Uganda is one of the best safari destinations in East Africa. It has all the wildlife of Kenya and Tanzania, but without the crowds. And the landscapes are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The most popular place to see Big 5 wildlife in the country is Queen Elizabeth National Park — an enormous, diverse park in the southwest of the country. In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to plan the perfect Queen Elizabeth safari.
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Why go on a Queen Elizabeth safari in Uganda?
Just about everyone who goes on safari in Africa has the same animal at the top of their priority list: lions. And while National Geographic and Instagram may have you convinced that these giant cats are easy to spot, the truth is, you have to be pretty lucky to find them in most East African parks.
Queen Elizabeth National Park offers some of the best lion viewing anywhere in the region. You’re almost guaranteed to spot them in not just one, but two sectors of the park.
On top of the large lion population, you’ll see herds of elephants, buffalo, and Ugandan kob on your Queen Elizabeth safari. Hippos and crocodiles are common as well, as are Jackson’s Hartebeest and a huge variety of bird life. And you’ll see typical plains wildlife like bushbuck, waterbuck, warthogs, and more.
The other great thing about Queen Elizabeth National Park is its geographical diversity. The park encompasses 35 crater lakes, 2 major salt deposits, views of the Rift Valley and the Rwenzori Mountains, river channels, savanna, swamps and dense forests, and more.
Finally, Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of the only safari destinations in Africa that you can reach without a tour or private driver. This makes it an especially good safari option for budget travelers in Uganda or those reliant on public transport. In fact, the full cost of your safari in this spectacular park can be as low as $150.
Orientation: The main sectors of Queen Elizabeth National Park Uganda
Queen Elizabeth National Park is enormous — nearly 2,000 square kilometers, in fact. Much of the area is basically inaccessible in a vehicle, but there are extensive game tracks and even some large towns within the park boundaries.
Most travelers will center their exploration around the northern areas of the park. Sites are close together (you can drive between them in 15-30 minutes). This is also the area comprising most of the popular Queen Elizabeth National Park activities.
The Kasenyi Plains cover the area between Lake George and Lake Edward, encompassing most of the tourist-oriented crater lakes and wildlife viewing. You will surely do a morning game drive in this area during your Queen Elizabeth safari.
The Mweya Peninsula is technically part of the Kasenyi Plains, but it’s out on a limb and feels distinct. This is the biggest center of accommodation in the park (and the most upscale). It’s also where boat trips on the Kazinga Channel depart from. You may do an afternoon game drive here, and you should definitely drive to the end of the peninsula for the view over Lake Edward.
The northern corner of the park is mostly papyrus swamp, but you may find yourself here for chimp tracking in Kyambura Gorge. A few of the crater lakes in this area make for good accommodation bases, and it’s not a long drive to Kasenyi for morning game drives.
The final sector is the huge, remote Ishasha sector. This is the one area that you really need to dedicate a full day to explore. It extends from the boundaries of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south all the way up to the northern plains. This area is famous for its tree-climbing lions.
If you’re self-driving, take a copy of this Queen Elizabeth National Park map with you so you don’t get lost.
How to get to the park on public transportation
One thing that makes a Queen Elizabeth safari so appealing to budget travelers is you don’t need to hire a driver to take you all the way from Kampala. You can get to the park on your own and just hire a driver for your game drives at a much lower cost.
The hub for public transport is the large town of Katunguru (pronounced Cat-OON-goo-roo), less than 5 km from the Kasenyi Plains. The town is on the main road between Ishaka and Kasese. All public transport running from Mbarara/Ishaka toward Kasese/Fort Portal passes it.
Unfortunately, the only options for this trip are matatus/taxis. From Mbarara, matatus leave from the central taxi park, but they take 1+ hour to fill even in the morning. You’ll pay around 20,000 shillings. To/from Kasese, you can try to pick up an already-full taxi on the main road south of town. You’ll pay around 5,000 shillings. Ask locals for the best bus stop. Informal transport is also big on this route. I hitched from Katunguru to Kasese in a newspaper delivery van for 4,000 shillings.
Coming from Mbarara/Ishaka, the road is (as of August 2019) absolutely horrible. They’re resurfacing the entire section between Ishaka and Kikorongo. It’s a dusty, rocky, bumpy mess. Expect the trip to take 5 hours. The Kasese road is in much better shape and the trip takes an hour or less.
