Murchison Falls: Worth it?

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!

Murchison Falls in Northern Uganda

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.

not quite the falls, but a pretty comfortable resort in the middle of a jungle

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.

changing the spare tire

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

mud splattered all over the open door

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.

East Africa so far

East Africa is worlds apart from South Africa, but strangely similar to parts of Central America, the Caribbean, or India. At times it seems I’ve been transported to Nicaragua; one-storey concrete homes are painted by Coca Cola and competing cell phone networks; rice and unidentifiable fried meat are staple; servitude is acceptable by hierarchical class distinctions reminiscent of the castes in India; and the chaos of road traffic and markets are just functioning in a different language by darker faces.  Reggae music creates the atmosphere of a Caribbean night as it blares from every street corner from the moment the town stirs awake at 7 am until the party stops in the wee hours of the following morning.

The biggest difference is the people: everyone here is unbelievably friendly and smiley! People always greet you and ask how you are, shake hands for a little too long and hug with extra rigor. Ive given up any notion of a personal bubble, since private space is invaded by almost anyone who talks to me; some latch onto my arm, stand within a few milimetres of me, and talk directly into my ear so close to my face that I cant actually turn to face them while they talk to me without knocking foreheads. Its only unfortunate when they have bad breath or you really do want to turn to face them to remember what they look like and you just cant.

People are genuinely interested in helping you, and will do so without expecting any sort of payment. Im not sure if its pity or curiousity, but the sight of a muzungu girl makes them think theres no way I’ll make it without their help, so everyone wants to know where Im going, do I know any Swahili, do I have a friend waiting for me, or what am I looking for. Upon giving an answer, it becomes their sole goal to help me find what, where or who I need and translate any language, directions, or pricing confusion.

Women wear beautifully colourful clothing, with elaborate pattern stamps in bright colours that shine in contrast to their dark skin. They’re quite modest, covering most of their body and head in wraps of cloth, and Ive learned that showing arms is ok, but leg-baring shorts causes me quite a bit of grief. That’s especially unfortunate since its so hot and Im constantly sweating through my jeans, and a little embarrassing since Ive seen few people break a sweat even in the most intense mid-day heat.

Its hot and dry here, with luscious green vegetation and red-mud huts covering all the rural areas. The dirt roads are bright red, contrasted dramatically by the green palms and crop fields. All the soil and spit up dust are also blood red, and it seems to keep most peoples clothes a little earthy coloured no matter how clean they are. Parts of Uganda and all of Rwanda are rolling, forever continuing hills, and almost every square foot of arable land is still exploited through terraced agriculture practice. When dirivng along the winding roads, its hard not to get car sick or frightened by the cliff-dropping heights, but the beautiful symmetry of the perfectly groomed hillsides makes for a very geometric scenery to enjoy.

I’ve decided to bus my way around East Africa, mostly to save money, but also to avoid the high end tourism market catered to with chartered flights. Terrestrial travel lets you see so much more, take in a scenic drive for hours instead of staring at the tops of clouds for 45 minutes. Traveling by bus is also better for the mind and body – it gives you time to adjust the changes in altitude, temperature, humidity, and the brain has more time to process its surroundings and sensual bombardment.

On most buses its impossible to sleep, and if you do, people immediately worry “are you feeling sick?” Preoccupying your conscious mind for 3 or 6 hours can either lead you to some new friends or some crazy ideas. Bus travel is supposed to be fairly safe, but I often get snapped out of my daydreams by an abrupt road block, since police checks are regular and they’ve always got important questions to ask. I can never understand what goes on, but their dialogue interchange is usually stern, slow, and results in an exasperated bus driver raising his voice and gesturing his hands in way that means to me “whatever, sorry, Ive got nothing!” Maybe their asking for registration papers, maybe a bribe, maybe illegal drugs… I’m not sure.

