Queen Elizabeth National Park on a budget – independent solo travel in Uganda

Those of you who follow my blog know how loathe I am to do an organised tour, preferring by far to travel as independently as possible.

And while it’s not totally impossible to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park, the second largest national park in Uganda (after Murchison Falls) on your own, it is far easier and not too bad cost wise, to take a budget tour.

I managed to find Red Chilli Tours, which bills itself as a backpacker and budget tour operator but still seemed pretty upmarket to me! They offer two scheduled 3-day tours, one to Murchison Falls and one to Queen Elizabeth, supposedly leaving weekly but subject to minimum numbers of four to six. I was lucky enough to get onto a tour on the day after I arrived in Uganda, accompanying a German family of 4. The tour costs US$365 and included a free night in a dorm in the Red Chilli Hideaway on the outskirts of Kampala.

I did a rough roundup of how much it would cost to do the itinerary independently and given that the main difficulty is getting to and from the activities and doing a game drive without your own transport, I decided that as a first time Africa backpacker I would join the tour and enjoy it!

Day One Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

At 6.30am we were on the road, driven by Hussan, in the relative comfort of a 10 seater pop-top minibus. After an 8-hour journey from Kampala, with a stop at the Equator for a science experiment (water going down the plughole really does change direction depending on which side of the Equator you are on!), we crossed into Queen Elizabeth National Park and immediately saw elephants grazing by the roadside and baboons fighting over discarded trash.

The park covers nearly 2,000 sq km, with 4 ecosystems (savannah, bushland, wetlands and forest), has 96 species of mammal and over 600 species of birds. It is bisected by the Kazinga channel, running east to west feeding Lake George and Lake Edward.

Local communities make their living from fishing as well as salt mining. Before checking in at Bush Lodge, we made a short stop at Lake Bunyampaka to see the latter. Scores of small salt pools are individually owned by a family. To mine the salt, you need a sunny day. If it’s raining, the pools can’t be worked (and money can’t be earned).

The layer of salt crystals are scraped off the surface, collected and left to dry, before being packed into sacks. Most of the salt is sold at local markets or across the border in Congo, to use as animal salt. It’s hard work, with many workers getting skin infections from being in the salt water all day, as well as the risk of attacks by wild animals (mainly buffalo and elephants) as they walk to and from their communities.

Day Two Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

The next day it was another 6.30am dawn start (there’s a fairly constant 12 hours of daylight daily all year round in Uganda), to head off on a “game drive”. We were barely past the park office, where we picked up a wildlife ranger to act as our guide, and we came across a pride of lions.

A mum, dad and two cubs were almost hidden in the long grass alongside the track.

We had them to ourselves for just a few minutes, before 5 other tourist vehicles appeared alerted by our ranger making a few calls. We had the prime spot though, directly next to them and had a perfect view when they lazily got up and wandered slowly away.

Apparently many lions don’t survive past three years, being easy prey for hyenas and other predators while their mother is off hunting. If they do survive past three years old, a research team put a tracking collar on them to ensure they don’t get too close to the villages inside the park. The rangers don’t have access to this technology though so it was sheer luck we saw them.

As we drove through the park our guide pointed out warthogs, waterbuck antelope, groups of Ugandan kob and buffalo. We watched as a giant bull elephant slowly and majestically crossed the open savannah in front of us.

A highlight was stopping at Lake George to stretch our legs and to view the schools of hippos wallowing just off shore. I didn’t realise that hippos are considered the most deadly animal to humans. They can hold their breath for up to 5 minutes and if you encounter them on land, they take a single breath, stay completely still, wait until you are within 5 metres and have mistaken them for a termite mound, and then…. attack!

We heard them all night in our lodge, snorting to each other as they grazed between the safari tents. Needless to say there was a curfew after dark, with armed guards escorting guests to and from the restaurant area.

By now it was nearly lunchtime but there was time for one more activity. After dropping our guide back at the park office, we headed west to do the “crater drive”, exploring a small area of explosion craters . A very steep, very rough and overgrown track took us to a magnificent viewpoint looking east with fantastic views of Lake George and the Kazinga channel.

After a quick lunch back at camp we headed out again, with Hussan dropping us off at the boat jetty on the Kazinga channel. We joined around 10 other tourists for a two hour boat cruise, with an excellent local wildlife guide.

We’d already spotted elephants grazing along the shore from our camp at lunchtime, so we were really pleased to get up close to them. The whole boat was silent apart from the rapid click-click of camera shutters, as we watched around 20 elephants with calves of different ages, approach the water to drink and feed on papyrus roots.

Hippos were everywhere along the channel, clustered in schools around one dominant male. Although pregnant hippos will leave the school to give birth and stay away if the baby is a boy until it is strong enough to defend itself, the junior males are killed off fairly rapidly. It is only at night that hippos leave the water and roam up to 8km grazing, spending the daytime hours in the water to help keep cool.

We also saw two baby crocodiles, some ‘loser’ or outcast male buffalo, kicked out of the herd by younger stronger males, and a variety of birdlife. I was particularly taken by the pied kingfishers, with their striking black and white colouring and sudden dive bombing for small fish.

Day Three Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

After the excitement of a guard escorting me to breakfast, due to the presence of an elephant roaming the camp, we checked out and were on the road by 6.30am again. Today was chimpanzee trekking day!

Many tourists come to Uganda as it’s cheaper than Rwanda for gorilla trekking. But at over a thousand dollars, that’s still too expensive for me and I was pretty sure that chimpanzee trekking would be just as rewarding.

At Kalinzu Forest we met our guide, Deborah, were handed walking sticks, warned to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid nasty bites from safari ants and off we went. Treks are around 4 hours, depending on when you find the chimps and you spend around an hour observing them.

It took us two hours to find the chimps, with our guide communicating with a couple of trackers by phone and pretty soon we could hear the forest reverberate with the sound of the chimpanzees calling each other.

Suddenly we came across Victor, the alpha male of one family, chilling out high in a tree above us. As we watched, other chimps came and went, feeding on the fruits in the trees, playing and mating. The hour was up all too quickly and we started the hour trek back, luckily coming across another chimp family along the way and having another 15 minutes observing them.

This marked the end of the tour and the start of the long drive back to Kampala. I’d elected though to be dropped off in a town called Mbarara, where the road forked west to Rwanda and to Lake Bunyonyi, my next stop.

Check out my next blog post for more about this scenic lake, the only safe place to swim in Uganda!

Red Chilli Tours can be contacted here.


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