Uganda’s largest protected area, the 3,840km squared Murchison Falls National Park lies at the core of the greater Murchison Falls Conservation Area, which also embraces the Bugungu and Karuma wildlife reserves and the Bundongo Forest. Gazetted in its modern form in 1952, the national park previously formed part of the Bunyoro Gama Reserve, which was proclaimed in 1910 following the evacuation of the local human population during a sleeping-sickness epidemic. During the Amin era, Murchison Falls was officially re-christened Kabarega Falls, after the former king of Bunyoro, a name that still appears on some maps of Uganda, even though it fell into official and vernacular disuse soon after Amin departed the country. But, whatever one elects to call it, Murchison Falls the wide, Ianquid Nile being transformed into an explosive froth of thunderous white water as it funnels through a narrow cleft in the Rift Valley Escarpments is easily the most impressive sight of its type in east Africa.
Spanning altitudes of 619m to 1,292m, Murchison Falls National Park is low lying by Ugandan standards, and of those parts of the country that are regularly visited by tourists, it is the only one that regularly becomes stiflingly hot. The average annual rainfall of 1,085mm, though significantly lower than in the forests of the southwest, compares favourably to most other east African savanna ecosystems. The Victoria Nile, flowing in a westerly direction between Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert, divides the park into two roughly equal parts. North of the river, the vegetation broadly consists of tall, green grassland interspersed with isolated stands of borassus palms, acacia trees and riverine woodland. South of the river, the park is characterized by denser woodland, giving way in the southeast to closed canopy forest around Rabongo Hill, the highest peak in the park.
In the 1960s, Murchison Falls with its spectacular waterfall, prolific game and clutch of outstanding lodges was universally regarded to be one of east Africa’s most compelling national parks. It was particularly renowned for its prolific elephant population, herds of 500 or greater were a common sight, and the total count of 14,500 was probably the densest on the continent. According to the 1969 census, the park also supported around 26,500 buffalo, 14,000 hippo, 16,000 Jackson’s hartebeest, 30,000 Uganda kob and 11,000 warthog, as well as substantial populations of Rothschild’s giraffe and both black and white rhinoceros, the latter introduced from the west Nile in the early 1960s. Ironically, in hindsight, the main conservation issue associated with Murchison Falls in the 1960s was overpopulation, particularly of elephant, and associated environmental destruction indeed the authorities opted to cull some 3,500 elephants and 4,000 hippos during the last years of the decade.
Murchison Falls remained a popular tourist draw in the early days of the Amin regime, but the gates closed in September 1972, when foreign visitors were banned from Uganda. Within a couple of years, conservation activities within the national park had practically ceased, making its wildlife easy prey for commercial and subsistence poachers. In 1980, a year after Amin was ousted; aerial surveys indicated that the number of elephants and hippos had been reduced to around 1,400 and 1,200 respectively, while buffalo and other large-mammal populations stood at half of what they had a decade earlier. During the turbulent 1980s, the slaughter continued unabated, as a succession of military factions occupied the park and treated it as a moving larder. By 1990, fewer than 250 elephant and 1,000 buffalo survived, the hartebeest and kob herds had plummented to around 3,000 and 6,000 respectively, rhinos and African hunting dogs had been hunted to local extinction, and the dwindling populations of giraffe and lion threatened to go the same way. Meanwhile, the combination of declining tourist arrivals and ongoing guerilla activity had rendered all three of the park’s lodges inoperative. The downward trend was reversed in the early 1990s, and although wildlife populations have yet to re-approach their pre-Amin highs, nobody who has visited the park regularly over the past decade will be in doubt as to the steady and significant growth in animal numbers. A recent aerial census indicated that the elephant population has risen to roughly 1,100, with herds of several hundred occasionally observed north of the Nile. In 2002, the buffalo population, based on partial counts was estimated at 8,200, an increase of 50% from 1999. The numbers of kob, hartebeest and giraffe have doubled or perhaps even trebled in recent years. Particularly pleasing has been a sudden explosion in the lion population, scarce and skittish into the late 1990s, lions are now readily located on the plains north of the Nile, and it has been credibly estimated that the park supports a healthy population of 150-200 lions across some 15-20 prides. Previously unrecorded in Murchison Falls, a solitary cheetah was observed by rangers in the northern sector on several occasions in 2002.