Any transport heading to/from Katunguru can drop you at the junctions to the more remote lodges along the channel, from where you can walk or take a boda onward. Alternatively, they can drop you in Kikorongo, which is a better base if you’re chimp tracking but a harder place to hire a driver from.
Activities you can do as part of a Queen Elizabeth safari
Queen Elizabeth National Park offers four main activities: game drives, boat trips, chimp trekking, and visiting the crater lakes. You can combine these into an epic 2-day Queen Elizabeth safari, or pick and choose the ones you are most interested in.
Game drives: The Kasenyi Plains, Channel Drive, and Ishasha
Queen Elizabeth National Park has three main game driving circuits. All of them are spectacular, but for very different reasons. If you want to see them all, you’d need a morning and afternoon game drive in the northern sector of the park on one day, and a full-day drive into Ishasha on a second day.
The Kasenyi Plains are the best morning game drive option in the park. The area covers a massive kob breeding ground. Where there are small antelope, there are always lions — so you have a very good chance of spotting the iconic predator here.
For the best chance of lion-viewing, get a very early start — be at the park gate at 6 am when it opens. Head to the kob breeding ground first thing. Watch the kob closely and listen for the males’ characteristic whistle. If they seem on high alert or they’re making sounds, that means danger (i.e. a hungry lioness) lurks close by.
Channel Drive — the road running along the Kazinga Channel from Katunguru to Mweya — is the best bet for an afternoon game drive. Elephants are prolific in this area. You’ll see lots of big game crossing the road from the channel after their afternoon drinking/bathing. Stop on the Mweya Peninsula for some close warthog and baboon encounters and a nice view over Lake Edward.
Finally, Ishasha is a full-day game drive from Katunguru. The only reason to drive this direction is to see the tree-climbing lions. You have the best chance of spotting them around 2 or 3 pm, when they seek out shade in the fig trees. Besides the lions, game viewing in this part of the park is pretty mediocre.
Boat trips on the Kazinga Channel
Given its strategic position along the Kazinga Channel connecting Lake George and Lake Edward, boat trips are naturally an important part of the Queen Elizabeth safari experience.
Boat trips are totally different from game drives. You’ll see the same wildlife, but in much closer proximity and behaving in a much more natural manner. Animals aren’t spooked by boats the way they are by cars. They won’t even pay attention to you in a boat.
Queen Elizabeth boat trips launch from two places: Katunguru town and Mweya. They offer a broadly similar experience up two different sections of the channel.
The advantages to leaving from Mweya are the wildlife is more habituated to boats, and there’s more of it. But the launch point in Katunguru is less crowded, and you don’t have to figure out transport to Mweya or even pay the park entrance fee. I did the trip from Katunguru and it was the best 2 hours of wildlife watching I did in any of the national parks in Uganda.
Chimp tracking in the Kyambura Gorge
One of the most popular additions to a safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park Uganda is a chimp-tracking excursion in the Kyambura Gorge.
The gorge is just a few kilometers from the village of Kikorongo, not far from Katunguru. Treks depart from Fig Tree Camp twice a day (8 pm and 1 pm). 16 permits are available each day, but unlike in Kibale Forest, you can usually snag one fairly last-minute.
The trek takes about 3 hours in total. You’ll walk through the forest searching for the chimps. Once you locate them, you can spend up to one hour in their company. This often involves running through the forest before they get out of sight. Unlike with gorilla trekking, you are highly unlikely to get more than a handful of decent photos. The chimps are simply too elusive.
The main advantage to chimp trekking in Queen Elizabeth National Park is it’s much cheaper than Kibale Forest — permits cost only $50 (vs. $150 in Kibale). But the main disadvantage is it’s much less reliable. Success rates are only about 50% — so you have a 50% chance of seeing nothing. In Kibale, success rates are well over 90%.
But if you’re willing to shell out the cash and risk not seeing anything, Kyambura Gorge is an easy-to-organize alternative.
Crater lakes, salt mines, and enjoying the scenery
Queen Elizabeth’s geology and scenery is quite unique for an East African park. For starters, water is much more plentiful. Additionally, several of the crater lakes have left huge salt deposits that support small-scale mining operations. So you can go beyond wildlife watching in this park and get some exposure to the unique nature and culture.
