Situated in the northern part of the Albertine Rift Valley where the massive Bunyoro escarpment merges into the expansive palm-dotted Savannah of Acholi land, Murchison Falls National Park, the oldest and largest conservation area in Uganda, is one of the alluring pearls of the landlocked East African nation.
First gazette in 1926 as a game reserve, Murchison Falls NP is a massive 3,840km² expanse bisected by the Victoria Nile which squeezes through an 8-metre gorge cascading 45 meters over the rift valley wall to create the centerpiece of the park after which it is named – the Murchison Falls!
The park is part of the Murchison Falls Conservation Area, the largest protected area in Uganda, along with the adjacent Bugungu Wildlife Refuge and Karuma Wildlife Refuge which works as buffer zones for the park. Also included is the Budongo Forest Reserve which overlaps both Bugungu and Karuma.
We arrived Murchison Falls NP ahead of schedule – two days ahead. We were supposed to spend those two days at the Kidepo Valley National Park, another of Uganda’s wonderful safari destinations.
However, due to the unpreparedness of the facility we were scheduled to stay in, we had to leave a few hours after we arrived – sadly. However, a few hosted participants, among them my colleague at the office, Nkiru Osuji remained in Kidepo Valley at a different facility.
After touching down at Pakuba airstrip, we hurriedly piled into a waiting safari Jeep and raced to catch the 18:00 ferry on the northern bank of the Nile at Paraa Crossing. Our new accommodation, Kabalega Wilderness Lodge was on the southern bank of the world’s longest river and we were not in the mood to wait the 30-minute interval idling on the banks for the ferry after such a long day. Thankfully, we made it to Paraa with about ten minutes to spare.
Kabalega Wilderness Lodge took us in eagerly and after a refreshing dinner we retired to our rooms for a well-deserved sleep. It was the kind of sleep you don’t want to get up from – and it’s not even because of being in a dream. Well the sleep had to be disrupted because of an early morning game drive. We had to head out early with our breakfast packed to catch the first ferry at 07:00.
Game drives take place only on the northern side of the park, a savannah with Borassus aethiopum (African fan palm), acacia trees and riverine woodland, while the south is dominated by woodland and dense forest patches.
It was a rewarding game viewing experience that lasted well past 11:00 as we drove through. We spotted a sleeping lion a safe distance, as well as elephants, buffaloes, impalas, giraffes, colobus monkeys, warthogs, birds of various species and hippos. The pick of the day was when we drove past the ruins of the old Pakuba Safari Lodge and spotted a hyena trapped between two porcupines.
Pakuba Safari Lodge used to be the choice spot and a favorite of the late Ugandan despot, Idi Amin. After he was ousted, the lodge was looted and destroyed and all that remains is a dilapidated structure that has become a haven for wild animals, since efforts to rebuild it has not materialized. Unfortunately, we failed to get a good shot of the hyena and porcupines.
On another early morning drive after moving in to Paraa Safari Lodge on the northern, we spotted a pride of lions feasting on a fresh kill. By this time, the team from Kidepo Valley had joined us and we crossed the Nile together to the south banks, before a drive down to Budongo Forest Reserve to track chimpanzees. We also had a drive after another crossing to the south banks to get to the top of the waterfalls.
We did enjoy an afternoon river cruise to the falls and spotted a host of animals such as hippopotami, waterbucks, elephants, water buffaloes, crocodiles and several bird species. Murchison Falls NP certainly teems with game and some animals like elephants and warthogs even roam close to the lodges.
Now that’s another impressive bit about the park – the accommodation facilities are quite good. They range differently in value, but what we saw on a site inspection to the various places were nice. Paraa Safari Lodge has to be the pick of the pack in the entire park. Others like Bakers’ Lodge, Murchison River Lodge, Kabalega Wilderness Lodge, Nile Safari Lodge and the new Pakuba Safari Lodge are nice too.
By and large, Murchison Falls NP is one of those places to visit, especially if you love safaris and game viewing. The 1951 movie, The African Queen was filmed in the park on Lake Albert and the Nile. Several British royals and other notable personalities such as Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, among many others have visited the park. Well, I guess you can add my name to that list!
This article was first published as “So Much in Murchison Falls” in the Uganda edition of S.E.E. AFRICA® magazine in 2017.
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