Cut and Run

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The ride down from the Impenetrable Forest was, to put it bluntly, pure agony. I wasn’t mostly afraid any longer, partly because I had figured out how the porters’ system worked to keep me safe on the sled and partly because I was frankly in too much pain to be thinking much about anything else. My stomach felt like it was being stabbed with every single step down, and there were several hours’ worth of steps.

I only got through it by spending as much time as possible with my eyes closed, swimming in memories of gorillas. Thank you, gorillas.

Eventually, to the profound relief of myself and probably every porter who had to listen to me whimper and whine, we got down to the part of the mountain with a road. Innocent took charge of me at the highest point where a car could reach. I roused myself from my misery enough to thank the guys from the porter gang profusely, and overpay them in gratitude for putting up with such a difficult client. Given that I complained in terror most of the way up and whined in pain most of the way down, they far more than earned that pay! Even emptying my purse of what I owed them plus as much additional Ugandan currency as I had, their payment for hauling a fat, complainy old lady who didn’t listen to them very well, all the way up a mountain and back down again, came to right around $40/person. The official fees for porters don’t come to much around here… but it still pays better than most other jobs available, and is considered a prestigious position. The young men wore their gray polyester uniforms with great pride… and well they should, given how efficiently they have learned to do such a difficult and potentially dangerous job.

The porters weren’t the only ones who had to listen to me whine. By the time Innocent had driven me, grim and gray-faced from the pain, up the endless, horrible, bumpy dirt road to the camp, I was virtually crying with frustration at every turn that wasn’t ours. How he kept his patience with me, I will never know… except that I do know; he simply understood how badly I was hurting, and he worried about me. Nevertheless, I made one decision that day: as lovely as the view from Haven Lodge is, if I ever return to Bwindi, I will select a guesthouse at the bottom of the mountain. Those roads would have been unbearable even if I had been healthy.

That night, I managed to doctor myself adequately with antacids — after five days with virtually nothing in my stomach at all, acid was getting to be as severe a problem as anything else — cold water, and anti-nausea meds. It was just barely enough to let me sleep… but the next morning I woke up weaker than I was before Bwindi, and facing waves of cold sweats and stomach pain.

At that point, the determination which had kept me going through six hard days of illness gave out. Screw it, I thought — why am I still pushing myself? I’ve done all the things that were most important to me here. I’ve visited rhinos and I’ve boated on the Nile. I’ve seen chimpanzees up close, and gorillas have walked up and touched me. I’ve gutted my way through three different camps despite severe illness just because there were a few things I didn’t want to miss, and I haven’t missed a single one of them. Now I am DONE. Finished. All that’s left is Lake Mburo — which I had only booked in the first place to be a pleasant spot to break the long drive back from Bwindi to Entebbe, and perhaps to see zebras when I didn’t yet realize that I would see zebras pretty much all over the south — and I just want to skip it, and get myself into the hands of good medical attention as quickly as I can.

So instead of trying to pack — at which I’d already made a sorry sort of attempt and totally failed to do adequately, due to the pain and fatigue — I just sat still and waited for Innocent to notice me missing from our meeting point and show up to see where I was. He did not fail me. When he got there, I explained that I was feeling a lot worse, and was there any feasible way to get me back to Kampala and a good western style hospital as quickly as reasonably possible?

Yes. Yes, there was — and I found out exactly how quickly that could be almost at once. Ugandan tour operators whose livelihoods depend on satisfying western clients even when something beyond their control has gone catastrophically wrong have a very impressive definition of “reasonably possible,” and I remain deeply grateful for it in this case, however surprisingly it differed from mine.

