Uganda is a forest of words. Its placards grow as tall as pine trees, perched at the pinnacle of poles, swinging from wires, hanging down in front of stores. I squint and shade my eyes (it’s noon in Africa). I try to understand.
Ugandan signs are bold along its roads, clear and bright as its sun. “Full Cream Milk Powder,” says one. “Grow Faster, Grow Stronger.”
“Drink Fresh Water,” urges another.
And then: “This Land is Not for Sale.”
“Is that about pressures from the West?” I say to my guide. “About all the YouTube hype over the Kony film?”
My guide simply stares. “The sign means this,” he replies. “The owner does not wish to sell.”
Before I came here, Uganda was a land I thought I knew. “Kony 2012,” the Invisible Children video exposing the abuses of Joseph Kony’s rebel army, was all over the Internet. Not far behind in the news and chat cycle were reports about virulent anti-gay bills introduced by Ugandan politicians.
Still, there are the signs. Signs of a place where daily life is distant from the wars and issues and debate. Distant, even, from the country’s years of British rule and from former dictator Idi Amin. Landlocked in East Africa, Uganda is one of the poorest nations in the world, with a population that’s more than 85 percent rural.
Outside the big cities, such as Entebbe and the capital, Kampala, I find that almost no one I talk to knows about “Kony 2012.” I’m American, and all I get are smiles. Sometimes a little dip of the head. An outstretched hand.
“Come to see our animals,” says a man I talk to at a store along a country road. “We are different here than Kenya, Tanzania. You can get up close. You will see them. And of course, they will see you.”
At my first stop outside Kampala, there are still more messages on signs. Here at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, some of these signs display rhinoceros shapes and say: “Beware.” I’ll try. I’m with a group that’s trying to get as near as we can to Uganda’s newest rhinos, reintroduced here after their disappearance from the area in the early 1980s.
According to our guide, a man named Opio Raymond, some of the sanctuary rhinos come from Kenya. Some are from Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom. One is named Obama.
“NEVER move in front of the guide,” we read. “ALWAYS move in single file.”
Then comes the part in bold:
“Should the rhinos show any signs of annoyance, you should STAND BEHIND A LARGE TREE IF AVAILABLE. OR MOVE NEAR A TREE AND BE READY TO CLIMB.”
I take a look around. The trees I can see look a lot like saplings. Thin and scrawny. They look like trees that rhinos might eat for a snack.
“These are white rhinos, though they may look gray,” says Raymond, as he leads us up to a fence. We pass through a gate and form our line. I have never walked in a file as organized as ours. Raymond seems pleased.
He scans our clothing, spots someone’s crimson shirt. “The rhino does not see well,” he notes. “But when they see pure red, they do not like it.”
“What should I do?” asks the tourist with the shirt. Raymond just shrugs.
He tells us that there are anti-poaching rangers around who carry rifles. They won’t be of use to us. It’s lunchtime for sanctuary staff. And Opio Raymond isn’t armed.
When he stops in his tracks and crouches, our rhino conga line crouches, too. There are whispers. What are we seeing? We are seeing spoor.
“The poop for the rhino,” explains our guide, picking it up in his hand.
“Nice,” he says. “Take a look.”
Soon after, we’re studying a print — three rhino toes — when Raymond spots her. Behind some bushes is a female rhino named Bella. Dinosaur eyes. Prehistoric horn.
Raymond flaps his hand for us to approach. Our line strings out, snaps back. We’re there.
From what we can see from maybe 50 feet away, through branches, Bella isn’t alone. There’s something gray and squat crowding in, insistently pushing, just below her belly. “Baby,” says Raymond simply. “Time for nurse.”
All is peaceful. Rhino mother and child. Reverent sounds of cameras.
Then Bella moves.
There is a scuffle. It is on our side of the bush. No one wants to be obvious, but we are scanning around. “MOVE NEAR A TREE,” we think. “BE READY TO CLIMB.”
Aside from bushes, there’s grass. And some kind of weed. Maybe we could climb up Raymond.
There is a thump. Is this a sign of annoyance? The start of a charge?
Bella’s horn is lowered: an ominous pose.
One member of our group is a man who may be 60. Possibly more. He’s told us matter-of-factly that the battery in his pacemaker is dead.
I look at Bella, and at the man. Their eyes are locked.
The rest of us are staring, staring. Bella turns a hoof. She scuffs.
No one runs. We’ve heard the story of a photographer who fled. A rhino named Hasani hooked his camera with his horn. Then Hasani trapped him under his legs when the man fell down.
No one runs.
And after a second, Bella’s movement is finished.
Raymond smirks. Some of us feel sheepish. The man with the pacemaker looks pale.
It’s nursing time again. Maybe a nap. Our mother rhino gives out an animal sigh.
She’s done with hauling her body into a lazy stretch. Exhausted from all the effort of lying back down.
Later, in the Uganda bush, I book at a lodge called Chobe. It’s a set of terraces, decks and plate-glass windows looking out at rapids along the Nile.
