Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – Home, home on the savannah….
So on from seeing the chimps in Kibale (see the previous blog for the story) and before going gorilla trekking (again, see the post) it was time to leave the forest and head out onto the savannah, to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Presumably, just as a group of our shared human-chimpanzee ancestors did a few million years ago before our branch of the genetic tree became a bipedal, blood-thirsty extinction machine……
Except me and Kate weren’t bipedal, we were in a Toyota Rav4….
Driving from Kibale to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
Anyway, we headed off down the highway where the road alternated between smooth, flat and scenic and rough and dusty at regular intervals. At one point on a hill on a particularly bouncy road, I decided to overtake a very slow-moving truck….only to have it hurtling towards me blaring its horn on the descent as I slowed down for potholes. I have a feeling it didn’t have very reliable brakes.
If you are thinking about doing a self drive trip to Uganda, read our blog post on driving in Uganda.
Elephant Home, QENP
But we managed to arrive at our next port of call safely as we turned off a highway flanked by savannah to pull into a place called Elephant Home in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Elephant Home is a small guesthouse consisting of a reception building by the road, a block of 3 large rooms and then a small al fresco restaurant all situated right in the middle of the savannah.
We were met by our host, Jason, who would turn out to be our guide, trip organiser and chef for the next few days. And, starting as we meant to go on, we were immediately taken to the restaurant to have a 3-course lunch.
After that, it was time for a self-guided walk around the area initially directed by Howard, our attentive waiter at the restaurant. We followed signs that led us up onto the plains and waved at passing cotton farmers.
Wild birthday in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Then came my birthday! The day after we arrived at Elephant Home, it was my 40th birthday.
Yes, 40. So what do people do on their 40th birthday? Well, they go on a safari drive in Uganda.
Safari drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park
We got up in the dark and went to breakfast around 6am. The park opens at 7 as dawn is breaking and we were met at the breakfast table by our guide – Didas. There are 2 options for guides, you can hire one at the entrance to the park for $20 to get in your car and direct you around for a few hours, or, like we did, you can hire a local community guide. These are basically local guys, not employed by the park who have a guide permit. In contrast with the park guides they also don’t carry AK-47s. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
So off we went into the park as the sun popped above the horizon and the antelopes gathered – everything looked very African. Didas was in the passenger seat so he could point me in the right direction and spot animals, while Kate was in the back manning the camera and occasionally pointing me in alternative directions. Every now and then we pulled over to photograph animals and hear a story of wildlife encounters.
We saw Ugandan kob, water buck, hippos, and of course, elephants. Weirdly, we encountered the elephants just nonchalantly hanging around by a village located in the park. Seeming almost suburban. We drove through the village and then, there by the river, was a massive elephant having its lunch. ‘Why is she alone?’ we wondered, and then realized, far from being alone she was in a huge group of elephants – including the obligatory cute baby – who were just hanging around in the nearby bush.
Amazing how you can fail to spy a massive group of the world’s largest land animal, but I guess they’re usually quite quiet and keep themselves to themselves, you know, aside from trumpeting.
Having said that, this experience contrasts markedly with my last elephant birthday experience (yes, I have elephants on my birthday, usually…). Back in Thailand a few years ago, while camping in a national park, a wild bull elephant came into our campsite and trampled a tent and maybe almost me.
Read the story in our post on elephants and gibbons in Khao Yai, Thailand
We crept around after it with our guide, having had to abandon our own tent, should it meet the same fate as the aforementioned one. Actually, thinking back, I also failed to spot this rampaging heffalump on my way back from the toilet as I walked right past it and whispered to Kate ‘so where’d the elephant go?’ and she pointed out he was standing by the toilet entrance I’d just walked through. Hmm. Maybe I’m just really bad at spotting elephants. It’s just one of those things. Like not being able to roll your tongue, reverse park or catch a frisbee.
Anyway, back to Uganda and 2019…
Our peaceful drive around the national park continued, including a stop by a lake where we browsed wood carving stalls and treated ourselves to our first rolex – a Ugandan delicacy – basically an egg roll made with a chapatti.
