Uganda Days 53-57: Safari in Murchison Falls

Brace yourselves, it’s going to be a long one! And before I begin, I just wanted to tell you to stay tuned for an important message at the end.

I only got home from Murchison Falls yesterday (Sunday) evening, but already the weekend feels like it was ages ago. Isn’t it strange how something so recent can so quickly assume the guise of memory? It tends to happen when the transition from one thing to the next is sudden and stark—yesterday I was twenty feet from a herd of elephants, and today I got up and went to work, almost as if the weekend never happened. But of course, it did happen, and it was amazing! But first, my usual disclaimer: the pictures below are from my phone, not my camera, so don’t expect the full photographic experience just yet. I’m dying to go through my camera photos and share them with everyone, so I’m going to try and get those ready relatively soon.

On to the adventure. I think when I last left you it was Thursday evening, shortly after coming home from work, and feeling a bit stressed about everything I had to do over the next few hours. Now it’s all a bit of a blur, really. I ordered some food and shovelled it down, then got to packing. I tried really, really hard to limit myself to a backpack, but the damn camera takes up half the space, and in the end I had to bring the carry-on suitcase as well. That said, I didn’t over-pack like I did when we went to Sipi Falls.

Once everything was packed I called for an Uber. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t find me, and it took several phone calls to direct him. By the time we left it was around 8. Later than I’d hoped, but at least I was on my way! I was heading to the hostel run by the safari company, Red Chilli, which is appropriately called Red Chilli Hideaway. It’s on the far side of the city, about as far as you can go before leaving Kampala. We hit a bunch of traffic, and the driver took an awful excuse for a has-been road that slowed us down considerably, so we didn’t arrive until just before 9.

It was a huge relief to get there, since everything was fairly straightforward after that. We were set to leave from the hostel on Friday morning at 7:30 sharp, which was the whole reason I’d decided to stay over that night, so I could wake up and be there, ready to go.

My room for the night was quite nice. I’ve done the whole hostel dorm thing, and honestly, it’s usually not all it’s cut out to be, so I upgraded to my own room instead, bathroom and all. Not strictly necessary, but it really didn’t cost much to upgrade, so I went for it.

Yes it was nice, but the picture makes it look a tad nicer than it was.

And it was definitely worth it. I think that was the most comfortable bed I’ve slept on since leaving Canada. It was soft, and pressing down on the mattress would actually cause it to depress—imagine that! Infinitely better than the rock-hard set of springs I’ve been sleeping on for the last eight weeks. It was delightful.

By the time I had arrived it was late enough that I just checked in, ordered a packed lunch for tomorrow, and headed to bed. The next morning, I was up around 6 to shower and pack up, and to grab some breakfast before leaving. By 7:30, we were loaded into the safari van and on our way. Our driver for the weekend was Noor. These safaris can have up to eight people in a group, but I was hoping it would be less than that, so that we wouldn’t be so cramped in the van. To my surprise, we were only a group of five. It was myself, a guy from Brighton, two Germans (the only two who knew each other), and a lady from India. Thankfully, everyone was really nice, and it was a great group with whom to spend the weekend.

Soon we were on our way. It’s a very long drive to our destination in Murchison Falls National Park, which is way up in the northwestern part of Uganda—something like eight hours of driving, plus rest stops along the way. We arrived at the park entrance at about 1.

Probably doesn't need to be that tall. The giraffes might escape.

From there it was maybe an hour or so to our first destination: the falls themselves. We were stopping there to do a short hike first before heading to the camp. Led by a guide, the hike lasted a little under two hours. It was amazing to see the falls. There are actually two of them:

Don't go chasing waterfalls...

The main one—Murchison Falls itself—is extremely violent. The Nile gets forced through a gap that is only about 7 metres wide. That is an unimaginable amount of water. The second waterfall is called Uhuru Falls and was only formed in 1962 after an unusually heavy rainy season. In the picture above, Uhuru is on the left and Murchison is on the right. I think if Uhuru wasn’t next to Murchison it would seem impressively violent in its own right, but Murchison is hard to beat:

...Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to.

We all got a little damp from the spray and the mist, but here is a picture of me near the top of Murchison, slightly concerned for the well-being of my similarly damp camera.

Grateful to whomever took this, but please, composition 101: Feet in the frame.

After the hike we were back on the road. The camp—again, appropriately called Red Chilli Rest Camp—is deeper in the park, and we had to drive through a forest to get there. Which reminds me…did I mention that Murchison Falls National Park is almost 4000 km2? Uganda’s largest. It seems to go on and on and on.

