Queen Elizabeth National Park is understandably Uganda’s most popular tourist destination. The park’s diverse ecosystems, which include sprawling savanna, shady, humid forests, sparkling lakes and fertile wetlands, make it the ideal habitat for classic big game, ten primate species including chimpanzees and over 600 species of birds.
Set against the backdrop of the jagged Rwenzori Mountains, the park’s magnificent vistas include dozens of enormous craters carved dramatically into rolling green hills, panoramic views of the Kazinga Channel with its banks lined with hippos, buffalo and elephants, and the endless Ishasha plains, whose fig trees hide lions ready to pounce on herds of unsuspecting Uganda kob. A favourite way to view the game is by launch trip on the Kazinga Channel between Lakes George and Edward.
As well as its outstanding wildlife attractions, Queen Elizabeth National Park has a fascinating cultural history. There are many opportunities for visitors to meet the local communities and enjoy storytelling, dance, music and more.
With boat trips on the 40 km Kazinga Channel, a meandering drive among spectacular volcanic craters, lion viewing on the Kasenyi plains, chimpanzee tracking in the depths of Kyambura Gorge, walks into the dark depths of Maramagambo Forest and game drives beneath the vast skies of the remote wilderness of Ishasha, Queen Elizabeth National Park has plenty to interest any visitor.
Areas of Interest
The papyrus swamps of this Ramsar wetland site are home to the semi-aquatic sitatunga antelope. One can spot the elusive Shoebill plus other native birds on the lake.
The 72 huge round basins scattered across the equator are evidence of the Albertine Rift’s bubbling volcanic past, and are a must-see for those with a particular interest in the region’s fascinating geological history. The 27km drive through the Park takes in views of the enormous craters, circular lakes, the Rift Valley escarpment and the Kazinga channel – all in front of the mighty backdrop of the Rwenzori Mountains.
One of the most famous lookout points in Uganda is in the Katwe-Kabatoro community on Katwe Salt Lake where traditional salt mining has been practiced since the 16th century. The neighboring Lake Munyanyange is a bird sanctuary, as well as a migratory location for the lesser flamingo from August to November.
The vast savannah of Kasenyi is the perfect setting for a classic African safari experience. Huge herds of Uganda kob attract prides of lions; warthogs graze bent down on their knees; guinea fowl scuttle through the grassland; and huge dark elephants stride across the game drive tracks, providing dream photo opportunities for visitors.
Mweya is Queen’s focal point. It contains the Visitors Centre, a luxury lodge and restaurant, hostel, campsite, budget food options and the departure point for the Kazinga Channel launch trip – and is still jam-packed with birds and animals. Its elevated position commands gorgeous views of the Kazinga Channel and surrounding savanna, and its proximity to Kasenyi and the North Kazinga plains make it an ideal departure point for wildlife-filled game drives in the morning or evening.
A cruise down the Kazinga channel is the most relaxing way to enjoy a wildlife safari in Queen. The banks are crammed with hippos, buffalos and water birds, along with caimans, monitor lizards, marabou storks, weaver birds and elegant pairs of fish eagles. Elephants stride along the banks – all you need to do is sit back with your camera or binoculars at the ready, and enjoy the incredible spectacle.
The Kyambura River flows through this thick “underground forest”, 100 meters below the Kichwamba escarpment. The gorge is best known for its resident chimpanzees – some of which are habituated and can be tracked through the forest with trained UWA guides. While walking through the gorge, you may spot other primates and some of the many birds found in the forest. The entrance to the gorge is also a pleasant spot for a picnic.
Kyambura Wildlife Reserve
The beautiful crater lakes of this reserve, located to the east of Kyambura Gorge, offer excellent opportunities to observe many water birds including greater and lesser flamingoes and the great egret.
Buzzing with primates, including chimpanzees, baboons and several monkey species, the forest is also alive with numerous birds including the rare Forest Flycatcher, White-naped Pigeon and the striking Rwenzori Turaco. One can also visit the ‘cormorant house’, a large tree that has been turned white by the birds that roost here at night. The shady forest also conceals crater lakes and a “Bat Cave” with a specially constructed viewing room.
