Uganda: On the verge of greatness

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Sue Watt ventures into Uganda to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park and discovers there are plenty of things worth looking up to, some of them outside the park’s boundaries.

This article was published in Issue 60 (Autumn 2012)

An old safari-hack friend of mine smirked when I told him I was hoping to see the famous tree-climbing lions of Ishasha Plains.

“They are cats. Cats climb trees. Big deal,” he’d said.

But when I found myself looking up to three lions and a tiny cub perched above me, their paws and tails dangling from the hulking branches of an ancient fig tree, I realised just how wrong he was. Actually, it is a big deal…

First, you have to locate the lions, though, which is no easy task as there are only 200 or so of them in the entire Queen Elizabeth National Park, an area of nearly 2000 square kilometres. On the morning of our successful find, my partner Will and I left Ishasha Wilderness Camp later than normal as the lions don’t retreat to the trees until the day heats up. We drove for a couple of hours around the southern circuit track eagerly peering through binoculars into branches that might support lions. Just as we were giving up, Abdul, our eagle-eyed guide, spotted them in the distance and we drove over, trying not to disturb them.

It’s impossible to say Ishasha without whispering “sshh,” and I realised this place was a perfect example of onomatopoeia, of sound echoing sense. We spent the next hour in complete silence, give or take the occasional gasp as the lioness stretched out her paws and yawned in our direction. The cub, probably two to three months old, seemed to be playing peek-a-boo with us, hiding its face every time we tried to take photos. Its sister, aged about three, remained motionless throughout, perfectly balanced on a narrow branch, resting her head on her forearm like a pillow. And her brother, his mane just starting to show, gazed casually at us every now and then, as if to say, “You’re still here then…?” No one interrupted our private audience – the absence of 4WD ‘convoys’ is one of the many beauties of QENP. It felt like we had all the time in the world to simply stop and stare, a rare luxury.

The serenity of the park extends well beyond Ishasha and its somnambulist lions. Further north, the Kasenyi Plains stretch for miles in the shadows of the Rwenzori Mountains, like vast seas of green dotted with islands of acacia and shrub. Wading through its grasses, grazing in silence, are hundreds of kob, topi and impala. Wildlife numbers have increased dramatically in Uganda over the past twelve years due to reductions in poaching and better management of the parks, and QENP is no exception. The park is home to 95 mammal species and over 600 different bird species, making it Uganda’s premier nature reserve and one of Africa’s best birding areas.

Kazinga Channel, a 40km waterway that links Lake George and Lake Edward, is a particular avian haven. On a launch trip from Mweya Jetty we watched a yellow-billed stork proudly displaying his pink breeding plumage to attract the ladies, and tiny malachite kingfishers flying away as we approached, their gold breasts and bright blue wings a startling contrast to the muddy shore.

Also on the bank were pretty pink-backed pelicans standing alongside great cormorants, lapwings, Egyptian geese, gawky marabou storks and a juvenile goliath heron that dwarfed all others. However it wasn’t long before I actually had to stop jotting down the birds we encountered because I simply couldn’t keep up with the running commentary from our guide Robert.

At one point around forty hippos stared inquisitively towards our boat as they bobbed and bubbled under the water. There were probably many more out of sight – QENP is home to around 5000 of them, with a census taking place in the spring to monitor their health and numbers. On the riverbank we also observed buffalo herds slithering in mud and a monitor lizard, nearly two metres long, basking in the sun. Later, under the watchful eyes of a black-and-white colobus monkey perched in a tree, his bearded face like that of a disapproving old man, thirty or so elephants sauntered towards the water, carefully shunting a baby calf in their midst.

I’d soon learn that not everyone is excited to see elephants, buffaloes and hippos in this region – these lumbering beasts cross into villages that border the park and make an already harsh life for local communities even harsher by raiding crops. Other species are historically known for killing livestock. The village of Kazinga Bukorwe, a bumpy hour’s drive from Ishasha, is one such community affected by the park’s wildlife. With help from Wild Frontiers, who own Ishasha Wilderness Camp in the park, the village’s residents recently started a community tourism project that shows the human perspective of life in the bush.

