Life and death on the high plains

 

We woke early, keen to see if we could get a look at the lions when they are most active. It paid off, with a pride being spotted soon enough. They were feasting on a few wildebeest they had taken down overnight. This was happy hunting season for the lions and they would fatten up at this time of year before the herds disappeared south. Then they would need to feed on more difficult to catch game such as zebra, antelope, and even giraffe or hippos.

Sam sat in the van in the cool morning, wrapped in a red and blue Masaai rug, kindly supplied by Jason. It was Jason’s coat of many colours – well, two. Even though we were on the equator, the plains were at 1600 metres altitude so it could get a bit chilly. Jacob was being very patient with Sam, who was continuing to make way too many references to black and white-skinned people.  I explained to him about the documentary, the reason I was recording everything on a video camera (I didn’t want him thinking I was just another fat cat tourist).

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The Africa of dreams

Our small van, Sam and I in the back by ourselves, and our Maasai guide, Jason up front, careered along the winding, ochre  road as it wound down the precipice overlooking the plains of the Maasai Mara, western Kenya. As we descended, the wildlife started to emerge. Zebras scattered off the road, pods of elephants roamed through the zephyr tussled grasslands, a family of giraffe grazed nearby. Thompson gazelle, grand gazelle, waterbuck, topi, impala and elan. The vibrant colours of ‘lilacs’, yellow-billed storks and ground hornbills, the majesty of secretary birds, marab, vultures and ostrich.

This was the Africa of dreams.

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A much needed coffee

We had a busy day at Sipi Falls, in the north of Uganda. A friendly guide, Alex, took us in the morning for a walking tour of the falls. While the falls were quite lovely, frankly, after Victoria and Murchison Falls, we were getting hard to impress. Sam was also playing up. I had forgotten to give him his ADHD medication, which was the third time in the trip. Given I am such a muddle-headed wombat, I thought 3 misses was pretty good going. Fifteen minutes into the walk it became evident as he bounced and bubbled along, wired to the max, shooting the small children who greeted us with his finger. He wouldn’t stop talking about ‘Malawi children’. The walking tour was becoming a battle.

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Quidditch on white water

As we drifted across the still and steel blue waters, slowly approaching the roaring rapids, audible but so far not visible, I was getting seriously anxious. I had opted for Sam and me to go in the safety boat. There were twenty other mzungu in our group, most of whom were going in rafts, and a few on kayaks, either by themselves or in tandem with a guide. We got a thorough debrief from the guide on the shore and I was confident that Sam understood what to do if we did fall out of the boat, but still, but still…

‘Sam, are you nervous?’

‘No.

‘I am.’

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Horse boy

When I first mentioned our planned African adventure to one of our fellow autism parents back home in Australia, she joked, ‘You’re not going all Horse Boy on us, are you, James?’

In case you’re unaware, The Horse Boy was a New York Times bestselling book when it was published in  2009. It chronicles the horse riding journey of Rupert Isaacson, his wife, and their then 5-year old autistic son, Rowan, through Mongolia to seek the help of shamans. I think even the author now acknowledges that benefits Rowan accrued on the journey were more due to horse riding than any mysticism.

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Chess boy

Our accommodation, set on the only calm part of the river outside of Jinja, where a hydroelectric dam had calmed the waters, sat on a ridge on the edge of the Nile, with dramatic views down to the great river. Because we had arrived on boda bodas from the minibus station relatively early in the day, we were able to fit in some school work and ”neuroplasticity development”, as I like to call it.

In her 2013 book, The Autistic Brain, Temple Grandin explains her discovery that not all people on the spectrum think in pictures like herself, as she once believed; that there are actually three types of dominant thinking patterns.

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Walking with rhinosaurs

The next day on the way back to Kampala, our tour visited a rhino sanctuary. Rhinoceroses had been previously found throughout Murchison and other areas of Uganda but during the conflict of the Amin era and battles with the LRA, soldiers had funded their activities by poaching rhino and elephant and  hunting other animals for bush meat. The wildlife of Uganda was devastated, and rhinos were completely wiped out. The sanctuary, breeding rhinos imported from Kenya and US reserves, hoped to build up its population to a level that would allow them to start reintroducing them into Murchison within 10-15 years.

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Murchison Falls National Park

We crossed the upper Nile at dawn. We had had an early start to the morning, wanting to get to the game drive on the savannah plains across the river early enough to improve the odds of animal spotting. Because there was no power in the tent, I didn’t try to give Sam his medications, including his ADHD medication, given it would be too hard to organise in the dark. My headlight torch was on the long list of lost items from the trip.

The diesel-powered car ferry chugged across the smooth waters below the falls. On the other side of the river the landscape was dramatically different. The dense forest disappeared and soft waist high grasses covered the undulating hills, stippled with thornbush, acacia and palms.

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The greatest waterfall on the Nile

On a tour to Murchison Falls and the national park that surrounds them, we discovered Uganda’s bitumen roads were way better than those of recent countries, so Sam could read his Kindle, I could write on the computer and we could chat with new friends. It was now a familiar pattern for me: the slow dawning of fellow travellers of what we were doing, the realisation of the challenges Sam posed, but also his innate charm and humour. Given time, people like Sam, you can’t really help it.

We arced off the bitumen and onto damp paprika clay, sprinkled with puddles populated by baboons, vervet monkeys and warthog. Small villages built of the same paprika clay; Kilanyi Primary School’s road sign proclaimed ‘SUFFER NOW ENJOY TOMORROW’. Corn, sugar cane, banana, coffee, spear grass, cassava. Paw paw, jack fruit and mango trees. Small mosques, small churches, small communities.

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Sam’s second blog

Sam

 

I would like to tell you all my opinion of Africa. I have being in Africa since April 1st 2015.

I’ve seen lot of things and met lots of people. It has been a tough experience.

I’d been in South Africa for nearly a whole month and I started off at Cape Town and Max the camera man had been there for filming us for the first 8 days in the whole trip and spent 6 days at Cape Town and then we went to Hermanus and stayed there for 2 days and Mossel Bay and Wilderness and Port Elizabeth and Chintza and Coffee Bay and Sarni Pass and Durban and then we travelled to Namibia.

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