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22 March 2014

Tree Climbing lions

Tree climbing lions
Queen Elisabeth National Park is 376 kms by road southwest of Kampala, the capital and largest city. With how bad roads are in Uganda that is a day's worth of driving in potholed roads.


QENP is known for its wildlife. Although many animals were killed in the Uganda-Tanzania War, most species have recovered to pre-war levels, including hippopotami, elephants, leopards, lions and chimpanzees.

But the most smile-inducing sight? The tree-climbing lions, whose males sport black manes, a feature unique to the lions in this area. And believe me, lions on trees is a pretty funny thing to watch. They are large animals trying to balance on the flimpsy thin branches of the fig tree looking anything but comfortable. One leg falling on one side, the tail on the other, heads resting on their shoulders... take a laugh, it is real and it is comical. 

And they are everywhere (lions are otherwise quite hard to spot even in popular safari parks) and seem very tame (although they are completely wild) so you can get close to them like on these photos.

Siesta
Uncomfortable rest
The reason why lions climb trees is unknown but it is believed to be associated with their escaping either the tsetse flies or the heat. The ones found in QENP are one of two groups of tree-climbing lions. The other one is next to Lake Manyara in Tanzania.          

Apart from the lions, the rest of the wildlife in the park is well worth a visit and you are most likely going to enjoy it on your own. You will see hippos, deers, impalas, buffalos, elephants, civets and if you are really lucky, elusive leopards.


Hippos swimming in the river
Despite QENP is the most important tourist destination (after the gorillas) of Uganda, the country is not well known for its safaris like the rest of East Africa is and you will barely see any other tourists when observing wildlife. This is what made our stay all the more enjoyable. At the risk of sounding arrogant and posh I have tried to avoid what I call the Big 5 of parks (Krugger, Serengeti, Masai Mara...) favoring other less known alternatives because they are surely going to guarantee you luxury accommodation and uncountable opportunities for wildlife spotting but you will also hardly be on your own but rather surrounded by other jeeps staring at the same poor animal, it makes me feel less unique and it also makes me feel bad about the animals who are, practically speaking, in a life size zoo. This is also not a difficult task because East and Southern Africa has so much to offer that the smaller less known parks are equally as good and, as the safari industry is rapidly develping in the last 5 years, there will be less and less alternatives which can be considered off the beaten path and in which you can truly enjoy the solitude of the savannah, something that, to me, is the msot beautiful ingredient to a safari. 
 

The details

 

How to get there

View from above - flying over Ugand's rivers
Uganda is connected via some of the main airliners like KLM/AF and Emirates/Etihad which run direct flights. Otherwise, you can also reach via Nairobi which has several international flights with the local carrier, part of the AF/KLM Group, Kenya Airways. Once you are in Entebbe, the main airport but not the capital, you need to make your way to the south where the park is. That can be a pretty daunting task as there are no real connections and your only chance is either to charter your own two-seater or get a driver. The drive is a time consuming (6h on a good day from Kampala acording to the park adn 10-12h according to a ewll-reputed guide I've used several times) if more affordable option. Flying is fast (around 2h) but comes with a heafty price (we paid 3,600EUR return for the two of us!) yet it not also saves you time but also gives you the incredible opportunity to see the plains and mountains from the sky. But if you are pressed for time what is the price you would put on having two more days (one on the way there and one on the way back)? The advantage of the little planes is that they can land on any strip so our flight landed very close to the park entrance. But remember that they are "little planes" so they are unstable and can be a bit scary. We flew through a storm and despite being well-travelled explorers felt uneasy at the vulnerability felt up in the air
 

Best time to visit 


Avoid the rainy season at all costs, particularly if you plan to drive as the roads are just simply impassable. Also some of the lodges may not be reachable in the rainy season or may no even be open. The dry season also affords a higher chance to see animals as they congregate around watering holes. The word finds its true meaning in Africa!
 

Where to stay


Pre-dinner drinks and bondfire
There are a few lodges and hotels in the area and more are springing up since I visited. We stayed at a tented camp which I high recommend Ishasha Wilderness Camp. It is  made of 10 luxury tents with hot water showers and flush toilets. The food and common areas were pretty nice and because it is by the river you get to see a lot of local fauna. Beware though, it is not fenced therefore animals roam at night at their leisure and you may encounter some of the big ones face-to-face. 
You get given a torch at night and are escorted by a ranger to and from the tent and you hsve a whistler at all times in case of an emergency. While we were there the tent next to ours was attacked by ants in the middle of the nigt and we heard them blowing it to call for help. We also had out moment of reality one morning when while taking a shower we felt a big reptile (crocodile?) was rubbing itseld against the tent's wall on the outside. I peeked through the window and saw a large tail. Looking at the guide's local fauna books we figured it must have been a monitor lizard. After all, our tent was between him and the water!


How to get around

The lodge will take you around on a 4x4 for safaris but if you are driving yourself or with someone from Kampala/Entebbe then you are free to drive around the park on the well maintained roads


What to do

You will have plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife in the form of the large predators, birds and other representatives of the Big 5.
     
We went out several times a day at dusk, dawn and in between and saw plenty of animals but no other human being or vehicle. The rangers were very helpful and happy to tell you all about the local species
 

Practicalities



  1. Nothing beats a trip to get geared up with the neutral-colored safari clothes completed with the pockets, the vest and the boots. Although useful and certainly well suited the reality is that you won't be walking around much so any comfortable clothes are good. Long pants and airy linen or cotton are highly appreciated to keep you cool and protected from insects
  2. You are not in a zoo, animals are wild and so it's always better to keep arms inside the car just in case... 
  3. Mosquito repellent, as in most of Africa, is a must. Uganda has an endemic tesetse fy and Malaria problem, take precautions. To me, the best was always to cover up arms and legs and to spray repellent over my clothes - having spent 5 years in Africa I could not afford, financially and physically to take malaria tablets continuously and prevention is always better - avoid getting bitten. African mosquitoes are resilient so DEET is most effective. BUT! Avoid getting any DEET in your mouth or you are guaranteed an upset stomach straightaway
  4. Bring a book, evenings are long as life revolves around the sun so expect to wake up early 7-8am but also to be done with dinner by 7-8pm
  5. Don't miss the wonderfully warm tea/coffee in the early morning usually acompanied by cookies which most lodges deliver to you with a wake up call


MY TIP


Spend time listening to the sounds of the jungle, it is extraordinary, and to watch the stars, in the African Savannah you will surely enjoy the most incredible starry nights without any pollution in miles