Murchison Falls 9/2-9/4

Caitie Goddard in Uganda:

Murchison Falls 9/2-9/4

There is one trip I really wanted to make while in Uganda and that was to Murchison Falls National Park. Murchison is in the northeast of Uganda close to the DRC border. If you look in guidebooks for information, most still tell you they advise caution as several years ago, Murchison still had some issues with poachers as well as Joseph Kony and the LRA. Since it’s so close to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and the result of its’ massive size, Murchison Falls National Park has had to increase security and closely monitor borders. That being said, to give you a picture of its popularity now, I was not able to book a weekend trip until mid-October so I had to settle on a trip leaving on a Wednesday morning!

A quick history of the Park; Prior to the rule of Idi Amin, the park had provided enough land and vegetation for the animal population to boom. Unfortunately, it had reached a point where it was only a matter of time before the land would become a wasteland due to the animals overtaking and eating all plant-life. This changed dramatically when thousands of animals in the park were massacred changing the environment of the park completely. As awful as it sounds, there is one positive thing that came out of it; the vegetation was given enough time to recover and the park was more than capable of supporting the new population levels. Amin’s acts of murder and violence are one reason why the park today has so much natural vegetation!

Back to my trip, we left early Wednesday morning starting a ride that was about 6 hours. We stopped for lunch in Masindi, a small town halfway where I got yet another unique coffee drinking experience. The menu had two choices; african coffee or coffee. I know african coffee is coffee already mixed with mild and sometimes sugar so I figured I was getting black coffee. 10 minutes later, I received a tray carrying what must be the nicest way possible to present instant coffee. A pitcher of hot water next to a small bowl of what I thought was cinnamon and an empty mug. I thought it was cinnamon that is, until I noticed the pitcher had only water. It was definitely not what I expected but a new experience and also kind of put me back in my place from taking things for granted or making presumptions. The coffee certainly wasn't the worse I've had (see past blog and my
description of drinking the shells of the beans) but again, a simple thing like that made me grateful for the thousands of times I have not even thought about having to slightly grimace when I first try it! Our lunch break was relatively uneventful and Igot a chance to meet some of the other travelers; a couple from Germany, a Dutch woman who had recently decided to move back home after 10 years in Tanzania, a New Zealand backpacker and an Australian on holiday passionate about bird-watching.

When we arrived at the park, my 12 year old instincts kicked in and since I was the only one who had never been to a game park or safari, every animal got me exci
ted! A warthog on the road and I was glued to it, a monkey in the tree and I was pointing it out. A GROUP of baboons in front of our van? Don’t bother talking to me, I won't hear you. I appreciated how no one rudely told me how spotting game animals in a GAME PARK is normal. Looking back, I must have seemed like a little kid at the theme park who goes nuts at spotting the tilt-a-whirl while all the other kids are looking around for the death drop or big rollercoasters but hey, this was my moment and I was going to enjoy it! :)

The drive through the park takes at least another 1 ½ hours to get to the campsite. Once there, you can’t ask for anything better. A view overlooking the park where you can order food and drinks and just stare out at some of the most incredible works of nature. My favorite part was their idea of sleeping in a tent. Of course there are better options but for my budget, the tent was going to be our home for the next 2 nights. When I think tent I think triangle big enough to sleep under and not much else. OUR “tent” had beds! It was amazing! Even a little nightstand where we could put a lantern in the evening.

The next morning we went on a game drive. For those of you (like me) who were not sure what a game drive entails, It’s like an extreme zoo trip. Of “the big five” (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, and buffalo) FOUR can be found at this moment. Rhino’s can be seen if you pay for an additional excursion but perhaps by next year they will be reintroduced to the park. My favorite were the giraffes. They are incredible and so beautiful. It was really neat to see them in their natural habitat and not in an enclosed fence with their trainer feeding them nearby. There were hundreds and we watched some cross the dirt path right in front of our van! The elephants were a bit more shy but we managed to get very close to a family at one point and even had to move farther away from one who didn’t seem pleased to see us. I learned that when close to a group of elephants, the park wardens do not keep the engine running because the forgot or they don’t like you, they keep it running so if an elephant decides to charge the vehicle, you have a better chance of not getting rolled! Great to know.

