Murchison Falls pours over the fading escarpment at the northernmost tip of Africa’s Western Rift Valley, a 3000km tectonic trench that has opened up between Lake Malawi and northern Uganda during the last twelve million years.
Murchison Falls was named by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker in 1864 after Sir Roderick Murchison,then President of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society.
Sir Roderick Murchison was a famous geologist – the best of his time. He believed sub-Saharan Africa to be a geologically dull continent in which nothing of interest had occurred for hundreds of millions of years. Murchison Falls,and the rift valley into which it plunges, prove him wrong.
Classic film fans will recognize Murchison Falls as a backdrop in John Huston’s famous movie,The African Queen. The film, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, was filmed on location in 1951 in and around the Lake Albert port of Butiaba.
Winston Churchill visited Murchison Falls in 1907, after traveling on the new railway from Mombasa to Kisumu (Kenya),where he took a boat across Lake Victoria to visit Entebbe and Jinja.From the Source of the Nile he hiked, boated and cycled to Murchison Falls where he considered that ‘Ten pounds would throw a bridge across the Nile at this point’.In 1960 a footbridge was built across the gorge; the bill has been lost but it was certainly the cheapest structure ever built across the Nile.The footbridge lasted only two years before it was washed into the gorge during the floods in 1962.
United States President Theodore Roosevelt visited Murchison Falls National Park in 1909 during the most lavish hunting safari of all time – one which, by today’s rates, cost US$1.8m! During his year-long tour of East Africa, Roosevelt collected wildlife specimens for the Smithsonian Institute. As a result, he left the continent rather emptier than he found it; traveling home with 4900 mammals, 4000 birds, 2000 reptiles and 500 specimens including 5 Northern White Rhino, 8 Elephants, 10 Uganda Kob and a Shoebill Stalk.
Ernest Hemingway’s visit to Murchison was not a success. His intention was simply to overfly the Falls whilst on a charter flight from Kenya to the Congo. However, his plane clipped an old telegraph wire strung across the gorge and cart-wheeled into the forest. Hemingway and his wife were rescued and taken to Butiaba where their rescue plane crashed on takeoff. The author sustained debilitating injuries that were blamed for his subsequent depression and suicide.
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, visited Murchison Falls National Park in 1959 when she stayed in the Queen’s Cottage at Paraa, and where she cruised upriver to view the Falls. Her first visit to Uganda was actually before in 1925 when, as the young Duchess of York, she visited the Semliki Valley with her husband, the Duke of York (later George VI), for a hunting safari.
The Murchison Falls Conservation Area is Uganda’s largest protected area covering 5072km2 . This contains the Murchison Falls National Park (3893km2) and the adjoining Bugungu (501km2) and Karuma (678km2) wildlife reserves. Murchison National Park is one of Uganda’s oldest protected areas. It’s conservation history dates back to 1926 when the area was known as the Gulu and Bunyoro Game Reserve. This reserve became Murchison Falls National Park in 1952 (one of the country’s two national parks, with the other being Queen Elizabeth National Park).
During the 1960’s, the park contained an abundance of wildlife including 14,000 elephants, 26,000 buffalos and 14,000 hippos. However, these huge numbers caused great environmental damage. Though today’s wildlife population is far smaller, their population density is more in balance with the limited amount of parkland available to them.