We’re on top of Murchison Falls, our faces wet with the spray of the water where the mighty Nile, the world’s longest river, squeezes through its narrowest point – just 20 feet across – to crash some 130 feet down over red rocks that gleam in the morning sun. In 1907, Winston Churchill the English statesman stood in this same spot and exclaimed ‘10 pounds will suffice to throw an iron bridge across’.
That bridge, straddling the Nile, was built in 1960 – but no one knows at what cost because no receipts were ever found. It did not stand for long because it got washed away by floods. I’m happy I wasn’t on it.
My nephew Galib and I are at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, having driven close to 800km from Nairobi in a Toyota Crown Royal Saloon 1985 model, via Kisumu and the one-stop-border town of Busia, and then being lost on the new Northern bypass that runs from Kampala to Entebbe because there’s no sign for Murchison Falls 350 kilometres north of Kampala. I’m reliving a childhood dream of sailing to the base of one of the most magnificent falls in the world.
Today, everybody knows about the White Nile – that it flows out of Lake Victoria from its source in Jinja at the now submerged Ripon Falls. But until the 19th century, it was the world’s greatest mystery because no one since the time of the pharaohs had unravelled the secret of this mysterious river that fed the Egyptians. In 1858, John Hanning Speke stood on the shores of a large expanse of water near present-day Mwanza and stated that it was the source of the Nile. He returned from England in 1862 and this time, he marched to present day Jinja and saw the thick vein of a river. Based on nothing but emotion, he stated the spot to be the source of the Nile. He was ridiculed. Before he could prove himself, he accidently shot himself dead.
Samuel Baker followed in Speke’s wake to confirm the source – or if there was more than one. Speke had told him about another lake – and so in the search, Baker and his beautiful young Hungarian wife chanced upon the falls in 1864.
They had already crossed the Nile near the amazing Karuma rapids before trekking to Lake Albert (Karuma, Albert and Murchison were named by Baker by being the first explorer to report to the outside world about them). It was on their return journey that they came upon Murchison Falls with their boat lifted out of the water by a hippo.
Driving past though thick-clad forests from Masindi which was an important village and later colonial town, we’re at the ferry-crossing over the Nile to Paraa Safari Lodge – the first built inside the park in the 1954 – the year that Hemingway crashed his airplane downstream in the falls.
The tin-barge sails us across, eight cars at a time. A few minutes later we’re at the lodge to book the boat to reach the bottom of the falls. Then the skies open with bolts of lightning – like when the Bakers were there. The Nile is barely visible. Drowning in the revered river isn’t on my agenda so we take a gamble to sail the following day when the skies are blue.
Instead we explore the national park in Mama Safari, our sturdy car, and spend the night at Chobe Safari Lodge 100 kilometres away so that we can see Karuma rapids that will soon vanish – like the Ripon Falls and Bujagali Falls on the Nile – because of the dam being built for hydro-power.
It’s a fascinating driving. The park is lush with towering borassus palms. Elephants graze and strange antelopes, called, Uganda cob appear. These antelopes take centre stage during the annual migration through the impenetrable swamp the Sudd (that the Bakers’ sailed through) from South Sudan to reach Kidepo national park. It’s comparable to the annual wildebeest migration over the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.
There’s great roads in and outside park. Contact the Uganda Wildlife Authority for more. There are basic campsites in the park. From Masindi, stop at Budongo forest to trek chimpanzees in the wild.