The Rhinos, the Road, and the River

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We set out this morning at 7:30, leaving Entebbe for Murchison Falls. It’s a six or seven hour trip, but we split it up with a stop at midday. We also talked most of the way. It’s generally considered inadvisable to discuss politics or religion with somebody you barely know, but Innocent and I covered both within the first hour of the journey. No blood was shed; in fact, we decided that we like each other. My initial guess was correct — he’s very much the “people person” type of guide. Like Musa, he knows the animals, but he doesn’t know them with the kind of precision TJ has, as if he lives inside their heads. That’s not what he needs for this type of guiding. On the road, it’s the people he needs to be good at. When I get to a place where I need a wildlife-centered guide, we stop and he turns me over to a local, site-specialist guide who knows the individual creatures in their location as well as I know my own family. That’s what will happen at Bwindi with the gorillas, and at Kibale with the chimpanzees and other primates. It’s also what happened this afternoon, at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.

Three longhorned cattle, one in front facing the camera, and one on either side behind it.
Longhorned Ugandan cattle at roadside

We reached Ziwa shortly before lunchtime. It contains White Rhino, not the black ones I saw in Zimbabwe. In truth, neither one is white or black; they’re both very similar shades of gray. The white rhino got its name first, from a misunderstanding between a Dutchman and an Englishman, whom the Dutchmen tried to tell that this rhino was particularly wide about the head and mouth. The Englishman misunderstood, and so the rhino was named for the color he thought it had. Then when they found the other type of gray rhino, somewhat smaller and with a narrower, hook-shaped mouth, they had to distinguish it somehow, so it became the Black Rhino. There are other differences — White Rhinos are grazers, preferring short grasses that allow them to keep their big, heavy heads low; Black Rhino are browsers, stripping leaves off low bushes. And White Rhino are a great deal more sociable than Black Rhino. Black Rhino are almost always solitary unless it’s the mating season or a mother is still nursing a calf, while White Rhino are often happy to hang out in small groups of congenial rhinoceroid company. 

That’s exactly where we found them when we went into the park. Jackson, the ranger got into our car and directed Innocent in how to drive to the last known location of the family group that Jackson had selected for me to see. (You are promised a view of at least one rhino when you visit the sanctuary. You are not promised more, but they find you groups of them when possible, and it often is.) Innocent tried to park the van under a tree, and ended up puncturing a tire on the root when we got too close. 

Okay, I admit that detail was not part of the plan. 

So poor Innocent had to stay behind and change the tire — he carries two spares, just in case — while Jackson took me into the park, on foot, to look at rhinos. We found one almost immediately at roadside… and at first, I didn’t even recognize it. 

A couple of birds were hanging around at the foot of a great gray rock. I asked what the birds were when Jackson motioned me to look in that direction. He told me, very quietly, that they were ibis. Then I looked back… and realized that the rock had an ear, and the ear was flickering.

A rhino lying down, head to the right, facing away from the camera. A white ibis stands on the left just to the right of the rhino's tail.
My rock-rhino, with ibis

Rhinos — either type — have very bad eyesight but excellent hearing. They continually flick their ears, Jackson explained, so that they can hear everything from all directions. In addition, when multiple white rhinos are lying down together, some of them will point their heads one way and the rest will point theirs the opposite way, so that they cover all bases and can hear anything that might be coming. Most predators will not challenge an adult rhino — well, except for humans, who poach them far too often because certain idiots view their horns as a homeopathic version of Viagra — but the rhinos clearly see no point in taking chances. 

We moved around to the front of the rock-rhino, who was sleeping in the shade to try and keep cool. Uganda is an Equatorial country, and I was definitely feeling the heat, so I had sympathy with the rhino. Coming around into this position also allowed us to find a collection of several other rhinos, also resting, but all together this time. Jackson explained that the one at the center was an adult female named Bella, and all the others were young males — far too young and too low status for Bella to consider them seriously as potential mates, but they could smell that she was starting to come into season, and wanted to hang out with her anyway. Just in case she decided to make an exception. (And, under extremely rare circumstances, female rhinos sometimes do.)

A group of rhinos lying in the shade.  One is on the right facing the camera.  There is a gnarled tree just right of center; on the other side are several ibis, and several rhinos lying behind them.
Bella surrounded by teenaged males

Bella, however, didn’t. In fact, a few minutes after we arrived, the rhino I had mistaken for a rock (in reality, also a young male) got up and came over to join the cluster around her. Bella apparently regarded this as one teenaged boy too many, and chased all but one of the young males away. That one was her son, and he wasn’t there because she was coming into season soon; he was there because he was still nursing. He waited till she got done running off the teenaged boys, and then tried to persuade her to lie down and let him have some milk. Rhinos don’t nurse standing up the way antelope or zebra do; their horns would get in the way. They have to lie down beside their mother, also lying down, in order to be able to successfully get at the nipple. At least big boys like this one do. We saw a much younger baby later on, with a different mother, and he was still young enough to nurse standing, but their horns are a whole lot shorter when they’re that young. Shorter and blunter. Otherwise, they’d stab Mama during the birth.

