Formerly known as the Kazinga National Park, the Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of Uganda’s oldest national parks. It spans over 1,900 square kilometres of savanna grassland, riparian wetland and bush that is home to a wide variety of animals. From mammals to birdlife, the diverse array of flora and fauna will please any nature lover who visits the park.
It is located in Western Uganda, about 400Km outside Kampala, on a winding scenic route towards the peak of the Western Rift Valley spotted with various crater lakes and tea plantations.
Fun Fact: The Albertine Rift Valley (as the Rift Valley branch in Uganda is called), is actually longer than the Kenyan Rift Valley.
The park has several key attractions. There are tree climbing lions found in the Ishasa sector (only two kinds of lions are known to do this in the entire world), the beautiful Kazinga Channel that I have posted about here , Lake Katwe, one of the region’s oldest salt mines, the beautiful but foul smelling (due to sulphur deposits) Lake Nyamunuka, as well as other crater lakes and volcanic features present in the area. Another plus is its location at the back of the majestic Ruwenzori range and the presence of chimpanzees too.
The best time to visit the park is well, any time, as the park is open throughout the year. However, the roads may be impassable during the rainy season and this is Uganda, when it rains it pours in the wet seasons of April/May and September/ October. The dry seasons in Jan/Feb and June/August are said to be better to watch the wildlife though as the animals are more visible as they search for water.
Some of the wildlife you will spot in the park are buffaloes, Ugandan Kob, leopards, waterbucks, lion, elephants, Nile Monitor lizards, Nile crocodiles, warthogs, colobus monkeys, baboon giant forest hogs, serval cats. There are however no cheetahs, rhinos, zebras or giraffes.
QENP, as the park is more commonly known, is a favorite for bird watchers too. There are over 600 bird species in this park that is a world registered Important Birding Area (IBA) and the bird variety found here is the biggest of any East African National Park! Amazing, right? If you visit during the wet season, you can be lucky to spot some migratory birds too.
The location of the park and adjacency of the area to the deep Congo forest, its diverse flora, water features among other factors attract various bird species. Some of the birds you are lucky to spot here include the African green broadbill, African Skimmer, pink backed pelican, flamingos (on the crater lakes), ring necked pigeon, red chested warbler, various sunbirds, lapwings, grey herons, marsh harriers, African jacana, cisticolas, crakes, African palm nut vulture, African Kestrel, various sandpiper, oxpecker, woodpecker, bee eater and kingfisher species, the list goes on and on. The bird life is amazing and diverse from one part of the park to another. Just carry your binoculars though spotting them is not that difficult.
We did not get to see the leopards, but spotted a lot of birds, elephants, hippos, buffaloes, antelopes and a couple of lions.
There are people living within the park and around it. It is not uncommon to hear of attacks by crocodiles when someone is fetching water, bumping into hippos and even find young boys shooing away elephants coming to graze too close to their compounds. But the existence is generally peaceful.
QENP is a must visit when one is in Uganda, the diversity of both flora and fauna, the crater lakes, the Kazinga Channel and other geographical features will excite any curious visitor. There are various hotel within and around the park that favour different budgets, and of course do not forget your sunscreen, hat, binoculars, and spirit of adventure when you set out to experience the “Medley of Wonders” that is the Kazinga National Park.
The Kazinga Channel, located in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda is a must visit when here.
It is a vast channel of water, just over 30 km wide, that is a joining of two lakes, Lake Edward and Lake George. The channel is quite big and is said to have one of the highest concentration of hippos and Nile crocodiles in the world.
There are many boat tours that have knowledgeable guides who will take you on the channel for an hours (2-3 hours) long boat ride that will have you come as close to the hippos and Nile crocodiles than you ever thought possible. The boats are safe and sturdy, and life jackets are a must. So you can be assured you are in safe hands. The guides are from the surrounding community, and are well versed in the animals’ behaviour.
