Lake Mburo National park is one of Uganda’s smaller national parks; this park extends over 260km of undulating territory with an altitude range from 1,220m to 1,828m above sea level. The annual rainfall figure of around 800mm is relatively low, but roughly 20% of the park’s surface area nevertheless consists of wetland habitats. The most important of these is Lake Mburo itself, the largest of five lakes that lie within the park boundaries, and part of a cluster of 14 lakes that are fed by the Rwizi River and connected by several permanent and seasonal swamps. The remainder of the park mainly consists of open savanna and acacia woodland, with some of the more common trees being Acacia hockii, Acacia gerrardii, Acacia sieberiana and Acacia polycantha. In the western part of the park, the savanna is interspersed with rocky ridges and forested gprges, while patches of papyrus swamp and narrow bands of lush riparian woodland line the verges of the various lakes.

Lake Mburo is an underrated gem of a park, dominated by the eponymous lake which with its forest-fringed shores hemmed in by rolling green hills is scenically reminiscent of the more celebrated Lake Naivasha in the Kenyan Rift Valley. That the park has historically been bypassed by the majority of safaris and an independent traveller, despite its relative accessibility, is presumably down to the low ‘big five’ count, in particular the lack of elephant and infrequent presence of lion. Even in the absence of wildlife heavyweights, however, Lake Mburo offers some excellent game viewing, and you are as likely to see as many different large mammal species over the course of a day as you would in any Ugandan national park. The profile of the park has been raised by some recent developments. Lake Mburo has long been promoted, with some desperation, as an ideal overnight stop along the long drive between Kampala and the national parks along the country’s western border. Lake Mburo is now also the only Ugandan protected area in which visitors can view game on foot, quad bike and horseback.

Lake Mburo National Park harbours several species not easily observed elsewhere in Uganda. It is the only reserve in the country to support a population of impala, the handsome antelope for which Kampala is named, and one of only three protected areas countrywide where Burchell’s zebra occurs, the other two being the far less accessible Kidepo and Pian Upe. Other antelope species likely to be seen by casual visitors are topi, bushbuck, common duiker, oribi, Defassa waterbuck and Bohor reedbuck, while the lake and lush fringing vegetation support healthy populations of buffalo, warthog, bushpig and hippopotamus. Roan antelope, once common, are now locally extinct, but large herds of the majestic eland still move seasonally through parts of the park. The sitatunga antelope is confined to swamp interiors, and the klipspringer is occasionally observed in rocky areas. Only two diurnal primates occur at Lake Mburo, the vervet monkey and olive baboon. The eerie rising nocturnal call of the spotted hyena is often heard from the camps, and individuals are less frequently observed crossing the road shortly after dawn. Leopard, side-striped jackal and various smaller predators are also present, most visibly white-tailed mongoose (at dust and dawn) and three otter species resident in the lakes. Lions for which Lake Mburo was famed in the 1960’s, were hunted to local extinction by the late 1970’s through the odd pride finds its way into the park, presumably from Akagera National National Park in Rwanda. December 2008 saw the first confirmed lion sightings of three adults and two cubs for a decade.

Some 315 species of bird have been recorded in Lake Mburo Park. It is probably the best place in Uganda to see acacia-associated birds, and Rwonyo Camp is as good a place as any to look for the the likes of mosque swallow, black-bellied bustard, bare-faced go-away bird and Ruppell’s long-tailed starling. A handful of birds recorded at Lake Mburo are essentially southern species at the very northern limit of their range, for instance the southern ground hornbill, black-collard and black-throated barbets, and green-capped eremomela. Of special interest to birders are the swamps, in which six papyrus endemics are resident, including the brilliantly coloured papyrus gonolek, the striking blue-headed coucal, and the highly localized white-winged and papyrus yellow warblers, the last recorded nowhere else in Uganda.

