From Kampala I headed north to Uganda’s oldest and largest national park, Murchsion Falls. Traveling with a tour company recommended by my friend, it was about a five hour drive to get there. Just before the park gate we turned onto a dirt road where the driver, Sam, explained, “The tarmac road ends here. Now we are going to experience the dust.” And indeed we did. Faced with a choice between closing the windows to avoid the rolling clouds of orange dust or leaving them open to relieve some of the sweltering heat, most of us attempted to do both by leaving just a small crack open, which made neither problem better.
The falls themselves are very impressive. Almost the entire flow of the Nile River is forced through a narrow, 6 meter wide opening in the rocks and plunges 45 meters into the valley below. An additional falls, named Uhuru (independence), was created in 1962 after extreme rainfall made the Nile flood, burst its banks and create a new channel. We were able to follow a rocky hiking trail right to the top of the falls; standing so close to the Devil’s Cauldron, a churning mass of water and mist, definitely makes one appreciate the force of nature. Across the rocks stood the remains of a bridge over the falls built for the Queen of England’s visit in the 50’s, which had been washed away by the power of the river.
We stayed in a camp above the ferry dock on the south side of the Victoria Nile. Immediately upon arriving, our host explained that wild animals, including hippos, baboons, and a family of warthogs, often wandered through the camp and warned us to carry a light at night lest we bump into a wayward hippo and experience its ‘terminal’ bite. I shared a tent with a Serbian-German filmaker who was also visiting a friend in Kampala, another German who is working to develop the Uganda Film Institute. The night passed without incident (hippo or otherwise, although I did spot a warthog tearing up the grass outside the bathroom) and the next day we took a car out to the region between the Victoria and Albert Niles (the river as it flows out of Lake Victoria is called the Victoria Nile, which then enters and flows out of Lake Albert), which is full of buffalo and different species of antelope. The real highlight of the day, however, was a cruise in a small boat 17 kilometers up the river to about 400 meters from the base of the falls. Spotting crocodiles, fish eagles and innumerable hippos from on top of the roof, along with simply watching the lush green banks roll by as the afternoon waned, was pure bliss.
After Murchison Falls I caught a bus to the town of Fort Portal at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. Most public buses in Uganda wait until they are fully packed with passengers to depart, and mine was no exception with a three hour wait at the station in Kampala. A woman wearing a bright yellow headscarf sat down next to me and though I was becoming impatient, she was completely exasperated and began berating the bus workers to start the journey. We eventually got going and made it to Fort Portal by midafternoon (I bought a couple roasted bananas for lunch along the way). During a communal dinner at my guesthouse that night I took part in an interesting discussion on Uganda’s unemployment problem, which my host argued would only be solved by young people moving back to their parents’ farms and becoming ‘professional farmers’.
Instead of gorilla tracking on the Congo border (which costs upwards of $600 for a permit, if you are lucky enough to obtain one) I decided to visit Kibale National Park, where tracking one of the 12 troops of chimpanzees is one of the more unique wildlife experiences in all of East Africa. Following an armed guide into the dense forest (the rifle slung over his shoulder was in case of any encounters with the aggressive forest elephants), my small group discovered some fruit branches that had been picked over by chimps and fresh chimp scat (complete with dung beetles) before spotting one in the bushes ahead. We lost him pretty quickly, but soon discovered an entire group of 15-20 chimps swinging through the trees, grooming one another, and rambling around on the forest floor. These chimps are habituated to the presence of humans and more or less ignored us the entire time, but that didn’t stop me from holding my breath as a large male walked by about 3 feet away. It was fascinating to observe the closest living relatives to humans in the wild, with all of our similarities and differences.