lying on the edge that we’ve seen. Our driver nearly banked the boat so we were only three feet from his wide open mouth. They open their mouths to regulate their temperature. We took pictures but at some point he became nervous with us so close and we got nervous in response. I had a little panic when he got up on his feet and begged the driver to get us out of there. With one swift lurch my head could have been locked in those jaws. No thank you. Later Herb told us how when he was a boy on a trip like that he and his friend took home made slingshots and fired a smooth rock into the open gullet of a crock that snapped shut his jaws and darted towards the boat with the ridges of his back raking against the bottom of the boat causing everyone to scream. The driver couldn’t find the culprit, but if he knew how to read a boy’s face he would have known.
Our hearts pounded for a few minutes as we approached the falls after our own croc encounter and we slid by the area where twenty crocodiles wait for the stunned fish who drop from the falls to float by for their free lunch. The falls roar and we accepted their invitation to stop at the rock and take photos. Then we crossed the river to meet the guide who led our hike up to the top of the falls. This is a good workout. We were breathless and dripping with sweat and happy for the exercise as we took in the sights of the falls from a vantage point that is far more interesting than what we could see from the boat. I will say though you ought to be in good shape before attempting that hike, it is steep, strenuous and slippery without railings to the drop below.
The sights from above were worth the climb. We could see where the Nile had split to make a separate falls and so I pulled out my wide angle lens and captured the kids in front of both falls.
Herb and our driver met us at the top with the van, we enjoyed the view, snapped a few fun photos and then said good-bye to our adventure to head home to Kampala where I was eager to hold Kira. I missed her, but I was also thankful for the small vacation from the hard work of the mission and baby care. I felt restored and rested, and eager to share the photos with friends at the house.
A mission trip here takes two weeks. It’s too far to go for just one week and I feel sad that most of the team missed the safari adventure. It is such a vital component to understanding the country where the people we love and serve live. But, we are American after all and we doll out our time in ambitious ways to accomplish more and more and I don’t think anything will ever change that.