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Wednesday,October 21,2020 23:45 PM

I risked my life to see Mpanga Falls

By Vision Reporter

Added 30th November 2001 03:00 AM

The engine groaned. It then hiccuped and made one last attempt to catapult the heavy metallic speedboat forward, but went silent instead.

The engine groaned. It then hiccuped and made one last attempt to catapult the heavy metallic speedboat forward, but went silent instead.

By Matthias Mugisha The engine groaned. It then hiccuped and made one last attempt to catapult the heavy metallic speedboat forward, but went silent instead. Silence. “We’ve run out of fuel,’’ Deo Friday, the ranger with Queen Elizabeth National Park responsible for this bungle said. We had covered the 53km from Mweya peninsula, cruising through the 33km Kazinga Channel and crossing lake George to Mpanga Falls. Katunguru bridge was visible, about 5km away. We still had more than 20km cover in order to complete our return 106km trip. We tried to row the heavy speedboat with little success. The GPS (Global Positioning System) piece put our rowing speed at a meagre 1.5km per hour. (The GPS gives one’s position on earth and one’s speed if moving. Among many other functions, it also gives direction and altitude.) Our snail’s pace was not enough to escape the storm approaching from the east. Even if we tried to row to the shores on either side, we could not make it. The distance to either side was at least 1.5km. More frightening was the fact that that stretch of water in the Kazinga Channel is home to thousands of hippopotamuses. The opprobrious creatures are dreaded first for over turning boats and second for cutting the passengers to pieces thereafter. We impotently watched the killer storm uprooting trees and sending all the wildlife into disarray as it approached us. We just awaited our fate. “It’s your fault. I gave you 60 litres of fuel but you only brought 40,’’ Charles Tumwesigye, the Queen Elizabeth National Park Research and Monitoring boss, told Friday. “Now we are going to d....’’ It was too late: The storm that hit our boat sideways, swaying the boat in 45-degree tilts, made Tumwesigye swallow his words. The water boiled. Rainwater poured into the boat. As we frantically tried to drain water from the boat with a small tin, it dawned on me and probably all the others that the boat was going to overturn any moment. And for some reason we had no life jackets. We were five in the boat. The three armed rangers including Friday put down their guns and bowed their heads. Guns were now useless. My eyes kept focused on the only empty metallic fuel container in the boat just in case. Without warning, the killer wave struck and sent the iron boat with its cargo tumbling into doom. Darkness fell. It was the end. No body would ever know what we had achieved on that day. I saw God waiting nearby. “God, I’m on the way. Receive me.’’ I sincerely prayed. “Matthias, I’m sorry,’’ replied some soft voice near by. I looked next to me. It was not God I saw. Tumwesigye was tenaciously holding on to the boat. “I am sorry,” he told me. That day, November 7, we had left Mweya, the headquarters of Queen Elizabeth National park, at 9:00am. Our destination was the unexplored Mpanga Falls 53 km Northeast from Mweya. Two kilometres into the journey, we discovered we had left the life jackets behind. “These waters are always calm,’’ somebody said, and we continued. After travelling the length of Kazinga Channel, we entered Lake George and crossed it, only stopping at Kainja fishing village to pick up a guide called Ismail Mugisha. Then, we entered river Mpanga and navigated the boat up stream against a strong current for five kilometres. But before Mpanga River, the first warning came. The fuel in the tank got finished and we emptied the only 20 litres of fuel left into it. It was then that Charles realised that his ranger (Friday) had done some mischief. River Mpanga is within the National Park. Fishing in the river is prohibited. All the illegal fishermen took to the swamp, abandoning their equipment when they heard the speedboat approaching. The best the rangers could do was confiscate their fishing gear and push their canoes down stream. They were all in hiding by the time we docked half a kilometre from the falls. There was no resident to show us the way. Cutting our way through the virgin forest, we climbed cliffs, constructed ladders to climb the steep rocks and jumped over gorges. Luckily, we had come with nails, hammers and machetes, though it took one and a half-hours to cover half a kilometre. I could not believe that I was most probably the first journalist to explore and reach Mpaga Falls. The falls were majestic. They roared and sent water droplets across a radius of more than 