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Friday, June 3, 2011

A Safari, Boat Ride Down the Nile and Murchison Falls

After a day of traveling north from Kampala, with only one van breaking down and being replaced, we made it to Murchison Falls National Park late Wednesday afternoon. "We" meaning all of the Drake students, the MUBS students, and a few faculty from Drake and MUBS. We stayed at another Red Chili that is not quite as developed. It runs on a generator and does not have electricity from 12am- 8am. It was also made up mostly of tents that each contained two twin beds. There were also a few small cabins that a few of our group members slept in instead.

Upon our arrival at Red Chili we were briefed about the area. We were told each tent had a lantern outside of it at night to keep the animals away since they are afraid of light. They also told us that hippos and wart hogs like to sniff around the tents and graze at night, so if we heard them we were to stay inside our tents. We needed to have a flashlight on us to use the restroom and avoid the animals, even if they were blocking the path to the bathrooms. After hearing that speech and learning I couldn't have any type of food in my tent for fear of a wart hog attacking the tent, I can say I was a little more than nervous and kind of pensive about staying in a tent. However, we all survived the first night.

We woke up really early this morning in order to try to be the first to pick up our packed breakfasts that we had ordered the night before. There was another fairly large group staying as well, and we wanted to beat them to the ferry that we were suppose to take to start our safari. We grabbed our breakfasts that were put in brown paper bags and left to meet the ferry around 6:30am.

We reached the edge of the Nile River about 5 minutes later. While we waited for all of the groups to arrive, we got to watch a beautiful sunrise. Some of the Drake students started singing the beginning of "Circle of Life" from The Lion King. It was definitely fitting. After a few group shots with the rising sun, the vans drove on the ferry, and we headed to the other side of the river. There we climbed back into our respective vans, and we were off on our safari that was to last 4 hours.

The beautiful sunrise over the Nile River
The roofs on the vans all lifted so that we could stand in the vehicles and poke our heads out to get better pictures than just taking them out the windows. We were also allowed to have people sit on a ledge at the front and back of the van. This was absolutely wonderful because there was nothing to block our view. All we had to worry about was staying on the van and taking pictures.

One of the four vans we took. This shows how the roof lifts up.
Each van took a different path, and each van saw some of the same animals and some different animals. It was nice not staying in a group the whole time because I'm sure it would have scared some of the animals away a lot sooner, and it would have been hard to see some of the animals we did see. First of all, the view alone was breath-taking. The scenery was exactly what I picture when I picture Africa. Lots of green grass with some bushes and trees everywhere. Plus, there was the massive blue sky, with the perfectly fluffy, white clouds. It was absolutely gorgeous. Add in all of the animals that we got to see in their natural habitat, and it was like a dream come true.

We got to see lots of gazelles, water buffalo, water deer, antelope, giraffes, wart hogs (or Pumbas, as my van called them), lots of different birds, and hippos, among lots of other animals. The van I was in was lucky enough to see three female lions and a male lion as well. They all got really close to us. I would guess they were probably within 30, if not 20 feet of us at one point. It was by far the coolest thing I have ever seen. In order to find the lions we had to do some off road traveling, which was extremely bumpy, especially to those of us sitting outside of the vans on small metal rods that made little squares. Plus, those of us that sat in the front continuously bumped our shoulders against the roof of the van. However, it was completely worth every bump, bruise and sore muscle or body part that I have. It was definitely an experience that I will never forget and never regret.

My van was also lucky enough to get to see a python that had most likely eaten lunch quite recently. It was still extremely fat in the middle, so we assumed it was still digesting its lunch. We saw the python right before a few of us got to glimpse a leopard descend from a tree. Luckily, one of the other vans had been right by the tree, and they got a lot of really good photos of the leopard in the tree and coming down. We also had another van see a lioness with her cubs. There was definitely a lot of variety among what the different vans got to see, which made the experience unique for each of us.

At 11am, we left the safari to head back across the river for lunch at Red Chili. We all ordered, ate and played some more games before we left for the boat tour at 2pm. Then we headed back to the Nile where we boarded our boats. We were all originally on a big tour boat together, but for some reason my van got moved to a smaller tour boat.

The boat tour was absolutely gorgeous, and our tour guide David did a great job of explaining everything we saw and answering our questions. He also had amazing eye sight. I'm still not sure how he was able to see half of the wildlife we saw. It usually took me a while to see it when we were close to it, so I'm still baffled out how he saw some of the animals from so far away.

After we took of on the Nile River, we spotted a baby crocodile almost right away. When I say we, I really mean David, but he pointed it out for the group so the rest of us could see it too. We also passed by a house that was constructed for Queen Elizabeth's mother. It looked like it was a very nice house from what I could see of the outside.

