Murchison Falls National Park – the place where we were in for a treat or two!

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In Uganda, we have had countless wildlife encounters but we had yet to meet a corrupted cop. It didn’t take long after we left Gulu for one to spot us with “tourist” written on our car. Poor Justus was pulled over for taking over a slow truck. We carefully took it over after 1) 4 cars did it before us and 2) the truck signaled that the road was clear. Our lovely cop tried different approaches:

  1. He only wanted to fine Justus because he saw his infraction with his own eyes. His own eyes apparently missed the four others. Alright explanation #1 not quite believable, explanation #2, please?
  2. He only wanted to fine Justus because he put our lives at risk. This made absolutely no sense and the 700 km driven together showed that our driver was careful and very skilled. Alright explanation 2, not quite satisfying. Explanation #3, please?
  3. He only wanted to protect the children as this was a school area. What if…

After 10 minutes of being given different explanations (read: excuses) why we should pay a fine on the spot, we had enough. It was time to politely step in: there was a school break, there were therefore no children around and officers should not fine people based on “what ifs” but rather on facts, we haven’t feared for our lives once and safety was Justus’ priority while taking over. If he wanted to fine us because we infringed the law, fine but we were not paying any money on the side of a dusty road and we would see him in court. By now, the road had become a circus, with people stopping to look at those munzugus who got in trouble with a cop. Finally our cop muttered something and waved us away. We thanked him for taking his job seriously (we meant it and we are aware he could have been more persistent and more difficult. This was definitely an easy case of corruption) reassured him we would be even more careful on the Ugandan roads. I know it can be scary to deal with police in a foreign country but I would strongly encourage anyone to try to politely get out of such situations without giving any money on the side of the road. Corruption is an issue worldwide and your way to handle it matters. You can make a difference #saynotocorruption.

We reached Murchison Falls late afternoon and we couldn’t believe the lodge Stephen had found for us in such a short notice. Very cute, friendly staff, Fort Murchison Lodge was absolutely the perfect pied-a-terre for our Murchisonian exploration. We started with an early morning game drive and Ronald, our ranger, didn’t feel like wasting time. Yes, they were cute animals along the road but our main goal was to find lions. He asked Justus to drive right away where they were suspecting the lions to be. We had no guarantee but a lead he wanted to follow. We loved him right away, cutting the chase, increasing our chances of an encounter with the King. Yes, please! After 30 minutes driving towards the lions pantry, where his favorite meal could be found, we stopped. Ronald had spotted something. Did we see it too? We pretty thought he had made this up until we saw, further up the road, some cars lined up. We slowly moved towards the crowded corner and here they were two cubs and two lionesses playing behind a bush. They were still far away but we decided to park our a bit further up, taking the risk to miss them. Luckily, 10 minutes later, we were rewarded: a lion, a lioness and three cubs decided to make their towards us. Excitement and gratitude submerged us. We had come to Murchison Falls NP in the hope of getting closer to lions but we never expected to be that close! They crossed the road and found some shade in the bushes.

Justus offered to drive closer to the pride but we refused: we had already been given unforgettable memories and we didn’t want to bother this family any longer, we were ready for elephants, birds, monkeys, giraffes and hippos. We hit the road again, ready for another adventure: giraffe spotting! Those adorable creatures are extremely shy. Unable to see what is beneath them, they need to rely on their long distance vision and it can be therefore tricky to get close enough to get a nice shot as they tend to run for their lives if a predator comes too close for their liking. Luckily that day, we were definitely in for a treat, after the lions that decided we were worth a hello, the giraffes tolerated us, not too close tho, they demonstrated a few times their ability to run very fast, if bothered by us. Once the giraffes grew tired of us, we let them be and Ronald took us to the hippo pool. They were already in the water and didn’t seem to be willing to get out anytime soon. Too bad as a hippo on land was still missing on our list. Happy with our encounters, we couldn’t have been happier, we thought; we were proven wrong: elephants wishing us goodbye while we were going back to the ranger station was priceless.

After our successful and interesting morning, we didn’t know what to to expect of our boat cruise on the Nile river. We knew that the falls were 43 meter high and very powerful. We were told that we might see some crocodiles and hippos but there was (as usual) no guarantee. We were happy to be back on boat and enjoy a relaxing afternoon, sunbathing. We started our cruise with no expectation, meeting a cool family from Malawi and enjoying a chilled drink while cruising on the Nile river when suddenly people started to get excited and agitated: crocodiles! They were (Almost) everywhere! In the water (even on that hot day, I believe none of us fancied a swim) and on the shores, soaking the sun up. We found some “tiny” ones (still big enough to take us down easily. Bon appétit!) but also gigantic ones that reminded us that the Nile crocodiles are the largest freshwater predators in Africa. If our excitement was about to die, the next surprise waited for us is: hippos on land. Many of them had decided to get out to have some food. Say what?!

