At the beginning of August, when the undergraduate researchers were finishing up their summer projects, the five of us went on a trip to Murchison Falls National Park. Murchison Falls, located in west-central Uganda, is the largest national park in Uganda. Its main attraction is the Nile that runs through the middle of the park, culminating with a stretch of rapids that spills over the actual Murchison Falls. The stretch of the Nile running through the park is the Victoria Nile, so named because of its headwaters at Lake Victoria, and is one of the main tributaries feeding the White Nile.
The easiest, and one of the cheapest, ways to travel to Murchison is to book an organized package deal with one of the hostels in Kampala. This arrangement did extended our travelling distance, since we had to drive to Kampala first (about 5 hours) and then up to Murchison (another 3 hours or so), but the alternative road directly from Fort Portal to Murchison is in poor condition, so our travelling time would have been about the same. And, we were going to take a bus from Fort Portal to Kampala, but given our concern of using public transportation in the midst of the Ebola outbreak, we opted to reserve our own taxi.
This was, in fact, my first time in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, since I’ve been here; I drove close by on my way from the airport back in January, but I’d never been in the city before. It’s not too dissimilar from the other African capital cities I’ve been in—Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kinshasa in DR Congo—with the dusty and dirty streets, hoards of people walking everywhere, the street-side markets. Like the other cities, it’s built more out than up, sprawling to try to keep up with its escalating population but scarcely a structure taller than several stories. But there were a few attributes of Kampala that stood out: in particular, the many soccer “fields” on the side of the roads.
Many of the markets were really mid-street markets as opposed to street-side, adding to the city’s significant traffic problems. I’ve grown accustomed to buying food, even meat, from local roadside vendors, but I’d have to live here a bit longer to stomach a head of lettuce lying on a muddy curb, tinged grey from diesel exhaust. But the chaos inevitably accompanying an over-populated area did not seem to negatively affect the daily flow of activity in Kampala: instances of disorderly conduct instilled an insouciant and unfazed reaction from those involved, ostensibly making the disarray rather enduring.
After one night at the Backpacker’s Hostel, we began our trip to the park. There’s a lot that I could tell you about what went wrong with our trip to Murchison, but in an attempt to avoid perpetuating my pessimism, I’ll just share several major hiccups. And what went well, of course.
On the morning we left Kampala, we and the other tourists on our trip met for a briefing, and it was right away that our troubles started. The company’s newly hired marketer had told us over email that we could pay our fees via credit card; that morning, she informed us that credit cards were not an option. The nearest ATM, she told us, was only about 50 meters down the road from the hostel gate. We started walking, and after about 10 minutes never found it. We returned to asked the guard at the gate, who told us the nearest ATM was about 3km away in the other direction. Hmm. And out of the seven other people on the trip, almost everyone had the same problem, so clearly there was a communication problem with this woman. These communication problems continued when we were informed meals would not be covered in the general fee we were quoted, which zero out of the twelve of us had realized. I was disappointed to find out this marketer would be accompanying us on the trip.
Our first stop was the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, a tract of land that offers protection for 12 white rhinos currently. The sanctuary hopes the rhino population in the sanctuary will continue to grow, allowing them to reintroduce rhinos to Ugandan parks—white rhinos have been extinct in the wild in Uganda since being hunted out in 1983. Although it was fantastic to see the rhinos so close (we got within 10 meters or so) in a semi-wild habitat,
it was a conflicted activity for me; since I started my post-graduate international travels, I’ve gotten used to exploring where I want, seeing what I want, and at my own pace. I felt very much contained in our group of twelve, being shepherded through the savanna towards the rhinos.
I also got very frustrated with the other tourists and, for example, the lengths they would go to avoid walking in a small stretch of mud. I was worried my impatience would be a problem the rest of the trip, which it certainly was at our next stop, Karuma Falls. After a short 5 minute hike down to the falls (which we were told would take about 55 minutes), we only had a chance to take in the magnificent falls for about 15 minutes before we were told to hurry up, the five of us we were holding up the rest of the group. From doing what? From driving to our camp that night, where there was apparently a big rush to get to dinner. The falls were beautiful, though, and it was the first time I had ever seen the Nile. Interestingly, out of all the precautions we were warned to follow (another frustrating occurrence for me, being warned to stay far away from dangerous baboons, for example, when I get within a few feet of them almost every day outside my duplex) they didn’t mention that elephants share the trail we took down to the falls. We didn’t meet any, but there were plenty of signs, and it’s ironic that a genuine potentially dangerous situation wasn’t directly brought to everyone’s attention. Oh, and the dinner that was so urgent to rush to at camp wasn’t even ready until an hour and a half after we arrived.
