Category Archives: On the Road

Oxford Geeks and Crafty Greeks

September 2019

Oxford Geeks
The Man and I had to go to Oxford a few weeks back and, naturally, we took a plane. It was a night flight via Addis Ababa and we were lucky enough to be seated in Comfort Class. At the very last minute, a harassed business-type person hurried up the aisle and found his seat just ahead of us. Well didn’t he then stand up and start removing his clothes! The sight nearly left my eyes. As it turns out, he was changing into his jammies (tasteful, black, suitable for an executive). After some skilful Houdini-type stuff, he handed his suit, shirt, and tie to the flight attendant, made his seat into a bed, pulled the blanket over his head, and was snoring in no time. He woke for breakfast, cleaned his teeth and whatever, then changed back into his suit to deplane, as they say, in Heathrow. Way to go, man – you could be an advert for the airline! That was the highlight of the flight.

One wet and misty bus trip later, we were in the Towery City itself. Being early on a Sunday, the streets were quiet while numerous bells told the intervals of the hour and called the faithful to prayer. After the lushness of the vegetation on the shores of Lake Victoria, so much stone looked, well, heavy, and rather dull to our eyes, but the history! And so we oohed and aahed at every corner, and peered into the quads of the colleges at the manicured lawns, trying to imagine them in times gone by. But since we hadn’t had the foresight to change into our jammies on the plane the tiredness got us after a while, and, rather sinfully, we slipped into The Randolf, and the wonderfully-named Morse Bar for a reviver.

During the week we caught up with friends, made new ones, attended some great presentations – my own was good (said The Man) – indulged in a little retail therapy, and drank a few GnTs. But one of the nicest things was having breakfast in the great hall of Christchurch every morning. Munching on toast and marmalade at the high table, surrounded by portraits of the great and good, the not-so-good and the apparently holy, transports you to another age and has you marvelling at the amount of learning that went on since the college was founded – a religious house has stood at the Christchurch site since the eighth century. But it also transports you to Hogwarts and you can pretend you are Professor Minerva McGonagall peering down at her favourite students of Gryffindor. This gives you the idea.

christchurch

And then, all too soon, it was time to go. But it was full of satisfaction that we made our weary way down St Aldate’s to catch the first bus to Heathrow. Still full of sleep and anxiously checking the time every few minutes, The Man asked if I had remembered to take the passports out of the room safe. Whoops, I thought he always did that. So there’s me sprinting up the hill to the porters’ lodge for a new room key, getting the passports, and shifting it all the way back down the hill again. Last time I moved that fast was with an angry German Shepherd behind me on a country road in France. Missed the first bus. But another one was soon on the way, and The Man had built in some wriggle room. He’s like that. Sometimes I laugh; this time I was grateful, if totally winded.

Crafty Greeks
And because we were in Europe, we decided to have a bit of a break on the island of Crete. Rather silly really, going almost halfway back towards Addis given that our return flight to Kampala was from Heathrow. But that being said, what an eye opener! For a start the weather was just like Uganda (a tad warmer at times, but lovey), the room overlooked the old Venetian harbour, and the food was just what the doctor ordered – if you like cheese, salads, olives, and stuffed vine leaves.

A brief wander through the streets saw the Harry Potter and London-themed tourist trinkets of Oxford’s High Street replaced by Athenian owls and pottery, mediterranean herbs, Cretan slippers, Turkish plates and bowls, and all sorts of colourful stuff. But apart from the atmosphere and the scenery, there were two things that made Crete memorable for me – old fogey that I am – the ancient archeological site of Knossos and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.