Accessibility

Two different roads connect Lake Mburo National Park to the main surfaced road between Masaka and Mbarara. Coming from the west, the better approach road branches south at Sanga, 37km east of Mbarara. Coming from Kampala, it’s easier to use the road branching south from the 50km marker for Mbarara, about 20km past Lyantonde. The drive from Kampala should take about four to five hours, not allowing for breaks. The approach roads are both quite rough, so a 4×4 vehicle is recommended, though not essential during the dry season, and either way you are looking at about an hour’s drive between the main road and the rest camp. There is no public transport along either of the approach roads, but it is possible to charter a special hire from Sanga or pick up a boda boda. Another option is to ask the UWA headquarters in Kampala to radio through a day in advance to find out whether any park vehicle will be going to Mbarara, in which case you could wait for it at Sanga.

Activities

Boat trips- A motorboat trip on Lake Mburo leaves from the jetty at the main campsite 1km from Rwonyo camp. In addition to the attractive scenery and simple pleasure attached to being out on the water, the boat reliably produces good sightings of hippo, crocodile, buffalo, waterbuck, and it’s also worth looking out for the three species of resident otter. Among the more conspicuous water birds are African fish eagle, marabou stork, pied kingfisher and various egrets and herons, while Ross’s turaco and Narina trogon are frequently seen in lakeside thickets. Lake Mburo is possibly the easiest place in Uganda to see the elusive African finfoot, which is generally associated with still water below overhanging branches. Fishermen with their own equipment may fish in the lake from the campsite by arrangement.

Game drives

It’s terribly unfashionable, but it is still possible to explore Lake Mburo by vehicle, if you can shrug off the looks from horse riders and quad bikers. The most frequently used roads are the impala and the Zebra tracks, which respectively connect Sanga gate and Nshara gate to Rwonyo camp Rest Camp. The quality of game viewing along these tracks is erratic but, particularly during the wet season, substantial concentrations of impala, zebra, waterbuck, topi and buffalo are often to be found only 2km from Rwonyo in the park-like savanna at the junction of Impala and Warukiri tracks.

Historically, during the dry season, when animals tend to congregate around the swamps and lakes, the most productive roads were the Lakeside Track and Kigambira Loop. However, increasingly dense bush over has complicated game viewing in this area (unless you are searching specifically for bush-dwelling birds) or hoping to spot a leopard. A 360 degrees panorama from the once-grassy summit of Kigambira Hill has been all but obscured by scrub. It’s a different situation if you branch east of the Lakeside Track where the Kazuma and the Kazuma and Ruroko tracks pass through relatively open savanna interspersed with rocky hills where pairs of klipspringer are frequently observed. Visitors can park up and walk to the top of Kazuma Hill, from where there is a view over four of the park’s lakes.

To the west of Rwonyo, starting near Sanga Gate, the Rwizi Track leads through an area of light acacia savanna. Impala, eland and Burchell’s zebra are common in this area, and the western shore of Lake Mburo is visible at times. After 12km, the track approaches the Rwizi River and Fringing swamps. It then veers to the west, following the wooded watercourse for 33km before reaching Bisheshe Gate, a stretch that is particularly rewarding for birds. It is possible to drive beyond the gate to the main Mbarara road, but the track is in appalling condition and is challenging even in a 4×4 vehicle.

Guided walks

One of the major attractions of lake Mburo is that you are permitted to walk anywhere in the park in the company of an armed ranger. Near the camp, the road to the jetty remains a good place to walk, rich in birds and regularly visited by hippos. An even better target is the viewing platform that overlooks a salt lick about 2km from the camp this is an excellent place to see a wide variety of animals. Of particular interest to walkers and birders is the Rubanga Forest, which lies off the Rwizi Track and can only be visited with the permission of the warden, who will provide you with an armed ranger. Visitors used to be allowed to walk unaccompanied along the 1km stretch of road between Rwonyo and the main campsite, but this practice was discontinued a few years ago after a tour leader was mauled by a buffalo.