Is it possible that some of us share more than 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees?
Our two days in Queen Elizabeth National Park was coming to an end, and we had been standing in the dense Kalinzu forest staring up at the treetops for the last hour. Teddy, our eminent guide, was talking about the chimpanzees hiding in their cosy, warm nests due to the damp and cold-ish weather.
My instant thought was that I must share more than 99% of my DNA with the chimps. However, staying inside whenever it is cold and rainy is not really compatible with living in Western Norway…
Halfway into our Uganda-journey, we had been lucky to spot an array of wild animals already. Just a few days earlier, we got close to a family of mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Now we were just waiting for their relatives to come out to play before continuing our journey north.
Itinerary: two days in Queen Elizabeth National Park
To days earlier we drove into Queen Elizabeth National Park for the first time. The road cuts straight through the large savannah and we kept our eyes glued to both sides of the road. Was there an elephant out there somewhere?
-Mira, mira, mira! I am starting to cry!
Fatima has spotted our first African elephant. A live, large, male elephant was looking at us from the tall grass. After the lovely lunch experience at Kabagarame Pork Joint in Bushenyi earlier, I honestly did not think this day could get any better. Apparently it could!
As the elephant disappeared into the bushes, we continued our drive. Until a couple of minutes’ later when our guide and driver, Justus, tells us to look back; another huge male crossed the road only metres from us. For the first time on the tour, Justus decided to pop the car roof up.
On the last stretch to Ihamba Lodge, we spotted baboons, Uganda kobs, warthogs, buffalos, waterbucks, and hippos. What a start to our two days in Queen Elizabeth National Park! What would the following days bring?
This is what our itinerary looked like:
- Day 1: Arrival and dinner at Ihamba Lodge
- Day 2:
- Early morning game drive
- Lunch and rest at the lodge
- Afternoon cruise on the Kazinga Channel
- Dinner and rest at the lodge
- Day 3: Chimpanzee tracking in Kalinzu forest, just outside the national park
Early morning game drive
The next morning, my alarm went off at 5 o’clock and all I could hear was the sound of a thunderstorm. Not exactly what I had hoped for on the day of our first game drive. Fortunately, Ihamba Lodge had an ace up their sleeve and a few minutes’ later I heard a gentle knock on the door. Outside I saw a kind smile under a large umbrella.
He could not serve us good weather, but he got me the next best thing: fresh, steaming warm coffee! Coffee that I could enjoy in bed while listening to the pouring rain.
An hour later and equipped with rain jackets, hats, binoculars, and cameras, we were in the car on our way to the park. It was still dark with drizzling rain when we reached the park office, but nothing near the torrential rain from earlier. While Justus was inside sorting out or papers, I saw a large, weird looking animal cross the road in front of us.
Was it a hyena?! It must have been. Justus agreed. Only hyenas can have that funny form with a taller front body and lower back. Apparently, they are quite rare in QENP as most of them were hunted down by poison in the 1990’s after several fatal attacks on the local community.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth is located in a rift valley between Lake Albert and Lake George and is the second largest national park in Uganda. With a biodiversity of 95 mammals, 10 primate species, and over 600 bird species, there is a fare chance of seeing some interesting wildlife here. If lucky, you can even spot four of the Big Five here: elephant; buffalo; lion; and leopard. No wonder why it is one of the most popular parks to visit in Uganda.
The excitement was huge as we drove off on the slippery, muddy, dirt roads. We had already seen 2 of the big five the day before, would we see the large cats too? Or would they rather snuggle up in a dry, cosy place rather than being out in the damp weather like their house cat relatives usually do?
-They drink too much water!
Justus was talking about the waterbucks, and I instantly felt a deep connection with the impressive male antelope watching us from the side of the road. Pretty sure Justus shared my thought. Even though I was the one stacking up, I was constantly out of drinking water. Fatima, on the other hand, always had plenty left…
The savannah edition of Tinder
It didn’t take long till more antelopes showed up. We watched a Uganda Kob with calf for a while before we continued to a large open field with male kobs scattered around. It was a large mating ground. Each male was waiting patiently for a female to enter his patch of the field.
Along with 2-3 other cars, we stopped for quite a while to see if any of them got lucky. It was a close call for one, but unfortunately for him the female changed her mind.
