We packed down and left with breakfast being our usual on the road affair, with the intention being to stop down the line for a morning coffee (so we didn’t have the hassle of getting the cooker out to boil the kettle we had the lodge fill our flask with hot water).
The owner gave us directions and assured us it was a good road. We were surprised at how good it turned out to be, it was wide, in perfect condition and didn’t have many speed bumps. In fact the last stretch was perfectly straight and had none. It was a bloody hot drive though.
We got to Murchison Falls National Park entrance gate about 11:30am.
The National Park lies at the northern end of the Albertine Rift Valley, where the sweeping Bunyoro escarpment tumbles into the savanna. First gazetted as a game reserve in 1926, it is Uganda’s largest and oldest conservation area and became one of Uganda’s first national parks in 1952.
The park is bisected by the Nile, which squeezes through an 8m wide gorge and plunges 45m over the remnant rift valley wall with a roar, creating the dramatic Murchison Falls.
The info online said the vehicle fee for non-Uganda vehicles was US$150 (on top of our US$45 per person entry fee) and we weren’t prepared to pay that but others had reported the fee was US$50 so we had decided to head there and if it was the higher amount head back to chill at Kikongo lodge.
It was the lower amount and the entry fees were valid for 24 hrs so that was better than we’d expected – it meant we could do what we wanted – the boat trip on the Nile to Murchison Falls (which runs through the national park), leave the park via the north gate to stay somewhere cheaper (the park campsites are expensive, basic and have bad reviews) and then return the next morning to do a safari drive, before driving through the park and exiting through a different gate to continue our journey south.
As we registered for the park the big black clouds ahead of us started flashing with forked lighting accompanied by big rumbles. We’ve learnt a sure sign rain or a storm is coming is the wind gets up just before it even if it looks far away. It looked suitably dramatic.
Unfortunately they have found oil in the park and to make it easier to access there is now a big sealed road through it. More are being built so there are steady stream of trucks that rumble through it. Overseen by Chinese supervisors (you know the vehicles they are in as they and their African driver wear face masks), 10 wells and a feeder pipeline are being built ready to go into production next year. Unsurprisingly it is hugely controversial.
The Nile cuts the park into 2 halves, the northern section contains savanna and Borassus palms, acacia trees, and riverine woodland and is where all the interesting wildlife is. The south is dominated by woodland and forest patches with no big wildlife.
We’d entered the South West gate so we didn’t see anything exciting as we drove to the boat trip place in the rain. We knew a trip went at 2pm and had no idea whether we’d be able to turn up and get on it but it turned out to be easy. We got there and paid with an hour and a half to kill. It was hammering with rain and thundering all around so there was little point in going anywhere. They invited us to hang out with them, their reception and tour guide hang out space on stilts gives an awesome view of the river. We made coffee and shared some biscuits that got a few smiles and talked to one of the guides whose clients were out on the water.
The rain stopped not long before we were due to depart and tour companies started to arrive with other tourists. A big boat there was upstairs and downstairs to choose from. We naturally chose upstairs. The boat was maybe half full so we had plenty of space and could swap sides.
The river was high and it was grey and overcast. How the trip works is as you go up river to the falls (11km) they wildlife spot so you stay close to one bank. On each level of the boat there is a guide pointing the animals and the birds out. We saw heaps of hippos and Nile crocodiles, hoofed animals, warthogs, a giraffe and lots of birds, including an African fish eagle.
The trip takes 2.5-3 hrs. The slow journey up got a bit boring towards the end as the wildlife we were spotting we’d already seen. But then you round a corner and there is the falls. They are impressive and worth the trip. The way back was a quarter of the time as we motored back with the current.
We got back to muddy baboon prints on the vehicle (as the rain had eased before we departed they had moved out of the bushes).
Over the bridge we rounded a corner and there stood a giraffe by the side of the road! We saw heaps of impala and antelope a few other animals as we drove to the gate. The place we were staying was less than 10 minutes from the gate. The last stretch is dirt road and has quite a few accomodation places off it. We’d just gone past one with fake elephants at the entrance when in front of us on the other side we saw 2 elephants by the track. We did a double blink, where they real?! There were and we sneaked past, our camp of course was the next turn and it was unfenced.
They gave us a camping spot in the middle. We had a lovely view of the Nile Delta. They opened a banda (hut) for us to shower in. It also gave us a nice toilet, even if Marie did spend 10 minutes with her hand in it rescuing a gecko from drowning. The ‘hot’ shower was what is known as ‘African hot’ (warm). We had very attentive staff. We passed on dinner as we had plenty of food and hadn’t cooked for a few nights but ordered an early breakfast, before the sun rose, as we planned to be back at the park at first light.
As far as we could tell we were the only guests. Something we’ve got used to on campsites but this was a lodge near to the national park and had its own safari vehicles so that surprised us.
We slept well with no elephant incursions that we knew of. We packed down in the dark, had breakfast and we’re back at the park gates just after 7am. The animals didn’t seem too bothered by road, even the trucks (used to it now?) and we’d only spotted a few tracks off it the day before.
We explored some and before deciding going up and down the main road would be just as good without the rough driving for a change. We could also drive along it slowly with the safari hatch open so one of us could be spotter. We saw heaps, lots of buffalo (which we are now more wary of), baboons of course more impala than we’ve ever seen before, and antelopes, a cluster of 10 giraffes, lots of warthogs, waterbucks, and then we were stoked to find 3 hyenas, right next to the road, 1 even crossed. Then we found an elephant and as we turned back to do our last drive through and come out the other side we found 3 elephants, including 1 baby. We spent ages watching them. So long that by the time we got to the bridge and we’re ready to do the straight drive out on the south side we realised we didn’t have time before our 24 hours were up. It was somehow 11:30am already.
Our only option was to exit via the gate we had entered and drive all the way round the park. We were out with 10 minutes to spare.
It was stinking hot, there were mirages on the long straight road. The detour cost us a lot of time and it was a long drive to the camp we had picked out for the night as we headed south towards Kampala.