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Murchisons Falls National Park

Destination news: A visit to an upcoming gem on the Nile

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN  Sep 08, 2010

UGANDA (eTN) - For those who remember the old Chobe lodge and who came for fishing in the old days to this beautiful spot on the Nile, there is news... the lodge is now in its soft-opening phase, and while still a couple of months away from the official opening due to pending exterior works caused by past bad weather, it is now available for bookings by visitors.

Coined by the owners as "the Gem on the Nile," Chobe Safari Lodge surely will be a very unique precious stone in the Marasa crown when polished a little more, while some of the anticipated sparkles are already showing during the soft opening phase. This is for sure a setting cannot be beaten... a gem in the making indeed and undoubtedly worth the by-line when finally officially opened.

Like the Amazon in South America, the Nile is THE river in Africa - a lifeline for tens of millions of people living along its banks, from Lake Victoria through lakes Kyoga, Albert, and the Sudd to the eventual meeting with the Blue Nile branch coming from Ethiopia, combining in Khartoum and then running along the ancient temples and monuments of the Upper Kingdom, down the famous cataracts, along Abu Simbel, Luxor, and through today’s modern Egypt, past the pyramids to the Mediterranean Sea.

The mystique of the river is legend, and anyone standing on the banks of it, anywhere along its course, can only be in awe, considering it is the longest river on the planet. This is particularly so along the young and often stormy Victoria Nile as it makes its way across rapids and falls, with much white water from Lake Victoria into and through the Murchisons Falls National Park.

In the early days of independence, the river Nile in Uganda was as much a source of water and fish for nearby communities as it was a source for leisure activities, and in Murchisons Falls National Park, three lodges were built back then to tap into the tourism market, making Uganda in the 1960s the leading East African safari destination, well ahead of Kenya and Tanzania at the time.

The target="_blank">Paraa Safari Lodge, located near the ferry crossing point in the heart of the park, was already reconstructed in 1995 from the ruin wreaked upon it by the disintegrating army of the former dictatorships, while the Pakuba Lodge – overlooking the river delta and Lake Albert – still lies as a wreck, waiting for an investor to restore it. Meanwhile, the Chobe Safari Lodge is now on course for a full-fledged reopening towards the end of the year, adding much needed extra accommodation to the park, which has again become increasingly popular with locals and foreign tourists in recent years.

The concession was acquired by the Madhvani hospitality brand Marasa way back in the 1990s, but the prevailing insecurity in the north of Uganda, which extended into part of the national park, made it all but impossible to start the rebuilding of the lodge at the time (while having a massive impact on the financial performance of the Paraa Safari Lodge further down the river). Hence it was only in late 2007, that intentions first became known of a planned reconstruction. Until all permits had been secured, however, it took a further year before the company was able to think of breaking ground. Now, nearly two years later, the fruit of this long, hard and expensive labor is about to pay off.

Built initially as a fishing lodge along a stretch of river renowned for its huge Nile Perch and combative Tiger fish, the new Chobe Safari Lodge is aiming to reclaim its glory of old and, in fact, do even better – only days before my arrival last weekend, an 84 kilograms heavy Nile Perch was landed by a guest – and also become a conference venue, corporate retreat, and getaway for Kampaleans and a must-see place for overseas birders and connoisseurs of forest plants, medicinal plants, orchids, trees, and shrubs - a rich variety of which can be found along the walking tracks management is establishing in the immediate neighborhood of the lodge.

The largest Nile Perch on record was reportedly caught in 2002 not far from the bottom of the falls, weighing in at a massive 108 kilograms.

