Taking a safari

A herd of kobs oribis and a journey of giraffes feeding in the savannah plains of Murchison falls National Park. PHOTO | ALOYSIUS ATWIINE

What you need to know:

  • Although the effects of Covid-19 are still visible, the closure of parks to contain the pandemic left many of the facilities idle, but the spirit of recovery is high as people forget the fatigue of lockdowns for this get-away, Paul Murungi writes.

The appeal of being in a national park comes down to personal taste. It can mean many things to different tourists. It could be the fascinating wilderness, with the challenge of finding elusive wildlife or spectacular vast grasslands. 

These were thoughts that formed our conversation with a team as we drove through the dense and misty Budongo forest. 

The forest was clearing with soft rays of morning sunlight shooting through the heavy tree branches – an indication that we were already in Murchison Falls National Park. 

An hour – or so had elapsed. The sun rays were a sigh of relief from our sleepy eyes for the 85 kilometre journey that had started as early as 5 a.m from Masindi town where we spent a night.

A visit to Murchison Falls Park - the country’s largest and oldest conservation area spanning 5000 square kilometres, is highly rewarding because it is just a five-hour drive from Kampala, Uganda’s capital.  

The park’s iconic anchor point is another reason given the thunderous Murchison and Uhuru waterfalls cascading over the mighty river Nile – a host to pretty contented crocodiles (thanks to the ever present menu of the Nile Perch fish).

The trip to Murchison is a spectacular one. It is not a straight drive. 

It is a common ritual that Ugandans prefer having their Christmas away from the city in upcountry homes. But this trend is changing as more Ugandans instead embrace domestic tourism.  After a two- hour journey, we made our first stop at Kabalega diner, a hot spot for tourists to grab a bite before heading to the park.

 Kafu junction, an intersection that breaks off to Masindi town along the Kampala- Gulu highway, is another spot to enjoy your excursion as you head to the park.  At Kafu, it is a bee hive of activity in the sweltering afternoon heat – a horde of traders swarm the car, with an assortment of snacks; cold drinks, roasted cassava and meat . 

Hajji Nsubuga Muhammed, a middle aged man, doubles as the chairperson of Kafu traders.

 He has been at the trade for the last 11 years, but the last two years of the pandemic hit him the hardest.

Nsubuga runs a small butcher shop at Kafu eatery point. With beads of sweat streaming down his face, he says, the lockdown has heavily affected his business. 

Murchison Falls 

The park, much sought after by both domestic and international tourists, has since changed with the pandemic. 

Nevertheless, business is slowly picking up. 

The economic effects of Covid-19 are still visible. Its closure to contain the pandemic left many of the facilities in the park to lie idle, but the spirit of recovery is high as people forget the fatigue of lockdowns for this gate away.  

Oil activities have given a facelift to the park. Previously, it was all murram from Masindi town, but that has changed, with the 85 kilometre journey being a smooth ride all through to the park.  

A state of the art bridge has also been constructed across Victoria NIle to aid travellers crossing from Buliisa to Nwoya District.

By 7 am, all was set for a game drive. The driver had advised that game drives start off early in the morning, a perfect time to spot the wild animals as they come out to feed in the vast savannah grasslands. 

Our journey into the game tracks within the national park started with PatriciaAuma , a tour ranger who has been in the park for the last 11 years.   

Auma spells out some precautionary measures. 

Embarking out of the vehicle unnecessarily is prohibited and its advisable to keep a distance of 50 metres from the animals. 

Auma’s grasp of knowledge about the national park is on her fingertips. She has had the best and worst moments. 

She tells us the park has about 76 species of mammals and 450 bird species which include; elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, hippos and the big cats among others. 

The park is also bisected into south and North by the Victoria Nile. The northern part has a large number of animals and the southern has got fewer animals because of the kind of vegetation that exists in the park. 

The tropical Budongo rainforests around Pabidi area in the south is still home to buffaloes, antelopes, chimps and baboons. 

The Savannah grasslands in the northern part are wide and open and this allows animals to relate freely. 

The warthog, a wild pig, is a common feature around most human settlements within the national park.

 Most warthogs move in pairs or groups preferring to fend off on food leftovers near homesteads or park lodgings. 

Road construction for oil activities has forced most animals to move further away from tracks. So we were not able to spot the big cats- lions and leopards.

The big cats are also nocturnal in nature and prefer spending their time away in thickets.  But we couldn’t miss the elephants, bufallo, Uganda Kobs, Oribis, waterbucks, the Rothschild’s giraffes; all in impressive numbers. 

Girrafes, we are told, act as a point of protection to Uganda kobs and smaller animals for their height advantage especially during attacks from lions. 

Auma notes that bush night camping is an experience she enjoys; a mixture of fire, fun and sleeping in the wild. 

“We set up these camp fires because you can still enjoy seeing the animals but at a distance since they don’t like the smoke,” she says.  

The game drive was a fulfilling one, and on our way, we could spot a number of tourist vans. It was clear that tourism was picking up.

Mr Anusa Chemonges, the tourism warden, says since government lifted the lockdown, Murchison is receiving more visitors. 

For instance, latest statistics show Murchison has recorded a rise from 500 visitors to about 500 visitors to 9,200 visitors per month. 

Covid-19 also changed the tide in tourism with the national park recording more domestic tourists.

“In Murchison falls, the biggest number of tourists we receive are actually local tourists and the numbers of local tourists are going high,” he says. 

“Their interest is to see the wild animals, and then sail in the Nile,” he notes. 

Atim Grace, a domestic tourist in the park, says social media and television exposure could be driving domestic tourism.  “Initially, Ugandans used to think tourism is just for foreign people. But now, we have learnt that we have to promote the tourism sector,” she says.

She adds: “We can pay in Ugandan currency, and we have discounts because we come from the country.”

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