Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls National Park (also called Kabarega National Park) is one of the two main game parks in Uganda. It contains giraffes, which the other park  – Queen Elizabeth – doesn’t have. Murchison is also the easier of the two for organizing a short trip to and is slightly closer to Kampala.

There are two ways to visit the park  – either by yourself or as part of a tour. It is probably marginally cheaper to organize the trip by yourself, although with such cheap tours such as the Red Chilli’s three-day tour for $270, it’s not a WHOLE lot cheaper and it certainly does take a lot more organizational effort and thought (…and a car).

Do It Yourself

If you do decide to go it alone make sure to arrange accommodation somewhere like Red Chilli Rest Camp or the Murchison River Lodge beforehand as they book up very quickly. If you leave at lunch time on a Friday and don’t mind a lot of driving then you could do this trip in 2.5 days (the drive itself is around 4 to 5 hrs). Otherwise, its highly recommended to give yourself a full three days or even 3.5 days to break the journey up a bit.

Potential activities include chimp tracking just inside the park at Kaniyo Pabidi (this can be done in a half day and is cheaper than Kibale at US$40), visiting the top of the impressive Murchison Falls and spending a day on safari in the morning and taking the river cruise up towards the base of the waterfall in the afternoon. You can pick up safari guides at the park and book the boat cruise on the day you intend to go.

If you choose to start with the chimp tracking, then you can also stay in the Budongo Forest where the chimps are at Budongo Ecolodge (a dorm bed here with breakfast is US$20) or just outside the park at Boomu Women’s Group on the first night, which puts you near the chimp tracking (it’s just inside the park entrance) and also cuts some time off the drive up. It also means that you don’t have to pay the park entrance fee for the first night.

Prices: Guides for the safari cost 50,000 UGX, entrance to the park is $35 for non-residents, $25 for resident foreigners and UGX 10,000 for Ugandans. We paid 820,000 UGX (for two foreigners, one Ugandan and a 4×4 car for two days, three nights), the ferry crossing is around 20,000 UGX and leaves hourly, the boat cruise is $25 per person (non-Ugandan) and 20,000 UGX for Ugandans while accommodation somewhere like Red Chilli is around $20.

Other options for accommodation include Yebo Safari camp, Shoebill campsite, Nile Safari Camp, Sambiya River Lodge and Paraa Uganda safari Lodges.

The safari tour usually lasts around two hours and the boat cruise up to the falls is three hours roundtrip and leaves at 2pm. Wild Frontiers Ltd also offers a number of other cruises including sunset cruises with wine and cheese.

Murchison Waterfall

One tip if you are going DIY – make sure you arrive in plenty of time (i.e. 30 mins early) for the Paara ferry crossing across to the game drive, as queues build up quickly and the ferry is very small, so you don’t want to spend half your morning waiting to cross the river! The first ferry leaves at 7am and then hourly afterwards. As all seasoned safariers know – the best time to see game is at sunrise and sunset so I really recommend getting the early early ferry!

Similarly book your river cruise in plenty of time, as the same scenario can happen with getting a place on the boat if there are large groups visiting – or even better try and get a place on one of the smaller boats to get a closer / more personalised trip.

One really nice thing to include if you have the time is the longer hike up to the top of Murchison Falls (about one hr) from the boat landing near the bottom of the falls – cost for this is around $10.

Take a Tour

As mentioned, the Red Chilli Hideaway Murchison tours are – if not THE – then one of the cheapest option if you do decide to go away with a tour, although most major tour companies offer Murchison packages, so you can shop around. Major tour companies like Matoke Tours and Pearl of Africa might be worth checking out (especially if you’re looking for individual rather than group deals), or even the smaller tour companies like Tembeya Safaris, as they offer generally competitive prices.

Red Chilli offers a number of tours depending on your budget and the length of time you have available. A three-day tour costs $270 and includes a game drive, boat trip and visit to the falls and covers all entrance fees, accommodation, and transportation. Meals and drinks, however, are not included. For a deluxe tour of $325, you can also include a trip to the Rhino Sanctuary (only place left in Uganda that you can see rhinos – all be it in captivity) and chimp tracking ($425).

Red Chilli Rest Camp accommodation is more than decent – for $20 you can stay in their tents (mattress included), and for a mere $5 extra, you may want to upgrade to a banda, which is a proper cement hut with fans and small porches out front. This not only helps with the incredibly hot nights (based on my experience, Murchison is far warmer than Kampala) but also from any unexpected guests in the night… and by this I mean warthogs, or more interestingly hippos… (probably don’t need to alert people to the fact that hippos are some of the most dangerous animals in the world). Luckily, I’m not aware of any hippo attacks to date! If you’re really on a budget, you can bring your own tent and pitch up for a bargain $5 per night.

The rest camp has some great views from the outdoor restaurant down to the river (incidentally it’s very well placed for getting down to the river for the ferry crossing to the safari side and for the boat cruises). Food here consists of around 3-4 specials that change daily (and sometimes even from lunch to dinner time) that often include quite ambitious international dishes like meatballs or Moroccan curries. Meals can be ordered for a certain time or to take away, which is very handy if you spot a massive tour group of school kids pull up! Food is around 13,000 UGX (and 7,000 UGX for the local dish option, such as rice and beans). Showers and toilets are communal, so make sure to bring a flashlight in case you find yourself caught short during the night… it helps you avoid walking into a hippo for example!

The only slight problem with doing a budget trip like this is that they’re not really looking to make this trip extra special for you – its a bit of a production line in terms of the programme and as a result you may miss out on the best times / areas to see wildlife (i.e. they dont leave for the game drive till 9am which can be a bit too late for good animal sightings). So you may want to weigh up costs with your desire to get the maximum experience, but I’ll let you make that call…!

On the whole, I can assure you that you will love Murchison Falls National Park! It’s one of Uganda’s treasures, so be sure to take some time off, head on over, and enjoy a bit slower pace of life in a most beautiful setting.

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About Lucy

A Kampalite as of the start of 2012 - I'm really loving my time here and planning to stay for a while. I’m originally from London where I’ve worked for a range of NGOs and am now hoping to try my hand overseas, plus London is way too cold and grey and full of pigeons. I’m currently in search of interesting job opportunities and experiences here and elsewhere – until global warming kicks in that is and then I can head back to the UK as it should have removed the pigeons. Get in touch at lucy@livinginkampala.com.