The Wonders of Queen Elizabeth National Park

This day was dedicated to exploring the natural wonders of Queen Elizabeth National Park. We set off before dawn for the Kasenyi area seeking new sights and remembering yesterday’s outstanding game viewing. A hammerkop bird (Scopus umbretta) flew ahead of the vehicles as the sun began to rise over the eastern horizon and a steady drizzle began. The hammerkop has widely distributed across Africa south of the Sahara, parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and Madagascar. It lives in a range of habitats, which include wetlands, savannahs, and forests and builds large distinctive nests. Its name comes from the shape of its head, which resembles a hammer.

The drizzle turned into steady, light rainfall which reminding us that our visit occurred during the long East African rainy season. During this time of the year the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a wide area of trade wind convergence and rain fall, moves northward over this part of East Africa following the sun’s zenith point. The rains were delayed this year across the region due to the lingering effects of last year’s strong El Niño event. Anticipating the rains, the park staff had controlled burns covering large parts of the savannah and with the rains new grass, flowers, and plants such as the wild eggplant were beginning to sprout. During the drive we saw plenty of drenched Ugandan kob (Kobus kob thomasi) and Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), with the occasional bleached bones from the victims of nature or carnivores. One bull buffalo had a broken horn, probably from an earlier fight over territory.

We made a stop in the late morning by Lake Bunyampaka, a crater lake located southeast of Lake George thought to have formed from volcanic activity less than 10,000 years ago. Salt miners use fractional crystallization to accumulate and collect salt from paddocks on the lake during the dry season, when the lake waters are more concentrated. The salt is used for livestock and some human consumption. It is low in iodine.

The afternoon was spent on a boat ride on the Kazinga Channel, a waterway linking Lake Edward and Lake George. It is serves as the outflow channel for waters from Lake George. Both lakes are rift valley lakes lying on the valley floor, or which is known by the term graben.  We had learned that Western Rift Valley, which we were in, is part of the larger East African Rift Valley System, which is an elongated series of tears through Earth’s lithosphere where the African tectonic plate is slowly splitting apart. The game viewing along the channel was remarkable with crocodiles, elephants, hippos, Cape buffalo, Uganda kob, and warthogs lining the edges of the channel. Birdlife was spectacular with sightings of Egyptian geese, flycatchers, long-necked cormorants, skimmers, spoonbills, yellow-beaked storks, yellow-billed ox pecker, among many others. Floating by the impoverished Kazinga fishing village, one of the indigenous communities allowed to remain in the park after it was created, was a stark reminder that the benefits of tourism do not accrue to all.

The day ended too soon with a scenic drive through the dramatic Katwe Explosion Craters area. This is a volcanic field with almost 80 craters that exploded within the last 10,000 years. Some of the craters had small lakes at the bottom, while others were filled with trees or other savannah vegetation. At one point a large herd of elephants was visible taking flight into some forests in the distance. As we descended from the area towards the main road Lake George was visible in the middle distance.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

We spent our first night at Bush Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The Lodge, which includes 12 raised bungalows, sits atop a ridge that overlooks an inlet of the Kazinga Channel that joins Lakes Edward and George.  Overnight hippos roam the grounds of the Lodge and we could hear hyenas cackling as they made their rounds through the brush. The night sky was spectacularly bright and we could see many of the constellations of the southern sky, including the Southern Cross and a band of cosmic dust.

Our first morning at Queen Elizabeth, we awoke to overcast skies and light rain, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. We set out seeking lions with James Kalyewa, senior research assistant with the Uganda Carnivore Project (http://www.uganda-carnivores.org/) which conducts scientific research and monitoring of Uganda’s large carnivores, including lions, leopards, and hyenas. Using radio-collars, the Carnivore Project monitors the health and movements of all the carnivores (except us!) in Queen Elizabeth National Park. One of Uganda Carnivore Project’s principal goals is to work with local communities promoting conservation education outreach in village schools, community outreach regarding wildlife conflict, and sustainable community economic development through participation in eco-tourism.
Using a radio signal detector, our guide, James, was able to track 13 lions over the course of our five-hour journey through the park. A male lion in one of the groups we saw was actually hurt from fighting for dominance with another set of lions. Yet another group consisted of three males by the same mother. These lions were not far from the injured male, so James had our vehicles “herd” them in the opposite direction for several kilometers. In the course of our journey around the park, we also saw a leopard, which is extremely rare. It was virtually invisible due to how it blended into the high grass. And is if that weren’t enough, just as we were recovering from seeing the leopard, we came across a rock python in the middle of the road. The rock python is the largest snake in Africa, averaging 3 to 5 meters in length. This particular python must have been a juvenile as it was only about 2.5 meters long. Sitting in some mud on the road, its green skin really stood out. It was breathing heavily, taking in air and then letting it out with a wheeze in what may have been a defensive gesture to ward us off.

After our game drive, we visited Mweya Lodge, a high-end luxury safari hotel, to access internet and enjoy the gorgeous views of the Kazinga Channel. On the way back to Bush Lodge, we came across a herd of elephants, including a small baby elephant. The mothers were very protective and always kept the baby between them.  We enjoyed a wonderful 4-course meal under the stars upon our arrival at Bush Lodge. Another amazing day!

