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In 1951, director John Huston decided he was going to shoot his next project, “The African Queen,” in Africa. Most thought he was crazy. There were plenty of closer, easier stand-in locations he could have used. But Huston wouldn’t budge — it was Africa or nothing. So, in the spring of that year, Huston took Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn and a small army of a film crew to what was then the British protectorate of Uganda to begin principal filming.
Over five weeks of shooting, the cast and crew struggled with the climate, the remoteness, the bush, the insects, the wildlife and illness. Nearly every member of the crew became sick, except for Huston and Bogart, who remained healthy, they claimed, because their diet consisted mostly of the whiskey that Bogart had shipped over.
Despite the adversity, shooting was completed and the film was released in early 1952. “The African Queen” was nominated for four Academy Awards and Bogart won for Best Actor, the only Oscar of his career. The film’s iconic pairing of Bogart and Hepburn was never repeated and, some say, never equaled. “The African Queen” has since gone on to establish its place in the canon of classic American movies. It’s also a favorite of mine.
On a recent trip to Africa, I had the opportunity to visit the actual locations in Uganda where “The African Queen” had been filmed more than half a century ago. That was how I found myself in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. We’ve all heard the bromide that “De-Nile is not just a river in Egypt.” True enough, I learned — the Nile River also runs through Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and other African countries. Its two main branches, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, merge in Sudan to become the Nile that flows into Egypt. Before that, the White Nile, also called the Victoria Nile, begins in Uganda, squeezing its entire volume through a narrow 20-foot wide cataract at Murchison Falls.
At Murchison Falls National Park, I booked a stay at a small safari camp run by a British couple. A short walk from the camp was the White Nile, big, wide and deep. A ferry took people and vehicles back and forth across the river. It was also where tour boats boarded passengers for cruises upriver to the base of the falls, traveling the same stretch of river where “The African Queen” was filmed in 1951.
Uganda’s commitment to tourism was evident in these shiny new riverboats. I boarded my boat, grabbed a chair on the upper deck, put my feet up on the rail and settled in for the cruise upriver. It was first-rate relaxation as the boat’s pilot kept a leisurely pace and stayed close to the shore on river left so we could spot wildlife coming down to the water for a late afternoon drink or dip. Soon we passed hippos soaking in the deeper channels while impalas, warthogs and buffalo meandered along the shore as cranes and egrets poked in the shallow pools. Within moments, the pilot spotted the river’s alpha predator lounging in the shade — the notorious Nile crocodile. We crowded the rail to get a look at this massive creature, second in size only to the notorious saltwater crocodiles of Australia. About 12 feet in length, he could have easily weighed 1,000 pounds. He seemed uninterested as we edged closer. His jaws were wide open, though not for receiving prey — it’s a cooling mechanism that allows the crocs to “sweat” and dissipate heat.
I soon discovered that Uganda is also a popular birding destination. We passed bird species that seemed to be drawn from the mind of a child, equipped with psychedelic Crayolas. The birds’ flamboyant colors were matched by their evocative names: bee-eaters, pied kingfishers, golden weavers. It seemed as if each one was trying to outdo the other with their outrageous plumage.
Suddenly someone spotted elephants ahead to the right of us and we all jumped to our feet and rushed to the rails. A small herd of perhaps a dozen elephants had gathered at the river’s edge to cross. A few of the adults started into the water and the rest followed; all except for one baby elephant who was not sure about the whole thing. He began trumpeting loudly as the rest of the herd reached the opposite shore. I imagined him shouting, “Hey what about me!?!” From the other side, his mother called back to him, offering what I could only assume was motherly encouragement. The little elephant was having none of it and kept trumpeting and pacing at the water’s edge. Finally, the mother started back toward him only to stop mid-river. She called out again to her caterwauling baby as if to assure him he could do it.
As we watched this little drama with growing concern, I wondered if the human parents among us could relate to this moment. Finally, with a clumsy splash, the little elephant was in the water and heading toward his mother. Everyone on the boat let out a spontaneous cheer and offered encouragement as he reached his mother and she gave him an approving nudge with her trunk. There was no time for further accolades as mother hurried him to the other shore where the rest of the herd was starting to move.