This was actually the only time we saw any other tourists while in the park. A game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park was nothing like some pictures I have seen from other popular safari destinations, where safari vans are driving in long lines.
The weather cleared up and we could lift the roof again. With better views we saw plenty more antelopes, several lone buffaloes, lots of beautiful birds, and even some tiny bush bucks. But the cats were still hiding, and the elephants were apparently roaming other corners of the park.
We had stopped the car to admire some weaver birds in a tree, when Justus in his usual calm way told us to look to the other side. And there, right next to the car, was a narrow ditch was filled with hippopotamuses.
When seeing them lying there, bathing in mud, it was hard to believe that these enormous creatures can reach a speed of more than 40 km/h! Did you know that hippos are the second most dangerous animal to humans on the African continent? And number one? Nope, not lions or snakes.
The wild animal that kills more people in Africa than any other are buffaloes. One should especially be careful around the lone buffaloes, also called the loser buffaloes, which we had seen so many of already. The losers have been kicked out from the pack and must defend themselves to survive.
Driving away from the mud-wallowing giants, the next thing we see are three hippos out for a walk just next to the road. Suddenly it wasn’t that hard to understand why it’s important to keep your distance…
Souvenirs to support the locals
Did you know there are people living inside Queen Elizabeth National Park? Side by side with the free roaming wildlife which we were looking for while staying safe inside our van. Many places local communities are moved away from their homes when an area is turned into a national park. Here, on the other hand, they were allowed to stay as long as they kept to fishing instead of farming.
So. Is it all peace and glory? Off course not. Like with the mentioned hyena problem in the 90’s, there have been and still are issues. As late as in 2021 lions were found poisoned and killed within the park, and several more have suffered the same fate the last decade.
It’s both ok and important to condemn this action, but always keep in mind that most people are just trying to keep themselves and their families safe. One way to help, is to support the local economy. Which was next on our agenda.
Deep inside the park, on the edge of a crater salt lake, is an compound of shacks. Colourful garments were waving in the light breeze outside and table after table were filled with hand woven baskets, jars, and purses. A variety of hand carved items of wood and various figures made of stone. Everything made and sold by local people. The perfect way to get some souvenirs and gifts to bring home, and at the same time make a small support to a struggling, local community.
Fantastic Ihamba Safari Lakeside Lodge
As the sun got higher on the sky, our game drive was coming to an end and lunch was awaiting at the Ihamba Safari Lodge. Our two-night stay here included all meals – even a packed lunch on the day we left. Ihamba is a true gem on the outskirts of the national park, with large, ensuite cottages, a main building with restaurant and bar, and a swimming pool overlooking Lake George.
The food is superb; for every meal you get a few choices for starter, main course, and dessert. Before you go to bed, the staff will take your orders for breakfast (and time for your coffee-wake-up-call).
All the staff are very professional, but my heart beat a little extra for the hippo watchman, Marvin. Not only was he service minded, but he also went the few extra steps in order for us to feel both seen and safe. He fetched us when he could spot a hippo grassing near the hotel grounds; chatted with us as he led us safely back and forth; and not least – he came to rescue when a bat surprised us in the cottage one night.
Elephant heaven on day two in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Leaving for our second Queen Elizabeth NP adventure, Justus had stopped the car just outside the lodge and I had started to wonder what took so long.
-Look to your right!
As Justus instructed, I did. And I gaped. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants… Ten elephants, twelve elephants… Twenty-five elephants. We quickly lost count.
A herd of about 50 individual elephants, from babies to large males, walked in a half circle around our car. They were at a safe distance, but still close. Too close for us to step out of the car. We could do nothing but sitting there gazing at them as they cross the road in front of us. What are the chances? A full morning game drive and we saw none, driving out of our hotel grounds and we get a 5-10 (you would lose track of time too!) minute’s show!
Afternoon cruise on the Kazinga Channel
The clouds had finally vanished, and the temperature was close to steaming. Nevertheless, I stood outside on the banks of the Kazinga Channel under the roasting sun. Our second activity of the day was about to start, and I was ready to grab the best seats in the wooden motorboat docked in front of me.