A Long Day’s Journey to Queen Elizabeth National Park

Although this day was spent mostly travelling from Mbarara to Queen Elizabeth National Park, we took time out for a tour of the Igara Growers Tea Factory on the outskirts of Mbarara and for an evening safari drive once we arrived at the park.

Igara Growers Tea Factory is cooperative which purchases its tea from over 5500 local farmers, roughly 3400 of whom are shareholders in the company. About 90% of the factory’s production of black tea is in primary grades (BP1, PF1, PD, and D1), with the remaining 10% in secondary grades (BP, PF, D, BMF, and F1). We were able to tour the factory, although no photography was allowed. Led through the facility by a shift manager, we learned how tea is made in Uganda, from fresh tea leaves brought in by local farmers all the way to the packing of the final product.  There are four steps in the process: withering, fixing, rolling, and sorting. Freshly plucked leaves are first withered by forced hot air, reducing their moisture content. The withered leaves are then tumbled in the fixing process and rolled to further drying. After we toured the factory, we drove a short distance to one of the factory-owned tea fields.

Our drive from the Tea Factory to Queen Elizabeth National Park was fairly uneventful, although passing through the Kalinzu Forest we saw baboons by the side of the road. Kalinzu Forest is a protected forest area that is home to over 414 species of trees and shrubs, 379 species of birds, and six different species of primates including blue monkeys, vervet monkeys, black and white Colobus monkeys, and chimpanzees. In Kalinzu Forest, there are over 220 chimpanzees; chimpanzee hikes and tracking can be arranged for a fee.
A little further on from Kalinzu Forest, we stopped for a spectacular view the eastern escarpment of the Western Rift Valley floor.

We arrived at Queen Elizabeth National Park in the late afternoon. Founded in 1952 as Kazinga National Park, the Park was renamed to commemorate a visit by the British monarch the following year. Queen Elizabeth NP occupies some 765 square miles and extends from Lake George in the north to Lake Edward in the south. The two lakes are connected by the 40-kilometer long natural Kazinga Channel. Known for its extensive wildlife, the Park is home to some 95 species of mammals and over 500 species of birds. The Park is also famous for its volcanic crater lakes. After we settled in to our home-away-from-home for the next 3 nights, Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, we took a short early evening game drive and saw many different animals in their natural habitat, including elephants, Uganda kob, water buck, Cape buffalo, and two female lions.

Isingiro-Ngarama

Tuesday’s schedule of events was already action-packed, but our road trip from Mbarara into Isingiro District, south of the town, provided some additional cultural and geological surprises for us! After setting out from our Mbarara hotel for the 24 kilometer drive to our planned cultural exchange at the Ngarama Girls Secondary School, our guides added insightful stops at:

•    A monument to Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-American explorer reknowed for locating the British explorer and missionary David Livingstone and his quest for the origin of the Nile River. Close to this site he became a blood brother to a representative of the Ankole king in 1889 at the dawn of the colonial era;
•    Lake Nakivale, which suddenly relocated overnight from one place to another after an unexplained geological event; and
•    A striking example of parallel drainage system on a series of weathered hilltops stretching alongside the road close to the district headquarters.

Once we arrived at Ngarama, we enjoyed introductions along with tea and banana pancakes with the members of the Board of Governors. The Chairman, Mr. Johnson, explained the institution’s objective to empower the female members of this rural area by providing education and self-sufficiency skills, as well as their interest in partnering with Harper College. Their motto is “Develop a Girl, Develop a Nation.”

It was finally time to meet the students! Excitedly, our Harper Study Abroad team broke into groups to meet the four grade levels, called “forms,” of the school. Facilitated by their regular teachers, Ngarama students were encouraged to share their culture with us and question us about our American ways. Initial shyness melted away as the students became more comfortable as we shared information and laughter. It was a pleasure to observe how happy these students are to be enrolled in school, and just how ambitious the goals are that they set for themselves and their educational aspirations! Following this classroom exchange, we spilled outdoors to continue our interaction with games, conversation, dancing and singing, and even photography lessons! It was evident from shared smiles and hugs that our encounter was a complete success.

After lunch, two varieties of hardwood trees – mahogany and maesopsis (umbrella tree) – were planted throughout the campus by Harper College students as well as Ngarama teachers and board members, assisted by students who took photographs and helped dig and water the plants. These plantings will be lasting reminders of our visit and will outlive all of those who participated in this significant day. Moreover, they will serve as reminders to future family members of the friendships forged today between members of our two schools.

Isingiro is part of the banana cultivation heartland of Uganda and on the drive back to Mbarara we witnessed the harvesting of a bunch of bananas on a large plantation. Most of us had not seen a banana plant before, so close up views of this herbaceous plant, and the discussion about its lifecycle, varieties, and uses generated great interest.