There is plenty of wildlife to be spotted when on the channel. From numerous schools of hippos, Nile crocodiles basking lazily in the sun, vervet monkeys, Cape buffaloes, Nile Monitor lizards, and a wide range of birdlife. So it is advisable to carry out binoculars too. We spotted many beautiful birds, from the African Fish Eagle, black crake with its bright red feet, grey herons, Egyptian geese, hammerkop, pied and malachite kingfishers to the colourful Madagascar bee eater, among many others. If you are lucky you may spot some elephants on the edge headed for a drink.
The boat cruise has to be booked in advance and the surrounding hotels and tours to the area include the boat ride as one of the activities to be done. You cannot afford to pass this up when you are at the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The kids were so excited to see the animals up close and time passes fast you will not realise an hour or two are up when on the water.
We had a wonderful guide Martin, who answered all our questions, gave us interesting facts about the area and the wildlife, and was patient enough to let us take as many photos as we could. You can carry some water or snacks to munch on the ride, as well as a hat and sunglasses and sunscreen of course. The boats are shaded though so the hot glare of the sun will not get to you.
I was so amazed at how close we got to the animals, especially the hippos and crocodiles, but the guide assured us of our safety and maintained on the importance of staying calm and not making loud noises. The hippos seem used to the human presence, as there are many fishermen in the water in the mornings and there is a thriving fish market on the beach at the same time. Safety however is paramount and we have to remember to be respectful of the animals as we are the ones in their natural habitat.
Here are some fun facts we got to learn from our guide:-
The word “hippo” is greek for “river horse”, perhaps due to how graceful they are when moving in the water.
A group go hippos is called ‘ a school’ and is comprised of 15- 30 members headed by a dominant male. This is the wild, and younger males are perceived as threats by the head, so they leave or hide among the rest.
Hippos are very territorial, and their “yawning”, grunts and snorts are to warn you off.
When evading attack in water, dive/ swim deeper, hippos can’t swim, go deep in the water or hold their breath for too long underwater.
It was fun spotting various birds and animals that were hidden in the marshes. We spotted monitor lizards high above the trees, probably trying to catch some sun rays, female hippos with their calves away from the rest of the school to keep their little males safe from the dominant male hippo that can kill them at an instant. Lone Cape buffaloes that had been driven out of their herds and doomed to live alone, referred to by the locals as “the losers”, pied kingfisher birds swooping down on the water to get some fish, baby crocodiles chilling on the banks as a majestic African fish eagle looks on and numerous “holes” in the high banks that serve as nest tunnels for the kingfisher birds. It was fascinating to experience all this up close.
If you are ever in Uganda, be sure to visit the Queen Elizabeth national park and book a boat tour of the Kazinga channel, the experience is worth it.
Garuga Beach on Nam Lolwe (Lake Victoria), is one of our favourite places to take a weekend drive to. It is beautiful, pristine and not so crowded, which makes it perfect for a family getaway.
The first time we went there was over a year ago. It was quite empty then, quiet and peaceful. It is nice for a weekend getaway if you long for some silence. There are many vervet monkeys around so you have to make sure your keep your room door locked unless you want some uninvited guests. And do not forget your mosquito repellent and some warm jackets as the mornings can be a bit chilly.
The pros of the place. It is beautiful, quiet and serene. The proximity to the lake is their biggest asset. They have a beautiful beach and one can wade on the sandy shores comfortably. The views of Lake Victoria, the sound of the waves, the cooling breeze, the variety of birdlife, are this place’s best features. There are some stone benches outside the rooms overlooking the lake that are such a pleasure to sit on in the morning as you meditate or pray.
The grounds are not too big but perfect for a picnic and some frolicking around. There are some swings for the kids and a small play area too with some climbing tyres and bars. You can have a picnic or order from their restaurant then play your own family games, which is always so much fun. I love having my son chase me around barefoot on the grassy slopes. There is a small swimming pool too with a baby pool, and a gym though it doesn’t look like it has been in use for a long time. Their pool is small but ok, the first time there the kids and I had the pool to ourselves the whole time. Bliss!
Their food is delicious. Usual hotel fare and freshly caught fish that can be steamed, fried or stewed, and their pork chops are some of the best I have ever tasted.
