Murchison Falls

Introduction

Murchison Falls National Park is a top Uganda Safari destination and its best attraction is a Paara boat stretch to the bottom of the falls. The Park sits on the shore of Lake Albert in northwest Uganda. It’s known for Murchison Falls, where the Victoria Nile River surges through a narrow gap over a massive drop. The park's endowed with big game, including elephants and hippos, and you could catch sight of the chimpanzee in the Kanyiyo Padidi mahogany forest. The Lake Albert Delta is home to rare shoebill storks. There is game fishing in the cascades of Karuma Falls.

Murchison Park Entry Fees 2021/22

STATUSFNRNREAC
AdultsUSD 40USD 30UGX 20,000
childrenUSD 20USD 10UGX 5,000
Pr & Sec StudentsUGX 3,000
College StudentsUGX 5,000
Wildlife ClubsUGX 2,000

KEY: FNR – Foreign Non-Residents, FR – Foreign Residents, EAC – East African Community

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) lies at the northern end of the Albertine Rift, where the valley’s bounding escarpments fade into north Uganda’s anonymous expanses. The Victoria Nile bisects the park for 100 kilometers as it flows west from Karuma Falls to the Albert Nile. Created in 1952 from the 3,860 square kilometers, MFNP is Uganda’s largest protected area. Today it forms the core of the even larger Murchison Falls Conservation Area (5072 square kilometers), including the adjoining Karuma and Bugungu wildlife reserves.

This park’s main attractions are undoubtedly the thundering Murchison Falls and the River Nile with its teeming hippo and serried ranks of crocodiles on the sandbanks, coupled with large numbers of other species coming down to drink and bathe.

Murchison Hippos on Paara Boat launch

Undoubtedly, the park’s most enduring and famous safari attraction is the Paraa launch trip to view the spectacle. On the way to the Murchison Falls, a guest can run into Crocodile, Lion, Elephant, Hippos, Hartebeest, Buffalo, Rothschild Giraffe, Oribi, and Monitor Lizards.

The most dramatic view of the waterfall is at the top of the falls, where the sight and sounds of the Nile crashing through the 6-meter wide chasm makes an unforgettable assault on your neural senses.

The Falls site may be reached either by vehicle or a hot half-hour climb on foot after leaving the Puma launch in Fajao Gorge. The latter route passes Baker’s Point, a peninsula that faces Murchison Falls and a secondary cataract named Uhuru Falls.

Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda Safari Tours

The Murchison Falls

North of Butiaba, the Albertine Rift Valley wall shoulders its way inland from Lake Albert to merge into Murchison Falls National Park’s rolling expanses. But before the rift valley disappears altogether, it concludes with a final and quite a superb exclamation mark: The Murchison Falls!.

By this time, the once lofty Bunyoro escarpment has dwindled into a low step-over which the Nile plunges to separate two very different rivers.

Upstream, the Victoria Nile hurtles through the rift’s hinterland down an explosive 80km of rapids that rafters considered one of the world’s scariest sections of whitewater. However, the final plunge over Murchison Falls drains the last of the river’s energy, transforming it into a broad and peaceful stream that flows peacefully across the rift valley floor to seep through a papyrus delta into Lake Albert.

Murchison Falls is famous not for its height – just 40 meters – but for the violence with which the Nile explodes through a narrow six-meter gorge.

Samuel and Florence Baker in 1864

History of Murchison Falls

The first European visitors on a Uganda expedition to the Falls were Samuel and Florence Baker in 1864. They named the falls after Sir Roderick Murchison, then President of the Royal Geographical Society.

More satisfyingly perhaps, they are also known as Kabarega Falls, after the 19th Century King of Bunyoro, whose domain extended from Murchison to Mweya and stubbornly resisted colonial incursions. Kabarega’s enemies would include Samuel Baker when the explorer returned to Africa and made a vain attempt to annex Bunyoro as an Egyptian colony.

“Upon rounding the corner in our canoes, a magnificent sight burst upon us. Rushing through a gap that cleft the rock exactly before us, the river, contracted from a grand stream, was pent up in a narrow gorge scarcely fifty yards (50 meters) in width. Roaring furiously through the rock-bound pass, it plunged in a single leap of about 120 feet ( 40 meters) perpendicular into a dark abyss below.”  Samuel Baker, Murchison Falls, 1864

The Bakers had little time to appreciate the Falls, for a hippopotamus attacked and tipped their small boat, an event that caused numerous logs and boulders along the river to come to life as hundreds of crocodiles.

The Falls are an effective food processor, and the reptiles were waiting, as they still do today, for ready mashed meals to arrive. However, they are not fussy creatures, and the Bakers, though made tough and chewy by travel, would have done just as well. The couple was grateful to be swept safely onto the bank.

