In northwest Uganda, about 300 kilometers and a five-hour drive away from Kampala, is Murchison Falls National Park. The savannah, tropical forest, and other ecosystems of the largest national park in Uganda are home to wildlife galore—elephants, hippos, giraffes, baboons, Ugandan kobs (type of antelope), water buffalo, crocodiles, scores of bird species, leopards, and lions! The Nile River flows through the park, and as it narrows through a gorge about ten feet wide, it cascades 141 feet, creating a magnificent waterfall, the centerpiece of the park. Those who have seen the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart may recognize the famous Murchison Falls.
Just last weekend, I stood close enough to those mighty falls to feel the spray on my face. I had left Kampala that morning in a van, with a multinational group of seven other travelers and our driver. We were on safari and a short hike to the falls was our first activity in the park.
Our first night, as I headed to my safari tent to sleep, rain began to fall. And for about twenty minutes, I sat on my bed listening to the pitter-patter on the canvas and the loud thunder roll through the sky as white lightning flashes illuminated the otherwise pitch black tent, feeling as though somehow it made my African safari experience all the more authentic.
The next morning, I woke at 5:30 am. I was very tired, and it was cold and dark, but once I was up and dressed, packed breakfast in hand, I was excited for our 4-hour game drive through the park. We hopped in our van, drove about a kilometer to the water, and were ferried across the river to begin our drive. With the roof of the van popped up, I stood on my seat and leaned my head outside, with an unobstructed view of the wildlife we could see from the dirt road. I have seen giraffes and elephants in zoos, but to see them in their natural habitat was stunning. My favorite part of the drive was undoubtedly spotting the female lion, on the prowl to hunt some unsuspecting kob in the distance.
In the afternoon, we set off on a boat cruise along the Nile toward the base of Murchison Falls. Along the way, we spotted crocodiles, hippos, baboons, and a group of elephants. We passed by a sign that marked the spot where Earnest Hemingway had crashed a plane back in 1954. Although not as exhilarating as the game drive, it was a relaxing way to enjoy the Nile River, the wildlife on its banks, and learn a bit of history. Sleepy, I closed my eyes for a while under the sun’s glow with the gentle rock of the boat. When we approached the falls, we stopped at a rock where each of the boat’s passengers could quickly jump on to pose for photos.
Despite my cruise snooze, I was still tired after dinner, so I headed to my tent early and was asleep by 10 pm. But shortly before 11 pm, I woke up to a funny noise that sounded somewhat like very loud munching, crunching, and snorting. My tent-mate had not yet come to bed, so I was on my own, in my tent, while a hippo was circling around it!
When we first arrived to our camp, we were warned that the hippos sometimes came up from the lake nearby and roamed around the camp. Though they seem so nice and friendly, hippos can and will charge at humans with slight provocation. Hippos (reportedly) cause more deaths than any other animal except mosquitoes here in Uganda. So, we were told, if you see a hippo, walk the other way. If that hippo is standing between you and the restrooms, use the other restroom. If it’s bedtime but that hippo is standing between you and your tent, you go sleep someplace else. But they didn’t tell us what to actually do if they come stomping around your tent while you are in it! I knew that no matter what I should not open my tent, but I didn’t know if the hippos would try to knock the tent over or get inside. I just sat on my bed, alert and quiet, while I waited for it to disappear. Through the tent window screen I could see the beast’s dark, massive form eventually saunter away, and when I could no longer hear its funny noises, I carefully unzipped my tent door and heard some people say, “You can come out!” I would be completely lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous while that hippo was surrounding me!
On our final day, we left Murchison Falls and drove a couple of hours to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Once, rhinos roamed around Murchison Falls National Park and Kidepo National Park, in northeast Uganda. However, rhinos were poached to local extinction, primarily under Idi Amin’s regime, and the last Ugandan rhino was supposedly killed around 1982 or 1983. In 1997, a program was initiated to breed white rhinos in the country by bringing the animals from other parts of the world to the sanctuary. In 2009, the first baby rhino was born in Uganda in 28 years. They named the baby Obama, after President Barak Obama, because the mother was from the U.S. and the father was from Kenya. Today, there are 10 rhinos—six adults from U.S. and Kenya, and four babies bred and born at Ziwa. At first we only saw two sleeping rhinos, a mom and her baby. But after some insistance, we were able to continue our rhino tracking after lunch, and we came across a group of three rhinos. A momma, her baby, and Obama, who is a guest in their family while his own mom is taking care of his baby sister (the only female rhino born thus far at the sanctuary).
I don’t think I could have asked for a better first safari!