After a delicious lunch at the Nkima Forest Lodge, perched on top of the hill amidst a dense, old-growth forest, I head down with just my raft to search for one of the most elusive birds in East Africa, the Shoebill Stork. It’s the strangest prehistoric-looking bird, more suited to a Jurassic Park film set rather than the real world. It’s notoriously hard to find, but if you do find it, it usually stays put, feeling totally unthreatened by humans.
The Mabamba wetland is a vast papyrus swamp with a labyrinth of narrow waterways. It is designated as a Ramsar site to protect this vulnerable habitat for waterbirds, mammals and aquatic life. I’m gliding through one of the channels where the shoebill is often seen, it’s silent and I realise just how understated this place is. The only thing I hear is my paddle stroke and some of the swamp’s residents, like the African Jacana and Goliath Heron.
After pushing my boat forward with my arms through a particular narrow channel, suddenly I’m close up with the Shoebill. It looks me straight in the eyes, undeterred. If this water safari was on land, I guess I could say I ticked off one of the big five.
The next morning, I am keen to leave before sunrise to beat the midday heat, as this expedition is right on the equator. I’m setting up my raft with a crowd, as usual. I hear them chatting and pointing with a slight worry on their faces, and immediately I think there might be something I don’t know but should. Crocodiles? Hippos? When I ask one of the men what the discussion is about, he laughs at my worries.
‘They think your boat will not make it to the other side. The reeds and papyrus will pierce through it,’ he explains.
They probably think this raft is an ordinary dinghy that springs a leak at the first brush with vegetation. I assure them I should be fine, and besides that, I can swim!