From the falls it took us another two hours or so to get to the rest camp, and we arrived around 6. It’s really quite a cool place. There are tents and bandas, but the focal point is the bar. There are also resident warthogs which roam around, and at night, the hippos come up from the river, so you have to watch where you're walking in the dark. Sadly I didn't come across any hippos in the camp (but I did see tons of them elsewhere throughout the weekend).

Brought to you by Coca-Cola.

Oh, and it’s basically located on a cliff. This is the view behind the bandas, though it doesn't totally convey the distance or the altitude:

Views from the +256ix.

Yes, I upgraded again, this time from a tent to a banda. Like the hostel, it wasn’t terribly expensive, and it was even more worthwhile. The tents get super hot at night, and you’re stuck with the communal bathrooms, which aren’t exactly glamorous, and there’s no hot water in the showers whatsoever. Definitely worth the upgrade cost to have a comfortable temperature and my own toilet and a shower with solar hot water. Unfortunately I didn’t think to take a picture of this one, so use your imagination.

Shortly after arriving the five of us met up for dinner. The food was actually surprisingly good, and remained so the entire weekend. The place was packed Friday night. Eventually a guitar materialized and this one guy played a bunch of songs by the campfire. His young daughter was there, and it was adorable; she’s sitting next to him in this picture.

98% of the people in this photo were part of a giant group from Ireland.

I stayed for a few songs, but we all turned in relatively early, since we had to leave before 6:30 the next morning for our game drive. Very early, but very exciting! This was, after all, the main reason we were here.

So Saturday morning I woke up when it was still dark, and even as we left the camp the sky was only just hinting at daylight. All of the safari groups left around the same time, but Noor was adamant that we get on the road as soon as possible, so ours was one of the first groups to leave. The reason for this was the ferry. The savannah—and therefore the game drive—is on the other side of the park, across the Nile. There’s a ferry that takes the vehicles across, but it only carries eight at a time, and we wanted to be on the first one. When it comes to game drives, the earlier the better. Thankfully, we did manage to make the first ferry. People are the last to board, so as the vans were being loaded onto it we got to watch the day break over the Nile.

Handbrakes are probably a wise choice.

Once we were on the other side, we were joined by our guide for the day, Jimmy, and then we were off on our safari. It was amazing. The roof of the van popped up so we could all stand and look out, take pictures. The landscape was unbelievable—the African savannah stretching out endlessly in every direction, grass and trees and animals. So much life.

I don’t think I’ll be able to convey the feeling as we began our drive. We entered the savannah, rolling along a dirt road, watching a golden sunrise on the horizon. Then the first signs of wildlife, antelope, birds. The air was slightly cool still, but I stood up anyway, looking out over the edge of the van, the wind against my face. It seems to me that, in life, it is exceedingly rare to chance upon a true moment of bliss—not a moment you might simply describe as “blissful” but something more, a real, physical sensation. Saturday morning, standing there, cruising down the road with the wind in my hair as the sunrise painted the world in gold…it was one of those moments.

Pardon my flowery, discursive indulgences.

The drive lasted about four hours, and it was incredible. We saw so many animals. Hundreds and hundreds of antelope from different species. Birds of all kinds, big and small, colourful and not. We saw buffalo and monkeys, and a bunch of elephants and giraffes on multiple occasions. Apparently I didn’t take as many photos on my phone as I thought I did—too busy with the camera and Snapchat, I guess! But here is one of many giraffes:

Writing the captions is harder than writing the post, I'm exhausted already.

I know that lions are sometimes difficult to find, and some safaris never see them at all. Going into this I knew I’d be happy if I could even just see one from a distance at some point. But let me tell you, we lucked out. Someone tipped us off about a couple of lions—we had to go off the road to get to them, which can get you fined, but Jimmy made sure we were quick about it. Not only did we find the lions, but one of them was a male, which are even more rare than females. And the best part? We were maybe five or ten feet from them at the most.

My point of reference for this entire safari was The Lion King.

So, so lucky. And then, we got even more lucky. Later on we saw a couple of vans off the track, so we went to see what it was, and found even more lions. There were six or seven females and another male, all lounging about. We got pretty close, but we never actually stopped, essentially just driving past them—Jimmy got spooked. I think maybe one of the other vehicles there were researchers and he thought they’d be calling to report the vans that were off the road, which would be very bad indeed. I didn’t get a picture on my phone, and no one else got any pictures at all, but I had my camera ready and luckily I got a shot or two on there. But we’ll have to wait to see those.

