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Story Publication logo July 13, 2007

Letter from Murchison Falls, Uganda



Bill Freivogel, for the Pulitzer Center
Murchison Falls, Uganda

After spilling a Pepsi on myself on the first leg of the trip, I got lucky and was bumped up to first class for the Amsterdam to Kampala leg - 5,000 miles. They had champagne ready for me when I sat down, a wonderful lunch and another snack just before landing and even a couple of trinkets to remember them by.

Luxury ended upon arrival an Entebbe. The airport was a mess. It is under renovation for a big meeting of Commonwealth leaders in November, but clearly won't be ready in time. The lights were dim, it was dark and would-be taxi drivers swarmed around us offering rides. There had been a mess up on our ride so we had to wait about an hour before we could start the hour-long trip into Kampala. Apparently the old Entebbe airport is nearby and still has the shot up planes left when the Israelis rescued their hostages 31 years ago.

For late on a Tuesday night there were a lot of shops open on the way into Kampala. "Shops" is hardly the right word. The shops, like most of the structures that face the main thoroughfares, are like small concrete, wood or brick boxes with no front wall. You can look right into the shops. The next morning, I got a look at Kampala at rush hour and in the sunlight. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. All the newsreel footage and scenes from pictures can't prepare you for what real life looks like in an undeveloped country. Women, dressed well with nice dress shoes, were walking through the dirt to work. Taxis filled with about 10 people each were racing down the streets. Mixed in were motorcycles ferrying people, sacks of cement, vegetables, etc. into the city.

One of the sights is scores and scores of men gathered together at crossroads, looking for something to do. They looked hard at us. I wondered what they thought.

The road from Kampala to Murchison Falls was very bad, filled with water soaked ruts that sometimes stopped our 4 wheel drive vehicle to a stop. Gradually Kampala fell away and we ended up in a rural area of banana tress, mango trees, etc. Finally the houses of brick and concrete disappeared and in their place were mud huts with thatched roofs.

We spent Wednesday night at the Nile River Safari Camp, in very nice tent cabins overlooking the Nile. Hippos and elephants were plentiful on the opposite shore. Then today we took a safari tour where I saw the most amazing sights. Big elephants with huge tusks and a baby nearby greeted our entry to the park. There were hills with 50-plus giraffes. Monkeys, birds, buffalo and antelope were plentiful.

The birds were great. I tried to remember their names but have forgotten most of them. There was a red bishop that was far redder than our cardinals. There were starlings that were a beautiful blue. There were fish eagles that swooped down on the river. There were pairs of huge birds that lumbered in the air like 747s. And there were orange and turquoise bee eaters.

In the afternoon, we took a boat ride on the Nile to the falls. I think they are the most powerful falls in the world. All along the way we saw hundreds of hippos and many elephants and birds.

This evening we're at a fancy lodge. I feel like I am walking in the boots of the Empire. All of the people at dinner were white. All of the servants, drivers etc. are black. I invited our driver to have dinner with us. He looked at me like I was crazy and the black waiter gave him a dirty look when he sat down with a smile.


It's now Friday morning here - one more amazing sight I left out. There are trees here called sausage trees. They look like normal trees except that they have hanging down what look like long liverwurst sausages. Apparently the elephants love these trees because the contents of the sausage-looking objects give the elephants a high. Also on the elephant/tree front, the main trees on the savannah are palm trees. They apparently are the only trees that elephants can't destroy. I guess the elephants also bump against the palm trees to knock down the coconuts and then spread the seeds around the grasslands.

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