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Special Report: Blood on the Nile
In Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park, an unconventional expedition is ambushed by rebels. Coping with injury and death, the team decides to press on. But what will they prove?  Text by Dan Duane

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Be Fast and Be Quick

In the first flush of chaos following the gunfire, as the men scrambled to escape the Land Rover, no one saw what happened to the driver, Steve Willis. MacIntyre had been lucky: The bullet had merely grazed his head. But his wound bled so profusely that it temporarily blinded him. Stumbling into the grass, he somehow caught up with the unharmed Heathcote, who guided him farther into the bush. The lone Ugandan guard was never seen by expedition members again.
 
McGrigor was still at the truck, in the hands of the rebels. MacIntyre and Heathcote could hear him crying out, and they later saw smoke billowing into the air. Running to escape, they entered a small clearing. "And low and behold," says MacIntyre with a grim chuckle, "fresh lion spore [dung], right there. I've spent a lot of time in Africa, and I know it when I see it. The smoke was coming at us, we'd just run into fresh lion spore, and we were being hunted by rebels. How dire can things get?"
 
McLeay, for his part, had simply put his head down and sprinted, the moment he got free of the bullet-pocked vehicle. "I kept thinking, Behave like a leopard, behave like a leopard, be fast and be quick," he recalls. "The only sounds I could hear were my heart beating and the noise of the grass going past my body. I just kept thinking about my sons and my wife." After a few miles and several stream crossings, McLeay started to see animals, which he found comforting. "I saw several thousand antelope," he says, "and I could see that most of them were very relaxed, lying down in the shade and eating. It was great to see them, but they're also chocolate biscuits for lions." Believing he was out of the ambush, he headed back toward the road.
 
Meanwhile the rebels astounded the captive McGrigor by running away after they'd set fire to the SUV. "My first thought was to save the medical kit," he says, "because I knew someone had been shot." MacIntyre's blood, of course, was the giveaway, and McGrigor worried that the New Zealander might need help. "So I literally reached in and grabbed this burning grass and threw it out, which got the fire out of the SUV but set all the ground around me on fire," he says. "Then I proceeded to stamp that out with my broken leg"—leading to even more burns—"and once I got [the fire] under control, I remembered the fuel bags for the boats." McGrigor retrieved the containers and trailed gasoline about ten feet into the bush, whereupon it all caught alight. "I wanted to fool the rebels into thinking that the Land Rover had gone up in flames," he explains.
 
The rebels weren't the only ones fooled. McLeay, who would eventually run, walk, and stagger barefoot 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the ambush, was picking his way along the same road hours later when he saw a circling military helicopter and a smoke plume, which he assumed meant that the rebels had torched the Land Rover. Until, that is, he saw two armored personnel carriers coming up the road ahead of Willis's intact vehicle. The soldiers, McLeay recalls, stopped and smiled: "'We've been looking for you,' they said. 'We've found your four friends. They've all gone ahead and you're the last one.' I was hugely relieved—they gave me the impression that everyone was alive. I thought, This is surreal, driving through the park, beautiful sunset, all my friends alive, and everything is going to be OK."

But it wasn't. When he finally caught up with the others several hours later, McLeay learned that McGrigor, while hobbling around near the Land Rover, had found Willis lying dead in the grass. "He'd been shot through the side, running away from the vehicle," McGrigor says. "The bullet had entered under his armpit and exited by his hip. I broke out the kit to ready a saline drip, but when I looked at his arm, I thought, What am I doing? He's dead." Calling for help on the satellite phone, he'd given his precise GPS coordinates. It was just about sunset when the helicopter landed and out stepped the defense attaché from the American Embassy, Lt. Col. Richard Skow.

"Richard paid for our accommodations, he paid for our food, we were walking around in his clothes—he couldn't have been a better host," says MacIntyre, who now feels a great affection for the American military presence overseas. But Skow's hospitality came at a difficult time: During the next five days in Kampala, while doctors treated McLeay's injured feet (from his long, shoeless run), MacIntyre's head wound, and McGrigor's broken leg, the group also attended Willis's memorial service. He is survived by his two-year-old son, Joseph, and pregnant wife, Debbie, 31, who plans to remain in Uganda and continue operating the Red Chilli lodges.

"Words can't describe it," MacIntyre says. "It's just shockingly sad, and we've got to live with that for the rest of our lives."

Nevertheless, the team intends to push on as soon as McGrigor's leg has healed—most likely this month, just as Uganda is slated to hold national elections. With 3,300 miles (5,311 kilometers) behind them, their three stated objectives remain unfinished: to ascend the entire Nile, to electronically map its every foot, and to prove that its longest source lies in Rwanda. Willis's death casts a long shadow on continuing, but the team has been in touch with the expatriate community that knew him well.

"They've endorsed the idea that the expedition be dedicated in his memory," says McGrigor. "It sends the wrong signal if we give in to these rebels, and with Uganda struggling to come out from under its troubles, the army and wildlife authorities are desperate for us to return."
 
Resuming the expedition means that the team will return to Uganda and drive out the very same road on which they were attacked; they want to pick up exactly where they left off, and there is simply no other way to access their stopping point. But McGrigor feels confident that this time things will be different. "The Ugandan Army," he says, "will give us whatever support we need." 

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Pick up the March 2006 issue for more secrets of the Southwest, nine Caribbean adventures, the best gear for runners, and our World Class outfitter trips.








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