We have been dreaming of Uganda for years now. We finally found a way to do it ourselves: a self-drive safari in Murchison Falls National Park was one of the highlights of our Uganda travels. Most people go on an organised tour, staying at lodges and driven around by a driver. This is very expensive and leaves most people dreaming. We worked out a way to do it much more budget-friendly!
Read all about it in this blog about our self-drive safari in Murchison Falls NP!
Crossing the Nile
We travel around Uganda for three weeks in June 2019. Murchison Falls national park is one of the most special places we visit. Plenty of people skip this national park on shorter itineraries for Uganda. But we recommend to find a way to get there because we loved it!
Each morning we cross the Nile by ferry to drive around in search of wildlife. We see lions, giraffes, buffalo, oribi, Pumba’s, plenty of birds and scores of elephants; hippos of course and Nile crocodiles. Our shoebill sighting may be our highlight, although our chimp trekking at Budongo Lodge is right up there as well. And of course all against the backdrop of the Nile and the Murchison Falls.
Did you know the Nile originates in Uganda (some say Rwanda or Burundi, but where Lake Victoria flows out into the Nile, it is the real thing)? The water flows out of the Victoria Lake as the Victoria Nile. A few 100 km north it pushes through the rocks at Murchison Falls to form Albert Lake and continues as the White Nile.
Things are changing fast here. A bridge is being built which will connect southern and northern Murchison Falls national park next year (2020 or 2021 we guess). Oil exploration is going on right now and there are even plans to build a dam across the Nile here! There is a lot of opposition from environmental activists and the tourism sector, but short term gain and the promise of wealth are incredibly attractive to Uganda as it remains a poor country. We hope they will see the (economic) value of this river and the nature around before it is too late!
Game drives on our self-drive safari in Murchison Falls NP
On our first day driving on a sandy track inside Murchison Falls national park, we passed a van coming towards us with a guide and other tourists. We asked if there was anything interesting up ahead. They spurred us on: there were lions, just drive straight on!
And ofcourse kob antelopes: they’re everywhere in Murchison Falls national park! And we mean everywhere. Sometimes in groups of hundreds! They’re a bit boring after some time but it means there may be lions around!
But it is giraffes that make Murchison Falls NP really pecial. Every day in the park, the giraffes welcomed us on our drive into the park. The giraffes here are Rothschild giraffes – a subspecies that only lives in Uganda and a few places in Kenya. We cross the Nile by ferry (the first one at 7AM, but you need to be at the ferry at 6.30AM to be sure of one of the 8 car spots on the ferry) and drive into the palm-filled green hills of MFNP’s northern section. We just love this landscape! Almost immediately the longnecks appear on the horizon, nibbling away at the acacia trees. And as we come closer, they calmly do their thing. And we watch. No worries about seeing giraffes if you miss the first ferry. They will be there all day! And at the end of the day, these young giraffes say goodbye to us while their parents were lounging in the grass!
It is so easy to focus on ‘big’ wildlife in Africa. But much of the fun is all the ‘small’ wildlife around. These guys, Patas monkeys, we only come across in Murchison Falls national park, jumping around the side of the road and in and out of the palm trees. Also warthogs, countless birds, lizards, gazelles and turtles can make our day when we’re on safari!
One of the smaller antelopes of Murchison Falls national park these oribi (or are they duikers?) are everywhere. Almost always in pairs, often at the roadside, they are perfectly camouflaged until the moment you drive already past, they jump up and dash off. Often they are just standing in the grass amidst the even more numerous kobs, being elegant. Aren’t they cute?
On a deserted track in Murchison Falls National Park we join this male bull elephant. We see so many elephants during our three week trip in Uganda! And often we are the only ones there. Elephant populations are recovering in most national parks in Uganda and especially MFNP is rich in wildlife, wandering its hills!
On our way back to the camp one day, a northern carmine bee-eater keeps (him or) herself posed just a metre away. Even if you’re not into birds, Uganda might just make you a bird lover and fanatic bird watcher! As Uganda is so diverse in terms of landscapes, you can find many different species – and I don’t mean just 20 different types of warbler only specialists can distinguish.
Shoe bill storks in Murchison Falls NP
One of the highlights of Murchison Falls NP is encountering shoebill storks! Driving ourselves makes it possible to pack lunch and reach the far corners of the national park. That is how we find ‘our’ shoebills.
