Brass Lantern at Dawn

  Nov 9, 2017   Edmond


I woke late my first day in Entebbe, Uganda. Once I shook off the horrid flight I laid out with a glass of wine before noon to absorb some sun on the shores of lake Victoria. Entebbe was much larger and modern than I had expected. The main UN base was right near the airport and I imagine that brings a lot of action and commerce to Entebbe and nearby Kampala. I had some afternoon tea and went into town to score some drugs. I grabbed 100 Valium, some Ritalin and Codeine for somewhere around $30USD. The exchange rate was difficult for me at first, it was 3600 Ugandan Shillings to the Dollar, so constantly doing that math spun me out a bit.

That night I took too many of my drugs and wine and felt sick, I kicked back in my room at watched a film and waited for it to pass. I had a small dinner that evening. Some how I had gained some weight while I was in Morocco and I definitely wanted to be in fighting shape once I arrived in Cape Town, so it would be a stricter eating regime from there on out, one meal a day to afford the wine in the evenings

That evening after dinner I Met with the man that would be my guide, his name was Charles Byarugaba, I was immediately excited about him, we went over the plans and agreed to meet at 0700 the next morning. It was cold and pissing down rain when he picked me up the next morning, which scared me, I was ill equipped to handle the cold weather. Charles and I got to know each other over the next 4 hours of driving. He was a former child soldier, an educated professional guide and was incredibly intelligent and intuitive. I knew immediately he was going to teach me so much it was going to hurt.

After our drive he took me to the Uganda Rhino Sanctuary, a place where they exclusively care for White Rhino, protecting them and earning money for conservation through Rhino tracking in the bush. This would be my first walking safari and my soul was on fire, I want to track every animal in Africa on foot before I’m dead. A game tracker and a couple from Germany joined me. It was cold and wet; my Barbour jacket was soaked before we got into the bush.

After we stepped off the driving road and into the savannah grass, what was supposed to be an hour to two hour trek was cut short by two Rhino about 200 yards from the red earth road. The guide turned and pointed and there, not more than 5 meters from me was a bull rhino just grazing, his head down and enormous, like a small four door sedan. He lifted his head and I saw he was missing his horn and my heart immediately sank. I asked of course, and the answer lifted my spirits. They surgically removed it, to prevent this male from fighting the other males, apparently he was a bit of a scrapper. The key to tracking rhino on foot is to rely on their limited vision, so sticking near small trees and high grass is nearly the same as being invisible and afforded us incredibly close proximity to the animals. We moved towards the other two, a large female and a baby. I got close enough for a photo with one, which amazed me; I didn’t think it was going to be THIS good. The rain and high grass made it a little difficult to shoot, but my blood was pumping and after a couple good photos I just put down the camera and observed, reminding myself…holy fuck…you’re in Uganda Edmond!

Our hour with the rhinos passed and Charles and I jumped back in the van to jam. We stopped in the next small town and hit the petrol station. I went inside and bought the two of us some snacks and drinks for the next 4 hours we would spend to get to the River Nile and Murchison Falls National Park. Inside the gas station, the people working inside started trying to rub off my tattoos. Was I that far from my western reality? I really hoped so; they had so many questions, the same as if you were in the west. The difference being that they couldn’t understand how they were applied and why they didn’t come off, they wanted to know if the process hurt, if they came off etc. constantly throughout the whole of my Ugandan adventure I encountered many questions like this. Its one of the many joys of traveling as a heavily tattooed hooligan; in truly rural areas you’re forced to communicate and interact with the people that you otherwise would not.

We rolled through rural towns, most of the homes and structures were mud bricks, a big difference from what I expected. I guess I assumed it would be like Mozambique with mostly jungle type bamboo and thatched type roofing. The infrastructure in Uganda was much more advanced than the Africa I had gotten to know thus far (with the exception of South Africa.) The roads were in good shape and the people generally seemed more educated than the “real” or as I like to call it “Red Africa” because the soil is so bright it looks like made of fire.

We broke off the main highway and into the proper jungle. Baboons were everywhere, I'm not a fan of the baboons because they’ll rob you, bite you and rip off your arms. I have been robbed by an alpha baboon and it was something I wouldn't care to repeat. We continued all the way up and down witnessing majestic views of the canopy of the endless rainforest until we arrived in a flat land near the Nile. We waited for a moment and then drove the van onto a small barge and crossed the river to the other side, right next to some hippos that were sitting near the waters edge. The current of the Nile was much stronger than I expected, it was much different that my expectations having only see the river in Cairo and Alexandria.

We went through the park gate and arrived at my accommodation. It was fancy as all fuck. Called the Paraa Safari Lodge, this is how the other half live I thought. My negotiations and hard work at the shop before I left were paying off. It was late by our arrival and we were pretty beat. Charles retreated to the guide’s quarters and I ate dinner quickly and wrote for a while watching the sun set from my balcony, glistening off the River Nile until I was too tired to make any sense and crashed the fuck out.

