Sunday, May 6, 2012

Murchison Falls National Park

I recently took a couple of days off in repayment for all the Saturdays and Sundays I’ve spent working and went up to Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest park.  It was gazetted in 1952, and is best known for the falls.  Before Idi Amin’s henchmen were turned loose on the park’s wildlife, it swarmed with game, to the extent that parks authorities undertook extensive culling of elephants and hippopotami during the 1960s. 

I left Tuhende early in the morning, and was let out the gate by Innocent, the caretaker, who was more cheerful and awake that I could manage at such an indecent hour (I don’t mind getting up early, I just resent being asked to do anything other than brood grumpily over a newspaper and a cup of tea).  Passing through Kampala in the early morning is a surreal experience.  The streets are almost totally deserted, and I found myself not recognising areas that I pass on a daily basis due to the absence of a great knot of boda bodas here, a swarm of taxis there, or backed-up crowds of people yonder. 

I met with the other people who had signed up for the budget trip, and we set off: a Japanese volunteer and two friends who were visiting her from home, four Dutch engineers who were in the country to do volunteer work in a hospital (but whose work was being held up by customs bureaucracy), and our driver, ever-patient with our peculiar whims and occasional tardiness at departure times.  Having not yet met an East African road I can’t sleep on, I drifted off almost instantly in the van, and wasn’t fully awake until we reached Masindi, a small town on the way to the park, where we stopped for a lunch.

Shortly thereafter, the paved road (the smoothest I’d experienced in Uganda) gave way to a dirt one, and a little while later, we entered the park, at which point, in spite of the bumpiness of the dirt track, I feel to sleep again, only waking up as we pulled into the camp after an eight hour journey.  Nicely situated, the camp overlooked the Victoria Nile, and we were given our tents and warned to be careful when moving around after dark, as hippos were known to frequent the campsite during their night-time grazing perambulations.  The evening was passed by a stroll down to the river and an early dinner, followed by the mosquitoes’ dinner, as they gleefully descended on my person, until I managed to borrow some spray from some fellow-travellers.

The following day involved the tour of the park, first by vehicle through the grassy plains area, and then by launch along the Victoria Nile.  The rainy season being in full swing, the Buligi plains were green, but the grass not tall enough to obscure the animals, and no wonder: for the large herds of Uganda Kob, Jackson’s Hartebeest, Defassa waterbuck, Oribi, Duiker and buffalo keep it well-cropped.  The small patches of taller shrubbery and the groves of trees provide food for the enormous herds of Rothschild’s giraffe and the smaller groups of elephants that wander through the park.

And of course the kob, hartebeest, waterbuck and buffalo provide food for the park’s top predators, the lions.  We had been given a packed breakfast, but as we made our way through the park, we saw a small family group of lions which appeared to consist of a female (radio-collared) and two adolescents who had been having a lie-in and were crossing a clearing to resume feeding on a carcass probably procured from an unwilling antelope herd the previous evening.  These tawny, graceful creatures, like many predators, were once considered vermin, and during the early colonial years, had a bounty on their heads because they competed with hunters for game and occasionally preyed on stock.

If the lions appeared to embody a kind of typical feline grace and indifference, the hartebeest were their temperamental opposites.  These long-faced, gangly antelopes shuffle around the plain, constantly looking over their shoulders such that you want to call out a warning lest they run into one of the large anthills that dot the open spaces.  Caught perpetually between fear and curiosity, these ungainly animals are clearly not the brains of the African savannah.  Nor are the enormous buffalo, which watched our progression with beady little eyes and then, once we were just safely out of distance, would toss their heads and dash a few yards after us, grunting fractiously, announcing to anyone who would listen how they’d just put this pack of tourists to flight.

The hippos were similarly bellicose after-the-fact in the water, making trails of bubbles around the launch, and then popping up to yawn aggressively in the direction of the departing launch.  These animals, present in great numbers along the Victoria Nile as well as on the delta where the Albert Nile meets its sister branch, are an odd combination of clumsy and graceful, lurching about in the water, waddling here and there on land, but their profile making it clear where the “water horse” tag came from.

So too the giraffes which, until they begin moving, look as stately as anything on earth.  But even their uncomfortable-looking rocking-chair gait has a certain style about it, and the overall sense of elegance is only dashed when one of them rolls out its lugubrious tongue to eat from a thorny acacia and gazes cross-eyed at the foliage this purplish-coloured implement is seeking to negotiate. 