We quickly made our way along the river spotting lots and lots of hippos. We learned that they spend over half of their lives in the water, spending only 9 hours a day on land. Their time on land is spent grazing, and they usually travel around 6 kilometers when they graze. David also told our group that hippos and elephants only go to the water if it isn't raining. However, if it rains they stay on land because there is no need for them to travel to the water to get wet or cool down. Along with seeing hippopotamus, we saw water buffalo. David pointed out that once water buffalo reach about 18 years of age (they live to be about 20), they are kicked out of the heard because they tend to lose their eye sight and are seen as weak. When this happens they spend most of their time on the edge of the water. They strategically face the land and have their back towards the water. This makes predators, such as lions, believe that they can see them approaching, and it makes the water buffalo less vulnerable because there isn't anything that should attack them from behind.

As we moved down the river we saw water bucks, wart hogs, lots of birds, baboons, some black and white monkeys, and elephants! The elephants were really amazing, and we even got to hear them make their trumpeting noise! However, they didn't stick around for long because we were too loud for them since they have extremely sensitive ears. Of the birds we saw, the Red-Throated Bee Eater was by far my favorite. It contains all seven colors of the rainbow on it! It was extremely beautiful. We also saw two different kinds of Kingfischers, African Eagles, and a few more. They were all gorgeous, and it was hard to capture their true beauty on the camera.

We continued down the Nile seeing all of the animals previously mentioned, plus we added some more crocodiles. Especially when we got to an area they like to call the Crocodile Bar. By the time we got there it had started to sprinkle and the crocs were slowly moving towards the water. We got to see numerous crocodiles slither, or crawl, into the water. It was really neat getting to see it in person instead of watching it on TV.

We continued our journey until we reached Murchison Falls, the waterfall the park is named after. It was absolutely stunning. I have never seen water move so fast or so powerfully. Looking into the river seeing how strong the current was, was absolutely unreal. When we arrived at the falls, David shared a little of the Fall's history. He told us that it was originally named after a king of a tribe. This king would jump across the waterfall in order to get supplies from the other side. They also switched men and women because the men were dark skinned, and the women were fair skinned. The king on one side and the king of the other side did this to form more of a medium skin colored baby.

Murchison Falls
We also heard the story of Hemingway. Hemingway had done lots of traveling in Africa, and he was working on writing a book about African safaris when he decided to fly over Murchison Falls. However, his plane came upon a flock of pelicans and in the pilots attempt to avoid them the crashed into some of the surrounding cliffs. Hemingway, his wife Mary, and the pilot all survived without serious injury. They were rescued shortly after. Somehow that plane also crashed. This time Hemingway was not so lucky. The plane caught on fire in this crash. He had already suffered a broken shoulder and a cut on his forehead. While he was trying to escape from the plane he got stuck because of his size, but he was able to get out and survive. His wife and him went back to the United States, where he later committed suicide.

On the way back to where our tour had began, we met the big tour boat the rest of our group was on. We found out that something had gone wrong, so we were supposed to get on the bigger boat, and then they would get on the smaller boat since the big boat was unable to get close to the shore. However, it turned out the small boat didn't have enough gas in it to go back to the falls and make it back to the starting point, so we all stayed on the big boat. My group, plus everyone else, went to back to see Murchison Falls again. It was just as beautiful and amazing.

After seeing the Falls for the second time, we started to head back to our starting point. We continued to point out animals that we saw. We even got to see a crocodile go into the water. I have never seen anything move so fast. It moved with incredible speed. It was fascinating to watch. We made it back to the point of origin around 5:30pm, and we headed back to Red Chili for supper. After supper, we played multiple different card games with the MUBS students since we all had split off into different groups. The group I was with taught a few of the MUBS students how to play spoons, except we used straws because they were more readily available and seemed like a less dangerous alternative. They absolutely loved it, and in turn they taught us to play a game similar to UNO.

The crocodile we watched enter the water!
While getting ready for bed, I just happened to look up at the night sky. I was glad I did. I have never seen so many stars. I may live in the country back home, but the night sky I got to see was by far much prettier. There was absolutely no light pollution anywhere to spoil them.

We ended the night with a campfire, and of course where there is a campfire, there are campfire songs. Patrick also played his guitar and sang. It was definitely the perfect way to end the evening. But in order to add a little more spice to our evening, we were also visited by a hippo (or maybe two) at around 10pm. He was by the very last tents, which of course were occupied by Drake students. They were able to make it to their tent eventually, but it was weird having to worry about hippos being outside. I was glad to be tucked safely in my tent at this point.

Tourism is a huge part of sustainable development for Uganda because there is so much to see. The national parks are absolutely gorgeous, and I don't know how someone could come to Africa and not go on a safari. It also helps that people see something different each time. I could easily go on a safari again, and I know it would be completely different. However, in order to make tourism sustainable they need to attract the tourists to the area. For Murchison Falls, I think a little more advertising could be done, but honestly, that is all I would change. There weren't any gift shops around, but I found that refreshing. It was really nice getting to see everything naturally as it was meant to be. Sometimes having something that man hasn't over commercialized is extremely satisfying. This was definitely the case. By the looks of the number of people that were staying at Red Chili, I would say the tourism in the area is doing well. Because tourism is a big part of the economy, I would say Murchison Falls is definitely helping with sustainable development in the country, as long as there continues to be tourism.

