Queen Elizabeth National Park
The 1978 Square Kilometer Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) is deservedly Uganda’s most popular protected area. It is easy to reach and enjoys a stunning location on the rift valley floor between Lakes Edward and George. Varied habitats epitomise the rift valley vegetative mosaic that tempted our hominid ancestors to migrate from forest to grasslands and are home to 95 mammal and 612 bird species.
Scenically the area has everything. Thirty miles to the north, the blue Rwenzori explodes from the plain, a composite, jagged mass of mountains, sixty miles long and forty wide and looking in certain lights as if you can reach out and touch them.
Across Lake Edward to the west, the Mitumbe hills stand sentinel on the Congo, blue too in the long sight but in the closer green, wooded, precipitous, unfriendly and epitomising darkest Africa.
The eastern boundary of this impressive park is marked by the calm green escarpment of the western Rift Valley. And between all the hills, mountains and lakes is endless savanna, its constantly repeated motif the branched cactus arms of the candelabra euphoria tree.
Thrown in for good measure a great forest, the musically named Maramagambo in which chimpanzees shriek, and black and white colobus sait like dandies in white tie and tails among the branches.
If the area has the next best thing, a pattern of intense and recent volcanic activity in which 72 explosion craters, some quite tiny, others a mile or more across, interlock and overlap like rings in a pond where trout are rising freely.
Of animals, there is plainly no shortage. Hippos in huge numbers wheeze and wallow, buffalo include many ochre animals, a product of interbreeding with the forest buffalo of the Congo, lions that climb fig trees and lay in them all day keeping a sleepy eye on the antelope herds, elephants (although) not so big or heavily armed with ivory as the Murchison variety, topi graze in large herds under the eyes of the treed lions. The aquatic birds rival those of the Nile.
Wildlife & Habitats
An impressive variety of wildlife in Queen Elizabeth National Park is the result of an equally impressive diversity of habitats. These include extensive areas of lake and swamp and the merger of two of Africa’s three primary habitats; forest and grassland (desert is absent). Fifty-seven vegetation types have been identified but to keep your attention, these can be summarized as five: forest; grassland; bushy grassland: Acacia woodland and lakeshore and swamp vegetation.
QENP is home to 95 mammal species – more than any other park in Uganda. During the Seventies and Eighties, ‘big game’ populations were greatly reduced by poaching, but numbers are fast recovering.
If Murchison is famous for its elephants and crocodiles, and Bwindi for the mountain gorilla, QENP is the home of the Hippopotamus with an estimated population of 5000 animals in the Kazinga Channel and the adjoining lakes.
Expect also to see Elephant, Buffalo, Waterbuck, Uganda Kob and Warthog. With luck you may also find Giant Forest Hog, Hyena, Lion and perhaps even a Leopard.
The Maramagambo forest at the foot of the rift valley escarpment is home to seven diurnal primates; Chimpanzee, L’hoest’s, Red Tailed, Vervet and Blue Monkey, Baboon, and the Black and White Colobus, plus nocturnal species such as Bushbaby And Potto.
Queen Elizabeth National Park supports a remarkable number of bird species: the last count totalled 612 bird species. This figure ranks 6th worldwide for protected area bird diversity and second in Africa, inferior only to the neighbouring and far larger Virunga National Park.
To name but a few species: Martial Eagle, Black-rumped Buttonquail, African Skimmer, Chapin’s Flycatcher, Pink-backed Pelicans, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Papyrus Canary, Corncrake, Lesser And Greater Flamingo, Shoebill and Bar-tailed Godwit.
Forest rarities include White Naped Pigeon, Forest Flycatcher and Ruwenzori Turaco.
Around The Park
Mweya Peninsula is the park’s primary tourist hub. Reached by a narrow isthmus separating Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel, the peninsula enjoys marvellous views in all directions.
Mweya is home to the park headquarters, a number of modern safari lodges and budget hostels.
The shores of the Kazinga Channel provide year-round water for large numbers of birds, reptiles and mammals.
A Launch Trip to view this wildlife spectacle is the park’s most famous and enduring activity. Boat launch trips make a 2-hour round trip between Mweya jetty and Lake Edward, providing marvellous opportunities to view Elephant, Hippo, Buffalo and a wide variety of Waterbirds.
The plain north of the Kazinga Channel is explored by network of Game Tracks. A patchwork of grassland and scrubby thickets can make game viewing a challenge: large numbers of animals live here but you will need to drive slowly and look carefully to spot them.
The Channel track and the Leopard Loop are probably the most likely locations in Uganda to find Leopard and Giant Forest Hog. The area is also memorable for its distinctive candelabra trees (Euphorbia candelabrum) and the African Fish Eagles that perch on them.
The Katwe Explosion Craters, a spectacular field of extinct volcanic craters, are found a few kilometres north of Mweya and can be explored by the 24km long Crater Drive. Highspots are the huge Kyemengo Crater and the lovely Lake Kitagata.
The Kasenyi sector lies east of the Kasese highway where, with open, lawn-like plains and a magnificent Rwenzori backdrop, it ranks among QENP’s most beautiful grasslands. It is famous for the prides of LIONS that prey on large herds of Uganda Kob, especially around the Kob leks or breeding grounds.
The Equator crosses the main Kasese road which runs between Kasenyi and the Crater area and concrete markers on either side of the highway provide a popular photo opportunity for passing travellers.
The Queen’s Pavilion, which stands on a nearby crater rim, was built to host a visit by Britain’s Queen Mother in 1959. This has been restored and a new information centre with cafes and craft shops built nearby.
At the foot of the rift’s Kichwamba escarpment, the Kyambura River flows through the deep, cliff-lined Kyambura Gorge towards the Kazinga Channel. The Fig Tree Camp at the edge of the gorge provides a giddy view down into the 100m-deep chasm. The gorge contains a beautiful riverine forest in which habituated chimpanzees can be tracked.
The dark Maramagambo Forest sprawls across central QENP from the base of the Kichwamba escarpment to the shores of Lake Edward. Shady forest trails explore a very different environment from the sunny Kazinga plains and provide opportunities to spot primates and rare forest birds.
The magnificent and remote Ishasha sector lies in the extreme south of Queen Elizabeth NP adjoining the Virunga National Park, which lies on the opposite side of the Ishasha River in the D.R. Congo. Few tourists make the long drive from Mweya. This is their loss for the sector enjoys a wilderness character unrivalled elsewhere in the park. Ishasha is home to a superb variety of animals. Hippos are common in the Ishasha River while Buffalo, Topi and Kob roam the plain. These are prey for Leopard and the sector’s most famous residents, the Tree-climbing Lions. These obliging felines can be easily spotted draped over the branches of trees and acacia trees. Their motive for tree climbing remains unclear to us but whether it is to enjoy shade, watch for approaching meals or to avoid irritating bugs, Ishasha lions look extremely comfortable on their high perches.