Above: Approaching Murchison falls in the National Park. Copyright: i Rupi Mangat 2017
Published: The East African Nation media
Part 2 of 2
By Rupi Mangat
At first glance Masindi gives the impression of a one-street, non-descript town with relics of colonial architecture. But is has interesting history as Sally Wareing, the retired octogenarian teacher who bought a run-down hotel and turned it into a charming garden hotel called New Garden View Court Hotel. It’s 90 kilometres from the world’s most powerful waterfall, Murchison.
“In the 1920s, the East Africa Railways and Harbour transported people and cargo by road between Butiaba (on Lake Albert) to Masindi,” she starts giving me a tour of the town. It was cargo (and people) like ivory and pelts from the Congo to Masindi Port on Lake Kyoga and then by rail (ie Uganda Railway) to Mombasa. Masindi town, 45 kilometres from the port, only had a customs shed to register everything.
With profits running high, EAR&H built the fancy Masindi Hotel in 1923 where we enjoy a morning coffee. In the 1950s Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn stayed here during the filming of the ‘African Queen’ including Hemingway after crashing his plane twice at Murchison Falls.
Then came Idi Amin into power in the 1970s and it was downhill. Later as Museveni toppled Idi Amin (1971 to 1979) and Milton Obote (1980 to 1985), Masindi turned into a garrison.
It’s now on the upswing with modern café’s and shops and a tourist stopover to Murchison Falls and beyond.
While l debate about visiting Murchison Falls which l did in 2017, l foray into more of Kabalega’s kingdom.
Kinyara Chimpanzees and the Polish Church
It’s 6 a.m. An hour’s drive from Masindi, we’re at Kinyara Sugar, one of Uganda’s largest sugar manufacturers to meet its most famous residents, a family of chimpanzees living in the riverine forest edged on both sides by the enormous sugar plantation. I’m doubtful that the great ape with whom we have a 98 per cent identical DNA exists here. We follow the guide along the indigenous forest that once was a continuation of Budongo forest stretching from Murchison Falls. Two hours later, the ape family appears. It’s surreal. They are chasing the colobus monkeys. One monkey falls to the ground into the waiting circle of apes and the feast begins. Meanwhile our guide informs us that the chimpanzees are allowed to feed on the sugarcane courtesy of the sugar millers. The guide monitoring the chimps however is paid from bookings made at New Court View Hotel.
Today only 5000 chimps survive in Uganda from a population of tens of thousands a century ago. Spread across Africa’s rainforest the global population is 30,000 as the forests diminish.
On the same route, a white-washed church appears in the midst of the green fields. It’s the Polish church built in the late 1940s by Polish refugees after the Second World War.
Thousands were brought to East Africa by the British and Polish government-in-exile in London. The church stands strong with the original framed paintings of the Christ’s story and the graves of those who died here. The refugees made up of mostly children, old men and women not only built the church in the then forest but also a school, kitchen gardens and a bakery in a span of six years before they were relocated to Europe, Australia and America.
Finally, l will myself to Murchison Falls. From the gate on, it’s a shock to see the road to the top of the falls tarmacked and cars speeding on it. Forest trees lie felled to the ground along the road to the ferry where a gigantic bridge is being built over the Nile which will put the charming ride across the ferry to an end. Enormous CCCC boards dot the road with Chinese surveyors supervising the work.
Research shows that 95 per cent of environmental destruction in tropical countries happens within five kilometres of a road and constructing roads in pristine forests with people encroaching increases the risk of diseases jumping from wild animals to humans.
Still, Kabalega’s aka Murchison waterfall thunders down 141 feet through a 23-foot gap in the rocks to journey on to the Mediterranean. While the Ugandan government initially denied constructing a hydropower dam on Murchison Falls, it’s come up with an alternative which is to construct the dam on Uhuru Falls, that’s a few feet apart and joined at the hip with Murchison Falls. It’s a joke.
China National Offshore Oil Company (CCCC) constructing the tarmac road is, together with France’s Total and UK-based Tullow looking to drill some 419 oil wells in the region. There’s concern over the park and wildlife corridors being fragmented. Deeper in the park on the slower murrum road, we see Rothschild giraffes, Uganda kob, oribi, buffaloes and birds. But no lions for what its famed for.
Uganda’s 2040 Vision is to transform the country socially and economically with hydropower dams to generate electricity and dig up the oil even in protected areas. Yet there are alternatives and no one against development.
For many Ugandans at the park that day, it will be the end of Murchison Falls.
Masindi is 847 kms west of Nairobi via the Busia border or an hour’s flight to Entebbe followed by a 250-km, four hour drive to Masindi. Kenyans do not need a visa and can enter with an ID card.
For affordable accommodation in Masindi, you cannot go wrong with New Court View Hotel.
In and around Murchison falls there are both budge to high end lodges including campsites.