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Travel Image: Kampala, Uganda
 Photo: Muriel Lasure
Travel Image: Kampala, Uganda
 Photo: Peeter Viisimaa
by Glenn Kaplan

I think the first thing you notice about Africa is the smell. Kampala smells like a combination of woodsy smoke, trash, burning meat and dust. The dust can be overwhelming at times. The weather too, can be overpowering. For the past week we've had a reddish haze hanging over the city. It seems a cyclone that was hitting Madagascar in the south was sucking all the dry air from the Sahara and producing a dust storm over all of east Africa. So it was in a thick, red fog that we headed to Murchison wildlife reserve in northwest Uganda.

Gulu and Lira, both regional districts of the Lordís Resistance Army (a rebel group composed almost entirely of children), flank the Murchison reserve. There were just massacres up north, and while itís unsettling to think about, itís not a deterrent as the LRA do not target foreigners and there haven't been documented incursions into Murchison in two years.

When I decided to register with the US embassy before we left they suggested we head to a reserve in the south. They said that Murchison was off limits to embassy personnel because of recent intelligence suggesting LRA movements within the park. Of course this was the State Department that also insisted there was yellow cake uranium in Niger and WMDs in Iraq, so we took their "intelligence" and advice with an African-sized grain of salt.

Five sweaty hours later when we arrived in Murchison; movement and smells immediately bombarded us. Bugs, animals, bush--everything smashed around us, dominating our senses. People say that the Serengeti is the New York City of nature. If thatís true, Murchison is something like Cleveland. Smaller, but still there are termite mounds ten feet high, towering giraffes, lumbering elephants and masses of insects.

My safari group consisted mostly of Europeans. We took a super matatu (4wd, real seats, a convertible, actual tires) for our game drive at 6:30 AM because that's when the animals are most active. As we crossed the savannah my inner soundtrack alternated between the Jurassic park theme song and Hakuna Matata. Over the course of the next six hours we saw a giraffe, gazelles, water buffalo, wart hogs, and a lion. Apparently the lions in Murchison are fairly elusive so we considered ourselves lucky. At one point we all got out to stretch our legs, I thought about wandering into the bush for a tinkle and then I thought about the lion we spotted ten minutes earlier. I decided staying close to the matatu was best.

In the afternoon we went on a boat trip up the Nile. There were elephants on the shores, hippopotamus and crocodiles in the water, and a miasma of bizarre birds overhead. We made our way to Murchison falls - a narrow gorge that produces one of the most powerful surges of water on earth. While itís not nearly the size of Niagara Falls, Niagara Falls is surrounded by Buffalo, NY whereas Murchison is surrounded by water buffalo, so itís a trade off.

At night we all had dinner at the campsite and the most popular topic of every European I meet inevitably surfaced: what the hell is wrong with America. Iím usually the only American in these conversations and end up becoming an apologist for global instability and rampant consumerism. The only people around here who actually seem to like America are the Ugandans.

After drinking beer well into the night someone in our group hatched the clever idea of heading to the Nile for some midnight hippo watching. While intoxicated interactions with one of Africaís underestimated and deadly creatures are never a good idea, the managers of the camps begrudgingly agreed to supervise us, and a small group of us drank beers and watched hippos until 2 AM.

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