Crossing the River Nile
It’s early in the morning and we’re sitting in one of the most peaceful spots I’ve ever been. In a vacant restaurant (thanks COVID) on the edge of the River Nile.
To get to this place we left our home in Bundibugyo in Western Uganda and drove north east for 7 hours. Then add to that an extra 2 hours, because of kids and poor road conditions.
It wasn’t until the last hour of the trip when I started to wonder if we’d get here. The sun was close to setting, we had been driving through an unpaved back road navigating our Super Custom around enormous potholes and muddy streams, and now we’d reached a predicament.
The road in front of us was blocked by consecutively spaced walls of dirt higher than our car.
The small road was under construction, and the workers were sitting on an embankment resting after their days work.
“What’s wrong?” Piper asked from the back seat.
“The road is blocked.” I said.
“How are we going to get through?” she asked.
Mike and I looked at each other. There were 2 ways we could see, from tire tracks created by construction trucks much bigger than our van. Both had chosen to drive around the roadblock, halfway up an embankment on opposite sides.
“Let’s get out and look.” I said to Mike.
We walked the length of what our car would need to pass through. It seemed risky to me, mostly because if we got stuck we’d most likely be dealing with that problem in the dark.
“How much water do we have again?” I asked. Immediately jumping to worst case scenario; stranded in the bush with my young family overnight.
Except that we weren’t stranded yet, and there were still people around. Young strong men who may be able to lend a hand if we needed it.
“What do you think?” I asked Mike.
He was hesitant to say anything, he just kept pushing the soft sand around with his foot and clearing little boulders out of the way.
We walked back to the car and the kids were silent.
“I think we can make it, do you?” I said.
“Let’s go Super Custom!” Mike said, putting all his faith into our car.
I turned around. “Hold on kids! We’re doing this!”
They all gripped their seats in the exact same way, the way you do when you’re going up on a rollercoaster. The looks on their faces matched too.
Mike drove with confidence around the first road block, and I refused to believe for the next few minutes that anything unfavorable could happen. “We got this!” I yelled as our car was tilted on an unnatural axis in sinking sand, lurching forward in bursts.
It never stalled, it never got stuck, and we made it through with careful navigation. The men all raised up their arms for our victory once we got to the side they were sitting on, and I let out a huge exhale.
“That was SCARY!” Winnie said with a huge smile once we were down the road a little more.
In less than 30 minutes after that, we made it to Murchison River Lodge, the family-friendly accommodation we’d chosen as our base for the next four days of exploring Murchison Falls National Park.
As we were eating breakfast the next morning, overlooking the massive glassy river, Winnie informed us she would not be getting on a boat.
“To get to the lions we have to get on a boat.” I said. “Safari is on the other side of the river.”
“Well I’m not going then.” She said, resolute with arms crossed.
She has always been incredibly easy-going and adventurous. I was surprised by what she was saying.
I took her over to a lookout point and we peered through our binoculars. After a few minutes
I asked her why she didn’t want to cross the Nile.
“I don’t like water.” She said. “I’ve never liked water.”
“But you love the beach, and swimming pools.”
“Okay, well I don’t like baths. And I don’t like that water.” She said, pointing outwards.
I could relate. The River Nile is stunning. But let’s be real. It’s filled with crocodiles and hippos.
We’d already been (casually) warned by the staff at the lodge not to go up to the waters edge but to keep a safe distance. Some video I watched years ago kept playing through my head, of an alligator emerging from a marshy swamp in Florida and taking out a man standing too close. I hope he survived, but I don’t remember that part.
Having no first-hand experience whatsoever with hippos or crocodiles in their natural habitats, I found it unnerving to imagine what was just below the surface of the water. Really the only thing I knew about hippos was a surprising statement I first heard almost 20 years ago. "They're the most deadly animal in Africa." I never knew if it was true, but I heard it repeated since then.
I could see why crossing it would be scary. I was putting on a brave face but I was also nervous to cross. But we just traversed half the country to get here, so that we could get to the other side!
Any time Mike and I tried to lightly touch on the subject, she repeated “I’m NOT going across the river.”
I found Robert, the man who was going to be our safari guide and told him our kid did not want to go on the safari that afternoon. I couldn’t pinpoint the reason because she was being private about it, but I asked him if he could come over to the tire swing and talk to everyone.
Piper was looped through the tire while Winnie was pushing her. Boston was waiting on a bench nearby.
“Guys, this is Robert. He’s going to be our safari guide today. Do you have any questions for him before we go?”
Piper jumped in immediately. “Yes. If we go across the river, can hippos eat us?”
Robert shared with us how hippos do not like the sound of a boat’s motor, so they will move away when it is turned on. He said he’s been doing this for 15 years, and a hippo has never disturbed him. He also has children, the youngest is 6 months old, and he takes them across on the boat often.
Also, he said- hippos eat grass, not people.
She sat back down in the swing and lifted her feet off the ground, happy with his answer. I was happy with it too.
Winnie was quiet in thought.
After the swing we went to the balcony of our lodge to draw. We were supposed to leave in 3 hours. I had already inquired about the woman they had as the on-site babysitter whom a friend had recommended, but she was “very busy today”. The bartender offered to watch her while we were gone, but I was uncomfortable with that option.
Winnie and Piper sat on the ground of the balcony and drew trees. I sat next to them, in the hammock. I pushed myself back and forth, listening to insects and birds and the loud noise hippos make when coming up to the river surface to breathe.
I was conflicted about our afternoon safari. My daughter was clearly uncomfortable with getting on the boat to get us there. I wanted to understand what it was that she was afraid of, but she may not have even known herself. I started to wonder if she had a premonition something bad was going to happen, and this was a huge red flag I was trying to convince her to override.