Finally, the highlight for most was the lion sighting. They explained that it doesn’t always happen so we were lucky. We literally turned a corner to find a lone male lion right next to the road just staring at us! We were the first ones to see it so we had a few minutes by ourselves to be extremely impressed. We even saw his lioness after awhile come out of the bushes! As for the leopard, no luck. Those guys aren’t fans of paparazzi and as hard as I tried to spot them or their half-eaten prey in the trees, no luck.

The afternoon was our time to check out the animals along the Nile coming to drink. There are boats for about 20-25 people and a guide that explains what you are seeing and they take you along the banks of the Nile up to Murchison Falls and back. The whole trip is supposed to take about 3 hours-2 hours on the way and 1 for the ride back. I had walked down to the peer with 2 other girls only to find out that they had overbooked the boats when we arrived with another group. Things didn’t look good. They were already filled and we were still on the bank. Fortunately, the head of the company organizing this trip was there as well and after apologizing, told us we would have a special boat and go with only 5! Two minutes later, I am in a boat with my two friends and two other guys on a small speedboat. I truly think we got the best end of the deal. We got to get a little closer to land and we put on a little guilt-trip and he took us much closer to the Falls than he was supposed to! I had an incredible time and by being left out, I think I got the better experience!

Friday morning was our chance to hike the Falls. This was amazing. I have never seen such a powerful force of water and the views were breathtaking. It was impossible not to feel like you were not in one of the most beautiful places on earth with a rainbow over the falls and no man-made objects save for the poorly constructed "safety rail" in sight. The water is so powerful that you might not even make it through one small rapid without losing some limbs! I think that Fall alone could power the country of Uganda!

After taking close to a million photos (I'm a constant understater-probably more like a billion) we were ready to head back to Kampala. I didn't think there would be anything worthwhile to write about but I thought the chicken rush merited a small note. I'll explain; normally when you take a bus or even a matatu (taxi) there are stops along the road where there are people who will sell everything from "cold" water (I guess if it was chilled at some point in it's bottled existence, it is still appropriate to bill it as cold) to meat on a stick or roasted bananas. I can't say I have tried too many different things as I usually get irritated when it is shoved in my face and sometimes even feel slightly insulted when I politely say no and seconds later, the SAME GUY will come up to me and ask again like maybe I just wasn't sure that I didn't want the fresh pork on a stick. However, this was a new experience even for me. We pulled over on the side of the road next to several women selling fruits and vegetables because our driver wanted to purchase some tomatoes and avocados. After we politely declined three separate baskets of avocados, two children with tomatos and one women with tomatos AND avocados in the same weaved basket, they went back to their stands to wait for the next car. Minutes later I got to see what I can only describe as a chicken riot. Out of nowhere (I literally hadn't even seen these guys, I think they were all sleeping) about 20 men rush over to the other side of the road each holding 2-5 chickens! Try as I might, I still cannot understand the rationale behind this one. I attached the photos to allow you your best shot. Even if this car was going to their home to feed the entire village chicken, where would they all fit? Why would 20 fit and young men all sell chickens at the same spot and then overwhelm a car by pushing them all in the window? Even if they wanted to take 4 or 5, how would they even see what chickens were good when there are people fisting 4 sets of chicken legs and the chickens are all hanging upside-down smashed into each other? This is one I will have to think about for a little more time before I can give you my best response. I will tell you they did a very nice job of organizing themselves minutes later and lined up all the chickens on the ground so the driver could pick. I was way too fascinated at first to think of taking pictures while over 50 chickens were being held up to a window so my shots do not do the incredible scene much justice.

...Guess you had to be there.