Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Unlike Kruger, the Serengeti or the Masai Mara, Queen Elizabeth National Park is hardly a household name. But not only does its wildlife rival that of any other African national park, its volcanic backdrops put safaris here into a whole other league. Yes, it has four of the Big Five strolling across its bright green savannah, but it also has crater lakes, flocks of flamingos, and a chimp-inhabited underground forest. The trumpeting of elephants echoes around ancient craters, and bounces off the steep walls of the Kichwamba Escarpment. Buffalos cluster in huge herds, framed by the dark, knuckle-like silhouette of the Rwenzori Mountains – the ‘Mountains of the Moon’. Come to Uganda for its gorillas, by all means, but don’t fall for the idea that there is nothing else to see.
Most tours enter the park from the north, taking you through the Kasenyi region, a favourite for game drives, and onto the Kyambura Gorge. Pause at Mweya Peninsula for views across the park and Lake Edward, and an afternoon cruise up the Kazinga Channel. Continuing south through Ishasha, you’ll seek out the tree climbing lions and topi. Tours that spend several days in the region may also venture out to visit neighbouring Toro and Ankole communities. The area around the park is lush and heavily populated, and you can meet craftspeople and salt harvesters, learn how to weave baskets or make recycled paper jewellery, and enjoy colourful cultural performances with lively dancing to the sound of hand carved wooden xylophones.

Queen Elizabeth National Park highlights

Kazinga Channel

The Kazinga Channel provides a truly unique wildlife experience. Flowing between Lake Edward, which borders the Congo in the west of the park, to little Lake George in the northeast, this narrow channel is perfect for lazy boat cruises that let you sit back and gaze at the widescreen wildlife passing by. Most abundant are the hippos, which absolutely cram themselves in along the shoreline. Top tip: keep your camera strap around your neck. If one lurches out the water as you’re trying to take a picture, there’s a good chance you’ll drop your camera.

The riverbanks attract plenty of other species, from open-jawed Nile crocodiles to enormous buffalo and grazing herds of elephants. There are plenty of birds too – almost 600 species – with giant kingfishers, bee-eaters, weaverbirds, saddle-billed storks and fish eagles most commonly seen.

Ishasha

The more remote southern sector is known for one thing: its tree-climbing lions. Climbing trees is very rare behaviour for these felines. Not only are there no other tree-climbing lions in Uganda, there is only one other population known to do this – and they live hundreds of miles away in Tanzania. It’s been speculated that Ishasha’s lions lounge in the branches to scan the horizon for prey, to take advantage of the breeze, or perhaps to escape the tsetse flies that hover closer to the ground, but in reality this behaviour remains a mystery. Either way, it makes them easier to spot on game drives, as you look out for their silhouettes in the gnarled fig trees, and their twitching tails dangling from the branches.

Kyambura Gorge

This ‘underground forest’ is a tree-filled chasm that runs down the east of Queen Elizabeth National Park, some 100m deep and a kilometre across at its widest point. As a geographical feature it’s pretty impressive, but the real reason to descend into its depths are the resident chimpanzees that live in the rainforest canopy. Some of the chimps have been habituated and can be tracked with a Uganda Wildlife Authority guide, but keep in mind that sightings here are far less frequent that in other regions (for this reason the price tag, at just US $50, is a lot lower, too). Even without seeing chimps a walking safari here is enjoyable, and you can keep a lookout for black and white colobus, vervet and red monkeys, as well as abundant birdlife, including colourful bee-eaters and the aquatic finfoot.

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How to visit
Queen Elizabeth National Park

Most of our Uganda vacations follow an anticlockwise itinerary, starting and ending in Kampala. You’ll head west to track chimps in Kibale, then take game drives in Queen Elizabeth National Park, before continuing south to seek out the gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Some longer routes also swing further north, taking in Murchison Falls National Park.

Thanks to Uganda’s small size, vacations rarely include domestic flights, although do be prepared for some long and often bumpy drives between the various highlights. Fortunately, the scenery is lovely enough to keep you more than occupied, even on a full day’s journey. Small group tours typically spend two to four days exploring the different sectors of the park, with a mix of walking tours, game drives and river cruises. A longer tour might also include visits to local villages.
Uganda is not a self drive destination, so vacations here are either tailor made with your own driver, or – more commonly – small group tours with a driver guide who’ll transport you in a 4x4. These guides are invaluable on game drives, as they can spot snoozing lions you would otherwise have missed, and share plenty of information about the wildlife you’ll encounter here.
The safari lodges in Queen Elizabeth National Park are particularly charming, and there is an excellent range to suit all budgets. Lower end safari camps have thatched tents or cottages with en suite bathrooms, and open air dining areas that might overlook a crater lake or hippo-filled river. Higher end lodges are truly luxurious, while still keeping you immersed in the bush, as warthogs and baboons amble across the lawns in front of your room, and sunbirds flit past the window. Even if the glorious Mweya Safari Lodge is out of your budget, you can still enjoy a lunch here, on a tranquil deck high above the Kazinga Channel. Meals everywhere are hearty and of high quality – generally more international cuisine than local dishes.

When to go to
Queen Elizabeth National Park

Sitting squarely on the equator, Queen Elizabeth has little temperature variation throughout the year. The rainiest months are March to May, with gentler rains in October to November, although this should not hinder wildlife viewing at all. The animals here are not migratory so can be seen all year round; there really is no best time to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park. Do bear in mind, though, that if you are continuing on south to track gorillas, you may wish to avoid the rainy seasons, although tracking permits are sometimes discounted at this time (typically April, May and November – but do check with your vacation company).
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: GUDKOV ANDREY] [Elephants: Emilie Chen] [Spoonbill: Emilie Chen] [Game drive: Emilie Chen] [Queen Elizabeth National Park: Francesco Ungaro]
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