The cons. The road to the resort is rough and very rocky but one can get through with an ordinary vehicle. It is one bumpy ride though. The service is well, slow. Very slow, EXCRUCIATINGLY slow, but their food is great which is such an oxymoron. When we first spent a night there, the breakfast buffet was non existent, the staff made us feel like we were a bother when we should ask for what was supposed to have been ready for us. We had to order hours (I kid you not, HOURS in advance), so the food would be ready by the time we were hungry. Can you imagine having to order after breakfast so that your kids’ food will be ready by lunchtime? I remember on one of the mornings there, my daughter asked for sausages, and we were told that the chef was tired and done making sausages for the morning, never mind that some of us had not had breakfast yet. Sigh. And it was not as if it was busy at the time, we were a party of six adults and four kids, how can you not be prepared for that?
If you are wondering why we would go back to that. We have found a way to go round the poor service- You would rather go for the day, when you have already eaten, or pack some food, instead of having to spend the night there. They charge for having a picnic on their grounds but it is pretty affordable. As a family, we love their beach more than any other here so far. We go for the views, the sound of the water, the feel of the waves lapping on our feet, the cooling lake breeze, the sand that sticks between our toes, and the fact that it is off the beaten path, so does not get crowded.
This is one of my favorite places to hide away. It is about an hour’s drive away for us, so not too far for a weekend drive. The sight of the water never fails to take my breath away, and the kids’ delight at playing in the water gives me so much joy.
The other day, I was headed out to get some groceries with my seven year old. She asked if she could sit at the front, but I declined and asked her to sit and belt up in her booster seat at the back. Just before we turned out of our lane headed onto the main road, a car came speeding down and I had to brake immediately. I shudder to imagine what could have happened if I had let her sit at the front.
Sometime before we moved here, I was rear ended by a government parastatal vehicle in Nairobi traffic as I took my son to school. We were not hurt, thankfully, but shaken for quite a while. He was belted up in his booster seat at the back and I was scared he might be hurt.
Each time we drive, we take a risk as we do not know other road users’ behaviour so we need to be on guard at all times. In driving school, we are told to assume you are the only sane one on the road. Driving with kids does not make it easier. As a parent, you have to do your best to keep them safe when traveling with you.
In this region, it is common to see parents driving with their kids at the front seats, not in their appropriate child car seats, and not belted up. This is obviously not right and needs to change. Safety first should be our motto.
As a driver, there are the usual things you do before you begin driving. Is the car fuelled? Do the tires have the right pressure? Is your windscreen clean? Are all the mirrors adjusted, are you aware of your blind spots? Is your seat adjusted to your height? New car models do the seat adjusting automatically based on one’s weight and height, but we live in a region with a lot of old second hand cars on the road, so those advantages are still far off for most of us to enjoy.
Did you know the first female crash test dummy was developed as recently as 2012? Despite the fact that women drive as much as men these days, it is unfortunate that crash tests have not taken into account how a female body is affected by vehicular impact- it does differ from a man’s body and how it reacts in car crashes. You can read more on this hereand here.
The tips below are not exhaustive, neither are they listed in any particular order of importance, but they are all paramount for anyone driving with children, or just themselves. I learnt some of them in driving school, others in a Ford Driving Skills for life course, some through experience and others as advised by my husband, who is a safety and defensive driving consultant.
1. Registration, Insurance and Manuals. Obviously before one drives, you should ensure you have your updated license and registration with you, and a copy of your insurance sticker displayed as per the local laws. It is also important to keep the car manual in the car at all times, preferably in the dashboard drawer/ glove compartment, where it is within easy reach. You should also read it to familiarise yourself with your vehicle. In the glove compartment, you can also put in some emergency contacts. It pays to belong to a local automobile road rescue organisation, such as AA or Infama, that offer 24 hour road rescue assistance to their members. Ensure you place the sticker on display too.
2.Vehicle Safety Equipment. Your vehicle should have a spare tyre. Check it regularly to ensure it has adequate pressure. Also have a tire kit that includes the jack, wrench,( a tire gauge and pressure pump if you can get them,) and a mat to lie on in case you need to check under the car.
