While Uganda might not be quite as celebrated as Kenya or Tanzania for its wildlife, there’s no denying that if you’re a nature lover or a wildlife enthusiast, there’s still plenty here to delight and surprise you. The country has an impressive ten National Parks offering an incredible array of birds and animals to enjoy, all set against a backdrop of some of the most spectacular landscapes anywhere in East Africa.
One of the very best of these is Murchison Falls National Park. During my stay in Kampala it was mentioned to me on several occasions – in fact a couple of people told me it was their favourite of all the country’s parks, so when I managed to get some time off to explore the country, it was the first place I headed.
My friend Linn and I (check out her blog at travellinn.net) hired a car and driver (a very lovely Ugandan guy named Hassan), and set off early one morning on the bumpy road heading north from Kampala. At lunchtime we stopped for a few hours at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary (which I wrote about here) and arrived at Murchison Falls National Park at around 5 pm.
We planned to spend a day and a half here: not very long, but if we managed our time right, just about long enough to take in the Park’s three unmissable attractions.
1/ Top of the Falls
Murchison Falls are listed widely in guides to Uganda as one of the top sights in the country, and with very good reason. The main waterfall is said to be the most powerful in the world: where the path of the Victoria Nile narrows to an almost hair-thin six-metre gap – the narrowest point anywhere on the entire river – and the full force of this epic waterway surges through this tiny crack and plummets over a 43 metre drop at 300 cubic metres per second (which is a LOT, in case you were wondering).
The waterfall may not be the biggest or the tallest in the world, but when this much water is squeezed through such a tiny gap, the pressure it exerts is immense – and that’s why it’s the most powerful. You’d think that over millions of years such pressure would erode the rocks, widen the gap, and weaken the waterfall, but the rock here is super-hard granite so the crack will remain as narrow as it currently is for many more millennia to come.
The waterfall can be viewed from two angles – the bottom (about which more below) and the top. Our first visit was to the Top of the Falls, where there’s a car park and a gravelled path leading up a fairly steep but short hill to a viewpoint in front of the main crevice where the Victoria Nile surges through the crack. On one side you can see the torrent of water, complete with a dense spray that will drench you (and your camera, so be careful!) in seconds, and in the other direction you can see the lower part of the river as it flows west towards Lake Albert in the distance.
According to the tribe who live on the river’s south bank, these Falls are called Mpanga, which means God or Creator. But in 1864 they were given the name Murchison by the British explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who ‘discovered’ them while on a journey to chart the course of the Nile. He named them after the man who had funded his expedition: the then-president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison.
The falls were renamed again in the 1970s by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He gave them the name Kabalega, and closed the park to the public so he could turn it into his own private playground. But just like Amin himself, the name didn’t last.
The view from the top is astounding. The viewing platform is heart-stoppingly close to the water, which pounds and churns through the crack with a deafening roar. There is a railing, but it’s pretty low and rusty, so it’s a good idea to stand a little way back in case you inadvertently lose your balance. I don’t fancy your chances if you do!
When you’ve had enough of being drenched by spray, you can then walk along the path that leads gently upwards from the viewpoint to the fissure itself. It’s an incredible sight to see all that water spewing and foaming through this narrow gap, then tumbling down though the crack before pouring out into the river at the bottom. Have a quick watch of this short video and you’ll soon see why it should be on your bucket list.
I’ve visited quite a lot of waterfalls (check out some Icelandic ones here) but Murchison Falls are definitely up there amongst the best I’ve seen. I’d have loved to have been able to stay longer but the sun was setting and we needed to complete the drive to our lodge before it got dark. See details about where we stayed at the end of this post.
The next day we were up before dawn to spend a full day exploring the National Park itself and enjoying the other two top things to do here.
2 / Game Drive in the Park
At nearly 4000 km2 , Murchison Falls National Park is the biggest park in Uganda.
Situated in the north-west of the country about five hour’s drive from Kampala, it was created in 1952 and now contains around 500 bird and 75 mammal species, including lions, giraffes, elephants, hippos, hyenas, kingfishers, and the Ugandan national bird, the crested crane.