The power of the 300 cubic meters per second raging through Murchison Falls has been a magnet to energy engineers and politicians, even as far back as Churchill’s visit in 1907.

“Who can doubt,” Churchill wondered, “that the bridle is preparing which shall hold and direct their strength, or that the day will come when forlorn Fajao (a long-vanished town below the Falls) – now depopulated and almost derelict – will throb with the machinery of manufacture and electric production. I cannot believe that modern science will be prepared to leave these mighty forces untamed, unused…”

Modern science has since tamed the Nile at Jinja and, latest at Karuma Falls with a hydroelectric turbine, and has indeed been reluctant to leave Murchison Falls unused with an on-edge debate on that same issue in 2019.

In 1971 a similar scheme was prevented only by the coup in which Idi Amin ousted President Obote. The proponents abandoned the project, and the electric light delayed at Murchison as more sinister darkness spread across its existence.

Today, in these more enlightened times, the waterfall is (not for long) fully protected within the national park.

uhuru falls beside murchison falls
Uhuru Falls (left) Murchison Falls (right)

Uhuru Falls

In fact, the Nile does not squeeze in its entirety through Murchison’s narrow gorge but also spills over another intermittent waterfall to the north known as Uhuru Falls.

The second fall was first described in 1907 by Surveyor S.B. Weldon, who reported a “distinct fall of great magnitude to the north of Sir Samuel Baker’s fall.”

However, records show that it was not present in 1902 and that it had vanished by 1928. Nor was it present in 1960 when colonialists built a footbridge across the gorge to link north and south Murchison.

During the great rains of 1962 (Uganda’s year of independence), the Nile again broke free of its constraining gorge to restore the secondary waterfall.

Uhuru, appropriately enough, means freedom.

It is not clear whether Uhuru Falls existed in 1864 when the Bakers reached Murchison Falls. In fact, it is possible that they described Uhuru rather than Murchison Falls, for Sam Baker’s account is riddled with uncharacteristic inconsistencies. Though accurately gauging the Murchison falls’ height (40 meters), he estimated that the ‘narrow gorge’ was 50 yards wide. Certainly, the engraving in his book, The Albert Nyanza, better resembles Uhuru Falls (image below).

Was Baker more overwhelmed by Uhuru than Murchison Falls, or did the Nile then plunge solely over Uhuru while Murchison was a temporarily dry gorge? Things can change, as the secondary waterfall’s appearances and disappearances show.

If Uhuru alone existed in 1864, is it possible that subsequent collapses within the Murchison gorge have lowered the riverbed to recapture the river and (re)create the spectacle we see today?

lions in Murchison Falls

Around Murchison Falls National Park

Birds Found in Murchison

Birdlife is spectacular along the river. Hundreds of Red-throated bee-eaters nest in a river cliff near Paraa, while many waterbirds are found along the channel. The most prized sighting is the strange-looking Shoebill or Whale-headed Stork, which frequents marshy areas. With luck, you can see the Shoebill from the Paraa boat safari, but opportunities are best in the Victoria Nile’s papyrus delta, Mabamba Swamp, where the river enters Lake Albert.

Wildlife Viewing Safari in Murchison Falls NP

The Buffalo and elephant are ubiquitous among Murchison Falls NP animals. A very healthy lion population exists preying on the abundant Uganda kob on the expansive savannah plains. Several antelope species on the Murchison plains, including oribi, Jackson’s hartebeest, defassa waterbuck, grey duiker, and bushbuck.

On the Victoria Nile banks, which bisects the park, are crocodiles and hippos busking under the savannah heat, which you can see on the Paraa boat safari trip to the bottom of the falls.

Murchison Falls wildlife collection lucks the Rhino to complete Africa safari’s famous Big 5 game animals list (Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, and Rhino). Fortunately for safari enthusiasts, the fifth of them, the White Rhino, lives in the nearby private sanctuary, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.

You’re also most likely to see large herds of the localized Rothschild’s giraffe in the park, but the leopard is far from showing up randomly; it’s expected to be it in the vicinity of Pakuba Lodge.

Troops of the rare Pata’s monkey sometimes hang around the grassy plains and are easy to spot on a good safari game drive.

The neighboring Budongo Forest offers chimpanzee tracking excursions to compliment your game drive. It’s fun watching these distant habituated cousins showcase their native behaviors.

Murchison Falls’s good savannah game viewing opportunities are found north of the Nile in the Buligi Area. This stunning grassland wilderness is sandwiched between the Victoria and Albert-Niles with panoramic views towards the rift valley escarpment in the West Nile district and Congo. It offers some of the best game tracks in the country.