Tow ropes and jump cables come in handy too. Other safety gear you need are flares (this usually come with the vehicle), reflective safety triangles, a First Aid box, a torch with extra batteries and a car fire extinguisher. You can add a basic tool box, a reflective jacket, a pair of work gloves, and a microfibre cloth to wipe the mirrors, a raincoat and an umbrella. Some bottles of water, energy bars and a warm blanket are important too in case you are stuck on the road for a long time.
Your safety equipment should be checked about twice or thrice a year to ensure it is still usable and not expired or worn.
3.Garbage Disposal. Have some plastic bags or a small bin to place your trash in when driving, which you can dispose off properly at home or your destination. It is very irritating and disappointing to see people throw trash out the car window with no regard to the environment and other road users. It is important to also teach our children how to clean up after themselves, and this is a simple way of doing it.
4.Water and snacks. These are important when driving with kids. Have everyone’s water bottle filled up and some snacks packed up. This could be potato crisps, popcorn, mandazi, grapes, apples or any other chopped up fruit which you can pack in their individual lunchboxes. That way you all have what we you need near you and it is less messier than having to pass the food around in the car.
5. Money. This includes loose change for paying for parking, or a loaded parking card if you have one. It is good to have a little emergency stash of cash hidden in the vehicle too for emergencies.
6. Sanitizer, Wipes and Tissue. An alcohol based sanitizer and wet wipes are great for cleaning up your hands and surfaces. Toilet roll is great for loo breaks and also clean up messes that may happen in the car. With the Coronavirus outbreak, the sanitizer is especially important to clean your hands and your car surfaces.
7. Reusable Grocery Bags. Kenya has been cutting down on plastic waste, so you have to have your own shopping bag as there are no more plastic bags. Uganda is following suit as well as other countries. It is environmentally friendly to have reusable bags and keeping them in the car is handy for those grocery trips. You can have them colour coded too for different packaging, especially for frozen food, fruits and detergents which you want kept separate. In our culture, once you get married you are given a woven basket called a “kiondo“, I have quite a few that have come in handy when shopping.
8. Car phone charger. This is important. You do not want to get stuck in crazy traffic, or on a long trip, or with cranky kids, with a dead phone and no way to inform your loved ones what has happened. (This has happened to me and I learnt my lesson then).
Note: Please avoid using your phone when driving too, It is a distraction and illegal in some countries.
9. Change of clothes- You need to have this when traveling with kids, though it is dependent on their ages. Some kids get motion sickness and may throw up on themselves, or mess themselves in another way. A small towel and wet wipes come in handy too in such instances.
10. Miscellaneous– Other optional things that can be kept in the car and will help you as a driving mum are lip balm, mints or some hard candy, painkillers, a travel sewing kit, a female emergency kit (Pads, tampons, cramp medication, extra underwear and pocket tissue), sunscreen and hand lotion, sunglasses and last but not least a notebook and pen. I also keep a novel or word puzzle book to keep me busy if I am parked waiting somewhere.
The list may seem long, but all these are important to have when on the road.
Obey the traffic rules at all times. There are no exceptions, don’t overlap or overtake carelessly just because there are no traffic police or cameras watching you. The rules are there to help and keep all road users safe.
Always stay focused. Pay attention to the road and your surroundings.
Avoid distraction and keep calm. The kids always sense when you are agitated. If it happens, it is ok to park on the side of the road and calm down. If they are agitated, you can play their favorite song and have their toys on hand if younger to sooth them as you drive.
Other things to consider are:-
When driving with children, you need a child’s car seat for each of your kids. Before you buy one, it is important to shop around and check reviews (both online and asking other parents) before you decide on the brand to buy. Car seats also go by age, and weight so please get the appropriate one. Here are some important considerations to note when doing so.
Once you have the appropriate child car seat, keep it installed and harnessed to the car ‘s back seat as per the manufacturer’s instructions for maximum safety. It is important to note that car seats have an expiration date and this is why. Also follow the manufacturer’s instructions for care on the same. In short, clean the car seat folks. Those seats get sticky and grimy, there is absolutely no excuse why you should have your child in a dirty car seat. Always keep the seat harnessed and the child buckled in at the back.
