Laura Griffith-Jones travels to Ishasha, in the isolated south of Queen Elizabeth National Park, to experience a true Ugandan wilderness and seek its fabled tree-climbing lions
he wide-open savannah of the north of Queen Elizabeth National Park is broken only by acacias, giant cacti and herds of buffalo, topi and Uganda kob, backed by the mystical Rwenzori Mountains. The scenery transforms as we drive towards Ishasha, in the park’s far-flung south-west; and soon we are passing through dense forest inhabited by elephant, red-tailed and vervet monkeys. Then Lake Edward, known as Mwitanzigye (meaning the ‘killer of locusts’), opens up before us like a mirage; beyond it lies the Congo. Ishasha derives from the word ‘plains’, and soon we are immersed in miles of feathery elephant grass tickled by the wind. It’s May, Uganda’s wettest month, so lilac and white flowers speck the unspoilt, undulating countryside.
QE, named after the British monarch following her visit in 1954, lies in the heart of the Albertine Rift Valley, where the snaking Kazinga Channel joins Lakes Edward and George. The 1978sq-km park has a rich and diverse ecosystem, boasting five types of vegetation — tropical forest, woodland, savannah, swamps and thicket — so it’s perhaps no surprise that it harbours 95 mammal, nine primate (including chimpanzees), 35 reptile and 614 bird species. As a result, thousands of visitors are drawn here each year, but most make a terrible mistake: they stick to the more accessible (and thus more touristy) north rather than venturing south, where the landscape is wilder, the cars are fewer and where lions climb trees.
Like most people who brave the long journey to Ishasha, I am eager to see some of the area’s fabled ‘tree-climbing lions’. We trundle to a halt by an impressive fig tree and our driver-guide Bosco utters a single word: “Lion.” My stomach somersaults. Gazing upwards, I spot a slender, brown tail with a cartoon-like tuft at the tip. It belongs to a huge male lion — his stomach bulging and massive paws dangling awkwardly. His burnt-amber eyes fix on us and then close slowly again, lethargic and disinterested. It seems downright unnatural to see him lounging in the treetops like a leopard, but Ishasha’s lions are not a sub-species of the Panthera leo, as you might expect. And indeed this is not the only place where they behave in this way. “All cats can climb trees,” Bosco tells us, wryly. “But it depends on their habitat. The 30 or so that reside here have learnt to climb the fig, albizia and acacia trees to get a better view of their prey in the tall grass, to cool down and to protect themselves from tsetse flies. They have adapted over time.”
Suddenly, to our amazement, Bosco whispers, “Look, there are three of them!” We cannot believe our luck. Three lions — and we haven’t even reached the camp yet. I notice one is wearing a collar. Reading my mind, Bosco explains, “That collar is used for tracking them — to research their movements and behaviour, and conserve them.” We watch them in their cats’ cradle, zizzing away to the soporific lullaby of an army of honeybees humming around the foot of the trunk. I’m no fan of flying, stinging insects, so when some of them start buzzing around the back of the Jeep we decide it is time to move on.
We are about to leave when suddenly one lion stands up and yawns, its razor-sharp teeth glinting in the evening sun. He looks at us grouchily, saunters along the branch and descends effortlessly. Our nerves are on edge. Could he be hungry? He disappears into the long green grass and then reappears. As if putting on a performance, he proudly holds his head high, nose in the air, regal, Aslan-like. He turns, looks straight at us, and then — much to our disappointment — returns to his crook in the tree.
Perhaps he, too, can sense that a storm is brewing. The May sky is menacing, rumbling with the threat of an impending downpour. Vast purple clouds roll in from the blue, mist-enshrouded Rwenzoris. Lightning flashes across the sky, electrifying the scene. It is picturesque and thrilling — but I have to admit it is with some relief that we spot the sign to Ishasha Wilderness Camp.
Contrary to popular opinion, Ishasha is not all about the lions. In fact, the sector is home to a great array of other fauna, including Uganda kob (the national animal and the lions’ favourite food) and other plains game, all in spectacular scenery. Our game drives over the next few days make this very clear for we do not see the lions again. It seems they have gone into hiding. However, we do not feel short-changed, as the wildlife is still prolific.
One morning, we set off on Ishasha’s Northern Circuit as the dawn breaks, and within a quarter of an hour, we spot three hyenas loping past the car on a hunt for breakfast. Their sharp teeth, protruding from strong jaws, are fixed in a malevolent grin. Bosco points out their den, where five to 10 of them live together, a team of scavengers so audacious they will steal a kill from a lion or seize a leopard cub for dinner. We continue along the escarpment, taking in the glorious pink sky above us. Puffs of cloud still drift across like candyfloss but they are dispersing, leaving a freshness to the air. Further on, we spot a herd of 50 or so buffalo, many still lying down, with yellow-billed oxpeckers combing their jet-black fur for juicy ticks and other tasty morsels. Egrets fly low over the emerald savannah and we pass a grey-backed fiscal on a dead tree-stump. We listen to black-headed gonoleks making their harsh ‘tch-tch-tch-tch’ call and soon a hadada ibis joins in the glorious morning chorus.
A bloat of hippo wallows in the shallows of the Ishasha River, as we sip steaming cups of coffee. “They can hold their breath for six minutes,” Bosco announces. “At night, they come out of the river and can move up to 6km away but are always back by dawn so they do not get sunburnt.” Fascinating and funny. Indeed, it seemed miraculous that those portly beasts could walk anywhere at all. The river is the border between Uganda and the DRC, so the forest opposite us is Virunga National Park. It seems intimidatingly close, considering its unstable history, but we are assured that security measures are firmly in place.
