Queen Elizabeth National Park
by Michelle Sutton
Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda is the country’s most visited park. Rich in biodiversity, the 764 mi² (1,978 km²) protected area is home to over 95 species of mammals, more than any other park in Uganda, as well as 612 species of birds. Queen Elizabeth National Park lies on the floor of Africa’s Western Rift Valley stretching from the base of the towering Rwenzori Mountains in the north to the Ishasha River in the south and is bordered on the west by the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Virunga Mountains. The proximity of Queen Elizabeth National Park to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP makes it an ideal stopover for tourists who are gorilla trekking or birding in Bwindi. Queen Elizabeth is also convenient for a weekend away from Kampala. The park was founded in 1952 as the Kazinga National Park and was renamed in 1954 after a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. QENP is an incredibly scenic park, with volcanic features in the north and golden savannah grasslands in the south that are dotted with giant fig trees, where you have the chance of spotting the famous tree climbing lions of Ishasha. QENP is truly unrivaled and has so much to offer its visitors.
Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) is comprised of various habitats, which can be summarized into five regions; grassland, bushy grassland, forest, Acacia woodland and Lakeshore/swamp. These habitats support over 95 different species of mammals, more than any other park in Uganda. Although poaching was rife through the seventies and eighties, populations of animals are recovering. The most common mammals that you can expect to see on your safari are Waterbuck, Buffalo, Uganda Kob, Hippopotamus, Elephant and Warthog. The most sought after species are generally the most difficult to find, lion and leopard. Although lions are seen regularly, you’ll need a bit more good fortune to see a leopard. Leopards are shy, secretive animals that camouflage well, but don’t be discouraged because with safari, you never know what you’ll see around the next bend.
Many people visit Queen Elizabeth National Park specifically for the birds. Not a lot of places can boast a species list this long. At over 600 species, it offers the widest variety of species of any protected area in East Africa. As infrastructure in the country has improved, Uganda has earned a well-deserved reputation as a birding hotspot, with plenty of qualified and knowledgeable guides being available. Enthusiastic birders come from all over the world for their chance to see the elusive Shoebill stork, as well as the prolific variety of other water birds that live along the Kazinga Channel between Lakes Edward and George. On one of my trips to the park, I spent the better part of the day with a serious birder from England. He spent most of the morning at Mweya Lodge, glued to the end of his spotting scope and actually squealed with joy when he saw African Skimmers dipping in the water on the channel. It was a new tick in the box for him and he was overjoyed. On the afternoon boat trip up the Kazinga Channel, once again, he was overwhelmed with the number of species to be seen. By evening he was smiling from ear to ear and said it had been an extremely successful trip to Queen Elizabeth, I am certain that his experience is not unusual.
A number of primate species live in Queen Elizabeth National Park, the most popular of them being the chimpanzee, which can be tracked in the Kyambura Gorge. Diurnal species that live in the park are black and white colobus monkey, red tailed monkey, blue monkey, chimpanzee, L’hoest’s monkey and vervet monkey. Thick tailed Gallagos more commonly known as Bush Babies and Potto are the park’s nocturnal species.
EXPLORING QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK
Mweya is the main tourist centre of the park and is located at the western end of the Kazinga Channel where the channel enters Lake Edward. The Uganda Wildlife Authority visitor centre is also located on the peninsula, along with Mweya Lodge as well as a hostel, campsite and a canteen. It is from this peninsula where the Kazinga Channel boat trips depart. The peninsula is abundant with animals and bird life and from its elevated position, various points on the peninsula provide excellent views of the Kazinga Channel and Lake Edward.
The visitor centre is where activities in and around the park can be organized. The centre houses exhibits about the parks history, animal and bird species along with a topographical model of the lake systems in the area. The exhibits are a little the worse for wear, however they do offer some interesting information.
Mweya Lodge has a lofty position on the peninsula and offers luxury accommodation with spectacular views across the channel. Mweya Lodge offers an experience of its own in the heart of the park and from the restaurant and bar, the 180 degree views are outstanding. The lodge has been in existence since the 1950’s and is a well-established part of the peninsula and definitely worth a visit.
Kasenyi is the area in the park where pretty much every vehicle heads to first thing in the morning. The area that lies east of the Kasese highway is characteristic of its golden colored grass and has the stereotypical look of an African safari with the towering Rwenzori Mountains as a backdrop. Large herds of Uganda Kob graze here and in turn attract prides of lion. This area is commonly referred to as the Kob mating grounds and its common to see male Kob battling it out for dominance and mating with females. Dirt tracks wind through the open flat savannah which is the most popular area in the park to spot lion. It’s best to get an early start as a few hours after sunrise, the lions generally retreat to the shade of the thickets and become a lot more difficult to see.
