First things first…

“it’s been a minute”, as my little niece has recently learned to say.

2019 – 2020 was one of the quickest transitions. From engineering a campaign to save an ancient waterfall to joining a three-day voyage to a new safari lodge on the frontier of Kidepo, a National Park I fell in love with so many years ago; and then there was the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (POATE) which had me grounded for the bigger part of last week.

Kidepo Valley National Park Uganda
Driving through Kidepo Valley National Park

Just as I was trying to slow down, these bloody valentines’ adverts begin to make rounds ahead of the Wildlife Marathon in Kampala on the last Sunday of February.

“Happy New Year!” sounds like the appropriate way to start off my very first convo of 2020! I would like to wish you, my friends, the very best of this year.

Well, the turn in events also meant that my writing slowed down a bit. This is why my hands have been burning with this particular piece.

Did you hear about the plane crash in Murchison Falls National Park about a month and a half ago which involved an American journo and his wife over the Christmas break?

I find it shocking that the news seemed to have been downplayed. Only the New York Times paper of 25th January seemed to have picked up the story.

I had expected that this mishappening would be all over the local news? It sounded like something any editor would have loved to run on their front page.

If the pressmen didn’t find the story fitting, at least the Facebook page of the resident embassy of the United States of America should have reported the incident involving their citizens.

Anyways, my buddy, a wildlife ranger based in Murchison Falls National Park, first narrated the mishappening to me. “Please don’t quote me”, he requested, as he spilled the beans. But I took it as mere sarcasm. None of the key reliable sources seemed to be reporting about it.

I would eventually reconfirm facts during a tête-à-tête with J R F Mills at Masindi Hotel, on my last visit to the park. Mr. Mills had driven his safari jeep [a land rover] one Sunday morning to the scene of the crash.

Fact check: Murchison Falls National Park is an unpeopled area, some 3,893 square kilometers and split by earth’s greatest river, the Nile with a mighty waterfall forming its centerpiece; widely known as the Murchison Falls and locally dubbed Kabalega; named after one of the olden monarchs.

Murchison Falls National Park

Mills recounts that the American novelist had chartered a silvery Cessna plane from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, on a 600-mile flight over Lake Victoria and Lake Albert to the 400-foot Murchison Falls where the plane (ID: VPKLII) was sighted stuck in some trees, just a small clearing close to the waterfalls.

The plane looked pretty intact apart from a few damages, particularly one broken wheel of the undercarriage. No bodies or debris were seen and the doors were shut. Could the scribe have wandered off with his wife? Or were they devoured by some wild ones?

What a threatening thought for two foreign tourists to spend the night in the open with crocodiles, hippos, elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and other big game. I reckon it was a long sweaty night of shooing and tiptoeing!

An old abandoned telephone line from Masindi to Arua in West Nile District had caused the misadventure. “The couple had been flying low over the Falls when the plane’s tail wheel clipped the line,” the New York Times article revealed.

The party (the columnist and his spouse) would be picked up from the shores of the Nile by one of the launch trips (boat cruises) and transferred to Butiaba.

A dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, were some of the injuries the journalist had picked up, but nothing life-threatening, he made everyone believe, as he narrated his misfortune. “Just some light first aid and we will be fine”, he joked.

The news began to slowly spread, but only through a tight circle of expats living in Uganda.

The news got to Capt. Reg Cartwright, a very good friend of wildlife, who had seen the little plane below the falls during one of his weekly flights over the large protected area.
Reg flew a Rapide that was part of the East African Airways fleet in which he had offered to fly the couple from a small little-used airstrip, back to Entebbe International Airport, in a bid to bring them closer to proper medication.

Unthreatened by the shock of surviving the crash from the clouds, a yes from the couple was not farfetched.

To everyone’s surprise, upon takeoff, the plane’s wheels hit an anthill and proceeded to a thorn bush at the end of the landing field and the Rapide nose-dived and crashed in a ball of flames.

Fortunately, the journalist had once again fled the craft hurriedly, while his wife and the Capt. Cartwright were helped out before the plane caught fire.

Mr. Mills says the injuries this time were far more serious, particularly for the journalist who sustained a fractured skull, a burnt scalp, ruptured liver and collapsed intestine.

The team was transferred to Masindi by car and in the evening, celebrations were in order. Mills narrates that the gin stock at the Masindi Hotel was utterly depleted!

They would eventually make it back to Nairobi where they stayed for a while to receive treatment before returning home to America.

EH 4463P  January 1954 Crashed Cessna 180 that carried Ernest and Mary Hemingway. Uganda, near Murchison Falls. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

About the Journalist and his wife

The story is based on a real-life event; the 1954 double plane crash (within a week), involving a famed writer, Ernest Miller Hemingway and his fourth wife [also a journalist] Mary Welsh Hemingway.

Unlike most tourists who enjoy safaris in Murchison Falls National Park, Ernest and Mary’s Christmas trip to Uganda was a total disaster, but a story that inspired countless trips to what is popularly referred to as the Pearl of Africa. Actually his near-demise inspired many newspaper stories.

Ernest Hemingway Crash Uganda

Hemingway’s two successive near-fatal plane crashes which left him in pain and ill health for much of the rest of his life formed the inspiration for his 1954 article in the ‘Look Magazine’ with the rather soft sounding title: ‘The Christmas Gift’.

Masindi Hotel, where Ernest and Mary spent part of their recuperating days, was founded in 1923 and is the oldest hotel in Uganda today. On a trip to Murchison Falls National Park, a detour to this antique yet still intact facility is worthwhile. If you miss a guided tour to Ernest’s room, you’ll at least not miss his photos in the lobby.

Masindi Hotel Uganda

Written by 

My old folks call me Jonathan Benaiah but I prefer to go by as “The Ugandan Tourist“. I love to travel, write, take photos (of nature mostly). Ask me my best kind of trips and I'll tell you that it's those moments which allow me enough time in the African bush.