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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Camping and Chimp Tracking in Queen Elizabeth National Park

UGANDA | Monday, 9 June 2014 | Views [435]

A long weekend close to the end of term gave us the perfect opportunity to explore more of Uganda.  Ravi had passed his ‘tests’ so it was time to see if he could cope with a longer excursion.  We managed to get as far as Mbarara on the Friday evening although the last 20mins or so weren't the best as we were trying to find somewhere to stay in a busy town as it was going dark.  We settled on Acacia Hotel which was okay at $50 B&B.  The staff were very friendly and their local food was tasty and cheap. 

The next morning the weekend proper started and we headed off towards Queen Elizabeth National Park.  It wasn’t long before we spotted a couple of elephants enjoying the long juicy grass on the plains.  Now we've been here a couple of times before but it's so vast that we were concentrating on 'new' areas.  Firstly we drove along the channel track to Mweya Peninsular to put up the tent.  This is a wonderful spot with fantastic views overlooking the lakes and a very posh lodge is plonked in the prime spot.  In other words the accommodation choice is several hundred dollars a night or $12 to camp.  We had thought that we'd go to the lodge for our evening meal but decided to try Tembo Restaurant near the campsite instead.  We were very glad that we did as the views are equally as good, food very tasty and all at a fraction of the cost.

Anyway, before all of that we had activities to do with the first being to drive back out of this area of the park towards Kyambura Gorge that extends for many kilometers.  We'd paid in advance for chimp tracking and at $50 dollars a head is a third of the price of the renowned Kibale National Park.  The grassy savannah plains literally swish to a halt at the edge of the steeply sided gorge where the vegetation turns to rain forest.  It's the most stunning forest walk we've done in Uganda as once you've made your way down you follow the river.  We could hear loads of birds and almost at once saw red-tailed and black & white colobus monkeys.  It's almost eerie being able to hear hippos (obviously very close at times!) whilst walking through dense vegetation.  We knew the river was nearby but most of the time couldn't see it; however, we did see sections of it and actually got to see some hippos.

One of our guides went off ahead to see if he could spot any chimps and before long we got a message to walk a little faster so as not to miss them.  There they were; a small family group with young baby munching and mooching about in the canopy above us.  The last time we'd gone chimp tracking we didn't enjoy it as we felt we'd hounded the animals but this was a very peaceful experience.  Once we'd had our fill we moved on as there was the possibility of finding more.  Luckily the guides weren't only set on searching out primates and they showed us some of the more significant birds of the forest too.  At one point they got agitated enough to get their guns at the ready as a pair of giant forest hogs were mere feet away from us.  They can be very aggressive if they feel threatened but this pair could see their escape route and dashed off.  Great to see them as they're an animal rarely encountered.

A little further on we found another, larger group of chimps and they were in full 'song'.  A rather disturbing noise but luckily they weren't upset by our presence just letting the world know they were around.  They were swinging through the trees and using thinner trunks like fireman's poles - all very entertaining.  Once they'd calmed down again we got good views of them relaxing in the trees waiting for the time to build their nests and settle down for the night.

Our guide announced it was time to leave and anyway we needed to hurry before it started raining.  His timing was spot on as upon re-emerging from the forest and reaching the lip of the gorge it started to rain.  We hopped into the waiting vehicles just before a short sharp deluge ensued.   The narrow track we were driving on quickly filled with water and began turning very muddy and very slippery.  We were in a van being driven by someone experienced and started to worry about how we’d fair with our little car on returning to the car park.  The 2.5km lane through the tall grass and back to the main road wasn’t too bad and we only slipped a couple of times though nothing alarming.  What we were really worried about was the 20+km stretch back along the channel track to reach the tent.  Plus would the tent still be there?

As we were avoiding the numerous and axle breaking deep pot holes we started formulating plan B.  I decided it would be best just to leave the tent, check into a room somewhere nearby and go back along the track in the morning on a joint tent rescue / game viewing drive.  Just as we’d come to this conclusion we realised that not only had the rain stopped but this area hadn’t seen a drop at all.  We were only about 5kms further down the road but the storm had skipped past. Phew!  The track had even dried out about during our exploits in the gorge and we were very happy to see the tent still standing.  We still had the campsite to ourselves and since dusk wasn’t far off it looked likely to stay that way.  In fact one more couple pitched their tent after dark and actually left before sunrise the following morning.  I wonder if they have they any idea what a spectacular area with stunning views they missed out on?

