Was offline for a couple of days: internet outage at the hotel, then on the road. My, the e-mails pile up.
Saturday was a travel day -- eight hours drive from Kampala west, nearly to the border with Congo. The road was sort of random: it would be good, then horrible, then fine; there'd be lots of traffic, then none. (Though getting out of Kampala was horrible: two hours, traffic all the way.)
By tradition, these assessments get a single break activity, usually on the Saturday night or Sunday morning at the end of the first week. (End of the second week, we're all preparing for our big presentation.) This time we stayed at lodge in a game park -- Queen Elizabeth, out by Lake Albert. So, after two years of regular travel to Africa, I finally did the African game park thing.
It was pretty cool, actually.
Up at 6 am for coffee and a muffin, out the door at 6:30. The park is large, so just driving around takes a couple of hours. Dirt roads, smooth but very very dusty. The landscape was savanna -- waist-high grass punctuated with patches of bush and the occasional tree. (And cactus. Introduced, obviously -- cactus is a New World plant -- but doing very well, thanks.) Warm at first, quickly becoming hot as the sun rose higher.
So. We saw:
Cape Buffalo. Lots! The Cape is pretty much as advertised: a big black wild cow kind of a thing. They gather into large herds with smaller "satellite" herds around the periphery; this is exactly what we saw. Woo.
The buffaloes struck me at once as animals with a distinct and strong personality. The African buffalo is a frowning sort of an animal, dark of outlook and short of temper. They are supposed to be dangerous and they look it.
Antelope. We saw a lot of the big waterbuck -- solitary and in small groups -- and also lots of the smaller Uganda kob, which looks a lot like American red deer except straight-horned and more nervous and athletic.
Elephants. Oh, yeah. We got pretty close to two groups. One elephant crossed the street maybe half a block in front of us. (Yeah, we're in the middle of an African game preserve and I'm measuring things by blocks.) Two males, one bigger and one smaller, greeted each other with ear flapping, snorts and a trunk-clasp; I couldn't help but think of human males doing some combination of handshake, arm-punching and playful insults.
Elephants in the wild are pretty damn cool.
Lions! Between three and five of them. Hard to be sure because they kept sneaking around. We didn't get very close, but we got a good look. They were stalking a herd of kob, but without much hope -- the kob had a line of sentries out (literally -- four of them in a neat line, between 50 and 100 meters apart) and they were watching the lions' every move. Every so often one of them would give an alarm call, a strange little sound between a bark and a whistle. "Lions are still present. Condition Orange."
The guide -- you have to hire a guide, but it was totally worth it; he was competent and well-informed -- said the lions hadn't made a kill recently, and were hungry, but were unlikely to make a successful hunt during the day. "They're ambush predators, and they make most of their kills at night." You could see the kob had the upper hand during the day, but at night... man, I wouldn't want to be an antelope out there on the savanna tonight.
Of course, our primate ancestors managed it for umpty million years. Somehow. Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, my hat is off to you.
Anyway, after about an hour of watching we could see the lions had mostly given up. Two of them climbed a tree and went to sleep, which seemed suggestive. At one point we saw three slinking blobs in the distance; I couldn't make out any features, but the guide unhesitatingly said "hyenas". Presumably they were checking on the lions -- got anything going here, guys? No? How disappointing. Okay, we're off.
The guide said there are 140 lions in the park, which doesn't seem like a lot -- they'll have inbreeding problems, unless they're swapping with other parks. People living around the park put out poison for them, because lions will cheerfully kill livestock. How that ends, with Uganda's population due to double in 25 years, I do not know.
Birds. I'm not even going to go into the birds, except to note that lapwings are not found only near the seashore. (I had no idea.)
Warthogs. There's something about the way these guys trot along, tails held high, that just seems really jaunty and carefree. When we got back to the hotel, two of them were cropping the lawn just behind the lobby. I got within a couple of meters of one, almost close enough to touch. He ignored me.
Monitor lizard. I love these guys -- they remind me of the Marianas Islands and southeast Asia. Our driver didn't like it, though. "His tail is dangerous." Poison? "No, he cut you." I'm pretty sure that's not true. But the driver -- an otherwise calm and levelheaded fellow who had no problem with elephants or drivers -- really didn't like the monitor. My tentative guess is that it's related to the general East African loathing of snakes; a monitor does look very snake-y, for a lizard. But I really don't know.
And that was my trip to an African game park. Next up: Fort Portal, beneath the Ruwenzori.