In total, 76 mammal species have been recorded in Murchison Falls. Aside from those species already mentioned, bushbuck, Defassa waterbuck, Bohor reedbuck, oribi, warthog and side-striped jackal are frequently observed on game drives, as are vervet monkey and olive baboon. Also present on the plains, but less frequently observed, are leopard, spotted hyena and the localized patas monkey. The Rabongo Forest harbours black-and-white colobus, chimpanzees and other forest primates. The bird checklist of 460 confirmed and 19 unconfirmed species is headed in desirability by the shoebill, most common along the stretch of river between Nile Safari camp and the estuary into Lake Albert. Many other water-associated birds are prolific along the river, while raptors make a strong showing on the checklist with 53 species recorded.
Paraa, situated alongside the Nile a few kilometres downriver of Murchison Falls, is the focal point of tourist activities in the national park. All access roads leading into the park converge at paraa, where a regular motor ferry provides the only means of crossing between the northern and southern banks of the Nile within the park. The popular launch trip to the base of the falls departs from paraa, as does the main gate-viewing circuit north of the river. Parra is also the site of paraa safari lodge, on the south bank. The other two lodges serving the park, Sambiya lodge and Nile safari camp, both lie about one hour’s drive from paraa, the former along the direct road to Masindi, and the latter off the road to Bulisa.
ACTIVITIES IN MURCHISON FALLS NATIONAL PARK
Nile Launch Trip The launch trip upstream from paraa presents an astonishing display of wildlife and culminates with the memorable frontal view of the falls. Recommended for birders is a morning cruise downstream to the Nile-Lake Albert Delta. Alternatively, a tranquil sundowner cruise offers the classic view of an equatorial sunset reflected on the river. On the way to the falls, the boats follow a stretch of the Nile with a compelling African atmosphere, fringed by borassus palms, acacia woodland and stands of mahogany. Game viewing is excellent while cruising , hippos in their hundreds, some of the largest crocodiles left in Africa, small herds of buffalo, waterbucks and kob, giraffe, bushbuck, and black and white colobus. Elephant are frequently observed playing in the water, often within a few metres of the launch, and fortunate visitors might even see a lion or leopard.
The birdlife on the papyrus-lined banks is stunning, with the top prize being the shoebill, seen here less often than it is on the trip to the delta, but nevertheless a distinct possibility in the dry season. More certain to be seen are African fish eagle, Goliath heron, saddle-billed stork, African jacana, pied and malachite kingfishers, African skimmer, piacpiac, rock pratincole, black-headed gonolek, black-winged red bishop, yellow-mantled widowbird, yellow-backed weaver and at the right time of the year, a variety of migrant waders. The dazzlingly colourful red-throated bee-eater nests in sand banks between paraa and the falls, and is more likely to be seen here than anywhere in east Africa.
