A tri-nation celebration: Part 2

Here's Part 2 of Robert Upe's article about his experiences on Peregrine's Best of East Africa trip. Read Part 1 here

Along the way, throughout the 15 days, children run beside the truck shouting "mzungu, mzungu" in amazement. Used throughout east Africa, the word means someone of "foreign descent" and the greetings come with waves and smiles - and perhaps the hope of a handout. One local in Uganda says the sighting of mzungu will result in excited chatter in households for days.

Along the way there are many oddities. An overloaded truck speeds by with the prophetic words painted across its side: "It's better to die standing than live kneeling." We see goatherds, women with heavy loads balanced on their heads, open-air butcheries, beauty shops in tin sheds with dirt floors, coffin makers displaying their best boxes and business names that could come straight from an Alexander McCall Smith novel: Equator Motors, Mama Boy Shop, Seven Happy Widows Enterprises, Uncle Sam Investments, Jerusalem Body Works and the Peace Gospel Church.

On Sundays in the townships throughout Uganda, well-dressed people walk to church in the roadside dust or mud; there are rarely footpaths. Children look uncomfortable in three-piece suits instead of their usual tattered shorts and T-shirts, women wear high heels and Sunday-best frocks, and the men are in their finest pinstripes, Florsheims and trilbies.

Despite the strong showing of Christianity, Mr Charles remarks that witchcraft is still practised in some areas, particularly among Kenya's Luo communities. The Luo are cousins of the Masai and it's at the Masai Mara - Kenya's most famous game reserve - where we tick off the "Big Five": the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo and elephant.

The "Big Five" is not a reference to the size of the animals but to the fact that they were the most difficult to hunt on foot. Mr Charles says hunting has been stopped in the 1500-square-kilometre Masai Mara National Reserve, which borders Tanzania. The penalties are severe. "Poachers will be shot," he says.

In the rolling grassland we see vultures silhouetted in iconic acacia trees at sunset and zebras, gazelles and cheetahs stalking along the Mara River. The river provides a spectacular setting for the great annual migration of more than a million wildebeest between July and September. As the animals cross the water on their annual pilgrimage for greener pastures, crocodiles attack en masse.

Engrossing animal encounters are not limited to the Masai Mara. At Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda we cruise the shore line of the Kazinga Channel - with soft drinks and Tusker beers in hand - for close encounters with water buffaloes and hippos that look a bit silly when they yawn. Elephants come down to the water to drink and crocodiles lie still in the shallows.

At Uganda's Kibale Forest National Park, where there is a long-term chimpanzee research project, we follow a ranger along narrow tracks into thick vegetation where we would surely become lost without him. These chimp visits are regulated, with no more than six people permitted at a time and a limit of one hour with the primates once they are found.

It's not long before we're with them. At first there are a few distant glimpses through the trees but soon the forest explodes into noise. In his book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, Andrew Westoll describes the noise of chimpanzees as a "pant-hoot". It starts quietly with hooting sounds and builds to an almost frenzied crescendo. As we follow them, some chimps come almost within reach when they descend from the trees, but mostly they stay in the canopy.

The mountain gorillas of Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans are tougher to reach. The gorillas, made famous by zoologist Dian Fossey, are in steep jungle where the ground is a quagmire, stinging nettles are everywhere and a machete is needed to negotiate the tangle of vines.

The gorilla family we find is constantly moving and there's no rest as we sweat, fall in the mud and scramble to keep up. There is some eye contact but after they are assured by our presence they continue on their daily routine of searching for food and grooming each other. The young stay in the clutches of the mothers and the big silverback that leads the pack eyes us every now again to make sure we keep a respectable distance.

Like the chimpanzees, the time with the gorillas is limited to one hour and soon our gorilla guide is leading us out of the jungle and down the terraced mountainside fields. Farmers live in simple mudbrick huts and till the land for potatoes and other crops.

Back at the truck, and sucking on a filter-tipped Sportsman cigarette, Mr Anthony reveals the secret to a long life. "Eat local food, live simply," he says. His grandmother ate only maize, bananas and sweet potato and she lived to 120.

We get word from another safari group that the baby buffalo we watched at Lake Nakuru did not live a long life. The three lions killed it before it returned to the safety of its herd.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.


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