The main purpose of our trip to Uganda was to go on a safari and hopefully see some chimpanzees. Technically we spent a week in Uganda: 2 days in Kampala, 3 days on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and 2 more days in Kampala. Unfortunately, we didn’t experience much of Kampala. Our accommodation was on the outskirts of the city, making it difficult to get to the main part of town. Plus, we were exhausted and, for part of the time, sick, so we just didn’t have the energy to make the extra effort to get into town. Instead we used our time in Kampala to relax and catch up on blogging (though that was rather futile with the bad internet). I regret not actually seeing Kampala, though, and I hope to return one day.
Nonetheless, I’m glad we went to Uganda because our safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park was absolutely wonderful.
After much hand-wringing about what company to choose, we went with Katona Tours. The off-putting part about booking a safari in Uganda is that most companies ask you to send a deposit in advance via wire transfer, especially if you are doing a chimp or gorilla trek, as they have to buy the permits in advance. So we had to send a sizable sum of money to someone we had only corresponded with via email. When we called our bank to complete the wire transfer, they told us that this was definitely a fraud and we were going to lose our money.
Ultimately we decided to go forward because: 1) this seemed to be the norm for Uganda safaris; 2) Katona was a member of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) which is supposed to regulate tour organizations and ensure they meet high standards; and 3) Katona had good reviews online. (I even went so far as to check out the profiles of the reviewers on Trip Advisor to make sure they seemed like real people so that we could verify that the reviews weren’t fake.)
All that to say, it worked out wonderfully. We had a fantastic experience with Katona, and our guide, Richard, was knowledgable, funny, and spoke excellent English.
I requested quotes from nearly 10 companies, and Katona was the least expensive except for one, a hostel that does big group tours. At $530 per person, though, our safari was still a hit to the pocketbook.
Ultimately, we were really pleased with what we got for our money. The price included nearly all expenses for our private, 3-day & 2-night safari: meals, water, snacks (Richard would stop at roadside stands and buy things he thought we should try), accommodation, transportation to and from the park and around the park, entry fees to the park, all activities (including the chimp tracking permit and guide), and of course Richard, our trusty driver/guide. The only extra expenses we had were drinks (soda or alcohol), tips, and souvenirs.
We were so impressed with our accommodation! You get to choose budget, midrange, or luxury accommodation, and the price of the safari is adjusted accordingly. We chose budget and expected to be sleeping on the ground in tents. Instead we stayed at Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge in a “banda.” It was a cabin of sorts, standing on stilts and built out of a combination of local woods (for the base and sides), mesh (for the windows), and canvas (for the roof). They moved an extra bed into the banda so all three of us could stay together. (My sister, Lilly, was traveling with us at that point.)
We had a front porch, a small separate room with a toilet, and a fenced-in area behind the cabin with a sink and shower. The toilet was an “ecotoilet,” something I’ve never encountered before. Basically, it’s a composting toilet. Every time you use it, you sprinkle this powder into it that helps keep it from smelling and helps it to compost. Everything just goes into a bucket that’s underneath the banda, and the staff empty it each day. It was…interesting. But definitely preferable to the squat toilets we had to use at safari campsites in Tanzania.
The lodge also has a lovely eating area looking out over the Kazinga Channel. At night, there’s a big bonfire in the center, and each table has its own charming little lantern. The lodge provides all of your food throughout your stay, and it’s delicious. Breakfast includes a buffet of pastries, cereal, juice, and fruit plus eggs made to order any way you want. (Our favorite was Spanish omelette.) For lunch, you can either have a hot meal at the lodge or they can pack you a lunch, depending on your plans. The dinners were always four courses: a salad, a soup, a main dish, and a dessert. You can purchase wine, beer, or soda to go with your meal.
The first morning, our guide, Richard, picked us up at our guesthouse around 9:00 to begin the 6-hour drive to the park. Along the way, we stopped for lunch and for a photo op at the equator. I loved watching the landscape evolve as we drove. Uganda is such a lush green country, and I loved the contrast between the red dirt roads and the green countryside. We also enjoyed talking with Richard. He taught us about Uganda’s political system and education system and answered our many questions.
We arrived at the park near dusk and immediately headed out for an evening game drive. We mostly saw tons of Kob, a type of antelope. They were in the midst of breeding season, which made for some interesting observations. The way it works is the males spread out, each staking out a small area of land. If a female wanders into his area, the male takes that as an invitation to mate with her. Sometimes that worked. Other times the woman made it very clear that she was not interested.
