Nairobi’s Parkside Hotel was shabbier than I remembered it being. And the toilet didn’t work. Plus I was sick. First it was a cold. Then it was joined by a gut issue, perhaps related to something I’d snacked on in Nairobi’s Sarit Centre.
In the morning, I headed over to 680 Hotel to negotiate for a better room. I ended paying the same as I’d paid for Parkside, but for decidedly better accommodation.
Walking over, I received multiple invitations to visit shops, jump in taxis, and go on safari. I tell touts that I live in Uganda. This shuts people up and usually makes them friendlier. They are looking for tourists to sell to. Sure, it’s an exaggeration. I used to live in Uganda. Now I just live in the 680 Hotel for one night before moving on to Jinja. If people persist, I tell them I live in a national park in Uganda and that I have hippos and warthogs in my yard, therefore what would I want with a safari?
Again, an exaggeration. I used to have all these things. Now I don’t. And I haven’t heard a word from Murchison Falls in two months.
Until today. By a circuitous route, through Jinja and an unflappable man I’d coincidentally first met on the terrace at 680 Hotel at the initial Dragoman trip meeting in 2001.
Steve, the owner of Red Chilli, had been killed by LRA rebels in Murchison Falls National Park.
Red Chilli Murchison Falls is the budget lodge in front of Herr Marlboro’s Paraa house. Steve lived in Kampala where he ran the Kampala branch, but came out occasionally to oversee his Murchison Falls operation. I saw Steve a few times at Paraa and once in Kampala when we booked H.M.’s family into the backpackers, but I was never actually introduced. H.M. seldom introduced me to people, usually just leaving me hovering. I suspect he developed this habit because he isn’t good with remembering names.
Steve had gone off to aid some rafters who had come all the way down the Nile from Egypt. Any of us would have. Murchison Falls had been safe for ages. True, it’s close to the front lines up past Pakwach (where Celsius’ father was killed), but there’s a huge army presence and the only incident in recent memory was vague and hushed-up, happening right when I got there. Someone somewhere had been shot at. That was about the extent of it.
It was an area considered "unsafe," but nothing had happened in a long, long time. H.M. had gone to this area plenty of times, always taking along a few armed rangers as he delivered his water tanks and solar panels. The idea that H.M. could have been shot at while driving in this area--I cannot even contemplate this, no matter how angry I was at him in the month of September. Steve's wife must be indescribably devastated.
Steve hadn't waited for the guards on the return journey--it seemed so safe, and I would have made the same mistake. He was in a hurry. The irony? Word has it that he was in a rush to take some Americans fishing. They were supposedly the people who were going to take Murchison Falls off the State Department's "don't go" advisory list.
How sad that this will impact tourism numbers, the very thing that people like Steve, Uganda Wildlife Authority, and H.M. are trying to increase. H.M.’s job is to rehabilitate the park’s infrastructure, which deteriorated during past wars and over time. A man named Dr. Speidel has been the driving force behind the rehabilitation. It is almost finished now. Just in time for more governments to issue advisories against travel to Murchison Falls.