On the drive to our camp, it became clear that this marketing woman had never been to the park before, yet assumed an arrogant omniscient air that grew quite irritating. She also put the rest of us in awkward situations, when she acted the part of ‘insensitive tourist’ more than anyone else. The most severe case of this was when we passed a refugee camp from villagers relocated from the tumultuous region of northern Uganda, and she had our driver stop several times so she could take pictures.
The next morning was our game drive through Murchison Falls National Park. After establishing that yes, this would be a five-hour game drive as was noted on our itinerary, not the 2-3 hour drive as was believed our marketer, we found that the company failed to procure us a guide—this put us at an automatic disadvantage, since the guides know where we are more likely to see rarer animals. But, even though the weather was overcast and drizzly, we still had a nice drive, seeing lots of hartebeest, oribi (both kinds of antelope), and giraffes. A couple of us were allowed to sit on top of the van, which was great for the unobstructed views but made balancing while taking pictures a bit more difficult. After the drive, we took our boat trip up the river towards Murchison Falls. We saw many pods of hippos, lots of birds, and a few Nile crocodiles.
After about an hour and a half of chugging against a mild current, we reached swift water that led to the falls a few hundred meters away, and the boat pulled alongside the bank to allow us off and start the 45-minute hike up to the top of the falls. Apparently, we were all supposed to grow bored with the majestic views after about 10 minutes, since that’s how long we spent at the top before being called away. We did luck out with the tsetse flies, though—I didn’t get bit once on the hike, and on the drive out of the park, we could see the van in front of us was absolutely swarming with them.
That night we drove to the Budongo Forest Reserve, where most of the group would be tracking chimps the next day. We decided to opt out of the chimp tracking, and had booked a fishing trip on the Nile instead. This is where we really got a lot of grief from the tour company. We wanted to use our van to drive back to the park, and they informed us that we’d have to pay extra (we’d get back to Kampala a day later than those who’d gone chimp tracking). That was reasonable enough, so we agreed to pay, but that night I was told they expected additional payment for the fuel we’d require. We argued about this for a while, and we seemed to settle on waiting until our return to Kampala to pay, when we could discuss it with the manager at the hostel. Then, a few minutes later, the marketer decided that wouldn’t work, since there wasn’t enough cash on hand to pay for the extra fuel: they needed all the money up front, or else they would just take off the next day for Kampala and leave us at Budongo. It seemed we didn’t have a choice and we paid them, which put everyone in a foul mood. On top of all of this, the rest of our group was having tremendous trouble of their own, as the tour company had failed to reserve their chimp tracking permits for the next day. I think everyone on our trip did make it into the forest by persuading other tourists to give up their permits, although I’m not sure how everything transpired.
The day of our fishing trip was overcast and drizzly again, but the trip was fantastic. I had been excited to come here specifically, not only because I love fishing and would go anywhere, but if any of you are familiar with Discovery Channel’s “River Monsters,” it was right downstream of Murchison Falls that Jeremy Wade caught his monster Nile Perch. It was a much different experience cruising the Nile on a small motorboat, which put us at eye-level with all the hippos and crocodiles we passed. Knowing that hippos are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other animal, our proximity was thrilling. A few times, our guide dropped a couple of us off to fish from the shore, which was in itself an incredible experience: having a pod of hippos poking their heads out of the water 50 meters away, then one pops up 10 meters closer, then 10 meters closer… Our guide (who was off fishing for bait) said we were safe enough, and in his six years of guiding clients he’s only had one problem with an over-aggressive hippo, so instead of worrying about this curious advancer I just thought about how cool it was to be fishing alongside hippos. And, although I wasn’t lucky enough to reel either of them in, we did catch two fish on the trip. Neither were Nile Perch, the big game fish we were after, but both were sizable Semutundu catfish. Our guide estimated the larger one to be about 12 kilos, making it the biggest fish I’ve ever seen caught, by far.
The next day we drove back to Kampala, and we had a long discussion with the tour manager about what went wrong with our trip. We spent awhile arguing about the extra fuel costs we were charged for, and it turns out that the marketer had carried emergency cash with her so covering the fuel payment would not have been a problem. It seems they just wanted to secure our money since arguing to get it back is more difficult once the transaction has already been carried out. We did end up getting a bit of our money back, although the whole process made that small reward very underwhelming. To anyone interested in visiting Murchison Falls in Uganda, I would certainly not recommend organizing it through the Backpackers Hostel in Kampala. Overall, though, it was a great park to visit, and I’m glad I got the chance to visit. I put a new link up with a collection of pictures.