After weeks in the dry, flat, northern region of Uganda, finally we were crossing into the southwest. The passage was marked by a ferry ride across the Nile River. A government-operated barge with a large motor carried us and our bikes, fifty other passengers, 8 motorcycles, 4 SUVs, and an oil truck over the water. All the way across I was thinking about the conversation we’d had earlier that day with a few older men while we drank our Coca-Colas.
“We love you white people,” said one of them to me. “Thank you,” I said, not knowing what else I was supposed to say. “Where are you from?” he asked. By now I knew that this didn’t mean where did you grow up? but rather, where are you coming from today? “We rode from Apac,” I told him. Then, eager to get off the topic of skin color, I told him about the dead Rwenzori chameleon I saw on the road an hour earlier. It took a bit of pantomiming and description, but eventually we were on the same page. I assured him that I only wanted to see one, that my goal was to take a photo of the colorful reptile, not take it home as a pet. “You don’t want to eat it?” he asked me, eyebrows raised. “No,” I said laughing. “Tell us when you’ll come back” he said, “and when you come we will have a big pile of chameleons. You can take all of them back to America.” Then he acted out the way a Rwenzori chameleon walks, something I really wish I had video footage of.
After exhausting the topic of Rwenzori chameleons, we moved onto other reptiles. Joe asked the group about crocodiles. ”Yes, we have them here,” said another man, “you eat them?” I made a face and said no, thinking it was a joke. “I ate alligator in the US,” Joe told them, “the tail is delicious.” All the men nodded, they all agreed the tail is the best part. Then they told us about how they catch the crocodiles, something they do every month or so. There are two main methods: either a wire snare that clamps around the crocodile’s nose, or an enormous metal fishing hook baited with meat which is dragged slowly past the crocodile. When the animal is hooked they work in unison to pull the beast to shore before whacking it behind the head with a machete severing the base of the spine. When we crossed the river I couldn’t see any crocodiles in the water, but I knew they were there, waiting.
Hours later we got to the gates of the rhinoceros sanctuary. The sunlight faded fast and we still had 5 miles of unknown territory to cross. My headlamp gave off only a faint light, barely illuminating the 2 feet in front of me. The road was full of holes, rocks, and patches of sand that made the wheels of my bike wobble. It was cold by then but I had nervous sweat on my forehead. I don’t particularly like cycling at night, but this was even scarier than usual. The cracking branches and bird calls all around us turned into stalking leopards and territorial rhinos in my imagination.
The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is a 70 square-kilometer nature reserve run by an NGO. In 2013 they imported six rhinos from the US and Kenya to start a breeding program. Some were donated by big companies like Disney, others by governments. Just a few years later, the Ziwa sanctuary is home to 23 white rhinos, and another baby is due this month. These are precious creatures, the only “wild” rhinos in Uganda. To protect them from poachers and from badly hurting each other, every rhino is guarded and tracked 24/7 by two armed rangers. There are over 100 rangers at Ziwa, they work in 12 hour shifts and sleep on the reserve.
After getting to the ranger station we were led by another pair of rangers to the campground. As it turns out, while in the Ziwa sanctuary we were also being guarded and tracked 24/7. “There are wild animals here. We care about your safety,” a young ranger told me, though I suspect they were really making sure we didn’t harm the animals. The two watched us while we set up our tent, then walked us back to the restaurant for a beer. The restaurant was a circular pavilion with a roof and half walls that allowed us to look out into the forest while we sat an enjoyed our rest.
Finally warm in my sleeping bag, I fell asleep instantly. We covered 66 miles that day, my longest day of cycling ever. But Joe lay awake listening to the forest noises. He shook me awake “Jackie!” he whispered, “I hear rhinos outside!” I told him he was crazy, rolled over, and went back to sleep. Later I found out he was right. Following the flashlights and chatter of the rangers, Joe walked to the edge of the campground enclosure and saw a mother rhino and her baby grazing in the dark. I was jealous when I heard about this, but I wasn’t upset for long.
Walking to breakfast at the restaurant in the morning, we were stopped by two rangers. I thought we were going to be chastised for walking the 100 yards unchaperoned, but instead they pointed us to look at an enormous rhino lying on the lawn. She had her legs splayed out, belly and chin resting on the grass. Her little black eye didn’t seem to notice us, but when I gasped in delight, her ear swiveled right to my voice. With the rangers permission we snuck around the side of the restaurant pavilion and got the table closest to the sleeping rhino.
While we drank our juice and coffee, we watched the enormous beast shift her weight and snort. Eventually she moved enough that we noticed she wasn’t alone. The adult rhino Laloyo was with her nearly one-year-old calf Madam. Madam was born on August 26, 2017, one of the first “Ugandan Made” rhinos in decades, so called because both her parents were also born here. White rhinos were declared extinct in Uganda years ago, but this breeding program promises to reintroduce the species back to their ancestral home in places like Murchison Falls National Park and other game reserves in Uganda. When the Ziwa population reaches 35 some of the young rhinos will start moving into the parks.
Usually guests to the park pay $40 USD each to track the rhinos through the forest. We got to watch them for the price of our breakfast. Lucky us! And it was a really special experience. Just Joe and I, a few rangers, and two of the world’s most endangered creatures in the quiet morning light. As we watched them in awe, Madam walked over to the railing of the pavilion and rubbed her brand new horn on the metal to sharpen it. After about a half our of private viewing, the other tourists woke up and came to breakfast. I was glad they also got to experience it, but I was a little annoyed at having the magical bubble broken.
On our way out, we saw some bushbucks, a warthog, African gray parrots and a few monkeys in the trees. No leopard sighting, but the head ranger assured us that they did live in the reserve. The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary isn’t actually a stop on the Trans-Uganda Trail, but it turned out to be well-worth the 25 mile detour.