Murchison Falls NP – Safari, Part One – The Savannah

Although Entebbe is a lovely town, after a week of  being in one spot, we were ready for a change of scenery. So we signed up for a three day safari to Murchison Falls National  Park, home of what some call the world’s most powerful waterfall.

Unfortunately, the whole first day was spent in transit. Somehow our driver found a way to draw a three hour drive out to a whole day affair. But the campsite was in a lovely spot up on a ridge above the Nile River, between lakes Victoria and Albert. Before the sun set on the first night, we had a chance to walk down to the Nile, where we saw hippos and water buffalo playing on the far shore.

The second day made up for the previous day‘s drudgery. We started off with a safari drive through the savannah grasslands north of the river. The wildlife we saw there was astonishing. There were Rothschild’s giraffe in groups of 20 or more, and scores of other four legged creatures: Jackson’s hartebeest, oribe (like a very small antelope), Uganda kob, Defassa waterbuck, patas monkeys, bushbucks, and of course, warthogs.

Since it is the rainy season, waves of dramatic grey clouds would move through the area, sparing us the showers, but adding to the dramatic scenery. The vibrant blue of the sky was set off by the lime green grasslands that seemed to glow in the sunlight. It was comforting to see that there was clearly enough food to support the animals as  the savannah was not overgrazed. However, there’s a story behind that.

Prior to the reign of former president Idi Amin (if you don’t know who he was and need a crash course on the tyranny of his rule, watch The Last King of Scotland), the park was actually over populated with wildlife. According to some of the reading we’ve done, there were almost 15,000 elephants in the park and officials were planning to cull the population. During the Amin years and the chaotic 1980’s, poaching and bush meat hunting reduced the population of elephants in 1990 to fewer than 250. Other species suffered similar losses. Luckily, things have been peaceful during the last 15 years, so populations of most of the animals are back up to healthy and sustainable levels.

Sadly, not all the animals have made a comeback. In 1970, there were approximately 300 black rhinos and 120 white rhinos in Uganda. In 1982, the last white rhino was shot and killed in Murchison Falls NP and black rhinos have not been seen in the wild since ‘83. Efforts to reintroduce captive rhinos into the wild are underway, but it’s an uphill battle and chances are slim.

The highlight of the drive was seeing the king of animals: the lion. We were lucky enough to see two groups. The first was a trio, half hidden in the grasses. They tolerated the line of safari vehicles that came racing up to watch them for about five minutes before casually sauntering off across the savannah. The second sighting was bittersweet. After getting a call with the location of a pair of lions, our guide instructed our driver to head off the road. Along with the warning from guidebooks to ask guides not to do this, the park itself tells visitors to stay on roads in order to preserve the grasslands. Yet I’m  sure that there is pressure on the guides to show visitors as many of the “Big Five” animals (lion, elephants, leopards, buffalos and rhinos) as possible. Plus, there’s no doubt the guide was hoping for some good tips as well. So off into the bush we drove. 

Luckily, the lions were only about 30 meters away, sitting under a tree enjoying a fresh kill. One had the meal between its massive front paws and was contentedly ripping off mouthfuls and licking its bloodied muzzle. The second was resting nearby. This was the only lion of the five we saw that had a mane, which although quite beautiful, wasn’t its most striking feature. The golden eyes of this creature were captivating and almost iridescent. It was truly an awesome sight.

And that was just the morning’s adventure.

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