Not long after this we got our first glimpse of Murchison Falls. The current felt stronger and more turbulent. Our pilot inched the boat into a huge eddy that turned out to be as close as we were going to get to the falls. We all snapped away at the roaring cascade and after about 10 minutes, our pilot turned us into the current and back down river. Our guide pointed out a simple signpost on the left bank that marked the spot where “Ernest Hemins-way” had been in a small plane crash in the 1950s. He went on to explain a bit more of the river’s history, including how the famous American movie “The African Queen” had been filmed here in 1951. I asked if he’d ever seen the movie and he replied that he had not. Then, as if on cue, we came upon another tour boat moored at the riverbank. Passengers were disembarking onto a trail into the bush. Watching them, I had to smile as I noticed the boat’s name printed in large bold letters just beneath the wheelhouse: “The African Queen.”
The Victoria Nile, a river which begins in Uganda, forms the upper section of the Nile River and squeezes through Murchison Falls. // (c) Bob Demyan
Visitors can tour Murchison Falls National Park by land safari or boat trip. // (c) Bob Demyan
A warthog and its baby, spotted from a boat tour // (c) Bob Demyan
The Crested Crane is the national bird of Uganda. // (c) Bob Demyan
A Nile crocodile stretches his jaws. // (c) Bob Demyan
Most bee-eaters are found in Africa. // (c) Bob Demyan
The Woodland Kingfisher // (c) Bob Demyan
Murchison Falls is a popular birding destination. // (c) Bob Demyan
Colobus monkey // (c) Bob Demyan
An elephant and its baby travel along the edge of the river. // (c) Bob Demyan
The current gets more turbulent by Murchison Falls. // (c) Bob Demyan
The top of Murchison Falls // (c) Bob Demyan
There is a high concentration of animals at Murchison Falls National Park. // (c) Bob Demyan
Pied Kingfishers are typically found in pairs. // (c) Bob Demyan
Yellow Weaver // (c) Bob Demyan
The white rhinoceros is actually grey. // (c) Bob Demyan
Malachite Kingfisher // (c) Bob Demyan
A church procession // (c) Bob Demyan
Murchison Falls National Park // (c) Bob Demyan
Some visitors to Murchison Falls also visit Kampala, which is about five hours away. // (c) Bob Demyan
Nakasero market in Kampala // (c) Bob Demyan
Nakasero market // (c) Bob Demyan
Nakasero market // (C) Bob Demyan
American citizens require a visa upon entry, currently priced at $50.
The Uganda Tourist Board website has information about the various national parks, tour operators, wildlife viewing opportunities, mountaineering, whitewater rafting, permits and updates on travel. www.visituganda.com
Uganda is one of only three countries in Africa where you can trek to find the endangered mountain gorilla. Primate Watch Safaris can arrange gorilla tours and permits as well as custom tailor a tour for you. www.primatewatchsafaris.com
At Murchison FallsSome lodges can arrange the boat trip to the base of the falls. The boats are part of Murchison Falls National Park and most travelers are booked through a lodge. Independent travelers can book on site as there is a small ticket office.
Value Traveler: Red Chili Rest Camp, which also has a base in Kampala. Lodging and tours are included in the price, though food and drink at the restaurant is not included. The cruise to the falls and a land safari in Murchison Falls National Park are included. www.redchillihideaway.com/paraa.htm
Upscale Traveler: Paraa Safari Lodge. In addition to the cruise to the base of the falls, Paraa Safari Lodge can also arrange boat trips to the Nile Delta. www.paraalodge.com
From Entebbe or KampalaEntebbe International Airport is about 25 miles from Kampala. There are many lodging options available in and around Entebbe and it is often easier than staying in Kampala. Most tour companies can arrange your tour departure from here. It’s about a four to five hour drive from Kampala; add about 30 minutes from Entebbe.
Families: The Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) is located on Lake Victoria in Entebbe and offers small apartment and banda rentals on premises. A combination of wildlife sanctuary, park and zoo, it is a great place to stay with kids. www.uwec.ug