Sixty-two rooms, tents, and suites await the visitor, and the choices are indeed impressive. The 8 standard tents, both twin and double, are already very well appointed and overlook the river from the bank high above, with tent number 8 admittedly providing the best "sound bites" of the river’s currents and the water gushing over the rocks below. At the opposite end of the lodge a total of 13 tents are available on elevated platforms, all overlooking the river, with 7 very large deluxe tents at the upper level, while 6 absolutely supersized extra special deluxe tents are providing the "grand stand" towards the river just meters away from the water. These particular tents are suites in their very own right and provide all creature comforts, including air-conditioning, for those who cannot do without or an added ceiling fan for those who can. Pillows, mattresses, and duvets are first class – I should be a good judge for this, being a frequent traveler and sufferer of cheap beds – and the bathrooms almost make one think that the location surely must be a top city hotel rather than a tent in the wilderness of Murchisons Falls National Park.

Such a misconception, however, is swiftly corrected by the constant snorting and grunting of several hippo families living in the river outside, or the buffalos which casually stroll through the grass, or the elephant coming from the forest to the river to still their thirst. From experience I can add to beware of strange looking "logs" on the river banks with gaping wide mouths... yes, those would be Nile crocodiles, among the largest crocs on the planet, and it is definitely advisable not to get too close or try to be friendly with them. As sleepy as they may look, they can accelerate quite quickly when they spot food. It is a national park after all, and wilderness and wildlife of all sorts are ever present and, in fact, especially tricky when NOT easily seen. Walks must, therefore, be conducted with guides and guards just to make sure the visitors get back to tell their tale and show the pictures and sport that newly bought T-shirt of the Chobe Safari Lodge. Yours truly, of course, as usual buggered off on his own to explore, but an eventual chance encounter with some buffalos on the airstrip brought my common sense back real fast and prompted a hasty retreat towards the lodge’s bar to celebrate my escape.

In the main building, 30 double and twin rooms are available on three levels, as are three "ordinary" suites. A very special top floor honeymoon suite and a presidential villa aer set well apart from the main lodge, which offers two bedrooms, sitting, dining, and all other amenities expected by the type of top VIPs staying in such exclusive surroundings.

On top of the newly-added conference center, set a little apart from the main building, a further 6 rooms are available, dedicated towards participants in corporate retreats so that such guests have only a short way to cover from their bedrooms to the meeting rooms. Not far away is the three-tier swimming pool, where the second tier is connected through a water slide to the bottom pool, and a fully equipped spa offers all the essential body treatments and yoga classes for the mind - a perfect combination for those really wanting to get away from it all AND enjoy some first-rate body and soul refurbishments.

Impressive to me was the quality of the food served already at this early stage of soft opening, and my on-the-spot order of Eggs Benedictine was delivered without questions or fuss at my first breakfast, when I decided that the buffet was probably too extensive, and I needed to restrict myself to something simple.

Buffets are set up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and a variety of different main courses are available every day, including freshly-cooked pasta tossed in one’s favorite gravy or condiments from a separate cooking station – al dente, of course, and with fresh herbs. The vegetables in particular were absolutely fresh, as were the salads, and while much of the supplies come from Kampala, farmers from outside the park are already being encouraged to deliver their produce on a daily basis to the lodge, where the organic food grown by them makes all the difference when it reaches one’s palate.

The bar is extensively stocked, needless to mention, and will undoubtedly be a magnet for visitors, considering the attractive setting indoors and the spectacular views outdoors across and along the river far below. Champers is chilled at all times in case guests wish to toast to a special occasion or simply enjoy a treat while looking down at the gushing waters of the Nile.

Going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning is quite a spectacle of its own and frankly best experienced and heard from any of the tents, although I am told that the sounds from outside can be heard in the main building rooms, too, although they are considerably higher up from the river. Just brace yourself for the snorting and grunting of hippos, their occasional fights over territory, and the crescendo of humming and buzzing by a myriad of frogs, crickets, and other insects, which provides a sound level best described as nature’s disco. Add to this the mighty birdsong at dawn, and nature’s symphony is well near complete, performed by all those little and big things, which are so sought after by the visitors coming to our part of the world, who are living in their cities and towns now almost bare of nature of this kind.