First Knossos. The earliest traceable signs of human settlement at Knossos appears to have been around 7.000 BC according to archeologists. Minoan civilization – so named after the mythical King Minos – was at its height during the second millennium BC, and Knossos was one of four of the great palace-cities of ancient Crete (the others being Mallia, Phaistos, and Zakros). But the palace was not simply the residence of the king: it stood at the centre of the administrative, economic, religious, and cultural activities of the people who may have numbered 100,000 in its heyday. The palace covers an area of 20,000 sq metres around which the city sprawled. The architects were a clever lot and built the palace into the hill with many parts being storied. They also constructed “light wells” to allow for air circulation and a sense of spaciousness.

stories

The rooms of the inner chambers were plastered and painted, and some are magnificent. One room depicts dolphins swimming amid smaller fish, while another (the Throne Room) shows the most wonderful griffins seated majestically amongst lilies.

dolphins

griffin

But can you believe that those Minoans, like the Ephesians, had rainwater drainage, clean water supply, sewerage, baths and indoor loos four thousand years ago? The rest of Europe was still having a yearly bath! One strange thing about the Minoans though: they had tiny waists, even the men. Look at the Priest-King.

king

But what struck me most was the size of the jars used for storage – they were huge, almost the height of me – and they were made with an eye for detail.

big pot

I loved it all, not only because Knossos was a wonderful example of human craft, but also because it evoked the old Greek myths. The daughter of King Minos was Ariadne (she of the Ariandne’s Thread method of solving puzzles) who gave her suitor a thread by which he could find his way out of the labyrinth of Daedalus having killed the Minotaur. They haven’t found a labyrinth there yet, as far as I know.

However striking the place may be (and it is a significant tourist attraction), it has been the focus of much scholarly and archeological debate. One school of thought has it that British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans (who started work there in 1900) reconstructed somewhat enthusiastically, extrapolating from the available evidence to create structures that bear scant resemblance to what they may have been: the making of ancient Crete in a sense! He gave the various parts of the site names based on supposed function: The Schoolroom, the Lapidary’s Workshop, the Royal Road, the Sanctuary Hall, the Corridor of the Draughtboard … and a lot of these places do need a fair degree of imagination to join the dots as it were. The famous “Ladies in Blue” fresco from the East Wing was, in reality, drawn by Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron (he had only a few fragments to go on), and my lovely dolphins (and the griffins) were the work of Dutch architect Piet de Jong! In the end, I suppose Evans and his artists were working “according to their own lights”, but it was rather a disappointment to find out that tiny waists and frolicking dolphins were probably a twentieth-century fiction. You can read more here.

But this great civilization and its palace-city disappeared, like Ephesus, Maya, and so many of the cities and civilizations of the ancient world. Sometime between 1,375 and 1,100 (perhaps due to the after effects of the Thera volcano) Knossos faded from history, leaving behind great piles of crumbling stones for later generations to walk through and make sense of.

And now the best of all: winner of the EU Museum of the Year Award 2019, the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. This unassuming-looking building on a side street knocked our socks off – The Man even went back for second helpings. The ancient Greeks were famous for a lot more than philosophers and one-armed statues: they were the poster boys for the cutting edge technology of their time. Housed in the Venetian Palazzo d’Ittar (built around 1500 AD), this small, hands-on exhibition has re-built and demonstrates internal screw cutters, pistons and cylinders, hydraulic valves, gears and sprockets, and much more. It all sounds a bit, well, technical, but the demonstration of these uses of steam, fire, water, and air are genius. Take the robot servant of Philon (third century BC). I won’t bore you with the technical details, but when Philon’s party guests wanted a refill, they simply pressed their glass to the robot’s decanter and, voila, the glass was full in no time. Here she is.

wine robot

Philon seems to have been a oenophile because lots of his inventions have to do with the stuff. He had a cup that allowed you to pour wine to a specific level. If you had a shaky hand or were just a bit too greedy, you lost the lot! Another very clever invention was his water/wine jug. Lots of stuff going on inside (basically tubes and air holes) meant you could pour your guest wine, watered wine, or simply water depending on how mean you were or how drunk you thought they were. Love this one!

Fire, the expansion of air, a closed container of water, some weights, and a syphon could create a miracle if you were Heron of Alexandria. Visitors to the temple who offered sacrifice to the gods could see the doors of the temple open automatically as if the gods were pleased with the offering. The Antikythera calculating mechanism was used to calculate very complex astronomical and calendar events via a series of gear wheels and graded circles. And did you know that the vaginal speculum was used in the fourth century BC or that Plato invented an alarm clock? Neither did I.

