The greatest waterfall on the Nile

On a tour to Murchison Falls and the national park that surrounds them, we discovered Uganda’s bitumen roads were way better than those of recent countries, so Sam could read his Kindle, I could write on the computer and we could chat with new friends. It was now a familiar pattern for me: the slow dawning of fellow travellers of what we were doing, the realisation of the challenges Sam posed, but also his innate charm and humour. Given time, people like Sam, you can’t really help it.

We arced off the bitumen and onto damp paprika clay, sprinkled with puddles populated by baboons, vervet monkeys and warthog. Small villages built of the same paprika clay; Kilanyi Primary School’s road sign proclaimed ‘SUFFER NOW ENJOY TOMORROW’. Corn, sugar cane, banana, coffee, spear grass, cassava. Paw paw, jack fruit and mango trees. Small mosques, small churches, small communities.

Wet and green. The forest thickened and the canopy closed.  As we drove through the Budongo forest, home to chimpanzee, we could see no more than 10 metres into the east African mahogany, impenetrable and seemingly endless. The forest cleared into woodlands, still dense, still wet, still green.

We reached our second great river of the trip, the Nile. Lindsay, an English maths teacher on the bus turned to Sam. ‘Sam, the Nile is the longest river in the world. It is 6,700 kilometres long.’

‘If you were going 100 kilometres per hour it would take you 67 hours.’

‘Yes, I suppose it would.’

Our minibus pulled up to a clearing next to the river above the falls. Time for quick guided walk. The humidity was oppressive and we were soon lathered in sweat. The Victorian Nile, the section between its origin at Lake Victoria and Lake Albert, arrowed off away from us below the falls.

Murchison Falls compress the tumbling white water of the Victoria Nile, a hundred or so metres across, into a six metre gap between two obdurate pillars of granite, before intense pressure sprays a giant inverted funnel of water into the river sixty metres below. A giant upside down geyser. In terms of pressurised water, Murchison is the most powerful waterfall in the world. The group peered down into the void, speculating that the force would probably tear a body apart. Sam didn’t like that idea; neither did I.

Our guide picked up that Sam needed close supervision near the cliff line; Africa doesn’t usually believe in safety barriers. I gripped Sam hand and steered him away from the edge.

We headed for camp. Sam was tired after a day of travelling and I was worried about how he would behave.

‘I don’t want a tent.’

‘There is no other option Sam.’

‘No! You f**k off! I am not going in a tent.’

That got the attention of the fifty or so people in the reception area.

Sam stomped, pointing at me as he was doing so. ‘I want a better father. I will sleep here, in reception.’

I let him be and just followed at a distance. We missed the orientation talk but others filled me in soon enough. Apparently warthog frequently grazed around the tents, baboons stole anything edible that was not locked up and hippos wandered around at night.

It came time to allocate the tents, which were actually safari tents with two single beds in each. I managed to get Sam to have a look, and he immediately calmed down. Phew.

After Sam had chilled for a while, I called him outside. ‘Sam, come out of the tent, you’ll get a surprise.’

He came out and laughed. ‘Its Pumbaa!’

Three warthog were grazing directly outside the tent entrance, completely indifferent to our presence.

In the afternoon the tour’s itinerary included a boat tour up the river to the falls, 17 kilometres upstream from the campsite. I wondered if I was overstretching Sam, who found these activities draining, but I pushed through and took him.

Sam did well. He was engaged with all the wildlife on the banks, and the travellers in the boat. Giraffe, baboons and warthog cautiously walked around the buffalo and hippos on the banks and reeds. A large yellow-billed heron cautiously tip-toed her long legs through the shallows of a tributary, in the gaze of a Nile crocodile; pied kingfisher flicked and chirped in and out of their nests, buried in holes in the mud of the riverside cliffs.

‘Honk, honk. Mhree-ha.’ Sam continued to imitate the hippos and elephants; he was getting quite good.

The open boat toiled against the current. As we approached the falls, dirty froth speckled the surface like ice on an Arctic sea, a product of the force of Murchison. We rounded a curve, the same curve that Sir Samuel Baker and his wife had in 1864 in two dugout canoes. He recorded the experience that finally solved the mystery of the source of the Nile by connecting the placid river entering Lake Albert with the wild rapids of the river that left Lake Victoria above. He described it thus:

‘The roar of the river was extremely loud, and after sharp pulling for a couple of hours, during which time the stream increased, we arrived at a point where the river made a slight turn. Upon rounding the corner a magnificent sight burst suddenly upon us. On either side of the river were beautifully wooded cliffs rising abruptly to a height of about 300 feet; rocks were jutting out from the intensely green foliage; and 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 of scarcely 50 yards in width, roaring furiously through the rock-bound pass it plunged in one leap of about 120 feet perpendicular into a dark abyss below. The fall of water was snow white, which had a superb effect as it contrasted with the dark cliffs that walled the river, while the graceful palms of the tropics and wild plantains perfected the beauty of the view.

This was the greatest waterfall of the Nile, and in honour of the distinguished President of the Royal Geographic Society I named it the Murchison Falls.’

The boat abutted a rocky outcrop on the river as close as it was safe to go and we took it all in, eddies and whirls around the boat shaking our craft.

Back down the river, the current now our ally, the boat went quiet as we all lost ourselves in our thoughts as the jungle drifted past in the late afternoon haze. Near our destination a large herd of elephant stood on the bank, drinking and bathing on the bank, their trunks spraying water over their backs and up under their ears and sides, babies hiding under mothers, a matriarch and a bull watching us closely.

Murchison had been an unforgettable experience, but not as unforgettable as it had been for Ernest Hemingway. In 1960, the Nobel Prize winning writer decided to take his fourth wife on a flying holiday across Africa, which included a fly over of Murchison Falls. Hemingway, an experienced pilot, clipped an old telegraph pole and crashed his plane into the jungle on the banks of the Nile. Sustaining  non-life threatening but painful injuries, they spent the night trying to avoid dangerous animals before being rescued in the morning by a boat,  coincidentally the same boat used in the film The African Queen.

While attempting to fly back to Entebbe, this time piloted by a local pilot, the plane crashed and burned on takeoff, with Hemingway sustaining more serious injuries, including a ruptured liver, a burnt scalp and a fractured skull, sustained when he head-butted his way out of the plane.  Having been reported in the west as having died in the accident, he read his own obituaries in the papers while convalescing in hospital!