Under the Tusker Sun: Back to Uganda

I’ll blame it on my dad. Thirty years ago, CKPC, Brantford’s top radio station, was offering a free family pass to the African Lion Safari to the first caller. However, the lucky first caller also had to roar like a lion to officially win the pass. That was my dad, and roar he did at the savings and windfall!

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The African Lion Safari is a schmaltzy zoo slash theme park that once upon a time, allowed you to drive your own vehicle through the simulated game park. The experience was so authentic that many vehicles left the safari drive without windshield wipers. Oh and how the baboons loved the soft-top of the convertible ahead of us.

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As kids, this was a thousand times better than a visit to the zoo. We were temporarily transported to Africa, even though we were in sleepy Cambridge, Ontario. When Kim and I moved to the area my African Lion Safari fascination was reignited—so much so that I applied for a job there. They get swamped with applicants—the proximity to Guelph University means every vet student and their brother apply for animal keeper positions. I was thrilled to get a call-back, though they offered me a nightmare position. “We think you’d be best suited for a position dealing directly with the public. How would you feel about driving a 55-passenger bus, small train and boat?”

Yes, it was a job delusion of grandeur. I didn’t want to do any of those things, let alone with 55 crazed hyper cripes kids on board. I imagined having a breakdown and decimating the zebra herd as my monster bus veered off the game track.

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But, back to Africa, and the real thing. I first went in 2008, on a sabbatical of sorts. I didn’t even know where Uganda was at the time, but I applied to volunteer with the Jane Goodall Institute in Entebbe. The condensed version is, that despite my void of hard skills necessary for the job, they wanted me and I wanted them. After four months I was rather in love with Uganda and knew I would be back like a boomerang.

I’ve always said my life is more than circles—it’s a Spirograph. Returning to Africa was necessary, but I worried my shiny kaleidoscope of nostalgia might be tainted after years away from the pesky tsetse flies, dust and dodgy squat toilets. Kim had warmed to the idea (after the ebola headlines thinned), and our time in Zanzibar was a defining example of how awesome Africa was. Except this time—all the things I promised Zanzibar wouldn’t be (malaria zone, human snacking zone for big game), Uganda would be. I warned Kim of the honking chaos of Kampala, lukewarm or possible accidental raw sewage showers, starch-heavy lunches with rice, potatoes and fried yucca all in one serving, tsetse flies up her nostrils, ATMs with no money, matatu taxis packed like sardine cans with people and chickens and car engine. We would see it all, raw and uncensored. Zanzibar was soft Africa and the best starting block in my mind (because you know Madagascar is going to be part of the future scheming).

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To me, all this stuff is quintessential Africa—it’s a fine teetertotter between amazement and annoyance. But, it’s a small price to pay and endure for the rest: brilliant bee eaters in flight, trumpeting elephants, violent earth-rumbling sonic boom storms over Lake Victoria, trance-inducing sunsets on safari, cutting the engine just feet away from a hippo pod, the STARS in the squid ink black sky—so many it seems like one should be ready to pass out from lightheadedness. There will always be tsetse flies but there are also rainbows, falling right out of the sky and the spray of Murchison on our faces—and that thunder of the ages, the mighty Nile rushing ever forward.

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I knew everything Uganda would be—and it was, as reliable as a wagging Golden Retriever. Of course there were sticky logistics and long haul buses to Fort Portal that left our nerves shattered from hitting so many speed bumps at Indy 500 rates–thinking the plate glass bus windows were finally going to give way. Those coaster buses are like traveling on trampolines (think 70s velour covered in plastic with exposed rod iron arm rests. The matatus (mini-van sized taxis) are like involuntarily participating in a Dakar rally–with 23 people instead of the suggested 14. A woman breastfeeds, another eats an entire charred yam as big as a baseball bat with a purple soda (that explodes upon opening and showers half the bus, another dry-brushes her teeth. A dozen others are texting. Someone clips their nails. It’s just like the TTC I suppose. Oh, and then there was that time when the bus (with our packs on it) started to drive off while we were drinking a Tusker nearby. But that’s another story.

