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Exploring Uganda, Part One – Queen Elizabeth National Park


January 29th, 2022

We had finished most of our packing yesterday at our hotel in Kabale so it didn’t take long to finish up this morning after hot showers and our morning tea.

We drove into Kabale to see about getting some ice (we were unable to find a cooler but we bought a small plastic waste basket with a lid) to keep some drinks cold and actually found one bag (yesterday they had none) and picked up a couple of groceries.  We were looking at the best route to get to our first Ugandan national park and Google maps and differed in their options.  Doug saw a safari vehicle and Fran ran over to ask him his opinion and he gave us the shortest route but did say it went through the forest which could prove interesting.

The paved road ended in about an hour and we began the drive towards the forest passing many fields of tea bushes and lots of other agricultural fields and some small towns, a hot spring in the river where there were a few locals possibly washing clothes…..

Before arriving at our first turn off the main highway, we could see this town on our map!:

We got to the forest road and it was up, up, up and the road got pretty narrow and sometimes quite rutted but passable.  We could see that there was a lot of what was probably illegal logging going on and it was sad to see clear cut sections in the hillsides.

We got out of the forest and made our way to the village of Kihihi (closest entrance to the Souther Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park where we had a hotel in mind to spend at least one night but wanted to check it out before heading to the southern gate of the park to hopefully spot the famous tree climbing lions.  It seemed to fit our bill, so we brought our luggage in and then as they had a restaurant, we ordered lunch.  Servings in restaurants here are really quite large so we shared a vegetable stew with rice dish and barely made it through that.  The beer was cold but not as icy as we like it.

In this small village, there is a unique unique mode of transporting goods:  a wooden scooter.

They were all over town carrying various items.

After lunch we drove the 11 km / 7 mi to the park gate and spoke with the ranger at the gate.  We had been advised to ask at the gate if there had been any sightings before paying our fee and entering only not to see any.  Wallen told us that they had not been spotted for at least two days and that sighting was up the main road outside the park a few kilometres.  He kindly took Doug’s WhatsApp number and told us he’d call when and if he heard of a sighting.

This is what we hoped to see:

So we did not pay to enter the park but took the road past the park up to see if maybe the lions were in the same vicinity as where they had last been seen, but no luck.  We met a safari vehicle heading our way and spoke with the driver; no sightings from where he came from so we turned around and went back to the Suba Motel for the afternoon or until we heard from Wallen.  Doug had a craving for popcorn for dinner so he asked the waiter at the restaurant where he could get some (he’d seen some as we’d passed through a previous town).  Elias found him some and took him to a supermarket to buy butter which he could arrange to have melted in the hotel kitchen.  He bought way too much and we couldn’t finish it so we gave about half of what we bought to the staff and they really enjoyed it!

We spent a pretty quiet night and were thankful for the fan as it was hot.  In this area, the highs are around 33C / low 90’sF and at night, only drop down to the high 20’s C / 80’s F.

Next morning we enjoyed a rather large breakfast (it was included and we didn’t have much in the way of groceries left so we took the free meal).  We set out for the park again and figured we’d go in anyway and hope to see not only the lions but some kobs and topis (two types of antelope we’d never seen before).  We arrived about 9:30 and Wallen was there and still had no news of sightings.

We expected to have to pay the entrance fee here but they don’t take care of that at this gate, so he took a photo of our car and plate number and told us to pay when we exit at the other gate.  We drove most of the southern sector roads where we saw:  including kobs and then topis.

(See photo at the top for a close up of a topi.)

We arrived at the northern sector gate and asked to be let in (not sure why there was a gate). The ranger here asked for our ticket, we explained why we didn’t have one and he took another photo, this time, including Doug.

We carried on hoping to see the river which we did at the park campsites (no one was there) but we saw the Congo across the water as the river is the border.

Just before the second campsites, we saw much burning –

Unfortunately, there were no hippo in the river but they were nice campsites.

