Try not to smile
It's 6am and still pitch black - my alarm is ringing, I am a little cautious to get out of bed. Then I notice the birds singing, their chirping brings a smile to my lips. Dawn is about to break.
I unzip my gorgeous safari tent. This is certainly glamping. In my many years of outdoor adventure, festivals and road trips I have never been so comfy. 2 single beds, soft, crisp cotton sheets and a duvet. All under a perfectly fitting mosquito net. I can stand, Pete and 6ft 4 can stand, windows to let in light and air. The finishing touch is the solar lighting. This fits my glamping criteria completely. Kerosene lamps light the path to the restaurant. I skip along filled mostly with excitement blended with a touch of anticipation and a sprinkling of nerves. I know I would be exceptionally lucky/unlucky to stumble upon a leopard but they have been spotted in the lodge on previous occasions. I skip a bit faster seeking out eyes glinting in the bushes. I chuckle to myself at my overactive imagination, my mind creating a story a drama based on nothing. I am not the mind I choose as my mantra. I am not the body, I am, so hum, so hum, so hum.
Across the river the sky is a delicate shade of mandarin. I notice hippos are already wallowing after a night of non stop grazing. Their hairy nostrils and twitchy ears peak from the waters surface. I pour myself a cup of Uganda coffee and inhale the morning. Fresh bush air may later smell scorched but In the early hours when the grass is damp with dew the bush smells good enough to eat. My heart feels life, I feel spacious and alive as I again inhale drinking it all in.
Steven carries a cooler box to the safari vehicle. It is packed full of delights, fruit salad bursting with colour and chi/prank. Freshly baked rock cakes still warm from the oven, hard boiled eggs and best of all a flask of coffee. I put down my mug satisfied I will not be going without my morning cuppa.
As we drive to the park gates a crowd of children call mzungu mzungu. Their smiles spread from ear to ear, white teeth a contrast against there black, glossy, skin. Wearing clothes two sizes two big, stained ochre by the mineral dense earth and out of shape through continuously wear and washing. No ego here to compare, judge or criticize. Clothes have a function, serve a purpose. Fashion and trend don't touch the bush although in Kama a the capital city that is a different story. In the north of Uganda children have very little but their basic needs are taken care of. They have food, water, a community, love and shelter. They live suspended in the moment where survival and putting food on the table occupies their parents day and play theirs. They are happy. I smile back at them spontaneously, my white teeth too gleam from my face. Our eyes meet, our differences forgotten.
I cross the Nile to the north bank. Momentarily lost in thoughts of pyramids, felucca, princesses, tribes, trade, explorers and cataracts. So much history and wonder along the longest river in the world.
Immediately as we touch land I feel my excitement grow. I want to see a cat. The grand prize of any safari. We grab Dennis our UWA (Uganda wildlife authority) ranger and set off. It is a cool morning, heavy clouds keep off the sunshine, I know this is in our favour. Wildlife avoids the sun, the longer it stays cooler the more chance we have of spotting game. Within minutes I am laughing at a giraffe as she runs alongside the vehicle. Her neck and legs impossibly long, her ability to coordinate legs and neck remarkable. She stops stops a few feet from us, turns to look at me and flutter her exceptionally long eyelashes. I am in love. If I don't see a cat I don't care, in this moment I am totally, fully, topsy, turvy 100% in love. She swings her neck to the sweetest leaves of the acacia tree and her long, long tongue initiates breakfast. She is comfortable in our presence and I feel blessed to share the planet with her.
I see elephant tracks on the road, my stomach flips. Judging from the size of the prints this is going to be a huge tusk er. A zig zag line cuts between the earth between the prints. Denis Informs me this elephant is in musth and looking for a female. Fresh steaming dung suggests he is close. The air Is heavy with the smell of hormones and it is strangely repulsive and attractive simultaneously. I close close my eyes and inhale deeply. The car stops, my eyes are still closed. I can sense that the energy around me Is charged. I open my eyes, all I can see is elephant. His ears are widespread, his tusks white a stark contrast to the grey sky. His eyes are wet and glassy. He stands at over 10th. I feel humbled by his presence, me a tiny part of this immense universe. He stands at ease blocking the track. I sit a little less at ease, wondering if his stance represents a mock charge or a genuine one. We stay positioned like this for some time like chess pieces analysing each others move, finally he lifts his truck, spins on his foot and literally dissapears. I smile, a deep joyous smile and wonder how something so huge can become invisible in an instant. Only in nature; survival, camouflage, stripes and spots perfect for disappearing.
The path we are opens into savannahs. Borasus palms dot the landscape. Babies are everywhere. The recent rains, fresh green grass and afternoon sunshine have created a wildlife wonderland. Baby bush bucks suckle on mummy bush bucks as daddy bush buck stands proudly by. Warthog families tails in the air comically dart infront of the vehicle. Or ibis when fully grown are miniscule, original babies are miniature miniscule. I observe a newborn glue itself to its mother. I find myself grinning. It suddenly dawns on me that this is the perfect place for a cat to hunt. Scrub in which which to hide, dinner options everywhere. I glance at Denis, spine straight, binos wedged at his eyes, he is searching the horizon. "Move on he instructs."
We switch track and discover an elephant family grazing close by. I notice generations in one herd, the youngest trying to navigate the use of his trunk. It clearly did not come with a manual. It leaps out of control to the left and right before mastering a complete loop and landing on the branches of a tree. He manages to curl the tip, get a grip and is rewarded with green leaves and the fruit from the tree. Egrets are the companion to many big animals. They pick fleas from the out of reach spots and in return feast on the grasshoppers and bugs that spring into the sky as the elephant walks. The perfect symbiotic relationship.
The day is beginning to get some heat. I've removed many of my layers and already devoured the rock cake. We turn onto Queens track. Denis requests we stop under a tree. He scans the horizon whilst I pour us each a cup of coffee. I'm never sure whether I prefer the smell or the taste. I am overflowing with contentment and joy. The bird song is hypnotising the fragrance of coffee combined with with the smell of the earth, warm sunshine, glittering on my eyelashes. I feel present present and alive. My moment Is broken by Denis exclaiming lion in a hushed whisper. My eyes spring open, I focus on where he is indicating. A huge male with a dense rock star mane strides with pride and determination in the distance. Denis instructs us to position the car under an tree where he predicts the lion is heading. We slowly, slowly move forward. Every hair on my body stands on end. We reach the shade of the tree before he does. He saunters up, opens his mouth to yawn and sinks down onto the earth. I am mesmerised, it feels like lightning is running through my veins every bit every bit of me electric. He rubs his eyes with a huge paw. Lucks his jaw. His belly is swollen with last night's feast. He has no reason to go anywhere. He is as happy and fulfilled as I am. I sit and watch for what felt like minutes but was possibly an hour. We finally pull off leaving him to rest in peace.
As we cross the river back to Murchisonon River Lodge, I realise my cheeks are sore from smiling. What a gorgeous soreness to experience