We arrived just in time for an evening game drive and hired a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) park ranger to accompany us into the park. His name was Charles and he wore a dark green uniform with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.
“What do you want to see?” he asked.
“A giraffe,” I said.
Five minutes into our drive, we saw one. It stood near the road, staring down at us as we took photos, and then crossed the road behind us.
I had imagined that finding the animals would be harder. I had also imagined more tourists. But not at Murchison. We practically had the park to ourselves.
Soon after our first giraffe sighting, we saw the whole shebang: elephants, buffalo, warthogs and several species of antelope including the tiny oribi, the masculine waterbuck, the majestic kob, and the Jackson’s Hartebeest which are apparently just as dumb as they look—after running from lions, the Hartebeest quickly forget about their predators and resume grazing.
As it grew dark, Charles directed our driver to take a quick detour. We left the main road and began driving toward a tree. I saw something bright red and tan but I didn’t know what it was. Then we stopped and I realized it was a fresh antelope carcass. There was nothing left but a head, legs and an open ribcage. On the other side of the tree was a lion. It was exhausted, panting heavily and too tired to lift its head.
Upon closer inspection, we noticed it was missing a leg, the result of poachers leaving traps in the park, Charles said. We would later see a giraffe with a mangled foot; an open trap doesn’t discriminate.
We watched the three-legged lion for a while and then drove to the next tree where another lion was resting. He was attractive with a thick orange mane, the sun setting behind him. He remained still as we crept closer, stopping just 5 meters from him to take pictures from inside the vehicle. Though I had been to zoos many times, it was different seeing animals in the wild, especially seeing the lion’s dinner. Had we come just a bit earlier we might have seen the kill.
Before long it was dark so we concluded our tour and planned to go again at sunrise.
On the second day, we saw the lions again, this time accompanied by a female. Still full from the antelope, they were unbothered by our presence as we drove in circles around them. The female ignored us and licked her paws like a house cat. Then she yawned, revealing her sharp fangs, and made eye contact with me. Her stare was piercing, reminding me that though they were docile now, they were still fierce predators.
By day’s end, we added hyenas, hippos and patas monkeys to our list. And by the time we left Murchison, after four total game drives, we had seen everything there is to see except for the leopard, which is only seen about once a month.
Though I’ve never been on other game drives, I’m inclined to think Murchison is one of the best. Namely, there’s an abundance of animals without an abundance of people.
Hiring a Ranger
Hiring a ranger is a must. Without Charles, we simply wouldn’t have had the same experience. He knew the trails and knew where to find specific animals. I also felt more comfortable getting out to take pictures since Charles could scare off any threatening animals with his AK. As a ranger, Charles was also allowed to take us off the beaten path and give us a more up close and personal tour.
Another important distinction is that we had rented a vehicle and hired a driver for our entire trip. We could therefore spend as much or as little time as we wanted in each place, and our driver was able to make arrangements for us, like calling to hire Charles for our game drives. We encountered the alternative while inside the park—an enormous bus with tourists baking on the rooftop and clinging to binoculars. It’s unlikely the driver had intimate knowledge of the park, Charles said, because these companies are based hours away in Kampala and Entebbe. They may claim to specialize in places like Murchison, but no one knows the park like the rangers.
At the end of our first tour, we paid Charles the 20 or 25 dollar park charge for his services and added a 50% tip. While this percentage seems high, the actual tip was very little considering what we got out of the 3- to 4-hour tour. Apparently, though, this was an extremely generous tip. Charles told our driver he had never seen people tip like us. By the next day, our driver had received several calls from other rangers who wanted to take us on a tour, but we really liked Charles and booked him for all four game drives.
Visiting the Falls
If you want, you can get dangerously close to Murchison Falls, one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls that forces its way through a narrow opening in the rocks and flows into the Nile. The crashing water is loud and violent and there are no guard rails, just a warning spray-painted on the ground. Take this warning seriously as falling in would be certain death.
You can also get an elevated view of the falls if you take a short, steep hike nearby. It’s definitely picture-worthy, but it’s also very hot with tons of tsetse flies (which hurt like hell, I’m told, and spread dengue).
Where to Stay
While a bit pricy, Paraa Safari Lodge is located within the park, making it ideal for early morning game drives. The lodge is also nicely decorated, making you feel like an old-timey explorer. The food is good, the rooms overlook the Nile, and the staff is very gracious—with the exception of the ladies at the front desk who can be a bit cold and reluctant.
Paraa Lodge Boat Tour
Paraa Lodge offers a 3-hour boat tour down the Nile to see Murchison Falls. Along the way we saw a few crocs, some elephants and warthogs, and loads of hippos in the water. We also experienced one of Africa’s infamous freak storms. Halfway to the falls, we had to dock the boat due to strong winds and golf ball–sized hail. After half an hour, we were cold and wet. But at least we had Nile beers to drink—an American-style lager brewed in Jinja, Uganda—that we purchased from the bar onboard.
Then we resumed toward the falls and stopped for a few minutes when we reached a tiny island in the middle of the river. Here, there’s a great postcard-worthy photo op. Just hop off the boat, climb a bolder and have someone take your photo with the falls behind you.