Uganda: Queen Elizabeth & Kibale National Park

21st January - 9th February 2002


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There was seven of us in the minibus when we left Bwindi NP at 06.30 on Friday morning; Sam the driver, Matt and Craig two British gap year students, Paul a Ugandan who worked at the school in Kampala where Matt and Craig were teaching, Lorant and Linda an American couple who both were national park rangers back home in the States and myself. From Bwindi we drove along dirt roads to Ishasha in the southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). The park covers approximately 2,000 sq km bordered to the west by Lake Edward and DR Congo and to the east by Lake George. The park surrounds both the northern and southern shores of the Kazinga Channel, which links these two lakes together.

QENP used to be a great place to visit and was famous for it's large herds of buffalo, elephant, hippo, kob and waterbuck. Unfortunately during the civil war in the late 1970's and 80's, retreating troops loyal to both Amin and Okello, as well as invading forces from Tanzania, did their best at decimating the herds, especially the elephants for their ivory. Today the wildlife is recovering, but it is still not as good or numerous as the parks found in both Kenya and Tanzania. The most obvious legacy of this senseless slaughter is the very much-reduced numbers of elephant; there are no longer any long tusked elephants left in the park.

The section of park around Ishasha is famous for it's tree-climbing lions. The vegetation is very different from that around Bwindi; the park is grassland savannah dotted with both acacia and fig trees. It was the dry season when I visited and the grass was very dry with numerous grass fires burning or the ground scorched black by previous fires. Matt and Craig had arranged for a game drive at Ishasha to look for the tree-climbing lions and picked up a park ranger at the Ishasha gate to accompany us. The lions only climb the fig trees in the park, so our game drive took us out into the park on a loop around some of these trees. On our way to the Ishasha gate we saw many herds of Uganda kob, one of the most abundant species in the park; on our search for lions we saw many more herds of kob as well as a large troop of baboons, smaller herds of waterbuck and a few buffalo. On our two-hour drive we spotted two lions, but they were lying in the grass rather than up a fig tree. These were the first lions I had seen and I was thrilled to see them lying in the grass just about 15m from our minibus.

We returned to the Ishasha Camp and drove down to the nearby Ishasha River, which forms the border between Uganda and DR Congo. In the river are three schools of hippos, numbering between ten and twenty in each school. The area around the river is forested in contrast to the surrounding grassy plains. We walked along a trail beside the river to view all three schools of hippo. We managed to get closest to the school furthest up stream from the camp. We were able to observe these huge animals from the banks of the river as they wallowed on the opposite bank in the muddy waters of the Ishasha.

After stopping for a basic lunch at the Ishasha Camp we dropped off our park ranger and continued to drive to the Mweya peninsular between the Kazinga Channel and Lake Edward where we planned to spend the night. It was a long drive along a badly rutted and potholed dirt track to reach the main road, which crosses the Kazinga Channel at the village of Katunguru. This dirt road is used by hundreds of aid convoys taking supplies to DR Congo, which explained its present bad condition. The landscape became monotonous and the plains appeared endless, the monotony broken every now and then by a grassfire. It was hot and dusty and at one point we all fell asleep during the heat of the day, all of us except Sam the driver who had his work cut out dodging potholes in the road. We crossed the bridge over the Kazinga Channel and turned left at Katunguru and followed the track along the shores of the channel to the Mweya peninsular.

I had originally planned to be dropped off at this junction on the main road, but it was getting late in the afternoon and the chances of finding transport to Fort Portal, let alone Kibale NP, was getting slimmer as each minute of the afternoon ticked away. We were having fun though, so I decided to stick with this group in the minibus and spend the night out at the Mweya peninsular. This section of the park appeared much drier than the Ishasha section; there were no longer any fig trees. The savannah grassland was now covered with the large cactus like tree the Euphorbia, or more commonly known as the Candelabra Tree, as well as the thorny flat-topped Acacia trees. On the way we spotted our first elephants and also saw an abundance of bird life, especially African fish eagles and other large vultures. We reached the Mweya peninsular just after 16.00 and checked into the Ecology Institute which have double rooms for USH30,000 a night. Matt and Craig were booked on the launch trip at 17.00 that sails along the Kazinga Channel for two hours. Lorant, Linda and myself decided to conserve our money and opted to go to the Tembo Canteen to order dinner and drink a few cold beers instead.