“Do not ignore our view,” says the porter who’s dragging my bag over pebbles and mud. He shades his eyes like an explorer. His hand sweeps up and out.
“Fifth-best scenery in Africa,” he says.
I find out later that it’s the workout room at the hotel that has been cited for its panorama. CNN Go picked it for the world’s top “Gyms With a View.” But when I see my tent, which is near the banks of the river, I realize: I do not need a treadmill.
This is the Nile, I think.
I start exploring at once, picking my way down grassy, reedy banks. Ahead is a group of warthogs, their forelegs bent, pulling grass — chuff, chuff, chuff — too focused to care about my approach. My flip-flops frighten bright blue lizards. A mongoose pops its head up and disappears.
There are ripples in the muddy water. Ripples made by rocks? Not rocks. This is the Nile.
I see some sets of eyes: Two here. Two over there. A bubble pops. There is an extended, resonant sound. Something like a bassoon.
“Hippos,” says the porter blandly, leaving me with my key. “When darkness arrives, they come to sleep under the tent porch.”
I check this out. In fact, my tent has not only a wooden door, but also a floor and furniture, and mosquito netting looped around the bedposts. I peer through a floor crack: No animals now.
But while I’m watching, one of the river wallowers hauls itself up on land. Dripping on the grass, it begins a yawn. I root for my guidebook: “An open mouth,” I read, “may be a sign of aggression. Hippos are among the continent’s most deadly animals. They’ve bitten humans in half.”
This image is in my mind for days. Behind every boulder I imagine hippos, crouching stealthily, waiting to emerge.
One afternoon I’m with a tour group that is tucking pants in socks, spraying for tsetses and gearing up for a walk. We are in Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The goal of our hike is to see chimpanzees. We are ready, binoculars in hand.
Our guide is named Jimmy. “Just Jimmy,” he says. “That is all.”
Jimmy gives us pointers near a muddy trail that will lead us deep into the gorge. He and his assistant, Henry, look like infantrymen in dark green uniforms and boots. Henry has an automatic rifle “just for keeping safe.”
“If need be,” he says, “we shoot at the skin of the animal and make it sleep forever. We do not kill.”
“A Ugandan Buddhist,” somebody whispers. I am not reassured. We begin our slide down the path. My sneakers scoop up leaves and some kind of beetle, several pebbles and a sharp-edged stick. These are flushed out when the trail we’re following turns into a gurgling stream.
With so many trees overhead, the gorge is as dim as a museum. And just as silent. Shade is changing everything, as if a candle has replaced the sun. Is that a giant mushroom? Is that a pumpkin? Real and imaginary merge.
After hours of crisscrossing Kyambura, Jimmy points out a knuckle print from a chimp who has, at some point in time, passed by. There is a colobus monkey who shows us his tail and disappears. And then a chunk of Pterygota fruit that, according to Henry, “a chimp has used as a cup.”
It has started to rain. We stop again and again to scrutinize the canopy. Not one branch swing. Not one shape. But somehow I am tingling. The hair on my arms is on end. Is this some kind of sickness? Jungle paranoia? Maybe I’m ill.
Chimpanzees are up there, I’m sure. They’re staying disciplined and quiet. Probably following our group. Keeping just out of view.
I tell no one about this worry. I begin to perspire.
At the bottom of the gorge, I know why I’ve been so tightly alert.
It’s hippos who have been watching us. Not any monkey.
Africa’s most dangerous animal. They’re scanning us, eyes and nostrils visible, as we come down to their lair. As we step out onto a fallen tree trunk to cross the chocolate river at the bottom of the gorge.
They’re watching us as we scramble and slip, scramble and grip at filigree branches, back to light and air.
They’re watching, and blowing baritone bubbles, and making plans.
Back at the lodge, it’s nighttime and we’re being driven in golf carts down to the Nile. Back to our furnished tents.
We talk of Africa in the dark. We stare at reeds and river.
There’s a slice of moon. It picks up shapes spread out along the bank. Strong shapes. Low-slung. One silhouette is close to someone’s tent porch.
A woman in the back speaks up. “Hippos,” she says. “Do they ever chase?”
“Yes, they do, ma’am,” says the driver, braking so he can talk. “Sometimes they do.”
“What would happen if they caught you?”
“It is bad,” responds the driver. He is trying to restart the motor. “They bump you. Then they . . .”
The engine has stalled. Crickets call.
There’s the sound of the bassoon.
Everyone but the driver reacts. We leap out and scramble the rest of the way to our porches, slipping on gravel, kicking flashlights and keys. We make it. Lamps snap on.
During the night I keep waking from a Nile-long dream. Deep-voiced porters are calling. I’m wearing crimson and reading roadside signs.
Porters are calling. They’re calling me to the gym: the gym with a view.
But there’s an orchestra out there. A section of woodwinds. Brass.
I’ll sleep forever, I think.
I will not die.
Mandel is an author of children’s books, including the new “Zoo Ah-Choooo” (Holiday House). He lives in Providence, R.I.