Safety tip: Avoid having heavy stuff loaded behind the child’s eat or piled luggage. If you have to brake suddenly, or in case of any impact from behind, these can topple onto your child and hurt them.
If you are going on a long road trip with the children, carry enough water , drinks and healthy snacks for them. Have frequent toilet and stretch breaks so they do not tire too much. Depending on age, you can download their favourite music or movies for them onto a tablet and let them enjoy a bit of distraction. Music CDs and story books help too. Remember you know your kids best, so pick out what they enjoy at their age. My kids love looking out the window and enjoying the scenery, so a tablet is not a first option for them. Talk to them about the changing scenery. Play ” I Spy” , or “Spot On my side”, or the “alphabet game” or come up with a new fun game as a family while on the road.
Other Driving Tips.
On normal day to day driving, always be alert when on the road. I usually hear folks saying women drive too slow, I think it is because we take our time paying attention to our surroundings to be safe.
As a driver, as you plan your journey and and when on the road, you need to be able to recognise various hazards around you. Scan for what can be a cause of trouble. Is it the pedestrian with earphones who will not hear incoming vehicles? The huge potholes? The suspicious looking biker? What are your blind spots?
Driving in Kampala is quite the unique driving experience. I always joke that being able to navigate through the city traffic on a weekday is a practical lesson on defensive driving. With many motorbikes on the road and crazily driven public transport vehicles, you have to be alert at all times! In addition, there are drivers who do not bother to use their indicators or are unable to size their lanes, some roads are in bad condition, as well as poorly maintained vehicles that may just stall in front of you with no warning. (I mentioned a bit of my experience here. )Add to that pausing at intersections and sometimes the traffic lights do not work. The terrain matters too. Kampala is quite hilly and there are many routes with blind spots; some even have a volunteer who acts as a marshal to let you know when it is clear to move.
How do you handle your vehicle? Do you service it as required? Do you take your car to a qualified and reputable garage? Do you have a reliable mechanic’s contact, who you can call and troubleshoot over the phone if you are stuck somewhere suddenly, before you are rescued?
How is your braking, acceleration and deceleration? Are you able to drive when it rains? I dread it here during the rainy season as some of the potholes fill up with water and one cannot be sure of how deep they are. Some roads also flood when it rains so if I can, I avoid driving in the rain. If you have to, switch on your lights and keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times. Avoid flooded areas but if caught up on a flooded road and you are unsure of the depth, slow down and accelerate gently, let the car more or less glide. Try not to panic or brake suddenly, it is important for you to keep moving.
Do you keep to stipulated speed limits? Or are you a rule breaker? Do you let pedestrians have right of way at the pedestrian crossing? Do you overlap and overtake carelessly? Remember, safety is paramount for ALL road users, and why would you want to speed and endanger your children in the car? Breaking traffic rules is an easy way of teaching our children how to NOT do the right thing. Remember, kids learn more by observing what we do, not what we say. Obey the traffic laws at all times and Always maintain a safe driving speed.
It is important to maintain a safe distance between your vehicle and others. Always assume you are the only sane driver on the road. Anticipate or “drive in your mind” at least two cars ahead and one behind you – it sounds difficult but it is all about anticipating sudden changes. The person in front of you can brake suddenly and if you are too close you will rear end them. Or the one behind you may decide to overtake suddenly on a dual carriage and have to suddenly divert in front of you to avoid oncoming traffic. Once again, you are the only sane one on the road.
As a safety precaution, lock your doors immediately you get in the car. Avoid also locking your car at a distance, I see people do that a lot and it is not wise. Lock then confirm the car is locked before walking away. Keep valuables out of sight, or take them with you. Avoid using shortcuts or unpredictable routes as a female driver too. Also change up the times you leave home or the office to confuse anyone who may be following you. I like parking in well lit areas where I can see the CCTV cameras clearly, it makes me feel a bit safer than a dark basement.
