Self-drive Murchison Falls

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For inexperienced visitor Steuart Laing, being independent made his Uganda adventure all the more memorable

The road to Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park might not be paved with gold, but it is paved with fresh tar. China recently funded the highway and supervised its construction.

Today tourists flock to the Murchison Falls National Park to see wildlife that, over the last twenty years, has become abundant. Before entering the park we diverted to nearby Pakwach to refuel our rental van. At the petrol station, a mob of hovering souvenir sellers approached and poked their freshly-carved wares through my open window… that open window was a novice’s mistake.

They seemed to particularly like the look of me, the passenger. I had to twist away and dodge their enthusiastic product demos. And I couldn’t close the window without jamming flailing arms. My son revved the engine and we edged forward, leaving the motley crew behind.

A rough track led us through a swamp where workers had heaped in-fill rocks, and the van scraped its belly as we approached the park’s official entry point. A couple of rangers scrutinised our papers before giving us the go ahead to explore the park.

Only a few yards along the track we came across patas monkeys perched in a dead tree. Minutes later, we started to see numerous Ugandan kob antelope set against the backdrop of the White Nile. The impact was overwhelming.

Here we were, in the middle of Africa driving around by ourselves. So far so good.

Further on, at the derelict Pakuba Hotel, we looked for unusual guests. Idi Amin took over the hotel in the mid 1970s and his troops, using automatic weapons, slaughtered the surrounding game. Rangers had told us that hyenas often lodge free-of-charge in the crumbling hotel but we didn’t spot any. Soon afterwards, however, we stumbled across a lone hyena trekking the open grasslands.

Big-cat viewing ranks high on most safari wish lists and so, with lions and leopards in mind, we bounced along rutted tracks on high predator alert. My son had watched a YouTube video of a lioness forcing open a car door, so we decided to take a very cautious approach should we spot one!

Finally, a herd of jittery antelopes caught our attention. Their tails waved frantically and they barked and stamped. Their nervousness appeared quite unusual. Nearer to us a couple of small oribi fixated on a brush gully separating us from the agitated herd.

We watched and waited, not having a clue if we were just wasting our time. Finally, to our delight, a maned lion strolled into view just 100 metres from the stressed antelopes. The sudden sight of that lion was our trip highlight. This ‘King of the Jungle’ strutted majestically, and then lay beside his pride… which, though in full view, we’d completely overlooked.

“This is the sort of place that you don’t get out for a toilet stop,” my son said, as if trying to save my bacon. His redundant advice worsened my predicament.

Later, we met several vehicles which we tried to direct towards the lion pride. Because tour operators want to satisfy their customers, drivers inform each other about the whereabouts of interesting wildlife. As a result, vans and 4WDs cluster around photogenic prey.

Dusk was approaching, so we set out in good time towards our accommodation, the unfenced Pakuba Safari Lodge, which sits nonchalantly in the open as if oblivious to the surrounding wildlife.

“Keep your eyes open when walking between huts,” said a lodge worker. We eagerly obeyed, having heard about animals prowling the premises.

That night we placed an early breakfast order for eggs, sausages and coffee. No other guests joined us in the dining room, suggesting that sensible travellers rise at a more civilised hour to experience their African dawn.

From the van’s safety, excited and expectant, we peered out into the darkness. We had no idea what to expect but knew that most animals and birds tend to move around in the cool of early morning. The track deteriorated where it entered lakeside scrub and our headlights became restricted between boxthorn thickets.

I was feeling a little hemmed in when, without warning, a couple of barrel-shaped hippopotamuses crossed right in front of us. Having only narrowly avoided a collision, we thought: “Do wounded hippos attack wounded vans?” Apparently Ugandan hippos eat more people than Ugandan crocodiles do.

Later that day, a boat took us up the Victoria Nile and dropped us below Murchison Falls. From here a walking track led through shady forest trees before emerging into the heat. Orange-headed lizards scuttled up tree trunks, paired butterflies danced over the water and the sight of tsetse fly traps gave us hope that these little monsters weren’t about to torment us. The noonday sun beat down as we slowly climbed to the thunderous top of the falls.

In my head, I altered a line of Noel Coward’s poetry to read: “Mad dogs and New Zealanders go out in the midday sun.”

At our destination, we expected hordes of foreign visitors. Instead, we found van loads of Ugandans snapping selfies, some perilously close to the rampaging river. For these people at least, the dangers from selfie-snapping were far greater than the dangers of a croc attack.

Most tourists visit Murchison Falls Park in the competent and caring hands of local tour operators… an approach understandably recommended. However, if you want to feel like you’re living on the edge, we would recommend you hire a vehicle and personalise your Ugandan safari adventure.

Steuart Laing is a self-confessed “cautious, relatively inexperienced New Zealander” and reader of Travel Africa magazine. If you would like to share your own safari experiences, email your stories to editor@travelafricamag.com

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