Top of the falls Murchison Falls is an impressive sight from the boat, especially from the newer craft which can approach a bit closer than the UWA launch, but for sheer sensory overload be sure to visit the picnic site at the top of the falls, reached along a roughly 15km road (with some steep sections that should be negotiated carefully) that branches north from the main Masindi-paraa road, a few hundred metres from Sambiya lodge. From the picnic site, a short footpath leads downhill to a fenced viewpoint at the waterfalls head. Here you can truly appreciate the staggering power with which the Nile crashes through the narrow gap in the escarpment, not to mention the deafening roar and voluminous spray associated with the phenomenon. From the main viewpoint, a longer footpath, perhaps 20 minutes walking time, leads to a saddle offering a face-on view not only of Murchison Falls, but also of the comparably voluminous Uhuru Falls a few hundred metres to its north. Some sources state that this second waterfall was created when the Nile flooded in 1962, a theory that is refuted by old aerial photographs, as indeed it might be by Sir Samuel Baker’s original sketch and description of the waterfall. Whatever the case, the face-on view of the two cataracts separated by a lushly forested hillock is truly inspiring, but surpassed perhaps by following another footpath leading downhill from this saddle to the base of the short gorge below the main waterfall. If you want to check out all the viewpoints, allow at least two hours ideally in the afternoon, when temperatures are lower and the sun is better positioned for photography. There is not much wildlife to be seen around the falls, a relief perhaps if you opt to walk the footpaths unaccompanied by one of the rangers from the picnic site though you might encounter a troop of baboons or black-and-white colobus. The so called ‘bat cliff’, immediately south of the main waterfall. (Visible from the viewpoint on the saddle), is worth scanning with binoculars for raptors and swallows. Wait around until dusk and you should also see some impressive flocks of bats emerging from the caves in this cliff, as well as a few bat hawks soaring around in search of a quick dinner. After dusk, the drive from the top of the falls back to the main road is particularly good for nocturnal birds. The spotted eagle owl is likely to be encountered on the road throughout the year.
Delta Boat Trip Though the boat trip is the highlight of most visits to Murchison Falls, the voyage downriver from paraa towards the Lake Albert Delta is favoured by birdwatchers, since it offers one of the best opportunities to see shoebills anywhere in Africa, particularly during the rainy season but not everybody is so fortunate to spot a shoebill along this stretch of river. Without the shoebill as a motivating factor, the trip towards the delta is not as worthwhile as the one to the falls, since there is less wildlife to be seen and the general birding more-or-less duplicates what you would see from the launch.
Game Drives The bulk of Murchison Falls’ wildlife is concentrated to the north of the Nile, and the best area for game drives is the circuit of tracks in the area between the paraa pakwach road and the Victoria Nile delta. Turn left at the crossroads 7m north to paraa to enter the Buligi area. A right turn leads to Wankwar gate and eventually Chobe. A recommended stop on this road, just a few kilometres from the crossroads, is Nyamsika Gorge. Lions and buffaloes often come to the gorge to drin, while the cliffs host seasonal colonies of several types of bee-eater, and the shallows are one of the few places in east Africa where the dashing Egyptian plover is frequently recorded.
The combination of dense vegetation and low concentrations of wildlife mean that game viewing is generally poor south of the river though, there is a lovely open area along the Sambiya-Karuma road beyond the Rabongo turning where Uganda kob, Jackson’s hartebeest, waterbuck, baboon and oribi may be encountered as more occasionally are elephant and lion.
Forest walks Rabongo Forest, in the far southeast of the park, is reached via a signposted and tsetse-infested road that branches from the main paraa-Masindi road a few kilometres south of Sambiya lodge. General forest walks at Rabongo are of interest mostly to birdwatchers, though black-and-white colobus and red-tailed monkeys are also likely to be seen, and the number and variety of butterflies is impressive. Frankly, unless you are staying at Rabongo camp, there is better forest birding and a greater chance of seeing chimps at the more accessible Kanyiyo pabidi on the paraa-Masindi road.
Sport fishing The banks of the Nile below Murchison Falls provides exciting challenges to anglers. Living within strong currents and highly oxygenated water is the Nile perch. There is the chance to land a massive catch-the record is 108kg. If you have your own tackle, there is good fishing from the banks of the Nile, with large Nile perch and tiger fish offering the main challenge. The largest confirmed perch taken from the bank of the Nile on rod and line weighed 73kg, and was caught by CD Mardach in 1959.
Hiking and Nature Walks The vast landscapes and varied scenery of Murchison Falls National Park and the surrounding Conservation Area can be explored on foot. Trails through Kaniyo Pabidi and Rabongo Forests provide sightings of many primates and birds, while around the Nile Delta, 2-4 hour guided swamp walks offer possible Shoebill sightings.