A 4-hour unpaved drive from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park put you into Uganda’s flagship nature reserve, Queen Elizabeth National Park. 95 mammal species and more, an astounding over 614 species of birds including migratory ones from Europe have made their homes in its 760 square miles that consist of savannah, woodlands and wetlands. The park sits in the floor of the Albertine Rift Valley in the shadow of the Rwenzori Mountains (meaning rainmaker), and is decorated with crater lakes, so it’s no wonder the plains are so verdant. Yet Queen Elizabeth National Park retains a serene and modest air.
Our opening exciting night was spent at Jacana Safari Lodge, an intimate lodge that blends sympathetically with its environment on the shores of Lake Nyamusingire, within the tropical Maramagambo rain Forest. An early-morning game drive through the northern Kasenyi Plains revealed herds of buffalo and Uganda kob, the national animal, dotting the landscape like freckles.
A faction of more than 100 topi unique to the south of the park were grazed peacefully, their metallic-effect coats in shades of purple-brown sparkling in the sun. Warthogs and bushbucks ran away from us while baboons rushed up trees, and a vervet monkey with his weird blue genitals looked on guiltily, holding a guinea fowl egg in his hand.
The Kazinga Channel that bisects the park is a 24-mile narrow stretch of water which connects Lakes George and Edward, is a birders’ heaven. In the early hour of our boat trip that started from Mweya area, we saw over 30 different species that ranged from giant goliath herons to tiny yet vivid malachite kingfishers. African Fish eagles perched high on acacia treetops sporting for food while jacanas, known as Jesus birds, seemed to walk on water looking for their lunch. There’s high concentration of mammal life along the channel waterside, too – an elephant aggressively kicked up dirt as our boat passed and a baby hippo belly-flopped gracelessly from a reed-bed, joining the adults bubbling underwater. A hairly waterbuck with twins watched us nervously and buffalo wallowed in the muddy grasses while cow egrets gobbled up the insects like ticks they disturbed.
Despite this diverse and enormous wildlife, this park is best-known for the amazing tree-climbing lions that are regular in its southern Ishasha Plains. Having started our game drive in the warm late morning for a better chance to see them cooling in the shade, Kenny, our guide, spotted three silhouettes from a distance in an old but leafy fig tree.
But when we got closer, we discovered not three but rather four lions, one a tiny cub probably two months old, lying in its boughs. They were mesmerising sleepy nonchalantly in the shadows, occasionally stirring to yawn or stretch, now and then peeping down on us. We stayed with them for an hour, watching and taking good pictures in complete silence, not wanting to spoil the moment.
If you come here with high expectations to see lions’ paws and tails dripping from every fig tree, you may be disappointed when you fail completely. We were lucky. Returning to the beautifully peaceful Ishasha Wilderness Camp on the banks of Ntungwe River, we learnt that no one had seen lions in the previous two days.
“This isn’t a zoo,” Kenny said. “People seem to forget that they’re wild animals.” As with the gorillas, we were seeing them on their terms, not ours as there are many factors that may lead to their absence such as weather, time of the day among others.
Another uniqueness of the park is the Crater Lake experience; if you follow the crater truck you will find quite a number including the dry up ones during dry seasons while others are salt lakes. Salt lakes are breading grounds for the rare flamingos that migrate from Lake Nakuru in Kenya during breading seasons. There is also salt mining along salt lakes