First, Innocent got his boss, Tony, on the phone, and handed it to me. Tony is the CEO of Speke Holidays, the local agency with whom Timbuktu, my travel agent, contracts its ground operations in Uganda. I don’t remember much of what was said on that phone call, but the next thing I knew, I was barrelling down those much-hated dirt roads in a mixture of physical pain and blind terror — Innocent drives safely, but most Ugandans on the road do not, and Innocent was going so fast that I worried he wouldn’t be able to avoid them. In fact, many of them weren’t even driving at all; they walked or led herds of livestock. But Innocent dared not slow down. He was on a mission. He was taking me to catch an airplane, which Tony had arranged to have held on the tarmac just for me, because I was now considered to be an emergency.

This made me very uncomfortable. I could just imagine what a plane full of Americans would say if their airplane were delayed by an hour and a half to accommodate an emergency passenger! Especially if they found out that the patient wasn’t suffering from a heart attack or a stroke or something, just a bad stomachache from water sickness. But the plane was already being held, and I got no say in it. Every time the airport called asking for an update on our timing, I weakly tried to urge Innocent to tell them to just let the plane go, not to hold it for me anymore.

Innocent wisely ignored my protests entirely. I was in no condition to be making my own decisions about things like that, and that was probably pretty obvious to anybody who wasn’t me. I was dealing with a lot more than “just a stomach ache,” even if I was too sick to realize how sick I really was.

We arrived at the airport, and it turned out there were only six other passengers on the small plane, all of whom were European and all of whom were incredibly kind about it all. One of them happened to be a doctor, and he introduced himself and asked me if there was anything he might be able to do to be of help. I thanked him and explained the situation. He said it was good that I was getting to the hospital; and to try and drink as much good, clean water as I could in the meantime. I promised to do so, and I did. The plane — similar to the bush planes of the south — had little room for baggage, so I boarded carrying only my backpack, which contained my medications, my wallet, my masks, a nightgown, and a single change of clothes in it. We agreed that Innocent would follow by road with the rest of my things.

Uganda is not large by American standards. Bwindi is in the far southwestern corner of it, and Entebbe in the middle, but even in a propeller plane instead of a jet that flight lasted only about two hours — which included one landing to drop off two passengers and give the others a pit stop, the tiny plane being much too small to have a rest room. I didn’t get out… I was too weak to move much, so I stayed on the plane sipping cold water to keep my promise to the doctor. We finally arrived in Entebbe and I was met by a Speke representative I didn’t know, who got me to the hospital and turned me over to CEO Tony’s wife, a lovely lady named Evelyn. Evelyn doesn’t actually work for Speke, she explained to me, but she’s an American-trained registered nurse, and so she offered out of compassion to meet me at the hospital, support me there, and help interpret between the Ugandan medical system and my American mindset. I was duly grateful. I had been afraid of being left alone in an alien bureaucracy… more frightening to me than being left alone in the wilderness.

The hospital — described to me as the one where international diplomats and their families usually go when they need care in Kampala — was roughly on a par with a good-quality, modest American country hospital, with limited facilities but solid personnel. I felt safe there, and in good hands, but I kept getting tripped up by small technical details. For example, they gave me a saline drip to rehydrate me, but unlike American saline drips, there was no automatic monitor on it to signal the staff when the liquid ran out. I was expected to notice and tell somebody, which they didn’t tell me. (By that time, Evelyn had gone off to pick up her children from school, so she couldn’t spot the problem and explain.) After it had happened once, they gave me an alarm — again, not automatic; just a purple plastic thing with a call button on it, with which I could contact the nurses if the bag needed changing. It hasn’t occurred to me that I hadn’t had anything resembling a call button before… if I wanted to talk to a nurse, I just asked Evelyn to find me one, or after she left, I stuck my head out into the hallway and said “Excuse me?” to any human being within earshot.

Despite the limited equipment, the staff were all professional and everything appeared as sterile as I would expect in the United States. The doctors asked all the right questions, ran a bunch of tests, identified the bacteria I’ve been fighting all this time, prescribed an applicable antibiotic, and gave me an IV version of the first dose of it — along with a few other medicines to make me more comfortable in the meantime. I left the hospital exhausted but feeling confident… and already in less pain than before I had tried to go up into Bwindi.