That freaked me out.
Fear is contagious like that.
When Mike came back with Boston I said, “it’s okay, I’ll stay back with her and you guys go”.
“Kace. No. We came to Murchison for this, you don’t want to miss safari? She’ll be fine.”
We brought her into the bed and told her there wasn’t a babysitter available and we couldn’t leave her alone. She was going to have to come.
And then, she lost it.
She screamed and flailed, which is very unlike her.
I started to get a stomachache, wondering if we were doing the wrong thing.
I want to raise children who are comfortable expressing boundaries and who know what it feels like to have their boundaries respected.
“Mike” I whispered “it’s okay. I’ll stay.”
He motioned ‘just wait’.
Piper heard me and yelled “if you aren’t going then I’m not going. I’m staying with you!”
“I’m going.” I said, knowing that a Piper meltdown could really tank us at this moment.
Winnie was beside herself, sobbing. Mike was rubbing her back as she cried face down into the canvas khaki sheets.
I looked around and thought, this is traveling with kids. We’re in this amazing picturesque lodge, in the middle of East Africa, on our way to safari- but working through real life stuff.
I pulled out a last-ditch effort when I remembered we could still bribe her.
Once she calmed down a little, I said in a very soft talk-you-off-the-ledge voice, “how about if you come on the boat, once we get half way across, I’ll give you a Fanta?”
She stopped sniffling and considered it.
“No.” she said, with her arms crossed and puffy eyes.
“Okay.” I looked at Mike. There was nothing else we could do. She wasn’t going.
Piper asked, “Do we each get one?”.
“Uh, yeah. Sure. You’d each get one.”
“A full Fanta?” Winnie asked. “Like the entire bottle?”
“Yes. The entire thing.” Mike said.
“Okay fine. I’ll go.” She said.
Later we ran into a couple that had just come back from a morning safari. As we were gearing up to leave for ours, stopping by the bar to buy 3 cold Orange Fantas, they started talking about the boat ride.
“It was really short!” The lady said. “It looks like it would take a lot longer to get across but it was really fast, like a few minutes.”
We rehearsed that jewel of knowledge as we drove to the dock where our boat waited. We put on life vests, loaded onto the boat, and took off.
The girls were really nervous and held onto me tightly. The sky was a dark grey, and there was a storm rolling in.
“We’re only 2 ABC songs away. Let’s sing it.”
We all sang ABCDEFG, twice, and gripped each other tightly as we made our way across the River Nile. Fantas were never mentioned by anyone. We all forgot. The boat docked, but I didn’t feel relief yet, because we docked onto a tiny patch of dirt encompassed in water.
Robert looked around. “Hm.” He said. “The water wasn’t this high this morning.”
“How do we get to over there?” I asked, pointing to the park rangers, the bathroom, the visitor center.
“Usually this entire area is all dry land. But like we said on our ride over here, the water of the Nile hasn’t been this high since 1961. The entire bridge over there is submerged!”
I glanced around uneasily as we all stood at the waters edge like tasty morsels wondering what to do.
“We walk through the water, to get to the stepping stones there.” Robert said. “And probably, the children will have to be carried.”
The stepping stones he pointed to was a line of little granite tips peeking out of the water, leading us to the shore. But whatever, if we needed to go through the water to get away from it, that was what we were going to have to do.
I had to tame my imagination but it wasn’t easy. Don’t ever watch a video of an alligator attack, it may come back to haunt you in a most inopportune time.
Robert helped carry Boston across and then ran to get his safari vehicle. As we waited Mike yelled out “Look guys! Elephants!”
Down the road we would soon be driving on, a herd of elephants emerged out of the bushes.
“Whoooooaaaa.” Winnie said.
It was perfectly timed.
The Land Cruiser pulled up and we climbed in. This vehicle was amazing! There was so much space, and so many ways to look out or up. And it was green, the best color.
The kids ran around inside, jumping seat to seat for a minute while I pulled out their drinks. Robert had a bottle opener on his keyring, so we cracked open the cold Fantas and handed them out. They sat down to divulge in their reward and we slowly drove towards the elephants, which had left but in their place were a bunch of baby baboons surfing down a wall of sand. Once the drinks got low enough where they wouldn’t splash around too much on the bumpy ride, we took off for our animal-spotting adventure.
(Here's Piper with a pretty serious Fanta mustache, which wouldn't come off for 1 day!)
A few days later I asked Winnie:
“What is something new you’ve learned about Ugandans on this trip?”
“What is something new you’ve learned about yourself on this trip?”
She said, “I’ve learned Ugandans are safari guides, and that only Ugandans can work in the National Parks.” Which is something Robert told us when we were inquiring about future job opportunities for our kids- ha!
Then she said, “I’ve learned that even if I don’t always ask God for help, he will be there to help me any way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He helped me get across the river.” She said, satisfied.
That fear that had her kicking and screaming, was conquered. She wore her newfound strength like a badge.
Bribing my child to cross a river she vehemently did not want to go across left me feeling
kind of, yuck.
But getting to hear how my child processed facing a fear, getting through it, and how she interpreted the ordeal was an unexpected gift.
There’s a certain type of faith that children have that when expressed is both startling and humbling.
Winnie helped to remind me that this is God’s business. He meets us at the shores of the rivers we don’t want to cross. He takes all the unlovely parts of life, the parts we can’t reconcile, or fix, or find a palatable solution for; the parts that we fear, or avoid, or can’t fathom to see what lay beneath the surface and He meets us in those.
He is redeeming and will redeem it all, whether we ask him to or not.