Few reserves in the world can boast such a high biodiversity rating and with landscapes including savannah, bushland, wetlands and lush forests. Covering 1978sqkm, scenic Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of the most popular parks in Uganda. The park is inhabited by 96 species of mammals, including healthy numbers of hippos, elephants, lions, and leopards as well as chimps and hyenas. The remote Ishasha sector, in the far south of the park, is famous for its tree-climbing lions; these females, who enjoy spending the long, hot afternoons snoozing photogenically in fig trees, are the most memorable sight in the entire park but don’t miss the superb birdlife (611 species), the wonderful boat trip on the Kazinga channel or a walk through beautiful Kyambura (chambura) Gorge, a little Eden brimming with chimpanzees and other primates.
Back in the 1970s, with its great herds of elephants, buffaloes, kobs, waterbucks, hippos, and topis, Queen Elizabeth was one of the premier safari parks in Africa. But during the troubled 1980s, Uganda and Tanzania troops (which occupied the country after Amin’s demise) did their ivory-grabbing, trophy-hunting best. Thankfully, animal populations have recovered since then with thanks to improved park security and an emphasis on anti-poaching patrols.
Leopard Village is one of the communities within Queen Elizabeth National Park. It’s possible to visit it on a tour run by Uganda Carnivore Program, which gives an insight into how locals co-exist with wildlife and introduce you to other cultural activities. Tours usually meet at a park gate.
The interesting village of Katwe on the north shore of Lake Edward, 4km west of the Main gate (Kabatoro gate), is famous for its salt industry. Salt mining on the crater lake behind the village dates back to at least the 15th century, and today some 3000 people still use the same traditional methods. Women pull salt from evaporation ponds when it’s dry enough (generally December to March and July to September) while men dig rock salt year-round.
Tours are booked at the Katwe Tourism Information Center on the west side of the village, across from a defunct salt factory.
The equator crosses the northern sector of the park near Kasenyi and is marked with a circular monument on either side of the road, predictably popular with passersby stopping for that quintessential holiday snap.
Uganda Carnivore Program
This nonprofit is dedicated to the monitoring, research, and conservation of predators in Uganda. Many of these animals are declining in number due to nearby population pressures and loss of habitat. Visitors can join their lion-tracking program by booking through UWA’s Mweya Visitor Information Center. The Carnivore Program website has good information on the cause.
Uganda Balloon Safari
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to safari from the air, here’s your chance. These daily one-hour sunrise balloon rides (two-person minimum) float over the Kasenyi sector of the park, a good site for game drives. Upon landing you’re treated to a bush breakfast replete with white linens. Run by a licensed operator. Booking ahead is essential.
Explosion Crater Drive
This 27km round-trip takes you through a sector not known for wildlife. What it does have are awesome craters, with some cupping pools that reflect the sky on clear days. At times you might even see elephants in them. Massive Kyemengo Crater is the largest. Go as an extension of your safari drive. Some hotels offer cycling excursions here.
Almost every visitor takes the two-hour launch trip up the Kazinga Channel to see the thousands of hippos and pink-backed pelicans, plus plenty of crocodiles, buffaloes, and fish eagles. With a little luck, it’s also possible to catch sight of one of the elephant herds and very occasionally see a lion or a leopard. The boat docks below Mweya Safari Lodge, but you buy tickets at Mweya Visitor Information Center on top of the hill. Trips depart at 9 am, 11 am, 3 pm and 5 pm.
Most wildlife-viewing traffic is in the northeast of the park in Kasenyi, which offers the best chance to see lions, elephants, waterbucks, and kobs. It’s also one of the most scenic sections of any park in Uganda, particularly in the morning when the savannah landscape shines golden and is dotted with cactus-like candelabra trees. Night game drives are available, though you may have to hire a spotlight to see anything. Pay for drives or book guides at any of the park gates or at the Mweya Visitor Information Center.
There’s also a small network of trails between the Mweya Peninsula and Katunguru gate that usually reveal waterbucks and Kobs, elephants, and occasionally, leopards.
As well as being famous for its tree-climbing lions, Ishasha, in the south of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, is the only place to see topis and sitatungas.
You can get just about everywhere by car if it isn’t raining, though having a 4WD is a good idea in Ishasha year-round. Taking a UWA ranger-guide along for your drive is always a good idea, but more so in Ishasha than anywhere else because they know every fig tree in the area, the lions’ preferred perches.
Wildlife Research Tours
An initiative introduced by UWA is a range of ‘experiential tourism’ activities to assure closer wildlife encounters. Most popular is lion tracking (using a combination of locator devices and radio collars) run by the Uganda Carnivore Program in vehicles provided by UWA that head off track; it also yields good leopard sightings. Other activities include mongoose tracking, and assisting with the hippo census and bird-species count.
In the eastern region of the park, in the 100m-deep kyambura (chambura) Gorge, you can go chimpanzee tracking, with walks lasting from two to four hours and departing at 8 am and 2 pm. You have a semi-reasonable chance of finding the habituated troop, but visits are often unfruitful; mornings are probably the best bet. The gorge is a beautiful scar of green cutting through the savannah, and from the viewing platform, you can sometimes see primates, including Chimps, frolicking in the treetops below.
Bookings can be made at Mweya Visitor Information Center, or you can just show up and hope there are spots available. Children under 15years aren’t permitted.
Guided nature walks through the forest in Maramagambo are available. Trips on the forest trails here are taken mostly by birdwatchers, though there are nine species of primate around and it’s quite common to see pythons hunting and eating bats. Down at Ishasha, hippo encounters are pretty likely on short walks along the river, and, if you’re there early in the morning, there’s a chance of spotting a giant forest hog. You won’t see much on a walk at Mweya that you can’t see just hanging around on your own. Book guided walks at any of the park gates or at the Mweya Visitor Information Center.
An excellent budget choice, this exceptionally run bushcamp sits on the banks of Kazinga Channel frequented by elephants, forest pigs, warthogs, and hippos. There are basic tents with beds (and power outlets), and private bandas and safari-tents with outdoor showers clad in bamboo and composting toilets. Meals are wonderful, with tables arranged atmospherically around the campfire.
At night guards walk you back to your tent, lest hippos are on the loose.
Simba Safari Camp
Just outside the northern sector of the park, Simba is a good budget camp popular with many tour groups. Rooms are spotless with canopy beds and stone-floor showers. It has a social restaurant/bar and is in a convenient location for Kasenyi game drives. To get here by public transport, take any bus from Kampala heading to Bwera and ask to be dropped off at Simba.
UWA Guesthouses & Cottages
In an effort to provide more affordable accommodation in Queen Elizabeth National Park, UWA has acquired a range of properties along Mweya. The pick is the cottages, which are basic but comfortable rooms in close proximity to the popular Tembo Canteen. Take care of walking in the evening as plenty of wild animals graze here.
Self-caterers, families, and groups can opt for one of the bigger cottages equipped with fridge and cooking facilities, which can sleep six to eight people.
Little Elephant Camp
This dream safari camp features a few impeccable tents outfitted with grills and your own personal kitchen and living-room tent. Comfortable and ultra-private, it’s ideal for groups or families. Your hosts are a lovely Canadian couple who have thought out every old school adventure detail from custom-made director’s chairs to wooden trunks and open-air solar-heated showers fenced behind each tent.
Guests cook for themselves but can get a little help with cold drinks, salads, marinated steaks and chicken supplied by hosts for extra. Don’t be surprised if you hear elephants trumpeting at night, the land abuts the northern end of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Hosts also can provide personalized safaris in their Land Cruiser.