One afternoon, ranger Daniel Tirwomwe joins us on a game drive on Ishasha’s Southern Circuit. He tells us about the great effort the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is making, in association with Wildlife Conservation Society, to get funding from international donors to monitor and conserve wildlife. Rangers are out, both night and day, patrolling the park, to keep poaching (including illegal fishing, killing of animals, picking plants for medicines, encroachment, gold mining and lumbering — cutting trees for firewood) to a minimum.
Criminals are often from neighbouring DRC but also Ugandan villages. “There are seven departments working hand in hand to protect the park,” says Daniel. “Sensitisation and education of the community is key.
We must make villagers part of the process: therefore, 20 per cent of tourist money goes back to the local people. We also help them to safeguard their livestock by digging trenches and give them jobs where possible. There’s even a scholarship scheme for women to become rangers.” So far their work has been very successful.
A distant herd of elephant tug at the acacias, shrubs and bushes that grow in this part of the park. The elephant migrate between DRC and Uganda so numbers fluctuate, but in the 2014 Elephant Population Census, 5756 were counted. “They do not like the gunshots in the Congo, so they are coming to Uganda,” he tells us. We also see elegant grey crowned-cranes pecking grubs from the sun-kissed plains among great herds of topi, Uganda kob and waterbuck, proof that wildlife numbers are on the up. And Daniel says there are various species of duiker in the forest. The lush grass, even more nutritious due to the annual burning, makes hunting antelope easier for the lions. Daniel recounts an astounding tale where he saw one lioness kill three kobs at once, one with each forearm and one with her chest. “They died because of the power and the speed,” he explains.
On our last evening, we sit on a ridge and watch the sun vanish. A solitary fig tree stands before us, silhouetted against a moody sky streaked with lavender and peach. This was where we had seen the three lions but now it is deserted. Behind us, the valley is verdant and dotted with snowdrop-like flowers and sparkling lagoons. A hyena lollops away from its den and up a nearby slope. Then another. And then another. My heart skips several beats but, to my relief, they seem oblivious to our presence. The promise of dinner in store leads them onwards without a backwards glance.
So the rumours were true: Ishasha is well worth the long journey south — not only for its magnificent tree-climbing lions but also for its varied and bounteous animal and birdlife in a remote landscape of wild scenic beauty.
Guide to getting active
Queen Elizabeth National Park offers a host of activities. Here are the top eight:
1 Game drives At 1978sq km, the park is enormous, and there are more than 200km of well-maintained tracks to explore. Expect to see elephant, buffalo, lion and numerous antelope.
2 Night drives During these, you may spot nocturnal animals such as hyena, leopard, hippo, genets, porcupines, civets, numerous reptiles, bush babies and nightjars.
3 Nature walks These are possible in many areas of the park, including the northern Mweya Peninsula and southern Ishasha Sector.
4 Boat rides A launch trip on the Kazinga Channel is a must. You will glide alongside hippo and crocodile spotting buffalo and elephant on the shore as well as dozens of birds.
5 Research tours Join a one- to three-hour outing, which allows you to participate in monitoring some of the birds and mammals that inhabit the park. The results contribute valuable information and thus help to conserve this ecosystem. Experiences include mongoose and lion tracking as well as hippo and bird counts.
6 Chimp tracking This takes place in and around Kyambura Gorge (the Valley of Apes). With one family of 13 individuals living here, sightings are a bit hit-and-miss, but you may be lucky.
7 Twitching Birding International classifies QE as an Important Birding Area (IBA). Its diverse habitats harbour more than 600 species, which is more than any other East African park. Hotspots include the Kazinga Channel, Kasenyi, Mweya Peninsula, Maramagambo Forest, Ishasha Sector, Lake Kikorongo, Katunguru Bridge and Katwe.
8 Hot-air balloon safari It is now possible to soar over the park in a basket. Book this through your tour operator, Uganda Balloon Safari or Mweya Safari Lodge.
• Getting there South African Airways, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, KLM, Qatar Airways and Emirates fly to Entebbe International Airport, from where it’s a full-day drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park’s southern sector, Ishasha. The easiest way to arrange your trip is to book through a tour operator such as Journeys Discovering Africa (journeysdiscoveringafrica.com). The company will organise everything for you, including a driver-guide, accommodation and activities.
• Where to stay The writer was hosted by the idyllic Ishasha Wilderness Camp (wildfrontiers.com, doubles from US$620, full board), a truly authentic bush escape. The 10 comfortable tented rooms are set alongside the Ntungwe River, and Henry the Hippo reportedly wanders through the camp at night. (“If he’s outside your room, take photos. If he’s inside, use the horn,” says Chris, the manager.) Sumptuous four-course dinners are served under the stars.
• When to go Ishasha is a year-round destination. The rains come in the months of April, May, October and November; but don’t let this put you off as, at this time of year, the landscapes are exquisitely green. The best birding is when the migrants flood in between September and April.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic in advance of your trip to ensure you have the necessary vaccinations and antimalarials. You need a Yellow Fever Certificate in order to enter the country.
• Further reading Footprint Uganda Handbook (3rd edition) by Lizzie Williams; The Bradt Guide to Uganda (8th edition) by Philip Briggs.