in pursuit of the Uganda special
Disjointed thoughts about life, passion, travel, and the pursuit of happiness crawled lethargically through D’s mind as he stood, shoulders hunched against the tempest, in the crudely constructed canoe. The murky waters of the Mabamba Swamp undulated languidly while the leaden skies above dumped sheets of water and lightning flashed ominously in the distance. Not for the first time since D first packed his backpack at the end of high school and set off to explore a new part of the world did the nagging thought, “What am I doing here and why?” cross his mind.
We love traveling, as will be immediately obvious to anyone who scrolls through the pages of this blog. We love it for all the obvious reasons: travel broadens our horizons, allows us to try new things, and enables our other passions, such as birding, hiking, and photography. But we also love travel because it challenges us — to see the world through the eyes of others, to step out of our comfort zone, and to confront our own assumptions. And then there are times when travel challenges us in the most literal, physical way, testing our resilience and will power.
D had come to Mabamba to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive shoebill, one of East Africa’s most sought-after and remarkably odd birds. Its thick, heavy bill resembles a Dutch wooden clog more than any actual footwear and though the shoebill is massive, it is also remarkably difficult to spot. Our bird book notes that it is an “extraordinary-looking, scarce and atypical stork-like bird.” We had tried to find one twice on boat trips in Murchison Falls and came up empty; there are some shoebill in Akagera reportedly, but there too we have yet to see them.
So there D was, up before the sun, and jostling along the rough road to Mabamba as the day dawned over the gray Ugandan countryside. It had rained hard during the night, but the storm had petered out by the time dawn broke, and D entertained the fleeting hope that he might luck out with the weather during the boat ride. Alas, it was not to be.
Mabamba is beautiful, and the “swamp” in its title does not do justice to the network of papyrus reed beds and intersecting waterways that comprise it. In the half hour before the first drops began falling, D saw dozens of birds. All the usual suspects were there: kingfishers, weavers and cisticolas, jacanas, lapwings, herons and egrets, widowbirds, crakes and swamphens, and all manner of ducks. D picked out a few new birds – the lesser jacana, marsh harrier, and the rufous-bellied heron – but was forced to put his camera away when the rain began to fall in earnest.
At one point, it rained so hard that the boat driver parked the canoe in the vegetation, and he and the guide sought shelter under the overhanging reeds. Two hours on the water, at least, and no sign of shoebill. “What’s your program for the rest of the day?” asked the young guide after taking off his shirt, wringing out a liter of water, and calmly putting it back on again. “I’d hate for you to go without seeing shoebill.” When D replied that he was not in any particular hurry, the guide mused, “Well, we can spend all day on the water,” before adding that there was one more part of the swamp he wanted to try.
The rain had stopped, and a few shy rays of sunlight began to pierce through the cloud cover when the guide motioned abruptly for the boat to stop. “God is good,” he exhaled, pointing into the tall, thick reeds that lined both sides of the water channel. How he saw the shoebill D will never know. The guide was shorter than D, and even after he pointed out the exact spot where the bird was allegedly standing, D still could not see him.
Luckily, shoebill are not easily spooked. They will frequently stand motionless for hours, waiting for a careless lungfish to pass close by before darting their massive beaks into the water to snatch up their prey. This particular bird was busy preening and seemed oblivious to the noise D’s crew made as they maneuvered the canoe into the reeds. The boat driver hopped overboard, the water reaching well above his knees, to heave the canoe as far into the reeds as it would go. He then balanced a thin, slippery plank across the bow of the boat and helped ensure that D wouldn’t lose his balance and come crashing down as the canoe gently rocked back and forth.
The shoebill spent another ten minutes preening before abruptly taking off on the wing and circling lazily around the swamp. A magnificent, if somewhat bizarre-looking, bird!