Yes, it took me a while to realise the play on words. ‘Rolex?? Why Roll eggs? Roll eggs!!! Ahhh!!!’ I mused inwardly. I had the same revelation regarding Whatsapp not long ago ‘Ohhh!!! What’s up?!?? I get it’ – don’t broadcast it. I’ll sound stupid. Definitely don’t put it in a blog.
Anyway, thus forevermore Kate can claim that she bought me a Rolex for my birthday…. (sigh).
Birthday nights and wild parties at Elephant Home
So then it was time to go back to Elephant Home and let the birthday festivities commence….. As Elephant Home is basically off the grid and supplied only by solar power, they have no fridge, so everything is served fresh. Including drinks. Which means, when you order a cold drink, it has to be collected from a room with a fridge down the road. Pre-ordering for dinner is therefore essential. It being my birthday and all I informed Jason I would like 3 beers to accompany my evening meal.
How to repel a lion 1
Kate had three too and we sat up until almost 10pm before turning in out there in the pitch darkness of the Ugandan countryside. As a friend pointed out, despite this, it could still be described as quite a ‘wild’ birthday. After all, an elephant or lion could have wandered in at any point.
Which was a startling revelation. When we went on safari in South African parks that’s exactly what they were – national parks with fences and guarded areas of chalets for overnight stay. There in Uganda there was no definitive border where the park stopped and the fields of cotton started. So sitting there, on a terrace in the dark in the middle of the savannah on my birthday, there was a real possibility that a lion could wander out of the darkness. No one seemed concerned by this though, so it seems they just coexist. Which is good, as I didn’t do the ‘repelling a lion’ module on my zoology course at Sheffield Uni.
Visiting the village
The following day we decided to get up at daybreak rather than while it was still dark. A relative luxury. And after a leisurely breakfast, we booked with Jason to go on the village walk to the local village with him.
This involved literally a 5-minute walk down the highway and then a stroll around the local community. Immediately on our arrival children surrounded us and held our hands for the rest of the visit and we visited houses and were told about the health-giving properties of various trees growing around them. Meanwhile, I coached children in the pronunciation of ‘Kris’ – which seemed to involve an overly rolled ‘r’ and an overly long ‘I’ (EEE!). In my experience, this is just the ‘foreign way to say my name. Just like the north east England way to say Kate is ‘KAAAA (with a glottal stop). Trust me, I know.
On the final part of the village walk we went to find out about the local honey and the bee fences. Bee fences?? Pardon me?? Don’t bees fly? How do you keep them in with fences? Well, you don’t, the bee fences are for elephants, of course!
*You may have read about this on the previous blog on chimp trekking in Kibale, but in case anyone skipped it (the outrage!), I’ll explain again, briefly…
So, the village produces honey and has a load of beehives. The beehives are arranged on a line….forming a fence. The elephants don’t like bees and therefore don’t get into trouble around the village, presumably trumpeting and seeking out sticky buns and the like. Ingenious.
Kazinga Channel – Floating down the river
Finally, it was time to leave the car in a car park an take off on a river safari on the Kazinga Channel. Another trip we arranged with Jason at Elephant Home. While the National Park runs boat cruises, this one was run by a community project, providing money for the local fishing village. We drove down the highway to the fishing village and there was Didas again, to direct us to our boat.
We boarded a small wooden boat with room for about 10 people with each sitting in pairs down the length. At the back was the ‘skipper’ manning the engine, and at the front was the guide. And off we sailed, hanging close to the banks to spot the wildlife. In fact, there was so much wildlife, it felt a bit like we were on a ‘safari-ride’ at a theme park. I assumed the hippos and elephants were animatronic and the crocodile was inflatable. The birds seemed real though.
It’s incredible what you see from a boat. It’s the perfect combination – it’s open space so you have a clear view, the animals don’t feel threatened, you’re safe and the animals come to the water to drink. It makes sense. So we spent the next couple of hours shooting between the banks being told fascinating stories of wildlife by our ex-wildlife warden guide.
He confirmed that hippo meat tastes good, but also confirmed that the time he’d tried it, he also arrested the man who offered it.