From automata and cryptography to musical instruments and useable domestic appliances, from gadgets and jet propulsion to cranes and pulleys, this museum richly deserves the 2019 EU Museum of the Year Award. If you can’t make it to Crete, do visit the website and prepare to use up your monthly data allowance. kotsanasmuseum

Mary, John, and the Ancient City of Ephesus

Some three and a half hours from Jerusalem in a leafy glade on Mount Koressos (the Turkish name translates as Mount Nightengale) lies the House of Mother Mary (Meryemana), a unique shrine venerated by Catholics and Muslims alike. Located near the ancient city of Ephesus, legend has it that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the apostle John lived here after they fled the persecutions of the Romans in Jerusalem.

The Mother Mary House was located only relatively recently, following visions by a generally bedridden Augustinian nun in Dülmen Germany. Apparently Anne Catherine Emmerich’s descriptions were accurate enough for French priest Abbé Gouyet to uncover, in 1881, a crumbling dwelling house where Sr Catherine said it would be. In 1891 priests from Izmir “re-discovered” the site. But the locals had been going there for centuries, venerating it as a holy place for both Christianity and Islam.

While the Ephesus story (dating from the fourth century in Christian literature) is at odds with the long-held belief that the mother of Jesus died at the site of what is now the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, it appears that Pope Leo XIII was a supporter of the Ephesus story; he visited the place in 1896, and apparently bestowed special privileges to those making a pilgrimage there.

The legend cannot, of course, be proved or disproved. However, there is strong support for John’s presence at Ephesus, and the sad ruins of what was a magnificent church (built on the hill of Ayasoluk by none other than Justinian) in nearby Selçuk reputedly house his tomb (according to second-century sources Polycrates and Irenaeus).

Basilica

The sad remains of St John’s Basilica

On the day we visited Mother Mary House, there were busloads of tourists queueing to enter the small chapel, drink or collect water from the holy well, or simply light a candle and say a prayer. Nonetheless, it was a tranquil place, and the prayers of centuries doubtless cast a spirit of peace over us. As we left this holy place and drove to Ephesus itself, I was struck by how close Turkey was to the beginnings of Christianity. If indeed John and Mary made the journey to Ephesus and set up home there, I wondered briefly how they made a living while he was writing his Gospel. And finally, I thought about the bed-ridden German nun who knew exactly where this place was. “There are more things in heaven and on earth …” as Hamlet wisely put it.

Ephesus must have been some city in its heyday. From its earliest beginnings in the tenth century BC, right up to its abandonment around the fifteenth century AD, it was coveted, fought over, conquered, sacked, vandalised, and rebuilt by many, including Ionians, Commerians, Lydians, Persians, Spartans, Syrians, Romans, Goths, and none other than Alexander the Great who liberated the city from a tyrant in 334 BC. The Lydian King Croesus — he of much gold – also had a part of play in the building of the city, notably the Temple of Artemis (of which only one column remains today).

One of my favourite images of this ancient city of marble streets is the communal men’s loos on Curetes Street. Running water made this a not-so-stinky place, and with seats placed close to each other, no doubt a lot of gossip and information was passed from one to the other as these cosmopolitan citizens went about their daily business.

Loos

Intimate toilet seating

Another building that gave me a sore neck was the magnificent library of Celsus. Built by a son in memory of his father (Roman Senator Celsus Polemeanus), it held up to 15,000 scrolls – a modest rival to the great library at Alexandria. A tour guide told us that there was an underground passage between the library and the nearby brothel. I can find no confirmation of this, but can imagine a John Cleese-type gent telling his wife he was off to the library to catch up on some light reading dear! Given that Ephesus was a bustling port city and the brothel was likely to be a place of much activity, I wondered how the brothel workers had protected themselves against pregnancy and venereal diseases, the age-old hazards of the job.

LibraryLib2

The library of Celsus

In contrast to the sex workers, four elegant female figures guard the entrance to the library: Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (virtue). Unfortunately these are copies because the originals were hauled off to Vienna by Austrian archeologists in the nineteenth century. Ravaged by the Goths in 262/3 AD (later to be substantially re-built by Constantine), and demolished by many earthquakes, the library, like most buildings of ancient Ephesus, eventually stopped trying and simply crumbled away. What did happen to all those scrolls?