Driving with the kids is an enjoyable experience, but safety is paramount above all else. Being alert and prepared does not mean you may never have an accident, but at least you are doing your part to keep safe as a responsible road user.
You may also consider taking advanced driving lessons offered in your region to brush up your skills. There are some driving schools that offer advanced driving lessons for female drivers; The Glen Edmunds Advanced Driving School in Nairobi offers such courses. Some car dealers also organise car clinics for female drivers, it does not hurt to attend such if possible. Learning is a life long process after all.
As a mother who is on the road daily, I have to remind myself to stay calm and remain alert. I cannot afford to compromise the children and my safety as well as other road users’ wellbeing when on the road. Accidents do happen, but I shall strive to be a conscientious and responsible road user.
What else do you consider important to note as a driving Mom or parent?
Uganda is a beautiful bird watcher’s paradise. According to the birduganda website, there are over 1,061 recorded bird species in the country, which is an amazing number.
Mabamba Bay and wetland is one of the best places to enjoy viewing over 200 species of Uganda’s birdlife. It is a vast swamp located on the edge of Lake Victoria, just north (about 40 km) of Entebbe. Because of the presence of key species such as the Shoebill Stork, papyrus warbler and the Sitatunga (which is an aquatic antelope) among many others, the swamp is a designated Ramsar Wetland Site of international importance to ensure the conservation, safeguarding and sustainable use of the wetland and the flora and fauna found there.
Mabamba Bay derives its name from the heavy presence of lungfish in the wetland. “Mabamba” is Luganda for lungfish.
It is also the best place to spot the very shy Shoebill Stork. The papyrus and long spear grass are the perfect hideaway for this bird that is so hard to spot, as well as the abundant lungfish which it loves to feed on. Known as “BBulwe” locally, this fascinating bird is not the most beautiful creature in the world but it has its attractions. It has a huge bill (see image below) hence its name. It can grow to up to five feet tall, breed once every five years and it can stand and stare for very very long, which comes in handy when aiming for their prey. How’s that for patience?
The Mabamba wetland is also home to other species. We spotted yellow billed ducks, purple herons, long tailed lapwings, one palm nut vulture, blue crested bee eaters, lots of egrets and cormorants, pied kingfisher and malachite kingfishers, African marsh harriers, common wood sandpiper, swamp fly catcher, weaver birds, winding cisticola, swallows and African jacana. We were also lucky to spot an otter or two and hear a monitor lizard moving around.
Did you know the African Jacana bird is also called ” The Jesus bird” because it can walk on water?
Some of the flora found there is the long spear grass, papyrus, water cabbage, ferns, and water lilies.
Mabamba Bay is accessible from both Kampala (by road) and Entebbe by boat. We drove from Kampala and the road was not so bad, though it had rained earlier that morning. You can access the bay without a 4X4 vehicle, the road is not tarmacked all the way but is navigable. Use your Google maps as there aren’t many signposts along the way so you might miss it if you’re driving yourself.
Our outing was a perfect coincidence as my daughter is currently learning about different habitats and life systems in her science class, so it was so much more informative for her to see and experience the wetland up close.
What do you need to get there? If on a day trip, carry sandwiches or a cold lunch, snacks, lots of water and fruit. The boat ride is about two hours long and you can carry some snacks on board. You can also decide to book a night in a nearby hotel and set off to the bay in the early morning which is the best time to sight the birds as they hunt/ feed.
Carry a large brimmed hat, as the sun can get glaring, put on sunscreen and sunglasses and please do not forget your binoculars. The guides are knowledgeable and take their time to point out the flora and fauna, let you take pictures at your pace, and also answered the kids. I always like taking note of that.
They had sanitisers and wore masks, so Covid 19 safety protocols are maintained. However, the sanitation situation (the toilets) are pathetic. Really Really bad, that is something that should be worked on.
I didn’t take many photos as I was too busying enjoying spotting and watching the birds. It was amazing sitting silently watching the birds up close in all their colourful wonder. This is definitely in the top 10 of the things to do in Uganda.
I really enjoyed my day there, and the kids did too. It is always amazing to watch nature in its element; the beauty, the variety and how species adapt to their habitat.