The buses have been less than luxurious, mostly due to overcrowding, but also an unshakeable uneasiness from excessive speeding and bold overtaking driving habits. Im still the only non-east African on every bust Ive taken, and this could be a warning Im refusing to take notice of but I’ll keep believing I truly enjoy the excitement and entertainment of each ride. I’ve had half-dead chickens in a box beside me, a 10L jug of water splashing at my feet, and a 5 kg bag of flour explode ontop of me. Most buses have assigned seating, but the taxi cars and mini-buses usually have two people per seat and a few more standing in between or shoved in the trunk. I’ve had children refuse to sit beside me, even though women plop them on my lap when they’ve got too many to fit on their own. Im not sure if they’re afraid or too shy, but other children can’t get enough of me as they grip at my skin to make sure Im real.

More on Ugandan Travel

I find it fun to get off the beaten track, or atleast avoid the tourist trail by taking local transport. So far Ive been the only non-east African on every bust Ive taken. Im also always the only person with a backpack, even on the 5 hour rides accross the country where the most people are carrying is a days worth of crops. When they do have something to carry and no bus to shuffle them to and fro, people hoist their possessions ontop of their heads, and I see people walking along the side of the roads in some of the most remote areas, at all times of day and even night.

In the mid heat of the day, its not unusual to see a 5 year old carrying something that’s probably bigger, heavier or longer than them, strolling along the side of a highway. Women carry huge reeds and stick piles on their heads, as well as buckets full of water that must weigh a ton. They carry suitcases, mattresses, upturned tables, watermelons and raw fish, some for sale and others to take home. Sometimes two share the load and carry 5 meter tree trunks on a shoulder each, to who knows where or even from where.

It seems most people walk everywhere, no matter how far, since horses, donkeys, camels, or even the wheel aren’t common labour aids. And sadly, they use the roads built for those rich enough to afford cars, buses or bikes, which proves to be quite dangerous since they usually have no sidewalks; car accidents hitting pedestrians are one of the leading causes of fatal accidents on the road.

The trees are probably being cut down for burning, since one environmental issue in Uganda is deforestation from dependency on coal. Coal is sold in bags on the side of the road, fairly cheaply, and as soon as nightfall hits, the smell of burning coals hits your nose from every direction. Families are using it to cook delicious food, boil water to drink and bathe, as a source of light and sometimes for heat.

There is amazing tilapia fish from Lake Victoria that you can buy fried as street food. Ethiopian food is also popular in Uganda and its so delicious and affordable. Local food almost always consists of matoke (mashed plantains, which they always call bananas), cassava, posho (a food staple made of maize flour) and rolex – a breakfast wrap made of eggs with a kind of chapatti bread feel. They have mini-bananas here, that are much sweeter than regular bananas, and eating them is more fun – although for one bite some get impatient to peel them, like my bus driver who just put them back, peel and all, in one big bite.

Being a former British colony, they also sell ginger beer, and the local beers are Nile Special, Bell and Club – all available for about $1USD per 500ml bottle. They apparently have Ugandan wine, which I haven’t tried in suspicion that its terrible, and a millet-based alcohol called Waragi that smells like gin.

One of the official languages here is English but not everyone is as comfortable in it as Luganda, the most widely spoken Ugandan language. But there are so many other dialects, sometimes totally unrelated, and its normal for people to speak 5 or 6 languages according to what languages nearby tribes speak.

Theres quite a Sudanese presence in Uganda, since the border they share is slowly getting safer after South Sudan declared independence from Sudan. They speak and dress quite differently, and are not to be confused with all the Indian decent locals who came to Uganda during British rule as labourers. There’s still some racist tension between the two groups, even though both are born and raised Ugandans.

Its been interesting to travel around here as a solo muzungu, and I certainly get a lot of strange stares. Sometimes people seem to think absolutely nothing at all, but just stop to stare to take in the strange sight. Other times, they’re inquisitively checking me out, from head to toe, wondering what the heck Im doing all alone, where Im from, and maybe what Im thinking. Meanwhile, Im noticing their gaze, and glancing back at the stares, wondering what they’re thinking, and I realize its just circular curiosity – we’re both just wondering what the other is thinking, equally baffled by what we’re seeing.

