Last Days in Africa

This hippo gave us a once over.

We’ve not had Internet since we left Murchison Falls early Monday morning, so I’m now writing Thursday night as we fly from Entebbe to Boston via Nairobi and Amsterdam. Even if we had had Internet, our days were so full, and started so early, I’m not sure I would’ve found the time to write. Nestled now on our KLM flight, I’m once again pinching myself to make sure this is all real. This whole trip seems surreal in so many ways.

On the Murchison Falls cruise, we disembarked briefly for a photo op on a small rock island.

The baboon athletic trainer does leg stretches on his patient. :)

Backing up to Monday a.m., we were up bright and early in order to leave the Paraa Hotel, in time to catch a small barge which would ferry us to the other side of the Nile. Waving good-bye to the baboons who had come to see us off, the next leg of our adventure began.

Leaving Murchison Falls early in the morning, we were ferried to the other side of Nile to continue our journey. “Our” vehicle is to the left of Doug.

For the next eight hours, we bounced and jogged and twisted and turned over miles of unpaved, red clay, very rutted “roads” in our very bouncy Range Rover. We flew past mud hut village after mud hut village, and trading center after trading center. Because it seems that Ugandans live outside, as we passed through populated areas, we made quite a stir. Shouts, waves, and big smiles greeted us from every child as we passed through their villages. “Mzungu! How are you?” we’d hear from welcoming little ones who wanted nothing more than a smile and a wave in return. It was precious.

A typical Ugandan scene, with many people on foot along the roadways.

Seeing the people was the best part of this day and they helped us keep our minds off the challenge of such a long, jarring ride on such a challenging road. We were ever so happy to arrive at our destination, Ndali Lodge, in Fort Portal around 4:30 that afternoon. And it was so worth the drive!

The thatched roof cottages or bandas we stayed in at the Ndali Lodge in Fort Portal.

Perched atop a hill, overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Game preserve on one side, and clear, pristine Crater Lake on the other, with the Rwenzori Mountain range creating a distant boundary to the northwest, we were swept into another secluded sanctuary at the Ndali Lodge. Each “hotel room” was a free-standing, Thomas Kinkade-style, thatched roof cottage, positioned to take in the spectacular views. Though non-electrified, two small solar powered lamps and many candles provided lighting. It was one of the most beautiful and romantic places we’ve ever been.

Soon after arriving, Paul, Julie, and I took off to hike around Crater Lake to capture the last vestiges of daylight, and succeeded in getting a 3-mile-hike in before being treated to a spectacular sunset, which I watched while soaking in a huge, hot bath. Can it get any better than that? Dinner was served at a long, candlelit community table, so we joined six other guests, along with the proprietor, Aubrey, and his fiance, Claire. The food was delicious and the interaction lively as Italians, Brits, and Americans chatted amiably. It was a perfect ending to the day.

One of the adorable chimps we watched in the Kibale National Forest.

Tuesday morning, we were up early (there is a theme . . . every day we were up very early!) to go to the Kibale National Park and track chimpanzees. There was no arm twisting needed, and there were no thoughts of sleeping past that alarm. I have had a life-long love for chimps, so this was a fulfillment of many dreams.

Our team was captivated by our guide, Gerard, who helped us successfully track dozens of chimps.

Our guide, Gerard, took the five of us, and off we went into the forest. It didn’t really seem to take us long to find many chimps eating in the fig tree and that mesmerized us for the next couple of hours. We watched them play, eat, move about, stare back at us, and act in very human-like ways. We tracked several on foot. We listened to them “talk” to each other. It was more than amazing. A few red-tailed monkeys swung through while we were watching for chimps, and dozens of beautiful birds filled the airwaves with their chatter. It was a most magical time and we were so thankful for it. Our guide indulged our desire to see the tree house accommodation we had read about at the visitor center, and we were all pretty impressed with the thought of spending a night IN the chimp ladened jungle. It has definite rite-of-passage possibilities...

These are the acacia tree eating elephants who were so intent on getting water, they never really noticed us.

Back to the Ndali Lodge for showers and a bountiful lunch before heading to the Queen Elizabeth Game Preserve. Fortunately, the two-hour drive was on paved roads and very easy. :) We drove the Preserve prior to arriving at our hotel, and after the heavily populated savannahs of Murchison Falls, the Queen Elizabeth seemed sparse. It had plenty of kolbs, water buffaloes, water bucks, and birds, but there are no giraffes there and we saw elephants only at a distance. That is, until we got about 12 km from our hotel—and then, just about a half hour prior to sunset, we “drove into” lots of elephants. A group of them were trying to pull down an acacia tree, and our driver, Vincent, said that they were looking for water. We were spellbound until the sun set, watching the antics of these huge, whimsical creatures. We were also treated to see three of them “play fight” in the middle of the road, and I could easily imagine their mother telling them to knock it off. :)

Play-fighting elephants captivated us (and also blocked the road temporarily).

