Finding the source of the Nile obsessed Victorian explorers, and on your Uganda safari in Murchison Falls National Park, you’ll notice their names still litter the maps. Throughout all this fervent human activity, the river continued to flow implacably from lake to sea; today you can cruise along it too, and enjoy the splendour of Murchison Falls, one of Uganda’s best safari experiences, where it somehow squeezes through an 8m-wide gap.
As the Nile River boat pulled away from the Baker’s Lodge jetty, we stationed ourselves on the upper deck to have the best possible views. The question of where this mighty ribbon of water began had long been settled, but we instinctively felt that there was more to be discovered, including our first shoebill.
The lodge was named after one of the Victorian explorers who’d tramped their way across this then unmapped wilderness. Sir Samuel Baker discovered nearby Lake Albert, but it was his personal life that we found most fascinating. Baker found his wife in a slave market, and purchased her freedom so she could accompany him on his subsequent voyages of exploration.
As we scanned the sandbars for Nile crocodile (well, what else could they be called?) we agreed that this was the most unusual ‘how did you two meet?’ story we’d ever heard.
Floating mats of vegetation passed us, heading in the opposite direction. Large, smooth boulders turned out to be hippo, and we were delighted to see crowned crane fly overhead. They were the first birds we’d seen in Uganda – on the national flags fluttering in the breeze at Entebbe airport – and seeing them in the flesh, we were amused at the contradiction between their beauty and their ungainly flying style.
Our captain steered us closer to the bank at one point, where a particularly large crocodile lay basking. The guide explained that it could weigh over a tonne, and be up to a century old. Age had not mellowed it, however, and with a sudden movement of irritation, it slithered into the river.
We loved the sense of purpose of looking for the falls. Of course, we soon discovered that they were impossible to miss, although in the past, getting there had been rather more challenging.
Ernest Hemingway and his fourth wife had crash-landed their light aircraft near Murchison Falls in 1954, only to be rescued by a tourist boat. We could see how he might have been distracted by the prolific birdlife and the cloud of spray that marked our destination.
For some time, the river had been narrowing and was no longer the broad expanse of water it had been at the lodge. Our captain rounded a final bend, expertly steered between rocks – and we had found Murchison Falls.
It was incredible to think that this mighty river – which would go on to flow through Sudan and Egypt before entering the Mediterranean – was able to squeeze itself through such a narrow gap. The resulting pressure caused the river to shoot down into the Fajao Gorge in a tumult of spray and noise, and gave a sense of urgency to what had otherwise been a scene of serenity.
We marvelled at the incredible volumes of water pouring through the gap in the rocks ahead and above us, as the captain managed to nose the boat closer. Although we’d enjoyed breakfast on board the boat as we’d cruised along, we were hungry for more adventures and leapt at the chance to hike through the gorge to the top of the falls.
A narrow path between boulders led us up to wide, open area, where a flat sheet of rock was dramatically divided by the plunging water. The gap it was pouring through was deceptive – from some angles it looked as though a person might be able to leap across it, but we decided to rather keep a few paces back, enjoying the cool spray on our faces and the phenomenal views.
Our guide unfolded a map and explained the meanderings of the Nile River and why its source had proved so difficult to find. We could only imagine what they must have felt on seeing such sights for the first time, and we shared a smile at the thought of the falls being ‘discovered’ by Europeans – the people living in the area could hardly have been unaware of their existence!
There was however real romance in the idea of setting off into the unknown to follow mysterious rivers and find ways to navigate through what then really was a dark continent. I traced the course of the Nile River on the map and whispered the evocative place names it passed through, from Jinja through Khartoum, Aswan and Luxor.
Downstream from our vantage point lay the Victoria Nile Delta, where the river entered Lake Albert. That would be our destination the following day, as we continued our search for shoebill among the papyrus. As we stood by the turbulent waters of the compressed Nile, we knew that our modern-day search had been a success, and that we had found what we came to Uganda for: true peace and happiness.