Riding the Desert trail


     I came to the banks of the Nile at the dilapidated bridge of Pakwatch, where the river,
having rushed and tumbled its way headlong down the 250 miles of falls and rapids from
Lake Victoria to join the waters of Lake Albert, has turned a ninety- degree corner and
taken up its northward direction again. It is only a few miles below Lake Albert and the
quantities of moisture ascending invisibly from the vast expanse of water had changed
the look of the land entirely. In fact land had ceased to have any significance. It was a
scene of air and water only, of limitless space and a marvellous light with the bloom on
it of something primeval and eternally fresh. The sky was like an opalescent shell casting
a pink glow into the sparkling blueness of the upper air, and was reflected back onto the
dancing silvery surface of the mile-wide infant river. Far away to the west, so faintly
etched as to make them seem of the same elements, was the soft grey outline of a range
of towering mountains.

I would probably have remained at this vantage point for a long time had it not been
for a line of soldiers who squatted watchfully on their heels along the rotten planking of
the bridge. In their stiff heavy uniforms, trailing their clumsy weapons in the dust, they
seemed as alien as the bridge itself in that primitive, ethereal place. They did not need
to remind me that people who linger on bridges are regarded with the deepest suspicion.
Once across the bridge and rolling down the shallow incline on the other side, I felt no
such inhibitions about gazing my fill, which was how I came to pass the rusty upturned
wheelbarrow which constituted an army road block, and at which I was meant to stop.

The first intimation that I had committed a grave error was the look of fear on an old
woman's face as she gestured at me with flapping movements of her hands to go back.
In the same moment I realised that the grunts behind me, which had been rising in pitch
and volume, might have something to do with me. As I turned round I saw a soldier
bearing down fast towards me, his rifle aimed at my middle and his finger trembling on
the trigger. His face was contorted with anger and his shouts had by now become
screams and bellows of rage; it was clear that he was preventing himself from firing only
with great difficulty. Realising what I had done I hurried back towards him and even as
I was taking in the situation, it came to me that here at last was the other side of things
- the root of the fear I had felt in crossing the border. It was my first encounter with the
terrifying violence ....

Every mile seemed an extra bonus now that I had had my first thrilling glimpse of one
of the Nile's great sources. I felt I was in a momentous place, the centre of things, and
to have got this far gave me a tremendous sense of achievment. All that planning and
those long dusty miles had finally led to the point where I was riding alone on a bicycle
through this almost legendary game reserve, part of the rumoured paradise that had
remained hidden from the rest of world until barely a century ago. It felt like the height
of good fortune just to be here, even if the stories were true of Amin's troops having shot
most of the game.

The only animals I saw were large water buck bounding away with long extended
leaps over the open ground, and gazelle which seemed to hover in the air as they made
off. There were also a few African storks and one very large pacing bird with a long
pointed beak. I was very lucky to see anything because a short way into the reserve I
heard firing and came across a large army truck stationary in the middle of the path with
the soldiers fanned out all over the place shooting for the pot. I made sure they knew I
was there before I approached them; I wanted no more near encounters with a heavy
calibre bullet.

After that I saw no one and I pressed on hard in order to make the shelter of Paraa
before nightfall. I often had to walk because of soft sand, and the sweat poured down my
face past the headband that was meant to stop it, but even so the feeling of a deep joy
and contentment kept growing. The landscape had changed again dramatically from the
lucent watery scene of a few miles back. Here it was like being on the roof of the world
- another limitless expanse, but this time of hot dry brown plains that went on and on into
far blue distances. An heroic landscape, charged with energy and with a slight
undercurrent of menace. It was a landscape that threw out a challenge. 'This is Africa.'
it seemed to say 'this is what you travelled so far to find.'

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These extracts are from 'Riding the Desert Trail', a Mountain House paperback