The white rhino was driven to extinction in Uganda in the 1980s. There was a great deal of political instability going on here at the time, and nobody in government was focusing too much on enforcing wildlife laws, so the poachers had things all their own way until the rhinos were gone. 

After things had settled down politically, in the late 1990s, a group of Ugandan conservationists insisted that it was a disgrace that the White Rhino had been allowed to go extinct in their country, and they were determined to bring it back. They founded the Ugandan Rhino Fund and started raising money to develop a sanctuary where rhinos could be re-established. They found a piece of land suitable for rhinos to thrive on and one of their members who knew the owner got his consent to use it (for the rhinos they didn’t have yet). Then they negotiated the acquisition of four White Rhinos from Kenya, which still had some and were taking great care of them. Shortly thereafter, they were gifted two additional rhinos from a Florida zoo. 

A rhino grazing while a pair of ibis look on.
White Rhinos graze, eating short grasses from the ground, where Black Rhinos browse, eating leaves from bushes

Their first calf — because he was born in 2008 of a Kenyan father and an American mother — was named Obama. Nobody knows whether the former president has ever been made aware of his namesake. I’m tempted to find an email address for the man, and tell him. 

By now, the sanctuary has 33 rhinos. All of them are descendants from the original six. The Rhino Fund is working on bringing in new blood, since their rhinos are beginning to get more inbred than is good for them. However, they’re also breeding fast enough to approach the time when the sanctuary can implement the second part of their plan: distributing rhinos from their preserve throughout Uganda. When they reach fifty rhinos, they will send several pairs to one of the other great wildlife parks in Uganda, and begin the process of reintroducing their rhinos into the wild. 

We got back on the road after lunch at the Rhino Sanctuary’s Cafe. Respectable food, if simple; and it gave me a chance to sit down and cool off. I badly needed that chance — I didn’t tell the Rhino Sanctuary ranger that heat and walking tend to wear me out really fast, because until we reached the end of the visit, I was coping tolerably well. The result was that I didn’t have much energy left by the time we got back to the car, but I managed. A quart of cold water inside me; another quart on the outside all over my shirt — which is long sleeved, SPF 30 and made of the same material as bathing suits, so it is perfect for dumping water on — and I was okay and ready to go on. 

We stopped at a roadside fruit market. I gotta be careful with Innocent; he’s the kind of guy where you can’t say casually that you admire anything of his, or he’ll probably give it to you. I had mentioned earlier, in passing, that I really liked fresh fruit, so the next time we passed a fruit market he stopped to get me some. I couldn’t even pay for it; he had bought me three pineapples before I ever knew that he’d done it. I made a deal with him afterwards that he could do all my bargaining for me, because he knew the customs here, but I have to be allowed to pay for things from now on. Otherwise, I will end up taking advantage of him when I don’t even mean to, or have any idea that I’ve done it. 

We finally arrived at Murchison River Lodge in late afternoon. Despite its name, this is much more a classic camp than many of the “camps” I have stayed at, which were actually more like lodges. Murchison River Lodge is a simple, straightforward place with all the essentials and only one true luxury: a breathtaking location on the banks of the Nile. It’s the only one it needs. 

The lodge/camp is spread out over a fairly large area. The reception desk is in a tiny building up by the road. Further down the hill, about halfway to the river’s edge, there’s a group of public facilities including a gorgeous swimming pool and hot tub made of stone, a lounge area where the camp’s WiFi is kept, and the open-air restaurant. Scattered around these are several life-size statues of animals — my favorites were the group of “hippos” that were just flattish tops of heads peeping out of the grass in exactly the way real hippos peep the tops of their heads out of the water. Finally, around the outskirts of the place, there are scattered the tents, with many of them directly at river’s edge. My own was one of those — they gave me a tent whose front door was barely twenty feet from the Nile! I sent a picture home to my son, who’s a fan of ancient Egypt, and has learned to love the Nile from that. He thought it was pretty neat, and so did I. 

The view from my front door, twenty feet from the edge of the Nile

While I was in the pool area making use of the WiFi, I ran into a fellow travel blogger — or vlogger in this case. A guy named Raj, who runs the YouTube channel called Adventure Singh, was there using the WiFi to make a phone call about his next stop; it turned out that he was doing much the same Uganda circuit that I was. We had a nice time talking about our travel plans for a bit, and I’ve checked out his channel since then… it’s a lot of fun. 

I finally got around to checking out my tent. It’s actually a tent — and not the type of extravagant tents I found at Jack’s Camp either. It’s a permanently set up tent with a thatched roof over the bathroom, but nevertheless a tent, with canvas walls and a chemical toilet (which I had never used before, but works perfectly well). The shower is quasi-outdoors, with the bathroom walls not coming all the way up to the roof; just far enough for privacy. It does have hot water, if you should need it. I didn’t want any. I’m still adjusting to life in an equatorial country, and I’m losing quarts of water from the heat… a cool shower suited me perfectly. 

