Standort: / Meldung: "Hippos On The Nile"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

25. 11. 2012 - 11:33

Hippos On The Nile

A fearful end of my bike odyssey across Uganda. A goodbye to a troubled country and a gracious population that we should believe in.

I`m on slim boat on the Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls National Park in north-western Uganda. It`s dusk and a chorus of grunted coughs are coming from all directions.


chris cummins

My guide Milton, a smiley round-faced man from the southern mountains of Uganda, calls it "the music of the jungle". To me, it sounds as if a cow is trying to do an impression of a pig. Actually, the grunts are coming from the half submerged hippos that are ringing the boat.

One has just surfaced near the side of the boat with a splash and a roar.

Now this is not a happy moment for me. I`m terrified of hippos. They are known as the most dangerous large animals on the continent. Only malarial mosquitos kill more people in Africa.

Perched on the flimsy boat, I think of my encounter earlier in the day with an eccentric old game warden called George. I`d met him earlier in the afternoon as we crossed the great river with our bikes piled on a car-ferry. George was dressed in old military fatigues and boasted he had been working at Murchison for 39 years, a time span during which Idi Amin dumped his victims in exactly this spot of river. He wouldn't be drawn on history, but enthusiastically warning me about their ferocity: "Yes they are big killers, very, very dangerous!"

Ugandan Diary
A bike tour through Africa (Chris Cummins)

Thinking of those words, I nudge closer to Milton on the boat, hoping for reassurance by asking him why there are making these frankly quite distressing noises:

"The hippos have seen the boat", he explains, "and they are trying to communicate to their colleagues to take care because something is drifting slowly on the water."

Eccentric George!

chris cummins

Eccentric George was all too delighted to warn me about hippos

The males grunt in deep voices to warn off other males. In the water, where they spend most the daylight hours, they are fiercely territorial and many die in fights, Milton explains, either immediately or from wounds inflicted by the huge yellow canines that quickly become infected.

War and Peace

At dusk the hippos, which are herbivores, leave the water and starting their evening grazing on the short grass near the banks of the Nile. Here on dry land, says Milton, they are quite happy to munch away together side by side.

I love that idea. It reminds me of opposing rugby players enjoying an amicable drink together after a bruising encounter on the pitch.

giraffes at murchison falls national park

chris cummins

The Murchison Falls National Park at the northern edge of Africa's Western Rift Valley, is a biodiversity haven.

In the golden-grassed acacia savannah on the northern bank of the river you can see dozens of giraffe, buffalo and antelope. Here on the river, we passed elephant bathing in the shallows near the bank and baboon perched in the branches that hung low over the water.

There was also an amazing variety of birds - there are more than 1,100 avian species in Uganda and hundreds of those species live in this park. There are huge languorous circling birds such vultures and maribou stork. There are tall elegant birds such as goliath heron as well as darting little colourful birds like kingfishers and red-throated beekeepers.

Milton pulls the boat up near a grassy island in the middle of the Nile where some shrub like trees are growing, on the branches of which are perched hundreds of egrets and grey heron. They bunch together a night for safety, explains Milton.

The noise is deafening.

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Milton says that protecting the animals is vital for Uganda`s economy. Their presence brings in visitors and therefore dollars and employment for the guides and conservationists who work there.

It hasn`t always been easy. The hills we can see in the near distance are in politically instable Congo and rebels there carried out cross-border raids, while the tentacles of dreaded LRA also spread this far south. All this meant that the area was flooded with guns and with dangerous people with predictably devastating consequences for wildlife: "It was very easy for them to enter the protected area and kill the animals," says Milton, "but now Kony is gone, other rebel activity has disappeared and the country is at almost total peace."

Long may it last! The current violence in the east of DR Congo is clearly a concern for Uganda.

