In 2012 I went to Uganda to volunteer in the Uganda Wildlife Education Center for a month. The UWEC takes in rescued wildlife from throughout the country but has no rehabilitation facilities to release them back into the wild after treatment, so typically the majority stays at the center in semi-natural habitat enclosures where the public can see them. After my time there, I traveled around the country to various national parks to see the amazing diversity of wildlife the country protects within its borders. Uganda is often referred to as "The Pearl of Africa" and it’s not difficult to understand why, with its lush jungle environment and copious wildlife, Lake Victoria and the headwaters of the Nile River. As wildlife viewing was for me (and for most tourists) the chief attraction in Uganda, here are a few of my favorite and most memorable wildlife encounters.
1. Mountain Gorillas
Because it was just the two of us and our armed ranger, we made good time through the aptly-named "impenetrable forest" of Bwindi in the southwest corner of Uganda. Trackers go out early in the morning to locate the habituated groups, then the guide communicates with them via walkie-talkie so the trackers can direct him. Much of the hiking is completely overland, no trails, where machetes and walking sticks are crucial to fight your way through the jungle.
Relatively quickly, by primate tracking standards, we came upon a group of 12 gorillas in an open ravine. A few weeks earlier, I had tracked chimpanzees in the wild and they were quite far away high in the trees, and my 250 zoom lens was pretty puny in that situation. So I was astounded at how close we got to the gorillas. This won’t be every visitor’s luck to be so close in such an open area, but it was mine. The trackers led me further and further into the middle of the group, so the gorillas were on all sides of me. Some lounging and grooming one another, most of them eating, a toddler playing, and one very large mother suckling and cuddling her 3-month old infant.
I had them all to myself. Also surprising, was the fact that you could look them in the eyes. Except not if one is charging you, the guide cautioned. Otherwise, it was OK to engage in this intimate form of contact. It was magical, standing there in the primeval jungle with these evolutionary cousins so close they could almost be our siblings – their movements, their behaviors, their eyes just like mine; the way the infant crawled over his mother, the way she held him to her chest … they could hardly be more human. That is until they walk by and you can viscerally experience their enormous, ponderous weight as they delicately thunder through the jungle. That seems like an oxymoron, but it’s the best way I can think of to accurately describe their passage … thunderous yet delicate.
They spent the night indoors and in the morning were let out to their island through a run – a sort of tunnel of chain-link fencing. At the end of the run, just before the high gate that opened to the island, we fed them porridge and sometimes bananas. The littlest one, Nepa, could fit her hand and arm through the fencing to hold her own cup and serve herself. For the other chimps, we poured the porridge into their eager, open mouths. This is when we could inspect them closely for any health issues or injuries. But mostly, this is when I learned a lot about their personalities and the social structure of dominance.
|Feeding the Chimps|
A python was brought to the UWEC for rescue, found locked inside a wooden box. It was huge, in my estimation, but the zookeepers told me it was unhealthy and dehydrated. I had my camera with me at the time and I took some pictures of the snake. Suddenly Kayondo grabbed my camera and said, “Let’s get a picture of you girls with the snake.” The other current volunteer (also an American) was standing beside me, and before either of us could make a getaway, Wako was on top of us with the snake, draping it around our necks. There was nothing I could do. I think I’m just glad my bladder happened to already be empty at the time. One second after another ticked by with that snake draped around my shoulders, and to my surprise, I was still alive, and the snake was perfectly calm.
"Smile!" Kayondo was now snapping pictures and I wanted to look brave and cool for posterity. Well, acting brave actually made me brave, and it didn’t take too long for me to adjust to the snake and take a genuine interest in it. Wako took it off of us girls and put it on the ground where we could inspect it. I touched its scales. I was taken aback at how smooth they were, almost like silk when I petted them. “See how the skin is so loose,” Wako said. “That’s the dehydration. This snake should be much larger.” This was a rather shocking statement to me … larger?
4. Gray Crowned Crane
|Gray Crowned Crane|
There were no other safari vehicles around it was just me and Fred and the leopard, and a great wide sky of silence … Fred had even turned off the vehicle. If smiles made noise, then it would have been deafening, but my teeth shone silently, only my camera occasionally clicked. I would end up disappointed that it never focused properly on the big cat, and though I had perfect line of sight, none of the photos were really in focus. But the disappointment was relatively fleeting, for the experience remained the same, photos or no photos: I saw a great big white tail. And at the end of it was a leopard. Pretty cool. The only leopard I’ve seen on the ground in all my time in Africa.
About the Author:
Shara Johnson plots her travels from her home in Nederland, Colorado. She scrapes up travel money hosting other travelers in her B&B studio.
You can follow her adventures abroad on her narrative travel blog at SKJtravel.net or on Facebook or Twitter
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