After that quick shower, I got dressed again and went down to the restaurant for dinner, which was excellent. A pumpkin soup, which I figured I probably wouldn’t eat because I usually don’t like pumpkin things, except pie… but this was so good that I ended up eating most of it anyway. After that, some kind of local recipe beef stew; savory and delicious. While I was eating, I had a delightful conversation with a gentleman named Mark, who manages the Lodge. He was very interested in the writing I’m doing, and pointed out several features on the property that I hadn’t seen yet, including the life sized hippo statue down by the water. (I had already found the ‘submerged’ hippo heads in the grass beside the restaurant myself, but not the standing one on the river beach, which is meant to look like he’s clambered out of the water to graze.) 

Mark is standing just to the right of center.  On the left is a curving bench with blue cushions. Nestled in the curve is a low, three-legged table made from a tree section.
Mark, the manager of the Murchison River Lodge, standing in the poolside lounge area

After dinner, straight to bed; my alarm was set for 5:30 for the morning’s game drive. 

The tent has comfortable twin beds — and what’s more, bless them, they have SERIOUS mosquito netting around them. Everywhere else I’ve stayed had a surround of mosquito curtains with three openings, where the curtains overlapped each other: one on each side of the bed and one at the foot, with about eighteen inches of overlap. Here, there is only one opening, at the foot, and it is guarded aggressively — the overlap is full four feet. It’s enough to wrap fully around yourself, so that the net is always closed even while you move through it. It took me a few tries to get the trick, but once I did, I was deeply grateful for the Lodge’s thoughtfulness… because the insect life is aggressive here, too. We are, after all, about twenty feet away from the river. A river in a warm climate is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. 

Inside the tent, the mosquito netting does the job if you master the art of getting in and out without letting it open. Your best bet when going to the bathroom during the night is to turn on the bathroom light from inside the tent, before you open the door. The bugs will flock to the light, high up in the ceiling, and mostly leave you alone. I was also deeply glad that I had brought the excellent mosquito repellent they gave us in the south… and that I had already cautiously tested it out and discovered that it must have been the sunscreen which caused that awful rash on my arms (now mostly healed), and not the bug repellent. I can live without sunscreen a lot better, though judicious use of clothing. Now, it is safe to use the bug repellent again. 

None of this is meant to be a complaint about the Lodge, which is absolutely charming. There has never been a river basin in a hot climate that didn’t breed insects in droves. Murchison River Lodge handles them about as well as can be handled without locking you indoors… which is not what people come here for. It’s not what I came here for either.

A vervet monkey sits near the riverbank, facing (and ignoring) a sign that reads "KEEP AWAY FROM THE EDGE"
Vervet monkey disobeying the sign, on the grounds of the Murchison River Lodge

So I learn the tricks of managing my tent, and I hose down with bug repellent before I go to sleep… and in return, I can can lie in bed, mosquito-free. I listen to the frogs and the hippos calling to each other outside the canvas walls of my tent, and smell the rich, exotic scent of the nighttime river. The night is beautiful and wild, and it feels as if I’m a part of it, surrounded by it. I had hoped to sleep outside one night in the desert but it wasn’t possible in the wet season, and so I haven’t had a night on this trip until now, when I got to feel as if I were spending the night outdoors. It feels wonderful. 

Tomorrow: Game drives on the savannah and boating on the Nile! 

2 responses to “The Rhinos, the Road, and the River”

  1. Andy Wilson Avatar
    Andy Wilson

    “[males] far too young and too low status for Bella to consider them seriously as potential mates, but they could smell that she was starting to come into season, and wanted to hang out with her anyway. Just in case she decided to make an exception.”

    All across the animal kingdom, hope springs eternal!

    I’m so glad you had such wonderful people taking care of you. Innocent foremost in this post, but I see it in everything you’ve written: you were made welcome and treated warmly and with great care. It’s an inspiring example.

    Also, regarding the white rhino, I wonder if something similar happened with the right whale? Does the existence of the right whale imply the existence of a left whale as well? A wrong whale? A privilege whale? Or maybe it was a Wright whale and we should also look for the Gaudi whale, the Mies van der Rohe whale, and the Le Corbusier whale?

    1. Naomi Avatar

      Actually, the existence of a right whale DOES imply the existence of a wrong whale, although I’m sure the right whales would have very much preferred to be wrong!! They called it that because it was considered the “right whale” to hunt for whale oil, since it was numerous, fairly easy to find, big enough to provide a lot of blubber, not very fast, and it would float after death so it could be picked up by the boat instead of the harvest being lost to the sea.

      So other species weren’t so much Wrong as they were Less Right, perhaps? In any case, it has lost its qualification of being numerous; there are only about 350 Right Whales left, and only about 100 breeding females. Let’s hope it isn’t too late for the Right Whale.

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