The Kazinga Channel is a wide, slow-flowing, 32 kilometre long body of water that connects Lake George to Lake Edward. It can be difficult to tell which way the water is flowing as the elevation change from Lake George to Lake Edward is only one metre and therefore the water flows slowly and calmly. The Kazinga Channel is home to one of the largest hippo populations on the planet, supporting over 5000 of these giant herbivores. Crocodiles can also be seen basking in the sun on its banks. During the volcanic activity in the region 8000 years ago, fish and crocodile populations were wiped out by the ash but slowly, over time, they have come back to the channel. The channel is where the boat trips take place and is one of the most popular activities to engage in while visiting QENP.
This southern sector of the park is less visited than the northern sector, however, it should not be quickly dismissed. The landscape around Ishasha is especially picturesque and it’s the only place in the park to see Topi. It has become the famed area for tree climbing lions and if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself endlessly circling the base of giant fig trees looking upwards and miss everything else. Sure, lions draped in the trees, lazily shifting around on the branches is a pretty sensational spectacle, but Ishasha really is so much more than that.
One of my favourite areas in Ishasha is the Lake Edward Flats. The track to the flats is seasonal and should only be attempted with a four wheel drive vehicle even during the dry season. After a bit of navigating a few tricky spots in the road, the landscape opens up into a wide expanse of compacted sandy soil. It’s here that you’ll find numerous species of birds, including the Shoebill. You can’t actually see Lake Edward from here as the edge is fringed with papyrus. As you wander around the open area you’re likely to see elephants munching away in the papyrus, knee deep in the water and bachelor buffalo revelling in their muddy wallows.
In terms of safari drives in Ishasha, the tracks are divided into the northern and the southern circuit. The northern circuit is very scenic and is good for seeing kob, topi, hyena, lion and leopard. In recent months a hyena den has been discovered where pups periodically peer out from the little caves in the earth. With a little patience, you may see them come out for some playtime with each other. A special sighting indeed! There are a couple of fig trees in the northern circuit which are the trees of choice for the lions but most of them are concentrated on the southern circuit. The tracks on the southern circuit can be somewhat confusing as there are numerous trails that lead to – and around – the fig trees. A GPS or a guide is a good idea, as things can quickly become confusing. The reason behind why the lions climb the trees is unclear, whether it be to stay cool during the heat of the day or to keep watch over the surrounding area, no one is certain. This makes seeing the lions in the trees a very unpredictable sighting, so be prepared either way.
There are two campsites close to the Ishasha park headquarters, Campsite One and Two both of which are on the banks of the Ishasha River. Campsite one is particularly nice as there is plenty of shade there and it makes for a wonderful spot to have a picnic lunch and gaze across into the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a mere stones throw away. The river is home to pods of hippo that can make for great entertainment.
The Katookye gate which is the entrance into the Ishasha sector is 70 km from the Kasese Highway. These days the murram road is in pretty good condition and you can expect the journey to take you approximately an hour and a half. It’s a lovely drive and can be good for elephant sightings.
ACTIVITIES: QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK
By and large the most popular activity for people when they visit QENP is game viewing. There is a network of roads around the Mweya peninsula as well as across the main tarmac highway in Kasenyi. The Channel Track stretches from the Katunguru Gate to the Mweya Peninsula and runs roughly parallel to the Kazinga Channel. It is a great track for a variety of game and a good place in the park to encounter elephant as they cross over the track several times per day in their quest for water. As the track is rather close to the channel, it’s not uncommon to see hippo out of the water in the early hours of the day. Other common mammal species seen along this track are buffalo, warthog, bushbuck and waterbuck. Although not as common, lion and leopard are sometimes spotted along the Channel Track. On one occasion I have seen a lioness in a Euphorbia tree near the Katurguru Gate not far from the road, so it pays to keep your eyes open and never discount any possibility. There are two campsites along the Channel Track both offer a great wilderness experience in the park.
In the Kasenyi sector, east of the Kasese highway, a number of small tracks wind through the kob breeding grounds. The major draw in the area are the lions that feed on the Uganda Kob that graze in these open plains. The best time to spot the lions is just after daybreak and just before sunset. During the heat of the day, they are resting near or in the thickets. Pay attention to the shady sides of bushes and for the flicking of a tail or the twitch of an ear. Lions blend in well, but are willing to offer a clue periodically to their whereabouts, you just need to learn how to recognize it.
