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OFFBEAT AFRICA : UGANDA : By launch to Murchison Falls

October 23, 1994|BARBARA W. CARLSON | Carlson is a free-lance writer based in Branford, Conn. and

MURCHISON FALLS NATIONAL PARK, Uganda — There are three of us, the sole passengers on a creaky 28-seat launch chugging up the Nile to the foot of Murchison Falls. It's late afternoon, and a light rain is falling intermittently, making circles on the smooth surface of the river. The water is the color of milky tea.

We lean out over the railing of the boat, trying to get a closer look at the hippopotamuses wallowing in the shallows along the river edge. They are submerged except for their pink ears and eyes and a patch of oily-smooth black back. Suddenly one of them, with a great whoosh and flapping of ears and a snort and a geyser of spray, rolls up and out of the water, yawns and submerges again. And then another. There are hundreds of them.

Two uniformed park rangers carrying assault rifles--leftovers from Uganda's civil wars--take turns piloting the launch. One of them, a young woman, smiles and points out a crocodile. We don't see it at first, camouflaged in the grass. Then we spot it: a huge brown and black and silver monster with a yellowish belly, a crenulated back and a sinister jaw. It is lying motionless on the bank. We will see more than a dozen crocodiles no more than 20 feet away from us before this afternoon is over.

I am spending a month in Uganda, at this point watching the astonishing drama of Murchison Falls National Park unfold. It is like a play, with subtly suggested dangers along the river, the excitement of the falls and the serenity of the grassy giraffe-dotted hills. With me to marvel at this performance for a weekend are a vacationing Englishman and a friend of mine who teaches in Uganda. She has joined me for a couple of weeks during November, and we are spending our days visiting villages where her friends treat us to lavish luncheons in mud-walled huts (we eat with our fingers, sans forks and knives), as well as jouncing around in her pickup truck on Uganda's ubiquitous rutted red-dirt roads.

Today we have arrived at Murchison Falls, about 160 miles north of the city of Jinja, where the Nile (in this area called the Victoria Nile) spills from Lake Victoria. We are the only sightseers on the river, and apparently the only visitors in the park, and we're having a pleasant two hours meandering through the waters.

Murchison Falls National Park is the oldest established park in Uganda. It was registered as a national park in 1952, during colonial days as a British protectorate, and became East Africa's most visited park. In those days, the capstone of an African safari was Uganda, the lush green land Winston Churchill had earlier called the "pearl of Africa." And this park was a mecca for glorious game watching and hunting.

After Idi Amin seized power in 1971 and began a campaign of torture and persecution, tourists deserted Uganda and flocked instead to Kenya. For more than two decades after the coup, Uganda was racked with savagery and war. Hundreds of thousands were brutally murdered under Amin, who was toppled in 1979, and under his equally cruel successor, Milton Obote. In those dark years, the country's economy collapsed, the parks teeming with wildlife became poaching grounds and tourist lodges were looted and burned.

Amazingly, the country has turned around. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, has led the government since early 1986 and despite sporadic rebel and bandit activity and serious problems along its border with Sudan--which is embroiled in a vicious civil war--Uganda seems to have achieved a kind of stability it hasn't known for years. The infrastructure is still shaky and poverty remains widespread, but the people we met all over were friendly and warmly polite.

The national language of Uganda is English, taught in the schools, and most people in the cities speak English, with a lilting British-cum-tribal-language accent. Away from the cities, English is less frequently used.

But smiles go a long way, and part of the pleasure of visiting Uganda is stopping in villages where tiny tin-roofed shops advertise wedding gowns or bicycles, buying grilled bananas and oranges at roadside markets, sipping a fermented banana drink in a small bar, smiling back at a tiny bare-bottomed child outside a thatch-roofed mud hut.

"Uganda is no longer an international pariah," Museveni said with brave pride a few years ago, and now the statement is truer than it was then. With civil wars blazing like forest fires in so many African countries, Uganda is viewed by State Department observers as one of the more politically stable countries on the continent.

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