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Exploring Uganda

Swallows are about at sunset. They spill out of this dusky sky, inhaling a sandstorm of emerging lake flies just above my head. Beside us, the hotel's vast pool breathes with the wind. Beyond, the waters of the great lake strobe into oblivion and, at my back, where the lawn finishes, ridges of red, well-worked earth suggest infinity—the furrowed forehead of a once-troubled nation.

If you know Africa, you expect that once the sun has finally quit for the day, the darkest of nights will swallow you whole, and throughout the countryside, villagers will cluster around flickers—cooking fire, torch, candle.

But tonight, pampered at the Lake Victoria Hotel, we may not notice the dark. Our candles are arranged in silver candelabra on a linen-clad bar. Uniformed waiters pass canapes called devils on horseback, the band has broken into "Begin the Beguine," and the gin and tonic slips down my throat far too easily. I must tell our group the facts of Africa. I study the faces—all American, most of them in their sixties and seventies, poised for a child's adventure. It is their first time in Entebbe, if not on this continent. For the next few weeks, Justin Kente, Tanzanian safari guide, and I will be their leaders, therapists, scoutmasters. For him, this mission is hardly a challenge. For me—television producer, writer, conservationist—the prospect is worrisome. I am amused by the blind faith the American Museum of Natural History's Discovery Tours has in me.

Although much of the route we'll travel once figured prominently in safaris, Uganda has been omitted from travel brochures for the past 20 years. God-fearing tourists wrote off this country as Africa's hell, and its leaders—Idi Amin Dada and Milton Obote—as Satans. Now, with Yoweri Museveni as president, peace is being restored, travelers discreetly courted.

I clear my throat. "Here's a bet," I announce. "Soon we'll throw away our itinerary. I can't tell you when or why, but I reckon this trip's going to be a far cry from the one you expected. Here there's an expression: A.W.A. 'Africa wins again.' So be sure to pack a sense of humor."

A polite titter. "Africa wins again," someone repeats, trying to work it out.

The next morning, the port engine on our amphibious aircraft fails. It will be a week before the plane flies again. Reluctantly, Justin and I divert our group onto two conventional aircraft, leaving a day apart: not perfect, but it's the only solution in a country with only two charter companies. So, our itinerary is already obsolete.

I first saw Uganda as a schoolboy in 1961, its last full year as a British colony. My journals from those days describe a country of ravishing greens, of tea estates managed as satrapies, of tomatoes and bananas bursting with taste. Even in the first years following independence in October 1962, Uganda remained East Africa's cornucopia, more productive by far than neighboring Tanzania and Kenya. For a while the national parks, which were still managed by the British, seemed immune to the winds of change.

I visited Uganda once more, this time in the early 1980's, shortly after Amin had fled his palace and left Uganda's government to murderers and carpetbaggers. Outlaws had set up roadblocks outside Entebbe Airport, and there was gunfire at night in Kampala's streets. Travel to Uganda was ill-advised.

Throughout good times and bad, the Ugandans never ceased to smile; it seemed they were constitutionally incapable of bitterness. By a conservative estimate, 300,000 of their countrymen had been liquidated (many with unspeakable cruelty) during Amin's reign of terror. An equal number, if not more, vanished during Obote's second term of office. I have returned to lead a tour, but also to see if the Ugandans' spirit could have survived. I can think of no better place to start than Murchison Falls.

Murchison is central to the 19th-century saga of the search for the source of the Nile. The river that bathes much of this vast continent rises initially in the highlands of Rwanda, spilling into Lake Victoria, which links Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. The Nile departs for the north through Uganda, at first aimlessly, along meanders of Lake Kyoga. Then, with mounting deliberation, under the moniker Victoria Nile, it aims northwest into Lake Albert. Fed by other waters from Rwanda, it will endure further name changes—Albert Nile, White Nile, Bahr al Jebel—as it flows north, on a fairly straight trajectory through the Sudan and Egypt, bound for the Mediterranean.

But in Uganda, the Nile is quixotic. Prior to forming Lake Albert, it narrows from nearly 1,000 feet into a 23-foot gorge and plunges some 130 feet over the lip of the western Great Rift.

Clad in tweed suits and stalking hats, Sir Samuel and Lady Baker followed the Nile upstream through Egypt and the Sudan for nearly three years and, in March 1864, became the first Westerners to see the falls. Within minutes of the sighting, the Bakers' boat was upended by a bull hippopotamus. The couple were swept out of harm's way by a whirlpool, but as they dried themselves on a mud bank, they discovered they had been deposited in the middle of the most extravagant convocation of crocodiles in all Africa.