While struggling to believe we had actually seen so many crocodiles and hippos outside the water, we reached the main attraction the Murchison Falls. The Nile river surges through a narrow gap over a massive drop, creating some impressive falls. Our captain couldn’t get too close and with those waters infested with crocodiles, we were keen to keep our boat afloat. After 3 hours, cruising the Nile river, spotting some deadly yet fascinating creatures, the odd elephant and giraffe coming to the river to get a drink and the beautiful birds (over 1000 species!) Uganda is known for, it was time to get back home. This day got even better (seriously?) when a male Abssynian ground hornbill decided to walk on the track in front of our car. Justus stopped the car as the hornbill was obviously feeling happy there, happy to parade and we only needed to wait. After a while, he left, hastily followed by his partner that was less keen to parade in front of us. What. A. Grande. Finale!

Murchison Falls NP was a wonderful and the last adventure on our Ugandan exploration. It was time for us to get on a night bus to cross into Rwanda. Yes, we like border crossings so much, we have decided to spice them up: let’s cross a border at night between two countries where our linguistic understanding is non existing. Challenge accepted! Bye bye Uganda, hello Rwanda.

Next stop: Kigali!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Kidepo Valley National Park: our fun and adventurous Ugandan Northern adventure

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We were once again faced with a dilemma: 2 buses, a boda boda, 2 days on the road eating dust for 525 kilometers… or hire a driver with a car to take us to Kidepo Valley. It felt strange and slightly decadent to hire a driver but after doing some research, it genuinely seemed the best option by supporting a local company and saving some time. We came across KJong Safaris. This company was offering cusotmized tours and Stephen, the owner, got back to us right away. We started to plan our last-minute trip to the North with him, adding Murchinson falls to our itinerary and leaving Jinja out. Everything was easy and once our booking was done, we met our driver and guide, Justus and were happily ready to hit the road the very next day. We were so thankful to Stephen for being able to put a trip together within a few hours! We started driving early morning, heading to Gulu, stopping for goat skewers and chapati along the road. Delicious and cheap: our kind of breakfast! From Gulu, we headed to Kitgum where we filled our car up (how silly would it be to stranded on the side of the road with no gas left?) and bought some snacks. At the gas station, we met Paul, a Canadian traveler, who chose the adventurous way to reach Kidepo and was making his way on a boda boda. He confirmed that this was time-consuming but he had the time we didn’t have and we agreed on meeting at the camp. We started driving the last 140 kilometers on an unpaved dusty road. The drive itself was very adventurous and Justus skillfully avoided a million potholes! The scenery around us was breathtakingly beautiful and the road trip already made it worth to try to reach this remote area!

At the Lukomoit Gate, we were welcomed by two friendly rangers who gave us some info and instructions and wished us a nice time in Kidepo. Stephen had booked a Banda, a hut that were used by rangers, for us at Apoka Rest camp. Cozy and cool, this Banda was a perfect pied-a-terre for our time in Kidepo. Game drives were planned for us and we couldn’t wait to look for lions, giraffes and leopards. Many Ugandan families had come over for Christmas and it was lovely to share a bonfire with them after a delicious homemade dinner! The next day, before the sun could rise, our enthusiastic little group (we asked Paul to join us) picked up his ranger, Peter and the chasing game started. We can say now that lions and leopards defeated us. They were nowhere to be found, brilliantly hiding in the park. The lion rock didn’t hold its promises as no lion was found there either. Peter told us not to give up until we leave the park, you never know when a lion or a leopard would bless you with its presence. Skeptical, we still enjoyed our day, meeting and greeting (from the car obviously – after we were told a tourist thought it was fine to open the car and try to pet a lion, we let the need to confirm that this is not acceptable to leave your vehicle and bother animals) elephants, zebras, a dwarf crocodile, giraffes, monkeys, water buffalos and millions of jackson hartebeest and waterbucks. Peter was a great well of knowledge and we learned a lot about the animals that inhabit Kidepo Valley National Park. The park itself with dramatic mountain background and the vicinity of south Soudan is a gem. This might be out of the way but the detour gives you peace and natural beauty. At night you only hear the roar of lions (yep, they might be hiding but they know how to make sure we know they are here, somewhere!) and the elephants trumpeting.

After our last dinner, it was time to say goodbye to Paul as he was heading east the next day and we were on our way to Murchinson falls. We were looking forward to seeing him in Switzerland as he was planing a stop after his African exploration. He was convinced that we would get a chance to see lions in Murchinsons falls, hopeful we fell asleep dreaming of a potential encounter with a lion. We were woken up suddenly by Justus, knocking on our door, shouting “lions, lions”. Confused, we got dressed in a hurry and rushed into our “backyard”. There were two lionesses, slowly passing through next to the ranger booth. We were so excited! Peter was right! Never give up until you leave Kidepo! This would have been the perfect picture if it wasn’t for a car alarm that loudly scared the cats away. It was early morning so we decided to load the car and head towards Murchinson Falls National Park. Justus asked a ranger, who was standing on a rock scanning the surroundings, whether the lions were still around. As the ranger nodded, the three of us knew we couldn’t leave without a last try. We headed right instead left, deeper into the park rather than towards the exit. The excitement of a possible encounter erased the remaining tiredness and we jumped on the roof to have a better view and there they were two beautiful lionesses, slightly hidden in the high grass but it didn’t matter: we had seen a lion! Happy and grateful to Justus for giving it a try, we were now ready to leave the Kidepo Valley, a wonderful and special place on Earth.

Next stop: Murchinson Falls National Park!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!