Sophia

Christianity took an early hold in Ephesus after the visit of Saint Paul, although it was a tough task battling the centuries-old worship of Artemis. He almost started a riot after a silversmith named Demetrius complained that Paul would be the cause of their loss of income and damage to the reputation of the goddess Artemis (New Testament, Acts of the Apostles 19). But given its rocky start, Christianity flourished in the region, and the Patriarch of Constantinople was a significant figure in Christian circles in the centuries to come. The place also appears to have been a hotbed of theological activity: the Christian bishops held the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431, a meeting full of doctrinal shenanigans and theological intrigue.

In geographical terms, however, it would appear that Ephesus was doomed. Constant earthquakes – which kept the stonemasons busy for centuries – coupled with the silting up of the harbour, had serious economic consequences for the city. By the time of the crusades it was barely a village, and by the fifteenth century, its inhabitants had grown weary, even the stonemasons, and simply upped sticks and moved on. European archeologists in the nineteenth century – keen to unearth the romantic roots of Greek and Roman civilization – did much to excavate parts of the city, but they removed many artefacts that should have been left where they were found. The British Museum has more of the Temple of Artemis than currently remains in Turkey!

We really enjoyed our tour around this most ancient of cities and were stunned by the obvious wealth of what it must have been in the Byzantine period. It makes you think: in the days when the inhabitants of Dublin and Belfast were just out of the cave, living in mud and wooden huts while eking out a living in unsavoury hygiene conditions, the citizens of Ephesus had running water – some even had indoor loos – spacious bathing facilities, wide, oil-lit streets paved with shinning marble, a library and a medical school, alongside a theatre that seated 25,000. And yet … the city just crumpled away. As a fascinating place to visit, I give it full marks, pipping Hierapolis and Pamukkale to the post by a good few lengths. I really do recommend a trip away from the coast for those willing to embark on the longish road trip.

Main street

Bloody Awful

April 2001

Having been invited to Holland to give a lecture at a very generous university where two of my students are now studying for their doctorates, I was excited: up at five in the morning, bags packed and ready to go. Check in was at seven thirty so all was well – in fact, all manner of things were well. Too well as it turned out. About thirty kilometres from Kampala the radio latched onto a signal and I caught the tail-end of an announcement, something along the lines of:
“Bloody Awful regrets …”.
“What do they mean?” I said aloud. “Bloody Awful regrets what?
Ten minutes later the smug announcer was back telling all Bloody Awful passengers to phone blah, blah, blah. But since I was out of a network area I couldn’t phone anywhere. Twenty kilometres down the road and at last I had network. Bloody Awful Communication Centre Person was polite but all my impassioned bargaining for an Entebbe-Nairobi-Amsterdam flight fell on deaf ears. I pleaded, I coaxed, I bullied, I put on my best telephone voice (the one that scares the dog), but no deal.
“What’s the problem”, I asked rather icily.
“The late arrival of the inbound aircraft, madam”, Polite Communications Centre Person replies.
“Can’t they get another one?”
“It’s not quite that simple madam”.
“But I have to be in Amsterdam this evening”.
“Yes madam, but the outgoing flight to London will only leave tonight at 23.40″.
“23.40? That’s twenty-to-twelve! But it can’t. I have to be …”
“Yes madam, I know, madam. It can’t be helped, madam”.
Yes, it bloody well can, madam thought. They could call up another plane and get us to London as paid for. How is madam going to give a lecture and start talks about talks just off the red eye to London?

Holland was sympathetic and I actually got a fair bit of work done in the office before venturing out again to try for Entebbe at 7.00pm, sorry 19.00 hours. Crisp new envelopes with the Bloody Awful logo were distributed along the check-in line because the Airport Duty Manager had to eat humble pie. “I regret”, he wrote, “that we let you down on this occasion, but I very much hope that we soon have the chance to restore your confidence in our service”. Harrump!

