On safari: Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park
Uganda may not be the first country that springs to mind when you plan an African safari, or any kind of African tour for that matter, but maybe it should be. With 10 diverse national parks in a country roughly the size of Oregon (at 93,065 square miles), you can plan an African safari vacation that spans tropical forests, arid valleys, plunging waterfalls, savannas, mountains, and sparkling lakes. Animal sightings range from lions and giraffes to elephants and hippos to chimps and some of the best gorilla treks on the planet.
I was fortunate in early July to visit one national park in Uganda: Queen Elizabeth National Park. Located in western Uganda, it’s the country’s most popular tourist destination. We started our trek in Kampala, the capital city. We’d taken a leap of faith a few months earlier and hired a safari outfitter called Wild Whispers Africa based only on its listing on the national park website and an itinerary that fit our time and pocketbook. Thankfully, this decision ended up being a good one – our guide, David Kasule, was friendly, punctual, knowledgeable, and a great driver.
The drive from Kampala takes about six hours – if you don’t stop. Which is pretty unrealistic, because you need a break to stretch your legs, use the bathroom, get something to eat, and gawk at the scenery en route. We stopped several times, including a bathroom break at the equator, but only once for more than a few minutes when we grabbed some lunch at a tourist restaurant at the Agip Motel in the city of Mbarara (with its odd slogan: “Celebrate Novelty.”) With the stops, it took us about eight hours to reach the park.
You can actually see the parkland before you reach its gates; as part of the Albertine Rift Valley, you approach the park from a higher elevation and experience it as a sprawling vista with the Rwenzori mountain range as a backdrop (above).
When we reached the park we were greeted by baboons and vervet monkeys, two of the park’s primate species. By this time it was late afternoon, and our lodge was still an hour’s drive away, so David suggested we do our first game drive before checking in. This was a great suggestion, because it gets dark in Uganda early and quickly – around 7:30 p.m.
After David paid the required fees and we showed our passports, we headed into the savanna. There, in the late-afternoon light from the safety of our pop-top safari vehicle, we saw hundreds of Uganda kob, a lovely and graceful antelope species. We also saw water bucks, two female lions, warthogs, birds, and – from a distance – cape buffalo. Here are some images from our first game drive:
It was dark when we arrived at our accommodations for the next two nights – the Mweya Safari Lodge. This was absolutely not “roughing it.” The rooms were comfortable (with a functioning shower with hot water!), the views of Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel were spectacular, and the restaurant and bar were outstanding. We ate most of our meals (all offered buffet-style) on a patio overlooking the water. There’s also a pool and spa, which I didn’t use. I am not great at relaxing, but my time spent at the Mweya Lodge was as good it gets.
The next morning (our only full day in the national park), we were told to be at the lobby at 6:15 a.m. for coffee and a 6:30 departure (before sunrise). David was right on time. We started our early-morning game drive on the peninsula and immediately began seeing elephants and then cape buffalo among the trees and shrubs. I loved these sightings! We drove back to the savanna and saw more of the same species we’d seen the night before, with the addition of a hippo and (from a distance) a leopard. Here are photos from our morning game drive:
By the time we got back to the lodge it was already 10:30 and time for breakfast, with made-to-order omelets and pretty much anything else you’d want to eat. Afterwards, I showered, changed clothes, checked my email using the free wi-fi in the lodge lobby, and got ready for the highlight of the safari: a 2 p.m. boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel. On most boat cruises I’ve seen mostly birds and aquatic animals, but this cruise is different. From the vantage point of our two-deck “Hippo” boat, we had a prime view of big game coming to the water’s edge in the heat of the day to drink, swim, or just hang out.
It was awesome to see the families of elephants getting a drink, plus dozens of cape buffalo and hippos, mostly in the water and very near the boat. We also had views of warthogs, monitor lizards, crocodiles, and Uganda kob. The bird species were spectacular: kingfishers, African fishing eagles, marabou storks, cormorants, pelicans, and many more whose names I can’t remember. I loved how the cape buffalo and hippos hung out together, in kinship because both species are vegetarian, and I loved how the hippos “snuggled” together, with some putting their heads on the backs of others as they cooled themselves in the water. Here are some of my favorite images:
The air was cool and the motion on the covered boat was minimal, so this was one of the most enjoyable cruises I’ve ever experienced. The two hours went way too fast.
The rest of the day was free to relax at the lodge, walk around the grounds, eat, drink, and watch the sunset. We also watched small, fast-moving bats as they gobbled up insects outside the lodge windows at dusk. It was a lovely day.
After breakfast the next morning, our safari was technically over, but David drove the park trail along the peninsula instead of the main park road, so we were treated to family after family of African elephants with their offspring along the path (including a newborn calf), as well as cape buffalo and other mammals and birds.
At one point, when the adult elephants were clearly irritated by our presence – trumpeting, vocalizing, taking aggressive charging steps toward our safari vehicle, I asked our driver if elephants could do damage to the land cruiser and he said, “Yes, an elephant could destroy this vehicle.” Hmmm. So then I asked him who could move faster, the land cruiser or the elephant. He said, “It depends on the road.” Well, holy hell, we need to get outa here! And we did. (He said the aggressive stances were mostly just bluff, but still.)
Here are a few parting shots: