Exploring Murchison Falls National Park
Murchison Falls National Park was my first encounter with the Ugandan wildlife. After a quite long drive from Kampala (including being stuck in the morning traffic) with a stop at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, we arrived at Murchison Falls just before sunset.
(By the way, check out the post from Bella at Passports and Pixels from our visit at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary!)
Our excellent driver guide knew his way around, and took us up the hilltop for an overview of the powerful falls and the mighty River Nile. The path then led down closer to the falls and the loud rumbling sound.
Even though the water came in soft and light drizzle, I soon was drenched without even noticing, and my long hair was dripping. No wonder though, the Murchison Falls is one of the world’s most powerful, with 300 cubic meter per second squeezing through the less than ten meter wide gorge. Got a hassle free natural hair wash, wohoo!
Since we are talking about most powerful, let’s move on to longest; Murchison Falls is a part of the river Nile, the world’s longest river, running from Lake Victoria all the way to Egypt where it ends in the Mediterranean Sea.
Murchison Falls National Park was founded in 1952, and with its 3893 sqkm, it is the largest in Uganda. Samuel and Florence Baker were the first Europeans to find the falls in 1864, and named it after Sir Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society. Idi Amin closed the park during his regime, and renamed it Kabalega Falls after a former ruler of the Bunyoro kingdom. After his fall, the name Murchison Falls was taken back.
The National Park has more than 500 wild species, and 75 mammals. We had decided to go for a game drive at the North Bank in the morning followed by a river cruise after lunch, to get to see as many as possible.
Arriving at Murchison River Lodge after sunset, we had no idea what we were expecting. After getting the introduction and information at the reception, we were escorted through the dark towards our tent at the rear of the property. The large green safari tents are set up under a permanent roofing, with proper beds inside. After a quick freshening up, we hurried down the path along the lit lanterns leading to the restaurant, just in time for a delicious three-course dinner.
It was amazing to sit in the peace and quiet with all kinds of animals chanting around us while looking out on the contours of the water. During dinner, the hippos got active, and we could hear them snorting and grunting, and splashing in the water.
Getting back to our tent, one of the guards had to walk us, as the hippos sometimes are seen on the trail.
A new day, new adventures!
Waking up early for the game drive, the packed breakfast was very convenient. Before heading off, it was time enough to enjoy a cup of hot tea while the twilight was revealing a bit of the beautiful river view.
Down by the riverbank, everybody else obviously also thought it was a good idea to come early to be first for the ferry crossing, so we had to watch the ferry cross the river a few times before we were up next. Well, I can think of worse places to enjoy breakfast while waiting.
Safe across on the other side, we popped the top of the car, and got ready to spot some wildlife. The morning air was still a bit chilly, but the sun soon gave us a warm stroke.
Driving along the dust roads, we soon spotted some Ugandan Kob’s grazing on the lush green plains. None of them seemed to care about the hyena lurking around on the other side of the road. The hyena was anyway more interested in getting away from us, and moved fast. So did we, at a slower pace, though.
All of a sudden, a giraffe popped up on the plain in the distance. I just love that beautiful animal!! More on that later.
Getting down to the riverside, we heard the hippos grunting, and could spot parts of their bodies sticking up in the water. When we were lucky enough to get a whole head sticking up, we had to act fast to get it on camera.
Driving along the water, a flock of crested cranes had gathered. The crested crane is the national bird of Uganda, and is even represented on the flag as well.
Two warthogs came running, and “hakuna matata” immediately started to play inside my head. It is fascinating how memories work!
Driving back to the Murchison River Lodge for lunch, we spotted a group of elephants resting under the shade of a tree. I was actually surprised we had not seen any earlier that day. In fact, I was surprised we had not seen more animals in general. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely had seen many animals. In addition to the ones I have already have mentioned there were hartebeest, egrets and some other birds, I just expected it to be more of them. But hey, I was happy. And hungry….
Back at Murchison River Lodge we enjoyed the delicious two-course lunch, and finished sitting down to relax with a drink in the sofa overlooking the river.
After lunch, it was time to hit the water. Wild Frontiers offer a 3-hour waterfall cruise on the Nile, going up towards the Murchison Falls and back. The price is 32USD per person. As you already know, the River Nile is the longest river in the world, and this particular stretch going from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert is called Victoria Nile.
Henry led the boat with a steady hand, while Ellis told us everything he knew about the area, the animals and whatever else we asked (meaning a lot…). Due to his passion for animals, Ellis took a course to become a guide, and has been leading tourists down the river the past 8 years. His favorite animal is leopard. “It is not just because I was born in the leopard clan”, he claims. He must have seen the question mark written all over my face, and continued: “The different clans were named after animals to protect the wildlife. You are not allowed to hunt the animal of your clan, and if you are hunting with men from other clans, you cannot kill their animal either”. It somehow made perfectly sense. A Nile crocodile on the riverbank close to our boat distracted my potential follow-up question.
Ellis presumed it to be around three years old, and continued with some interesting facts about the specie. A fully grown crocodile can lay 100 eggs, and the sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature where the eggs are buried. The range is usually between 30-35°C, and high temperature gives male, while low gives female. After they are born, the mother stick around for about a month, before the newborn have to make it in their own. Most of them don’t, only 1 % of the hatched eggs survive!
I must admit I was a bit shocked that the survival rate was that low! I soon got over it though, as a bunch of hippos came to the surface. During the three hours on the river, we saw lots of hippos. Maybe not surprisingly, as the area is called Paraa, meaning home of hippos. Hippos cannot swim, and since they spend most of the day in water, they stay at shallow water or move along the water floor if they want to cross. They can hold their breath for 5-6 minutes before they go back up to breath and sink down again to continue their walk. The time they do not spend indulged in water, they eat grass. A lot of it. After sunset and during the night, they go grazing, and an adult hippo can eat 60 kg grass every day. So when do they sleep, you might ask? I actually forgot to ask Ellis that, so thank you Google (and National Geographic). They sleep in the water, and when they need to breathe, they automatically float to the surface to catch their breath! Without waking up, I might add. They seemed quite relaxed and peaceful, but do not be deceived. More than 400 people are killed by hippos in Africa every year, most of them on land. I made a mental note not to reject when the guards offer to walk us back to the tent at night.
Giraffes are one of my favorite animals, so I was excited to see them a little bit more up-close than the one we saw during the morning game drive. I love how they graciously move with their thin legs and straight up tall necks, and their beautiful patterned coat! Apparently, the coat get darker the older the giraffes get, with the men darkening more than the females.
The area also has a very rich bird life, ranging from the small birds like red-throated bee-eater and pied kingfisher via the larger saddle-billed stork to the African fish eagle. The latter mate for life.
The black-headed weaver though, has an interesting approach to mating. The male build the nests to attract the female. If she does not approve, he rips the nest apart, and start to build a new one. In the meantime, she has probably moved on to another one with a better building technique… Let’s hope that practice makes perfect. The nests hang down from thin branches, making it impossible for snakes, baboons and lizards to get to them.
I was hoping to get a bit closer to the falls than we did, but hey, I got a quite close encounter with it the day before, so who am I to complain?
It is possible to get off and walk the Baker’s trail to the fall if you have not already visited before. The fee is 15$ and includes a guide, but you have to get your driver to pick you up at the top or make other arrangements.
Where to stay and eat:
Murchison River Lodge – price 70USD per person per night including full board. We booked a comfortable camping tent with twin beds and shared bathroom and full board. The food was really tasty, and there is not really many other options around, so there is no reason not to.
The internet is limited to the pool lounge (and the actual pool!), so if the need of contact with the outside world is screaming, you know where to go.