Never have I been to Murchison Falls national park and found anything not to love. If you have been to Uganda’s biggest national park before, then you will agree that its natural beauty is incomparable.
But Mother Nature woke up one day and decided to beat up her own handiwork, leaving large swaths of the park under water and some of the attractive activities suspended. While I had been to Uganda’s national parks several times – about four visits to Murchison – I was not happy that my immediate family hardly knew anything about wildlife beyond what they see on National Geographic.
With help of a tour company, I started my plans early, putting together a package and budget that ensured we enjoyed Christmas in a different way, while I, at the same time, introduced them to my passion. I should have known what to expect when the tour company could not book us on the park’s southern bank due to flooding that has rendered the ferry service across the River Nile, impossible.
The way Murchison Falls national park works, most of the animals – those that cannot swim – are found on the northern bank, which is accessible through the districts of Nwoya and Pakwach after Karuma bridge. The southern bank that is closer to Kampala and accessible through Masindi district, has beautiful hotels too, but guests have to cross by ferry to go for game drives on the fauna-rich north.
That is how we booked into Fort Murchison in Pakwach, a cosy place on the banks of the river. We set off on December 23 and by 3 pm, we were checking in and the camera/selfie-crazy younger people started pouting and strutting for their cameras. On Christmas Eve, we set off with a guide at 6am for the game drive, but met our first obstacle towards Tangi gate, where floods have completely cut off the old access road to the park.
Other tour vehicles turned up at this road-turned-river and looked on, perplexed. A young crocodile spotted us and slunk back into the water. As we considered driving several kilometres to Wankar gate in Purongo and losing precious time for the game drive, a guide in another tour car made a call, leading us to an alternative road to Tangi gate that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has constructed a few metres away.
As the day became brighter (Pakwach is hot!), we paid Shs 10,000 per person at the gate, sanitised duly, then proceeded on our game drive, with a herd of bushbucks waiting nearby like a welcome brigade. Sticking our busts out through the open roof and setting cameras at ready, there were oohs and aahs as my people saw live elephants, giraffes, antelopes, hippos, warthogs, baboons, buffalos and more, for the first time in the wild, as the guide gave interesting commentary.
Like everyone who goes on a game drive, though, soon our attention was drawn to the fact that we had not seen a single cat; not a leopard, not a lion in sight. As we stopped other tour vehicles for hints on where the big cats could be, none of them had glimpsed any on that day.
We crossed the Masindi-Pakwach highway that Uganda National Road Authority is constructing through the park to try another section of the park; still nothing but a Jackson’s hartebeest looking at us with its long, unflattering face appearing to mock our efforts, the big hornbill walking around looking like it was draping a coat over its shoulders, and more warthogs zooming around with tails pointed at 90 degrees.
Maybe we shall catch the cats at Delta Point or on the riverbank during the boat cruise, our guide consoled us, as the sun became really hot and chances of seeing the popular carnivores dwindled and the sight of thousands more antelopes became irritating.
Approaching the delta, a driver in a Land Cruiser headed in the opposite direction stopped to warn us it was flooded and inaccessible. We settled for having our packed breakfast in the wild, before heading for the boat cruise. Save for the herd of elephants drinking from the river and the predictable hippos swimming in the shallow waters, there were no animals to see on the boat cruise either and the birds also seemed to be having a day off.
Apart from a lone crocodile hiding in the thickets, it also turned out to be not a good day for seeing crocodiles basking on rocks like they usually do. But one thing could not be missed: the amount of water in River Nile. Roaring its way towards the Mediterranean, the world’s longest river has unleashed a mess in Uganda, eroding parts of its banks and bird habitats, flooding some safari lodges completely, and leaving UWA offices, camps and the ferry landing site at Paraa under water.
UWA is operating in newly-erected buildings here. Getting on the boat under these circumstances was an extreme sport in itself, but UWA communication manager Bashir Hangi said there is still hope the water shall recede and it will be business as usual in the park.
“In the wild, the system is different; so, we get a way of fitting within that system; we don’t change it,” Hangi said during an interview at the weekend.
“Water levels will recede. It is too early to lose hope.”
The flooding, he said, is caused by the persistent heavy rains the country has received, exacerbated by the opening of the dam gates at Nalubaale power station that sent a huge volume of water downstream. As we settled back at Fort Murchison happy with the shared family experience, but disappointed that we could not go to the top of the falls (the river has rendered that breath-taking activity too dangerous for now) or take pictures of the Murchison falls at close range (boats now stop further away than usual due to the strong, swirling current), I overheard two tour guides at dinner talk almost sorrowfully about “Murchison waffe!” and how much the park is struggling to navigate the waters that make it special in the first place.
The same guides were also discussing the possible impact a road under construction through the park is having on the wild animals and activities surrounding them. But Hangi said the road, which includes an imposing bridge over the river near Paraa and again in Pakwach, was started after a comprehensive environmental impact assessment.
“Of course you cannot say the road has zero impact. Most people are worried about road-kills when the road is complete,” Hangi said.
But the road shall have speed bumps and a limit of 40km/hr, he added, with an electronic system on both ends to ensure motorists clock in and out, and adhere to the speed limit or be penalised when they don’t. Once complete, the bypass is expected to shorten the journey to West Nile considerably.
Hangi said, however, the bridge at Paraa will work concurrently with the ferry, since crossing by ferry is a tourism experience on its own too. On Christmas morning, Fort Murchison was bustling with activity, as it operated at full capacity – a welcome relief for management after a long Covid-19 2020 that has hurt the tourism and hospitality industry in a brutal way.
We had planned a second game drive to try once more with the lions, but later changed our minds and stayed in, catching a spellbinding sunset over the river instead. Soon enough, it was time to embark on the return journey on Boxing Day, designed to escape the possible traffic jams we anticipated after Saturday, and stopping at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakasongola district.
Like such trips always do, everyone agreed they felt refreshed, but above all, more enlightened about wildlife and the beauty of tourism. There is nothing comparable to sleeping with the sound of a hippo’s grunt coming from the river as the massive animal makes its way to land to graze at night.
They spend most of the hot day in water, due to the sensitivity of their thick skin, and feed at night. While a couple of people were initially freaked out by the loud grunts and feared to go anywhere after dark, by the second night, they too were snoring softly to the animal and bird sounds, and walking freely between their rooms and the dining area.