Queen Elizabeth National Park
17.07.2012 - 21.07.2012 25 °C
There is more to Uganda than Idi Amin. So much more in fact, that we early on decided to include it in our world tour. Situated on the north side of Lake Victoria, this rather small country (if you compare with African standards) is blessed with savannahs, lush hills, mountains and extinct volcanoes, incredible wild life including gorillas and, not to forget, lots of bananas. After all the temples, mosques and churches in India, Iran and Ethiopia, we were quite excited about the prospect of having different kinds of experiences in Uganda.
As the plane prepared to land at Entebbe airport, we took in the view of the massive Lake Victoria. It's the kind of place you would like to go for a swim but it's not recommended: you'd be joining hippos and crocodiles and as if that isn't enough, it also has bilharzia, the parasite that you find in many African lakes.
We were met at the airport by our taxi that took us to the Red Chili Hostel, a nice place in the suburbs of Kampala. It was quite busy as there were no less than four overlanders (big tourbuses) there, including the Swedish "Pink Caravans", full with people travelling East Africa with fellow Swedes. We chatted with some girls doing the tour and were surprised by the low average age of the passengers - contrary to our expectations, it is not only for people in "the golden age!".
Game viewing in Queen Elizabeth National Park
The next morning it was our turn to take off on a tour, four days in a minibus to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We're joined by an Italian couple, two Austrians (aunt and niece), a Canadian girl and a Swedish girl and Hassan, our driver. It was quite a long drive west to get to Queen Elizabeth, but we were pleasantly surprised by the decent road taking us there, although the frequent speed bumps drove us mad.
Just before arriving at our lodge, we made a quick stop as we were crossing the Equator. Not a whole lot going on there but at least it was marked.
The next "real" activity came the next morning, when it was time for a "community walk". Annette, from a village nearby, took us for a walk through a local community. We couldn't help feeling slightly awkward, as we were basically walking next to people's homes in order to see what "African village life" is like. Our guide pointed out the local crops, everything from coffee, banana, "Irish" potato, mango, avocado, pineapple, etc. Most of this is for personal use with the exception of coffee, which is all exported. Despite this being a coffee producing country, there is not much of a "coffee culture". You are most likely to get instant coffee when ordering in a cafe or a restaurant.The difference from Ethiopia couldn't be greater.
Coffee beans - not likely to be enjoyed locally
View from the village
At the end of our walk we found ourselves at a local womens' club. It was founded to help women better tackle domestic violence. We, the group of tourists, quietly sat down in a half circle and listened to the women, with the help of our guide, telling us about their group. They also sang a couple of songs, one being a song about a woman asking her husband about permission to join the group. We were told that women have to ask their husband for permission for everything, including going to visit her parents. They asked Helena and the Italian woman if they have to ask their husbands for permission too. You probably know the answer. We also had yet another example of how the "private sphere" is a far from universal concept. The Italian couple was asked how many children they had. Being slightly older than us, the answer "none" surprised the women. They then went on to ask what kind of contraception they used "Do you use the pill or condoms?". When asked what measures they use to deal with domestic violence, the women said that they, among others, learned how to please their husband, to avoid upsetting him. It was perhaps not the answer we had expected. Still, just being together as a group probably Before we left we bought some stuff they had made and eight mangos for the price of 800 shillings, the equivalent of 25 EUR cents.
It's easy to feel uncomfortable in these "stage managed" tourist experiences and that the whole thing is very artificial. However, without tourist dollars it is likely that many local villages would struggle, people would leave to try their luck in the cities and traditions would die. It is good to feel that your money is going directly to local villages, and actually sustain rural living.
Next up was, fortunately, Queen Elizabeth National Park and some good game viewing. The park was inaugurated by the Queen in 1952 and we took a quick seat in the pavilion built especially for her so she could look for animals.
Game viewing from Queen Elizabeth's pavilion
Beautiful views over the crater lakes in the park
We started with a boat tour and saw lots of different animals. It was really novel to do a safari from a boat watching animal life on the shores of a peninsular in the lake.
Lots of buffaloes...
...and lots of hippos
Marabou storks and other birds
The exciting morning game drive didn't leave us disappointed. Among the things not caught on camera was a hyena, and among the highlights, obviously, lions.
...and her cubs
We were not alone
We also did a walk in the nearby forest where we were looked after by Godfrey, a great guide, wielding the ubiquitous AK-47. On the way there we saw lots of monkeys, including baboons and Colubus Monkeys.
The aim of our tour was a bat cave. Before we could see it we could hear it, lots of small shrieking sounds, from thousands and thousands bats. As we got closer we could see - and smell -a never ending mass of bats, a truly impressive sight. We could also feel the heat they were radiating. Really quite spectacular.
Our guide Godfrey
The bats - lots and lots of them!
When chatting to Godfrey we realised that we could do chimpanzee tracking the next morning not far from there. We decided to that rather than the handicraft workshop offered by our tour. We will never make a living from making baskets anyway.
We arrived at a gorge in QE park and joined an Australian couple with our guide to descend steeply into the gorge that cuts through the vast, dry savannah. A family of chimps live down here, moving constantly through the tree tops and harvesting the fruit they find there (as well as other, smaller, monkeys such as red tailed and Colubus monkeys). Chimps have to sleep high in the canopy and evade leopards and tree-climbing lions that come into the gorge at night.
Before the tracking
Creeping through the dense vegetation on both sides of the river running through the gorge, it took a lot of straining our eyes towards the canopy before our guide finally located the chimps. They were constantly moving and extremely elusive: when they heard us nearby, the males hurried down to ground level and disappeared into the undergrowth, while the females and children hid in the canopy. We really got a feel for how these amazing animals live as we spied movement and brief glimpses of them: a coupe of males hurrying down a large tree trunk and melting into the undergrowth; females staring down from the high branches then crashing down through vines and moving on through the gorge. There was no doubting the wildness of these animals!
Brief sightings of chimps in the gorge gave us a real taste of how these brilliant animals live