Our afternoon adventure started back at the Para ferry crossing, but this time we took a medium size boat from Wild Frontiers and headed upstream towards Murchison Falls. Captain Milton steered our vessel with great skill in and out of the bank as he spotted wildlife. We also made numerous mid-stream stops to unclog the engine of weed and debris which abound in the water.
Milton explained that we would see lots of birdlife and that by the time we returned we would have lost count of the number of hippos…. he was right! Very soon he also pointed out one of the most common local creatures…..Nile crocodiles.
Milton assured us that the crocodiles had such a ready supply of fish in the river that they are not tempted by humans…. we were not prepared to test this theory. The crocodiles benefit from the ‘liquidiser’ effect of Murchison Falls which breaks up larger food items. During the Idi Amin days this included numerous human corpses. Whilst looking for confirmation of this story I found this blog about Idi Amin’s ruined safari lodge, which looks like it should be on our itinerary next time, although a disturbing place. It is approaching egg-laying season and Milton pointed out a favoured egg hatchery which was already being visited.
We rounded a slight bend where the north bank of the river became sandstone cliffs, soft enough to be a favourite nesting site of numerous birds. The bee-eaters were most colourful, but there were also pied kingfishers and the aptly named snake bird; when it swims in the water only its neck is visible and it looks like a snake emerging from the water [more correctly an African Darter]. Although this bird’s diet is fish, its feathers are not water repelling so it has to sit and dry them every so often to stop becoming water-logged (middle right photo).
The fish eagle was high in a tall tree; its preferred vantage point.
We pottered on upstream, passing the larger scheduled cruises on their way back downstream and thus had the upper reaches of the river to ourselves as we became aware of the roar which warned of the proximity of the falls before we rounded the rocks for a view.
How deceptively calm the waters are! The pole on the right is the site of a tragic accident involving Ernest Hemmingway and his wife in 1954. While flying in a hired Cessna along the river the pilot reacted to avoid a flock of birds and clipped an abandoned telegraph wire resulting in a crash landing. Hemmingway dislocated his shoulder and his wife, Mary, cracked her ribs, but the worst of it was that they had to spend the night on the shore before being rescued! (Remember those hippos and crocs?!) They were taken by boat to Butiaba on Lake Albert where they were able to charter another plane to fly them out. Unfortunately this plane crashed on take off and caught fire! Mary and the pilot escaped through the window, but Hemmingway was too large, and hampered by his injured shoulder. He head butted the door (which fractured his skull) and finally escaped with severe burns, collapsed intestine, ruptured liver and kidney, two crushed vertebrae, loss of vision in one eye and impaired hearing! They were driven to Masindi to recuperate, and then on to Nairobi where they read some of the many obituaries which were published before news of his survival was spread – see this report. Nine months later, he was still not sufficiently recovered to collect his Nobel Prize for Literature. Many claim that this accident was the beginning of a mental decline which culminated in his suicide in 1961.
This is the closest you can get to the falls by water and obviously a favourite bird perch. There is a rocky landing place nearby from where it is possible to hike to the top of the falls, if you have arranged to be picked up there. You can see the height difference between the water beyond the rocks which is trying to reach the wider river downstream but is still restricted between the canyon walls at this point and means the current is strong.
This view was the backdrop to some scenes in African Queen starring Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, directed by John Huston. It is reported that Bogart and Huston were the only ones not to get sick – possibly due to the large quantities of alcohol they consumed. Hepburn wrote a book about the experience “The Making of the African Queen” subtitled, ‘How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and nearly Lost My My Mind’.
After contemplating the force of the water we began our return trip. The sun was low in the sky and an evening calm came over the river with more animals coming down to the banks to graze, like the waterbuck below.
Milton was very hopeful of elephant and sure enough we came across this one which was at first a little perturbed about our presence, then pointedly ignored us.
Further downstream were a family group in the fading light.
The sun began to set and our peaceful cruise was coming to an end, but I cannot finish without a tribute to those countless hippos we passed:
They really are the strangest creatures. They spend all day floating around in the water (they bounce along the bottom rather than swimming) and only emerge at night to graze – hence we were warned not to venture outside our tents at night without a torch and some caution, in case of collision with such a bulky (and potentially dangerous; amazing turn of speed shown on video) visitor.
Our wonderful lazy afternoon cruise along the Nile ended as the sun disappeared over the horizon and we docked back at the ferry crossing. Time for us to return to the lodge and leave the river to the creatures of the night.