The forested part of Murchisons, incidentally the largest national park in Uganda and grown larger still when the Budongo Forest, the Bugungu, and the Karuma Wildlife Reserves were made part of the Murchisons Falls Conservation Area, is almost totally undiscovered yet, with few motorable tracks expanding from the lodge into the surrounding forest, other than the 14 km link to the main Kampala to Gulu highway. No high clearance 4x4 vehicles are needed unless one wants to go exploring into the lower section of the park below the Nile falls. Sadly, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is still due to deliver on their commitment to open up this section of the park with new tracks and game-viewing circuits and clear the main road between the Chobe and Paraa lodges. It can only be hoped that this is achieved sooner rather than later so that visitors can even more fully enjoy their visit to this relatively unexplored section of Murchisons Falls National Park and see the many endemic birds at home deep inside the forest, plus, of course, spot the game otherwise well hidden behind thickets and trees and otherwise hard to find.

In fact, it is often their scent which precedes an encounter with buffalo or the sounds of breaking foliage by feeding elephant, which gives the first indication that wildlife is close by.

It is thought by wildlife experts and the few well-informed people and researchers in the know of how to read the signs, that the upper part of Murchisons is, in fact, one of the richest areas in terms of game numbers. Over 3 decades of hardly any human intrusion into the forest has allowed wildlife to thrive and multiply. Suggestions heard that Murchisons has less game than other parks in Uganda, or in the region, are only fit for the realm of fantasy but not reflected by the reality on the ground.

During our visit over a long weekend we saw plenty of hippos in and out of the water, elephant, and buffalo, and also bucks and antelopes near the lodge. During our drive to the lower section of the park and the launch ride to the falls, we managed to see several hundred buffalo in separate groups; plenty of elephant, alone and in at times sizeable groups; lots of the endangered Rothschild giraffes; and on one spot at least 1,500 if not more Uganda kobs; besides which plenty of hartebeest, bushbucks, oribis, waterbuck, and warthogs were also spotted regularly. Some of the Patas monkeys found in the park also crossed our path, as did baboons, vervet monkeys, mongoose, and squirrels. Birdlife was equally rich, especially along the river banks, while on the "African Queen" - the double-decker launch operated by Paraa Safari Lodge.

Reaching Chobe is easy by any standards. The 280 km distance from the Ugandan capital Kampala can be covered by 3 ½ hours of gentle driving along a recently re-carpeted highway, with only the last 14 km on an excellent murram track off the main road just before reaching the main T-junction where the road to Pakwach and the West Nile region branches off. For those in a real hurry to get to Chobe, a flight by light aircraft is the fastest option. A mile-long airstrip where planes can taxi right up to the parking area of the lodge makes this possible, and flying time – depending on the aircraft used from either Kajjansi or Entebbe - is between only 45 to 60 minutes and allows for a bird’s eye view from high above across the park, the river, and the falls - just ask your pilot for a little sightseeing detour.

The lodge uses modern golf carts to transport clients to their tents due to the greater distance from the main building and probably for the safety of visitors, too, and while presently two are already available, a further 4 will join the fleet in a couple of weeks to guarantee swift delivery and pick up of guests from their riverside tents.

Having seen the lodge in the days when it was a ruined wreck, and then following its progress of reclamation and re-building, I was suitably impressed by what I saw and sampled during my three-day visit. The new lodge is holding great promise for Uganda’s tourism sector. When it is finally fully operational, surely then the by-line "Gem on the Nile" will be as justified as the sister lodge Paraa is already called the "Jewel of the Nile."

For more information, visit or write to their booking office for current tariffs, room availability or bookings via .

Safari vehicles are available for hire at Chobe for visitors wishing to do a day trip to the lower part of the park and/or partake in a launch ride, which is operated from the sister lodge Paraa. Both can be booked through the Chobe guest relations desk or the reception.

Destination news: A visit to an upcoming gem on the Nile
Chobe Safari Lodge pool / Photo by Wolfgang H. Thome

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