Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of the best places to go on safari in Uganda. As well as the Big Five game animals, it also has one of the biggest concentrations of hippos on the planet and one of world’s only two prides of tree climbing lions.
About the Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth National Park is conveniently located between Kibale to the north, where you can trek with chimpanzees and Bwindi Impenetrable to the south, where you can trek to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas. On our way we stopped at the equator. It is possible to reach QENP from Kampala – it is located around 400km west of Uganda’s capital and it would take around 8 hours to drive there.
QENP was founded as a National Park in 1952 and is nearly 2000 square kilometres in size. It was originally named the Kazinga park but renamed after Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1954. QENP’s range extends from Lake Edward in the southwest to Lake George in the northeast. Both lakes are connected via the Kazinga channel. The park largely comprises savannah and grassland.
The best time to visit is during the dry season (January – February and June – September) but we visited in late October. The reason for this is that we were on a budget and timed our visit to take advantage of cheaper gorilla trekking passes later in our trip. October is officially rainy season but it doesn’t rain all the time and usually not all day. In fact we got really lucky with the weather for most of our trip and managed to see a huge variety of wildlife.
Entering Queen Elizabeth National Park
We enjoyed a couple of days on safari in this incredible park. We arrived from Kibale in the afternoon, crossing the equator. As with all national parks, you need a permit to enter and you are signed in and out. The Uganda Wildlife Authority website has information about the park, including entrance fees. We toured Uganda with a local company and they had pre-arranged the permits for us.
There is a small visitor’s centre which has some info about the park as well as a café which serves locally produced food and has a good wi-fi connection. It’s also possible to buy gorilla coffee there – the profits go towards the conservation of these marvellous and critically endangered primates, which share around 98% of our DNA.
En route to our camp at QENP we received notification of a sighting. A pair of lions which had been, ahem, mating in the afternoon and, if you’ll forgive the expression, were all shagged out.
We stayed at the Kasenyi Safari Camp, located near Lake Bunyampaka. We had a large, tented room on a platform with a private bathroom. It was surprisingly luxurious and really didn’t feel as though we were under canvas. The lodge has a large, thatched communal area where everyone comes together to dine in the evening.
Because the camp is located right within the park the animals frequent the area, so we had to be accompanied by a gun-bearing ranger every time we wanted to walk between the main camp and our tent so that we didn’t end up being a very tasty snack for the lions. We could go out safely onto the tent’s decks to view the animals at night.
And catch the sunset over the lake.
On Safari in QENP
It was an early start to get out into the park on the game drive. These drives tend to take place in the early morning and late afternoon as the wildlife is more active at those times. The animals tend to take a nap during the heat of the day. So for a morning drive before breakfast, take a couple of snacks to keep you going until you get back to camp.
Our first encounter was with an elephant strolling majestically in the morning sunlight.
Another elephant decided that what he really needed was an early morning scratch on a rock.
We also encountered buffalo…
…a defassa waterbuck…
… and a couple of common duikers having a bit of a battle.
Many of the safari guides know each other, even if they work for different companies, and they all co-operate to let everyone know about animal sightings. If you are lucky, you will get there first and have the prime position for taking photos from your vehicle, at other times you may have to wait a while as vehicles wait for others to move on.
Then it was back to camp for breakfast. It was here that we discovered that we could go off-menu and ask for a local breakfast, and discovered the joys of a Ugandan rolex – an omelette rolled up inside a chapati. Delicious!
Kazinga Channel Boat Trip
Our afternoon didn’t involve hanging around the lodge waiting for all the wildlife to come out and play in the evening, we had a boat trip planned.
The Kazinga Channel is a waterway that links Lake Edward and Lake George in the park. It has one of the highest concentrations of hippos in the world. A boat trip along the channel is a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours.
Top tip: When boarding the boat, ask which side to sit on – the boat will travel a set route and the ideal position for optimum wildlife viewing is that side that skirts the shoreline. We sat on the left side, but the route may have changed in the intervening time since our visit. That said, it’s okay to move around the boat, in order to take photos, during the trip. We saw many, many hippos.
The bird life was fascinating as well.
Beautiful kingfishers, so different to the turquoise kingfishers from home, were waiting patiently or hovering in the air looking for fish in the water below.
And, just as we headed back to the dock, we saw a baby hippo. Altogether now, aaah.
The Tree Climbing Lions of Ishasha
The following day we headed out towards the Ishasha sector located to the south of the QENP. This is a very special place. It is one of only two locations in Africa where the local lions climb trees! (The other place is Lake Manyara Park in Tanzania.)
We headed directly to our lodge and stopped to see some lions on the way.
Can you see them?
Fortunately, our cheap little bridge camera had a pretty good zoom.
Unlike some big cats (and some little cats) lions aren’t natural climbers. It is thought that they have learned this behaviour in this very localised area. No one is really sure why – there are some theories that the lions climb off the ground to avoid insects or to enjoy a cool breeze during the heat of the day. Apparently it takes some time for them to master the art of climbing and they have to teach their cubs how to do it.
We were thrilled that we had seen the lions and trundled off to our lodge, the Ishasha Jungle Lodge, to have an afternoon rest before the evening game drive.
The lodge was lovely. Outside the entrance was a tree frequented by little yellow weaver birds. We spent ages watching these fascinating creatures. The males try to impress their mates by building the best possible nest in the tree. They spend a long time making them as structurally sound and cosy as possible. But if the female doesn’t consider it to meet her high standards she tears it apart. There’s nothing quite so disconsolate as a male weaver bird whose hard labour has been destroyed.
Just as we were about to have a little snooze, our guide got in touch and said that we should go out immediately. He’d received notification of a tree where some lionesses were having an afternoon nap themselves.
We rushed out and, sure enough, there were four tree climbing lions, lazing in the branches.
It was so exciting to get so close – just a few metres away from the tree. (Safely within our vehicle, I might add. We were excited but not stupid.)
One of the lionesses was looking extremely pregnant. It wouldn’t be long before some more cubs appear.
They looked so peaceful, they deserved their own simile: As relaxed as a lion in a tree, right?
We spent ages just watching them. A really magical encounter. We were extremely lucky – they are not always there, sometimes they are a touch elusive, doing more typical lion activities like hunting.
It is easy to understand why QENP is one of the most popular parks in Uganda. While sightings can’t be guaranteed there is a good chance of seeing some remarkable wildlife.
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