Spotting Galore In Uganda’s Lake Mburo National ParkOctober 28, 2013
“Leopard!” my 23 year old son calls out from the back of the car. “There, at 11 o’clock!” A current of excitement ripples through the car as we see him, a big tom, tracking parallel with the road. Armed with nothing but a torch and our cameras, I try to maneuver to where we can capture a reasonable shot. He takes up position behind a bush where luckily, the road bends to the right. We wait, and he crosses right in front of us. A flurry of shutter clicks erupts, as we try to capture a usable image without flash, cameras stretched to their limits in the dark.
We luxuriate in our second successive leopard sighting in two evenings, made even more remarkable as both happened by chance. No bait, no radio collars, and no spotlights picking out eye-shine. My own limited knowledge of Lake Mburo National Park meant that I didn’t even know which favourite trees to head to. All we had to go on were reports of sightings on “on the Research Track a few days ago”. A good natured rivalry prevails in the car, as my daughter was credited with the previous day’s “spot”.
We had driven to Mburo to earlier that week, nostalgically recalling a magical dawn sighting of the spotted cat on our very first Uganda family safari 15 years ago. I didn’t hold out much hope for this trip…one of my pet theories is that if you set out to look for leopard, you will not find one. Looking forward to our relaxing three-night stay at Mihingo Lodge in the company of owners Ralph and Suni Schenk and their children, I didn’t really let thoughts of leopard trouble me too much – the lodge and surroundings provide ample distraction, and we were looking forward to some quality family time together.
In hindsight, I needn’t have been so pessimistic. At the lodge, I learned from Ralph that their Predator Compensation Scheme, started by the Schenks soon after they built Mihingo Lodge, is starting to bear real fruit now, with up to eight pairs of leopard resident in the eastern half of the park. The scheme is the only one of its kind in Uganda, and has involved years of persuading the ranchers surrounding the park that this is a good thing. No easy task, considering that livestock is the lifeblood of this community, which has over the last two decades systematically poisoned the local predator populations (and indeed most of the associated food chain) in retaliation for livestock losses. The lions disappeared some time ago, but leopards, more adept at coping with human influence, have remained in a core population that now appears to be slowly growing. With over 250 compensation instances so far, in which each “kill” has to be independently verified as being caused by a predator, the scheme is playing a significant role in regenerating the park’s leopard and hyena populations.
In fact, Lake Mburo has seen a renaissance of sorts since Mihingo Lodge was opened in 2006. The appearance of a truly luxury accommodation established a permanent presence on the eastern boundary of the park and raised its status from that of the poor cousin of Uganda’s Protected Area system. Poaching rates fell, numbers of eland, zebra, buffalo and impala have improved. Visitor numbers have increased, and other lodges across the price spectrum are now springing up in and around the park.
Mihingo is a great choice for discerning clients, though. Dramatically set on a kopje just outside the park, the rooms and public areas are achingly stylish and blend in with the rock in which they nestle. With the ambiance comes an outstanding cuisine, inventive, and delicious without exception, among the best I have sampled in Uganda. Under the expert management of Richard and Clemmy, Mihingo is always going to be a place that one leaves with reluctance.
Ralph and Suni, not content to sit on their laurels, have cleverly expanded the client experience, capitalizing on the park’s relative scarcity of dangerous game. Guests can now experience a horseback safari, ranging from an hour’s hack to a 2-day bush experience complete with a fly camp. Also available are bush walks in the company of a guide and an armed ranger, night game drives with a spotlight, and a newly introduced Bush Craft Kid’s Course that my 12-year old son and the two junior Schenks trialed. The Kids Course is another first for Uganda, and provides an absorbing couple of hours for the children. On this occasion, the intrepid group came across the remains of an old kill in a tree and the claw marks of, you guessed it…a leopard.
Iddy Farmer is the lodge’s resident bush guru. Her apparently inexhaustible supply of energy makes her the ideal person for the job. She leads the horseback safaris and the kids courses, and on one of the days we were there, I saw her find time for an early morning ride with a demanding 5 year old, who then insisted she join in a chilly swim in the lodge’s infinity pool. Late that night, after a busy day helping out at the lodge, Iddy led us on a hunt for scorpions, fluorescent in the invisible glow of a black light.
While at the lodge, we met a couple who were booked in for 9 nights – a testament to the charms of Mihingo. This inspired me with an idea for a new type of luxury safari I’d like to offer to our clients in 2014, building on the Slow Safari Movement alluded to by our marketing manager Anne-Marie Weeden in a December 2012 post on this site. To truly enjoy a lodge like Mihingo, you really need to be there for a minimum of three or four nights. Now we just have to research two or three other comparable places to create a safari with…
Post written by Patrick Shah, Owner of Journeys Discovering Africa, who visited Mihingo on a recent safari. Contact him and the team to quote your Uganda safari by emailing email@example.com
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