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It was finding this photo again recently that brought it all back; it shows some of our ex-students working on a roof. The building will be a new classroom for teaching Motor Vehicle Maintenance, the students were all graduates and skilled enough to be employed by their old college. They have kept their college overalls and wear them with pride as they bounce sure footed about the growing roof, notice their flip-flops on the ground by the dancing youth. The colours are strong, new and bright, the shadows sharp and deep; three degrees north of the equator you would expect nothing less.
Is this where I write a roundup of the year just gone? Maybe a self-satisfied description of the unbelievable successes of our over-entitled offspring? Their nationally important roles as cupcake sales persons, hand car wash operatives and niche website facilitators? Perhaps I should dwell at length on the overwhelming successes of our semi feral grandchildren and how little Ptolemy’s performance as a carrot at the Nativity ‘literally’ stole the show?
Or maybe not, because none of that would be true. In reality Storm Frank is still thumping into the side of our rented barn conversion in a farmyard on the edge of Dartmoor.
Even the sheep with fortnight old lambs have been brought in to their barns, so the weather must be awful. In our own warmer and sheep free barn, (unlike the imaginary Ptolemy we have not recreated the nativity ourselves) we can at least reflect on where we were this time last year.
As far away as possible, in Kidepo National Park, north-east Uganda looking forward to vegetables and rice for lunch and again for supper.
We have, I suppose, made the change from one continent to another, from one world to another although we miss our colleagues, the warmth, the light and the sense of purpose that comes with volunteering.
Down here in Devon, the sun wearily struggles above the horizon, occasionally sighing for a while above the hedgerows before slowly plodding downwards again. All of the tones are muted, edges are soft and one form bleeds into another. All is indistinct and unclear, a range of grey washed out earthy greens that feel old and worn.
A quick trip to St Ives further down into the South West for New Year’s Eve, the town a riot of fancy dress at night.
Then Zennor Head for the New Year’s day walk, storm bound; wet and windy but the wind blew in enough vigour to start the new year we hope.
I have cooked pasta with tomato sauce so many times – as have we all – a variant on ‘alla putanesca’ since you ask. But never have I cooked and watched elephants walking down to their watering hole.
We were back to Kidepo National Park in the North East of Uganda, to camp this time on a group of rocks looking down towards buffalo and many, many elephants.
The next evening, (Dal and Cabbage Curry cooked by an Indian volunteer and much better than my pasta) the buffalo moved up that hill. Thousands in a line moving slowly towards us, although the dominant noise that night was not the buffalo but the sound of elephants farting; astonishingly loud, all that muddy water I suppose.
When you camp at a UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) site in the parks, you get a ranger with a gun and a small pink tent. He organizes the water, tends the fire to keep the lions away and patiently answers your endless questions. Daniel even coped with eating curry, the Ugandan diet is usually bland and carbohydrate heavy. Most of his answers related to the rains that are supposed to be coming very soon.
The stars were as close and as bright as you might expect in the middle of a huge and people free landscape, touchable almost. Constellations and naming stars didn’t seem to feature for the Karamajong (Kidepo is in Karamoja) Daniel was more interested in the Milky Way, for example, as a weather forecaster; it was so bright at the moment because the rains were coming. The wind was so strong because….and of course so many animals were visible because the waters were so low, but the buffalo were on the move because…
Back in Gulu a week later and still no rain, clouds build up in the afternoon, but drift away by nightfall. Water is running out in town, the dust is thick over everything blown everywhere by strong hot wind, and the heat is so intense even the locals are complaining.
By the way, Sunday 22 March is World Water Day as you move to your favourite watering hole, or even as you cook pasta with tomato sauce, think of those who have to make do with muddy water, often carried huge distances on foot. Unlike the elephant, the effect of that water is far worse than theatrically loud trumping noises in the night.
‘He is called General Curly’
‘Oh yes, why is that?’
‘He is the most aggressive elephant here’
Here, is Kidepo National Park in the North East of Uganda. The General was blocking the road eating a bush. We drove round the corner and there he was facing us down. Our guide made us stop and wait for the elderly military gentleman to calm down, no-one likes being interrupted during their acacia breakfast do they? Once General C. was fully occupied again we reversed away, very quietly and very slowly. The second time in two days we had to stop for big animals.
The road up from Kitgum to the park is passable in the dry season, but according to one of our fellow volunteers who had done it, truly terrifying in the rains; it was easy to believe her. We had arrived the day before, congratulating ourselves on an easy journey as we swept through the park. Wondering what we might see, we had to stop. Why?
A lioness was sitting on the road, unprepared; our photos were poor but the experience wonderful. She seemed to be searching for something.
An Italian priest we met that night, saw the lioness later, she would have been rounding up her cub he said. He had two builders from Pesaro with him, brought over to Uganda to work for his mission, they sat and watched the mother and cub together for a long time, apparently.
Kidepo is spectacular, an enormous valley surrounded by the mountain ridges of an old volcano. We stayed in the Uganda Wildlife Authority bandas, which are fine with good views and the obligatory wart hog families. But, dotted around the peaks are some splendid campsites (you hire an armed guard to keep out the wildlife if you stay there) and from one of these you can leave the car and see the sun go down.
We watched huge herds of water buffalo move in search of water beneath us and listened to our inner David Attenborough describe the scene in breathless fashion.
This really was the Africa of the television screens we thought
as some of our party drank sundowners (warm Gin and Mango juice) and we all ate canapés (stale potato crisps) what could be better?
There is a very expensive Safari Lodge option: bar and restaurant and swimming pool and external bubble baths with views of a watering hole; way out of our league. Tempting? No; warm cocktails and old snacks every time.
Like Lake Mburo you can (with guide) walk here, there are zebra
(a different type to Mburo, stockier, slightly different markings and less inquisitive),
and the usual Water Buck, Water Buffalo, Jackson’s Hartebeest etc.
The main pleasure is just walking near them.
Somewhere so big means spotting wildlife is not easy, unless you almost drive into them. It didn’t matter, Kidepo is so beautiful we have to return; under canvas next time. Perhaps then we can get to the bottom of why such a large and aggressive elephant is called Curly.