Like a colleague quipped, you can never get enough of Queen Elizabeth National Park. This statement is very true. Every time you get there, there is still something new to discover. Although I had been to this place before, it was still quite refreshing to revisit what Uganda Wildlife Authority dubs as Uganda's most popular tourist destination.
A light drizzle accosted part of the morning ahead of the wonderful safari. On that Friday morning, a group of journalists and I set off from National Theatre at 11.15am, one hour late from the originally scheduled time.
A journey of learning
Our two vans were to move together, as matter of policy from Great Lakes Safaris, our hosts. A stopover at the equator which divides the earth into the northern and southern hemisphere was made and as usually happens here, Kodak moments took centre stage. "Smile, say cheers," and other such requests combed the air as camera flashes shone on our faces.
Noel Edroma, our guide and driver was good company as he explained several things along the way, things he had learned over the years from when he was an "intern" of sorts, like he were reading from a book about the park.
Going through its unique selling points, he said the park used to have rinderpest and tsetse flies in the past. These helped drive away many people who had started encroaching on the land. When it was sprayed and eventually rid of the "enemy", people moved back into it but are now mostly live on its fringes.
At the haven of nature
We arrived some minutes past 7pm, exhausted. After we were allocated double and triple rooms, dinner and sleep occupied our minds most ahead of Saturday's game drive. On Saturday, we woke up for a 6am breakfast and Edroma spread out the itinerary.
"The park has about 2,500 elephants. Males have rounded foreheads," he explained. The park has a network of many game tracks which end at the Kasenyi fishing village. As Edroma had intimated, we saw elephants, waterbucks, warthogs, the Uganda Kob and herds of Buffaloes.
Kobs make sharp sounds to alert each other of potential danger in case they see strange faces or a lion in vicinity, such sounds were made when our vans inched forward. When mating is a whole different game.
However, our highlight was when we quietly watched lions at their mating ground. With the aid of binoculars, we saw about four lying down quietly around a rock. Not far from them were the Kobs, also at their mating ground, north east of Mweya. "Males have their own territories they keep from fellow males," says our guide.
He added that females search for strong males to mate with preferably those with better genes. Uganda Kobs prefer flat areas because they can then easily see the lions from a distance. We saw a female Kob trying to win the hearts of some males but by the time we left she had been unsuccessful. Edroma told us that unlike humans, the female Kobs search for their mating partner.
They swing their tiny tails as a sign that they are ready and available. Although the males sniff at the tails when wooed, it is the females to make their pick, a tumultuous task, so we learned with first-hand experience. We don't know if our presence and prying cameras made life hell for the animals, but we let them have their peace and off we continued to Kasenyi.
The Kasenyi community
At Kasenyi crater where Lake Bunyampaka lies, Edroma told us, plots (portions containing salt in the lake) are demarcated and sold the way land is sold. In the Kasenyi community, we saw how life entirely depends on fish. Most people here say they do not benefit from the animals and that the animals sometimes encroach on their land. Life is slow and residents have many children. Most houses are made of mud and wattle and people spend time conversing as they wait for the fishermen.
At Kyambura Gorge, Bernard Ejadu, another guide told us that the 100 metres deep place has five primate species. It comprises the gorge, Kyambura River and Kyambura Forest. I was lucky to have visited this gorge sometime back, unlike my colleagues because it wasn't on the itinerary. Seeing that this large expanse is also within Queen Elisabeth National Park, it tells you how big this park is. Touring it in two days may seem quite hectic, but you won't have seen everything.
Cruising along Kazinga Channel
The following day we set off at Kazinga Channel at 3pm. Edna Pukwatsibwe, our guide, took us through the history of the place as we sailed on the waters. It is then that I remembered she was the same guide some years back when I visited the park no wonder she knew the channel like the back of her hand.
Edna says the channel is within the Albertine Rift Valley. The natural channel is eight metres deep and stretches 40km long. It is home to 95 mammal species and 612 bird species. Hippos, which live for 45 years, can kill but donot eat people. Hippos stay in groups called schools. A school has 40 members usually with one dominant male.
Elephants have a 80-100 year life span, we learned. Edna said an elephant has a sharp memory. It can take revenge if you encounter it again, years after doing something bad to it. Along the channel, there are plenty of fauna to see.
There were lots of bird species such as Egyptian geese, the yellow billed stork and white pelicans as well as hippos swimming side by side with buffaloes. Elephants and crocodiles were also a good sight attraction. The two hour journey includes a point where Lakes Edward and George "meet."
At 5pm, true to the guide's word, we were back at the shore with our vans waiting for us. Departure on Sunday morning at 7.50a.m made us yearn to reach our respective homes.
Viewing lions on our way back made the whole trip worthwhile. Several tourists' cars inched close to the animals who felt agitated seeing cameras flashing away and disrupting their seemingly peaceful and quiet evening.