Sitting on 764 square miles of land, Queen Elizabeth National Park is the most visited in Uganda. It borders Uganda’s Kibale National Park and is an extension of Congo’s Virunga National Park. Some of the districts neighboring the park include Kamwenge, Rukingiri, Rubirizi and Kasese, all in the western part of Uganda.
How did the park get the name? When Queen Elizabeth II visited Uganda in the mid-50’s, she had an amazing safari in what was then known as Kazinga National Park. It was decided by the colonial government at the time to rename the park in remembrance of the Queen’s visit.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is made up of lakes, savannah plains, forests, woodlands and other breathtaking features. Her moderate weather, with a fair share of the rains, has contributed a lot to the natural beauty of the park. Apart from marveling at the beautiful features, travelers can enjoy amazing sights of different wildlife species including the famous Uganda kob, hyenas, the sitatunga, leopards, hippopotamus, elephants, crocodiles and buffalo. There are also primates like chimpanzees, black and white colobus monkeys among others. In all, Queen Elizabeth National Park has over 95 species of mammals.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is arguably also one of the best places to spot lions in East Africa. With over 200 of them, lions are favorites for many travelers who visit the park. Queen Elizabeth is the best park to spot tree climbing lions in the world.
How to access Queen Elizabeth National Park
For travelers setting off from Kampala (using private or public means), you will have to pass via Mbarara to the park. After about 420 kilometers and not more than 7 hours of driving, you will have arrived at the park. For those who cannot endure the 8 hours on the road, which is actually an amazing experience by itself, you can make a stopover at Lake Mburo National Park. Continuing from that point to the park will take about 4 hours.
Worth noting is that you are better off using a private or hired tour van to avoid any delays and other inconveniences that come with traveling by public means in Uganda. You can book your entire trip with a good tour operator in Uganda like Gorilla Tours Africa. They organize both gorilla trekking and general wildlife safaris.
You can also save yourself from the long hours on the road and hectic traffic by taking a local flight straight from Entebbe International Airport or Kajjansi airstrip to Kasese, Mweya or Ishasha where you can easily access the park in no time.
After the fun-filled trip to the park and checking into a hotel to recuperate from the long journey, next on the agenda is always what brought you to the park – traversing it. International visitors to this park will never run short of activities. In fact, they might find themselves struggling to complete all of them. The key attractions are nature walks, games drive, boat cruises, chimpanzee trekking, the tree climbing lions and bird watching.
Attractions in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Like most national parks in the Pearl of Africa, game drives are the most popular activity in the park. Without a game drive in the park, you are depriving yourself of a chance to see some of Africa’s great mammals. Aboard a private or tour operators’ van in the morning, tourists can be seen excitedly anticipating which wild animal they will spot first. Usually, many would be expecting to chance on a lioness returning from the night’s hunt or any predator calmly resting under a shrub.
Speaking about lions, a big number of tourists always look out for the tree climbing lions in the park. With the guidance of a tour guide, tourists will be taken to Ishasha, where these lions can be found, and the sight of them climbing trees is just exhilarating. But it is not only the Lions that you will see as you cruise through the plains, forests and acacia woods. The drive cuts through three sections of the park – the Kasenyi plains which is next to the Kazinga channel, Ishasha section, where tree climbing lions are mostly available and Katwe Crater fields. At the Katwe Crater fields is where travelers will find large craters and salt lakes that are thousands of years old.
The Kasenyi plains are home to most of the wildlife in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here, tourists are bound to spot a plethora of wild animals like Uganda kob, buffalo, elephants and predators like lions and hyenas. With your eyes wide open through the car window, maybe borrowing extra vision from a pair of binoculars, all that will be left is to listen intently to the tour guide for information about the different species of mammals and birds. The day game drives take between 3 to 4 hours.
After game drives, birding is probably the second most sought for activity in the park. This assertion may be a subject of debate, depending on a traveler’s overall interest in the other activities in the park. Birders on a tour of Queen Elizabeth National Park will be impressed with the amazing collection of birds inhabiting Maramagambo forest, the Kazinga Channel, the savannah plains, craters and gorges like Kyambura. During certain seasons of the year, millions of migratory birds come to escape the harsh winters in Europe making the park a true birders paradise.
Some of the bird species the park houses include yellow throated cuckoo, wood sandpipers, winding and carruther’s cisticolas, white-winged warbler, white-tailed lark, white and abdim’s storks, water thick-knee, verreaux’s eagle owl, spotted redshank, ringed plower, red-chested sunbirds, pink-backed pelican, papyrus gonolek, shoebill stock, pin-tailed whydah, open-billed stork, malachite pied kingfishers and martial eagle among others.
