Sunday, October 24, 2010

Murchison Falls

"I can't believe I'm being paid to do this."

This was my not infrequent thought in the days when, as English adviser, I used to traverse the length and breadth of what used to be Grampian Region looking for schools to advise.  My favourite route was Stonehaven to Alford, Alford to Rhynie, Rhynie to Aberlour (via the Cabrach) and then on up to the Moray schools.  My recollection is of rolling green hills dotted with sheep, high heather-clad slopes, deep glens with winding burns and, if I was lucky, the sun reflecting brightly from every leaf.  If I was unlucky, of course, on my way home it would start to snow at Rothes, I'd make a quick decision to aim for Huntly instead of the Cabrach and I'd end up crawling through snow drifts in the Glens of Foundland to arrive in Stonehaven four hours later.

The hills of Uganda aren't much like the hills of Aberdeenshire, though crawling through the sticky red mud on the way to the Murchison Falls shared some similarities with aspects of my earlier journeys.  The pick-up slithered from one side to the other of the murram track, threatening to topple our two impromptu passengers from the back of the pickup, guards who had hitched a ride from the gate of the park.  The rain poured down and I felt guilt-stricken about their sodden condition.  They should have been inside but the whole of the back seat was taken up with our luggage.  Every so often the road would tip us gently into a ditch, our wheels would spin and I would think, "Oh no, we're going to have to push." However, the sun eventually came out, our passengers reached their guard posts deep in the national park and we continued on our way.

There are not many baboons on the Cabrach.  There were a lot of baboons in Murchison Park.  You could see them as black specks in the distance as we rounded a bend. 

I would get my camera out as we crept up close and then just as I got the focus right, off they sauntered into the trees, tails raised in contempt, then laughed at us from the branches above.

Contemptuous baboon
And his satirical friend
And the sun reflected brightly from every leaf.

"I can't believe I'm being paid to do this," I thought.  Well, not exactly 'paid', but a small 'perk' following our school visits around Masindi.  

Stuart wasn't too sure about the 'perk' side of things when he realised we were going to be staying under canvas in the Red Chilli camp.  I wasn't too sure myself.  The last time I'd camped had been in the Girl Guides, during a freezing south Yorkshire spring-time, inside a totally inadequate blanket sleeping bag.  Stuart's memories were of Scripture Union camp fifty years before, all heartiness and prayers.  As the only other option was a luxury lodge, the camp it had to be.

And, we have to say, it was just fine.  The tents were mosquito proof, we had proper beds and there was plenty of Nile beer in the canteen, all of which was more than could be said of the Girl Guides.  And there are definitely no warthogs in south Yorkshire.

Warthogs enjoying rich pickings at the Red Chilli camp
Next morning we rose early, ready for our expedition up the Victoria Nile. The birds were also early-risers, singing away as they darted across the camp.   First, though, we had a good breakfast of 'eggy-bread' and bacon in the company of a group of bright-eyed Peace Corps volunteers.  In their strappy tops, miniscule shorts and flip-flops, they demonstrated a touching belief that the great great great....grandchildren of the mosquitoes which killed Livingstone would somehow maintain a strict no-fly zone around true Americans.   Stuart and I felt no need to present such a welcome outdoor banquet to any members of the insect kingdom.  It was full-length trousers, long-sleeved shirts and ankle boots for us, together with a liberal anointing of the strongest possible concentration of DEET on the quarter inch of flesh remaining in view.  Thus prepared, we clambered onto our small boat and off we went.

At first sight, this stretch of the Victoria Nile is not particular spectacular.  Broad and dark, it quietly meanders away from the Falls, down past the Paraa ferry through low forested hills and fertile green banks down to Lake Albert.  Here it decides it wants to go a bit further after all, Egypt for a change, so turns round, changes its name to the Albert Nile, and aims north to Sudan.  However, we were going upstream.  At Paraa, where you pick up your boat, the river certainly does look lazy and slow until you gaze into its depths and suddenly become aware of the enormous power of the wide strong currents.  The covering of froth gradually increases as you travel up to the Falls.  Pretty pink clumps of unwelcome water hyacinth float along too, at one stage clogging our engine so that we had to stop for them to be pulled out.  I tried not to think of hungry crocodiles.

At a casual glance, the banks looked completely devoid of any wildlife, hungry or otherwise.  However, it was not long before our guides pointed them out to our unobservant British eyes.  First came the hippos. 

What excitement as we chugged close to the bank - whereupon they all quickly sank below, eyes and ears only above the surface, keeping a careful watch on the interlopers.  

Cameras clicking, breath held, we swayed across the boat to record our amazement - that is before we realised that there were plenty of hippos, enough to satisfy the most obsessive of hippo-lovers, all the way up to the Falls.

"Enough hippos," said Stuart.

So what else did we see?  Lots of birds, of course.  (Dave, this section is for you.) We saw African darters, Goliath herons, African fish eagles, shoebills, piacpiacs, helmeted guineafowl and various other birds we were too ignorant to identify and too slow to photograph.  

African fish eagle keeping its distance
Helmeted guineafowl
Goliath heron

Shoebill (we think)
A big bird (purchase of bird book imminent)

We saw deer, monkeys, elephants and water buffalo.

Black and white colobus monkey
Young grey bachelor elephant, red with mud

We saw insects too: tsetse fly, responsible for depopulating this area of the Nile in the early years of the twentieth century, and the ubiquitous mosquitoes.  Don't believe people who tell you that mosquitoes only come out in the evening.  If they're really determined, as they are here, they will home in on you at any time of day, hence our addiction to DEET.

And, of course, we saw crocodiles, Nile crocodiles, lots of them.  They were particularly impressive when they dived from the bank towards our boat, sometimes sliding in quietly and slyly, sometimes bouncing down with an enormous crash that sent water splashing up in waves while we all ducked and our guides both laughed.

"Enough crocodiles," said Stuart.

Then we saw the Falls.  At first you think the clouds have come over and it's started to rain.  Then you realise it's spray, though you are still many yards away.  You can't go too near them, of course, though we did see some foolhardy visitors in a tiny boat, bobbing along at the foot.  But there the Falls were in the distance, pouring through a narrow cleft in the Rift Valley Escarpment, and plunging 40 meters to the rocks below.  There may be higher waterfalls in Africa, but Murchison Falls impress through their sheer power.

By far the best way to experience the waterfall's majesty and raw force is to go to the Top of the Falls.  You bump along a mud and rock track, cursing the mosquitoes which home in on you every time you slow down to crawl past water buffalo.  You wind up the windows, flap around with the flyspray and pray the buffalo don't charge.  

Buffalo don't answer to Daisy or Buttercup.
Once you've parked, you walk for a hundred yards, and all of a sudden your senses are jolted into alertness: first by the thunder, then the gentle rainfall of spray and finally the awe-inspiring brilliance of all those tons of water roaring into the deep dark nothingness below.

The rain, the mosquitoes, the torrents of water rushing over rocks: it could almost have been Scotland.  

"All it needs is a distillery," said Stuart.

These warthogs hadn't attended the Tufty Club.
We bounced our way out of the park, dodging the warthogs and waving at the baboons.  In the distance the blue mountains of DR Congo hovered on the horizon.

"I can't believe I'm being paid to do this," I said.


  1. Great piccies esp satirical baboons and Nile crocodiles - not so sure about the water buffalo though and warthogs don't look very cuddly! Camping Uganda style sounds a little challenging too...Chris and Linz

  2. The camping really wasn't too bad. Proper loos and showers - and remember, it is warm!