We travelled to Kazinga Bukorwe and met the community liaison officer for the programme at her mud-and-thatch house. Agatha, a small lady with hair so neatly braided that it looked like a hat, had a sharp sense of humour and soon led us off to the local herbalist, Deo Karegyeso. As we walked among his allotments he explained the medicinal qualities of each crop: a plant called ‘five-fingers’ alleviated constipation; lemon grass cured malaria; and amaranth (called dodo here) helped to counter the weakness, lethargy and sores brought on by HIV/Aids. Much of this and more he learnt from his father who in turn learnt from his father before him, information handed down through generations.

But we also saw the harsh realities of life for Deo’s family on the edge of the national park. Walking past crops withered through lack of water, Agatha showed us the elephant trench that borders his farm. Measuring 2m deep by 2m wide and stretching some 20km around the village, the trench was built to help protect the village from crop raiding by elephants, hippos and buffalo. However, it hasn’t solved all the problems.

“It doesn’t stop the bush pigs, lions or smaller animals, and elephants cross somewhere else,” Agatha told me. So the struggle for food continues.

We moved on to a women’s craft workshop that produces brightly embroidered cotton napkins, beads and gourds, and wooden flip-flops that were so heavy they seemed almost unwearable. Only two women were staffing the workshop that day as the rest were tending the rice crops, busily trying to salvage their harvest by keeping the birds away. Men were conspicuous by their absence.

Back in the village we visited Roa, a woman who’d received her first goat as a donation from Heifer International Charity. It was given on condition that she donated her first kid to someone else, a simple yet sustainable income-generating solution. She proudly showed us her five goats, all bleating madly as she cut up grasses for them.

Next Agatha demonstrated how to grind flour from maize before offering me the chance to have a go. Considering I could barely move the heavy rounded stone they use once, let alone emulate the quick to-and-fro actions Agatha had performed so effortlessly, it wasn’t surprising that the surrounding women giggled uncontrollably. To help me recover, Agatha produced the local brew bushera and, instantly invigorated, I bounded over to take a look at another of their new ventures. The vegetable garden, encouraged by the community project, involves women growing crops for Wild Frontier’s camp in the national park. Agatha and her friends then burst into song to the sound of a catchy African beat and, still giggling, danced as if their lives depended on it.

Few tourists have ventured into Kazinga as yet, and the project is in its infancy. Visits really depend very much on who’s around and what’s happening at the time – it’s haphazard but engaging, and an intimate glimpse into the reality of life beyond the national parks. Recently, that reality was brought into sharp focus when I read that villagers in Kazinga had killed a lion that had eaten 12 of their goats. Visions of sleeping lions in the fig tree and of Roa’s goats in their shelter came flooding back. There are, sadly, no easy solutions for communities living alongside wildlife, as they compete against each other for survival.

PLAN YOUR TRIP
Getting there:

Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) links London to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport via Nairobi. British Airways (www.ba.com) fly direct from London to Entebbe five times per week. QENP is an eight-hour drive from Entebbe, although charter flights are available.

When to visit:
The best months for visiting Uganda are January, February and June through October, when the climate is generally warm and dry.

Visas:
Most visitors (Irish excluded) are required to pay for a tourist visa. Check with the nearest Uganda Embassy or High Commission as prices can be cheaper if you acquire your visa before departing. A three-month single entry visa for UK visitors is £25 at the Uganda High Commission in London, while it’s US$50 at the point of entry in Uganda.

Books:
Bradt’s Uganda (6th ed, March 2010) by Philip Briggs is a comprehensive guide to the country and its national parks.

Find out more:
Uganda Wildlife Association (www.ugandawildlife.org)

Author tip:
The beautiful Jacana Lodge near QENP’s main gate can arrange a visit to Ahankungu village, where most of its staff live. It’s just starting to set up its own community tourism project and, although your time there might not be very ‘structured’, as at Kazinga, you’ll receive the warmest of welcomes. It’s also worth checking at any lodge to see if they arrange village visits – they often do but don’t always publicise the fact.

 

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