Summer 2015 Semester in Development participant’s experience at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda.
During my Semester in Development in Uganda, I went on three trips. Earlier in the summer, most of our cohort travelled east to Jinja, where we went white water rafting on the Nile River. About halfway through the trip we went to Rwanda, where we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Finally, with two weeks left in our semester, we went on the trip that I was most excited about: a safari to Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park.
It’s been about one year since I first got a DSLR camera, and since then, I discovered that I love wildlife photography. While home in Vancouver, I tried my best to keep up with my new hobby, but you can only take so many pictures of seagulls, crows, and pigeons before you start getting bored. All of this contributed to my excitement about our upcoming safari in Uganda! Lions, giraffes, and elephants – what more could I want?
On the morning we were leaving, we packed our stuff for the weekend and headed down to a nearby mall to wait for our tour operator. We waited until the set time...then waited some more...then waited a bit more (as we waited, we were becoming convinced that we had been scammed), until our tour guide Trevor finally showed up! He arrived with a torrent of apologies – he had suddenly gotten sick and needed to find a new driver to replace him. Our fears were averted!
We drove for about five hours to our destination, the top of Murchison Falls. We then hiked up and down the surrounding cliffs on what was possibly the hottest day we had in Uganda, I'm surprised that we all made it without passing out. Still, we got an amazing view of the falls, in all their glory.
Then, we quickly went back to the cabins we were staying at, dropped off our stuff, and headed out for our first game drive. I jumped on the roof, hoping for a good vantage point to take pictures.
For the first few minutes of driving, we saw nothing. I certainly remember worrying a bit... maybe there weren’t many animals in the park, maybe we wouldn’t see very many at all. Then we went over a rise in the road, and suddenly far in the distance, we could see animals moving around. I grabbed my zoom lens and looked through the viewfinder: long necks, long legs – they were giraffes! There were a few adults and even a calf! We got closer and closer (as I took a few photos per second), eventually getting so close that their heads were filling my frame.
Once we saw the giraffes, we started seeing more and more animals. One animal that was particularly friendly was the Jackson’s Hartebeest; it seemed to enjoy standing on the side of the road and staring at us as we passed (most animals that close to the road would bolt as we approached).
Late in the game drive, as we were beginning to loop back towards the camp, we spotted something lying beneath a tree, a few hundred meters from the road. As we got closer, we realized it was the animal we had all been hoping to see: a lion.
Though I have a suspicion that it wasn't completely allowed, we quietly drove up to the lion, eventually stopping only about 15 meters from him (to put that in context, he probably could have jumped up and grabbed me from the top of the car before I had time to get back inside). He seemed to be sleeping, but gave me quite a scare when another car drove by on the road and he lifted his head to check it out.
After watching him for a few minutes, we headed back towards the campsite. On the way, we stopped to talk to some tourists in another van, who told us there were five more lions just a few minutes away. That's not an opportunity you can pass up, so we headed over as the sun set.
After a few minutes of off-road driving, we found them: two lionesses and three cubs. We watched them prowl around for a few minutes, then headed back to camp. Our first day was a success.
Very early the next morning, we headed out for our second game drive. We saw much of the same things (no more lions, unfortunately). Many more giraffes, including a whole group that blocked the road for a while.
Our final expedition at Murchison Falls was a boat cruise from the campsite up to the Falls. We saw several groups of hippos, and even saw a hippo fight (at least we saw one hippo chasing another hippo away from him). Finally, we saw a few crocodiles along the river bank, sunning themselves with their mouths wide open.
After resting another night in our cabin, we headed back to Kampala. On the way, we stopped at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, hoping to see some white rhinos. We drove into the park with our guide, then got out and began walking. After a few minutes, we saw our first rhinos, a mother and a baby (if you can call a 700kg behemoth a baby) sleeping in a clearing.
Slightly disappointed that we had only seen two sleeping rhinos, we began walking to the exit of the park, when suddenly we happened upon another group of rhinos, this time up and about. We watched them eat for a few minutes, before exiting the park and finally back to Kampala. Our safari was certainly the highlight of my trip to Uganda; a perfectly relaxing (and exciting) weekend away from Kampala!
Written by Jacob Cutts
Semester in Development, Summer 2015