Featuring some of the country’s most dramatic scenery, Murchison Falls National Park includes the most powerful falls, Victoria Nile, and vast savanna plains. It lies at the northern end of the Albertine Rift Valley, where 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. On the extreme edge of the rift, the Nile squeezes through a 6-meter ravine with a thundering force, finally tumbling 50 meters down to form the Murchison Falls.
The Victoria Nile river stretch from the falls to the Abert Delta teems with hippo pods. Serried ranks of enormous Nile crocodiles sunbathe on the river sandbanks, and riparian birds and many animals converge for a drink on the Egypt-bound waters.
Gazetted in 1952, the 3,860 square kilometers Murchison Falls National Park 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.
Murchison Falls National Park’s most enduring and famous tourist attraction is the boat ride from Paraa along the Victoria Nile stretch to a few meters below the falls. Guests can get the closest to crocodiles, lions, elephants, hippos, hartebeest, buffalo, Rothschild Giraffe, oribi, and monitor lizards riding along the river backs.
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 vast chasm make 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.
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, it concludes with a final and 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 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 whitewater sections.
Nonetheless, the final plunge over the falls drains the last of the river’s energy, transforming it into a broad and peaceful stream across the rift valley floor. It finally sips 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.
A little history about the park
Samuel and Florence Baker were the first European visitors on a Uganda expedition to the Falls in 1864. They named the falls after Sir Roderick Murchison, then President of the Royal Geographical Society.
More satisfyingly to the locals, perhaps, the falls are also known as Kabarega Falls, after the 19th Century King of Bunyoro. His domain extended from Murchison to Mweya and stubbornly resisted colonial incursions. Kabarega’s enemies would include Samuel Baker, who returned to Africa after his first exploration and made a vain attempt to annex Bunyoro as an Egyptian colony.
I specifically like his observation from the 1864 paper. Baker writes;
“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.”Sir Samuel Bake
Baker and his wife had little time to appreciate the Falls, for a hippopotamus attacked and tipped their small boat. This event 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 300 cubic meters per second power 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. The Uganda government 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 was 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 but the park is being disseminated by oil investors with the construction of 10 oil well pads, a feeder pipeline, and a refinery.
Uhuru Falls shows up
The Nile certainly, 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 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 massive 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 unclear whether Uhuru Falls existed in 1864 when the Bakers reached Murchison Falls. It is possible they may have 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. Indeed, the engraving in his book, The Albert Nyanza, better resembles Uhuru Falls (see image below).
Was Baker more overwhelmed by Uhuru than Murchison Falls, or did the Nile plunge solely over Uhuru when Murchison was temporarily a dry gorge? Things can change, as the secondary waterfall’s appearances and disappearances show.
If Uhuru alone existed in 1864, could subsequent collapses within the Murchison gorge have lowered the riverbed to recapture the river and (re)create the spectacle we see today?
Let’s take a tour around Murchison Falls National Park and explore the animals you’ll encounter
Birdlife is spectacular along the river; if you love watching riparian birds, take the boat trip. Hundreds of Red-throated bee-eaters nest on a river cliff near Paraa, and you’ll see many waterbirds along the channel.
The most prized sighting is the strange-looking Shoebill or Whale-headed stork-like bird, which frequents marshy areas. With luck, you can see the shoebill while riding the Paraa boat. However, the best opportunities for watching this prehistoric bird are in the Victoria Nile’s papyrus delta, where the river enters Lake Albert.
Of the 76 mammal species in Murchison Falls National Park, the Buffalo and elephant are the most widespread; you’ll see them everywhere in the park.
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.
In Murchison Falls National Park, you’ll see the big four animals, lion, elephant, and cape buffalo. But you’ll find the fifth of the BIG 5 African game animals, the rhino, in the nearby Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Leopards are present but far from showing up randomly, and you’ll most likely see them in the vicinity of Pakuba Lodge.
On a game drive through the northern flanks of the park, you’ll encounter large herds of the localized Rothschild’s giraffe.
The neighboring Budongo Forest offers chimpanzee tracking excursions to compliment your game drive. It’s fun watching these forest-dwelling habituated apes showcase their primitive behaviors. Chimpanzee tracking excursions head into the forest every day.
The game viewing opportunities in Murchison Falls National Park 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 of the rift valley escarpment in the West Nile district and Congo. It offers some of the best game tracks in the country.
Other notable areas north of the river are a parkland-like expanse of Borassus Palms near Tangi and the Nyamsika Cliffs viewpoint. The viewpoint overlooks 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, noteworthy forest species, like chimpanzees, 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 of fish taken in 2002.
The Channel track and the Leopard Loop are likely Uganda locations to find Leopard and Giant Forest Hog. The area is also memorable for its distinctive candelabra trees, on whose tops the African Fish Eagles like perching.
How to explore the park
By boat safari on the Nile
Take a boat safari from Paraa jetty upstream of the Victoria Nile to the bottom of the falls. It’s the best way to encounter many of the park’s animals and birds that come to the waterfront.
In addition to the stalwart UWA launch trips, two private companies, G&C Tours and Marasa (owners of Paraa Lodge) run various crafts 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 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 mahogany stands.
UWA’s boats can carry 40 passengers, leave at 08.00 and 14.00 and cruise the paraa stretch for nearly three hours for USD 32 per person. They charge a minimum of USD 325 for a trip, requiring 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 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 offers exclusive cruises to the falls and sundowner cruises, voyages to the delta, and fishing trips.
Hike to the top of the falls
From the bottom of the falls, join the 45-minute hike up the steep slopes around the falls. You’ll experience the falls’ mighty force from its belly. The hike is not for the unphysically sound, but the rewards of viewing the site from that angle are incredible.
You’ll have to arrange the top-of-the-falls hike earlier with your safari guide so they can pick you up at the parking lot near the top.
Take a game drive on the savanna tracks.
The game drive is the easiest way to explore the park in the comfort of your car or safari truck. The best time to catch the most active wildlife moments on a game drive is very early morning or late in the evening. At that time, the lions are actively hunting for their early or late meals before they give in to digestion slumber.
The Heart of Murchions tracks, 20 kilometers east of Masindi-Paraa road, is a prime location for spotting lion prides preying on abundant Uganda kob. Giraffes and buffalos are also plentiful in that area.
The 7-kilometer Buligi track converging at Nyamsika Gorge round the Victoria Nile is fantastic for spotting lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos, and many antelope species.
Other tracks you can drive are Albert and Victoria game drive tracks. However, I strongly recommend you pick a UWA guide or ranger to take you to spots they identified as hot zones for animals, particularly for that day.