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I don’t even know where to begin or where to end with this blog post. We were in Uganda for three weeks and everyday was a sensory overload in the best possible way. The heady waft of jasmine, the wingbeat of hornbills landing just above our cottage, that first stiff coffee on the balcony at Ihamba Lakeside Lodge in a robe, hair slicked back and wet from the steamy rainfall shower.

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I get lost in the soundtrack. (Even the ever-present Lionel Richie hits).

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My tastebuds run through a hard drive of saved taste documents: crocodile ribs at the Dutchess, spicy Tangawizi ginger beer with a glug of gin at my friend Merryde’s brick-and-mortar dream-come-true boutique inn, Gately on the Nile. I taste it all—the foie gras and sweet onion jam that Gately’s manager (and our new precious South African friend) Helen pulled out from her cache for my/our birthday, and a bottle of aged  rum that spilled out stories as fast as nightfall.

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There were warm beers at makeshift bus stops, where the bus was actually the back of a motorbike. There were dreamy beds fit for Will and Kate and then mattresses that were the equivalent of sleeping on slate pool tables. Some of the pillows seemed to be filled with popcorn.

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But, every day was full of remarkable. When your day’s agenda is “look for lions.” Or, climb aboard boat at 3pm to the falls so you can watch the pastel sky catch fire with sunset. When research is kicking off flip-flops and rolling up t-shirt sleeves and spending an hour thumbing through a bird book to document over 30 species sightings in less than an hour—wow. This is living.

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The highlight reel must include our night walk at the Chimps’ Nest. With a guide and an armed guard (What? Charging forest elephants? Sorry Babe, missed reading about them), Kim and I enthusiastically followed the men deep into the woods and night. Though we were looking for bushbabies (which we did see), the greater thrill was finding three sleeping birds. We were within petting distance of a pygmy kingfisher, totally, blissfully asleep—even with three high-powered flashlights trained on his tiny breathing body.

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Random scene: Murchison River Lodge, Burchell’s couckals (known as the “rain bird”) are filling the dead quiet with their familiar and comical  “boo-boo-boo-boo-boo-boo.” The sinewy staff are lighting kerosene lanterns to illuminate the path to the bar and restaurant on the river’s edge. There’s the distinct and goosebump-eliciting muffle of hippos below. Africa’s most dangerous animal—they kill more humans than crocs or lions every year. But still, we choose to sleep in the cool thatch-roof canvas tents while they graze a few grass blades from our heads.

We eat fancy-pants like (lemon butter tilapia and beet with caper salads, pancake stacks with caramel honey, eggs Benny, pad Thai), we eat simply: packages of g-nuts (ground nuts), a few bruised finger bananas, an avocado as big as a football, a can of tuna.

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We float among saddle-billed storks, burpy hippos, Goliath herons and three tons of aggression—sunning crocs.

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Image: The weaving, open cinnamon road. Jade fields of sugarcane, Dr. Seuss-like papyrus, ancient mango trees and life: women carrying bundles of firewood for miles, girls with jerri cans balanced on their heads, young shirtless boys pushing bikes loaded with charcoal. Truly free-range chickens skittle here and there, goats bleat and buck around.

It’s fry-an-egg hot by 10am. Here’s where you get your solid dose of unbridled nature, the very best narcotic going. The roadsides are a blur of vendors, every Ugandan is an entrepreneur. The micro economy is thriving and built on bananas, cobs of corn, pyramids of used shoes, steering wheel covers, some plastic bags of g-nuts and sugarcane stalks.

That same road is like travelling on the moon—the craters threaten to swallow us up. Kim decides to golf in Jinja and finds similar terrain challenges in the termite mounds. Even the scorecard has rules about what to do if your golf ball ends up in a hippo footprint.

The Virgo moon is rising. There is a bonfire, a Burning Man fest worthy pyre. Can you see all this? There are wheelbarrows full of beautiful watermelons (non-GMO!), piles of ‘PUMAA and LAVI jeans’—a line-up of a dozen old school Singer sewing machines and dedicated seamstresses (men and women) at the wheel. A soccer match blaring on a surprisingly large flat screen. The lake flies are like snow flurries at dusk and fly in to your mouth faster than you can seal your lips around the safety of a beer bottle. By day, dragonflies with neon and hot red bodies take their place.

