A taste of Uganda…

Thursday, September 12th, 2019 00:00 |
Lake Katwe, a crater lake near Queen Elizabeth National Park, with salt mines on the shores. Photo/PD/HARRIET JAMES

“Hippos are huge, semi-aquatic mammals, with short legs, a short tail, an enormous head and a large barrel-shaped body.

They are most active during the night, when they come out of the water to graze,” Anne Bridget, a tour guide tells us.

She points to a herd of hippos submerged in the water. To stay cool in the blistering heat, these big creatures spend their day in the water.

The fact that their noses, ears and eyes are all located on the top of their heads means they can scan their surroundings even while submerged. In addition, they sweat an oily, red liquid, which assists their skin from drying out. 

We were on Kazinga Channel, a wide, 32km-long natural lake that links two great water masses in Western Uganda; Lake Edward to the west and Lake George to the north-east.

Lake George outflows into the Kazinga channel that drains towards its adjacent Lake Edward and a lot of fishing is done here. The park is adjacent to Kasese District, approximately 370km south-west of Kampala City.  

Nile crocodiles 

Earlier, I had enjoyed a great road trip to the Western region of Uganda with my hosts, Marcelino and Agnes Bwesigye. We used the tarmac road from Kampala via Mbarara town and Bushenyi — a 420km, seven-hour drive.

We drove past the Equator sign at Kayabwe along Masaka highway, past Lake Mburo Park and learnt about the Ankole culture at Igongo Cultural Centre. 

The region has beautiful vistas from the rolling green hills, to the breathtaking tea estates at Bushenyi and the amazing crater lakes along the way.

You will also meet vendors selling Buchomu roasted meat and gonja (roasted plantain).

It is also possible to fly to the Kasese region via airstrips at Kasese, Kihihi and Mweya using scheduled or chartered flights from Entebbe International Airport or Kajjansi Airfield near Kampala. 

Affordable accommodation options in the park include Voyager Equatorial Lodge, where I spent my holiday, Simba Safari Camp and Elephants Plains Lodge, a luxury lodge and views of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Voyager has eight guest rooms with hot showers but is expanding. There is also a camping area and a kitchen where visitors prepare their own meals. 

A boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel is a most rewarding experience. The scheduled trips, which start at 9 am, 11 am, 3 pm and 5 pm cost around Uganda Sh30,000 (about Sh1,000 in Kenyan currency) per person.

I was impressed by the number of school parties touring the region. Teachers lectured their students about local wildlife and geography.

In as much as Kenyan, parks boast rich wildlife, but it's amazing watching a wide variety of wildlife —such as buffaloes, elephants, crocodiles— from aboard a boat cruise.

The park’s ecosystem is diverse and comprises humid forests, sprawling savanna, shady, fertile wetlands, sparkling lakes as well as fertile wetlands, which makes it the perfect place for 10 primate species such as chimps and the big five to thrive. Ishasha Plains, whose fig trees hide tree-climbing lions, is an exceptional sight and a major highlight of the park. 

Queen Elizabeth holds one of the world’s largest concentrations of numerous Nile Crocodiles as well as hippos. We saw hordes of them before I walked down to our pilot, Captain Ben Masafiri for a chat. 

Masafiri surprised me with the rather interesting information that between eight to 10 years ago, there were no crocs here. “They only reappeared when the Semliki River to Lake Edward was opened,” he tells me. 

Waterbirds are commonly found along the channel, such as the yellow-billed stork, the open billed stork, the saddlebill stork, jacana, and bill crake, the Great White and Pink-Backed Pelicans and the Black Crake.

The drive was scenic and you get to see enormous craters some with lakes, others without. The region has three major scenic crater lakes. I had a chance to get to visit Katwe Crater Lake, from where salt is excavated. 

Crater lakes

There are also undulating hills to the vegetation cover around the crater lakes. It was also interesting to have a glimpse en route of elephants, warthogs, impalas as well as cape buffaloes from a distance.

The stunning views of the mountains of the moon at the backdrop, the western rift valley as well as the escarpments, Lake George, Lake Edward and Kazinga Channel that connect the latter two lakes among other features along the crater drive.

At Lake Katwe, you will learn about the ancient salt works and the friendly miners will share their experiences. 

It is said that volcanic activity in the park 8,000 years ago resulted in extinct volcanoes. Instead of forming a volcanic cone, the lava with ashes blew further away from the vent and created a large basin, surrounded by a realm of harsh, rock debris and lava. 

The basins are now the magnificent scenic lakes that are filled with water en route. There are also Bunyaruguru Crater fields on the Kichwamba escarpment and Ndali-Kasenda Crater Fields nearer to Kibale National Park.

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