National parks of Uganda

Murchison Falls National Park

What a sight to behold. The mostly gentle River Nile smothered and allowed to explode through a narrow cleft in the rift escarpment and quickly bursting into a cloud-like movement with a thunderous roar to go with. Murchison Falls is magical!

Get this, it’s not just the waterfall that literally takes your breath away, the journey there is just as spectacular. The launch trip from the park headquarters at Paraa to the base of the waterfall, simply a tale wildlife galore. Giant crocodiles teasing their prey on the sandbars, hippos grunting and soaking while the elephants or buffalos take a sip from the Nile.

Like a commander, Murchison Falls roars and the Nation Park’s animals gather for duty; a showcase! Emerging through the heaving borassus grassland north of the river, the buffalo, Jackson’s hartebeest, oribi, Uganda kob, and the localised Rothschild’s giraffe, will be seen. Not to forget the patas monkey and the lion, he is king in the jungle, right?

Like most Ugandan parks, Murchison Falls is a wonderful bird destination; the oddball shoebill, a large and eagerly sought after slate-grey papyrus dweller that I’ve seen perhaps a dozen times, also calls this place home.  Birds, the fascinating kind, the naughty kind, the boastful kind, the timid kind sing and fly all over the park, while some menacingly will take a ride on the giant mammal’s backs.

It gets better; the far south of the greater Murchison Falls Conservation Area eases into the Kaniyo Pabidi Forest. This, a whole little world of clean air is has attracted the chimpanzees is now a reliable tracking site for them. But also, where there is a forest, there is bound to be music from the birds that also call this home. This place is so magical that somewhere between the Nile and Kaniyo Pabidi, a southern game-drive circuit was birthed. Sadly, it has a high density tsetse fly activity that has seen attract less game drives than the northern game-viewing circuit.

 

Kidepo Valley National Park

Like a dreamy tale of sprawling savannah and soaring mountains, Kidepo Valley National Park might quite frankly be the most picturesque park in the whole of Africa. Truth. Sharing borders with South Sudan and Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, it is Uganda’s most remote and least-explored park. Distance has many shying away from this park, but that’s the magic; it remains pure and oh so beautiful!

 

An estimated 120 lions including the formidable prides that prey on the park’s 13,000 buffalo will be found here. I have visited the park twice, and both times, had lions in the camp. Herds upon herds of the over 4,000 buffalo and hundreds of elephant leisurely graze about.

To take this in, I would suggest Apoka Lodge, one of Uganda’s finest accommodation options and, although game-driving from here can be unforgettable, the chance that you will have colossal sightings, even without stepping off your veranda, is high here.

Kidepo is so good that former Ugandan President, Idi Amin turned it into his playground. Because of this, it boasts of hunting ruins of a lodge that could just as easily have been designed as a massive bunker.Today, albeit slowly, it is being converted into a lodge.

 

But also, Kidepo Valley was the traditional hunting territory of the mysterious Ik tribe, one of Africa’s most culturally-intact communities. The 3-hour trek up to the Ik villages high on the slopes of Morungole Mountain offers an unforgettable opportunity to make friends among the charming people. This will help erode the untruth from they were (inexplicably) portrayed as the world’s nastiest people in the 1973 best-seller, The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull.

 

Falsehoods aside, I have found myself on many a photographic assignment in Kidepo during both the dry and rainy season. Although accessibility to some parts of the Narus Valley (‘muddy valley’ in the Karamojong language) can be difficult during the rain, the spectacular play of light on the mountains and plains makes this an unbeatable time to visit for a photographer. This is when you truly get the feeling that you’re in one of Africa’s most unforgettably beautiful corners.

 

The majesty of Kidepo is home to 500 bird species and 86 mammals. We are talking the lesser kudu, mountain reedbuck, caracal, Guenther’s dik-dik and cheetah, being just a tip of the wild tales of Kidepo. And oh, these are among 28 mammals which can’t be found anywhere else in Uganda. Oh yes!

Speaking of mammals, an estimated 700 elephants plough through the wild park on a daily. With the recent relocation efforts, the population of Eland and Rothschild giraffes is shooting up, and so is one of the country’s treasure, the Uganda kob numbers.

Word on the street is that the black rhino might soon also be transferred to Kidepo from Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, but first the concern that the park shares a border with South Sudan and northern Kenya must be dealt with.

 

On a brighter note though, the security issues that back then demanded tourists drove in a convoy is a thing of the past. Flying into Kidepo, albeit expensive is preferable, but many tourists do just fine going by road as that too has improved. Many people have been known to split the 12-hour drive (a wonderful chance to see so much of the country) from Entebbe Airport across two days, but I’d recommend making the drive in one bash and having more time in the park. Don’t worry about the distance, the prize is Kidepo.

 

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Bwindi is what the urban youth would call, ‘it’. It just is! Oh well, there are elephants there too, a bushbuck and duiker here and there, but who goes to Bwindi for that? In Bwindi, come on. Gorillas!

 

Stories have been told of a cute baby furball stepping away from its family to come and play with one’s leg. Magical, right? Such a surreal experience in the heart of the forest; taking in a family group going about their business; playing, snacking, grooming and slouching about in the sun. Simply perfect!

