My two-hour boat cruise experience on Kazinga channel

Buffalos and hippos bask in the sun. PHOTO/ROLAND NASASIRA

What you need to know:

Waterbucks are least liked and rarely hunted. When chased by any predator, waterbucks stimulate a hormone with a lot of citric acid that changes the taste of their meat. Their philosophy is ‘kill me but you will not eat me.’

In two Toyota Land Cruisers, seven friends and I, went on on a mission to tour some of the destinations in western Uganda. On our itinerary, we set out to visit Queen Elizabeth National park in Kasese District after entering Uganda from Rwanda through the Cyanika border.

The first park we visited was Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Kanungu District. From Kanungu to Kasese via Ishasha, which forms part of Queen Elizabeth park, it took us five hours by road. 

We braved a longer potholed murrum stretch of about 150km. Temperatures kept on rising that I found msyelf drinking more water than I would on any day. And I had to constantly ask the driver to stop by the roadside, so I could answer nature’s call.

When we arrived in Kasese, we made dinner orders with a chef at one of the restaurants and guest houses in the park, where we were to spend the night. We then made our way to Kazinga Channel for a two-hour boat cruise. 

The 40-kilometre long and eight to 12 metre deep Kazinga Channel that connects Lake Edward and Lake George in Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is found in the second largest national park of Queen, after Murchison Falls. 

While there are a number of activities such as nature walks, birding, lion and leopard tracking, chimp tracking, mangoose tracking and scenery viewing we could explore in the 1,978 square kilometre park, we opted for a two-hour boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel.

Daniel Tirwomwe, a ranger guide in the park, says the channel is home to many schools of hippos, herds of buffalos and families of elephants. It is also a bird sanctuary, home to aquatic species and a few savanna birds can be seen on the shores. King fishers that entirely survive on fish, cattle egglets that rest on the backs of buffalos, yellow billed stoke and water thick-knees, are some of the birds you will find here.

If you are a birding enthusiast, Kazinga Channel will quench your thirst. PHOTO/ROLAND NASASIRA

Animal lifestyle 
Along the channel, buffalos live harmoniously with hippos. Tirwomwe explains that buffalos go to the channel to drink water for a purpose. 

“When the mud dries on their skin, the ticks fall off. There are instances where crocodiles want to attack the buffalos but the hippos chase away the crocodiles. At night, all hippos come out of water onto land to graze. When lions try to chase buffalos, hippos protect them,” Tirwomwe explains. 

Lions mostly kill and like losers or rejected buffaloes that tend to isolate themselves. Losers are aged buffalos that at a certain age, are unable to defend their herd against predators. Energetic females chase them away and become herd protectors. There are female buffalos that lead herds when old males serve no security purpose. They (losers) live a solitary life, go to the shores to cool themselves, drink water along the channel and end up being ambushed by lions. Other buffalo predators could be hyenas.  

Kill me but you will not eat me
Different colours sometimes differ. While some look brown, there are forest buffalos that are dark black and cape buffalos of South African origin that are grey.

When cape and dark black buffalos breed, they give birth to brown buffalos called savanna drailers. The biggest predators wouldn’t be lions but also crocodiles that sometimes weigh 300 kilograms. 

Apart from buffaloes, there are also few waterbucks on the channel. These, Tirwomwe explains, are starvation foods, least liked and rarely hunted by lions. When chased by lions or any predator, waterbucks stimulate a hormone with a lot of citric acid that changes the taste of their meat. They have a philosophy of kill me but you will not eat me. The lions will then look out for offals because the meat is too bitter and leave it for hyenas. 

Surviving under water
While buffalos live between 25 to 40 years, hippos live upto 40 years. Under water, hippos hold breath for seven to 14 minutes. When resting, hippos get submerged and leave their backs out to sunbathe. Between 6am and midday, hippos are sleeping. 

“When there is a newly born male among hippos, the dominant male kills it. They are territorial and the dominant takes care of the rest. In most cases, females shy away to hide the young males. Hippos are perfect swimmers and trotters that can walk underneath water. On land, they run at a speed of 40km/hr and live up to 40 years and have a gestation period of eight months,” Tirwomwe adds. 

“Hippos hardly come out of water during the day because they are bare skinned. When exposed to ultraviolent rays, the rays strike their skin and get sun burn. Very few graze on the channel banks because they have a hypothalamus membrane that stimulates a hormone that shields them from getting sun burns. The hormone is not active throughout the day; it is just for a short time when sunbathing,” he adds. 

Kazinga channel is also home to crocodiles. These reptiles live between 100 to 200 years. Those with shiny yellow and black are females while males are darkish greenish. Sexes hatched out of crocodile eggs are determined by the temperatures of the day. In hotter temperatures, males are hatched and with a slight reduction in the temperature of the day by one degree, the eggs start to turn from male to female. 

Conserving the channel 
Andrew Seguya, the executive secretary of Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC), advises that conserving Kazinga channel for the benefit of present and future generations in Uganda and DRC requires combined efforts because it is one of the very few man and biosphere reserves in East Africa.

“At Kazinga Channel, locals freely interact with nature in harmony without harming each other. It is a relationship that existed before Queen Elizabeth was gazetted as a national park. When local and international tourists visit such places, they make referrals and it is how tourism benefits countries through foreign exchange earnings,” Seguya says.   

GVTC is an Intergovernmental organisation established by Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, governed by a treaty signed October 30 2015, with a mandate to establish a transboundary collaboration framework for programmes and activities on wildlife conservation and tourism development in the Greater Virunga Landscape. 

While buffalos live between 25 to 40 years, hippos live upto 40 years. Under water, hippos hold breath for seven to 14 minutes.

When resting, hippos get submerged and leave their backs out to sunbathe and get some heat, while also remaining cool. Between 6am and midday, all hippos are sleeping.