Most of the Murchison Falls accommodation is inside the park on the south side of the river, while the best area for game viewing is on the north side. That means that to have the best chance of seeing animals you need to cross the Nile – and the only way to do this is by means of a single tiny ferry with room for about 10 cars.
The world is beginning to wake up to the beauty of Uganda, so the queue to board the ferry can be pretty long. Naturally Hassan, our driver, was keen for us to get there as early as possible to maximise time in the park, so he dragged us out of bed well before dawn and we headed to the Paraa ferry station as fast as we could, armed with a packed breakfast. Even so, we had to wait for three round trips (about 10 minutes each way) before we could board. So pro tip: unless you want to sit in a queue for an hour, get there as early as you can!
Still, it wasn’t a terrible place to sit and watch the sunrise with an egg sandwich.
Our car had a pop-up top, perfect for wildlife viewing, and with just two of us in the car there was plenty of room for both of us to get a good view at all the animals we passed. So once we were safely across, we popped the top up, and off we went.
This was my first visit to a National Park in Uganda so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Two years ago I was lucky enough to go on safari in the Serengeti, famously one of the best wildlife-viewing places in the world, and was blown away by the abundance and diversity of the creatures we saw (read about that here). Uganda is not nearly so well-known for her wildlife, so I knew not to hope for Tanzanian-size populations, but was still hoping for some great photo opportunities.
And I was not disappointed. Here are some of the animals we saw in just a couple of hours:
This adorable Rothschild giraffe, who was gracefully walking across the park and stopping every so often to take a bite from the nearest tree.
One evil-looking hyena, who skulked furtively past our car like he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t.
This very handsome Ugandan kob, sitting right by the road and not bothered by our presence in the slightest.
This splendid group of elephants. I was alarmed to see the ones lying down, and worried that they might be sick or even dead. But Hassan reassured me that although it’s not that common to see elephants sleeping because they normally sleep at night, these ones are just having a nice nap.
And a flock of cattle egrets, swooping gracefully over the river.
Although we did come across a fair amount of wildlife, there’s obviously a difference between here and places like Tanzania and Kenya. Murchison Falls is not the Serengeti, nor does it claim to be. But there’s still masses to see here, and driving through the park is also a great opportunity to enjoy the landscape. We were even able to get out of the car and walk around by the river for a bit, which was lovely after all that driving.
After about three hours we drove back to the ferry crossing, collapsed the top of the car, and returned to our accommodation for a quick lunch before heading out again for more wildlife spotting – this time by boat.
3 / Boat Ride to the Bottom of the Falls
The highlight of any trip to Murchison Falls National Park – and undoubtedly the best way to get the full impression of the Falls in the landscape – is to take a boat trip along the Nile.
The trips start at Paraa, right by the ferry crossing, and cruise eastward along the Victoria Nile towards the thundering falls. This part of the river is wide and serene, and opportunities to get close to the wildlife are plentiful.
I took my Canon 5D Mark IV, a 70-200 f/2.8 L II lens, and a 2 x extender, giving me a range of 400 mm. Settled comfortably on the boat, shooting away at everything we passed like a crazed paparazzo at a celebrity wedding, I was absolutely in my happiest of happy places.
And with all the gear I needed and a great viewpoint, I was able to capture these beauties:
Plenty of pied kingfishers, which were everywhere.
A tree full of black-headed weaver birds. These guys are the dream date of the bird world: each one works hard to single-handedly weave a great nest for his desired female, and if she doesn’t like it, he’ll rip it up and start all over again. Human men, take note!
A glorious red-throated bee eater.
This weird-looking bird is a saddle-billed stork, the tallest stork in the world. The patch on her chest is called a ‘brood patch’ – it’s a bare area of skin well-supplied with blood vessels for keeping her eggs warm when she’s incubating. When she settles over the eggs, the heat from her body will be easily transferred to the eggs through this patch.
Yellow billed storks were a common sight too, wading and fishing by the water’s edge.
We also saw plenty more animals, including:
More giraffes. Giraffes live around 25-30 years, and get darker-coloured as they get older. The guide reckoned the one of the left is at least 20 years old.
This Nile crocodile is about three years old, and is very lucky to be alive. Baby crocodiles are left to fend for themselves after just one month and only about 1 per cent survive to adulthood.
