Seeing the ‘Big Five’ in Uganda, the Pearl of Africa

A special guest post by Andrea from The Butterflyist.

Lake Mburo (image courtesy of Crystal)

The fact that a village exists bang in the middle of a national park, with the high probability that children may encounter lions or buffalo on their way to school, shows how far Uganda has yet to come in terms of its own development, never mind its tourist infrastructure.

But on my three week trip here a couple of months ago, I discovered the ‘Pearl of Africa’ to be exactly that. A country of incredible beauty and strength of character, regardless of the frequent power cuts, cold showers, and the mud-slide roads. And also one of the world’s top destinations for bird-watching – in all, an awe-inspiring velvet escape.

Help, we’re stuck!

Safari here is more low-key than in neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania, but it’s arguably more enjoyable, given that there isn’t a scrum of safari trucks blocking the viewing points. Plus, Uganda has the ‘Big Five’, albeit that its rhino lives in sanctuaries.

School bus in ditch (image courtesy of Andrea)

With our guide Farouk, our first safari stop was Murchison Falls National Park – named after the 141ft waterfall which breaks the Victoria Nile. We were here in rainy season, and when the heavens opened, they did so with gusto.

The red dirt tracks became treacherous, and testament to Uganda’s need to work on them, on our long drive into the park we saw a school bus in a ditch – stuck, and with its passengers spilled out.

“They’ll have to dig themselves out,” said Farouk, and on we travelled towards our overnight accommodation, scattering the olive baboons that blocked our path. We spied African Fish Eagles, Brown Snake Eagles and Crested Guinea Fowl along the way.

Spending the night inside the park at Red Chilli Rest Camp, we were kept company by a couple of warthogs who had wandered in to hunt out the bins. The warthogs won’t really bother you, it’s the hippos you have to watch out for.

Big beasties

The next morning we took the launch over the Nile for our early game drive through Murchison, greener and lusher than we were to find Queen Elizabeth to be. Here, we saw many antelope such as the Uganda Kob, Jackson’s Hartebeest, and the Water Buck, as well as bigger mammals.

Buffaloes at Murchison (image courtesy of Andrea)

Buffalo were plenty, and I loved how they paused their grass-munching in unison, to stare at us until we passed. And the giraffes or hippos were not shy either, we saw many. The only mishap was discovering a huge, bull elephant obstructing our way, close to the border edge with Congo, meaning we had to turn back.

The day’s highlight though came when we were travelling to our next stopover. Driving out of the park after dark, we saw two green eyes staring out from the bush – it was a leopard. I almost cried with excitement and emotion.

Time for lions?

Of the ‘Big Five’, we’d seen buffalo, elephant, leopard, and a rhino (while at the Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre early in our stay), managing to clock up all but the lions. We were hoping they’d show their faces at Queen Elizabeth National Park, our next destination while on the safari part of our trip.

Here, the scenery is the African plains and straw-coloured savannah that you imagine for safari. Except, you don’t imagine men on bicycles wheeling past, loaded with bunches of bananas. And yet there they were – taking fresh produce to a local fishing village that wasn’t able to grow its own. “Only in Uganda” we claimed – the catchphrase of our trip.

Lion in the grass at Queen Elizabeth NP (image courtesy of Crystal)

Animal attacks were frequent, it transpired. and so villagers had various ways of dealing with this. Farouk told us that babies had a special herb poultice inserted under their skin to ward off encounters – though I’m not sure whether its effectiveness had been tested!

Still, our luck was in. We heard from a ranger that lions had indeed decided to make an appearance, obviously just for us.

It wasn’t easy to locate them, being the same colour as the landscape. But after much circling the tracks, keen-eyed Farouk pointed towards two males sleeping in the long grass. And I could feel that lump again at the back of my throat in recognition that this was the first time I’d seen lions in Africa.

We could only stay a few moments, the larger male woke and pierced us with his eyes, like a bouncer telling us to move on. But I won’t forget how the hairs on my arms prickled as he started to turn his powerful head towards us.

We’d done it, we’d seen the Big Five, in the land-locked country of Uganda – and it’s earned the name of the Pearl of Africa for a very good reason.

About this week’s guest writer

Andrea is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in the UK. As well as writing for the British national press, her site Butterflyist.com aims to inspire people to have the confidence to push their comfort zones, whether through travel or other means. However, while loving adventure, Andrea is a self-proclaimed hater of camping – though will suffer it if absolutely necessary. You can find her on Twitter at @thebutterflyist11.

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