It started innocently enough. We packed multiple cans of bug spray, knowing Murchison had been the downfall of many in the dance with malaria. No-one told us we might need a fire extinguisher, or better yet a helicopter.
Murchison Falls is in the north of Uganda, bordering the Congo. A wonderful game drive with camping and lodges right along the Nile, hippopotamuses floating by, or camped as well, sharing the shore. Very excited to teach our little one the joy of sleeping in a tent, we headed out and up through the country to see it.
First sign that something was wrong was when we entered the park it felt as though the apocalypse had come. Where we expecting to see green and mammals, we saw nothing but ash and smoke. Never ones to turn around (that would come later) we forged ahead, wiping tears from our eyes and drinking water for our burning throats. Mile after mile, kilometer after kilometer, we drove into literally the middle of nowhere. At one point, fires were burning on both sides of the road, a lone eagle sitting in a tree watching us as we slowly crawled forward into it.
“Must be burning season,” my Canadian said.
“Burning what?” I asked.
“The brush, the upper level of soil.”
Canadian went on to tell me that many people the world over, East Africa in particular, make the mistake of burning to clear brush and then plant, but in effect they actually burn off the nutrients making the ground sadly barren.
We arrived at the lodge hours later as a few men were running back and forth to an awfully close fire with nothing more than jerry cans (think a milk jug) filled with water. Assuring us we were fine, they escorted us back down the road a bit to the campsite. The only ones there, we set our tent up right in the middle of the clearing and promptly went back to the lodge for a beer. Swinging in a hammock, the little one playing nearby, hippos lolling in the sun, we didn’t think anything of the increasing cloud of smoke above our heads. After more beer and a little dinner, the sun now set, we headed back to the tent.
“Um, honey,” I cried as we turned the corner and flames were shooting up from the exact place our campground was. “I think our tent is on fire!”
We stopped. Fire was burning completely on one side of the road.
“We have to go back,” I said.
“No, baby, it’s not bad. The road is still clear. We can drive in and grab our stuff if it’s still salvageable,” my fearless man replied.
“But what if the fire jumps the road and we can’t get back out?” I reasoned.
“I think we can move fast,” he assured me, already heading in.
I think this is where I screamed, or cried, and my dear hubby, realizing I was about to faint, turned the car around and dropped the little one and I at the lodge.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “Get another beer, you need it.”
“No, baby, let it burn,” I pleaded.
“I’ll be fine. Beer!” And he drove off.
It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.
He made it back and amazingly all was saved, but the fire had jumped the road he told me.
It was by then very late. The little one sleeping in my arms. The lodge tells us it has no rooms. The person who can maybe help us is out fighting another encroaching fire. We can’t get out. We can’t go back. It’s too far and dangerous in the dark. We are in the middle of the woods, at the edge of the world, surrounded in flames. We wait.
The manger comes back and incredibly there has been a cancellation so yes, they can board us for the night.
“My husband tells me this is all for farming?” I asked the manager.
“Oh, some, yes,” he replies. “The close ones though are from a disgruntled ex-employee who wants to burn the lodge down. Good-night.”
I didn’t sleep at all.