There were hippos everywhere, mostly just chilling in the water, grunting and snorting in a relaxed fashion, and occasionally disappearing under the surface.
I was surprised to learn that hippos cannot actually swim: to move around they walk along the bottom holding their breath, and then come back up to the surface to breathe every 5 minutes or so.
Hippos spend their days in the river, and come out to the shore to eat grass at night. Despite being vegetarian, they kill more humans than any other large animal. Around 400 people are year are killed by hippos in Africa.
The Bottom of the Falls
I would have been quite happy just chugging along enjoying all the animals and birds, but after about two hours we arrived at our destination, the bottom of Murchison Falls. From a safe distance a few hundred metres away from the foaming torrent, we were able to get a clear view of that narrow crack in the cliff and the water thundering through. It was great to be able to see the falls in their entirety, and see how they fit into the landscape, though I’d argue that it might have been more exciting to do the visits the other way round: falls from a distance first, and then go in for the dramatic closeup.
In fact many people do exactly this. At this point you can disembark, and if you’re feeling energetic, walk up the Baker’s Trail to the Top of the Falls. This walk costs $15 and is escorted by an armed guard in case of wildlife encounters.
As we’d already been to the top, we took the boat back to where we started. The entire trip took about 3 hours and cost $32 per person.
The trip was operated by Wild Frontiers and was ably guided by Ellis, 33.
Ellis has always been passionate about animals, so after finishing school did a course in tourism and became a guide. He says he loves working with nature, and his favourite animal is the leopard because he comes from the leopard clan. In Uganda everybody has a clan; each one is named after an animal which is said to guide and protect you. In theory this means that Ellis should be safe from ever being harmed by a leopard, but fortunately he’s scientifically-minded and is careful not to take risks just in case!
Where to Stay In Murchison Falls National Park
There are at least a dozen places to stay in the park, ranging from reasonably budget to extremely upmarket. We stayed in the very nice Murchison River Lodge, which is situated right on the river about 15 minutes from the Paraa ferry crossing.
The Lodge has a range of accommodation options to choose from, varying from basic but comfortable safari tents (which we stayed in) to thatched family-sized cottages.
Although our tent was fairly simple, this is not regular camping. We had big, comfy beds, a romantic mosquito net that made me feel like I was sleeping in a four-poster, and a large, clean bathroom block just a short walk away.
The main buildings are clustered on the river bank, where there’s a restaurant and outside seating, from where you can listen to the hippos splashing and grunting as you sip your Nile lager and watch the sun set – and very pretty it was too.
It’s not a good idea to swim in the river for obvious reasons, but helpfully the Lodge even has a pool where you can cool off after your hot day of wildlife viewing.
And of course Linn and I wasted no time in making the most of THAT!
- Entry to Murchison Falls National Park costs $40 for foreign non resident adult and $20 for a child. More info on pricing can be found here.
- Most accommodation is situated on the south side of the river, but the best game viewing area is in the north where there are more animals and vegetation is less dense. To get there, you’ll need to cross at the Paraa ferry crossing.
- The ferry costs $7-13 depending on the size of your car. Ferries start from 7 am and you should definitely be there by 6.30 at the latest if you don’t want to sit in a queue all morning.
- Boat trips are offered by Uganda Wildlife Authority, Paraa Safari Lodge, and Wild Frontiers. We travelled with Wild Frontiers and I thought the trip was excellent. It cost $32 per person and took two hours to get to the base of the falls and a further hour to return. Although the boat is covered I’d suggest making sure you take suncream and a hat, and try to sit on the left hand side which will be the side closer to the riverbank.
- If you have more time than we did, other activities you can do here include chimp tracking, bird-watching walks, and fishing trips.
- For much more information, and to plan your visit to Uganda, I highly recommend buying the Bradt Guide.
Have you been to Uganda? Do you have a favourite National Park? Or are you planning to go? Throw your comments or questions into the box below!
Note: My accommodation at Murchison River Lodge, my park entry, and the boat trip with Wild Frontiers were complementary. All thoughts and opinions are my own. I don’t accept freebies in exchange for positive reviews. All prices are correct at the time of writing.