Saturday September 7 2013

Murchison Falls National Park: Where the Garden of Eden comes to life

The falls on River Nile are the centre of attention in the park.

The falls on River Nile are the centre of attention in the park. PHOTOS BY IVAN OKUDA. 


About the park
Size. Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda’s largest national park. It measures approximately 3,840 square kilometres (1,480 square miles). The name. The park is sometimes referred to as Kabarega National Park. Kabarega was the Omukama of the Kingdom of Bunyoro, around the end of the 19th century, who resisted colonisation by the British.

Past poaching. Wildlife populations have largely recovered from the poaching that occurred during the political unrest here in the 1980s. Location. The park is located in Masindi District in western Uganda and in Nwoya District in northern Uganda. The park is situated approximately 300 kilometres (190 mi), by road, northwest of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city.

Wildlife numbers. The park boasts at least 109 mammal, 476 bird, and 149 tree species. Wildlife types. It is also notable for its large population of the Uganda kob, an antelope that has an unusual breeding behaviour in which males defend small territories and are visited by female mates. One of the world’s most easily visible wild populations of the rare shoebill stork occurs in this landscape.

Lions and antelopes live as brother and sister. Crocodiles yawn harmlessly. Plants blossom on soils most fertile amidst fresh air and gentle waters. That beauty is what describes the Biblical Garden of Eden. But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, what was left of that paradise, is its description in the Bible.

Unlike the irredeemable Garden of Eden, for Murchison Falls National Park, the pride of the 1960s is just but coming back; slowly but surely. That time when it was arguably the most revered national game park in East Africa, attracting at least 60,000 non-resident foreign tourists annually. That era when it boasted of some of Africa’s most rare animal species, in their tens of thousands.

Rising up
With the political turmoil that wrecked Uganda in the 1960s and stretched to the early 1980s, the game park was brought to its knees as poachers took charge, hunting elephants to near extinction from Uganda’s biggest national park.

Again, at the height of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, the park went to the dogs, as the rebels established base there in the 1990s. However, all that dark past is in the shelves of history now. “The park is picking up, tourism numbers are rising every year,” says Joshua Masereka, the tourism warden.

Not at first impression though. A three-hour drive from Kampala to the park will give you a treat of Uganda’s rugged terrain and bumpy road, right from the entrance to the park for about 95km. Clouds of dust will cover the vehicle on a dry day and the car will get stuck if it has rained heavily.

Once you drive 95km into the park and you cross to the side of River Nile to the Uganda Wildlife Authority official entrance, the park fun comes alive with a beehive of activity on the waters like tourists ranging from foreigners to students, moving about, waiting for the next ferry to cross to the other side of the park, just next to the Paraa Safari Lodge. Therein lies the first bouquet of pleasure, with breath-taking views of the thick vegetation, hippopotami and crocodiles.

Game drive
A park visit only makes sense with a tour of the park, a game drive for that matter, and it is here that Murchison falls’ tourism potential comes to life, even for the ordinary eye. The park, unlike the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, for instance, has short lying savannah grasslands and trees, with some parts as clear as a football pitch so much so that you can spot an animal hundreds of metres away.

It gets more tempting, and you feel like walking around or daring the gentle moving masters of the wild such as the giraffes, elephants and buffaloes, who graceful and almost with self-confident gait, cross pathways in the park and pave way for tourists vehicles.

Then you have the drivers who know at least something about everything and everything about something. They will tell you about the sausage tree that, “makes elephants go tipsy and stagger for six hours after chewing it,” and how “it heals impotence in men too”. The drivers will stop the car and point at the carcass of a kob devoured by lions and explain the biology behind it.

A few kilometres away, the menacing thundering sound of oil rigs from oil exploration sites within the park takes the better of you, and in the evening, the powerful lights give a rather unnatural spectacle, disrupting the beauty that comes with the sun setting in the wild. This, the tour guides say, is the reason animals such as lions are now hard to come by as was before the oil exploration. “There is no cause for alarm, UWA is working with the oil companies, Nema and other stakeholders to see to it that the oil activities don’t affect our animals. In any case, when they migrate, it is within the park,” Mr Masereka shares.