The hospital was the right decision. This morning, I woke up feeling almost healthy again. I actually ate both breakfast and lunch at my hotel — I’m back at the Guinea Fowl, where I first began my stay in Uganda and where I had intended to finish it anyhow; I simply got here a day earlier than I had originally intended, because I flew back from Bwindi in one day instead of driving in two, with an overnight at Lake Mburo in between.

This afternoon, Innocent came by and brought the doctor to do my Covid test for tomorrow’s trip to Amsterdam. And after that, we went to the zoo.

The zoo?

Yes. After all the animals I’ve seen in the wild here in Africa, it felt distinctly strange to be going to a zoo… but I wanted to see what a Ugandan zoo was like. And Innocent had promised me a program called Behind the Scenes, in which I could pet some of the animals and feed others. This was irresistible after a month of seeing African animals tantalizingly close up. So we went.

It was hard, at times to see animals in cages, after a month of watching them live free in the open, being where they evolved to be and doing what they evolved to do. Especially some animals, who lived behind actual bars, in environments which weren’t designed to be a good facsimile of the world where they belonged. The otters looked fine — they were in a pool that had free-flowing water laid out to resemble a river, and seemed quite happy there. But the smaller cats were mostly alone or in pairs, and although they weren’t bred to really enjoy the group experience they also appeared bored and much less involved with their world than the herd animals did. I was glad for the chance to see some of the smaller cats that I had not met on safari — the serval and the caracal especially, as well as a genet who stood still in better light for me to look at than Janet had done. But I wasn’t entirely comfortable with their being there for my pleasure, a pleasure though it truly was.

A pair of river otters.  The one on the right is mostly submerged; both are sitting on a tree branch or pipe under the water.
Frolicking river otters
A serval -- a cat with orange fur and black stripes and spots -- with its head turned to the left.
Serval, at the zoo
A Caracal; lying down facing right, licking its paw in a very cat-like pose.
Caracal washing her face

That said, it was a ton of fun getting to interact with the animals in the Behind the Scenes program directly in ways you just don’t get to do on safari, for the animals’ safety and yours. Not even the habituated ones, except maybe the meerkats. The zoo inhabitants are all rescues — orphans or injured animals who would have died if left to the wild — or else products of their own breeding program. So it’s not like they took anything from the wild to stock their displays. In fact, their breeding program sends new animals to the wild in some cases. My issues with the zoo are not with its relationship with conservation; only their limited facilities… and they try to do the best they can with those.

Some of their creatures, they have tried to allow to live as much as possible the way they would live as wild animals; others are trained to be ambassadors.
I got to scratch a white rhino under the chin, which it seemed to enjoy, and I fed long stalks of tender leaves to a pair of giraffes. I tried to give some also to the third giraffe who nudged between the two, asking for her share, but the larger ones wouldn’t let me. Pecking order, I suppose.

A white rhino poking its front horn between two slightly-rusted bars; perspective makes its head look enormous.
White Rhino requesting a chin scratch
I'm holding up a stalk of leaves trying to feed the middle giraffe, but the two on either side of it are crowding it out.
I tried to feed the third giraffe but the other two wouldn’t let me

And then there were the animals, like Janet the Genet had been back at Jack’s Camp, who had not been deliberately trained for outreach but were determined to domesticate themselves by sheer force of will. There was one female elephant — she’d been a baby who was rescued when her family was killed by poachers — who had grown up with humans and never lost her sense that they were her herd. She was a good example of the kind of thing which can happen when you get an elephant who is raised like a pet the way many of the original crop from the Elephant Sanctuary in Zimbabwe were. The zoo tried hard to treat her as an elephant… but she keeps refusing elephant companions, and trying to shake hands with the humans. I wanted to shake her trunk when she offered it to me, but understood why the keeper shepherded me away. They’re trying not to encourage her to do that.