We finished up the drive and went back to wait for the ferry, which took a little while. There were baboons and warthogs roaming around. The baboons were hilarious. All of the guides and locals had been warning us since yesterday to keep your camera close and your lunch closer, because the baboons are supposedly brazen thieves. I think we all took this with a grain of salt, expecting that it was slightly exaggerated. But as soon as people arrived to wait for the ferry—particularly white people (yes, they know the easy targets)—the baboons would come out and locals would be chasing them away. At one point, one of the baboons reached into an open window on one of the other vans and grabbed someone’s lunch, which it then promptly ate. And then shortly after that, the roof on one of the vans had been left open, and a baboon went right up and in and started rummaging around, stealing things, making a mess. A second baboon went in before anyone had really noticed. Cue the ensuing chaos as the group whose stuff was being pilfered tried to get the baboons out of the van and chase them away. Of course, it was only funny because it wasn’t our van that was being robbed by monkeys.

And then there were the warthogs. From the way they look, you’d sort of expect them to be a little aggressive, a little rough around the edges. But no, they were calm as anything, unbothered by the people around them. They also have this hilariously dainty little trot, which made them look completely ridiculous (to me) whenever they were walking.

I named every warthog Pumba.

Soon we were back across the Nile and pulling into camp, and it was just about lunch time. We had about two hours to eat and chill until we had to leave for our boat cruise. Again, the food was great.

Boat cruise time. Several different groups were going on the boat together. We went up to the second deck of a metal double-decker. I was hoping to see some crocodiles, but sadly, there were none except for one very small one barely visible beneath the water. Swarms of hippos, though, as well as a few other animals. We even passed an elephant!

It looked closer in real life. I promise it's not a boulder.

Up to now it had been a beautiful day, near-perfect even. Then it started to drizzle a little bit. Cooler air swept in, and big grey clouds loomed in the distance. Our guide said that when it rains, it usually comes from the other direction, and the clouds over the land ahead of us—the ones that were stormy—rarely ever move out over the water. Apparently we were the exception to that rule. Soon it was absolutely pouring, chucking down buckets of rain. The top deck had a bit of cover, but it was meant for shade, not water, and it might as well have not been there, partly because it was porous anyway, and partly because the wind was so strong the rain was coming in sideways underneath it. Some people went down below, but there wasn’t enough room for everyone down there, and anywhere near the sides of the boat was almost as bad as the top anyway. Not that it mattered for me, since I was stuck on the top. The rain was so heavy that we actually pulled over to the side of the river to wait it out. Then the lightning started, and let me tell you, the top deck of a metal boat in the middle of a river is not the ideal place to wait out a thunderstorm.

I was soaked, head to toe, clothes, shoes, everything. My backpack was soaked—I had spent the entire time trying to shield it from whatever rain I could, since my camera was in there, but it didn’t help much. Thankfully the camera came out unscathed. Everything was wet enough that I was actually worried it might be damaged, even through the backpack. That's how thoroughly and completely drenched we were.

But what can you do except carry on? So once the rain had passed—or most of it, anyway—we continued on down the river. Soon we made it to our furthest point, which was as close as they can get to the falls; we’d been sailing toward them, against the current, and going any closer was apparently either impossible or too risky, since the current becomes much stronger as you get closer. Here’s a photo of Murchison:

Sure, the sky is blue now, but half an hour ago I was a living lightning rod.

We then made the journey all the way back down the river to where we’d started. It was cool and windy, and we were all soaking wet, so we were quite cold. I also knew that nothing I was wearing would be dry by tomorrow morning, including my shoes, which were the only pair I brought (and ironically, advertised as waterproof). Thankfully I had sandals, if the shoes didn’t dry (which, spoiler alert, they didn't).

Back at the rest camp, we had a bit of time before dinner. With relief I changed out of my wet clothes and hung everything up to dry. I then grabbed my book and sat down at a table to kill some time, but before I could even open it, one of the guys at the table next to mine was asking me if I was Canadian. See, the only clean, dry shirt I’d had left was a Roots one, which basically functions like a homing beacon for Canadians. They invited me over to sit with them for a bit. The three of them had been volunteering at a refugee camp, as well as doing some other things. Turns out they were from Waterloo (the one in Ontario, for anyone who’s not familiar). Small world. We chatted for a while. Eventually Toby (the guy in my group from the UK) joined us and we ended up having our dinner with them. By then I felt kind of bad, though, since we were supposed to eat with our group, so we left the Canadians soon after and rejoined them. The rest of the evening was similar to the previous night.

The next day, Sunday, was our last. We were going on a second game drive before we left, albeit a shorter one, so we woke up the same time as we had on Saturday and retraced our steps to the ferry and across. The sunrise was more spectacular than it was yesterday.

So pretty, other than the big yellow pollution machine.