While some travelers think the best chimpanzee tracking experience can only be got in Kibale National Park, that is not entirely true. Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to chimpanzees in Maramagambo forest and the amazing Kyambura gorge. Only the chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge are open to tourism. This forest gorge is where chimpanzees and others primates like baboons, red-tailed monkeys and colobus monkeys roam about without fear of being attacked by the big cats.
The 2 to 4 hours chimpanzee tracking at the Kyambura gorge costs $80 and only eight permits are issued daily. All the chimpanzees in the valley are habituated and bookings are done at the Information Centre in Mweya. The chances of seeing chimps are very high in the morning, though not compared to Kibale National Park.
The Kazinga channel
Undoubtedly one of the most outstanding features of the park, the Kazinga channel connects Lake George to Lake Edward. But that is not what is unique about the channel. Here, various animals gather to quench their thirst, take a bath and rest during the heat of the day. Animals like hippos, crocodiles, elephants, leopards and antelope can be seen on the shallow ends of these waters as they go about their business.
From a boat, travelers can get an uninterrupted view of these animals and the beautiful views surrounding the water. For ardent birders, this may turn out to be one of the best moments of your safari in Uganda. The overall concentration of birds along the channel needs to be seen to be believed. The activity is organized in shifts throughout the day with an option of using cheaper government boats or more expensive private boats owned by Mweya Safari lodge.
After all the nerve-wrecking activities in the park, a visit to the neighboring local communities during a cultural walk is inevitable. Visiting the local community helps you understand their way of life and economic activities. One of the best cultural groups to visit is the Kikorongo Equator Cultural group. Visiting this group will expose you to the unique fashion secrets that the people of that area and Uganda at large hold as treasures. They make crafts using locally curated fibers which can be bought by tourists as souvenir. The cultural facets also expand to food and how the various dishes are prepared.
A trip to Lake Katwe salt mines
While it may not come off as a typical tourist attraction, Lake Katwe is one of the few salt lakes in Africa. This information is enough to attract the attention of any inquisitive traveler. The lake is a goldmine for the communities living in the area. On a typical visit to the lake, expect to find hundreds of men and women busy mining salt from the lakes. The salt mined from the lake ends up in the dishes of almost 90% of Ugandans. It is even exported to other countries in East Africa. Salt mining has been carried out here using rudimentary methods for many generations and there is a lot that the miners can share with you during your visit.
Accommodation in Queen Elizabeth National Park
With all the amazing activities mentioned above, you need accommodation that offers comfort during those beautiful evenings in the park. There are several lodges within and outside the park that offer high quality services to travelers. They range from simple budget tents to super luxury lodges offering world class services.
Mweya Safari Lodge
For travelers who look for high quality when it comes to their choice of accommodation, Mweya Safari Lodge may be what you are looking for. The lodge not only offers quality rooms but is also built overlooking the thrilling Kazinga channel. Regardless of whether you travel in a small or large group, the lodge has spacious rooms which are tailored to all kinds of guests. Guests can be treated to a self-contained double, twin or family cottages. The lodge also has a special boat to take residents to the Kazinga channel.
Ishasha Wilderness Camp
Remember the tree climbing lions? Well, this is the best lodge to go to if you wish to spend more time with these amazing cats. The ambience of Ishasha Wilderness Camp is something you don’t what to miss after an exciting view of the lions and other wildlife in this section. Ishasha Wilderness Camp is built next to the banks of River Ntungwe hence offering guests a chance to watch animals and birds coming for a drink. The lodge has comfortable beddings, a fully stocked bar and restaurant.
Located in the serene neighborhood of Katara village, this particular lodge is one that offers simplicity in design, but without compromising on quality. From the eye-catching grass covered cottages/units to the inside architecture, everything looks perfect. But that is not all because Katara Lodge also has a swimming pool, bar and lounge for relaxation. Good food is in plenty and you are assured of continued pampering during your stay. Outside the rooms, guests are privy to the amazing view of Lake Edward and the rest of the park.
Kyambura Gorge Lodge
Lost away from the rest of the park’s busy areas, Kyambura Gorge Lodge is another tranquil spot, perfect for an uninterrupted time to relax. The lodge is constructed banda-style and with 8 self-contained units which are all curated perfectly for a holiday in the wild. Kyambura Gorge Lodge isan excellent choice for those who are interested in Chimpanzee tracking and nature walks inside the gorge.