June 11 – Lake Nukuruba to Queen Elizabeth NP
The gods of budget transport smiled on us for a spell in the morning as we breezed through the gorgeous west Ugandan scenery on a pair of chauffeured motorbikes. We were then swiftly transferred to a shared taxi which we oddly didn’t have to share en route to the dusty town of Kasese. These travels, including a brief stop at a market, took two hours; it easily could have taken the better part of a day.
From there, the travel got more cumbersome. A matatu (mini-van taxi) spent the better part of an hour cruising the streets of Kasese looking for passengers. It was here that we learned of the East African matatu drivers’ ruse in which locals are paid to sit in waiting vans in order to make them look fuller, and therefore closer to leaving.
Some time later, we were dropped on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park, a flat dusty place. After the $2 matatu ride, it was frustrating to shell out $10 for the short ride in to park headquarters but we were at the mercy of the one driver on hand. On the bright side, we did see many elephants, including about a dozen young, on our way into the park. However, we quickly learned how limited our options were without our own transport. Essentially, once in the park, visitors can do nothing without having to pay extra for either a guided game drive ($120) or a boat ride ($15 each). Even hiking with a mandatory guide cost $10 a person. And a map of the park? You guessed it – $5. We vented to a reasonable park employee who hooked us up with a cheapish driver for the following morning.
For the afternoon, however, we flouted the park’s hiking prohibitions and ambled along the few roads between our tent and visitor center. We shared the stunning views of Lake Edward and its environs with a bevy of assorted creatures: two curious groups of water buffalo, some warthogs, assorted antelope-like grazers, two large rabbits, two small rodents, loads of birds and butterflies.
Later on, we learned from others in the campsite that lions and leopards had been prowling around the night before, so perhaps we took some serious, foolish risks. That knowledge made our short after-dark walk from dinner to tent particularly harrowing, especially when we mistook a firefly for the reflection of a carnivore’s eyes in our flashlight beam.
June 12 – Queen Elizabeth National Park
Innocent, our taxi driver, collected us at 6:30 in his sedan for a four hour sprint though the QENP savannah. For the most part, the wildlife viewing paled in comparison to Murchison Falls, our destination a few weeks earlier. Aside from an early-morning hippo waddling across the road and countless Ugandan kobs whose males have beautiful corkscrew antlers, we didn’t see much. The occasional bushbuck, with their shaggy coats, was my favorites, but there really wasn’t enough wildlife to get our jaded juices flowing. At $50 for the four hours, and with a stern warning from Innocent that walking outside the car simply wasn’t permitted, we two natives were getting restless. A pretty view at a large crater lake and then the slog back to park headquarters were all that remained.
Nearer to our final destination, we paused twice to watch a few groups of elephants stand around. Then Innocent proved his worth and spotted an elusive leopard comfortably ensconced in a euphorbia tree. We certainly never would have spotted it ourselves. This sighting fulfilled one of my life’s dreams of seeing a solitary large cat in the wild, although I never would have guessed the event would come from the back seat of a Toyota Corolla. I’m finding that game drives are sterile, unnatural and an increasingly unpleasant way to see African wildlife. Hopefully CeCe doesn’t make me go on (read: pay for) any more.
Back at headquarters, Mary, the feral elephant ate our avocados and candy right out of the backseat and generally charmed us with her hijinks. We then paid Innocent to drive us to Kalinzu Forest Reserve where our Jane Goodall Institute friend, Allison, is stationed as a volunteer for the next two months. She’s working with their education program, which has been rewriting parts of the Ugandan school system’s curriculum manual, and will be visiting local schools to ask teachers of its effectiveness. The schools in the Kalinzu area are being targeted by JGI since the forest reserve has a wild chimpanzee population. The area around the reserve was as beautiful as the crater lake region and we spent the afternoon walking though the small villages, banana forest and tea plantations.