|Uganda: Muchison Falls National Park||
Edition 6: Winter 1998
Murchison Falls National Park is emerging as a flagship for Uganda's tourism industry.
Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda's largest conservation area. Situated a day's drive northwest of the capital Kampala, it is also one of the country's most alluring game reserves. It is blessed with an extraordinary habitat diversity, some tremendous wildlife viewing possibilities, and unexpectedly good tourist facilities.
Murchison Falls would be worth visiting merely for the spectacular waterfall after which it is named, where the Victoria Nile is funnelled brutally through a seven-metre wide gap in the Rift Valley escarpment. The launch trip to the base of the falls also happens to be one of Africa's most memorable game viewing experiences and a relaxed meander down the world's longest river. The river is home to a profusion of hippos - I've counted more than 100 in a single bay - and to massive crocodiles that slither menacingly from the bank tovanish below the surface of the water. Elephants regularly come to drink at the river, while buffalo, Defassa waterbuck and olive baboon haunt its banks. Lucky visitors may catch a flying glimpse of the beautiful black-and-white colobus monkey.
The plains game in Murchison Falls doesn't compare to somewhere like the Serengeti, but the palm-dotted hills to the north of the river offer rewarding game drives. The handsome Uganda kob is common here, as is the diminutive oribi and doleful-looking Jackson's hartebeest. Large herds of buffalo are a feature of this borassus grassland, which also supports 500 Rothschild's giraffe and the bulk of the reserve's elephants. And it's a good place to look for the localised patas monkey, a largely terrestrial primate associated with dry savannah. Lions, once threatened with local extinction, now number as many as 100.
Even the most aviphobic of souls will do a double-take when they encounter their first shoebill. Placed in a monospecific genus, the shoebill is the undoubted star of Murchison Falls' checklist of more than 450 bird species. It is a large, prehistoric-looking bird, slate-grey in colour and sporting an outlandish bill fixed in a perpetual 'Cheshire cat' smirk.
The combination of singular appearance, localised distribution and scarcity, not to say the inaccessibility of most of the papyrus swamps in which it lives, has made the shoebill the ultimate 'megatick' for many African birders. Nowhere is it so easily observed as in Murchison Falls - on a recent visit, we counted five sightings on one boat trip and three on another.
With more than 1,000 species recorded, Uganda ranks among Africa's top five countries in terms of avian diversity, a statistic which tells only part of the story. Uganda is far smaller than any of the other countries in the 'top five' (it covers less than half the area of Kenya, the next largest), which means it is possible to visit a good selection of the most important birding sites in the space of a normal holiday.
Murchison Falls National Park is of course one of these sites, but an even greater magnet for birders is the Budongo Forest, a southern extension of the national park which is passed through by all visitors driving up from Kampala. Budongo is a good place to tick a wide selection of the (roughly) 150 'West African' forest birds that reach the eastern extent of their range in Uganda. Furthermore, its estimated population of 900 chimpanzees is by some way the largest in East Africa, and the attractive campsites that lie next to the Kampala road run daily chimp tracking walks.
In the 1960's the river below the waterfall was renowned for superb line fishing. Tigerfish were plentiful, as were massive Nile perch - the record catch, set in 1959, weighed in at 73kg. There are no longer facilities for fishermen at the falls, but a recent pioneering trip by the South African company Wild Frontiers suggests that, combined with the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria, Murchison Falls holds much promise as a destination for anglers.
Steve Dunbar, one of the most experienced members of the Wild Frontiers expedition, describes it as "trailblazing stuff, not for the faint-hearted, when standing on the rocks below the falls, reeling a leaping 25kg perch through madly rushing water while the waterfall kicks up spray all around you". The recent news that a perch weighing 102kg was caught on a line a few kilometres downriver from the falls should set the heart of any angler racing.
As a tourist destination, Murchison Falls finds itself in a strange state of limbo. Everything is in place for a tourist boom. Three top-notch game lodges have opened since 1994 and there are regular flights from Kampala. The security problems of the late 1980's are a thing of the past. Recent years have seen a marked increase in large mammal populations and facilities for chimpanzee tracking lie within the park and on its borders.
In the 1960's Murchison Falls was regarded as one of Africa's finest reserves and, despite the subsequent poaching of its elephant herds, it still has much to offer tourists. Many African countries would love to have a reserve of this quality, and you would certainly expect Murchison Falls to lie at the heart of Uganda's safari circuit. But it doesn't, and the reason for this is straightforward: Uganda's tourist industry has developed largely around mountain gorilla tracking, something that can only be done within Uganda or in parts of Rwanda and the Congo that are most easily and safely visited.
While it is indisputable that the mountain gorillas have done a great deal to rehabilitate Uganda's international image, it is also the case that the limited availability of gorilla tracking permits has placed an artificially low ceiling on tourism to the country. Worse still, the recent instability in the border regions of Rwanda and the Congo has forced the closure of their gorilla reserves. This has resulted in a sharp drop in the number of available tracking permits and a decrease in tourist arrivals.
This is a great shame for Uganda, and for everybody who has invested time, money and effort in the development of parks such as Murchison Falls, since even without gorillas Uganda would rank as one of Africa's most exciting ecotourism destinations. This is especially true for those who've already done a conventional safari elsewhere on the continent.
For those tourists who can look beyond mountain gorillas - for birders, anglers and natural history enthusiasts - there will probably never be a better time to visit Uganda or to see Murchison Falls. After all, the crowds are bound to find out about it eventually.
Philip Briggs has spent four years travelling around Africa. He is the author of eight African guide books, including Bradt's Guide to Uganda.
In recent years several high quality safari lodges have opened in or near the national park and facing onto the river. These include: Nile Safari Camp, a tented camp; Sambiya River Lodge, a larger establishment; the tented Sambiya River Tented Camp; Sarova Paraa Lodge, a hotel in the western region.
Uganda National Parks operate some basic self-catering bandas, and camping facilities are also provided.
Visitors should take the launch trip from Paraa to the Murchison Falls itself. It is operated by Uganda National Parks and has a minimum charge of US$10 - depending on how many people go on it. Game viewing is excellent from the river.
Lodges also offer game drives and there is a (seasonal) white water rafting / canoeing trip from Masindi to Murchison Falls - a 5 day trip operated by Adrift.
There is an air strip at Paraa, visited by charter flights from Entebbe. Most lodges are serviced this way. Murchison Falls NP can be accessed by road, via Masindi and Butiaba. A more direct route through the park is only suitable for reliable 4WD vehicles.
Because of its rich animal and vegetable resources, the eastern part of the NP has been a popular habitat for man from early times.
The earliest artifacts found in the area date from the middle stone age,when the banks of the Nile were peopled with small groups of hunters and gatherers, who may also have done some fishing. Some rough pebble tools, large flakes, some picks and a hand-axe have been found. New types of tool appeared in lateryears.
Pottery fragments, ironware and iron slag dating back as far as 2,000 years has been collected along the banks. The bulk, though, date from the last 200 years. Related pottery types occur over most of the sub-continent, although this is the most northerly occurence of this archaeological complex yet discovered.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Six: Winter 1998/1999. Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)
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