Can you smell this? Split chicken on open grills, chapatti dough being rolled out with an old chair leg and fried in a swirl of spitting oil. That wet, wormyfresh earth after a pounding rain where you inhale like a non-stop yoga class participant. And that sweet wood—like cinnamon sticks and pipe tobacco…

We move from extreme isolation, far from any flight-path or wi-fi. Our entertainment is Cirque de Soleil-ready red-tailed monkeys bouncing in the tree limbs across from our cabin. We move into the capital city of  Kampala and the taxi park that is bigger than a football field and a woman walks past with a loudspeaker ATTACHED to her head. A boda boda (moto taxi) edges past with a bunk bed as cargo. ON a motorcycle. People walk with crates of eggs piled six trays high on their head. With live chickens slung over their shoulder, flapping away.

But back to the beauty: flame trees, hot orange tulip trees, lemongrass. Verdant fields of tea and coffee seedlings being nursed. Big horned ankole cattle—and then over a hundred men, distant, all in yellow jumpsuits. We’re told it’s a farm prison. We pass several and shake our heads at the manual toil that our combines and tractors would till in a day.

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We see everything—elephants parading across the road, a dominant male hippo killing a newborn, a young boy with a machete, angry and seething–threatening our guide Owen in his tribal language (“if you come back tonite, I will cut you!”) Owen told us we shouldn’t buy the small clay crafts the boy had run out to sell us. “He is skipping out of school. This is not good. You shouldn’t buy from him, as it will encourage him to not learn.” We pass by a woman hoeing in a field. She waves at us wildly and makes the universal symbol for “give me money.” Owen says “she is dumb. I mean, she doesn’t talk or hear.

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Kids run out to us at all angles. Yes, some ask for money (why not?). Some just want to touch our white skin (though Kim is as dark as a coconut husk). They trace our tattoos with curious fingers. They want to have their pictures taken—again and again. Many haven’t seen themselves, ever. Kim gives the kids a lesson on using binoculars, though half the group of 40 crowd out the kid who is also being mosh-pitted from behind eager for a turn. I’m sure all he can see is the fuzzy eyeballs of the kid hanging on to the other end of the binoculars.

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The days are pure adrenalin. Your blood begins to feel like warm Red Bull. When you see a leopard with a fresh kill and a mighty fish eagle with talons clutching TWO fish, it’s just pinch-me, kick-me territory.

It’s more than a blog here, it’s a book. Or, a few nights by a fire with a bottles of wine and our stack of matte photos. Then you could feel the goat-skin sheath of the knife we bought in your hands. The cool soapstone of the globe that so represents us (where next?). The warm leather and rough pages of the bound book, the continent of Africa burned into the belly of it. A found feather that once glided on the currents of equatorial air.

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The flashbacks are steady and lovely. Like a pile of favourite Polaroids, familiar and memorized. Our routine was this: books, binoculars, (beer), barefoot, being. We’d read a few chapters in the dying light nursing gin-laced lemon Crest, feet balanced on gum poles. One of us would spot the tuxedo-wearing lapwing or point to a Go Away bird (really, such a great name!). We’d smile at the bats, almost serenading us, signalling the near end of another spoiled African day. Fireflies would emerge, the low frequency of crickets would suddenly be turned on high. Chain lightning would soon streak the sky like a Stones concert.

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As we drank our last coffee with hot milk at Ihamba, on the edge of Queen Elizabeth Park, in the still of the morning, the sun sliding higher in the sky, Kim said, “don’t forget these sounds.”

I can’t. And I know Kim won’t either.

Which means we should probably start planning a trip to Botswana.

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One thought on “Under the Tusker Sun: Back to Uganda

  1. Mike Jackson

    Great blog Jules. Made me homesick for Africa. -Mike

    Date: Mon, 19 Oct 2015 22:43:46 +0000 To: mikehjackson@hotmail.com

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