How to repel a lion 2
Another startling animal fact from our guide, and one that may serve you better than the hippo meat comment, regarded carrying an umbrella on safari. He assured us that at wildlife warden school he was taught that, should a lion approach you, you should always have a brolly to hand. No, not to jab it in the eye. That would be amateurish and probably just annoy it. What you do is suddenly put the umbrella up and this will cause the lion to say to itself, in the words of our guide
‘Oh no! I can’t eat that man. He now appears to have a very large head’.
Then the lion, apparently typically averse to eating men with large heads, will abandon the hunt and seek out other game without umbrellas. Amazing. Presumably,this is what I missed on the ‘how to repel a lion’ zoology module. Well, University of Sheffield, now I know.
The hippo ballet
Anyway, then we passed a mass of delicious (presumably) snoozy hippos. I don’t know if a group of hippos is generally called a mass, but this one was. They were literally interlocked and lying on top of each other. Despite their reputation as the most dangerous of the big 5…they did look a lot like those cute hippos from the Fantasia cartoon. You know, the ballet dancing ones. Obviously they weren’t ballet dancing though. I want this blog to be interesting, but I’m not going to just outright make stuff up.
Then there was the massive crocodile, completely motionless on the bank, apparently guarding her eggs. One guy on the boat was convinced she was dead, so the guide invited him to get out and pull her tail. He declined.
Then the massive elephant splashing around in the water by the shore. Even I spotted this one, despite my innate elephant spotting deficiency.
Then all the birds. As we’ve said before, we’re not massively into birds, but even we documented pied kingfishers, fish eagles, ibis, African jacanas, storks, and yellow-billed and grey heron. There was also a bird called a hamerkop, which, conveniently has a head in the shape of a hammer. ‘hamer’kop with hammer head. Now this is the sort of bird identification I can appreciate. If only they all had heads in the shape of tools or household objects. I’d be an expert in no time.
‘Look! There! On the slender branch on the right…I believe that’s an eggwhisk crane! And there, by the water…a Dremel-multi barbet.’
Anyway….. as well a convenient head shape, the hamerkop also builds the biggest nest of any bird in the world and often eagles build their nests on top. Maybe it’s head comes in handy with the construction.
Lord of the Tetse flies
So near the end of our stay we took one of the tracks in the park to higher ground. The road got gradually worse and narrower and the grass got higher, but short of reversing all the way we came, there was no way to go back. So on we went, up and up to the edge of a crater. It was worth the drive for the beautiful view. Although, as we chugged alone a narrow, bumpy dirt road next to a massive drop into a crater lake, Kate felt a bit uncomfortable.
Then we saw it. A big ugly fly sitting in the car on the windscreen. Kate commented
‘that’s a big ugly fly.’ .. ‘where?’ …
now I might not be good at birds unless they have amusing heads, but I’m not bad at insects and I’d looked this particular species up as it’s quite important.
‘It’s a tsetse fly. Get it out of the car’
Tsetse flies, for the newbie, are painful biting flies that also spread the disease – sleeping sickness – which is a killer. It kills everything, from humans to buffalo and the flies like open savannah.
In fact, I read that another legacy of colonialism is the opening up of the country for cattle…..which also helped the spread of the tsetse fly and sleeping sickness across swathes of Africa, leaving illness and eventual death in its wake. It’s treatable these days, but I could just imagine me standing in a clinic in Kyiv explaining I might have sleeping sickness to a scowling doctor who would probably ask me if I had, in fact, just been sitting in a draft and caught a chill.
The upshot is, we didn’t want this fly in our car. So we batted it out. Then another appeared. Then another…. Eventually, we’d closed the front windows and opened the back ones and I was attempting to accelerate on the precarious road to blow them out as the swarm grew….
I’d heard this would happen to vehicles. Tsetse flies usually feed on big mammals, so they instinctively follow big dark moving shapes in the bush. Big moving shapes much like a Toyota apparently. Eventually, we got the last one out and closed the windows and turned on the aircon and watched in amazement as a huge cloud of flies kept pace with the car, landing on the windows and eyeing us through the glass. As we negotiated rutted mud and potholes I just hoped I wouldn’t have to get out to change a tyre.