Kampala

This day was dedicated to understanding the history and challenges facing the city of Kampala, guided by expert commentary from Ken Rukondo, a lifelong Kampala resident and urban planning professional. Our first stop was St Paul’s Cathedral, the physical representation of the power of the Anglican Church in colonial and postcolonial Uganda.  The present structure was consecrated in 1919.  The church’s role in the history of Uganda is complex. Working alongside the colonial administrators, the church was instrumental in bringing western education and medicine to the country, while simultaneously suppressing local practices that were thought to be at odds with British culture, including polygamy, traditional spiritual practices, notions of communality, music and dance, and the use local names for both people and geographic features.
The westernization of Uganda was evident at St. Paul’s Sunday service, which was in full swing when we arrived. The congregation, packed into a standing-room-only sanctuary, listened to a sermon and sang familiar Anglican and Christian hymns, built on a Western harmonic scales, along with some Ugandan church music. After leaving St. Paul’s, we saw the Buganda Parliament building, the gates of the Kabaka’s palace, and the lake dug under the instructions of Kabaka Mwanga II as Uganda was being absorbed into the British Empire. We then stopped along Nakivubo channel, a polluted waterway adjacent to a slum area that enters Lake Victoria. Poor residents live in the valley bounding the channel, whereas wealthy Ugandans, expatriates, and diplomats live at the top of the surrounding hills in plush homes, taking full advantage of fresh breezes and magnificent views. The slums areas lack running water and sanitation but are organized in small administrative units responsible for security and dispute resolution. This experience, which included some interaction with a few residents, left us with more questions than answers. What did the slum residents think of us and our short visit in an air conditioned bus? Did we see the dignity in each person encountered in the Nakivubo slum beyond the desperate material surroundings? Were we aware of parallel contrasts between wealth and poverty in the United States?
Just before lunch we walked through the vibrant lakefront market at Ggaba which was full of stalls selling vegetables, clothes, and housewares. A number of small restaurants catered to hungry workers and shoppers. This market had large areas dedicated to firewood, sand for construction, and a fish auction. The market was the site for some scenes from the Disney film, “Queen of Katwe”.  We ended our day at the Ndere Center, which is the home of Uganda’s premier dance and music organization.  Ndere’s artists are mostly high school and college students from disadvantaged families who cannot afford school fees. A significant portion of the proceeds from the center are used to pay school fees. Although a prominent feature on the Ugandan tourist circuit, Ndere has struggled against negative attitudes towards traditional music and dance that prevail among portions of Uganda’s westernized and Christianized elite. Ndere’s repertoire includes samples of music and oral traditions from Uganda’s many ethnic groups and some surrounding countries. The result is the continuation of a centuries-old heritage that future generations and the world at large can draw on for inspiration and values.

Entebbe and Kampala

Our first stop after arriving was Entebbe, Uganda, on shore of picturesque Lake Victoria. We then traveled through a commercial corridor filled with small retail shops, roadside vendors, and heavy traffic into the capital city of Kampala. The small businesses observed included skilled artisans working on metal or woodworking, women’s shops displaying clothes, bags, and jewelry. Competition among the vendors was high since many sell the same products. The ability to attract and keep buyers depends on the superior customer service skills. Moreover, some of these businesses rely largely on extending credit, which requires a lot of trust between buyers and sellers. We were impressed with the size of this business sector, which was a mix of formal and informal enterprises.

When we finally reached Kampala through streets congested with automobiles, commuter minibuses, and “boda boda” scooters, our host Prof. Jimrex Byamugisha brought us to Makerere University. We had a lecture and discussion on the human geography of Uganda by Dr. Mukwaya, followed by a tour of the campus and the surroundings.  We learned that Kampala is comprised of twenty-one hills, with the wealthy residents generally residing at higher elevations and the poorer residents in the valleys below. The value of real estate increased with elevation and the socioeconomic stratification was evident.

Our last main event for the day was dinner at our host’s home, where we enjoyed lavishly prepared and displayed Ugandan food prepared by his family. Many extended family members where present and the bond between them was undeniably strong.  They welcomed us warmly and we ended the evening with goodbyes and participating in a traditional dance.

Flight change! We were only supposed to have a 3 hour layover in Istanbul, but it we ended up staying 29 hours. We landed in the evening, still having time to go out and have a great dinner at a local steak house before going to bed at our hotel. The next day was jam-packed with activities, starting with visiting the Hagia Sophia Museum. The present building was the third edition of a church built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. It was turned into a mosque soon after the Ottoman conquest of the area, and then into a museum when the Turkish republic came into being after World War I. While walking around the museum, we could see both the Christian and Muslim aspects throughout the structure. The Christian mosaics were covered after the church became a mosque, but in the 1930’s restoration began, so people today can see the worship artwork of both religions in one building, reflecting the ideal of two religions coexisting in peace.

After the museum, we went to carpet business, where we learned about carpet making. We started off by observing a master weaver in the process of making the famous Turkish styled carpet. What makes them special is the double knot technique used, which makes the carpets lasts longer. Their durability and aesthetic appeal makes them an investment asset. They warned us of a common scam of removing silk tassels and putting on cotton ones in order to trick a customers into spending more money. We learned how to outsmart the scammers because silk does not release dust if the carpet is rubbed with a coin. By comparison, other fabrics release particles into the air.