Despatches: The Murchison Falls, Uganda.

OGG member, Kathy Kavanagh, works as a field geologist & writes to us from Africa…

When I returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo recently there were no available seats on the small prop plane from Entebbe to Arua, so the four of us had to travel the 460 km by road. Since I knew we had to cross both the Victoria Nile and the Albert Nile I was delighted!Better still, my boss was very willing to allow us to take the scenic route through the Murchison Falls National Park. Everyone else was hoping to see lion or elephant in the park (we didn’t) but I was much more interested in seeing the Victoria Nile passing through the narrows at the top of the Murchison Falls before it tumbles 45 m through a rainbow of spray into the ravine below and flows westwards into Lake Albert.The rocks at the top of the Falls are pelitic schists containing centimetre-sized muscovite crystals that sparkle in the sunshine. The schists may belong to the Proterozoic metasedimentary Igisi Group which was deposited on the Congo Craton. The Victoria Nile here flows over the graben border fault of the Bunyoro escarpment into the Albertine Rift. Below the Falls it continues along the floor of the Rift Valley through Quaternary sediments hosting hydrocarbon fields before entering Lake Albert just south of the Albert Niles’s outflow.
The Victoria Nile spilling over the Murchison Falls
On the schistose rocks at the top of the Falls
The Murchison Falls were named after Sir Roderick Impey Murchison (1792–1871) by the explorer Samuel Baker who demonstrated that the River Nile flows through Lake Albert. Murchison, a geologist, is well known for his work on Palaeozoic stratigraphy. He had several other natural features named after him, including the Murchison Crater on the Moon. The Murchison Falls were renamed the Kabarega Falls by Idi Amin after the King of Bunyoro and this name is still sometimes also used.
The ravine below the Falls, looking towards Lake Albert

As well as being President of the Geological Society and Director-General of the Geological Survey, Murchison was four times President of the Royal Geographical Society and in this role was closely involved in sponsoring African exploration, notably to determine the complex drainage system of central Africa. At this time the source of the Nile was highly controversial. Some people believed the Nile originated in Lake Victoria, visited by John Hanning Speke in 1858 and claimed by him to be its source, whereas Richard Burton and initially David Livingstone favoured Lake Tanganyika. Pre-Miocene, before the Virunga volcanoes arose to form a watershed between the Nile and the Congo, they might well have been right. Livingstone subsequently believed the Lualaba River, part of the Congo drainage system, to be the headwaters of the Nile.
Murchison backed a return trip by Speke with James Grant to Lake Victoria in 1860–63, during which they reached the Nile’s outflow from the lake at the Ripon Falls near Jinja in Uganda. They also visited Lake Albert but were prevented from tracing the Nile between the two lakes. Lake Victoria and Lake Albert are, between them, fed by many streams, though the greater flow of water is from Lake Victoria. The source of the Nile can still disputed: is it the outflow from Lake Victoria or the source of one of the lake’s feeder streams? The greatest contender for the latter is the 400 km long Kagera River system which enters Lake Victoria from Burundi. Speke was told this river was the source of the Nile during his first trip to Lake Victoria and he visited it during his second. He also saw the Virunga Mountains in the distance and presciently described them as ‘the turning point of the central African watershed’.
The Victoria Nile at Paraa meandering on the Rift floor downstream from the Murchison Falls
We stayed at the Falls as long as we dared and then had to rush to catch the last ferry across the Nile at Paraa, a little further downstream. The ferry is a pontoon able to carry eight vehicles. It was dusk when we crossed the already wide river. We reached Arua at 10 pm, having also crossed the Albert Nile, by bridge, soon after it issues northwards from Lake Albert. Unfortunately it was already dark so I shall have to find an opportunity to return to Entebbe by road. In our hotel at Arua there was only one way to end the day … with a Nile Special!
For a good read on exploration for the source of the Nile try:
Jeal, Tim. 2011. Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. London: Faber.


I returned to Entebbe recently, by air, and on the way back to Arua we flew past the delta of the Victoria Nile as it enters Lake Albert and then followed the Albert Nile northwards for a few kilometres where it leaves the lake. An unexpected pleasure!
The delta of the Victoria Nile (right) and the outflow of the Albert Nile

2 thoughts on “Despatches: The Murchison Falls, Uganda.

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