Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo
Savannah greetings to you all! This time I am sharing as I have always shared — but not from my current post in the mountains of Mgahinga for a change. Instead, I am taking you to Queen Elizabeth National Park, right on the equator. It covers 1978 square kilometres (764 square miles) and spans everything from open grasslands hiding lion prides to thick forests teeming with chimpanzees. In 2022 we will celebrate 70 years of its official existence.
I devoted 12 years of my life to this prime safari destination of my country. I served with Uganda Wildlife Authority as a ranger guide for most of my stint there, for two years I was an information clerk and then finally played the role of an assistant park warden for a year — no, I seriously don’t lack experience! Even more interestingly, I got to work in each and every tourism zone of the park.
Mweya Peninsula, Prince Phillip and Bricks in My Bag
Mweya is a major peninsula overlooking Lake Edward and its Kazinga channel that connects to Lake George. The main visitor centre is found here, the luxury accommodation of Mweya Safari Lodge, and the more budget-friendly facilities like family cottages and even dorms. Three camping sites complete the picture.
But your main reason to come to Mweya should be the boats that take tourists for possibly the best safari available, the so-called launch trip. A ride on the channel enables visitors to see all kinds of animals that come to drink water, schools of hippos, crocodiles and a number of bird species, both residents and European migrants.
Some of the most frustrating and scary hours of my career transpired on one of those boats. I was guiding 40 tourists when our vessel developed a mechanical problem. The engine would just not start, and the normal two hours on the water became four. The coxswain and I received all sorts of abuses, as you can imagine. Our guests were afraid, I was not myself, and it was truly terrible. Too many frightening thoughts were running through my head. We struggled to bring the full-capacity boat to a soft landing, and to be honest I don’t really know how my colleague did it. But we all arrived safely.
And there’s more! The most challenging months of my life happened at Mweya too! In one of my past articles I already mentioned the paramilitary training I went through. This was the place. From July to September 2001 I went through hell. I grew up in a humble Christian family, trained as a teacher and went through all kinds of hardships on the way, yet nothing compares to my time in Mweya. Our introduction to the training camp was the worst. The instructors told us to pack our belongings in a backpack, because we were shifting somewhere else. I packed my good clothes and bedsheets and thought I was ready. Only to be told my bag was too light! They brought bricks and put them into my bag, bringing the weight to 10kg/22lbs. Then they subjected the 45 trainees to all sorts of activities ranging from walking and running to crawling and frog jumping, and all forms of exercises for the whole day. We spent a sleepless night singing and whenever one was sighted dozing, the instructors would pour cold water on him. And so on for an entire week!
If you think that Mweya is therefore only a site of terrible memories for me, I must correct you. Later, as the head guide, I had the rare honour of leading many VIPs, most notably the late Prince Phillip! Indeed, the husband of the distinguished lady whose name the park carries was once my client.
Queen’s Pavilion Without Racism
Located about 500m/1,640 ft from the equator, the Queen’s Pavilion marks the spot where Prince Phillip’s wife was hosted back in 1954. There is a small visitor info centre, a coffee shop and an internet spot, all near the tarmac road that crosses the park.
The Pavilion is a stopover point for guests who are either on a game drive or going to the crater drive. The scenery is excellent as one can see Lake George, the Rwenzori mountains and the craters themselves. These were created during the formation of the Great Rift Valley (if you are a member, do take advantage of this explanation under In-Sights), and the whole national park is actually an impressive display of the Valley’s typical features: a flat land dotted with lakes, surrounded by steep, tall mountains.
I spent two years here as the information clerk, having access to a computer and to the global network for the very first time. I opened my email account from here and got comfortable on a keyboard, all while sipping free coffee! It may not sound like a park ranger’s lifestyle but sometimes I would also take tourists to the craters, or to the lions of the Kasenyi Plains. Spreading towards Lake George, the Kasenyi area provides exceptional open grasslands viewing opportunities, being the Uganda kobs’ mating ground — and the deer of course are a big cat delicacy.
I was scratching my head until it hurt, and yet I couldn’t come up with one Queen’s Pavilion anecdote for you. I am realising that my opportunity to write a book is long gone, I am seriously forgetting the details! But I can tell you that it was at this exact location that my smile earned me a promotion from a private ranger guide to a sergeant, and therefore a head guide. Clients appreciated my customer service without favouring certain colours of tourists; rangers often don’t give as much love to local tourists as they do to (moneyed) whites. The reality is painful really. If a black and a white person appear at a front desk together, much attention is always given to the latter. But that’s is not how I was doing it! I would give equal attention, based on first come, first served.
