There’s a cool breeze coming off the Nile tonight.
My banda at Nile Safari Lodge is open-netted on three sides. Set on stilts above the riverbank, it is airy and spacious. Banda 3 has a wide veranda overlooking the river.
The two-tone noise beyond the nets can only be a frog. It is so loud that in my mind’s eye I imagine the frog to be a foot long!
We hear the occasional HONK of a hippo.
The background noise is a symphony of crickets. According to Zahid, “all you have to do is clap your hands and the noise of the crickets will stop, for 15 seconds at least, and then they will resume. Don’t worry, they automatically shut down by around 10.30 pm.” The muzungu isn’t worried. I look forward to the crickets lulling me to sleep before too long.
A lunch stop at Masindi Hotel
We had stopped for lunch at Masindi Hotel, where we received a friendly understated welcome. We each ate a simple salad. (The heat in the middle of the day was too hot to consider eating anything else). The service was polite and swift.
Masindi Hotel is one of the original government-owned Uganda Hotels, and was managed well until Amin’s day. It and many others were sold off in the 1990s. Standards slipped. According to the hotel information, Masindi is the oldest Uganda Hotel, built in 1923. It is Indian owned now and has touches of classic Indian decor to complement the original building design and classic gardens. The hardwood interiors of the main living areas are beautifully done. The main building has welcoming bright yellow paintwork.
Famous guests have included Ernest Hemingway, Kathryn Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The Kabalega Restaurant is named “in honour of the legacy of his Majesty Chwa II.” What history! What associations! What a shame this place is not better utilised.
Driving from Masindi to Murchison Falls National Park
The approach to Murchison Falls National Park is dusty. As we drive the dirt roads approaching the main gate, we close the windows and put the AC on. This is tsetse fly territory. I’d forgotten about those nuisance insects. (Guess who’s wearing a bright blue dress to enter the park? Tsetse flies are strongly attracted to the exact shade of blue that I’m wearing).
Zahid has been visiting this park all his life. He points to the bridge that his father, an engineer, first constructed. “There used to be so many elephants and buffalo on this side of the river that we had to stop. We could not pass.” These days, big mammals are confined to the north bank of the Nile.
There are no other vehicles on the road. Our only road companions are baboons, five or six Buffalo, a Marabou Stork and a pair of Helmeted Guinea fowl and one of my favourite birds, the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, its curled eyelashes long enough to make any girl jealous. Flashes of bright blue are the tell-tale sign of Woodland Kingfishers. Swirling flashes of green are Cinnamon-chested Bee eaters.
We enter the park on World Wildlife Day.
Arrival at the lodge
We arrive at Nile Safari Lodge late afternoon.
It’s March and it’s hot. Rain has hit Kampala but barely reached this part of Uganda yet. There have been bush fires. A few drops of rain have brought green leaves to the tips of burnt bush.
After our friendly welcome by the lodge staff, I notice the 10 or so monkeys picking fresh shoots from the tree next to the reception. The monkeys are obviously happy here, there are many young among their group. They’re not scared by us, nor do they beg. Humans and monkeys coexist happily at Nile Safari Lodge.
As we enjoy our sundowners on the deck below the dining area, we spot the flapping ears of an elephant on the distant bank of the River Nile. He gently tugs at the long grass as he saunters upstream. Three Grey Herons fly by. An African open-billed stork and a cormorant fish below us. To our right is a small island that is popular with a pod of hippo and a dozen elephants who swim from the shore. We spot waterbuck too.
Nile Safari Lodge was the first lodge to be built on the south bank of the Nile in Murchison Falls National Park and still has the best view of the river. I remember when I first visited in 2010: we arrived mid-afternoon to see 20 elephants at the river’s edge on the opposite bank of the river.
What a lovely spot in which to wile away a few quiet days. It’s low season and there are only two other guests, a Ugandan lady and her Hungarian husband. We share a dinner table as we enjoy thick creamy home-made soup and the tastiest Nile Perch. The beers are cold and there’s plenty of ice. With freshly squeezed juice for breakfast (no added sugar), fruits and a cooked breakfast of eggs, sausage, tomato and toast, I really should have done a bit more exercise! Lunch and dinner are both three course affairs.
Early morning on the River Nile
Something on the roof awakens me the next morning. It takes a few moments to realise that there are monkeys overhead! They are so sure-footed, I swear they are human.
I go back to sleep and awake to sounds coming from the river: a flock of Pied Kingfishers and the occasional early morning launch boat, heading out for the start of today’s fishing competition. My morning tea arrives promptly. I hear the arrival of the hot water for my early morning shower. I love this banda. If I leave all the doors open, I can watch the River Nile from my open-air shower.
Our breakfast conversations are about crocodiles and hippos – near escapes in fact! Zahid’s friend “Crocodile Dog” had a lucky escape. He lived to tell the tale of his attack by a croc – albeit “minus one leg.”
“Those things come out of nowhere!” Zahid says, as he tells us another tale of lucky escape. Luckily for us, Nile Safari Lodge is high enough to ensure visits by crocodiles and hippos are impossible.
Pakuba Lodge frequently comes up in conversation. There are rumours that this historical lodge will be refurbished one day. For now, nature has reclaimed Amin’s old lodge. “I saw two porcupines cornering a hyena there once,” Wolfgang tells us. I’ve also heard rumours of a resident leopard.