Morning started at 0600 when Charles joined me for breakfast we had tea, I had eggs and toast, I usually don’t eat breakfast but I figured it was going to be a long day. Breakfast polished off we rocketed down to the van, Charles popped the top and bang…the safari began and we were off into the park. The sun was still pretty low on the eastern horizon, making the most incredible colors and views pop from every inch of the savannah grasslands. My heart was in love, my depression gone. It probably had something to do with the Ritalin and Valium I took that morning, but still, I was back in my element, escaping the western reality and learning about our planet.

Charles was spotting things I couldn’t understand how the fuck he could see, Elephant here, jackal there, I couldn’t believe how good he was, without binoculars just acting as my eyes the whole time. Within the first hour we found a single lioness guarding her cubs that were hidden away in a bush. We sat for a minute until the sighting caused a game traffic jam (when all the vans pile on and everyone is looking at the same thing.) then we bounced. We took the road less traveled because Charles knew the park better than most.

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Look closely at the trunk here, Charles explained that likely the elephant was attacked by a Croc while drinking.

We killed it in the park that day, and as the rain started up again, he stopped near a tree, sometime around noon or 1300 and whispered “Edmond, leopard.”

The African Leopard and I have a difficult relationship. I have seen 5 in the wilds of Africa, and each time they’ve been so fast I couldn’t get my camera up to my eye to take the photo. So you can imagine how the air left my body, it was in a tree and I couldn’t see that far, I couldn’t even spot it with my long lens. Charles kept desperately trying to help me find him, and then I got just a tiny glimpse of spots, between some branches and leaves, a window measuring less than a foot from about 100 yards away. First I was floored that Charles could spot something so tiny so far, second I realized I'm fucking blind and third realized I had no fucking shot god damn it. I caught its tail just barely it was blurry. Charles broke the rules with an agreement I would pay the $150 fine and drove me closer to the tree. I looked up, looked that leopard in the eye and as I slowly raised my camera not to spook it, the spirit was gone, ghosted into the tree where neither of us could find it again and we had to get back on the road. It was frustrating, but I could only laugh. This was the 6th African leopard I had seen, and as far as anyone else was concerned it was only myth.

You've got better eyes than me if you can see it in the tree, mid lower branch.

Back for lunch then I was on a Nile River cruise for the afternoon with some folks from the UK and Oz that were there for a wedding. I’m not a huge fan of River safaris, I've been a quite a few and it seems like its just crocs & hippos, the occasional elephant and you’re usually too far to get anything good. I did capture a few shots, and was happy. I got to see Murchison Falls, the most powerful waterfall in Africa. Best part was right near the falls was where Hemmingway had one of his two plane crashes in Africa. I’m starting to think maybe I'm chasing Hemmingway rather than Kerouac; Hemmingway was millions of times better anyway. He had a complicated life and with all the times I've ended up in the same places as he has been, I finally picked up a book to read about his life that evening.

Murchison Falls, where the whole of the River Nile gets squeezed through a 7 meter gap.

Back on shore, it was around 1600 when I told Charles it was time to hit the bricks back into the park, I wasn’t about to give up, and don’t think Charles was thrilled, but happily jumped in anyway. What I didn’t realize at the time is that Charles had to pay for a second park entry out of his own pocket. All the same he was the same incredible guide, doing his job, better maybe than even before. He was on a mission, racing to the area where he knew we would have the best luck, speeding through the dirt roads and potholes to get to the other side of the park before twilight would fade into darkness and we would be out past curfew.

We found the same lioness, and a million giraffe, a herd of elephants and all the magical creatures surrounding us and starting to activate in the evening, the tension in the smaller animals was palpable, something that means something dangerous is close by.

Twilight really started to set in and the failing light made the savannah all the more magical Charles slammed on the breaks and killed the engine. We were on a bit of a hill when this happened and was jolted forward. I understood Charles and his guiding style to know that I should freeze and just shut the fuck up, knowing something big was near. He put the van in neutral and slowly let the van roll backwards. Inching backwards trying not to let the brakes squeak. To my astonishment, to my amazement there it was, the ghost of the jungle, a spirit in cat form, lying in a large Achaia tree, tail hanging down. My heart was on fire, I got emotional for a moment and just stood there in elation. The sky was still light enough to make it look like nothing but a back lit, black lump on a branch. I still don’t know how the fuck Charles spotted it. I was shaking and I didn’t even think to start taking photos at first, I was frozen in my place. The leopard was against the failing light and it was one of those moments you actually recognize in the moment, that this is something that will be engraved into your soul until you die. That moment alone was worth paying for Charles and whatever ridiculous tip I would leave him at the end of this journey, that moment was worth every trip to Africa. Then I pulled my camera up to my eye and took photos while the rain fell and the light continued to fail. Finally, we slowly pulled away and I told Charles he was my fucking hero.

Illustrates how easily you could pass this spirit by and never know it was there.

That night I insisted Charles join me for Dinner, we ate together then he left, I assume because he probably had ladies stashed at all the big park lodges. I continued to drink in celebration and wrote in the lounge of the hotel headphones blasting and killing a bottle of Pinotage to myself. It was one hell of a first fucking day touring Uganda; we got the Big Five on day one thanks to my incredible guide.