Raw. Unsaturated. Palpable. Just a few words describing Murchison Falls National Park, the cradle of civilization I had the unique opportunity to visit this past weekend with Devin and her 9 year old son Nile- or “Simmy”, as he is called here in Uganda by close friends.
As a first time safari goer, my eyes were wide open from start to finish!
We left Kampala just as the sun was rising, which is 7 am daily due to the location on the equator, in effort to escape rush hour traffic jams that are part of daily life here. Exiting the outskirts of the densely populated town of Kampala amidst Boda Bodas, crammed matatus, and locals walking to work for the day, I captured the sight of mothers carrying sleeping babies strapped snugly to their backs with bold, brightlypatterned cloth….women young and old balancing heavy loads of produce on top of their heads…. Bustling exchanges at the local trading centers… And insanely hectic roundabouts at which masses of unregulated forms of transport converge like a load of laundry mixing and intermingling a short while before being spit out in a particular direction by flow and force. The ubiquitous smell of burning charcoal in the air and chickens announcing the start of a fresh day. I absolutely love mornings in Uganda. It is surely my favorite part of the day.
Our rented vehicle and driver, Moses, safely transported us to the Wangkwar gate on the northern perimeter of the park. Our journey to Murchison passed through war – ravaged villages like Luweero, where years of political unrest under Idi Amin’s rule created the feeling of a ghost town. It was in Luweero district around 1986 that Museveni, who had been hiding in Tanzania, launched an attack with a mobilized army to successfully overthrow Amin’s regime in Uganda.
Traveling north through Kutuugo, Nakasongola, and Kyriandongo, we felt the continual rise in temperature, especially while stopped at road construction with windows rolled up to avoid dust from the vehicles. Our first stopping point, Karuma Falls, marked the crossing of the Victoria Nile. The Nile River served as a military stronghold during many years of insurrection, and created a distinct border blockade between Northern and southern Uganda. Travel was prohibited from both sides separating families and calling a deadly halt to tourism in the region. We enjoyed a short rest under a shade tree, entertained by a group of Olive baboons!
7 1/2 hours into our drive, we reached our destination: the Wangkwar Gate. Paid the park fees, vehicle entrance fees, and popped the top of our bare bones Land Cruiser for an authentic African Safari adventure! I was elated!!
We set sail on one of the many game tracks…cool crisp air blowing in my face as I held tightly on to the metal bars standing up balancing under a popped-top roof. This was indeed a most welcome respite from the long day’s journey. The African savannah grasslands stretched out for miles and miles in every direction. Palm trees and the eponymous umbrella acacia trees standing in solitude with vast skyline as a backdrop. Egrets spreading their Snow White wings in flight, and groups of African Kob leaping across the track like dancing ballerinas. It was as if we were alone in this vast space, enjoying moments of stillness with nature.
The landscape at Murchison Falls is breathtaking, nearly intoxicating. Warthogs- aka- “Pumbas” snorted about with their tusks and coarse whiskers chomping through the grass, while cape Buffaloes with birds taking a ride on their backs gathered near the swampy sections. It was like an interactive children’s book on wild animals- every turn on the track a turn of a page introducing yet another new face!
And then… I met my first love of Murchison …. The Rothschild Giraffe. His elegantly elongated neck held upright at all times to support the taxing load of his 25 lb heart! Two horned females weighing 700kg+ endure a 14 month gestation period. Males, which have 3 horns, weigh in at 1,100kg +. The spots on a Rothschild stop at the base of his leg joint, giving the impression that his lower legs have been dipped in white chocolate! Seeing baby giraffes run after their mothers in the wild is captivating! Stop and observe long enough, and you will catch a glimpse of their 45 cm long purple tongue snatching a bite to eat off the “whistling- tone ” acacia tree.
The second day, we jumped back on the truck and raced to the ferry crossing before sunrise to hit the tracks again. Eagerly anticipating the start of a new day and another game drive, I slept on and off and found myself awake in the middle of the night laughing at the deep guttural grunting sounds of hippos who were munching on the grass just outside our safari tent! There’s a reason they are called “hungry hungry hippos”!
Nauseous from the anti-malarial taken on an empty stomach that morning, I requested we stop for a few minutes so I could collect my balance from the standing and shaking around caused by the heavily pot- holed game tracks. Dramamine and pepto to the rescue! Our hired park ranger guide, Sarah, received a call that we were very near a pride of lions spotted by another ranger! “What a perfect place to stop with vertigo”, I thought to myself … ” I’m sure his will help to make me feel better!” … ( joking)
We pulled up to a thicket, peered inside of a triangular shaped window formed by the bush and witnessed a couple of lion cubs with their mother resting and stretching. Moses turned the car off and we had a stop over to enjoy the company of lions camouflaged in the bush. Little did we know we would have a second encounter the next morning near the same area on the Victoria and Queen circuit. A huge male lay resting on his side, paws stretched out and looking confident and completely undisturbed by the multitude of safari vans now approaching with cameras flashing and binocs focusing, hoping to steal a glance of this park predator! I decided to crawl out of the truck on to a fixed metal bar rack towards the hood of the truck to get a closer view and more zoomed in photographs. Suddenly, the male propped up his head and displayed his dominance and full mane of hair enrobing his enormous feline face. Still in a seated position, my blood began to pump with a bit more vigor. Feeling a sense of courageousness, I asked Moses if he would take a photo of me and Simmy. Moses proceeded to open the safari truck door, step onto the tall grass and managed to disturb the lions in the thicket – to the male lion’s immediate left side.
” Rrrrr——aaaaaaa——rrrrrrr-hhhhhhhh!” Shouted the lion in dissatisfaction from behind the bush with mouth stretched open wide! Moses jumped into the front seat, shut the door quickly, while I scrambled to get myself off the exposed rooftop bars and back into the vehicle’s interior. Trying to get through this narrow space in a contorted manner while anxious was like being a small child afraid on the top of a set of monkey bars…. Totally freaked and wanting off ASAP!
Pulse check: 180BPM.
Next to a charging elephant later that day, this was surely a highlight of the trip. It made me realize once again that we are not in control. It also helped me gain a deeper appreciation of the conservation work that is being done to protect creatures in Murchison National Park from atrocities like those during Idi Amin’s rule when he reduced the 15,000 + population of elephants to under 2,000. They are slowly rehabilitating and repopulating various animals found here thanks to peace and dedicated conservation work.
I came to Uganda to learn from it’s people and the environment. Both have taught me many valuable lessons I will carry with me for a lifetime. I hope you feel as though you shared a bit in this adventure with me!