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Intel Education Service Corps: Days 7-9—Lions and hippos and oribi—Oh my!

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Note from the Blog Manager: Follow Donna, one of the Co-Program Managers for the Rotation Engineers Program, as she serves as part of the Intel Education Service Corp (IESC) in Uganda. The IESC is a program that allows Intel employees to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries all over the world. Catch up with her first post and read about her first week, before she shares her weekend excursion below.

I promised you hippos and giraffes in this update, but I’m delivering SO much more from my first safari experience!

Our driver, Ellie, has been a real workhorse for the team—always there ready to do battle with the legendary Kampala traffic in order to get us safely to and from Kawempe. So we asked him if he would be interested/available to drive us to the far northwest of Uganda for a weekend of R&R in one of Uganda’s most well-known game parks—Murchison Falls. The plan was for us to leave Kampala around 1 p.m. with the idea of avoiding the worst of the rush hour traffic but after receiving a phone call about demonstrations scattered around Kampala, we shut down early and took an alternate, slightly longer, route. We sailed through with no problems whatsoever and soon found ourselves on a smooth paved (!!) and very straight road heading north.

The pavement ran out and was replaced by a hard-packed dirt road that took us to the entrance to Murchison Park. It was amazing—within 100 yards of the entrance we encountered our first wildlife—a family of baboons! We eventually arrived at the Nile River where we waited for the small ferry to take us across to the Paraa Safari Lodge which sits high on the bluff on the west side of the river. As we waited we encountered our first warthogs which were scuffling around the area totally ignoring the handful of humans sharing their space. Out in the river we saw some floating objects—HIPPOS! And just as I was settling down after that discovery someone noticed the family of elephants which had ambled out of the woods on the opposite bank and were down in the river. I was speechless—little did I know what was waiting for us just on Saturday morning.

The arrival at the lodge was like a step out of a wonderful old movie—one person took our bags, another handed us a cool face cloth, and yet another approached with a tray with glasses of fresh fruit juice. Our rooms were quite nice—twin beds (we shared rooms) surrounded by a mosquito net, a ceiling fan and huge sliding glass door leading out to a small patio area overlooking the river. The theme was definitely ‘safari’ and I began to have fantasies of Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn. After a much needed shower, we congregated in the dining room where we had a table on the veranda; gin and tonics were ordered—what else!?

We were up very early the next morning to pile back into the van to start our ‘animal drive,’ (a drive through the park looking at animals.) We picked up a guide—thank goodness he was a small man because we were definitely short on space—who was along to make sure we found as many animals as possible. I can’t even remember how many different types of hoofed animals we saw feeding on the grass that stretched forever in every direction. There were the huge buffaloes—each looking as if they were sporting a flip hairdo (a la 1966!), the national animal (the kob) seems to count into the thousand (it is a lovely small deer with graceful curved horns), and then there were the oribi (small antelope) who are very shy and would bound off as soon as they heard us coming. And mixed in amongst them all were those hairy little warthogs. It was wonderful to see them all together.

After lunch we headed back down to the river to catch a launch trip up river to the actual Murchison Falls. On the river, we had a chance to look at far more hippos than you could imagine—veritable floating islands of them, snorting and floating and munching on water plants. How can such a huge animal have such cute pink ears? They seemed quite amiable but the guide was at pains to point out that more people are killed by hippos than any other animal in Africa. They have nasty dispositions and don’t like boats to wander too close. And then we started seeing the crocodiles! Some were well over 12’ long—lazily swimming, their tails weaving gracefully through the water. Wonder if Tarzan would think twice about those jaws!

The falls are quite a sight. The river enters a short gorge at a width of about 50 meters and is suddenly squeezed down about six meters and drops 45 meters with predictable results—thunderous water spraying well into the air. Maybe not Niagara, but still pretty impressive.

That evening, as one of the team (Ben) was walking back to his room he suddenly heard one of the hotel staff he’d seen ‘lounging’ along the road shouting at him and then come running in his direction. It wasn’t until that moment that Ben realized that he was just a few yards from a very large dark form—an elephant! How’s that for a close encounter!

On Sunday morning we slept in (while the rest of the guests were up in the pre-dawn hours in order to head out on the ‘required’ animal drive), enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and then headed back out of the park using an alternate route. It was a great choice since we had several more animal sightings—elephants, giraffes, countless herd animals and warthogs. It was a beautiful drive with the iconic acacia trees along the horizon in every direction.

What an amazing weekend we had experiencing the wonders of Uganda. Now, we’re back in the suburbs of Kampala, ready for the week ahead.

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