The epic safari to Murchison Falls
Friday August 11 2017
As the falls raged, our faces got wet and cool from the spray. This is not just any ordinary river but the great Nile. Here we were, my nephew and I, standing on sheer rock, spellbound by the thunderous force of the mighty Murchison Falls.
Decades earlier, aged eight, I was transfixed on the same spot, next to my mother as we watched the falls in awe. The gigantic Nile crocodiles covered every inch of the river bank with their gaping jaws as little birds pecked them clean. This was my dream come true. I always planned on returning. And I finally did.
Borrowing my brother’s son Galib and the sturdy Toyota Crown Royal Saloon 1985 model — that had everyone along the Nairobi-Kampala route impressed — we mapped our journey through Kisumu on to Victoria Falls, the source of the River Nile. A 90-minute break for the formalities at the Busia one-stop-border post ushered us into Uganda, the Pearl of Africa.
As we drove by lush rice paddies and sugarcane plantations, heavy rain escorted us before we stopped for a sumptuous lunch at the Jinja Sailing Club. We went on a short sail in Lake Victoria, at the spot that the Nile starts its incredible 6,852km journey to the Mediterranean Sea – the now submerged Ripon Falls.
After the short break we set off again but got lost on the new Northern bypass to Kampala as there were no road signs directing us on what way to go as we sought to drive north to Murchison National Park.
The rain was still lashing down as we drove through the Mabira Forest and the heavy traffic didn’t help either, but we eventually got our bearing, bypassed Kampala and headed north. As night fell and we were still in the middle of nowhere, we found a cheap but cheerful roadside inn at Luweero where we spent the night.
This was the day of the falls. It was going to take slightly under two hours to drive from Luweero to Masindi. The sun rose from the mist-decked fields as we drove to Masindi, which we found to be a shadow of its former self. This once vibrant town is quiet and has nothing much to offer even in terms of amenities.
Masindi was once a thriving town between Kampala and the north. We learnt that just a few kilometres north of Masindi was the Budongo Forest which has an amazing colony of chimpanzees and other wildlife. We decided that on our way back from Murchison we would detour for a short game drive.
We now focused on covering the almost 100km east on the Masindi Road to Karuma to make it for the mid-morning ferry crossing across the Victoria Nile into Murchison Falls National Park.
The ferry — a small tin barge that could only take eight vehicles at a time — took a few minutes to sail us to the other side of the river.
Crossing over into Chobe on the other side of the park, the river flowed over rapids so impressive, at Karuma.
The early afternoon game drive did not disappoint. We saw the Uganda kob and Patas monkey, Rothschild giraffe, elephants, oribi, ostrich and more lush savanna grassland filled with Borassus palms and acacia.
Walking the wide girth of the bridge over Karuma rapids on the Victoria Nile, a sign post shows the story of explorer Samuel Bakers’ “discovery” of what he named Lake Albert in Western Uganda where Victoria Nile drains into. The magnificent Karuma rapids will soon vanish with the new dam being constructed. If you have plans of seeing them, go now.
A few kilometres past Karuma is the point where the Victoria Nile “falls” at its most dramatic and narrowest point — at 20 feet wide and 130 feet down. Baker named this Murchison Falls after the president of the Royal Geographical Society. It was here that I relived my childhood dream.
We left Karuma and drove through the park in Chobe on the other side of the park towards Murchison.
We drove past the Murchison Falls to Paraa where we again crossed the Victoria Nile and then took a boat ride upriver to see the falls. Wading birds and hippos lounge in the Nile waters with giraffes and buffaloes grazing on the banks.
The river bank is littered with crocodiles. Decades ago when I was here as a child, the river bank was also very rocky. Now there are only four massifs.
And then the sliver of water shows from afar – it’s the mighty Murchison Falls.
It is spell-binding — so strong is the force of the crashing falls — that the boat cannot go against the current as we sail upriver. We sailed to the river bank for some of the tourists to get off the boat and climb to the top to experience the falls differently.
Having seen the falls, we exit Murchison National Park through the southwest and find ourselves in Budongo Forest, north of Masindi. Since we had promised ourselves a game drive in the forest to see the colony of chimpanzee, we were disappointed when our guide told us that with no prior booking and threatening rain, the chimps would have already made their nests high up in the trees and it was already too late for the three-hour trek in the rain forest.
As we hit the road to Masindi and onward south to Kampala, we turned into Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. This was the place with the lodge where we were to spend the first night and did not reach during our drive north. So on this return trip we find the lodge but it is full.
The official at Rhino Fund Uganda notices my worry. She offers us a night’s stay at Amuka Lodge at a discount — in the Acholi language, Amuka means rhino. In Swahili it means arise.
The officer turns out to be the executive director of RFU. The next morning at 6am, we are given pink gumboots for the walk in the swamp — that stretches for 100km. As the mist clears, we see the shoebill stork, this prehistoric bird, that the pharaohs admired. There are only 5,000-8,000 left in the world, with 1,000 in Uganda. We see two — that is 20 per cent of Uganda’s shoebill population in the wild.
Done with the swamp, it’s to the grasslands to track rhino — the more common and introduced southern white — on foot with rangers.
The 19 make for Uganda’s rhino population. We find four — two walk away so fast that there’s no way to keep up with them. This was Uganda in a week with not a single tyre puncture and 18 holes of golf thrown in by the shores of Victoria at the ultra-new golf course at Lake Victoria Serena.
I am already planning a return trip just for the chimpanzees of Budongo Forest.