The Pearl of Africa

To get from South Africa to Uganda, I had to change planes in Rwanda. At Kigali International airport, I waited on the tarmac for my next plane, and was issued a boarding pass for “Kategre Ndege.” Im still not sure if that was someone else or a rough Kinyarwanda translation of my name…

the shore of Lake Victoria in Entebbe

My east Africa trip started in Entebbe, the international airport town on Lake Victoria which has a huge UN presence. Couchsurfing with a couple of them made me feel like I wasn’t too far from home or that exotic but as soon as I traveled west, the word Mzungu greeted me everywhere I went. Mzungu means “foreigner” or “white person” and thank God we’re no longer seen as colonial devils since children run up excitedly to wave and yell mzungu. In earlier times, from the start of the slave trade and into about the 60’s, children would run away from any white people they saw since it was a common saying for mothers to warn their children, “behave or a muzungu will eat you!”

Its been a whirlwind since I arrived in this beautiful place. It borders magnificent Lake Victoria, boasts the start of the longest river in the world, has snowcapped mountains at the equator, has the highest concentration of primates in the world, and amazing bird watching. Some say Uganda is the pearl of Africa, squeezing in all the African attractions you’d ever want in one, very-safe country. Funnily enough, this hasn’t caught on with backpackers yet, as the infrastructure for traveling around the country alone is pretty minimal (and insanely cheap). There is usually a hostel with a couple other mzungus in the main cities and most touristy places, but most of the tourism is high-end tourism related to gorilla wildlife tracking.

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the big boss walking past my gorilla-tracking friend Jon who took this great snap

Gorillas are the biggest driver of wildlife tourism in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo has recently reopened their parks and begun hosting more gorilla tracking tours. They all cooperate on price (circa $500 for an hour with a group) and work together for conserving their natural habitat since it sits most of the gorilla groups live within the tri-national park. Since the gorillas are free to move between all three borders, its possible that the gorillas all slowly migrate to one or two countries, but so far, their numbers have only been increasing and many groups are totally habituated to human presence, so it looks like the gorilla tracking industry will just keep growing in all three countries. Im hoping it won’t only bring more international visitors to see these primates, but also allow travelers to discover the other hidden jewels in these sometimes misunderstood and underrepresented countries.

Thinking about Tourism in Kampala

Last week I attended an international conference on Sustainable Tourism in Kampala, Uganda. It was hosted by Makerere University, which is one of Africa’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Although it was established by the British and probably maintains excellent tuition, the campus itself seems weary from lack of funding, and parts of it look more like a deserted army base with crumpled buildings surrounded in rusty barbed wire fence. Around the skies above the hill the university is perched on circle dozens of Malibu storks, with massive wing spans and vulture looking stances. They sit on the tops of trees and create an eerie atmosphere, though they’re truly beautiful. Locals consider them the pigeon of Kampala, annoying garbage scavengers with stinky poop.

a malibu stork at dusk on campus

There were mostly Ugandans and Americans at the conference, in total about 100 people, and some interesting characters made the 3 days of constant presentations barable. There was a Masai from Kenya jingling around in his colourful garb, one very enthusiastic Chinese professor who was extremely difficult to understand, and an American professor who had a squinty, perma-“huh?” face twisted up so weirdly that you always wanted to ask him “are you alright?”

the welcoming committee at the ATLAS Africa Tourism conference

The conference was a first for me, and I was happy to present my research on ecotourism but it seemed like no one was really there to hear you talk, but to see if you were useful to them. People capitalized on the coffee and lunch breaks to network with all the most strategic people and once in a while, swap business cards with those people they found interesting. When presentations sparked a discussion, there was barely time to facilitate a dialogue since there were 6 consecutive sessions running at any given moment, for only 30 minutes each.

my Masai friend James

In the end, I kind of noticed that everyone had something smart to say about sustainable tourism in theory, but only bad things to say about actual cases of attempted sustainable tourism. Local Ugandans complained about it as a form of neo-colonialism and almost everyone recognized tourism as an activity exclusive to the rich. In the end, even the things we had to say about theory just ended up having a lot of academics and practitioners talking in circles, so not much came out of the conference except new friends and potential industry connections. For me, I lucked out with some great connections in the places Im headed next, and some well-knowledged people who actually know a thing or two about tourism in East Africa since the backpacker trail seems hard to track.