Queen Elizabeth National Park: December 25-27, 2015

Queen Elizabeth National Park is a complex reserve that is spread over two thousand square kilometers encompassing a wide variety of habitat from lakeshore to savanna to semideciduous forest. It’s the largest and most diverse national park in Uganda, with nearly one hundred different mammals and over six hundred bird species. Considering its elongated layout and limited points of access, the reserve is best considered in two sections. The northern section is easily accessible and boasts viewpoints above crater lakes, boat rides on the Kazinga Channel between Lake George and Lake Edward, and game drives on the Kasenyi Plains. While these activities are deservedly popular, the northern section also offers chimpanzee tracking in Kyambura Gorge, walks in the Maramagambo Forest, and wetlands birding at a variety of crater lakes. The Ishasha Plains of the southern section are justly famous for its tree-climbing lions, and game drives are equally productive.

Aimee and I discovered over a busy three-day visit that it would take at least four days to cover the northern section. Ideally, you would spend one morning each driving the Kasenyi Plains, tracking chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge, birding the Maramagambo Forest, and driving the Mweya Peninsula and Kazinga Channel. In the afternoons, you would alternatively explore the channel by boat, drive to several of the crater lakes, and repeat the game drives. On this trip, we were less efficient than usual because the park was packed with Ugandans on Christmas holiday, and we couldn’t secure space on one of the boats until the afternoon after we arrived. I had originally expected we would drive to the southern section as well over our four-day trip, but the distances simply proved too long. It took us over six hours to reach the northern section from Kampala, and the return trip from Ishasha would take at least eight hours. Instead, we cut our trip short and spent just two nights camping, the first on the Kazinga Channel and the second in Maramagambo Forest.

The northern plains of the park stretch southwards from the edge of the Rwenzori Mountains nestled between two expansive lakes, Lake George and Lake Edward, which forms part of the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I had expected the Kazinga Channel to be narrow, perhaps man-made, but I was impressed to find that it is a gorgeously wide and winding natural waterway. Upon arrival at Kabatoro Gate, we headed straight towards the park headquarters on Mweya Peninsula. A herd of elephants crossed our path at startlingly close range, and a larger tusker took a few aggressive steps toward us in the car. The herd had several baby elephants in tow and was likely headed down to Lake Edward for a midday drink. We pushed on to the peninsula, where boat rides are arranged from the information center. There is a large public campground here as well as the luxurious Mweya Safari Lodge, often described as a Sheraton in the Bush. Considering all the activity in this area, we resolved to stay at one of the two basic campsites along the channel.    

Since there was no availability on any of the UWA boats for the rest of the day, we opted to explore the Kazinga Channel tracks. The bush is dense but arid and dominated by large cactus. Many of the tracks were overgrown, and the thorn bushes scratched the sides of our car severely, sounding much like the raking of fingers across a chalkboard. Despite the heat, we found a variety of birds and game, highlighted by several more close encounters with thirsty elephants. I deliberated seriously about which of the two campsites to use. Both were empty and offered beautiful views over the channel, but I judged the one further from the peninsula to be slightly overexposed. Hippopotamus often feed away from shore at night, nocturnal leopards regularly stalk the area, and elephants and buffalo are common. I located a sheltered spot at the other campsite instead, where we could set up our tent above a steep ravine and box it in between our car and a thick patch of bush. At dusk, there were several Square-Tailed Nightjars feeding in the clearing, sparing us the need for a night drive, as I was exhausted.

After a safe and peaceful night’s sleep, we left the campsite at dawn to explore the Kasenyi Plains. A Black-Chested Snake-Eagle perched blithely on the new high-voltage power lines along the highway. The savanna between the highway and Lake George is crisscrossed with over 30 kilometers of tracks. Supposedly, the area is good for spotting lions, but without a park ranger, the chances of finding a pride on our own were slim. Without much of a plan, we took our first left and embarked on a lengthy exploration of the short grasslands towards the north. Every one of the few bushes and trees seemed to contain a bird in song or a raptor at rest, and we noted Tawny Eagle, White-Headed Vulture, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Rufous-Naped Lark, and Grassland Pipit. Blue-Naped Mousebirds streamed steadily from one patch of bush to another. Where the grass had recently burned in several areas, whether on purpose or by accident, I spotted Temminck’s Courser, Red-Capped Lark, and White-Tailed Lark poking around in the ash.

With the Rwenzori Mountains rising dramatically to the north, the Kasenyi Plains are remarkably picturesque, and create a beautiful backdrop for birding. The short grass savanna is perfectly flat and hard, and there are few clumps of vegetation to provide a sense of distance and visual relief. Bateleur soar unsteadily overhead, Marsh Harriers drift low above the grass, Flappet Larks whir through the air, and a variety of cryptic plovers dart cautiously around the dirt. Occasionally, we would find a bird of greater interest, such as a Black Coucal preening on top of a bush or a Black-Headed Gonolek flashing its brilliant scarlet plumage as it briefly surfaced from a shrub. Mostly, we just drove around in slow and silent appreciation. This area is a breeding ground for the Ugandan Kob, which can congregate by the thousands, and lions pick them off relatively easily. Despite all the tourist traffic on the safari circuit this morning, there didn’t appear to be a lion sighting, as we never came across a cluster of vehicles. No doubt they were there, hiding in the shade of some thicket.