We tried to go up the road to Lake Edward hoping to see shoebill storks but shortly after starting down that road, we hit a huge muddy section and since the swamp lands is where you can find these strange birds, we opted not to continue as there was no cell signal to call for help out this far and we just didn’t have enough faith in our little Rav4 not to get it stuck or not have enough clearance.  Dang!

We carried on further north driving most of those roads and hoping to do one along a different river, but our map app (again, another national park with bad road access and NO maps!) showed we had to access that river road through a private wilderness camp. The guard at the gate would not let us in and claimed there was no such road.

We turned around and drove some other roads and came across a swampy body of water where we saw hippos.

We tried to get onto another road but the access seemed to no longer be there.  We drove back towards the south doing a few other roads and made our way to a road that looked like a different gate from the northern one we were headed to but the road petered out before we hit the highway.  Ah Africa!

We then drove toward the actual northern gate and exited the park.  Here we paid our park entrance fee ($40 each and 30,000 UGX (about ten dollars) for the vehicle.  Luckily for us, the ranger put our entrance time as 3pm not 9:30 so we still have 24 hours to use the ticket!  We drove north to the main section of Queen Elizabeth National Park at Kazinga and enroute Fran spotted a large black snake with a blue sheen on the side of the road but it turned around quickly and went into the grass.  We learned later it was a spitting cobra.

At Kazinga, we thought we’d check to see if they were still offering boat rides on the channel.  It was now almost 5pm and the sun sets around 6:45 so we had low expectations.

No sooner had we driven down the access road to the community boat launches when a man in a van stopped and asked us what we were looking for; lo and behold he was a boat operator and said he could arrange a boat at 5pm for a two hour ride.

The Kazinga Channel is a wide, 32 km / 20 mi long natural channel that links Lake Edward and Lake George, and a dominant feature of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The channel attracts a varied range of animals and birds, with one of the world’s largest concentration of hippos and numerous Nile crocodiles. 

We parked, showed him our park ticket (these are required as the channel is considered part of the park but didn’t used to be required – seems a recent thing) and we paid our $25 each, bought 4 beers to enjoy onboard and on to the boat we went.  A German fellow and his personal guide joined us for the ride.

Our boat guide was a fellow named Monday how told us about the channel and answered our wildlife questions. The main attraction on these rides is not only to ride the channel but to see many hippos, lizards and crocs and there is a good chance of elephant and pink backed pelicans.

It was very hot outside so a boat ride was the perfect thing to do; we’d not arranged accommadatioin as yet but we had a couple of places in mind to check out.

The ride was about two hours and we saw many hippos, some birds, a few monitor lizards, several African buffalo and one elephant. Just before getting off the boat a pink backed pelican flew by but too quickly to snap a shot.  We also saw the sunset over the channel.

So it’s now 7 and it’s getting darker – we even had some sprinkling rain (reminded us of driving at night in South America – dangerous as not everyone has headlights, animals can cross and you cannot see the road well but luckily it was well paved here – it was the speed bumps you really had to look out for).  We had to drive about 16km up the highway (btw the main road here is actually paved) and when we finally found The Elephant Home (which we’d read about on, they showed us the room which had a fan and a hot water heater for the shower BUT they run the place on solar and the fan wouldn’t even turn on, let alone run all night and to top that off, they wanted to charge us even more than the website said!  So we left.  We found another option half way back to Kazinga on the map but never actually found the place.

We stopped at the north side of town as the map on the phone showed a hotel on the left and Doug spotted a motel on the right so we both got out to each check one out.  Well the one Fran went to did not exist and the one Doug went to was a dump.  So its now nearly 8, completely dark (we’re not supposed to drive the rental after dark) and we have no place to sleep.

At the spot where Fran looked, a young man said he’d take us to a lodge across the road.  It turned out to be just a room with no bathroom and no fan.  Forget that in this heat.  The young man then said we should check out the Tembo Safari Lodge on the channel.  Well we figured we didn’t have much choice and we’d just have to eat the high price of a safari accommodation.

