Murchison Falls National Park
Murchison Fails National Pork (MFNP) lies at the northern end of the Albertine Rift where the valley’s bounding escarpments fades into the anonymous expanses of northern Uganda. The park is bisected by the Victoria Nile for 100 kilometers as it flows west from Karuma Falls to the Albert Nile. Created in 1952 from the 3,860 square kilometers, MFNP is Uganda’s largest protected area. Today it forms the core of the even larger Murchison Falls Conservation Area (5072 square kilometers) which includes the adjoining Karuma and Bugungu wildlife reserves.
The main attractions of this park are undoubtedly the thundering Murchison Falls and the River Nile with its teeming hippo and serried ranks of crocodile on the sandbanks, coupled with large numbers of other species coming down to drink and bathe.
Undoubtedly, the park’s most enduring and famous safari attraction is the Paraa launch trip to view the spectacle. On the way to the Murchison Falls, Crocodile, Lion, Elephant, Hippos, Hartebeest, Buffalo, Rothschild Giraffe, Oribi and Monitor Lizards may be seen.
The most dramatic view of the waterfall is found at the top of the falls where the sight and sound of the Nile crashing through the 6 meter wide chasm makes an unforgettable assault on your neural senses.
The Falls site may be reached either by vehicle or a hot half hour climb on foot after leaving the Puma launch in Fajao Gorge. The latter route passes Baker’s Point, a promontory that faces Murchison Falls and a secondary cataract named Uhuru Falls.
The Murchison Falls
North of Butiaba, the Albertine Rift Valley wall shoulders its way inland from Lake Albert to merge into the rolling expanses of Murchison Falls National Park. But before the rift valley disappears altogether, it concludes with a final and quite superb exclamation mark: the Murchison Falls.
By this time, the once lofty Bunyoro escarpment has dwindled into a low step over which the Nile plunges to separate two very different rivers.
Upstream, the Victoria Nile hurtles through the rift’s hinterland down an explosive 80km of rapids that rafters considered one of the world’s scariest sections of whitewater. However, the final plunge over Murchison Falls drains the last of the river’s energy, transforming it into a broad and placid stream that flows peacefully across the rift valley floor to seep through a papyrus delta into Lake Albert.
Murchison Falls is famous not for its height – just 40 meters – but for the violence with which the Nile explodes through a narrow six meter gorge.
The first European visitors to the Falls were Samuel and Florence Baker in 1864. They named the falls after Sir Roderick Murchison, then President of the Royal Geographical Society. More satisfyingly perhaps, they are also known as Kabarega Falls, after the 19th Century King of Bunyoro whose domain extended from Murchison to Mweya and who stubbornly resisted colonial incursions. Kabarega’s enemies would include Samuel Baker when the explorer returned to Africa and made a vain attempt to annex Bunyoro as an Egyptian colony.
“Upon rounding the corner in our canoes, a magnificent sight burst upon us. Rushing through a gap that cleft the rock exactly before us, the river, contracted from agrand stream, was pent up in a narrow gorge scarcely fifty yards (50 meters) in width. Roaring furiously through the rock bound pass, it plunged in a single leap of about 120 feet ( 40 meters) perpendicular into a dark abyss below.” Samuel Baker, Murchison Falls, 1864
The Bakers had little time to appreciate the Falls for a hippopotamus attacked and tipped their small boat, an event that caused numerous logs and boulders along the river to come to life as hundreds of crocodiles. The Falls are an effective food processor and the reptiles were waiting, as they still do today, for ready mashed meals to arrive. However they are not fussy creatures and the Bakers, though made tough and chewy by travel, would have done just as well. The couple were grateful to be swept safely onto the bank.
The power of the 300 cubic meters per second raging through Murchison Falls has not been lost on either engineers or politicians. “Who can doubt”, Churchill wondered , “that the bridle is preparing which shall hold and direct their strength, or that the day will come when forlorn Fajao (a long-vanished town below the Falls) – now depopulated and almost derelict – will throb with the machinery of manufacture and electric production. I cannot believe that modern science will be prepared to leave these mighty forces untamed, unused…”
Modern science has since tamed the Nile at Jinja and latest at Karuma Falls with a hydro-electric turbine and has indeed been reluctant to leave Murchison Falls unused with an on-edge debate on that same issue in 2019. In 1971 a similar scheme was prevented only by the coup in which Idi Amin ousted President Obote. The project was forgotten and electric light delayed at Murchison as a more sinister darkness spread across the whole country. Today, in these more enlightened times the waterfall is (not for long) fully protected within the national park.
In fact, the Nile does not squeeze in its entirety through Murchison’s narrow gorge but also spills over another, intermittent, waterfall to the north known as Uhuru Falls. This was first described in 1907 by Surveyor S.B. Weldon who reported a “distinct fall of great magnitude to the north of Sir Samuel Baker’s fall”.
However records show that it was not present in 1902 and that it had vanished by 1928. Nor was it present in 1960 when the footbridge was built across the gorge to link north and south Murchison. It was during the great rains of 1962 (Uganda’s year of independence) that the Nile again broke free of its constraining gorge to restore the secondary waterfall.
Uhuru, appropriately enough, means freedom.
It is not clear whether Uhuru Falls existed, in 1864 when the Bakers reached Murchison Falls. In fact it is possible that they described Uhuru rather than Murchison Falls for Sam Baker’s account is riddled with uncharacteristic inconsistencies. Though accurately gauging the height of the falls, (40 meters), he estimated that the ‘narrow gorge’ was 50 yards wide. Certainly the engraving in his book, The Albert Nyanza, better resembles Uhuru Falls (image bellow).
Was Baker more overwhelmed by Uhuru than Murchison Falls, or did the Nile then plunge solely over Uhuru while Murchison was a temporarily dry gorge? Things can change, as the secondary waterfall’s appearances and disappearances show. If Uhuru alone existed in 1864, is it possible that subsequent collapses within the Murchison gorge have lowered the riverbed to recapture the river and (re)create the spectacle we see today?
Around Murchison Falls National Park
What to See in Murchison Falls National Park
Birdlife is spectacular along the river. Red-throated bee eaters nest in their hundreds in a river cliff near Paraa while a plethora of waterbirds are found in and along the channel. The most prized sighting is the strange looking Shoebill or Whale-headed Stork which frequents marshy areas. With luck, this may be seen from the Paraa launch but opportunities are best in the Victoria Nile’s papyrus Delta where the river enters Lake Albert.
The savanna plains, the best game viewing opportunities are found north of the Nile in the Buligi Area. This lovely grassland wilderness is sandwiched between the Victoria and Albert-Niles with panoramic views towards the rift valley escarpment in West Nile district and Congo.
Other notable areas north of the river are a parkland-like expanse of Borassus Palms near Tangi and the Nyamsika Cliffs viewpoint which overlooks a river valley used by wildlife as a corridor to reach the Nile. Game is more scarce in the bushier habitats south of the river. However forest species, notably Chimpanzee can be found in the Kanyiyo Padidi Forest in the southern part of the Murchison Falls Conservation Area.
The Murchison Nile is home to some huge Nile Perch and regular competitions attract anglers from around the world.
The unconfirmed record (the scales only went up to 100kg) was an estimated 108kg fish taken in 2002.
The Channel track and the Leopard Loop are probably the most likely locations in Uganda to find Leopard and Giant Forest Hog. The area is also memorable for its distinctive candelabra trees (Euphorbia candelabrum) and the African Fish Eagles that perch on them.