I had heard about Murchison Falls in epic travelogues from authors like Ryszard Kapuscinski, that it was beautiful and difficult to get to. I didn’t realize until after going that it’s recently been extremely dangerous, but becoming more secure. It was supposed to be quite easy, according to local advice and the travel company we booked with, but turned out to be quite the adventure. My travel companion for the trip shares the story from his point of view, for my first ever guest blog post. Enjoy!
Katrin negotiated a van and a driver “who knows the park” to take us on the “two a half hour drive” to the Falls, from the hotel where we overnighted in Lira. Adding chill time at the Falls, and the short drive on to Masindi we thought we were looking at about five to six hours, easily enough time for us to catch a bus on to Kampala. After a rough few weeks backpacking alone and some trust issues arising, it was a good day for Katrin to defiantly declare “nothing is going to stress me today!”
An entire air-conditioned van to ourselves was luxury beyond imagining after being matatu bound for several days. Put twenty people in a minibus designed for fifteen, add luggage (occasionally living), a preacher, a whole lot of dust, and continuous stops; and you have a classic matatu experience. Two hours later we arrived at the park to discover some fees that we had been assured did not exist. Not a big surprise, just an expected inconvenience. But TIA (“this is Africa”), so we laughed it off, since it was only a few dollars, and the Falls were only a trivial half hour away. When we arrived at a park hotel soon after, things looked a little different.
Consultation with the hotel map revealed that we were nowhere near the elusive Falls. We were at the far end of the park and faced three hours driving to get there. It was too late to pull out. We had paid for the day’s car hire and all of that money was back at the hotel so we had no means of recovering it. We decided to push on, the driver wilting a little at our annoyance.
The driver bribed a military officer who approached us as we slowed over a bridge, preferring expedience to argument and grinning a “This is Uganda” over his shoulder. Shortly afterwards he started driving suspiciously slow along a clear section of road. Given his proclivity for speeding this was rather strange, and I asked him what he was doing. “There are people around here who sell cheap fuel”, he said enigmatically over his shoulder. Translation: there are people around here who have no fuel, i.e. us. It didn’t take long before the engine cut out. He then proceeded to try and start it. Repeatedly. Katrin thought he might be signalling the “cheap fuel people”. I was slightly more cynical.
Suddenly the driver hopped out of the van and flagged down a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi). Momentarily distracted in conversation, it took a while for us to notice that he was attempting to siphon petrol out of it. “What does he think he’s going to do with that?” wondered Katrin, disparagingly. Obviously the fact that our vehicle ran on diesel did eventually occur to the man because suddenly the boda-boda was upright again, with him on it. “I go fetch fuel”, he said, driving off. Naturally confidence in our experienced driver was waning at this point. Refuelled, it didn’t take long for him to strengthen his case with a juddering fishtail across a dirt road.
Katrin was tight as a spring, accumulated travel travails eroding her tolerance, the recurring problem of worthless information delivered with confidence taking its toll. Barely recovered from typhoid, there was little that could faze me, but as the hours went by even I started to feel like we were on a road that would never end. It was a shock when the road opened into a parking lot with a large wooden sign proclaiming “Murchison Falls.”
Murchison Falls is more a fissure than a waterfall, the whole of the Nile forced down a narrow crack. Its as if the earth decided to close its fist on the river. The water, so serene and steady before, lashes in fury like an enraged reptile. Our arrival was celebrated with bottlecap shots of Kenyan cane; a spirit probably better suited to fuelling 4x4s than drinking pleasure. Katrin takes her cane about as well as a four-year-old takes root canal without anaesthetic. To her credit, that doesn’t stop her instigating its consumption.
While we wandered around the Falls, the driver discovered and changed a flat tire. He also realised that we were not going to manage the 50km to Masindi with the fuel light already on. We decided to chase diesel further into the park, following a cryptic Shell sign. Fortunately we met another car and were informed that the Shell was 18km away on the far side of a river ferry. They were able to point us to a resort that fixed the tyre and sold us some fuel. Subsequent to the service, the driver informed me he had no money to pay for the repairs.
About 10km down the road, the driver looked out of the window at the newly repaired tyre. “Flat”, he muttered. He then began to accelerate, despite the horrendous noise of the tyre being snakebitten by the rims, as its “too dangerous” to stop in the park with dark falling. In the face of increasing dissent, he finally pulled over, straight into a muddy ditch. When I told him he was going to get stuck he denied it, but belied his certainty by gunning the engine, tyres spinning, mud flying. Eventually he responded to our collective shout of “stop”.
I got out to have a look and was barely clear before the man threw the van into reverse. Clods of clay flew past my face as I absentmindedly ducked, my mouth probably lucky to avoid snaring a missile the way it was hanging open. Mud from the rear tyres hammered into the inside of the car as Katrin desperately grabbed at the sliding door in the violently rocking vehicle. The van careened back, carving a muddy path of devastation. I honestly thought he was going to roll it – scenes of trying to extricate the two from a rolled van flitted across my vision. Eventually the vehicle shuddered back onto the main track, the right front tyre now ripped so badly that one side of the rim was actually resting on the ground.
The driver was quickly out and down next to the tyre that looked like it had
been through a cement mixer. He didn’t say a word. I walked toward Katrin, struggling to hold it in, and failing. I exploded into crying, choking laughter. Eight ridiculous hours into what should have been an easy trip with “an experienced guide”, it was just too much. When my sanity returned, and Katrin’s had been slightly contaminated by infectious hysteria, we inspected the mud-spattered interior together, grinning. Meanwhile the driver discovered that the spare tyre had somehow ended up flat after the tyre fixing pitstop. He also discovered that his mobile phone was missing. It was already the 6pm park closing time and light was rapidly failing. A night in a dangerous section of park (where you aren’t supposed the leave the vehicle) was starting to look like a real possibility. The driver constantly warned us no stay close to the car, and we’re not sure if it was in lieu of the buffalo or the Lords Resistance Army.
Happily another group arrived in a 4×4, and after assuring the driver that using their spare tyre (which was at least 2inches taller than the upper wheel guard on the van) was not a viable option, they kindly offered to give us a ride into town, bringing along the spare tyre. Once in town the driver asked us to pay for more repairs and enough fuel to get back to Lira. Having already paid almost twice what we had been assured this would cost, for value that would have been questionable at half the price, there was absolutely no chance.
The driver looked dejected with his flat tyre when we left him in town – no phone, no money, no plan. I gave him 20 000 shillings, unable to walk away in clear conscience. “God bless you”, he said earnestly, bobbing his head sadly. “I am so sorry about this”, he added. I looked down into his small brown eyes. His right iris looked like it was melting in the top left corner. Four teeth were missing, and the remainder did not look particularly permanent. Incompetent though he was, the responsibility for the days’ events ultimately lay with his employers, and I could not help but feel sorry for him.
We wandered around town looking for accommodation, the last bus to Kampala long gone. In the first place we tried, the landlady deftly kicked a slipper over the huge spider that ran across the floor as she opened the door to the room. She didn’t have anything big enough for the four-inch drain cockroach that followed. Now, this didn’t really inspire elation in me, but I was reluctant to be caught being the priss. I looked sideways at Katrin and asked, “Too much?” She walked across to the en-suite. Two more monster cockroaches stared up at her, “Too much”, she agreed. Eventually we found a rather nice place, our willingness to cheap it somewhat eroded by the long day. The evening was pleasant, casual conversation over beer and local staples, but the upbeat camaraderie had peaked and given way to tiredness. Getting into bed I couldn’t help but think of the driver alone in town and wonder if he had found a better deal than the cockroach den we dodged.