The End of the Road

This stretch of the Nile, around 30km from Lake Albert, marks the end point of my 500km charity bike ride across Uganda. It`s a chance to indulge in some wildlife spotting and take stock of what for me has been a very moving and invigorating trip through this complex and intoxicating country.

the ugandan flag

chris cummins

The last two days of riding were tough. I felt the heat and humidity rise as I descended from this high plateau that covers much of Uganda. We headed down through the south gate of the Murchison Falls National Park. Below the Nile the park is covered in dense swampy forest that is plagued by tsetse flies.

me with all my things on

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Despite the heat, we`d covered ourselves from head to toe in clothing and toxic spray to protect ourselves but the flies followed us in swarms biting through our lycra shorts, I`m shocked to tell you, and were munching hungrily on our backsides. We were glad to hear that these flies didn't carry sleeping-sickness.

Pursued by the flies, we followed a narrow, steeply, undulating sand track through the forest. Butterflies hovered in clusters low over the dirt track and, just above head height, huge spider webs stretched across the trail, forming a silky tunnel that glinted silver in the sun. In each one was a spider the size of the palm of my hand. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones. There were even baboons crouched on the track. They scurried away when they heard us coming, rustling away into the bushes.

some people took extra precautions against the flies!

chris cummins

Some people took protection agains the flies too far - bee-keeper Paul

I was loving this spectacular day`s ride so much that, as usual, I drifted into thinking about life and love and subsequently lost my concentration. Then I lost a wheel in a rut, lost my balance, lost a piece of skin off my shoulder, lost a bit of pride and lot of dignity.

I sat there by the side of the track feeling very sorry for myself and rubbing iodine into the graze. I`ve read Hemingway`s the Snows of Kilimanjaro, where the hero Harry is dying of an infected African wound, so I covered the cut with half a tube of the yellow cleansing goo.

When I arrived at the campsite that night, hot, tired, fly-bitten and wounded, I spent the evening sipping beer and describing my "near-death experience" in every greater melodrama to my cycling friends.

after my near death experience

chris cummins

My dreadful wound

It was a post card Africa evening. Warthog grazing on the grass on the campsite, going down on their knees to give their necks a rest. More loud marabou storks nested in the trees and, as I was into the third rendition of my crash story I noticed a hippo wandering past the wooden cabins. At night I could hear it munching close outside my wooden cabin.

That`s how it is for me in Africa. I`m always a bit scared and always a bit excited. It`s sounds childlike, that`s how it is. As I wrote in the first episode of this diary, it is the feeling that anything, good or bad, might happen.

a wart hog

chris cummins

One of the few animals in Africa that doesn't scare me.

The End of An Adenture

On a short trip across the country, you can only skirt through and describe what you experience. This diary has just been a record of my own adventures in Uganda. There are interesting important stories I have wholly ignored.

There`s the corruption that economists have told me has a corrosive effect on Uganda`s economy. And there are the new challenges posed by the discovery of reserves of oil, that often cursed "black gold". We passed through a community in Bulisa on Lake Albert where the children had distended bellies from malnutrition and where the oil men have arrived speeding through in fast white 4x4s. The oil companies are funding development projects and had put money into the school we visited. But will their influence be benign?

People have asked me to raise the issue of the politically-blessed homophobia in Uganda. This week Uganda`s political class shamed itself in the eyes of the world with the so called Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which although the shorn of the death penalty at the last minute, is sad example of intolerance. The US President has called the law "odious" - there's not much I can add to that.

I haven't mentioned the terrifying haemorraging-fever Ebola, which struck the town of Luweero just after we passed through. I haven't mentioned the autocratic tendencies of President Museveni who once railed against the rule of the Big Men of Africa but who has now ruled paternalistically himself for three decades.

Me and Patrick

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These are all news worthy stories about Uganda, a troubled country that we should perhaps hear more of not less.

But I fear that the endless flow of overwhelming negative stories about Africa, makes us despair of the continent when it needs our respect and good-will. The final words of Conrad`s Mr. Kuerz in the Heart of Darkness "The Horror! The Horror!" still resound in media coverage today.

The problems are real and huge but there is another side too that every visitor to Africa feels. It's the energy and the good humor. It`s the inventiveness and the resourcefulness. It´s that vague and indefinable thing - the "spirit" of the place. It`s my first rule of journalism, read a lot for context but then just describe what you see.

Thank you very much for following my little adventures. These kids don't want you to pity them, they need you to believe in their future.

kids in Uganda

chris cummins