It turned out that the place was right on the channel and it was very reasonable.  Fellie, showed us a semi cottage with a balcony overlooking the channel which had a large private bathroom with hot water, two larger than twin beds, lots of windows and she’d lend us a fan – all for $50 a night.  There is an onsite bar/restaurant and Wi-Fi – although we never did get that to work.  Sold – it’s now 8:30 and we are tired.  It’s so nice, we think we’ll stay a second night.  As we were registering a Czech fellow came speaking barely any English and he told us there was a hippo on the water’s edge.  We finished registering, asked for a couple of cold beers – which turned out to actually be cold – and we sat down enjoying them.

They brought us the fan and we couldn’t get it to work; after letting Fellie know, she had someone help us and after trying, he said the plug was loose and he brought an extension cord and got it going.  We spent a nice quiet night.

We wanted to get into the wildlife part of this sector of the park by dawn so Monday morning, we were up just after 6 and as we got into the car, there was a hippo across the parking lot making his way back to the channel! It was impossible to get a clear photo in the poor light.

We arrived at the gate in 20 minutes – first ones into the park.  It was not quite light but we saw a rabbit (?) almost right away and then after it got light enough to see we began seeing water buck.

The sky was overcast and as it turned out the sun never came out today.  It definitely was cooler than yesterday so quite a bit more comfortable but it was funny to see so many locals in coats and feeling cold!  They thought we were strange wearing shorts and t-shirts!

Our hope was to see a lion and after several herds of impalas, more water buck, some warthogs and finally some buffalo, lo and behold a lioness  (with a collar on) came out of the tall grass and crossed the bend in the road in front of us.  It was hard to take photos but we managed to get this:

She passed by our car quickly and went back into the tall grass.  We were seeing a lot of signs of elephants (dung) but after speaking to one of the safari vehicle drivers, were told they were rare here and to rather check out the Channel Road where the vegetation is more conducive to them.

The landscape here is very savannah like with some trees, mostly candelabras and some bushes.  We saw no acacia trees which meant no giraffe but strangely, there were also no zebra.  It was quite surprising for an area of the country that is supposed to be green year around, how brown the north side of the park actually was.

We had been told at the gate that most of the wild life is on the north side of the main road so we spent a couple of hours there seeing some but not massive amounts; we made it to the shoreline where we saw a few hippos but most it was antelope.  We decided we shouldn’t ignore the south side of the road and took a loop route through there but didn’t see too much as advised but did come across a large flock of marabou stork in the distance and then some vultures which we’d not seen on the other side of the main road.  This park has a large number of water buck and even more impala.

So around 10:15 we left the park and went back to the lodge for breakfast; it’s not free here but we had it anyway and then set off again to check out the Channel Road.  It took a while but we finally saw elephant after sighting many water buck and several warthogs.

The lady at the gate who checked our park pass was amazed we were in shorts (it was like 22C / 72F out) as she was bundled up and claimed to be freezing!

At the end of this road is where the channel ends and a small island connected by a spit of land is fouind where the main park lodge and headquarters are located.  We wanted to check out some view points there but in the overcast weather it was not so great.  We could see a large herd of buffalo on the shore across the water and several hippo but they were really too far away.

We then drove a bit north hoping to visit the bird sanctuary (taking further advantage of our 24 hour ticket) but it turned out you cannot enter the place without a guide or you’d be fined and from what we could see of the lake from the road, there were only a few flamingoes around it

We returned back to town taking the Channel Road once again, filled the tank and returned to our cottage on the channel for the afternoon.

We are still trying to figure out what to do before going to France; we are looking at staying in Uganda longer which would allow us to slow our roll, flying to EU early and spending some time either in Paris or the south of France or going elsewhere; we are still bouncing ideas around.

After dusk we began to hear hippos on land but never managed to spot one in the dark; again in the morning we heard them but didn’t spot them.

Doug went for a run and we packed up and left about 8:30 to head northward.