Nearly every visitor to Queen Elizabeth National Park will drive to the viewpoint of Bunyampaka Crater Lake. This lake is a short drive from the Kasenyi Plains game-viewing circuit. The lake supports a very small salt-mining industry. More appealing is the enormous amount of birdlife you can see on its shores. (It’s also your only chance for a restroom/snack break on the Kasenyi game circuit — small curio and rolex stands line the viewpoint.)
For more of an adventure, head all the way out to Lake Katwe. This lake in the northern section of the park (30 minutes from Kasenyi by road) supports the largest salt extraction industry in the area. For $10, you can hire a guide to show you around and explain the process. It’s one of the best activities in Queen Elizabeth National Park to break up the time sitting in cars.
Finally, if you’ve driven down to the end of the Mweya Peninsula, consider taking the main road outside the park boundaries to return. This road takes you through the Rwenzori foothills and past a number of small crater lakes. The views around sunset are absolutely spectacular. Bonus: You have a good chance of seeing herds of buffalo.
How much does a Queen Elizabeth safari cost?
Queen Elizabeth National Park offers the cheapest traditional safaris you can do in Uganda. Lake Mburo National Park has cheaper walking safaris, but the game drives are pricier. And Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley are significantly more expensive due to the driving times associated with getting there.
Still, going on safari is not a cheap activity. You need to budget for park fees, vehicle hire, guide fees and tips, and inflated food and accommodation prices.
The first unavoidable cost is the Queen Elizabeth park entry fee. This costs $40 for every 24 hours you’re in the park. You must pay in U.S. dollars, and you can only pay at the Katunguru and Ishasha Park Headquarters (not at the entrance gates). You don’t need to pay the fee just to stay in Katunguru or travel along the main Ishaka-Kasese road.
Next, you’ll have to hire a driver and guide for game drives. Most lodges can hook you up with a package that covers car rental, fuel, a driver, a guide, and all the vehicle and guide entrance fees for $70 for half a day or $100 for a full day. The costs are for the whole vehicle — so in Katunguru you can meet others to share costs with. Email me for a reliable driver contact.
If you want to do a boat trip from either Mweya or Katunguru, that comes with additional costs. Both launch points charge $30 for the 2.5-hour trip.
You’ll also need to budget for tips for everyone who takes care of you. I spent a total of 90,000 shillings on tips for my two-day safari in Queen Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth National Park lodges, campsites and restaurants
You’re going to want to stay as close to the park gates as possible during your Queen Elizabeth safari. This is because you have the best chance of seeing lions on the Kasenyi Plains between 6 and 7 am. So you don’t have time for a lengthy drive to the park gates.
Unfortunately, just about all of the Queen Elizabeth National Park accommodation is overpriced and low value for money. It’s not that you can’t travel cheaply here — it’s just that you’ll be roughing it a bit if you do.
Easily the best option in the Katunguru area is Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge. It’s 2 km off the main road, right along the channel. You have a good chance of hippo visitors in the evening. The cheapest rooms are permanent tents starting at $35 per night. You should book well in advance.
If you have your own tent, Irungu Forest Safari Lodge isn’t a bad option. The staff is very friendly, and you can pitch your tent for $10 a night in the shaded grounds between bandas. They also organize no-hassle safaris and boat trips. The downside is the facilities are the worst I had in Uganda. It was the only place I stayed that had only squat toilets (although they were mostly clean), and the cold-water outdoor showers only worked one of the two nights I was there.
As far as food goes, chances are you’re going to eat at your lodge and pay an arm and a leg for it. Breakfast is usually included in room rates, but you’ll shell out $10 a day for lunch and $15 for dinner. Vegetarians should give their lodges/campsites a head’s up. You can avoid shelling out for lunch by grabbing a Rolex from one of the stands in Katunguru — the guy on the far northern end of the village makes the best ones (he’s open until 6 pm).
Overall, Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of the best places to go on safari in Uganda. You can see lions, elephants, buffalo, hippos, and a whole host of other wildlife. The landscapes are stunning. And it’s affordable for backpackers. Don’t miss this classic East African park on your trip to the region!
Planning your first safari? Check out my safari packing list while you’re at it!
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