Ever since we saw the shoebill storks featured by David Attenborough we are eager to see them for ourselves. Uganda is one of the best places to find them. Our first encounter is extremely lucky. We are driving the game tracks of Murchison Falls national park when we suddenly discover a track called Shoebill Track. As it is great anyway to drive along the Albert Nile anyway, we think ‘let’s give it a try’, not expecting much. It is already midday. Turning around a corner we suddenly bump into one! We jump up and down. It feels like finding lions! Not totally happy with us, the giant stork strides across his grassy patch and hides behind some bushes.
These birds can be up to 140cm high, standing, with a wingspan of 2,5m in flight!!! Slowly we eek forward around the corner and there he is again, now taking flight towards the swampy shores of the river. And then we see there is another one. A luxury game drive vehicle comes up behind us and then an independent traveler. We sit there for half an hour as they stand there and finally take flight together circling around each other higher higher above the Nile river.
A boat trip on our self-drive safari in Murchison Falls NP
On our second day, we take a boat from Paraa’s ferry crossing to get to the bottom of the falls. We have to moor a bit further away as we are with a larger boat, but the views are great anyway! The force of Murchison Falls is incredible. The boats depart from the same place as the ferry across the Nile (next to the bridge they are currently building!) and you can make your reservations right there at the office Wild Frontiers Uganda. Another option is to book a boat trip with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, If you’re staying at Red Chilli’s MFNP-camp, as we do, it’s just a 5-minute drive or 15-minute walk down to the pier – and they may book it for you while you’re waiting for a cup of their deliciously roasted groundnuts!
The nice thing about Murchison Falls national park is its isolated feel, which might change as they are building the new, wide road and a bridge. But for now, it was all jungle, wildlife, and the Nile.
One of the really nice things you can do in Murchison Falls national park is the boat trip to the falls. Not just to see the waterfalls but also to spot wildlife! On the way we see plenty of hippos in the Nile! Hippo pods cuddling their babies, huge Nile crocodiles basking in the sun, elephants grazing, it’s all right there!
At the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lake Albert drains into the White Nile. The delta here is a source of income for fishermen, gambling their lives in between the hippo pods to haul in their nets. It is quite weird to look across the water and think about the near-war situation, right there in DR Congo. The relations between Ugandans and Congolese on the water is tense, but there is nothing you can really see of that on the surface. The swamps along the river and lake are rich in wildlife and birdlife, making it a great place for us to drive along narrow tracks with high grass between our wheels. We’re a world apart from these men.
The top of Murchison Falls is a nice detour amongst the game drives around the national park. This is the Nile at its narrowest! There used to be a footbridge here, but it was washed away at some point. We walk down to the viewpoint and see a path up and down the cliffs to a point further down. On the way, you can see there are actually two waterfalls here! The falls are actually not just Murchison Falls. Its twin is Uhuru Falls, just north of the major falls.
After we pay the obligatory extra fee – the guard finds us on the path – we walk down to the water and sit there, in solitude, gasping at the thunder of the falls and the tumbling swallows hunting for insects in the water spray.
A bonus: Chimpanzees in Murchison Falls NP
Chimpanzees! Early morning, after a good night’s sleep we drive down to Budongo Eco Lodge, 10 or 15 minutes inside the southern gate of Murchison Falls national park, within what is called Kaniyo Pabindi forest. We’d stayed at the friendly Boomu’s women group just outside the gate where they have clean, simple bandas with mosquito-netted beds. We have arranged our chimp trekking before online, but we are the only two visitors (June 2019) apart from a group of birders. We could’ve just turned up last minute it seems!
The chimps let themselves be heard already while we have a cup of tea and get briefed! We are lucky. We only have a 15-minute walk along flat terrain before we find the first members of a large group scurrying around the forest floor. As we follow them along the footpaths towards their breakfast trees, the chimps are quite vocal and banging the roots and trunks of the trees as if they are drums.
Pauline, our guide, tells us about how the smart females make sure their babies get accepted by the whole group of males. After she knows she’s pregnant, she’d just mate with any of them so that the males never know who is the father and all care for mother and child as if they were their own. And of course, the mother does know who the father is! Chimps are highly social and they would continually check out what the others in the group were doing!
We couldn’t have wished for a better first week in Uganda. The driving is easy, the wildlife abundant. Even if it takes the extra mile,we definitely recommend taking in Murchoson Falls NP when in Uganda!