And then, as we came out of the bush and approached a ‘bigger’ dirt road with the, for once, reassuring sight of a speeding truck….the swarm dwindled and they gave up on the car and melted back into the forest. We heaved a sigh of relief, but just to be sure, kept the windows up until a particularly speedy stretch of road could blow any hardy ones off.
It occurred to us during our stay at Elephant Home, that we had a lovely little porch on our room overlooking the countryside. And we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy a couple of pre-dinner gin and tonics as the sun dipped over the horizon? Hurrah!
So……near the village was a few ‘shops’ at an intersection. I say shops, because it wasn’t entirely clear what they sold, but they certainly seemed to sell something and it appeared there were some more hidden from view. I’m not saying I expected to find a Tesco Metro, but I thought some kind of general store. I mean, the beer at Elephant Home came from somewhere, right? So one afternoon we had this idea – ‘maybe there’s an offy that sells Gordon’s and Schweppes tonic?’.
Yes. Looking back, this seems a little silly. But we thought we’d give it a go. So we pulled up at the intersection and looked out of the car at the ‘shops’. They didn’t look like a Londis or a Thresher to be sure. Things looked bleak on the gin front. Then, we got noticed by a load of smiling locals who literally ran to our car to sell us meat on a stick. We declined and gave up the gin mission and reflected on how British we were – as a man proffered a chicken heart on a thin spear of bamboo I was considering saying
‘Thanks awfully, but do any of you fellows know where one could get a nice G+T? Beefeater will do, we’re roughing it after all!’
We went back to Elephant Home empty-handed and settled for a Nile Special beer instead. We found a G&T later in the trip on safari in Lake Mburo National Park.
On the road again
After a fantastic and eventful stay with Jason and Howard, it was finally time to say goodbye. They waved us off as we took to the road to our next exciting installment. Thanks Elephant Home, See ya next time. We were off to go gorilla trekking in Mgahinga National Park.
Nuts and Bolts for Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
Accommodation in Queen Elizabeth National Park
We spent three nights at Elephant Home, just outside the National Park Gates. It’s a project run by the Katunguru Village. In the past, elephants from the park crossed the boundary and destroyed their crops, making the locals against the park.
Taking a piece of land and creating accommodation has meant that the village has an alternative source of income than just farming. Locals are trained in hospitality, to help them get jobs in safari lodges.
Elephant Home has three huge en suite rooms, as well as shelters to pitch tents. We paid $50 a night for our room. Three-course meals are served in the restaurant area for $10 each and they are massive!
As it’s basically on the savannah, there isn’t power. Lights run on solar power and they provide you with a solar battery to charge up your devices at night. It’s a dry area, so there isn’t much water and you have to conserve it. There is a shower, but it’s a trickle. It’s enough to clean yourself though.
Elephant Home runs different tours of the area, including the community walk that we did, salt mine tours on the back of a motorbike, climbing to a nearby crater lake, basketweaving with the community and dancing performances.
We stopped off for lunch at the Kazinga Diner, next to the Kazinga Channel. They look onto the savannah and have wildlife wandering around the grounds. There is wilderness camping, as well as a couple of beautiful rooms for $120 a night full board. We had a great meal there for $10 – three courses, and the staff showed us around the rooms. It looks a really lovely place to stay.
National Park Entry
Entry to Queen Elizabeth National Park costs $40 for a day per person, plus 30,000 shillings for the car. We paid for the entry at the gate, and got a ticket that we could show at any other entry gate.
Queen Elizabeth National Park Guides
We’ve visited a lot of national parks, and we would always recommend getting a guide. They know where the wildlife hangs out, as well as biological facts and stories about the area. It’s always a good investment.
We chose to use a community guide to show us around the national park. Didas came from Kikorongo Village, a fishing village on the Kazinga Channel, a strip of water between Lake Edward and Lake George. We paid $40 and he stayed with us for about 4 hours.
Kazinga Channel Community Boat
We also choose the community boat on the Kazinga Channel, rather than the National Park one. The advantage of this, apart from supporting the local community, is that you don’t need to pay the National Park fee to do it. It’s $25 per person for the boat, which takes a couple of hours.
Read more of our posts on our trip to Uganda
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