March 19, 2024

Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park Just Got Better

In the words of Patrick Shah, Board Chairman, The Far Horizons Safaris. “It’s not very often that these days one can discover an untouched gem in Africa”, our host Toni mumurs, as we settle into our canvas and wood directors’ chairs, drinking in the sight of the sinking sun and taking another reflective sip of our G&Ts.


The call of a distant swamp nightjar wafts over from the darkening bush, and sparks dance up from our small fire as a log cracks.The whirlwind of action we’ve encountered in the six previous days we’ve spent exploring one of my favourite National Parks is still fresh in our minds.

It’s our third and last night in this southern part of Murchison Falls, and the last of our trip, and we’ve gathered for our last sundowner at “Thomas’s Tree”. Trainee guide and former lion researcher Thomas tells us that he was walking ahead of a vehicle on a track-cutting exercise last year, and that the team was so intent on their task, they didn’t see a mating pair of lions taking a breather under a tree about 100 metres ahead of them. Just in time, Thomas locked eyes with the male, and as he charged the team, he made it back into the vehicle with seconds to spare, thereby ensuring his immortality.


This latest safari was the result of an invitation Victoria and I made last year to friends to come out and see us in Uganda during our annual migration south from Portugal. To our delight, Neville and Vanessa, who had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before, ditched the Maldives and arrived in “Bonkers Kampala” with refreshingly low expectations. A couple of days to settle in and we were off north on a seven-nighter. 


We decided on a full bells-and-whistles safari for our guests, rolling out the red carpet The Far Horizons is known for, and allowing me to stretch my gui ding legs after a considerable break. We decided on Murchison Falls National Park because it is hands down one of the most diverse parks in existence. Where else can you track chimpanzees on foot in ancient primary forest, enjoy game cruises on the world’s longest river, experience day and night game drives, big game bush walks and big game fishing, all in one location over the course of a single week?


Our itinerary was designed to gradually ramp up the standard of accommodation as we went: starting off with the modest, rustic and clean Masindi Hotel, followed by three nights at the unpretentious Pakuba Lodge in the north of the park, and ending with the mouth-watering prospect of exploring new ground and a new camp…Papa’s Camp in the unvisited savannahs south of the Nile.


The itinerary took advantage of all that the park has to offer, and we kicked off on the second morning with chimpanzee tracking at Kaniyo Pabidi, in the Budongo Forest. I have always had a fondness for tracking chimps here. The standard of guiding is excellent, and one escapes the crowd that can sometimes surround you at chimp sightings further south in the more-popular Kibale Forest. We enjoyed an almost-exclusive chimp track in the company of our guide James, only being joined later by a single well-mannered, and well-spoken gentleman. The forest itself is stunning, a riot of vegetation, birdcalls and dappled nooks, interspersed with the buttress roots of gigantic mahogany and ironwood trees. Ninety minutes in, James had kept us so engaged with explanations and interpretations of what we encountered that I found myself thinking it would have been a worthwhile outing even if we didn’t see a single chimp.


Chimps there were, however, and we spent an entranced hour with eight individuals, including a curious infant dangling nonchalantly from the vines above our heads. Elated, we made our way back to the car serenaded by chocolate-backed kingfisher, red-chested cuckoo, casqued hornbill, and numerous others, the cicadas providing a piercing chorus the whole way.


Later that day, further north, we indulged in another of the park’s highlights, a private sundowner-and-falls-game cruise along a 20-kilometre stretch of the Nile. We cast off at 3:30 in the afternoon and were into the action shortly after. The bird life here is varied and prolific, and we were constantly rubbernecking at the parade of waterfowl and birds of prey. Pods of hippo hold station at regular intervals and crocodiles with coy smiles pepper the bank of the river. Various herbivores lurk at the river’s edge, including elephant and giraffe. Two hours pottering upriver brought us to the Devil’s Pool at the base of the eponymous Murchison Falls, a maelstrom of powerful currents, eddies and whirlpools. At this point, the boat turned around, drinks and snacks came out and we enjoyed a gentle coast downriver as the sun went down.


The next days were to be spent at Papa’s Camp. This is Jonathan and Pamela Wright’s latest lodge project in Uganda, under the Wild Places brand, and the significance of this new property cannot be understated. It’s in a remote location on the south bank of the Nile, this much we knew. But neither I, nor anyone else I knew (apart from the Wrights, of course) had made it up there in 28 years of safari-ing in Uganda. I am always one for the road less travelled and will explore any unused route in a popular park at the drop of a hat. The enticement of a new Wild Places camp at the end of it was just icing on top. The prospect of this leg of the safari had whet my appetite.

