Saturday, August 11, 2007

the african queen

Just before 2 p.m. on Friday, I was wandering around in the scorching afternoon sunlight after finishing A Thousand Splendid Suns. With nothing else to do, I decided to walk down to the boat launch to see if I could talk my way onto one of the river cruise rides up the Nile to the base of Murchison Falls. The guide was being pretty firm about not letting me on - so I started inching my way over to a ranger boat and chatting in my extremely limited Acholi - "Copango? Cope" "how are you? fine" with him. Turns out he was from Gulu, and I started gushing about the time I've spent thing you know he declared me his co-captain and I accompanied him on his river cruise up the Nile (and learned a lot about animals and very little about driving a boat). I Bogart-ed a boat ride up the Nile! Literally!

We crossed the river to pick up a group of eight very loud Floridians (from Boca Raton), and I fit in just fine. They kept taking photos with the Boca Beacon newspaper (with crocs, hippos and the waterfall in the background). I took a ton of pictures of hippos, Nile crocs, king fishers, darter birds, elephants, buffaloes, etc. The ride was incredible and we stopped at the pool below the falls to take photos as well. It was a perfect boat ride. I walked Nelson, my new ranger friend, back to his village and he helped me make arrangements for a ride to Gulu the next morning.

Robert (Nelson's friend) picked us up at Red Chilli at 6:45 AM and we boarded the ferry to the north side of the river to begin the drive to Gulu. In previous years you couldn't take this route because it was occupied by LRA rebels - one of the most dangerous areas during the height of the conflict. Since last year's cease fire the area has been completely tame. The drive to Pakwach (a small town north of the park) was gorgeous - it actually followed most of the game drive we did the previous morning, and we saw more kob and buffaloes along the way.

We arrived in Pakwach around 9 AM and joined the women with makeshift "restaurants" along the bus park (small charcoal stoves, swirling smoke, boiling eggs, grilling chapattis, little benches). We asked for African tea. A young woman promptly brought over three chipped mugs, poured English tea (tea made with boiled water) into them, and then started shaking in a packet of coffee...which turned out to be non-instant coffee. We smiled, added sugar, and drank down the grainy mixture... We ate a roll-ex (chapatti topped with fried egg and salt and rolled up like a burrito) and boarded the last few seats in the Nile Coach to Karuma - our next stop on the journey.

The ticket sellers for the Nile Coach ensured us "good seats" for the hour long ride - and promptly showed us to the back row. The seats in front of us were permanently reclined and I basically had a boy's head in my lap for the entirety of the hour. I listened to Andrew Bird (I'm obsessed) and zoned out looking at the scenery.

We finally arrived in Karuma, which is a haven for street food vendors - they bum rush the buses passing through, selling ground nuts (g-nuts), a very weird looking orange drink in used Rwenzori water bottles, bananas, chapatti, and gristly goat meat wound onto long wooden sticks. We piled into a matatu and thought it was full and ready to go with the legal limit of 14 passengers. The conductor managed to pack in 9 MORE PEOPLE AND A CHICKEN before we finally left for Gulu an hour later. I put my head down on my backpack and tried to sleep. We finally made it to Gulu around 12:30 PM and checked into Hotel Kakanyero, exhausted, dirty and hungry.

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