This game drive may have been shorter, but we were equally lucky, if not even more so. Almost as soon as we started driving, Noor got a call about some lions. However, they were quite far away, so he asked if we wanted to try and speed over there. We said yes. After that, it was pedal to the metal. We didn’t stop, covering what must have taken us an hour yesterday in ten or fifteen minutes.

And it paid off. When we arrived at the location, we spotted one lioness lying almost right beside the road, and there were three or four more close by. We just parked the van and watched them for a while. They were all roaming around and interacting with each other, which was pretty cool to see. Eventually they all joined up and left, walking deeper into the bush and away from the road. My camera was going almost the whole time, though somehow I neglected to take any on my phone. Sorry—I could have sworn I took way more on my phone than I actually did!

After the lions, we continued on our way, and the luck continued. We came across a whole bunch of giraffes, even more than yesterday, all close together! Then came the elephants. I’ve never seen anything like it—there were dozens and dozens of them, a whole big herd, grazing together on both sides of the road. Even little baby ones! And some of them were so close, it was crazy.

And that's just a few of them.

When we left that herd, we drove a little further up the road, no more than a couple of minutes, and happened upon another herd—or perhaps they were part of the same one, I’m not sure. But there were just as many as the first group, just oodles of elephants absolutely everywhere.

None of these are in the first picture, and together it's still less than half.

But before we knew it, we’d reached the park gate and the safari was over, rather abruptly, replaced by the long drive back to Kampala. I was actually really sad to leave, more than I would have thought. I think part of me felt like this was Africa, you know? Like in some way, this weekend had always been the focal point of the trip, the highlight, the raison d’être, aside of course from the work that brought me here. And just like that, it was over, and we were back on the road, driving through all those small little towns and villages that all look exactly the same, the red dust and the glaring sun, the unpaved roads and the endless speed bumps, all of which led to Kampala, with all of its noise and chaos. I knew we had reached Kampala when we got stopped in traffic.

Honestly, I can’t say I was thrilled to be back in the city. Certainly I was anxious to clean myself up, put my clothes from the weekend in the laundry, unpack, and generally settle back into a place that is, at least temporarily, my home away from home. But still, I wasn’t thrilled. I feel like Kampala and Murchison Falls are about as diametrically opposed as two places in the same country possibly can be. Polar opposites.

I realize I’ve skipped over most of the drive back, but there isn’t much to tell. We stopped for lunch on the way, and arrived back at the hostel at exactly 5 o’clock. From there Toby and I split a cab into the city. He was going a bit further than me, so I just got the driver to let me out close to my place and took a short Uber from there. And then I was home. I ordered food, because the thought of eating my own cooking was just one sad thing too many for one day.

This weekend was even better than I thought it would be. I still can’t believe how many animals we saw. From what I’ve heard, we were immensely fortunate. Countless elephants and giraffes, and multiple lions on three different occasions! Amazing. The only thing we didn’t see, which was disappointing, if not unexpected, were the leopards. But with everything else, I can forget about that. It really was an incredible experience.

Today is Monday, and it was back to the routine. Work itself was quite boring, not to mention arthritically damaging on account of transcriptions, but there was an exciting development—I finally received the package that my mum had sent from Canada weeks ago! It’s a long story, but let’s just say it was relatively easy to get it to Uganda, but immensely difficult to get it from customs and into my possession. Anyway, it’s here, and it’s filled with wonderful things, mostly of the edible variety. So thank you!

And now for that important message I mentioned at the start. Last Wednesday, my sister sent me a link to a video file, but due to a whole bunch of circumstances I couldn’t download it or watch it until Thursday evening, and then I was doing the mad dash getting ready and leaving for the weekend. So I would have liked to say something about this on Thursday, but this is the first chance I’ve had. For anyone who wasn’t involved, the video is a collection of messages recorded by people at home and put together by my sister, and it’s something she’s been working on since very early on in my trip. Let me just say that this video really meant the world to me. It came at a perfect time, too, given how stressed I was on Thursday evening before I watched it—instantly made me feel better.

I wish I could thank everyone involved individually, but there were so many messages from so many people that it would take me right through to August. So I just wanted to let everyone know that I really, really appreciate your messages, and I couldn’t have been happier to receive them. Truly, thank you. And thank you also for all of the laughs! Some of the messages had me crying with laughter. A special thank you to my cousin Sara, for helping to collect the clips, and to my dad, for helping with the video. And of course, an extra special thank you to Alyssa, for putting this together and for all the time and effort over the last few weeks.

I can’t wait to see everyone again when I get back! As of tomorrow, it’s four weeks—crazy. But for now, I think I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. I hope you've enjoyed it! I’m looking forward to sharing some of the real photos from the weekend. Hopefully that will be soon.

Thank you again to everyone, and of course, thanks for reading.