The definite highlight of our evening game drive was seeing a female lion. We spotted her in the distance first, and then she walked off and disappeared behind a tree. A park ranger passed by as we were watching her, and Richard got him to agree to let us drive off the road a bit to look for her. (Driving off of the roads is technically not allowed.) So we were driving around searching for her and having no luck. We couldn’t figure out how she just vanished. Suddenly, I glanced up at the tree right next to our car and there she was staring down at us.
We drove closer to the tree and watched her for a while. When she started to move around, we got a glimpse at her stomach and realized she was pregnant. She was so close we could hear her breathing.
On the way back to the lodge, we got our first glimpse of elephants. It was a brief encounter as they crossed the road behind our car but exciting nonetheless.
We woke up before the sun to have breakfast before heading out on an early morning game drive. Knowing what time we had requested to have breakfast, the lodge sent someone with a flashlight to come meet us at our cabin and walk us to the eating area. (At 6:00am it’s still pitch black outside.) As we walked out onto our porch he said, “Did you see the hippo?” “What hippo?” we replied. He pointed his flashlight directly in front of our porch to reveal a hippopotamus grazing not 10 feet away. It was equal parts terrifying and awesome. The hippo didn’t seem bothered by us, though. We just walked off toward breakfast while he continued to eat the bushes outside our banda.
On our way into the park for our game drive, we encountered a group of elephants, including babies! At that point I wondered if all of my elephant encounters were doomed to be in low-light situations where the photos are terrible. 😉
We had bad luck with weather, so it started pouring early into our game drive. Eventually we gave up, as the visibility was bad, plus many animals were taking shelter from the downpour. We managed to see a few things before the rain hit, though.
Not one to let the morning go to waste, Richard drove us to the nearest village and stopped at a street stand so that we could try Uganda’s most famous street food: the Rolex. He added some avocado that he had purchased for us the day before. It was absolutely delicious!
Afterwards we returned to lodge and relaxed a bit before lunch. In the afternoon, we drove down to the Kazinga Channel for our boat cruise. It was a wonderful experience!
We cruised down the channel until we reached Lake Edward, which lies on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We got to see a glimpse of the Congo all the way on the other side of the lake before turning around to head back to our starting point. Along the way, we saw lots of hippos, cape buffalo, and crocodiles, as well as the nile monitor, the largest lizard in Africa. We also saw dozens of different species of birds which turned out to be a lot more fascinating than I would have expected. We had a park guide on board to point out and teach us about the animals, and he was great.
On the way back to the lodge, we had our best elephant encounter yet. There was a single elephant standing right next to the road. We stopped to watch her from a mere 20 feet away. After a few minutes, she started stomping her foot and shaking her trunk, apparently agitated. Then she trumpeted directly at us. It was incredibly loud and intimidating. Richard peeled out of there as quickly as he could. We think she just wanted us to move out of her way so she could cross the street. But you don’t want to mess with an angry elephant.
We made it back to the lodge in time to see the sun set over the Kazinga Channel.
It was another early day. We got to watch the sunrise as we drove to Kyambura Gorge (where the chimpanzees live).
We were a bit nervous about the chimp tracking because seeing the chimps is not a guarantee, especially in Kyambura. Supposedly there’s only about a 50-50 chance of seeing them there, as opposed to some of the other Ugandan parks with much higher success rates. We were prepared to hike through the rainforest for up to 4 hours and maybe not see chimps at all.
Imagine our surprise when, after a mere 15 minutes of walking, we were watching 3 chimps feeding in a fig tree! The local guides know the chimps in the area extremely well. (They can tell all 40-ish chimps apart and have named them all.) They sent out a tracker early in the morning before we arrived to start looking for them. Once he found them, he communicated via cell phone with our guide and told her where to go. Lucky for us, they were very near the outside of the forest, just a short walk away!
We stayed and watched the chimps for about two hours. They were quite high up in the trees but still amazing to observe. Originally it was just 3 male chimps, but after a while a female joined them. When the tracker first started saying that a female chimp was coming, we couldn’t see or hear anything in the direction he was pointing. We waited like 10 seconds wondering what on earth he was talking about and then began to hear leaves rustling. Eventually, the female chimp came into view swinging through the trees. I have no idea how he could tell so much earlier than us that she was coming!
The guides are also amazing at mimicking the various chimp calls (and they know what each one means). I wish the chimps had been a little closer, but we were still in awe the entire time. Every video that I have where a chimp starts moving, you can hear us all gasping in the background.
After our amazing chimp-watching experience, it was time to hop in the car and begin the 6-hour drive back to Kampala. We’re so glad we chose to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park, as it turned out to be a great way to experience the diversity of wildlife that Uganda has to offer.