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Murchison Falls National Park

On one bank of the river a pod of hippos moved restlessly in the water becoming uneasy as our boat approached them. Some threw their heads back, then off to one side before running up the river in the thigh deep water. We could only imagine how comically their short legs worked beneath the surface of the Nile, but watch the bow waves pillowing off their front quarters and the water birds scattering out of the way of their much larger neighbors.

Across the river, a small gathering of buffalo bulls wallowed in a muddy tributary of the river moving only to moisten other parts of their immense frames. Even from a distance of several hundred meters, it was clear that these were alpha males, disgruntled old bachelors expelled from the herd by younger, stronger bulls making claim to their ex wives. Well accustomed to the constant company of females and hundreds of other of their kind for the entire lives, this later part of their life leaves them disgruntled and disillusioned. Regarded by many to be the most dangerous animals in the African bush, particularly at this stage in their lives, I felt comfortable seeing them only at a distance while there were so many other potentially dangerous animals within view.

Most intimidating in this picture was the huge leviathan that basked in the sunshine partly in the shade of a small tree and slightly upstream of the hippos. The giant mouth was propped wide open showing rows of teeth that haven’t changed much in design since the days of the dinosaur. Her eyes were closed and rows of heavy armour ran the length of her body just as nature designed and perfected.

Unlike the heavily scarred adult hippos, her body showed no signs at all of the life and death struggles she had repeatedly had with her prey, some of whom must have been quite large to sustain such a massive creature. Slightly off to one side of her body lay a disturbed area of sand covered with scratchings so typically crocodile. This we guessed was her nest where dozens of eggs lay buried to hatch into live young. As Juma and I watched, the twenty six other crocodiles cruising in the river near her suddenly scattered. She moved like lightening, exploded from her resting place and disappeared into the Nile between us and the shore. Short legs tucked effortlessly into the side of the massive torso and the huge tail swept from side to side disappearing after a few seconds into the murky depths of the Nile beneath our boat. It was time to move on.

Murchison Falls Conservation area is the largest in Uganda and is characterized by the mighty Nile leaping through a series of massive cataracts for over 80kms as it flows from the spectacular Karuma Falls on the Eastern boundary of the park to West where it drops over Murchison Falls (widely regarded to be the most powerful rush of water on the planet) and flows into Lake Albert. In the 1960s the park was generally regarded as the best in East Africa famed for huge herds of elephant, buffalo, Rothschild’s giraffe, hippos, Jackson’s hartebeest, warthog, black and white rhino and kob (the most common variety of antelope). In the late 60s elephants and hippos were culled in huge numbers. During the Amin regime in the 70s and for a large part of the 80s the park was used as a larder for marauding armies. The toll on the large game in the park was devastating. Rhinos and wild dog were hunted to local extinction. However, more recent occupation by the LRA rebel group has had a dramatically positive effect on the game. The presence of relatively small numbers of armed and hostile rebels has kept poaching to a minimum and game populations have exploded . Buffalo, kob and hartebeest populations have grown substantially, hippos are more concentrated that we have seen in any large river and elephant populations have grown noticeably.

The northern part of the park is characterized broadly by wide open grasslands dotted with magnificent borassus palms and beautiful acacia woodland. Exploding lion populations are particularly encouraging and lion kills on the main northern road are a common occurrence. The diversity of Uganda is demonstrated well in this park where the south of the river vegetation is characterized by thick woodlands where the area around Mt. Rabongo is host to thick tropical jungle. Large populations of chimpanzee are accessible in this area. The park is also home to the Shoebill stork. Amongst hundreds of other species of bird present in the park, the Shoebill which stands about 5ft tall and weighs about 6kg is unique. The bill alone which sports something like a permanent grin and invokes further fascination in the species measures about 20cm and is the largest of any living bird species.

The diversity of the park in both flora and fauna is also matched by the options for wildlife viewing. Unlike many safari parks in Africa which are restricted to vehicle travel, Murchison offers the wonderful option of boat cruises on the river for wildlife viewing similar to what we have described above or walking safaris.

Peace in Northern Uganda should soon mean larger parts of the park will be opened for game viewing and what is on offer in one of Africa’s leading National Parks will be even more incredible.

Murchison Falls Conservation Area (including adjacent Wildlife Reserves)

  • Total Land Area: 5025 square kms
  • Dry Seasons: mid-Dec to mid-Feb, June and July
  • Wettest months: April and November
  • Mean Temperatures: 21-29 C or 70-84 F
  • Altitude: 619-1292m
  • Wildlife: 76 mammal species and 450 bird species!