For many people, the main reason to visit Uganda is to track gorillas through the mist-laden forests of Bwindi Impenetrable or Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks. Few newcomers to Uganda realize that the country also offers classic safari experiences—and that the best place to have them is in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Famed for its stunning scenery and diverse wildlife (including many big game species), it is located on the equator in western Uganda. It is contiguous with Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
About the Park
Initially known as Kazinga National Park, the park was founded in 1952 and later renamed in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. It comprises 764 square miles, nestled between the smallest of the African Great Lakes, Lake Edward, and Lake George. These two water bodies are connected by the Kazinga Channel and provide a year-round source of water that explains the park’s incredible variety of flora and fauna. Many different ecosystems exist within its boundaries, ranging from wetlands and equatorial forests to caves, open savannah, and hills studded with volcanic craters. Above it all rise the jagged peaks of the distant Rwenzori Mountains, adding a touch of drama to the already beautiful scenery.
Wildlife of Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to 95 mammal species. This includes four of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard) and 10 primate species, including chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, and olive baboons. Antelopes, including Uganda kob, sitatunga, and the vulnerable topi, abound, while the lakes and channel provide a sanctuary for aquatic species, including hippos and Nile crocodiles.
Above all, though, Queen Elizabeth National Park is famous for its tree-climbing lions. Found in the boughs of fig trees in the Ishasha sector of the park, it’s uncertain why the lions choose to spend much of their time above ground. Theories include gaining a better vantage for spotting prey; and escaping the heat and insects at ground level. Either way, it’s a behavior known from only one other park in Africa: Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.
Birdwatching in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Recognized as an Important Bird Area by Birding International, Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of Uganda’s most rewarding destinations for our feathered friends' fans. It boasts more than 600 recorded species (the largest of any protected area in East Africa). Simultaneously, its location on the DRC border means being able to spot both East African and Central African species in one location.
Specials include the prehistoric-looking shoebill stork (one of East Africa’s most sought-after species), the near-threatened papyrus gonolek, and the Verreaux’s eagle owl. For the best sightings, head to prime birding areas, including the Kazinga Channel (where 60 different bird species can be spotted on a single launch trip), Lake Kikorongo, and the Maramagambo Forest.
Early morning and late afternoon game drives offer the most traditional way to see Queen Elizabeth National Park's wildlife. You can choose to join a guided game drive or self-drive your own or rented vehicle through the park. Main game drive areas include the open grasslands of the Kasenyi Plains, where resident herds of Uganda kob attract plenty of predator action, and the southern Ishasha sector. As well as being the prime place for seeing the park’s tree-climbing lions, Ishasha is also the only area in which to find topi and sitatunga antelope.
Night drives are also offered in Queen Elizabeth National Park, while the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) hosts experiential wildlife tours. These include mongoose tracking, lion tracking, hippo censuses, and bird counts and can be booked at the Mweya Visitor Information Center.
Those who seek a close encounter with our closest living relatives can do so on a guided chimpanzee experience in Kyambura Gorge. Although sightings can never be guaranteed, the troop is habituated, giving you an excellent chance of an encounter. As you trek through the gorge in search of the chimps, your guide will tell you about their ecology and that of the gorge’s unique “underground” rainforest. You’re likely to spot other primates and birds en route, too. Tours last between one and three hours (depending on how long it takes to locate the chimps) and start at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily.
Boat-based wildlife viewing on the Kazinga Channel is a highlight of any visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The UWA offers launch trips for up to 40 passengers, guaranteeing a seat with a view and the expert narration of a UWA ranger. Along the way, you’ll see and hear hippos, crocodiles, and large herds of animals coming down to the water to drink. Birds are especially prevalent along the river. Launch trips run for two hours each, and there are three or four departures every day. You can book yours through the Mweya Visitor Information Center or UWA headquarters in Kampala.
If you would like a closer insight into the Ugandan people's culture, consider signing up for one of the region’s amazing cultural experiences. At the Kikorongo Cultural Center, you can learn how to weave traditional baskets or make bead necklaces out of rolled-up paper. You can also purchase souvenirs made by the talented women of the local community. Leopard Village is a community development and conservation initiative, where you can walk amongst replicas of traditional Banyabindi, Bakonzo, and Basongora huts, watch song and dance performances, and purchase artisan crafts.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is located directly on the equator, and one of its roads cuts across the equator line. Monuments on either side of the road mark latitude 00, giving you a great photo opportunity as you stand with one foot in the southern hemisphere and one in the northern hemisphere.
Where to Stay
You will need several days to explore Queen Elizabeth National Park properly. Fortunately, staying over is easy thanks to a wide variety of accommodations in or near the park, from campsites and self-catering bandas for those on a budget to luxury safari lodges. The most luxurious options are Volcanoes Safaris Kyambura Gorge Lodge, and Ishasha Wilderness Camp. Katara Lodge and Simba Safari Camp are great for mid-range travelers, while those with a more limited budget can check out rustic UWA-operated bandas and campsites located inside the park boundaries.
Weather and When to Go
Queen Elizabeth National park has a humid, equatorial climate, with temperatures remaining consistent throughout the year. Daytime temperatures rise to an average of 83 degrees F, while nights get cool with temperatures of around 63 degrees F. Be sure to bring layers, especially for early morning and nighttime game drives. Although rain is possible at any time of year, the official rainy seasons run from March to May and September to November. Rainfall varies significantly from one location within the park to another, depending on topographical features. The Maramagambo Forest, for example, is much wetter than the area along the Kazinga Channel.
The best time to travel is during the drier seasons when animals congregate around the water sources. The roads are in better condition, and chimp tracking is a more comfortable experience. Malaria is a risk throughout the year, so be sure to take the necessary precautions.
Entebbe International Airport near Kampala is the country’s main port of entry for international visitors. From there (and from Kampala itself), it takes roughly 6.5 hours to drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The park is also accessible by road from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, located three to four hours to the south. Those that would like to avoid lengthy car journeys and have the cash to spare can arrange charter flights to one of three airstrips in or near Queen Elizabeth National Park: Kasese, Mweya, and Ishasha.
The tariffs listed below are taken from the UWA guide for 2020 to 2022:
- Entry fee: $40 per adult, $20 per child
- River safaris: $30
- Game drives: $30
- Night drives: $40
- Chimp tracking: $50
- Lion tracking and hippo censuses: $100
- Mongoose tracking: $30
Discounts are available for foreign residents living in Uganda and East African or Ugandan citizens.