I can’t quite work out how to explain to you what happened on World Ranger Day because some bits of it I sometimes think I dreamed. But no, it was all real, and now that I’ve had time to think about it (and it has taken quite a bit of time to process it all) I think it was the most amazingly awesome day and I feel very privileged to have been there to witness it.
Monday 31st July was World Ranger Day this year, a day when we can recognise and celebrate the work of rangers all over the world. You could be forgiven for not knowing this as many people don’t. So, being keen to promote the work of rangers, Mr Peach and the rest of the team thought it would be a good idea to give an amount of project money, to help the Ugandan rangers at QE National Park come together and mark the occasion.
We didn’t have all of the information about what would be happening, but we were told to meet at the headquarters at Katunguru at 8am. We decided that it would be appropriate if we all wore our QEPP uniform shirts especially for the event. After the long, bumpy hour long drive down the Mweya Peninsula track we arrived at headquarters on time. This is what happened next…
We got out of the van to be met with a crowd of Rangers and police, AND a troupe of acrobats, jugglers, flame eaters, unicycle riders and a mariachi band. (I know.)
Before we could properly make sense of what we were seeing before our very eyes, we fell into ranks behind the mariachi band, Rangers and the police into a marching column, and with the acrobats, jugglers, (oh, I forgot the man walking on stilts) uni cyclists and flame eaters travelling up and down the sides of the marching column we marched towards the headquarters building. It was already quite hot and some of us had been feeling unwell because of the anti- malaria medication, so the whole thing began to take on a dream-like quality.
Once at the headquarters we fell out of ranks, got back into the van and we were told to drive to near Kikorongo village, just south of the equator. As we drove north along this road we could see flames and smoke rising up from the land to the right of the road where the Rangers were carrying out some ‘controlled’ land burning. They do this to burn down the vegetation which encourages new growth, which in turn encourages the grazing animals such as Uganda Kob, and in turn -lions and predators for the tourists to see. Trouble is, what is considered to be ‘controlled’ burning in Uganda is terrifying ‘land on fire/ risk to health and safety’ to a person from the UK. We drove into a thick smoke cloud that had drifted across the road before anyone in the group could say ‘er…, Ronnie do you think this is wise?’ Luckily the smoke cloud wasn’t that big and although we all came out safely on the other side, it’s not something I would recommend that you try at home!
Still recovering from that, Ronnie parked the van, and once again we fell into ranks with the mariachi band, Rangers, police, and the acrobats, jugglers etc. etc. and began marching, this time over the equator. We knew it was the equator because there are two enormous arches either side of the road marking the line. It became even hotter as we entered Kikongoro village, and the villagers, clearly bemused by the sight of the marching column and the circus acts, began ululating (look it up) with excitement.
Now, the activity that they had planned for us at Kikorongo was a community litter-pick. I have mentioned before how bad the litter problem is, and so the intention was to demonstrate to the villagers that keeping litter off the streets is a good idea. We were issued with rubber gloves and we set about picking litter as the procession (and the band, and the circus acts) continued through the streets of the village. To say we ‘missed a bit’ of the litter was an understatement, but at least the idea was demonstrated. The picked litter was collected in bags and loaded up into a truck. As I took off my gloves I noticed that my hands had been sweating so much the sweat ran out as a trickle onto the floor, and my skin was horribly wrinkled. Yuk! That’s how hot the day was becoming!
We climbed back into the van and THEN….. We drove to another village and did the whole thing again! This time it was to the village of Kyambura, down the horrible pot- holey road, and half way up the Rift Valley escarpment with beautiful views, but with with an equally bad litter problem.
The plan for the afternoon was to go back to the headquarters at Katunguru for speeches and dinner. That all sounded perfectly normal, but ‘normal’ was not a word to feature in THIS day! Oh no! We assembled under two canopies with the rangers at one side and the invited guests at the other. We were among the invited guests so sat with all of the other VIPs. Unfortunately the VVIP, the guest of honour, who was a local councillor, arrived two hours later so we sat listening to very loud Country and Western music while we waited.
Finally the speeches began, but as I already knew from past experience, Ugandans LOVE speeches, and it is only polite on such occasions for everyone to speak. So everyone did speak, including Mr Peach on behalf of the QEPP. All this took another two and a half hours, and I think that even Ugandans would consider this to be a bit of a long time, but by this time we had all resigned ourselves to just enjoying the whole thing.
We were then treated to a demonstration of how to catch and poacher, followed by a demonstration of how to catch a crocodile, both of which were very impressive. (Sometimes crocodiles have to be moved from one place to another for their own safety.) It really brought home to me just what a dangerous job the Rangers do every single day. Most rangers in the world are not paid very well, and if they happen to be killed on the job there is often no-one left to support the family they leave behind. And this is what the day was all about- raising awareness about the job that Rangers do, celebrating it, and above all – letting the Rangers know that they are valued and that we all think they do a great job. In his speech Mr Peach talked about the four things that rangers need- INTEGRITY – BELIEF – BRAVERY – STRENGTH.
After a very moving ceremony where candles were lit to remember fallen Rangers, we were all fed the most fantastic Ugandan meal (matoke, beef, fish, vegetables in tomato sauce and shredded cabbage).
The day ended with the team members being able to give out the ranger equipment that had been collected by the project and taken out in our suitcases. Each ranger present that day was able to get a new shirt and a number of other items such as first aid kits, binoculars and other items of field kit were given out.
Even though it had been a very long and tiring day, I don’t think any of us would have wanted to miss a minute of it. We learned so many things: that litter picking on the equator is very hot and tiring; that Ugandans know better than anyone else in the world how to have a celebration; that rangers all over the world do a very much needed and important job, but a very dangerous job; that more people need to know and appreciate the job that Rangers do for the world. We were indeed very privileged to have shared that celebration on that day.