Our final morning in Gulu and we ate early to be able to pack the vans and be on the road for 7:30. We were heading west to the Murchison Falls National Park. We had already entered this park on its eastern edge when we stopped on the way up to Gulu, but this time we were going further in and staying for several days.
We had a two hour drive (about 125 kms), although with stops along the way it would take longer. The first half of the journey was on a mix of tarmac and hard dirt roads until we reached the village of Olwiyo where we joined the main Arua-Kampala road. This was one of the new Chinese built highways. These roads are constructed by the Chinese, and we would periodically see their compounds set back from the road and with high corrugated iron fences lined with barbed wire. The Chinese labourers had no communication with those around them. The amount of traffic currently does not justify these roads, as welcome as tarmac is, but there are clearly substantial advantages to be had for the Chinese in creating this infrastructure.
The terrain is relatively flat and mostly scrub bushland. Periodically we would pass through a small village. A series of brick single storey homes with open shop fronts facing the road were the most common feature. The shops seemed to sell very little, but were often brightly coloured with advertisements for mobile phone networks and, inexplicably, paint. Roundhouses and farmsteads would be behind the brick frontage and disappear back into the scrub. Some of the larger settlements would have a wide open space near the road which would be a Church and School complex. We stopped at one such place, Purongo, to photograph the beautifully decorated Church and stretch our legs. The School rules on the noticeboard make interesting reading!
I got angry with myself here. My normal photographic comfort zone is to be alone, working slowly and patiently to find a composition in the scene before me, but in this larger group it was necessary to be aware of those working around us. I had also tried to force myself to find the less obvious images in places such as these, and so when I walked into someone else's shot I knew I had to walk away and find a different view to shoot.
The Murchison Falls National Park is an impressive area - bigger than the county of Hampshire, and in true colonial fashion the falls were named by the British explorers Samuel and Florence Baker in the 1860s after the then president of the Royal Geographical Society. It is quite probable that a Ugandan had found them at an earlier date and given it a local name!
As we continued west back towards the Nile again, the Park started to open up on our left, the south, and then as the river itself started to become visible on our right we reached the entrance to the park. Ahead of us, if we had stayed on the main road, was the Pakwach Bridge, another of the major infrastructure projects we had to be sensitive about photographing. We turned off the main road before the bridge to get onto the tracks to take us to the gate for the park. We stopped and got out of the vehicles to take some photos of the cracked mud flats where a river had recently been and Walter spotted the enormous footprints of an elephant in the dried mud. Little did we realise that just around the next bend the possible maker of those prints was standing with a companion in the marshes alongside the road.
After taking photographs, we drove to the entry gates and as we filled in forms and paid for our time there, more elephants approached.
We made the lodge at Pakuba for lunch and then had time to unpack and crash for a few hours. The lodge is based in what had been the servants' quarters for one of Amin's homes, and the ruins of his former grand residence could be seen on the brow of the hill to our left. Ahead of us lay the Nile - wide and majestic as it started its journey north from Lake Albert up towards Sudan, Egypt and the Mediterranean.
With the sun due to set just after 6pm, we headed out again at 4pm to have a game drive and to be out to shoot the sunset. It took a while for our eyes to adjust to the shapes and forms of the wildlife around us but we soon lost count of the antelopes, deer, wildebeest grazing either side of the dirt tracks. Our vans had open roofs, so when we stopped we could stand and shoot to our hearts' content. We spotted a lion lazing in the shade of a thorn bush to our right and were able to stop only a few feet from him. Across the road, we realised a lioness was also lying in the long grass. It was a really intense moment - trying to take good photographs but to do so quietly enough not to disturb the tranquility of the scene. When the lion got up to walk over to the lioness we could see that he had been badly injured.
Talking to a ranger later we understood that he had been caught in a snare almost a year ago, and whilst the snare had been removed, the deep scarring had not fully healed. He was still a fearsome beast.
As we drove further, giraffe were visible and a lone elephant. The animals that were moving seemed to be heading to the river, presumably for some water as the day cooled slightly, and so we too made our way to the riverbank. We reached the water's edge and could see hippos out in the shallows. Somebody helpfully reminded us that hippos are the biggest killer of humans by any wild animal in Africa! The scene before us was serene and awe inspiring. The river was no less majestic up close, and the orange reflection of the setting sun illuminated the full width. which at this point was over a kilometre.
In the distance we could see fishing boats and hear music from their radios.
The sun dipped below the hills to the west and the light started to go. We needed to be back at the lodge quickly, as rangers would fine us if they caught us driving after dark.
It was a hot and sticky night, the sort that made it difficult to sleep, but there were plans for an early drive tomorrow to catch sun-rise.