Murchison Falls Elephants

Other notable areas north of the river are a parkland-like expanse of Borassus Palms near Tangi and the Nyamsika Cliffs viewpoint, overlooking a river valley used by wildlife as a corridor to reach the Nile.

Game is more scarce in the bushier habitats south of the river. However, forest species, notably Chimpanzee, can be found in the Kanyiyo Padidi Forest in the southern part of the Murchison Falls Conservation Area.

The Murchison Nile is home to some huge Nile Perch, and regular competitions attract anglers worldwide.

The unconfirmed record (the scales only went up to 100kg) was an estimated 108kg fish taken in 2002.

The Channel track and the Leopard Loop are probably the most likely Uganda locations to find Leopard and Giant Forest Hog. The area is also memorable for its distinctive candelabra trees (Euphorbia candelabrum) and the African Fish Eagles that perch on them.

Activities

Boat Safari, launch trip on paraa victoria nile in Murchison Falls National Park
Boat Safari on Paraa Stretch, Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls NP. Photo © Marasa Africa

Nile Boat Safari

If you’re Planning Your First Uganda Safari to Murchison Falls, NP, you definitely should ask your tour manager to add the boat safari on the Victoria Nile. The superb boat safari trip from Paraa to the base of the Murchison Falls is the park’s most popular and longest-running attraction — the Queen Mother made an inaugural voyage in a spanking-new launch back in 1959.

In addition to the stalwart UWA launch trips, two private companies, G&C Tours and Marasa (owners of Paraa Lodge), also run various craft on the river. Consequently, it is now easy to arrange boat safari voyages to meet your schedule and requirements.

Keen photographers, for example, would certainly wish to leave slightly earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon than the UWA boats to capture the best light.

On the way to the falls, the boats follow a stretch of the Nile with a compelling African atmosphere, fringed by Borassus palms, acacia woodland, and stands of mahogany.

Game viewing in murchison on a boat

On a paraa boat launch, game viewing is excellent — hippos in their hundreds, some of the largest crocodiles left in Africa, small herds of buffalo, waterbuck, and kob, and as often as not,, giraffe, bushbuck, and black-and-white colobus.

Elephants are frequently observed playing in the water, often within a few meters of the boat, and fortunate visitors might even see a lion or leopard.

The birdlife on the papyrus-lined banks is stunning, with the top prize being the shoebill, seen here less often than it is on the trip to the delta, but a distinct possibility in the dry season.

On a birdwatching tour, you’re most likely to see the African fish eagle, Goliath heron, saddle-billed stork, African jacana, pied and malachite kingfishers, African skimmer, piacpiac, rock pratincole, black-headed gonolek, black-winged red bishop, yellow-mantled widowbird, and the yellow-backed weaver. And at the right time of year, you can see a variety of migrant waders.

The dazzlingly colorful red-throated bee-eater, which nests in sandbanks between Paraa and the falls, is more likely to be seen here than anywhere in east Africa.

Boat launch safari in Murchison Falls uganda

Cruising, all the way, to the bottom of the falls. Photo © Marasa Africa

The UWA’s double-decker boats have chugged up and down the river for decades, and the long-serving guides and pilots are incredibly knowledgeable.

The safari boats can carry 40 passengers, leave at 08.00 and 14.00 and cruise the paraa stretch for close to three hours for USD 32 per person. They charge a minimum of USD 325 for a trip, which therefore requires at least ten people.

G&C Tours operates a small armada from Paraa’s south jetty that provides plenty of scope for flexibility. Boats depart for the falls daily at 14.30 or 08:00 and 11:000, subject to demand.

A 35-seater boat, two 14-seater craft (also with upper viewing platform), and two five-seater Duroboats are available from USD 250 per boat, subject to duration and capacity. You can book your boat safari at Paraa Lodge for the boats operating from the jetty on the north bank.

An 11-seater boat runs at 08.30 and 11.00 and costs USD 250 per person, subject to boat safari duration and capacity. The lodge also has a five-person speedboat for fishing trips. Though seats on the new craft cost more than the park launches, they are far more comfortable and can approach much closer to the falls.

Also, after a leisurely game cruise upriver to the falls, they return more swiftly downriver to Paraa. All boats have lifejackets and river guides.

Subject to minimum rates for your choice of boat, Marasa and G&C both offer exclusive cruises to the falls as well as sundowner cruises, voyages to the delta, and fishing trips.

Explore Murchison Your Own Way!

Murchison is a great family destination. Kids (5-15) are allowed in the park, take your family to this great African safari destination in Uganda and let them experience the raw African savanna jungle.

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