A Ferry Tale

Do you know the feeling of arriving 5 minutes late only to realize that in this small window of time you completely missed your opportunity? The exam room has been locked; the bus has departed; the ticket has been sold. You are left cursing yourself and searching for anybody or anything to blame.

This is almost that story.

For the past three and a half months, I have been travelling in Uganda. Most of my time has been spent with famïlies living in villages outside of Kabale, a town in the SW corner of the country. Recently, however, I have been “touring,” enjoying the various sights that Uganda has to offer. Uganda boasts ten national parks, and safaris to these parks are quite popular with tourists, despite the high price tag.

Being frugal and foolish, I resolved to travel to Murchison Falls National Park independently, without a group or a tour company. After consulting several friends, I found a tent to rent that would allow me to cut costs by staying in a campsite, and I hitched a ride into the park with the employees of Paraa Safari Lodge. Don’t be deceived–these were not casually settled arrangements, but plans reached after frantic phone calls, long waits, and trips all across Masindi town.

After getting off at the park gate, I congratulated myself for executing the first part of my plan. Entrance and accommodation settled, I expected the rest to magically follow suit. Before I left, my newfound local tour guide friend Mustafa ensured me that once I got into the park I would meet other travellers who would graciously welcome an additional person into their game drive or their ride out of the park. For those unfamiliar with Uganda’s national parks, public transport rarely passes through the parks, and most activities in the park require a vehicle to view the wildlife, especially in parks that host potentially dangerous animals like water buffalos, hippopotamus, and lions.

When I reached the campsite and began to inquire about joining a group of travellers, my plan deteriorated. The campsite was full of a huge group organized by a hostel in Kampala. Not only was the group full, but several days prior, I had turned down an offer to join the group at a discounted price. I had just paid for admission into the park for 24 hours, and I had no way of seeing anything in the park. Devastated but proud, I determined to wake up early with the hope of finding a group taking the 7am ferry to the north side of the park where most of the animals can be found.

Unlike most schedules in Uganda, the ferry crossing is surprisingly punctual, too punctual in fact. As I approached the bank of the Nile River several minutes past 7 am, the ferry had already transported the vehicles across. This was especially disappointing because the best time to go on a game drive is in the morning or evening.

I proceeded with Plan C. I booked a seat on a morning boat trip to Murchison Falls. On the trip, we saw groups of hippopotamus lounging in the Nile, crocodiles sunbathing along the banks, kingfishers diving for the morning’s catch, elephants and waterbuck stopping for a drink. It was incredible, but still I needed to go on a game drive to see the animals in the park.

The boat trip ended as cars were loading on to the 11 am ferry. I hopped off the boat, darted to the ferry, and just as I was about to address the tourists on the ferry, the ferry began to cross. It was painful to watch the ferry slowly inch away from the bank. I started to turn away, but someone on the ferry called out to me. It was Mustafa. By some lucky turn of fate, a group of travellers organized a game drive with Mustafa that morning. He tried calling me, but there was no signal in the park. Mustafa shouted for the ferry to go back. When it neared the bank, I ran onto the ferry and triumphantly leapt into Mustafa’s arms. I can’t remember the last time I felt so exhilarated and relieved. We rejoiced the whole way across the Nile–hugging, singing, dancing. We looked ridiculous.

I was frugal and foolish, but also incredibly lucky. Had the boat ride ended later, had Mustafa’s group crossed on the 9 am ferry like they intended, had I arrived seconds later, I would have missed everything. Having time on your side is a powerful feeling, knowing that you caught the last seconds of a great opportunity. The game drive and the ride out of the park felt more exciting because of it. I also appreciated the simple resolution to my incomplete safari plans that were bound to end in a disappointing, expensive mess. Long story short, I have been travelling from one moment to the next, and I don’t advise travelling to Murchison Falls National Park independently.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of my belated posts about Ghana and for new posts about Uganda.

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