For a park estimated to be almost the size of Rwanda (measuring 3,000 square miles), only time and the driver will be your limit as darkness sets in and the animals retire. On the day a team of journalists from selected media houses visited with the sponsorship of Marasa Africa, the Paraa Safari Lodge came in handy for a night’s rest.

Students who choose to sleep within the park have a students’ centre with subsidised accommodation rates. With the Paraa Voyager, a luxury boat launched this month, boat rides can never get more exciting as they bring you up close with animals like hippos and crocodiles, basking in the foam-covered part of the water.

For first time boat riders, the adrenaline will be sure to rise as the boat moves close to a school of hippos, and they staring with intimidating facial expressions, only to cowardly swim to safety. “You have not been to Murchison Falls National Park if you don’t see the falls,” Amon Asimwe, the captain and tour guide, told the journalists.

While in the ride, Asimwe takes his clients through the historical anecdotes surrounding the park. He will point at metal bars planted decades ago in memory of European explorer, Ernest Hemmingway’s two-time near plane crash, and turn around to shout out, “that is the Queens cottage, it was first used by the Queen in the 1950s and there you have the Uhuru Falls”.

At the end of the three-hour boat cruise, it is not just a water-pleasure affair but the refreshing breeze of the Nile with some nuggets of history, the sight of birds picking insects from backs of warthogs and crocodiles yawning at the falls where the Nile waters plunge their way through a seven-metre width and 45-metre height.

This feel of Murchison falls from Paraa is only but a tip of the iceberg. The high end and lush Chobe Safari Lodge in Nwoya District, a one-hour drive from Paraa unpacks some of the park’s best-kept natural secrets.

The serenity of the lodge itself, with a health gym ranked by CNN last year among the world’s top five best views, has rooms all staring at the Nile, accompanying your night rest with roars of hippos floating on water and occasionally coming out late in the night to graze, at times close to the tents and swimming pool.

A two-hour nature walk round the park, unlike the game drive, gives the true sensation of daring the men and women of the wild, that first witness experience of coming face-to-face with fresh footprints of lions, elephants and buffaloes flexing muscles for territorial dominance. The UWA guides, fairly well informed about most aspects of the park’s fauna and flora, give the nature walk a rather fulfilling touch.

Tourism-friendly facilities
Corne Schalkwyk, the head of marketing and sales, Marasa Africa, says: “We are in advanced process of introducing mobile tents so that visitors can start the nature walk from Paraa to Chobe and sleep in between (in the park).” The company alongside UWA, Schalkwyk notes, has already set up a salt lick where large amounts of salt are poured regularly for animals to attract them to come and lick the salt then cross for water from the nearby solar powered dam.

“UWA is also setting up an animal hide where tourists will see animals in the shelter as they come down to take water and salt,” Masereka said, adding, “Now, this is set to give the nature walks a more exciting feel.” “After this, you can try out sport fishing where a guide takes you through the experience of catching fish as big as Nile Perch, some weighing more than 70 kilos, though you throw them back into the lake,” the Marasa Africa sales and marketing chief says.

Another tourist potential in the park is the Rothschild giraffe, assumed to be the tallest of all the more than five species. A joint research project by the NGO, Giraffe Conservation Project, UWA and Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, puts the number of the tall creatures in this park at 750 and these are unique to Murchison and Kidepo Valley National Park.
Dr Julian Fennesy, a conservation scientist spearheading the research, says: “The unique thing about Murchison falls is that it is home to the Rothschild’s Giraffe which lives in a natural range here only.”

The endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe, has more white spots on the leg and bigger horn-like structures in the males. To Dr Fennesy, “this alone has the potential of scaling up tourist numbers in Murchison as this giraffe is rare now in Africa and world over”. And yes, with this and more initiatives going on in the park, perhaps the monthly average of 5,000 visitors to the park will soar and voila, Murchison will revive its fallen glory.