My spirits lifted a little when I read: If you have onward travel, please visit the Flight Connection Desk on arrival at London Heathrow, where one of our team will be able to assist you. Great, I thought, at least the Heathrow-Schiphol flight will be ok. Flight Connection Desk person at Heathrow assured me that all was in order and sent me on my way to another Connection Desk Person about three miles away. Flight Connection Desk Person there blithely told me that there was no early flight to Schiphol. I knew he had to be wrong and started to check all the gates in the vicinity until I found mine with about 10 minutes to spare before the flight left. Whew, at least I’ll get in with a few hours to freshen up and re-read my lecture notes before lunch with the nice university people.

Ha! Ha, ha, ha! Murphy and the gods were having fun today and they weren’t finished with me yet because my luggage hadn’t made it onto the Schiphol flight at Heathrow. Spent an hour filling in the forms and trying to describe my bag to the Lost Luggage Girl who, to give her her due, didn’t seem to mind that I was getting upset in English rather than in Dutch. Friends were waving wildly through a huge plate glass window and I was tempted to tell Bloody Awful that they could keep my clothes, that they weren’t up to much anyway and weren’t worth waiting for. But I didn’t because after all, they were all I had. But I should have told them to sod off because they couldn’t deliver my lost bag until the next day so ended up agreeing to collect it on departure from Schiphol.

I won’t tell you how I felt giving a lecture and having talks about talks in the same suit I travelled in. I couldn’t. It was too horrible. Luckily I have always followed my mothers advice to carry a spare pair of knickers and a toothbrush in my hand luggage. But I must be a real wimp because I ended up thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t put my lecture notes in my suitcase!

At this point in my story I would like to say something along the lines of “and it all got better and better from that time on”. But I can’t because it didn’t. The next morning I asked at check in for a seat near the exit because I had to get to terminal 1 from terminal 4 in a short space of time for my connecting flight to Belfast. “Of course, madam. No problem, madam.” I thanked the girl profusely, bestowed my most gracious smile upon her, and made my weary way to the gate where I sat down to check through my ticket, passport, money, boarding card – you know the way you do. Waaaaah! I said “near the exit”, not “rear exit”: she had given me 34D! I won’t be able to tell you what I thought at that moment because such language is unbecoming for a lady. I wished I could un-bestow my most gracious smile from her. I did make it off the flight when it landed although the little old lady in the seat in front of me nearly made it a lot further than the front exit, if you get my drift.

In Belfast International (ah, home, sweet home) the luggage made it but the car hire company guy didn’t! I’ve already explained that Africa teaches you patience but it doesn’t teach that much. I cried at that point but I did finally make it back to Donegal that very day, and after a pint of the Blackness, all manner of things were very much well again.

Since I was a lot more savvy about travelling with Bloody Awful, I decided to re-confirm my flights back to Uganda at their Belfast office. A young girl with a squeaky voice told me that Bloody Awful didn’t have a policy of re-confirming flights but I could book my seat from Heathrow to Entebbe if I wanted. I wanted and got 21A. I also asked about the extra luggage: the shoes collected for the kids in the local orphanage and she ticked that into the computer too: “such a good cause, mrs”, said Squeaky, “no problem, mrs”. Gracious smile was once again bestowed. Mrs should have been just a little bit suspicious that it was all that easy but she wasn’t. More fool her because Murphy and his mates had just awakened to the fact that Dee was en route again: “hey lads, want a bit more fun?”

At the Flight Connections Centre in Terminal 1, I paused to check again, paranoid maybe but best to make sure, you know, after all that had happened on the way out. I announced to Smiling FCC Lady that I had seat 21A. She checked out my ticket, checked out my face, checked the information on her computer, wiped the smile from her own face, and promptly checked in with her boss to confide that strange woman from Belfast flight claims to have seat 21A on Entebbe flight when, in fact, flight has been over-booked and strange woman is actually on standby. What should she do? All this was reported in muted tones, some of it in code, but I can lip read and I can decipher code along with the best of them, although Dan Brown’s guy would beat me hands down any day.