Explosion Crater Drive
A scenic 27 kilometre route winds through the craters between the Main Gate and the Queen’s Pavilion at the Crater Gate. Although the area is not teeming with game, it makes up for it with its scenery. It’s a good place to take your time, stop and enjoy the breathtaking views and it’s not uncommon to see elephants inside the craters. Although the entire drive is stunning, there are a few highlights. The massive Kyemengo Crater, which is located at Baboon Cliffs is by far the largest crater and standing atop the rim is a slightly dizzying experience. It really is difficult to gauge how far above the crater floor you are and it’s an amazing sight to behold. Kitagata is a smaller crater with a dark, inky-blue lake. On a sunny day, you can see the reflection of the sky in the lake. The Crater Drive is one of the gems of Queen Elizabeth NP. If you’re going to explore the area, a four wheel drive vehicle is recommended, as well as a reliable spare tire as the road passes over sections of abrasive lava and in some places can be rather steep.
Another popular activity within the park and, in my opinion, one not to be missed, is the boat trip up the Kazinga Channel towards Lake Edward. Several times per day boats slowly ascend the channel close to the shore, providing visitors with the opportunity to get close to pods of hippos, crocodiles, elephant, buffalo, numerous species of birds and if you’re lucky, lion or leopard. The guides are extremely knowledgeable about the animals and birds seen from the boat and will identify each species, give a brief description of their habitat as well as offering other little pieces of information about them. Water birds are plentiful and even if birds don’t particularly interest you, they are fascinating to watch. Pygmy kingfishers with their brightly colored plumage flitting around the shore, Fish Eagles call out from high above, Pelicans and African Spoonbill fishing in the water all make for an enjoyable couple of hours. Boat trips can be booked through Mweya Safari Lodge or the UWA.
Hot Air Ballooning
This is the newest activity to be introduced at Queen Elizabeth by Uganda Balloon Safaris. For those with a sense of adventure looking for something unique, the balloon safari is the perfect way to experience this incredibly scenic area and the chance for a bird’s eye view of the park and its inhabitants. Floating above the park, the silence of the savannah below is only periodically broken by blasts from the burners. Launching at dawn the flight lasts for approximately an hour, after which a delicious bush breakfast is served. Hot air ballooning gives a unique perspective and a chance to see the dramatic scenery and landscape of QENP. For more information and bookings – www.ugandaballoonsafari.com
Lion Tracking Experience
The Uganda Carnivore Program is an organization dedicated to the research and conservation of large predators including lion, leopard and hyena. Part of the conservation mission is to educate tourists on the parks predators and their interaction with the people and villages around the park. The tracking experience allows you to join them in the field as they track the animals fitted with radio collars. Their research gives them insight into the movements, breeding habits and health of the predators. If you are interested in a lion tracking experience, bookings can be made through the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
By road, there are two ways to reach Queen Elizabeth National Park from Kampala. You can expect the journey to take 5 to 6 hours, regardless of which route you choose and both options are via a tarmac highway. The northern route, often considered the more scenic one, via Fort Portal and Kasese is a distance of 410 km. The more southern route through Mbarara is 420 km long and passes along the edge of Lake Mburo NP, which is a potential stopover offering different landscapes, mammals and birds to Queen Elizabeth NP. By air, flights can be chartered to any of the three airstrips in the area, namely Kasese, Mweya or Ishasha.
Queen Elizabeth National Park has plenty to offer visitors and whether you plan to spend a couple of nights or several weeks in the park, you will not have a shortage of things to see and do. There are a number of lodges and camps in and around the park to suit all budgets. To mention a few:
Katara Lodge – http://www.kataralodge.com
Mweya Safari Lodge – http://www.mweyalodge.com
Kyambura Gorge Lodge – http://www.volcanoessafaris.com/lodges/kyambura-gorge-lodge/
Kyambura Game Lodge – http://www.kyamburalodge.com/
Kasenyi Safari Camp – http://www.kasenyisafaricamp.com/
Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge – http://www.naturelodges.biz/the-bush-lodge/
Ishasha Wilderness Camp – http://ugandaexclusivecamps.com/ishasha-wilderness-camp
At the River – http://www.attheriverishasha.com/
Savannah Resort Hotel – http://savannahresorthotel.com/