To get there involves crossing the Nile back south again, and from there another 90 kilometres of driving. Get far enough and the thick bush that is the hallmark of the “South Bank” of Murchison gives way to open rolling plains, dotted with kopjes and covered with short grass no taller than on the proverbial putting green. My jaw dropped on the way in, and I couldn’t retrieve it for the next three days. Our transfer to the camp turned into a stop/start game drive. The annual seasonal burn was on, and thousands of Abdim’s storks were taking full advantage of the insects flushed from the grass and soaring on the fire-generated thermals. Grasshopper buzzards and various types of bee-eater were gorging themselves around the edges of the fires, but further on, where fresh green grass had started to poke through, their numbers were replaced by hundreds of Uganda Kob, herds of buffalo and the odd sprinkling of giraffe. To my eyes, the area was so reminiscent of the southern Mara Triangle…a line of sight in every direction of easily 50 kilometres, with one key difference: we were the only car in our little universe.


We got to Papa’s for a late lunch, and as we walked into the mess, what hit me was yes, yes, yes! THIS is what a bush camp is meant to be. Just enough to be really comfortable, but no more. Just the right proportions and plenty of canvas everywhere. Pamela’s elegant signature safari style permeates the camp, and its location right on the edge of a broad section of the Nile, at a set of rapids, provides the mess and the rooms with an ever-changing vista and a constant roar from the water.Hemingway and Mama would have approved.


As you would expect, meals and service are top class, with resident chef Alex carrying on the time-honoured safari tradition of being able to produce divine culinary combinations from a rudimentary bush kitchen. Margaret, keeper of the “front office” was a constant but discreet presence, anticipating our every need, and suggesting some to us that we had no idea we had. 


But Papa’s is all about the surrounding wilderness. Its light footprint does the area justice, and it is a worthy base from which to venture out and enjoy a bit of Africa in a way that is painfully rare these days. It’s hardly a “bit”, though. The 35,000 hectares of pristine bush surrounding the camp has been newly designated a “low-use zone” by the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Park fees to enter this area are almost three times the usual rate, and casual traffic is discouraged. All game drives (day and night) are done in camp vehicles, with camp guides. 


Added value here is the possibility to walk the bush. On our early morning walk, guided by Toni Horat, who is currently working to help prepare the camp and the concession for paying clients, we encountered sign of hippo, leopard, crocodile, and numerous smaller species, with some actual sightings of waterbuck, warthog, baboon and numerous birds. Toni’s enthusiasm for anthropology and archaeology added an extra dimension to our walk, as he interpreted the sites of ancient settlements and knapped stone tools for us.


We spent our second morning fishing, about a kilometre upriver from the camp at the site of what will eventually be the permanent lodge, casting from the bank of the river under the tutelage of Caesar and Thomas.  With large crocodiles being regular visitors here, and a resident pod of hippo, one does need to keep one’s eye out. Our potential catch was just as intimidating …Nile perch and catfish out here can get as large as 80kg, and will use their size, strength and the powerful current to full advantage. All of this on light tackle with spinners, lures or live bait. However, this is a very accessible activity. Complete fishing newbies, my two guests caught (and released) a 5kg and a 15kg perch in short order. This is African wilderness at its best…a stunning location, the sun coming up, coffee in our bellies, the zing of line, and the plop of  lure into the water. 


I was surprised at the variety and diversity of wildlife here. Our game drives (once the heat of the day and the tsetse flies had abated) revealed prolific plains game and birdlife (including my personal favourite, Standard-winged nightjar in breeding plumage). Predators are also abundant, with sighting of hyena and rumours of leopard. We also came across a magnificent male lion, lying prone, Mara-style in cropped grass, next to a kob lek, announcing his presence with reverberating roars across the plains. Some of the buffalo and antelope are still a little shy, and one can hardly blame them. Poaching has been rampant in this part of the park for many years but appears not to have made a dent in the population. The increased presence of law enforcement and responsible bushcraft that Papa’s brings to the area can only be  positive, and with kob here breeding at an exponential rate, things can only get better.


Three days flew past, and we almost cancelled further plans in Kampala to take up Toni’s invitation to stay another night. This is such a place: three, four or five nights playing in the bush, as we safari types say, is a real possibility. It’s not cheap, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. The price of admission to this magical part of Uganda is one I would gladly pay again.


Patrick Shah, Board Chairman, The Far Horizons Safaris.

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