Tight-lipped FCC Lady was then subjected to a potted summary of my Bloody Awful travels to date and with pursed lips politely asked me to have a seat while she sorted things out. She did more than sort things out: she gave me a Business Class seat (Yippee! I went in my head) for which she also got bestowed with my MG, although not too effusive, smile. Unfortunately, I fell asleep twenty minutes into Harry Potter but that seat was just too good to waste watching a video on.

The end of this story just couldn’t be good. While the flight arrived on time and my luggage was one of the first onto the snazzy new conveyer belt in a newly-restored, brightly-lit Entebbe arrivals hall, the extra luggage with the orphans’ shoes didn’t make it from London. And while I was struggling through the crowd to get to my bag, the light nearly left my eyes as a huge doggie started jumping over my cases sniffing wildly. Yikes! There goes my smoked salmon and my lovely fresh Ardennes pate. But apparently sniffer doggies are not interested in expensive smuggled foodstuffs – they are looking for much harder stuff, and thankfully my addictions don’t go that far. My loot was safe – a bit squashed, but safe nonetheless. The end of this particular journey came three days later when the shoes came in and had to be duly signed for and collected (a two-hundred km round trip). Result: Bloody Awful Airways has never been given the chance to restore my confidence in their service. Maybe I’ll have to use them again someday but by that time I hope I’ll have saved up enough money to get a black market passport under an assumed name after all the abuse I gave them.

