The falls raged – our faces wet with the spray of water. Not from any ordinary river but the great Nile. Here we were, my nephew and l standing on sheer rock, spell bound by the force of the falls.
The eight-year-old in me had been transfixed by the falls many decades earlier – and the gigantic Nile crocodiles that lay every inch of the banks with gaping jaws and little birds inside cleaning them. It was my dream always to return. And l did.
Borrowing my brother’s son Galib and the sturdy Toyota Crown Royal Saloon 1985 model that had everyone impressed, we mapped our journey through Kisumu on Victoria, the source of the Nile. A 90-minute stop at Busia, the one-stop-border town had us into the country coined ‘the Pearl of Africa’ by Winston Churchill on his state visit in 1907.
Lush with rice paddies and sugar-cane plantations, rain pelted on us through Mabira rain forest before a sumptuous lunch at Jinja Sailing Club and a sail on Victoria to the very spot that the Nile – reputed to be the world’s longest river – starts its incredible 6,852km journey to the Mediterranean Sea – the now submerged Ripon Falls.
The new Northern bypass to Kampala had us lost with no sign post to the falls in the north. The traffic didn’t help and as night descended we found a road side inn – cheap and cheerful at Luwero.
This was the day of the falls. The sun rose from the mist-decked fields as we drove to make it for the mid-morning ferry over the Nile into Murchison Falls National Park. The only thing – l didn’t know that on the way to the falls there were chimpanzees in Budongo Forest that was once the realm of the Bunyoro kings. This had to be done on our return journey.
The ferry – a tiny tin barge that allowed for eight vehicles – took a few minutes to sail us to the other side of the Nile.
Because of the chimpanzees plans changed with us doing an afternoon game drive and being totally surprised by animals we’d never seen – the Uganda kob and Patas monkey – with Rothschild giraffe, elephants, oribi, ostrich and more in lush savanna grassland filled with Borassus palms and acacia.
Crossing over into Chobe on the other side of the park, the river flowed over rapids so impressive – the Karuma.
It was here on 22 January 1864 that Samuel Baker and his beautiful young wife reached. They were out to prove the source of the Nile that at the time had caused an outrageous controversy in Europe – Speke had announced that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile in 1862 but he was ridiculed by his peers and soon after accidently shot himself dead.
Walking the wide girth of the bridge over Karuma rapids, a sign post shows the story of the Bakers ‘discovery’. But reading The White Nile by Alan Moorehead published in 1960 – so far the best read on the White Nile – Speke and Grant (Speke’s companion on the second journey to Africa to pursue the source of the Nile), had already reached Karuma falls after Speke’s epic announcement that the outlet which he named Ripon Falls after the president of the Royal Geographical Society and funder of the journey was the source of the Nile– some 300 kilometers below its source on 19 November 1862. You may as well rush to the rapids which will soon vanish under the new dam.
The Bakers’ were allowed to cross the Nile by the chief and long story short – after ‘discovering’ Lake Albert – which Baker named after Victoria’s husband recently dead – they chanced upon something they never expected – the thundering falls!
It is at this point that the Nile gushes down at its most dramatic and narrowest point – 20 feet wide and 130 feet down. Baker named this Murchison Falls after the then president of the Royal Geographical Society.
Finally – it’s my great moment – reliving the eight-year-old.
The boat sets sail. Wading birds and hippos lounge in the Nile with giraffes and buffaloes on the banks. The crocodile-stringed banks of my childhood are no more. We see only four – really massif.
And then the sliver of water shows from afar – it’s the mighty falls.
It is spell-binding – so strong is the force of the crashing falls – that the boat cannot go against the current. Some people get off to climb up to the top.
Back to the chimps – with no prior booking and threatening rain, the guide pronounces that the chimps will have already made their nests in the trees – and it’s too late for the 3-hour trek in the rain forest.
But the silver lining to this – driving back we turn into Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. The lodge we were to spend the first night and did not reach – is full. The woman at Rhino Fund Uganda notices my worry. She offers us a night stay at Amuka Lodge at a discount – in Acholi it’s the word for rhino – and rise in Kiswahili.
She turns out to be the executive director of RFU – Angie Genade. After Idi Amin’s blood-filled regime in the 1970s all Uganda’s rhino – and this is the northern white rhino – were poached and now extinct in the wild.
6 a.m. – donned in pink gumboots, we’re wading in a swamp that stretches from Victoria – a 100-kilometres away. And this is when as the mist clears we see the shoebill stork! This prehistoric bird, that even the pharaohs knew of, has a global population of 5000-8000 with a 1000 in Uganda. We see two – that is 20 per cent of Uganda’s shoebill population in the wild.
Done with the swamp, it’s to the grasslands to track rhino – the more common and introduced southern white – on foot with rangers – the 19 make for Uganda’s rhino population. We find four – two that lumber away so fast that there’s no way to keep up with them.
This was Uganda in week with not a single tyre puncture and 18 holes of golf thrown in by the shores of Victoria at the ultra-new golf course at Lake Victoria Serena.
But l must return for the chimpanzees – in the rainforest. Join me!
Girl Friends on Safari: My new venture – Mum’s and daughters; sisters or just friends wanting a break – l’m planning this safari for next year – l need six to make a group. Interested – write to me for the itinerary on firstname.lastname@example.org
Nairobi to Murchison Falls
780km – great roads even in the park – we did it in a saloon car called – Mama Safari.
Safe roads, great lodges – we stayed at Jinja Nile Resort, Paraa Safari Lodge and Chobe Safari Lodge in Murchison, Amuka Lodge in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Lake Victoria Serena in Entebbe and Traveller’s Inn at Luwero.
Must have: log book, yellow fever certificate – East African’s use ID cards.
One stop border at Busia: Easy but the vehicle registration is lengthy – they keep the log book forcing you to return – annoying – if you decide to continue to another country.