We were disappointed with the lack of animal sightings along the track but feel that it was mainly due to the lush dense vegetation.  We’re sure all the same animals are still there but they now have a more spread out and varied food source to enjoy.  Plus even an animal as big as an elephant could only be a matter of meters away but you wouldn’t be able to see it.  We did see a group of heffalumps as they crossed the track at just the right time.  The biggest surprise was only one warthog and a complete lack of antelope.  As we entered the campsite area a family of warthog dashed out from a drain and the young were particularly tiny. The highlight was a family of 9 banded mongooses pottering around.  They were standing on their hind legs like meerkats and rolling around in elephant dung – interesting and strange behavior.

It didn’t take us long to sort ourselves out and settle down to the serious business of sunset beer listening to birds and hippos.  As I have said we used the restaurant near the campsite but the people who look after the site advised us to drive the 500m due to the chance of elephants and lions being around.  We thought this over precautious but decided to follow their advice. 

The following morning we had a quick bite to eat listening to the dawn chorus and set off on a self drive safari around some tracks we’d previously not used, particularly the Royal Circuit.  Would Ravi be up to it?  The park itself is stunning and we were enjoying the ride but obviously wanted to see animals.  Again there wasn’t a huge variety around, or they were hiding, but the elephants didn’t let us down.  We encountered them on several occasions and in the largest group we saw there was a baby that can only have been months old.  It was all very exciting but we felt slightly vulnerable in our small vehicle.  Seeing a boda-boda approaching soon put that into perspective!!  These tracks don’t get used very much and the grass between the tyre tracks was threatening to overwhelm our small car so we returned to the main channel route.

On returning to the campsite we treated ourselves to a brew and breakfast in the restaurant looking over the Kazinga Channel and waiting to see what wandered or flew past.  There were loads of birds and on the far bank a huge herd of buffalo had arrived for a drink and a wallow.  It was time to drag ourselves away as that night we were booked into Duchess in Fort Portal where we’d be able to enjoy a shower and a bed.  However, instead of rushing off we decided to exit via the main Kabatoro Gate and take a detour to the edge of Lake Edward.  We were incredibly glad we did as encountered another large group of elephants and finally found the antelope.  Even though we were now officially outside the park we found large herds of kob and waterbuck and could see hippos bobbing around.  Plus there were more elephants around and we approached the edge of the lake for a clear view.  Not only could we see them taking a drink but 5 were right out in the lake spraying water, using their trunks as snorkels and generally having immense fun. 

At the end of this lane is Katwe village which exists due to the salt industry in the area.  A factory on the far shore of the lake kind of detracted from things but it was amazing to think that those people co-exist with that wildlife on a daily basis.  In fact we could see people bathing and doing their laundry only a couple of meters away from hippos and there must be crocs in there too.  Just as we thought we’d left the best of the park behind we found ourselves looking down on a crater lake and a troop of baboons came along.  In fact I was a little perturbed by one’s purposeful stride as it looked like it was heading straight towards my open window.  In fact it stopped by the edge of the road and just wanted to observe us and much as we were observing it.  It is possible to extend the drive out of the park even further by taking in a crater lake drive but it is rarely used and you really need a big 4x4.  This off-roading option can be started from Queen’s Pavilion just off the main road where there is a café.  We decided to stop for a drink and as luck would have it, picnic benches are provided too.  So we sat munching on our butties surrounded by stunning scenery; savannah, lakes and mountains for 360o and looking down on waterbuck.  A fabulous end to a wonderful 2 days in the park.

That wasn’t to say the weekend was over as the entire drive to Fort Portal is on good roads with lovely scenery to enjoy along the way.  We made good time and were looking forward to getting clean and going for a wander.  The former was successfully achieved but in fact we never managed to leave the confines of Duchess Guesthouse that evening as the heavens opened.  As we’d neared town instead of views of the Rwenzori Mountains to greet us we were faced with a wall of thick, black and very ominous looking clouds.  The downpour didn’t come as a surprise!  We’d intended to eat there that night anyway as their food is excellent and very reasonably priced.

The next morning we indulged in a slow start and a leisurely breakfast on the decking over-looking their bird studded garden.  Now it was time to admit that the weekend was drawing to a close and we packed the car and set off back towards Kampala.  On checking out we purchased some of their homemade cheese and bread buns for a tasty picnic along the way.  In fact we did our marketing from a roadside stall too where the produce is better than that in the city and costs substantially less.  We pulled into a lay-by conveniently positioned slightly more than half way back and made the freshest of all fresh cheese and tomato sandwiches.  Unbelievably this impromptu stop also threw up another treat – we chomped our picnic while watching a pair of black and white colobus monkeys in the trees above us.  We’ve said it before and I’m sure we’ll say it again; this truly is an amazing country.



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