This remote southern region enjoys fewer visitors than the north, but those who venture this far may be rewarded with sightings of Ishasha’s most famous residents – the tree climbing lions – lounging in the branches while keeping a close eye on herds of Uganda kob. It is also home to many buffalo and elephants as well as the rare shoebill. Ishasha is also a convenient region to pass through on the way to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Wildlife and Birding Summary
With an astonishing 5000 hippos, 2500 elephants and over 10,000 buffalo thriving in its grasslands and shorelines, Queen Elizabeth guarantees sightings of some of Africa’s most iconic species. Hearing the elephants’ calls reverberate around Queen’s crater-filled valleys is a magical experience. Other common herbivores include warthogs, waterbuck, Uganda kob and topi, as well as the sitatunga antelope.
Ten species of primates enjoy the park’s diverse habitats, the most popular of which is undoubtedly the chimpanzee. Vervet and black-and-white colobus monkeys are easily spotted in the trees, but the boldest of all are the baboons – they can open your car door and grab your food!
Birding in Queen Elizabeth National Park is an incredible treat as it contains a variety of habitats that range from savanna to wetlands to lowland forests. This diversity is reflected in the list of over 600 bird species, the biggest of any protected area in East Africa. A majority of the birds found in this area are regarded as famous birds of East Africa and are a must see for birdwatchers in Africa!
Queen’s most elusive inhabitants are its felines: lion, leopard, civet, genal and serval cats. Lions are found throughout the park, but the most renowned live in the southern sector of Ishasha, where they rest on the limbs of fig trees. Solitary leopards are nocturnal and fiendishly well camouflaged, making a glimpse all the more rewarding! The smaller cats are also predominantly nocturnal and best spotted on night game drives.
Classified as an Important Birding Area (IBA) by Birding International, Queen’s great variety of habitats mean it is home to over 600 species. This is the greatest of any East African national park, and a phenomenal number for such a small area. The park’s confluence of savanna and forest, linking to the expansive forests of the DR Congo allow visitors to spot East as well as Central African species.
Present in the park are numerous water birds, woodland and forest dwellers in the Maramagambo Forest, 54 raptors and various migratory species. Key species include the Martial Eagle, Black-rumped Buttonquail, African Skimmer, Chapin’s Flycatcher, Pinkbacked Pelican, African Broadbill, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Black Bee-eater, White-tailed Lark, White-winged Warbler, Papyrus Gonolek, Papyrus Canary, Corncrake, Lesser and Greater Flamingo, Shoebill, Bar-tailed Godwit.
For the best birding in Queen Elizabeth National Park, don’t miss these birding hot spots:
Kazinga Channel, Kasenyi Area, Mweya Peninsula, Maramagambo Forest, Ishasha Sector, Lake Kikorongo, Katunguru Bridge area and Katwe Area Tours can be booked through Katwe Tourism Information Center.
Tucked beneath the shady canopy of the Maramagambo Forest is the “Bat Cave”. The cave has a viewing room built through funding from the Center for Disease Control in which visitors can observe the bats as well as the pythons that live alongside them… did you know that these serpents live amongst their prey?!
For a more cultural cave experience, how about a trip to the historic cave at Nyanz’ibiri community, where a local guide will explain to you how it was once used for offering sacrifices and cleansing misfortunes… and as a hiding place during Uganda’s rule by Idi Amin.
The Kyambura Gorge experience is more than discovering chimpanzees in their natural environment: it teaches visitors about the ecosystems of Kyambura Gorge’s atmospheric “underground” rainforest, including vegetation types; bird identification and behavior; and chimp and monkey ecology.
Although chimp sightings are not guaranteed, visitors stand a pretty good chance of hearing and seeing our distant cousins as they are habituated. Tours last between one and three hours and start at 8am and 2pm daily.
Kikorongo Women Community
Kikorongo means Too Much Sunshine in the local language of Lukonzo – but the heat of the African plains has not diminished the energy of the Kikorongo Equator Cultural Performers! This vibrant performance, which takes place at lodges around the park, is a wonderful glimpse of life in Kikorongo, with dance, drama, music and fire-making. While a local interpreter explains the significance of the performances, you can sit back and watch village life unfold in front of you.
Kikorongo’s African Art Craft Workshops teach guests how to weave baskets and bowls using natural fibers – it´s not as easy as the teachers make it look! They also demonstrate how to recycle magazines into colorful paper beads, which can be made into unique necklaces. If your own craft skills are not up to scratch, beautiful items made by the women´s group, such as baskets, bowls, purses and woven belts, are available to purchase.
