Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda: The Poor Man's Safari

For New Year's, our host Dennis at Uganda Lodge mentioned he wanted to take us and his kids up to a property in Queen Elizabeth National Park - a national park in Uganda where you can see safari-esque animals a couple hours away by car. So Jesse and I decided to join.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Jesse and I crammed into another van filled with way too many people for the ride up to Queen Elizabeth; this consisted of Dennis, the 5 kids, their two nannies, and Jesse and me.
The stunning views made up for the squishy van

Jesse and the gorg tea plantations on the ride up 

On a random stop, we were accosted by tons of women selling bananas

The view overlooking Queen Elizabeth National Park on the drive in
And pulling onto Dennis' property were tons of local fishing boats...and hippos!!! Actually, right next to these hippos were tons of village kids swimming - does that concern anyone else???

We stood by the lake (this is Lake Victoria) and watched the hippos from shore. They make a lot of interesting grunting noises.

The kids and I; hippos in the background

Our accommodations in Queen Elizabeth - Dennis is building a new property but it's not done yet - therefore, our mud huts had no electricity, no running water, etc. First bucket shower of my life, which was especially difficult since I also had to hold the flashlight. Not sure how clean I was during our two days here.

A snack of local fish from the lake

And fittingly, on New Year's Eve, there was the most stunning sunset of all time.

Sunset next to our mud hut

Some of the kids, the brilliant sunset, and our mud huts


  • The next morning, we woke up to elephants milling about in the bushes nearby!

Hoards of elephants just down the road!

I'm not sure you can see this, but I am holding tons of elephants in my hand

The manager of the property goes, "Do you guys wanna go on a game drive?" We go, "Sure." And literally, this man piles us all into the van, and drives 50 feet down the road to see the elephants closer. We get to see them super up-close, and the man was like "Ok we're done," and drove us the 50 feet back to the property.  Poor man's safari, y'all.

Unrelated but related, our property manager had these two tiny adorable puppies. They came running out of the chicken coop(?) whenever he clicked his tongue, and they wore two corn cobs around their neck. Apparently they believe the corn cobs keep the pups healthy or something....

  • Later that afternoon, Dennis took us on another game drive into the actual park to see lions (though do we count the morning driving 50 feet down the road a "game drive"?). And the reason I titled this blog post the "poor man's safari" - imagine 14 of us (3 random other kids had appeared from God knows where) crammed into a van from 1940, no A/C, with Dennis at the wheel randomly driving us down dirt paths. Not to mention he had an AK-47 on the seat next to him. Which I only found out because Patricia, his 7-year old, goes "Ooh Daddy has his AK-47!"  When Jesse asked him if it was in case the animals attacked, Dennis goes, "No. It's because Queen Elizabeth is very close to the Congo border and we may come across Congo rebels."  Charming. I definitely feel safe now.

And in this tree, there's a lion!!
At this point, there were several other cars on the road looking at the lion. As they pulled away one-by-one, Dennis eyed all around us - when he saw we were alone, he literally floored the gas pedal, careened the van off-road through the tall grass, and drove us seriously RIGHT UP TO THE LION.

Three lions in a tree! I would like to point out that given how close we are, pulling off-road was DEFINITELY not a legal move.
Seriously, the theme I'm giving Uganda is pure lawlessness.

I CAN'T BELIEVE HOW CLOSE WE ARE. Though the lions really don't seem to care.

Lion: "meh."

On the poor man's safari, THERE ARE NO RULES

And there were some gazelle. Meh.

As we drove on, Dennis took us to another spot - where there was a lion in the grass!  There were two other cars in the area at this point - Dennis pulled up to them, chatted to them in the local language - and then ZOOM WE WERE OFFROADING AND DRIVING THROUGH THE GRASS AGAIN.  Dennis told us later that he had made an agreement with the other cars to all go offroad, and nobody would get anybody else in trouble for doing so. LAWLESSNESS.

And as we zoomed closer, there were three lions in the grass!

And then we drove up to this lion! HE WAS SERIOUSLY LIKE 10 FEET AWAY. THIS CANNOT BE LEGAL OR SAFE. Or maybe everyone does this, so the lion doesn't give a shiz. I'm leaning towards the latter, given how easily the other two cars were convinced to follow us.


We not only survived, but also got to see this view on the drive back to the property

Is it me, or are sunsets on plains just so much prettier??

So you can't really see - but these are smelly local antelope things called waterbucks. They smell bad. Like, really bad. Apparently they smell so bad that lions won't even eat them unless they're really, really hungry.

Smelly waterbucks up close

Craziest thing: hippos are nocturnal; so at night they would wander out of the water and get super, super close to our camp. Hippos everywhere!

Hippos right by our hut!!! Cutest.

The next day, Jesse and I wandered out for a walk - on our way back, we were cut off by this giant hippo. It was mildly terrifying because we didn't know if it was gonna head towards us (and possibly kill or maim us; do hippos do that??) and it was directly between us and our hut so we couldn't get back to safety. Luckily, it just ambled directly next to us and headed towards the water.

After we finally got safely back to our hut; the kids were enthralled by how close it was to us

And then it ran into the water to join its other hippo friends

  • We headed back to Uganda Lodge the afternoon of the third day - which was a plus, considering Queen Elizabeth National Park was a million degrees (I think I almost died of heatstroke a couple times given no fans or A/C), combined with the fact that I don't think I'm that good at bucket showering, and the fact that all our electronics were near-death by this point.  However, I loved our ghetto safari experience and getting to spend New Year's totally secluded from the world: surrounded by hippos, elephants, and antelope, getting to stare at a million stars from the bonfire in pitch black darkness, and in complete silence. It was an amazing experience.

On the ride home, we stopped by this salt lake where people were collecting salt and it was still a zillion degrees

Our second stop on the drive home was this natural hot springs full of naked people (which I didn't understand why anyone was there because it was a million degrees outside and the water was also a million degrees - why would you do this to yourself??)

The kids wading in the hot springs. Try not to stare at all the naked people. Seriously, we pulled up to this place and every single person stared at us like we were space aliens the entire time we were there, even though we weren't even the naked ones.

  • Annnnd on the way back to Uganda Lodge, the brakes in the van went out (surprising but not surprising considering the van looked like it should have stopped working years ago) - so we had to drive at like, 20mph the whole rest of the way back. To quote Jesse's favorite quote, TIA (this is Africa).  Which I think is from the movie "Blood Diamond." It's a miracle we made it home - but we finally, finally did. Fun fact; I brought knitting for the ride home and I made substantial progress on my scarf on the way back.
  • The next morning, Jesse and I said our final good-byes to Uganda Lodge - I had spent almost two weeks there (which I am pretty impressed with the fact that I condensed my time there into 3 posts), and we were heading on through Uganda to the city of Jinja.

Saying good-bye to the kiddos

"Be a tiger!"

"Blue Steel"

Calvin helping carry Jesse's giant backpack out to wait for the bus

Overall, I loved my time at the lodge and was so sad to leave - it was also amazing getting to spend an entire two weeks there and having all my stuff in my room and not having to pack up and move things. And LOVED interacting with the locals so much - particularly the kids. Ugh - such great, great memories.  


See you in Jinja!

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