They had shoebill storks, which I’m supposed to go out on a boat to look for in the wild tomorrow. I hope we’ll see some, but if we don’t, I’ve not only seen them, I’ve even touched one! There was a beautiful, soft, feathery shoebill who was trained to lower her head for stroking when she wanted it, or when you asked her to. The handler let me into her aviary, and encouraged her to lower her head for me, so I could pet her. After that, I guess she liked it, because she wouldn’t stop. Shoebills are eerie-looking — I’m not the first one to say they show the dinosaur ancestry of birds more than almost any other bird currently living — and they can be ruthless. For example, they usually hatch two eggs at a time but only raise one chick; the weaker is an insurance policy, discarded without mercy once it becomes clear the stronger chick is going to make it. But this particular shoebill was surprisingly friendly — and I have never met a softer, more pettable bird.

I am on the left, looking at Susie the shoebill stork with a somewhat quizzical expression.
I meet Susie the Shoebill
Susie has her head down so that I can pet her.
Petting Susie’s fluffy head

We finally came to the chimpanzee island. They’ve got seventeen chimps living there, with a few trees to climb; they come in at night to sleep because, the keeper explained, if they didn’t, they would kill those trees by stripping them bare to make nests every night. You can’t get close to the chimps because they can be unexpectedly aggressive, but I was given a pail of fruits to throw to them. The alpha male took most of them for himself when he could, but I learned a secret from the keeper: he hates water. So when I threw the fruits just a little short, so they landed in the water surrounding the island, the other chimps didn’t mind at all wading out a few steps to get a fruit, but it kept the alpha from laying hands on yet another one. (In fairness, however, once when a female came up beside him and poked him about it: “C’mon, you’ve got three there and I don’t have any! How about it, huh?” he did give her one.)

Chimpanzee Island

We also visited one chimpanzee who wasn’t living on the island… indeed, he was no longer living at all. Zakayo, the much-revered former leader of the zoo’s troop of chimps, was buried with full honors on the zoo grounds near the island. He had plants growing over his grave, and a statue of him, with a metal plaque that told about his life. He was evidently a great ambassador between species as well as a wise leader for the chimps themselves, and even had the wisdom to step down of his own volition when he became too old to lead effectively — very rare in a species where dominance is largely decided by raw strength.

Unfortunately, the leader who replaced him was something of a tyrant who definitely didn’t share Zakayo’s wisdom; the females eventually had to kick him out of the job. The current leader, even though he does love fruit and hoards it when he can, is apparently a considerable improvement. And that former leader, who had a brief stint between Zakayo and the current top guy, still has a role in the chimpanzee community… he’s just not in charge anymore (and appears, from the keeper’s explanation, to have accepted that by now).

By the time we were done with the chimps, I was far beyond tired. In fact, on the way back to the gate I lost track of where I was putting my feet, turned an ankle, and went down hard on my hands and knees. Innocent and the zookeeper were both horrified, looking all over for something they could do, and I had to warn them off very sharply from trying to lift me or straighten my leg. The first thing I needed was time to assess whether there were any serious injuries before I let anybody move anything. But I was only a bit scraped, and so once I had figured that out I got up and moved on just fine… it only became a reminder that I’m not yet quite 100% yet after six days of hard illness.

But I’m getting close! One more evening to rest and relax; then tomorrow morning, we go off looking for the wild shoebills. Tomorrow night, I fly to Amsterdam.

On the way out from the zoo, I was heartened to see some of the ubiquitous vervet monkeys cheerfully invading the zoo’s garbage dumpsters. There is still some African wildlife living free here, even if uninvited. It was my last sight of the Entebbe zoo and I’m glad — it was better to take away an image of those joyful monkeys, nuisance though they were, than of anything living behind bars.

A pair of vervet monkeys, sitting on top of a stack of boards covered with a plastic tarp.  Both are looking at me.
Vervet monkeys, living free and robbing the zoo’s garbage

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