The hippos’ riverine cohabiters could not, with the best of will, be described as graceful.  At first we saw only small crocodiles, basking open-mouthed in patches of lilies or on rocks near the bank.  But farther up the river there were some true monsters who were not remotely intimidated by the approaching launch.  If we got too close, these 4-5 meter beasts would open their mouths and hiss a warning.  Or else they gave us toothy smiles of invitation which seemed to say, ‘Come right in, the water’s fine!’ 

Once, there were thousands of crocodiles in the Fajao Gorge just below the falls, but poaching dramatically reduced their numbers, and we saw probably no more than a dozen or two as we approached a bend in the river, around which patches of foam floated.  The reason for the well-churned water became apparent as we rounded the bend and saw, at some distance, Murchison Falls themselves.  In height and width they are surpassed by other cataracts around the world (the ranger wasn’t buying our scepticism on this point, and firmly maintained that they were the biggest falls on earth, and quite possibly in the universe).  But it is pretty awe-inspiring to see one of the world’s great rivers squeeze itself through a 20-foot gap and then thunder down 130 feet, generating a constant mist in the vicinity.  The spectacular falls came close to being destroyed in the 1960s, when a massive hydroelectric plant was mooted for the river.  It remains unclear to me how effective the vigorous campaign to preserve the falls actually was, but the project as then-envisioned was vetoed in the 1970s. 

Also of historical interest was a small marker to show where Ernest Hemingway crashed his plane while flying by the falls in the 1950s.  The rescue plane that took him and his companions away crashed again.  I suspect the noted author had mixed feelings about his visit to the falls. 

The launches don’t approach very closely to the falls, but the following day, after an evening spent discussing the park’s avian species with a Dutch birding enthusiast and his slightly less enthused girlfriend and driver (the two of whom were jokingly plotting to ‘lose’ his massive bird book in the Nile), we stopped by the top of the falls on our way out of the park.  The views from the raised bank provided a panorama of the gorgeous falls, and also of the neighbouring Uhuru Falls, the existence of which you would never have guessed at from the vantage point on the river.  These were created during a particularly powerful flood, which burst the banks of the river and formed a separate set of falls beside Murchison, the two being separated by what was now a forested island. 

I might as well have gone swimming, as wet as I got walking around the top of the falls.  But it was, of course, worth it to see the impressive body of water, capped by a rainbow as it roared down the gorge and out into the Nile.

Our departure from the park was not without excitement, as our route took us through a fly zone, inhabited by swarms of tsetse flies...nasty creatures with the bite of a horse fly and the tenacity of bulldogs.  Periodically, as we entered “the Fly”, our driver would bellow, “Ahoy, shipmates, flies on starboard!” or words to that effect: the front windows rolled up, the rear windows slammed closed, the klaxons sounded, and we reported to battle stations.  We would then set about the bloody business of finishing off any flies that made it into the vehicle.  We quickly became specialists: some favoured squashing the flies with the bottom of water bottles, others used hand towels to flatten them against the windows, some of us flailed about madly, and another wielded a can of bug spray with perhaps more abandon than accuracy.  And never was any big game hunter prouder of their kill then we were when we managed to flatten one of the beastly insects.  One of the Dutchmen even posed, holding his unrecognisable foe in front of him and giving the camera a toothy grin worthy of Roosevelt on safari after he’d bagged a lion.

At last we escaped the flies, by the wildlife was not quite finished with us yet.   I was fast asleep as usual, and was having an exceptionally vivid dream about our van being chased by a black mamba the size of Smaug, when I was awoken by shouting.  I came to, mumbling something about snakes to my perplexed fellow-travellers, who corrected me, saying, ‘No, it was a lizard’.  For it seemed that our driver had run over a two meter monitor lizard on the road, and as its last act of defiance, the animal had punctured out tyre.  So we got out of the car, and danced about, manically swatting at the flies which quickly descended on us while the driver replaced the tyre, after which we barrelled off towards Kampala.

We drew into the city as the sun was setting, and after taking my leave of the group I found myself back ‘home’ at Tuhende, where I treated myself to one of their lovely steaks.  It was hard to exchange the fresh air and laid-back atmosphere of the Ugandan countryside for the smog and chaos of Kampala, but it was with more than a little sadness that I reflected on the fact that my time in the city is drawing to a close.

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