Fast forward a few minutes and I am sitting in front, listening to our guide Monday, tell us about the 32-kilometre-long channel we are exploring over the next 2 hours. The Kazinga Channel links the two lakes George and Edward, and is, in addition to boasting with birds and various wildlife, where you find the largest concentration of hippos in the world.
A lecture in the life of a hippopotamus
It did not take long until I spotted rings followed with some bubbles on the otherwise calm water. And suddenly two, small pink ears popped through the surface. Then a set of eyes peaked up followed by a large, bulky body. Not only one, but a whole school of them. Yup, the correct collective noun is a school of hippos.
Monday told us everything we needed to know about these weird animals, who looks like they are swimming but are actually walking. They are grass eaters and just stay in the water to regulate their temperature under the warm African sun. When they dive, they close their small ears, nose, and eyes to keep water out.
All schools have a dominant male leader and come together during the day. When the temperature allows, they come out of the water to feed individually. As mentioned above, regardless of their size they can move quite fast and far when on land. But when the sun rises, they always find their way back to their school.
Like most things in nature, the hippopotamuses contribute to the eco-system. Where you find hippos, you find fish eating their excrement. And where there are fish, there are crocodiles.
All the birds of Uganda
Well, we definitely did not see all the birds of Uganda. But like all other guides during our two weeks there, also Monday was a master at spotting them. If you think bird watching sounds boring, you will meet yourself in the door when in Uganda. At least I did.
Along the Kazinga Channel we spotted more bird species than I can recall. Unfortunately. Among others, we came in contact with several Pied Kingfishers and weaver birds, a Woodland Kingfisher, a family of Egyptian Goose, a majestic Goliat Heron, a African Fish Eagle couple, and my favourite: the small and colourful Malachite Kingfisher.
Wildlife on the channel banks
In between all the birds and hippos, there are great chances of seeing wildlife on the banks of the Kazinga Channel. I have read about others being lucky to spot elephants bathing and even spot lions near the water.
We, on the other hand, had no such luck. We got close to a lonely buffalo who got scared of the engine noise and swiftly ran up the steep hill behind (poor thing). Some curious Vervet Monkeys looked at us from the trees, two young crocodiles posed just long enough for me to capture them on my memory card, while a monitor lizard was photo shy and slipped into the water within a second.
Going back to the lodge for a quick swim in the pool and yet another tasty meal to the sounds of hippos grunting by the lake, I could not have been happier with our second day in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Although, seeing a lion and / or a leopard would have been the icing on the cake. I crossed my fingers for better weather on our next game drive in Murchison Falls.
Chimpanzee tracking in Kalinzu Forest
Visiting Uganda in April, means you will experience rain. And rain it did, also on our last morning of the two days in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Not much, but enough for the chimpanzees to snuggle up in their cosy nests high up in the tall trees of Kalinzu Forest.
Would they come out to play before we had to leave? Justus, Fatima, our guide Teddy, and I waited patiently.
Kalinzu Forest is located outside the park in the direction of Bushenyi, meaning we once again had to drive through back and forth. Initially the chimp tracking was planned for the first afternoon on our way from Bushenyi. But we changed till the last day, because of the epic Kabagarame Pork joint experience.
Meeting our relatives
Teddy was right. When the sun finally broke through the clouds and the temperature arose, we heard leaves shivering and saw the first long-armed silhouette against the bights sky. Another one came along and for a while they just sat there inspecting each other’s fur. Not long after, there were several curious chimpanzees climbing and jumping between tree stems. Peaking down at us, coming closer just to bounce back up a few seconds later.
Babies, mothers, and males. A whole family of our closest relatives was playing above our heads. It was truly fascinating and well worth the wait!
I lost recollection of time, but at some point, one dared coming all the way down to the ground. In a whim he was gone through the dense bushes. More followed and soon they had all moved on to search for their next camp site.
The end of our two days in Queen Elizabeth National Park
As a cue that it was ok for us to leave, rain started hammering down just as we entered the chimp tracking base. It rained like never before while we dug into our packed lunches. How lucky can one be?
Driving back through the park enroute our next destination, we saw yet another elephant beside the road. And we laughed. Two days is a perfect duration for a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park and neither a game drive nor a channel cruise should be missed, but if you are looking for elephants – just go back and forth on the main road a few times. It is even free of charge!