Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Our Hunt for the Shoebill

On Saturday we got up very early in search of the elusive Shoebill. This prehistoric bird stands four feet tall and reproduces only once every five years. They are intelligent and rare. Uganda is believed to have about 150 and we were told that birders come from all over the world to get a glimpse of one.

Our guide, Hanington, told us to meet him in Entebbe, and in my mind that meant we would meet him and ten minutes later we’d be in the swamp looking at birds. Of course, in reality our schedule held firmly to the unflinching rules of the Africa Time. First, imagine the longest amount of time humanly possible required to complete an activity. Then multiply that number by four and you’ll have a vaguely realistic estimate. You may want to tack two hours on to that sum for good measure. As for how to keep your cool when encountering Africa Time, you’ll have to ask someone else. I haven’t mastered it, and I’m leaving tomorrow.

After the one hour drive to Entebbe, we embarked on a two hour ride along a bumpy cow path of a road to the swamp entrance. We climbed aboard a leaky boat with sludge in the bottom and were paddled out into the dense swamp. (It wasn’t exactly the Canadian canoe touted in the brochure…) In some places, our guides climbed out of the boat and used their body weight to force the bog down so that the boat could pass. Before long the midday sun was beating down on us. We’d only seen a few other birds, mostly kingfishers and kites, and our guide seemed to be ready to throw in the towel. Not that I could blame him. I wasn’t the one knee deep in mucky swamp water hefting four mzungus through the mire. Sweat poured off his face and he kept trying to phone the other guides to find out where they had seen the shoebill in the swamp that day. Finally, we turned the boat around. It wasn’t going to happen today. We’d wasted four hours, we were hungry, hot, muddy and all we had to look forward to was the two hour drive back to the paved road.

And then, “Wait…I’ve seen him!” We all jumped up, nearly tipping the canoe over. We took turns with the binoculars. Just the tip of his head was visible through the papyrus and thick reeds. He was a spectacular lavender color, with a little crest curling off the back of his head. “He looks like a Sesame Street Character.” Chris said. We decided to get a bit closer. Our guides pulled us through what was practically dry land until we were about 75 feet away. He watched us for awhile, as he stood patiently waiting for lungfish. He lunged down after one, but came up with only mud. Frustrated in his attempt, he flew off in search of dinner, leaving us staring at him. He had an incredible wingspan that looked to be at least six feet.

Moments like that one are what I came to Africa to experience. The roads are lousy, infrastructure is non-existent, the water is full of pestilence, but there I was looking at a creature that has been on this planet for millions of years. He was one of maybe 500 on the face of the earth, and there I was in a swamp with three good friends, watching him soar far above us. The discomfort of the car ride, the language barriers and the hot sun seemed worthwhile on the way back, because those inconveniences were part of what made seeing that shoebill so damn exciting.

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