This story was commended in the Bradt Guides/Independent on Sunday 2012 Travel Writing Competition
“I only had one bullet so I aimed straight between the eyes!”
George, our animated Ugandan wildlife guide, knew how to enthrall his passengers as the safari vehicle shuddered through the African bush. The shot had exploded into the buffalo’s skull, he explained, but the enormous beast appeared not to notice.
“He just continued to chase me, and then I felt his warm nose on my bottom…”
He paused for dramatic effect; his audience gasped.
“And then he fell down, dead!”
With almost 40 years experience leading tourists through the savannah, it was no wonder that George had an awesome anecdote for every occasion. Besides killing a buffalo with an ancient rifle, he had thrown himself to the ground to avoid being bitten in two by a one-and-a-half ton hippo, and escaped a lion by dashing up a tree – only to find himself face to face with a venomous snake.
Thrilling at the best of times, these tales took on an extra impact when recounted in the wilderness of Murchison Falls National Park – Uganda’s oldest and largest park. We were driving down a newly opened network of game tracks which led us deep into the savannah, a rolling, golden landscape dotted with rustling borassus palms and muddy waterholes. Here, a lack of development meant that the wildlife had remained relatively undisturbed for decades. Elephants were bulkier, birds more abundant and a herd of stampeding Cape buffalo could comprise hundreds of individuals.
Despite his terrifying encounters, George loved the animals to bits. He recognised many of the park’s 140 lions, and had affectionately given them names. He directed the driver through the rippling grassland to where “Peter”, a young lion, was dozing in the midday heat. There was no need to be afraid, he explained – Peter’s bulging belly meant he was not looking for his next meal just yet. The feline did indeed looks too full to move, and was a perfectly behaved model as everyone snapped away.
George’s enthusiasm was infectious. He told every tale as if it were for the first time, and his eyes lit up as he watched the astonishment spread across his passengers’ faces. It is Murchison’s big game that draws visitors to the park – but undoubtedly, it is the fascinating small details that keep them here. Even drab-looking birds were transformed into colourful protagonists in George’s stories. There were plovers that fearlessly picked strands of meat from between the teeth of basking Nile crocodiles, and duck-like hammerkops who had a strange aversion to the colour red. If they saw it in their nest they would believe it was on fire – and deposit beakful after beakful of water in a vain attempt to extinguish these “flames”.
Our vehicle rumbled on past spiky acacia trees, stripped of leaves by male black-headed weaverbirds, who constructed elaborate, hanging nests on the ends of the spindliest branches. The fussy female would destroy her mate’s woven works of art and the male had to rebuild, again and again, until the female decided he had created the perfect nest for her chicks.
Unfortunately, George couldn’t afford to be quite so picky about where to bring his children into the world. As a young ranger, living in the wildest reaches of the park long before mobile phones could connect it to the rest of the country, his wife had gone into labour with their first child. They headed to the game tracks, desperate to flag down any passing vehicles, but none came. George delivered his daughter safely by the roadside, miraculously undisturbed by aggressive bull elephants or scavenging hyenas. This time, when he truly needed it, nature was on his side.
However, the most dangerous species George had encountered in the park was not a hungry lion, or an angry buffalo, but an altogether far more terrifying creature. As a young ranger guide he was charged with guiding the Ugandan president on a tour of the park. This being the 1970’s, that president happened to be Idi Amin.
Murmurs from the back seat expressed our mixed awe and horror.
So, did Mr Amin hunt during this tour?
“Of course!” exclaimed George, his sparkling eyes betraying his delight in recounting this tale.
“He shot two poachers!”
- Learn about Murchison Falls National Park on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website.
- The main entrance at Paraa is a 4-5 hour drive from Kampala on good roads.
- Murchison Falls National Park is in northwestern Uganda, which experienced violent conflicts for 20 years. The region is safe now, but remains underdeveloped. Combined with the dry climate, this makes it one of Uganda’s poorest regions. Consider visiting a community tourism project during your time here – A small donation goes a long way. Boomu Women’s Group is an excellent initiative run by the lovely Ednah (they also offer accommodation), while musicians and dancers from the village of Mubako will perform at Nile Safari Lodge in the evenings on request. The sound of the local adungu – a stringed instrument in various sizes – is really magical.
- GeoLodges’ Nile Safari Lodge is my favourite indulgent place to stay in Murchison. It’s located just outside the entrance to the park, and the private cabins overlook the Nile. You also get an outdoor “bush shower” – showering with monkeys leaping overhead is an amazing experience!
- Red Chilli Rest Camp is a great place for budget travellers. They have affordable cabins and camping, and organise three-day trips from Kampala for those who don’t have their own transport. The open-air bar is a great place to hang out with a beer and meet travellers, and warthogs, baboons and hippos roam the site, so you’re guaranteed up-close wildlife viewing. Just give the hippos a wide berth…