The Tembo Canteen was in a prime position in this dusty little village overlooking the channel. We were absolutely starving and we had a cunning plan to have dinner while Matt and Craig were out on the boat and then have a second dinner when they returned in a couple of hours. We placed our order and pulled up some chairs on the dry lawn outside and sat down with a cold beer and watched the wildlife on the opposite shores. It was dry season and at this late time of day, herds of elephant come down to the waters edge to drink. It was a stunning view to watch these majestic animals stroll through the bush and congregate by the channel where also a school of hippos wallowed. We watched this natural spectacle while we drunk our cold beer and waited for our dinner; we waited and waited and after over an hour began to get concerned. We made enquiries and found that the chef had not even started to cook our order yet. When we asked why and he said that dinner isn't served until 19.00. Suddenly realising that our chances of having two dinners had passed, I also begged for an extra plate of chips. We placed an order for Matt and Craig too as no doubt they would be starving by now and probably wouldn't appreciate waiting an hour or so for their dinner.

The next morning we set off at 06.30 on an early morning game drive; this is usually a good time see predators eating their kills. It was still dark when we picked up our guide and set off down the track heading east towards Lake George. As dawn began to break and our eyes adjusted to the low light we slowly began to see the various herds of animals standing in the bush watching us drive by. In all we drove about 80km in an easterly loop through the park. The highlight of the drive had to be very early on, just as the sun was rising, we came across six hyenas ripping to pieces a buffalo. I could hear the hyenas breaking the ribs and all I could see of the buffalo was a huge rack of ribs sticking up out of the grass. During the rest of the drive it was becoming rather disappointing and at times some of us dozed off to sleep as we drove through the never-ending grassy plains. Just as we thought it was all over and we were approaching the Mweya peninsular we saw another couple of vehicles off the road; they had spotted something so we drove out to join them. There before us were a couple of lions, a male and female. I was surprised at how close we could drive up to them; they completely ignored us as though we weren't there. I suppose they must be quite used to being chased by vehicles. Just as we were about to leave the female strolled over to the male and they began mating. I guess that this was the highlight of our visit to QENP and we returned to the Mweya peninsular happy after what was beginning to be a rather disappointing game drive.

After a late breakfast back at the Tembo canteen it was time to head off out of the park. Matt and Craig were returning to Kampala; Lorant and Linda stayed aboard for a lift. I was dropped off at the park gates on the main road at the village of Katunguru and after the past few days, suddenly found myself travelling alone again. Katunguru can hardly justify being called a village, it is nothing more than a collection of ramshackle buildings lining the main road; the traffic and the wind covering everything in dust. I stood under the one shady tree in the village and waited for a northbound vehicle. Traffic is very light on all the roads outside the main cities and this road was no exception. Every few minutes a heavily overloaded vehicle would rumble past. There was no chance of a lift unless I wanted to risk my life and climb on top of the cargo with the dozen or so other passengers who had no other choice.

It was not long though until a saloon car pulled up and offered be a lift the 30km north to Kasese from where I would be able to pick up a matatu to Fort Portal. I squeezed into the car with the seven other passengers plus the driver for the short trip to Kasese. The driver dropped me by the lay-by where the matatus for Fort Portal depart from; it was a case of jumping out of one overloaded vehicle and straight into another even more overloaded minibus for the next leg of my journey, 75km to Fort Portal. As we drove, the landscape became more mountainous as we left the grassy plains of QENP behind us and were soon back in the green lush vegetation that I had found elsewhere on my trip through Uganda. I dozed on the way and awoke as we pulled into Fort Portal. I quickly consulted my map of the town to see where I would be dropped and find matatus heading towards the Kibale NP headquarters.

Of course the next taxi park I needed was at the opposite side of town, but Fort Portal is not a large place and it only took me about ten minutes to walk between the taxi parks. On the next ride I was squeezed into the back of the matatu and once none of us passengers could hardly move, let alone breathe, we drove off along the small dirt road the 25km or so to the Kibale NP. The road wound it's way around the mountains, which were carpeted in thick green tea bushes; all over the south west of the country in the mountainous areas, tea plantations seemed to dominate the landscape. I dozed off again in the heat during the drive but soon awoke as the matatu drove through the forest with baboons sitting on the side of the road watching us driving past. At the forest visitors centre the only way I could get out of the matatu was to climb out of the rear door.