Mweya Safari Lodge

May 1994 The Park

Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP to the initiated and formerly Kazinga National Park) must be the heart of the pearl that is Uganda. The first time I visited The Park was in September last year on the way back from a quick visit to Fort Portal and Kasese. The Man casually asked, somewhere in the middle of a swamp about five hours from home:
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Is the Pope Catholic? – of course I wanted a cup of coffee! We had been driving for hours and I was dying for a pee.
“Then I know just the place.”
“Where?” says I surveying the bush stretching for miles in all directions.
“Here”, says he as we turned off the badly-potholed tarmac road. “It’s a bit of a way down this gravel road.”
“What do you mean a bit of a way?”
“Well, just down here we hang a left and then we’re there”.
“How far just down here?” I asked with more than a hint of suspicion in my voice.
“About twenty-five kilometres”, said he without a trace of shame.
When you are dying for a pee, twenty-five kilometres is twenty-four and a three quarters of a kilometre too many, but The Man explained that he couldn’t stop on the way for fear that lions or hyenas might get me when I was in a compromised situation, if you understand. He stubbornly refused to answer my plaintive “are-we-nearly-theres?”.
Those kilometres went slowly – as they tend to do when you don’t know where you are going – but when he turned left off the Kazinga Chanel Track onto a narrow strip of land leading upwards to the spectacular peninsula atop which sits Mweya Lodge, I realised that it was worth every agonizing kilometre. It truly was a sight for sore eyes and sore bladder.
“It’s beautiful”, I breathed in awe.
“Yes, isn’t it”, said he as he swatted a brightly-coloured yellow bird away from the sugar bowl.
“Don’t scare it! It’s a lovely wee bird. I want to take a picture of it.”
“Lovely wee birds shit in the sugar, dear”, Mr Pragmatic responded.
“I want to come back and stay.” Can we? Can we?”
“Maybe when your sister comes in May”.
And so we did.
This hotel is situated in the most wonderful place on the planet, a place that has been inhabited since the time of the hunter gatherers. The views over the Chanel and Lake Edward are something to write home about, especially when the moon rises over the water. The snow-capped Mountains of the Moon (aka the Rwenzori Mountains) frame the view from the west and the Virunga Mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo form a solid wall to the south behind the Lake. When you live in a land-locked country, far from the sea and you happen to love the sea, the sight of this lake could almost make you believe you were back in Donegal. The sunset behind the Mountains of the Moon which rise majestically behind the small town of Katwe just can’t be described without indulging in purple prose.
The service and the state of the rooms were something else but we won’t talk about that for the moment – suffice it to say that when the ownership changes, these things change too.
After a five hour journey in the tropics, you tend to get a bit sweaty if your car doesn’t have air con, so the first thing you do when you get to your room is have a shower. Remember the Swamp showers at the Equator? The showers at Mweya are Hippo showers. The water is pumped directly up from the Chanel which is full of hippos who frolic, fight, sleep, and do their pees and poos in the water. Peculiar smell, hippo water, but then you aren’t here for beauty treatments, as The Man sagely remarked.
An early morning game drive to see the three lions Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is one of the high points of the trip, except that you have to get up at five thirty to catch a glimpse of them. Apparently they sleep the day away hidden deep in the bush. But if you miss them, there are lots of other animals beginning to wake up at that hour: elephants, buffalo, Uganda Kobs, waterbuck, bushbuck, warthogs, and giant forest hogs, hyaenas, mongooses, baboons, black-and-white colobus monkeys, and the huge (quite fast on their feet incidentally) monitor lizards. They were ugly, if the truth be told, and I wasn’t very keen on them.
The park rangers say that the animals are now starting to come back to the area after a good number of years. Apparently during the Amin years, soldiers hunted the animals to such an extent that the remaining beasts literally ran away. They must feel safe now because we had just turned into the park when an elephant crossed the road about ten feet from our small blue car. It was wildly exciting to see one of these huge animals for the first time, but it was also scary because their tusks are ginormous and the mammys are fiercely protective of their babies.
The boat trip along the Kazinga Channel to the edge of Lake Edward should be on every ornithologist’s wish list. It was here that I first saw the African Jacana – the lillytrotter – the bird with the big feet. All along the banks of the channel, thousands of birds vie with each other for take off and landing rights: pelicans, cormorants, goliath herons, majestic fish eagles, yellow-billed, shoebill and saddlebill storks, black-headed gulls, little egrets, Egyptian geese, reed warblers, crakes, marabu storks, spur-winged plovers, pied wagtails, common sandpipers, sacred ibises, pied kingfishers, the tiny brightly-coloured malachite kingfishers, squacco herons, glossy ibises, and many more. I ran out of film on that trip and missed much more than I captured while hanging over the side of the boat, dangerously close to the yawning jaws of the hippos. Apparently The Park is home to more than 500 species of bird and my Collins Guide is much more well-thumbed now than it was last week. I never thought that I was a bird kind of person but that boat trip is something special.
An evening meal on the terrace overlooking the water is a great way to finish the day. A huge fire is lit outside to keep the animals away but you can still hear the plaintive call of the hyena in the distance – very exotic that!
Unfortunately, the fire doesn’t keep the lake flies away: there are millions of these tiny mosquito-like creatures attracted by the lights of the lodge. I originally thought they were mosquitos until one of the waiters told me that the difference is that lake flies keep their back legs on the wall while mosquitos rest with their back legs raised away from where they land. But good grief, if you have to fish your specs out of your bag and then peer closely to see how they have landed, you could have been bitten by their mates a dozen times in the meantime!
Replete with tilapia, we were making our tired way back to our rooms when suddenly a huge black shape appeared in front of us. Chomp, chomp, chomp, went the dark shadow. Gradually our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we began to make out the shape of a hippo. A fully-grown hippo can weigh in at three thousand kilos and can get through thirty kilos of grass in one night. That’s a lot of grass to digest and get rid of in the water during the day! We gave the hippo a very wide berth since they have the reputation of being one of the most dangerous of all the park animals. Unfortunately, he and a few friends found a lush patch of grass outside our rooms and they chomped their way noisily through the early hours of the night. In the morning, we found ample evidence of their digestive ability, and suddenly the idea of a hippo shower became a lot less attractive than ever before.
But the whole experience was wonderful and I’m certainly going back. My all-time favourites were the warthogs and the mongooses. Simba, Scar, and company were ok, but they just lay there staring back at the funny creatures with the flashing black boxes, with bored expressions on their magnificent fight-marked faces. The elephants were big, even the babies, and it was amazing to see them in the wild rather than in the zoo. The hippos, quite frankly, scared me because I thought they would tip the boat over, and the various kinds of deer were too plentiful to get worked up about. No, it has to be Pumba and Timon’s cousin the mongoose. In my view Mr Disney picked the best of them all to make stars of. I wonder if they could lend me a Pumba to keep the grass down in the back garden?