Monday, December 6, 2010

Murchison Falls

After living in Gulu for nearly seven months, I am embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until just last week that I was finally able to visit Murchison Falls National Park, a mere 2 hour drive from Gulu. Situated in Northern Uganda, the park is divided roughly in half by the River Nile flowing westward from Lake Kyoga to Lake Albert. The park used to be part of a larger game reserve until it received it’s own status in 1952 under the former Idi Amin. Murchison Falls (also called Kabarega Falls after a local king), squeezes into a narrow chasm, the force and power of the Nile beating incessantly at the surrounding landscape.

To visit the park, six friends and I managed our way through vehicle rentals, packing, and navigating the treacherous Kampala Road south of Gulu until we were able to turn west. Pulling into Purongo town, we turned south and bumped along a rocky dirt road a few kilometers until reaching the entrance to the park. As we spilled out of the car to register and pay the entrance fee, the guard commented on the low pressure in one of the front tires. We walked around the car to check the other three, only to find our front left tire hissing out it’s last life. M, G and I quickly jumped into gear, grabbing the jack, tools and spare. But no! The spare was half flat itself! There was no way we were going to let ourselves into the national park (and continue on to a game drive in the morning) without a spare! G and M climbed in the car and headed back to Purongo to look for a patch and a pump, and the rest of us sat in the sun, enjoying the morning warmth on our faces.

After some five half-full vehicles passed us into the park, we began to wonder why we didn’t just jump in one and hitch a lift to the river. But alas, after just 1.5 hours, G and M returned. The spare had been pumped (with a bike pump!) and the original tire had been patched (though it was tubeless = nearly impossible to pump with a bike pump!).
We climbed in our seats and head into the park.
Our team hadn’t even driven five kilometers (or 3.1 miles, for those of you who don’t want to think too much) when someone yelled, “STOP!” Beautiful herds of oribi, Defassa waterbuck and kob lazily grazed in the tall yellow grass. Someone mentioned something about getting bored after a while, that we will tire of looking at the millions of mammals in the park. I turned away from the comments and gazed at the graceful animals, their ears perked and faces turned at the sound of our engine. Before long, scores of giraffes crossed our view, their long, purple tongues skillfully wrapping themselves around the thorny underbrush. The movement of giraffes will never cease to amaze me – slow motion gallops, their long necks gracefully bouncing with each stride.

We made it down to the Nile just minutes before the 2:00 ferry was to leave for the Falls. We inhaled some quickly assembled sandwiches, just as a mother baboon (and her clinging baby) scampered up our truck to the roof, opened the cardboard box and snatched out a couple of tomatoes. Even under my (not so) watchful eye, she succeeded!
We moved everything from the roof to inside, and left the car to join the boat. Immediately we ran upstairs – there is no way we would sit downstairs and miss all the animals! Ten minutes in and we realized our mistake – and we boiled and burned, each of us slowly retired downstairs for a rest from the heat. The river was fully of hippos, huge monstrous beasts, and the occasional crocodile, mouth wide open, teeth glinting in the sun. M and I sat on the edge of the boat watching the hippos disappear under the water when a huge splash and a pink-gray body leaped out of the water, just 3 feet away! The scream from M made all those above think she was a goner – later we found someone who had the whole thing on camera (including the scream!).

As we approached Murchison Falls, our boat driver steered the vehicle to a small rock in the middle of the river, where the passengers took turns jumping out and snapping a few photos before moving safely back to the boat (jumping on to the rock would be a big no-no in the States!). After our turn on the rocks, with the river churning violently and full of life inches away from my feet, the boat pulled off to the shore and invited anyone who wanted to hike to the top of the falls to jump off. We hadn’t planned on the hike, mostly because it involved getting a car to meet us at the top and drive an hour back to the ferry and cross the river, but a man getting off said he had some extra seats, and promised us a ride back.
The hike took us up the hillside, then down again towards the water. We walked on to a rock jutting into the current and dipped our toes in the tepid water. The roar of the falls and movement of the river calmed and relaxed me, as I focused on the sheer power of the river before me - I am always amazed of rivers and oceans, the ebb and flow every day, every night, and never stop.

The trail turned left and climbed steeply, following the river. I couldn't help thinking the landscape was much like that I saw in Nepal with narrow switchbacks and raging rivers below. As we rounded a bend, our guide warned us to keep our cameras and phones in our pockets - they might get wet. The trail opened to a vista just above the falls, and cool spray misted the air. After the uphill hiking in the heat, the water felt wonderful. A perfect rainbow arched over our heads and disappeared into the trees, inviting us to search for its pot of gold.

At the top of the falls, water rushes forward with such force it is hard to imagine how the rocks stay in place, the trees don’t uproot under the pressure. Across on the other side of the fall, the water hits a jutting boulder and shoots upward, torrential forces looking almost like ocean waves in a hurricane. We walked precariously close to the water, with only a small sign warning us not to step closer. The rock that we walked across had the signs of moving water; clearly in the rainy season the entire area was flooded and moving. A small concrete block near the edge of the falls is the remainder of a footbridge; looking at it now, it was hard to imagine anyone would dare try to cross the falls (let’s just take the narrowest spot and the river and build a bridge!).

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