The Kibale park covers an area of 560 sq km, mostly forested at an altitude of 1,200m. It is joined to the northeastern point of Queen Elizabeth NP by a corridor. It is only in recent years that the park had been upgraded from a forest reserve to a national park, with the extra protection it now gives this habitat and its animals. The corridor was created to allow animals to move freely from QENP to Kibale NP to help re-establish animals in the forest that had been poached during the civil war years. The park is most famous for its population of about 600 chimpanzees, of which a family numbering about 80 individuals, have been habituated to human contact since 1991. There are a lot of other primates living in the forest including baboons, red tailed colobus and black and white colobus. A small herd of elephants also call the forest their home but they are best avoided for two reasons. There is a fruit in the forest that they swallow whole which then ferments in their stomach causing them to get drunk. In addition, they have a long memory and they still associate humans as poachers and tend to charge at anyone they come across in the forest. Angry drunk elephants are best avoided.

There are about six stone bandas to rent at the visitors centre for USH10,000 a night; they have to be the nicest bandas anywhere in Uganda. I rented the chimpanzee banda which was secluded in the woods with its own little garden and lawn out the front and a small porch to sit in to watch the wildlife swing or fly past. Once I had checked in I just sat on the porch of my little stone cottage in the forest looking out across my garden with a huge grin on my face; I could not believe that I had arrived in such a beautiful and peaceful location. I immediately planned to stay here a few nights. My first priority would be to spend a day doing absolutely nothing.

Just down the hill from the bandas is a small restaurant run by villagers from the local village, Bigodi. The menu was not extensive but the food was great and always served with a smile from the very friendly staff. I would eat dinner at about 19.00 and each evening as I walked down the hill the sun would be just setting, a huge globe of orange just hanging in the sky above the forest. It was a beautiful sight and was the perfect way to end each day.

Most people come to the forest to track the chimpanzees. Guided walks set off at 08.00 and 15.00 each day in search of them. Groups are limited to six but any number of groups can set off, each in a different direction looking for the chimps. If a group finds them the guide radios the position back to the other groups so that everyone gets a chance to see these animals up close in their natural habitat. I went tracking at 08.00 on my second day in the forest, usually the best time to see the chimps. We were lucky and the chimps were being very noisy and we managed to track them through the forest by listening out for their cries and calls.

It took a lot longer to track them down than the gorillas at Bwindi NP, I think the chimps tend to move about a lot more. The forest was very thick and it was difficult to see anything once we were off the main trails and bashing through the undergrowth. We were rewarded by one of the most active displays the chimps had put on for days. There must have been about fifty chimps around us, both swinging about in the trees and also on the forest floor. The more I looked in the branches and the undergrowth the more chimps I began to see. They were very lively climbing up and down trees and swinging about. The dominant male was in the thick of it kicking the younger males who were trying to mate, which seemed to be the cause of all the noise that lead us to them in the first place. Unlike tracking the gorillas we did not have a set time limit to stay with the chimps and each group broke off and followed part of the family until most of the chimps were settled high in the trees eating young leaves and making nests to rest in for the afternoon. The chimps make two nests a day up in the branches, one for the afternoon once they have finished eating for the morning and another in the evening to sleep in for the night. They never use the same nest twice; chimps appear to fussy and like fresh bed linen each day.

Once we left the chimps it was a long and pleasant walk through the forest back to the visitors centre. Along the way our guide stopped to point out various trees and their uses. The bark of one tree is used for medicine, for clearing blocked noses and colds. We tasted a piece of the bark, which was very hot and fiery; I think it would definitely shift a blocked nose. The chimps are also wise to this tree and chew on the bark when they are feeling unwell. On our way through the forest we passed by a few glades, small sun filled natural clearings in the forest, which were a haven for butterflies and birds.

I found it difficult to uproot myself from the forest but unfortunately the first six weeks of this trip I had a deadline to stick to, oto reach Dar Es-Salaam on the 2nd March to meet up with a friend who was flying in from London. I therefore reluctantly packed my bag to return to Kampala and made my way east to the Kenyan frontier.

Continue reading this journey: The Source of the Nile