Kyambura Gorge and My Favourite Danger
But I am getting ahead of myself! My very first deployment was on the other side of the Kazinga Channel, in Kyambura. The sector is famous for the gorge with a well populated underground riparian forest, cutting into the savannah with a river, Kyambura, flowing through. Five species of primates reside here: chimpanzees, olive baboons, black and white colobuses, red-tailed and vervet monkeys.
Chimp tracking is the major tourist activity in the gorge. Chimpanzees share 98.8% of our DNA, making them closer to humans than gorillas. To me personally, chimp viewing is better than gorillas as they are always active. I don’t remember a boring day with chimps. (We offer another article making the comparison.)
One of my favourite specimens was a young male chimp called Hatari (“Danger” in Swahili). He was named so because of his playfulness and stubbornness. This chimp would always want to touch a visitor or grab a camera, and it was my duty to keep him away and respect primate viewing rules (under Covid the prescribed distance is 10m/33ft but in the past it was 7m/22ft). Hatari was vocal and would always bang the buttress roots of the trees in the gorge which would sound like a drum.
One day, I was guiding four aged tourists, about 60 years old. We heard the chimps calling from the opposite side of the river and wanted to cross over but there was no bridge nearby. I had to help the clients cross on the fallen tree, one by one, as I was holding their hands. When the third visitor was in the middle of our improvised bridge, Hatari started banging the roots and screaming a lot. That scared the visitor I was holding and we both fell into the water. The guest knew how to swim, but I didn’t! I was carrying an AK-47 on my back and had to struggle to save myself and the gun while others were busy taking pictures of us. Lucky enough we came out unhurt and the chimp tracking continued.
Maramagambo Forest and Hungry Connectivity
Maramagambo is a young tropical forest not far from Kyambura, but on the other side of the tarmac road that crosses the park. The forest offers opportunities for guided nature walks, bird watching, primate viewing and a visit to a bat cave. There are chances of seeing African rock pythons that reside in the cave and feed on the bats. To top it all, two beautiful crater lakes are found in the area.
I worked in Maramagambo for a year as a guide, taking tourists to the bat cave, along the crater lake walk and to bird watching activities. A visitor once upon a time reportedly caught the Marburg disease from the bats, something almost as bad as Ebola. After that a shelter was constructed near the cave and we never ventured into it again, looking for pythons.
There was only one spot for mobile network connectivity, about a kilometer from where we lived. We marked the point, and I would spend most of the day time seated there to wait for incoming phone calls. We were at the network spot one evening as our dinner was cooking in the kitchen at home. Baboons entered and ate it all! That night we slept hungry as there was no food left.
Ishasha Sector and Cycling Among Elephants
From Maramagambo one turns further south and, after a couple of hours of driving on a rough road, reaches Ishasha. The southern sector of Queen Elizabeth is conveniently located on the way to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and is famous for tree-climbing lions. Just like everywhere else in the park, there is a good chance you’ll see leopards, elephants, buffaloes, waterbucks, Uganda kobs and many others, but only the lions of Ishasha actually climb trees.
I was transferred to Ishasha from Mweya. I would guide tourists along the main Ishasha circuit, looking for the said lions in fancy open-roof vehicles. But the most poignant memory form this sector is related to a different form of transport.
I was riding a bicycle when I got myself in the middle of an elephant herd! They had blocked the road on both sides … I fell off the bike and remained on the ground, my brain full of death thoughts. But the elephants were not bothered by me at all! They kept feeding, and my lucky moment came when a tourist vehicle drove by and they got out of the way.
When you see locals on bicycles riding around the national park, know that this is a biosphere reserve. UNESCO designated it as such due to human settlements in the park; a total of 12 fishing communities exist within Queen Elizabeth National Park.
I wish to conclude these memories with something from right now, taking you back to Mweya. Uganda Wildlife Authority is looking for “Expression of Interest to Develop and Operate Tourist Accommodation Facilities” on the peninsula I wrote about! Mind you, minus the upmarket Mweya Safari Lodge, any other accommodation option is more than 20km/12mi away. The deadline is 8 September 2021, there is no announcement online but I will happily provide the details to anyone interested.
The fantastic views across Lake Edward at sunset could be your business opportunity, and next time it could be you sharing national park anecdotes?
photo by Marcus Westberg, Henriette Faye-Schjøll, Francesco Sassano and Blasio Byekwaso