(The Pakuba Lodge where I stayed to view Uganda’s extraordinary solar eclipse is in fact the revamped former staff housing of the original Pakuba).
Murchison Falls National Park has seen many changes. Murchison was Amin’s favourite National Park. It later became Joseph Kony‘s favourite park, making it a no-go area for many years. This was back in the 1990s and the park’s wildlife is thriving again, although oil drilling is the next challenge.
In search of Bugungu Fort
One morning, our driver Adong takes us to the site of Bugungu Fort, one of Samuel Baker’s forts. (It’s rumoured that an oil pipe may soon be laid right next to it).
Here, the River Nile is inside the National Park so fishing is prohibited. Of course, some people still try, especially since it’s impossible to police every inch of the river. Traditional crops include cotton, sweet potatoes and cassava but it’s been dry for months now. In fact, there is evidence of fires all around us.
After a morning talking about crocodiles and fires, my guide walks us down to the river past a small fire on which men are roasting cassava.
“Are there any crocodiles here?” I ask. “Oh yes!” Comes the opposite answer to the one I wanted. We walk through the fragment of Bugungu Forest. A few minutes into the forest and someone mentions tsetse flies. (Guess who’s wearing blue again?)
Where once was a wooden construction, all that remains of Bugungu Fort is a big hole in the ground like a small bomb crater. There are several large Mwai trees, complex trees whose convoluted branches have many smaller branches growing in every direction. They’re an important part of local culture.
We walk for another 10 minutes down to Delta Point, at the river’s edge. To the left is the Delta. To the right, upriver, are the famous Murchison Falls themselves. Here the riverbed is sandy. Further on, I spy a long straight pole poking from the surface of the river. It’s the unmistakable shape of a fishing pole. We look down to see a man’s pair of sandals next to it. The river comes under the jurisdiction of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It is illegal to fish here.
We pause next to a Kigelia ‘sausage tree.’ I’ve always been fascinated by these weird-looking plants. Inedible in their raw form to humans, elephants love these huge fruits. You may know these fruits as the Amarula Tree. I quiz the local man about their uses for humans. Apparently peel one, boil the inside and you have a cure for Syphilis!
For some reason, I’d assumed the fruit was hollow and light, like a gourd. It takes the muzungu two hands to lift one!
Adong picks up a wire. “This must be a snare,” he says. Although there is little wildlife on this bank of the river, according to Rogers from Nile Safari Lodge, “some small antelope do swim across the river” into a snare if they are unlucky. Here, downstream from Nile River Lodge, we are just outside the Protected Area of Murchison Falls National Park.
A few metres on, a young man stands next to the lakeshore. An older, barefooted man stands next to him. They look at us, we look back at them. He must have heard us approaching before distancing himself from his fishing rod.
It’s interesting to be back in the bush, seeing first-hand the ongoing battle against poachers. I spent my first three years in Uganda as a volunteer with the Uganda Conservation Foundation fundraising to support the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s anti-poaching work in Queen Elizabeth. UCF are very active in Murchison Falls these days too.
Back at Nile Safari Lodge
After an intensely hot morning, it’s a relief to take a refreshing dip in the lodge’s pool. It is set away from the lodge and has a clear view of the River Nile. Massages can be organised at the tiny wooden structure below the swimming pool and above the riverbank. The masseuse has a great touch. I feel thoroughly spoiled.
One night we enjoy a vibrant performance by 20 Acholi dancers from the local village. The men wear elaborate feather headdresses which bounce up and down to the rhythm of the calabashes. The traditional drumming, the energetic hip-swaying of the dancers and the open fireplace make for a great atmosphere.
If you are into stargazing, you must bring your telescope.
Zahid showed us great views of Venus ‘evening star’ and a close-up of the moon’s cratered surface. Wow! I’ll never see the moon in the same way again. To the naked eye, Venus and the Moon appear a similar size but Zahid tells us Venus is a staggering 60 million miles away while the obviously the Moon is a mere 250,000 miles away.
Shoebill Camp – for the best view of the River Nile
Shoebill Camp is a spacious setting overlooking the Nile, adjacent to Nile Safari Lodge. I camped here with my sister on my first visit. This can be a great arrangement for people who are on a budget, or who like camping but not cooking! For just $10 a night, you have a whole field to yourself, a cold shower and flushing toilets. The security guard can light a fire for you too. It’s just five minutes’ walk through the bush to the lodge where you can enjoy all your meals and cold drinks, and the swimming pool (for an additional fee).
I’ll always remember how after dinner at the lodge, my sister and I were escorted through the bush by an elderly man with a bow and arrow. Our path through the vegetation was lit by glow-worms. It was magic.
Nile Safari Lodge is about to embark on a comprehensive refurbishment programme. With just a few touches here and there, I’m sure that Nile River Lodge will be once again be the go-to place that it was for many years.
A big thank you to Zahid, John, Rogers and Dennis (who remembered me after a seven year absence!) It’s been particularly lovely to be back in a lodge where I have such happy memories of a family safari too.
For rates and more information about Nile Safari Lodge
- +256 (0)312 260758
- Nile Safari Lodge on GeoLodges web site