 

See, it took about 4 hours to find the family of gorillas that our group were tracking (it can take a lot less depending on their movements in the previous 24 hours). And that’s the adventurous part; heading (mostly) uphill on slippery ground through thick forest with the aid of walking sticks and local helpers who assist in pushing/pulling/dragging you up and through the roughest parts of the trek. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be in the Wet season, but the reward makes it all worthwhile. These big, beautiful, human-like monoliths staring at you amongst lush greenery is spellbinding, it rates as one of the most special wildlife experiences!

 

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Queen Elizabeth National Park. A must-visit! A favorite for tourists on the Ugandan safari, it boasts of the highest biodiversity ratings of any nature preserve in the world. It might not have numbers as big as the neighboring countries, Queen Elizabeth National Park has plenty of big animals in its own right, not to mention the incredible 612 bird species.

Virtually every visitor takes a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel and there the hippos and big jawed crocodiles take the show. Of course there will the buffaloes, elephants, lions, leopards and many other animals, but the two will show off the most. I would recommend Wildlife drives through the northern region, and if it’s the famous tree-climbing lions you seek, then go to the distant Ishasha region.

Not to boast, but you are most likely to see the fascinating tree climbing lions here than you would any part of Africa. Truth be told, even whilst here this particular lion seems elusive; make no mistake though, the search will still be rewarding.

 

I must confess though, my favorite place at this park is the jungle-filled Kyambura Gorge. Simply beautiful! A slice of ever green savannah with a habituated troop of chimpanzees allowing for a multiplicity of sightings and an ecstatic safari. Staying inside the park at Mweya or Ishasha I found, puts you in prime wildlife territory. Although, the lodges atop the Kichwamba Escarpment have inspiring views over the park and out to Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains.here

Kibale National Park

No doubt, Chimpanzees love Kibale Forest. They do! And this forest is without a doubt the best place to truck the Chimpanzee. It’s mostly interesting how free-spirited the ape is whilst home at this forest; taking in every visitor with a not-so-startled welcome.

When in though, Kibale Forest will offer so much more than just chimp tracking, so much more! At least 12 primate species call this place home, you will see no less than six each day. Is it the acrobatic red colobus or black-and-white colobus monkey you seek? Or maybe the more secretive grey-cheeked mangabey or just the red-tailed monkey? Some people come for the relatively terrestrial vervet or L’Hoests’s monkey. Whatever it is, if it’s in the monkey specie, you might most likely find it in Kibale.

Oh, and the birds! See, the birding is wildly good, especially along the Bigodi Swamp Walk, a community-managed guided trail. It is a showcase of a whole 40 forest and swamp-related species in the space of 2-3 hours. Imagine that! The intoxicatingly beautiful great blue turacos boisterous as ever atop trees,  a mixed gathering of frugivores – including the stupendous yellow-billed and double-toothed barbets – on a laden fig tree. Need I say more? This is a birder’s paradise.

 

Lake Mburo National Park

Hyped as the last Ugandan stronghold for the impala, Lake Mburo National Park it has a subtle way of impressing you. The distance, and also the fact that it is located after the gigantic Queen Elizabeth National Park, makes it easy to ignore. But no, no Sir!

Once there, the boat trips are to die for, with waters decked with the larger than life hippos accompanied by their serenading friends, the birds. Back on terra firma, the wildlife densities are surprisingly high, perhaps due to the absence of lions, and it is the only place in south-central Uganda where you’re likely to see zebra, the immense eland antelope, and giraffes, which were recently translocated from Murchison Falls. And oh, not to forget the flamboyant acacia woodland birds!

Interestingly though, the night in Lake Mburo also brings with it leopards. Not that the days don’t but sightings have mostly been in the night adding to the things you might want to do whilst there. In addition to this, one can enjoy horseback riding and go on long safari walks. The beauty about Lake Mburo is that you can plan for several other stops in Uganda’s beauty whilst on the route like Bwindi impenetrable Forest and Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Mgahinga National Park

It sits guard atop Uganda’s slice of the Virunga Mountains. There on the border with Rwanda and Congo the habituated mountain gorillas are less elusive. Because of the border, the Mgahinga National Park gorillas will most likely crisscross. Interestingly though, unlike their friends across the border, whilst on the Ugandan side of the border, the gorillas stay put.

In fact it is a known fact that the habituated group of gorillas that crossed into Uganda in 2013, has to this day stayed back. Tourists who can’t get a permit into Bwindi will choose this place. Sadly though, operators are mostly reluctant to take tourists here, as they choose the closer alternatives.

This is disturbing because generally though, I would think Mgahinga is more than just the gorrilas. Its three mountains are part of a chain of six massive volcanoes at the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Some still active and rising to elevations of up to 4,507m await. Oh yes, Virunga mountains can be that and more! But when not taking in nature, you could take a hike, seek out other species and get more for the price of one permit. We are talking about the golden monkey, elephants, leopards, buffalo, black-and-white colobus monkey and host of birds to choose from.