I was continually overwhelmed by the wonders of creation as we explored these preserves. The handiwork of God is evident everywhere, for sure, but the majesty and intricacies of life in these parts is breathtaking. God left no detail undone. Everything fits. It’s laughable to me to think that many people believe the intricate design of each creature “just happened.” Our experience in the jungles, on the water, and on the savannahs only deepened our love and respect for Creator God.

We finally tore ourselves away from the elephant party and checked into our hotel. Our “final sleeping place” was at the Mweya Lodge, a beautiful resort located in the Queen Elizabeth preserve. We were in the lap of luxury there, from beautiful rooms to phenomenal food, all set on spectacular grounds.

The birds seem quite at ease sunbathing with the crocodile.

Doug Macrae captures the Africa Fish Eagle coming in for a landing.

Sunrise over the Queen Elizabeth Game Preserve; we were on our way to track more chimps.

After a great night of sleep, our final day on tour began early Wednesday morning. Up and off with boxed breakfasts, we headed out for another chimp-tracking venture. This one took us into a deep canyon with a river running through it. Our guides, Benjamin and Caleb, explained that only one chimp family inhabited the canyon and it had about 20 members. They also explained that the reason Caleb was armed was to fire shots into the air to frighten the elephants, hippos, or lions that frequent the canyon. Yikes! Off we went with a spirit of trepidation and adventure.

Down deep in the jungle, we tracked those elusive chimps for almost 6 kms.

Four hours later, after hiking almost 6 km over and under and across the canyon, we emerged up the steep wall of the canyon with no chimp sitings. Though obviously disappointing on one hand, the hike was great and we learned a ton about the ecosystem of the area. We also saw a green mamba snake, a hippo, several red-tailed monkeys, and a little family of black and white colobus monkeys. It was satisfyingly challenging.

Hippos and water buffalo were plentiful in the channel which connects Lake George and Lake Edwards.

The smiles on our faces are because we emerged from our rigorous hike in tact. Sadly, we found no chimps on this hunt, but we had a great time.

Back to the Mweya Lodge for a pool-side lunch, which was lovely and relaxing. And then off on another cruise: this one in the channel which connects Lake George and Lake Edward. Our guide was phenomenal and gave us great information about the gorgeous birds of Uganda, the hippos and water buffalo (which are clearly not on the endangered species list,) the crocodiles, and everything else we saw on the cruise. It’s still hard to believe everything we saw was real and not just a very well-done Disney reproduction. :) Memories of the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland (and all those puns) kept surfacing as we cruised and I just have to say—Disneyland does a great job of making it real. But the truly real is so inspiring. Again, we were filled with awe at the depth and detail of God’s creativity.

Our driver, Vincent, did a great job of getting us around this beautiful country.

Our last night on safari was bittersweet. So thankful for all of the wonders and delights of the past days; so sad that our time with Julie was coming to a close. We had a wonderful last dinner, filled with chatter and laughter about the many sights, sounds, and experiences of the trip. How blessed are we.

Enjoying the safari from the top of the Range Rover.

We were up early and on the road to Entebbe by 7:45. The uneventful trip over good roads was a nice ending to our safari. Derek Johnson (Executive Director of the CURE hospital in Mbale) met us at a restaurant in Entebbe with all the bags we left behind in Kampala (our speaking clothes were unnecessary on the safari) and we had a leisurely and enjoyable dinner together before heading to the airport. Though it was sad to say good-bye to Jules, we are so grateful for the ways God is meeting and using her in Mbale. It is abundantly clear that she is just where He wants her right now.

Another amazing sunset.

So with hearts full of gratitude and eyes full of wonder, we begin our 23-hour journey home. We have only praise for our experiences in Uganda, and since we’ve left a good chunk of our hearts there, we expect we’ll be back. We are most indebted to and grateful for Doug and Julie Macrae, whose generosity made the safari a reality. So much more than “just” a safari, it was a life experience, a cultural experience, and a deeply bonding experience not just with them, but with our youngest daughter, whose heart will never be the same again because of these months in Africa. We will always treasure the moments and memories of this incredibly unique and blessed journey.

Thanks for your prayers and support as well. From the significant ministry opportunities in Kampala, to the safe and beautiful travel, we felt the presence of God at every turn. We are truly grateful for you standing with us.

Standing on the equator as it passes through Uganda.

One final photo before we leave our Julie in her new home-away-from-home.