Katwe Tourism Information Centre (KATIC)
This unusual lake is far too salty to support much wildlife – though since the 16th Century it has ensured the survival of the Katwe villagers, who spend their days under the equatorial sun, walking the network of paths that cross-cross the lake and harvesting salt from its milky waters. Katwe Salt Lake Tour gives a unique insight into the fascinating yet tough process of salt mining, as well as providing an alternative income for Katwe. See villagers at work on the lake, cross the mud walkways and enter a traditional grass hut. You will also pass the nearby bird sanctuary lake, home to thousands of birds, including flamingoes from October to May. A bird watching boardwalk will be ready in 2012. During Katwe Village Walk, visitors are welcomed to a traditional homestead. Cooking demonstrations introduce the region’s cuisine, and there is also a trip to the local school.
Nyanz’ibiri Cave Community
Stretch your legs after long game drives with scenic walks around a slice of Ugandan paradise, at this community site known as The Cave. Admire panoramic views of volcanic crater lakes to a soundtrack of crested cranes and eagles. Paddle a canoe, hike to the Transparent Lake, spot eight species of forest primates, or just stop and smell the local flowers – this is the place to come to truly get away from it all!
Local attractions include a historic cave and Cultural Museum – a perfectly preserved Banyaruguru hut, filled with valued local artifacts that were once the tools of everyday life.
This community run establishment also offers three, fully furnished private bandas and a campsite. All visitors are invited to use our restaurant and bar, and enjoy our evening traditional dance performances. A generous portion of your activity and accommodation fees go directly to community development, conservation and educational projects.
The sweeping Kichwamba Escarpment makes up the eastern wall of the Western Rift Valley. This 2-3 hour trail begins in rural Kataara Village with a hike through the farms of the escarpment in the cool morning or early evening. Your expert local guide will point out beautiful bird species, exotic and medicinal plants and sites of cultural importance, as well as explaining local farming methods. Visitors will also learn about the enduring challenge of human-animal conflicts in the area, and will tour the beehives that are used to divert destructive elephants away from community crops on the park border. Interested clients will even have the chance to try their hand at honey harvesting. After enjoying the peace of the endless savannah and the shade of the trees, visitors hike back up the escarpment and can return to their lodges.
For a classic African safari experience, the tracks through Kasenyi, the North Kazinga Plains and the Ishasha Sector offer virtually guaranteed buffalo, antelope and elephant sightings, along with warthogs and baboons. Taking an experienced guide in the early morning or at dusk is the most successful way to track down a pride of lions, and maybe even the odd leopard. Guides are available from 6:30am onwards; morning game drives should be booked the day before.
Nature treks are one of the more active ways to explore the landscapes and wildlife of Queen Elizabeth. Locations include the shady Maramagambo forest; Mweya Peninsula with its scenic views; and Ishasha River, where you may spot a variety of forest and savanna species as well as having a unique opportunity to get extremely close to hippos – on foot!
Mweya Peninsula offers savannah and woodland with beautiful views and bold warthogs. At the southern end of the park, visitors can enjoy an easy stroll along the Ishasha River, where they can spot a variety of forest and savanna bird and mammal species as well as having a unique opportunity on this walk to get extremely close to hippos on foot, while remaining perfectly safe on the raised bank above the river.
The Kazinga Channel is an oasis for many of the fascinating species that inhabit the park, and taking a boat tour along it gives visitors the chance to cruise just meters from hundreds of enormous hippos and buffalos while elephants linger on the shoreline.
An average of 60 bird species can be spotted during the trip. Carrying up to 40 passengers, the boats guarantee a seat with a view, while expert ranger guides narrate the creatures’ stories.
Launch trips last two hours and run three or four times a day. They can be booked through the Visitor Information Centre in Mweya, (+256 782 387805)
Wildlife Research Tours
For visitors who yearn to get up close to wild African fauna, a research trip is a rewarding adventure. This new and unique experience allows visitors to actively participate in monitoring some of the exotic birds and mammals that fill the park, using locator devices and learn habituation calls, as well as monitoring weather, surroundings and behavior. The results are added to researchers’ databases, contributing valuable information to the overall understanding of wildlife ecology – and helping to conserve this wonderful ecosystem.
The experiential tourism activities currently available are Mongoose Tracking, Lion Tracking, Hippo Census, and Bird Counts. The number of people on each outing is limited in order to reduce stress on the animals and to increase the quality of the experience for visitors.
Experiential tours lasts between one and three hours. They usually take place in the early morning or evening, or occasionally at night. All activities must be booked through the Visitor Information Centre in Mweya at least 24 hours in advance.