We headed back to the Mweya Peninsula at midday because our boat was scheduled to leave at 1pm. Normally, a boat ride is the highlight of any safari, and our trips along the Rufiji River in Tanzania and the Victoria Nile in Uganda are among my best memories of East Africa. This boat ride, however, was ill-fated from the start. Given the holiday crowds, UWA was running two boats at the same time this weekend. The first boat we boarded was dangerously overcrowded with young children, who aren’t part of the official headcount, we learned. We managed to talk our way off this boat and onto the other, where a large party of Kenyan tourists had entrenched themselves with garbage bags of cold beer and several bottles of whiskey. The UWA ranger looked at me in amazement when I suggested that alcohol consumption wasn’t a safe activity, nor was it very enjoyable for those of us sober passengers to listen to their loud, drunken laughter. In defense, I retreated to the roof of the boat, where I imagined I could at least enjoy the wildlife in peace. Instead, I found dozens of local teenagers blasting music from their mobile phones and reeking strongly of cologne.

Throughout most of the boat ride, Aimee and I were alone in our private misery, she in the shade below and me in the sun above. At least the birding was good, and I ticked most of the expected birds along the channel, including African Skimmer, Black Crake, Water Thick-Knee, Malachite Kingfisher, African Spoonbill, Great White Pelican, Great Cormorant, and Swamp Flycatcher. We also enjoyed the remarkable sight of elephants drinking from the shore, playing in the water, and swimming across the channel. As the boat ride neared its conclusion, I went down below to try and cheer up Aimee. We strategically positioned ourselves at the back so when the boat docked we would be the first to depart. Laughing in relief, we ran to our car and raced out of the parking lot before the other cars jammed up the narrow area. With little to no interpretation from the UWA guides, the boat ride was a disaster. It is especially insulting to consider that we were forced to subsidize bad passenger behavior (citizens of East Africa pay 30,00 UGX, about a quarter of the $30 fee for foreigners).

Later in the afternoon, we drove to Maramagambo Forest, stopping at Kyambura Gorge for an hour. Chimpanzee tracking in the forested gorge is relatively cheap and easy, but we just missed the afternoon excursion, and I couldn’t find a way to fit the activity in our schedule the following morning. Instead we relaxed at the lookout and admired the views of the gorge and the plains beyond. Where to Watch Birds in Uganda praises this site as good for forest birding, but according to the park rangers Black Bee-Eater is only seasonal and never common. With better timing, it would be fruitful to troll the longer grass and marshy areas along the access road to the gorge for warblers, waxbills, and weavers. Instead we pushed on to Maramagambo in order to arrive before sunset. The UWA campsite lies a few hundred meters from the entrance gate and is in a lovely wooded glade at the edge of the forest. Adjacent to the campsite is a rough camp where the anti-poaching soldiers are based. 

Guided forest walks to several crater lakes and a distant cave are available. Cases of the Marburg virus, a close relative of Ebola, have been contracted from the very same cave, where visitors have come into contact with a bats and their droppings. While I am on the subject of tropical diseases, did you know that the Zika virus was also first identified in Uganda in 1947? Unsurprisingly, Aimee and I chose the safe and low-budget option of birding the access road, which passes through several kilometers of good semi-deciduous forest. A few passes along the road in the evening yielded Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, and Western Nicator. At dawn the next morning, I exploring the beginning of the trail leaving the campsite and found Narina Trogon, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis, and African Pygmy Kingfisher. Aimee and I then walked the access road a few times to stretch our legs before the long drive home, picking up White-Throated Bee-Eater, Honeyguide Greenbul, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, and Superb Sunbird. 

Notable birds seen: Great White Pelican, Great Cormorant, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, Yellow-Billed Stork, African Open-Billed Stork, Sacred Ibis, African Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Egyptian Goose, Black-Shouldered Kite, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Hooded Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, White-Headed Vulture, Black-Chested Snake-Eagle, African Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Lizard Buzzard, African Harrier-Hawk, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Pied Avocet, Water Thick-Knee, Temminck’s Courser, Spur-Winged Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Caspian Plover, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Grey-Headed Gull, Common Black-Headed Gull, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, African Skimmer, Gull-Billed Tern, White-Winged Tern, Tambourine Dove, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Brown Parrot, Red-Headed Lovebird, White-Browed Coucal, Black Coucal, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Narina Trogon, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, White-Headed Barbet, Rufous-Naped Lark, Flappet Lark, Red-Capped Lark, White-Tailed Lark, Lesser Striped Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Plain-Backed Pipit, Grassland Pipit, Western Nicator, Little Greenbul, Honeyguide Greenbul, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Wood Warbler, Northern Crombec, Northern Black Flycatcher, Swamp Flycatcher, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis, Arrow-Marked Babbler, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Superb Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Black-Headed Weaver, Slender-Billed Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Vieillot’s Black Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Black Bishop, African Firefinch, Common Waxbill, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

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