I think it was seeing the two sub machine guns rolling about in the water at the bottom of the boat (the vessel leaked a bit) that made me think we were on an over elaborate wildlife trip.
‘You will need security.’
Will we? To go birdwatching?’
‘Oh yes, we must keep you secure, and they have all the training to make you safe against any challenges we meet’
That was us trying to negotiate a dawn boating expedition to see the Shoebill, a rare wading bird. We were at the southernmost end of Lake Albert, western Uganda in a small fishing town called Ntoroko, staying in a Uganda Wildlife Authority campsite. The demands of the Ranger and his friend seemed steep, their insistence on us paying for forty litres of fuel puzzling
‘Why do we need that much fuel for a four hour journey?’
If something happens we need to have enough fuel;
‘What might happen?’
‘Nothing will happen, we will all be very safe if we have the fuel’
This has become a familiar form of circular negotiation that goes on until one side, usually us, gives in. Ntoroko is right next to the Congolese border and there has been trouble in the past, but that was a while ago and the area has been declared safe; or we wouldn’t have been there. We gave in.
Mary tells me that she knew all along that we were negotiating with the Ugandan Army Marines to organise our little trip. I didn’t realise until I looked up from the soggy ordinance to the boatman’s camouflage fatigues and their clean UPDF Marines T shirts. Passing fishermen giving them fish for free should have been a further clue. There was also a policeman at the other end (prow?), he was added in at the last minute as an extra precaution, he held his gun across his lap the whole time by the way.
The Shoebill had already eluded us on a very sedate journey through the Delta at the northern end of Lake Albert, no need to send for the marines that time. The Southern end of the lake is very shallow, fishermen punted narrow wooden boats with long poles and flung out nets in a manner that probably hasn’t changed in centuries if not millennia. The mist and the soft dawn light made the scene appear ancient and oddly oriental, although the transistor radios and the mobile ring tones brought us up to date.
True to the Ranger’s word we found the Shoebill, I hadn’t quite understood the fuss about the thing until we saw it.
Even the two marines, who had little interest in avian life, were impressed and wanted to get right up close until the Ranger stopped them. Well over a metre high, maybe a metre and a half, the Shoebill has the strangest beak and what appeared to be a violent squint; this was a grumpy oddity straight out of Lewis Caroll.
Perhaps we had been Hunting the Snark after all, there was a strange unreality about the whole expedition.
Fish jumped all around us as we watched this peculiar being, you could see how such abundant life could support so many large birds, and there were other types equally big. The Shoebill lives on Mudfish, we saw a fisherman pull one out; a huge long black shiny tube of muscle and teeth straight of H R Geiger; yuck.
Where we secure? Did we need that much firepower and that much fuel? The Marines would say it was because we were armed to the teeth and had excess fuel that we returned unharmed. In fact the only problem was the nets, reeds and fishing cages that kept clogging the engine, the guns were little use there.