Today, the falls are more or less as the Bakers described them: no guardrails, barely any signs. The water is mesmerizing. The river doesn't so much fall as explode through the fissure, in all directions—spray dampening skin, thunder in the air. The horizon, gray upon blue, is softened by dust raised by the haboob and the harmattan, winds far to the north in the Sudan. Leaving, we are met by a chilly, end-of-day quiet pierced only by the heartbreak chime of a dove.

In the morning we board a launch to approach the base of the falls. A steel-plated vessel built 40 years ago in Crewe, England, it has seen better days. This is the preferred way to view game in Uganda—no potholes, no washboards. I had thought the river would be disappointing, since I had heard tales of both army and rebels treating it as their supermarket. But here along the Nile I'm staggered by numbers. Sixty elephants in one herd. A hundred hippos here, 200 at the next bend. Not one pied kingfisher, but a treeful. African skimmers slipcovering a mud bank. And, best of all, a pair of shoebill storks—enough to make even a show-off birder succumb to the vapors.

But crocodiles are the ones who run riot. They watch us, immobile, eyes like candied fruit, mouths agape, teeth polished by oxpeckers. All the time, whether lurking in reeds, on sand, or underwater, they seem to shadow us. The largest ones—some approaching 16 feet—must have seen their share of history. They certainly could have known my spindly legs from the sixties. Some living today may even have watched Sir Samuel and Lady Baker flail in the whirlpool in 1864.

"Comparing Uganda to Kenya," says one of our group, his ability to smile gradually restored, "is like measuring Africa against Busch Gardens." Yes, here nature is unalloyed and time walks backward. At Murchison there is not one concession to 20th-century Western taste. And Francis, the launch's skipper, his face a pagan bowsprit, has a footnote to add. He shows me scars left by bullet wounds on his arm and leg. "Bad times," he says, guiding us to another croc. During a decade of "troubles" he patrolled this park, mostly without pay. His wife and children were kidnapped by rebels and tortured.

On one occasion he was instructed to guide Idi Amin and his honored guest, Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya, on this very boat. Qaddafi, as Francis recounts, grabbed an AK-47 from a guard, aimed, and blasted a hippo on a bank and a waterbuck standing on the shore. The trophies are now, Francis surmises, in the statehouse in Tripoli. "What could I have said?'This is a national park—no hunting'?No, I'm not stupid. I'd have been shot like a waterbuck and fed to the crocs." Francis smiles. We fly south from Murchison, following the eastern shore of Lake Albert, and watch the Kazinga Channel burst into view. Once on land in Queen Elizabeth Park, I walk into Mweya Lodge, through the lobby, and onto the veranda. All at once I know why Africa has been my addiction all these years. I am looking down at Lake Edward as if I'm airborne; the Mitumba Mountains west in Zaire are shoulder-high. Water and dust—the stuff of Africa's Great Rift—have crawled under my skin as an afternoon storm charges from the north, crosses the lake, spits in my face.

Queen Elizabeth Park, pocked with jungle-crusted craters, affects me as if I've just arrived for the first time, age 17. While the elephant herds are now a wisp of their former greatness, a launch trip along the Kazinga Channel turns up waterbuck, bushbuck, mobs of mud-baked buffalo, and a giant forest hog. What birds! In less than an hour and a half, I spot 37 different species, from fish eagle to whiskered tern to spotted stone curlew—generally accompanied by hippos. The finale of Queen Elizabeth is a drive north to view kob, antelopes famous for fierce displays of male territoriality on their mating grounds. Rivals engage in horn-rattling contests of strength, while cattle egrets wheel and cry overhead as if they have a stake in the outcome.

After enduring one of Uganda's worst-maintained roads, we explore the country to the south around a ranger post called Ishasha. Here, at the edge of grasslands and stands of acacia, lions make like leopards, sleeping in trees. The Ishasha River is a somnolent collection of pools, festering with hippos. When our field glasses pan upward, we discover elephants, feet first; they've just emerged from the forests and lawlessness of nearby Zaire. Between us, we appear the sole proprietors of an ancient, unpeopled Africa.

During the two-hour drive south along the Ugandan frontier toward a forest called Bwindi, we pass tea estates as green as those I recall from the sixties. Children leap from huts—legs splayed, arms windmilling, with high-pitched whoops and cries for sweets. Our flirtation with humanity lasts a nanosecond; when we reach the end of the road, we face a barrier of green as absolute as midnight.

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