100 metres. The GPS showed that we were standing at 0.07077 North and 030.32164 East of Greenwich at 949 metres above sea level. We had made it. The descent back to the boat was agonising. The problem was that everybody who would have helped us was hiding. We left the boat behind and ambushed a group of people we heard talking in the forest. They turned out to be herdsmen watering their animals. “You haven’t reached the real falls. You have only seen the dwarf falls,’’ the Bakiga herdsmen told us when we asked the easier trail to the falls. I could not believe it. Everybody in our group was satisfied with what we had seen. Yet, it seemed we had not seen what had brought us. A man called Fredrick Karani volunteered to lead the way to where the real big falls could be sighted. I did not know we had to climb a mountain called Karubaguma. Tired, we trailed behind Karani. At the top, of the mountain, I saw nature at it’s best. The giant waterfalls could be seen, and their thunderous roar heard, about two kilometres from where we stood. The smaller falls, less than a kilometre down stream from the giant Mpanga Falls, that had excited us, now looked liked a small rapid. We could not go down there because we were tired. We decided to come back the following day and reach the bottom of the main falls. At the top of Karubuguma Mountain, there are both MTN and Celtel signals. Tumwesigye was able to call Mweya and tell them to send more fuel, which we would find at Katunguru. After dropping Mugisha at his fishing village, the journey back started. At 5:30pm, before reaching Katunguru, the fuel run out. And the storm came. It was by God’s grace that the storm suddenly stopped the way it had come. After the storm drenched and left us shaking like chickens that had been dipped into cold water, we rowed the heavy boat for over two hours to Katunguru. There, I swore never to step into that boat again. I also swore never to go back to Mpanga Falls. Tumwesigye and I hired a vehicle from Katunguru back to Mweya. That night, for reasons known to me, I changed my mind and with other park officials we drove the 90km by road from Mweya to Mpanga falls the following day. Our aim was to reach the bottom of the main waterfalls. At the top of Karubaguma Mountain, just a short distance from where we had stood the previous night, we picked Gustina Rugarama, who agreed to take us down to the new big falls for a fee. There was no trail. It seemed no body had ever gone down there. Tumwesigye had seen the top of the falls in another direction some time back when he was inspecting the park boundaries. Later, he made a reconnaissance trip to the smaller falls through Mpanga river. But he had not known about the two waterfalls. Though the waterfalls are on the park’s map, nobody had ever taken the trouble to officially explore them. Those who had seen them had done so from the air. Like the previous day, we again cut our way into the thick forest. The descent was so steep that one had to move sideways. “In all my life, I have only seen two white people come and take pictures of the falls from the top of this mountain, but nobody had ever gone down there,” our hired guide Tumusiime said as he cut the thick vegetation. An hour later, we reached the bottom of the powerful Mpanga Falls (the real ones this time). The Foaming Karuma Falls are big, but the intimidating Mpanga falls globally positioned at latitude 00.07288 degrees north of the Equator and longitude 030.23344 degrees east (readings from where we stood) are a serious contender. We estimated the height of the waterfalls to be between 30 and 60 metres. Standing at 1,177 metres above sea level, we took a few shots before another storm drenched us to the skin. My films and cameras survived courtesy of a good raincoat. Mpanga Falls, which Uganda Wildlife Authority intends to make a tourist destination next month, are found in Rugarama, Kitagwenda County, in Kamwenge District. Isaac Adrani, the chief warden Queen Elizabeth National Park, says the falls, which are in their National Park management plan, will be accessible both on water and land by the middle of next month. “Once UWA takes over Kyambura wildlife game reserve on December 12, two boats will be stationed at Kashaka fishing village, which will shorten the distance to the falls. We have a programme to construct a campsite at the waterfalls,’’ Adrani discloses. These unknown falls in a virgin-forested gorge are worth visiting. The tariffs are yet to be worked out and preparations to make a trail in the forest to the falls are in high gear. I will always call them mine because I nearly breathed my last to make them known. Mpanga Falls, you are mine. ends

I risked my life to see Mpanga Falls

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