Expert Reviews – Murchison Falls NP

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Thundering waters and smirking shoebills
Overall rating

I don’t recall who it was that described Murchison Falls as the most spectacular thing to happen to the world’s longest river en route from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, but I’d have to agree with them. This truly spectacular waterfall sees the Nile funnelled explosively through a narrow cleft in the rift escarpment to form a plume of foaming white water so loud you can barely hear yourself think. Mind you, the launch trip from the park headquarters at Paraa to the base of the waterfall is pretty spectacular in its own right: giant crocodiles lurk menacingly from the sandbars, hippos grunt away in the shallows, and more often than not you’ll see a few elephants or buffalos come down to drink. I’ve had mixed luck with game drives through the undulating borassus grassland north of the river, but buffalo, Jackson’s hartebeest, oribi, Uganda kob, and the localised Rothschild’s giraffe and the unusual patas monkey are more-or-less certain, and more often than not I’ve seen lion and elephant. Like most Ugandan parks, Murchison Falls is a wonderful bird destination, with pride of place going to the oddball shoebill, a large and eagerly sought slate-grey papyrus dweller that I've seen perhaps a dozen times along the Nile here. The far south of the greater Murchison Falls Conservation Area now incorporates the Kaniyo Pabidi Forest, a reliable chimpanzee-tracking site that also hosts several unusual forest birds. Between the Nile and Kaniyo Pabidi, a southern game-drive circuit has also recently opened to tourism, but the low wildlife densities and high level of tsetse fly activity make it far less enjoyable than the northern game-viewing circuit.

Murchison Falls National Park – where the Nile tumbles down the Rift Valley escarpment
Overall rating

Although the wildlife viewing is excellent in this park, it is the scenery that really gets to me: the rolling grassy hills studded with borassus palms teeming with plains animals, the paparus swamps home to the sought after shoebill stork and forests inhabited by chimpanzees. But, the main feature in the park is the Victoria Nile. A highlight to any visit is a boat trip up the Nile to one of the most spectacular sights of water pushing through a cleft in the escarpment: Murchison Falls. Gliding on this mighty river is an unforgettable experience: hippos snorting everywhere, elephants playing in the water and lots of water birds along the shore. The afternoon boat trip is great for spotting animals coming to drink. Once we even spotted a leopard from the boat. The main antelope in the park is the Uganda kob and big herds of them inhabit the grassy plains north of the river. If you watch these antelopes carefully, you won’t have any problems spotting lions. The kob’s alarm signal, a high-pitched whistle is unmissable. Then it’s just a matter of following their gaze.

Thundering Waterfalls and Decent Wildlife
Overall rating

Like Kidepo, this north Ugandan park was largely a no go area until six years ago due to the presence of the notorious LRA, but with the timely demise of the rebels, it has opened up to tourists once more. It is a beautiful and wild place with plenty of wildlife still remaining. In my opinion the ultimate highlight must surely be the boat cruise up Africa’s longest river to view the mighty Nile as it thunders through a narrow cleft in the rock and tumbles down the waterfall from which the park takes its name. En route to the falls I’ve seen lions, elephants, huge crocodiles and innumerable pods of hippos, not to mention an outstanding array of waterbirds strewn across the riverbanks. Game drives can also be productive, although animals across the north bank tend to be more skittish and poaching is still a problem away from the tourist areas. While the site of an old buffalo bull supporting a thick wire snare leaves a sour aftertaste, I try to remind myself that my presence (along with other likeminded tourists) is bringing in valuable revenue and slowly helping to safeguard the future of this stunning park and its wild denizens.

A river runs through it
Overall rating

This highly rewarding national park – which lies some five hours’ drive northwest of the capital Kampala – is both Uganda’s largest and oldest conservation area, occupying just under 4,000 square kilometres in the far west of the country. It is named for the impressive cataract formed where the waters of the Victoria Nile squeeze through an eight-metre-wide gorge on their way downstream to Lake Albert, the shores of which also lie within the park. The park is bisected from east to west by this river, and it is from the southern side that a loop road offers access to the top of the falls. However, this southern sector, which consists primarily of dense bush and can be plagued by tsetse flies, is relatively unproductive for other wildlife. The northern sector, by contrast, consists of more open savannah and the game-viewing is excellent. During my recent visit, elephant, buffalo and the endemic Rothschild’s giraffe were all abundant, while antelope in impressive numbers included hartebeest, waterbuck, kob and the largest population of oribi I’ve encountered anywhere in Africa. The park has a good reputation for predators, with both lion and leopard being seen daily during my visit, (although not by me) and spotted hyena calling at night.

Visitors should be aware that a car ferry transports vehicles between the southern and northern sectors, and should thus time their game drives accordingly: a slow morning start from a lodge in the southern sector could leave you at the back of a queue when heading to the northern sector; conversely, a late return may leave you missing the last ferry and stranded on the wrong side. Perhaps the park’s most rewarding activity is a boat cruise on the river, with various options departing from beside the ferry crossing. Head east, upstream, for general riverbank game viewing, including large numbers of hippos and crocs, plus a great view of the falls. Head west, downstream, for your best chance of seeing a shoebill, perhaps Africa’s most sought-after bird, and a denizen of the papyrus swamps at the Lake Albert Delta. Birdlife is extremely rich throughout the park, including in the adjoining Budongo Forest reserve to the south, where there is also chimp tracking and a full range of other primates.

Spectacular falls & diverse wildlife
Overall rating

While the boat trip to the base of the magnificent falls at this park is touted as the best way to see them, in fact the falls are better viewed from on top. Roaring through a narrow cleft in the rock, it is the best waterfall I saw in East Africa. You can drive there or catch the boat and hike up. Another option would be to do a balloon safari which some lodges offer.

Apart from the falls, there is plenty of wildlife to see, including four of the Big Five (no rhino). There are also a lot of antelope easily seen, including Uganda kob, hartebeest, duiker and bushbuck. And there are extensive driving tracks allowing you to explore large areas of the park.

A decent array of accommodation in or near the park caters for most budgets.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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