Last night I got to fall asleep listening to my classmates, friends and professors singing "This Little Light of Mine." It was beautiful, and after starting off with the sunrise we had this morning, I couldn't picture a more perfect day. It was what I picture as 100% African tourist. It also made me realize that Elton John nailed it in "Circle of Life." There is definitely "more to see, than can ever be seen" and "more to do, than can ever be done." But I'm extremely grateful for the experience and the chance to try.


  1. I love your pictures! I had such a good time on the safari. The landscape was so beautiful and I loved seeing all of the animals. It was such a great experience!
    I agree that tourism can have a positive impact on sustainable development. I think that there could have been some souvenir shops and restaurants right outside the park. I think that would not ruin the park, but having shops right outside the park could expand the market.

  2. After all the exotic animals and beautiful sunrises and sunsets Megan mentioned, my favorite part of Murchison Falls was actually one of the rules we were told upon our arrival at the hostel: no littering.

    During our three weeks here, I've seen countless people mindlessly toss pieces of trash onto the sidewalk, drop wrappers in the grass or casually chuck something out the car window. In the U.S., we're taught growing up that one of the worst things to be is a "litter bug," but that phenomena doesn't seem to have reached Uganda. It's extremely sad, too, because this place is so beautiful and needs to be taken care of so much!

    This is something that eats at me each time I see a person carelessly tarnish the environment here, so I was so happy to hear that MFNP was at least trying. Hopefully, they'll serve as trendsetters and the rest of the country will soon follow suit.

  3. Murchison Falls National Park may be the most beautiful place I have ever visited. I was happy to hear that the government protects this park because I have never seen anything like it. The view from our campsite was jaw-dropping. Watching the sun rise over the lush green wildlife was so beautiful that I forgot about being awake at six in the morning. As we drove on the safari, you could look to the left and see tall yellow grasses or glance at green palm trees and the Nile on your right. This diverse collection of vegetation was unlike anything I've ever encountered. We would see bushes and green grass at one point and then cacti and rocky cliffs at another.

    I hope that this area of land continues to be preserved for years to come. As commercialization rises around the world, places like MFNP are suffering. None of this park should be sacrificed as it serves as a world of its own full of unique plants and exquisite animals. The beauty of this park alone should help make it a sustainable tourist attraction. I fully enjoyed my time there and I think most of the other students would agree. It was a nice escape from the bustling city of Kampala, and the air was fresh. Singing around the campfire that night, I looked up at the night sky and saw the brightest and most magnificent stars I have ever witnessed. A place that contains so much beauty and brings such joy should never be destroyed to make room for an urban environment. Places like this around the world are priceless and should be protected under all circumstances.

  4. This was one of my favorite days of the trip, so it was a lot of fun to read this entry and be reminded of it in such vivid detail. Megan did an amazing job summing up our experiences.
    My favorite part of the whole day was the lack of familiarity the animals had with the vans we were in. Unlike other parks where animals might run up the the vans because they know food is inside, the animals there seemed to acknowledge us but not overly interested in us as we went passed. It made the experience so much more real.

  5. In relation to what Ann said above, I also appreciated the one rule they told us upon arrival: no littering in the park. That is why it broke my heart when, while on the safari, I witnessed a MUBS staff member in the van in front of ours throw an empty water bottle and a candy wrapper out of the window. I think that it is important for instructors to lead by example and be role models for their students. To see one act with such disregard not only for the environment but also for the simple rules that were set in place was shocking. How can we expect Uganda to change for the better when the people who should be teaching this change do not live by it?

  6. Ann and Rachel, I completely agree. It also makes me sad that they've discovered oil underneath the park. I can't even imagine how that will constrict and transform the landscape--not to mention the wildlife living there. What's more important--the preservation of a one-of-a-kind wildlife preserve, or some financial success for a few people? In my opinion, the answer is obvious.

  7. I loved our safari! Bumping around on the top of my van made me so sore, but it was definitely worth it. Seeing the animals in real life was breathtaking. The giraffes were so graceful and so strong. It was amazing to me how close we got to some of the animals. It was also surprised me that the park let us go off-roading. We drove wherever we wanted, through animals’ habitats and all. I feel like at the national parks in the US that would never be allowed. The scenery was actually somewhat different that what I pictured in my mind. I did not expect it to be so green, I expected it to be dry and more like a desert.

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  9. I love to see the safari animals. It is really one of my wishes when I was a kid. I find it really exciting to watch these animals in their natural habitat. Hopefully, I can go here and experience the boat tour as well. I really love my whale watching argyll tour and hopefully, my next boat trip will be here.