Arra Fishing Lodge
By Stuart Williams
The purpose of any review of accommodation is to manage expectations. People who may be interested in visiting the area and staying at the Lodge can go and, if they have read this review, at least they will be armed with some information. When we visited in April 2012, we knew not what to expect. We simply wanted to explore an almost forgotten part of Uganda, try out the fishing and see some birds.
I will start off by saying three things: first, we had a fabulous time, second, we will go back but, third, we will be more prepared the next time.
Arra Fishing Lodge lies a few kilometres beyond Adjumani in north-central Uganda. It lies a stone’s throw from Uganda’s border with South Sudan. To get there, one takes the main road north from Gulu in the direction of Juba. This road, to the turn off in Atiak, can be bumpy and occasionally tricky if wet. As the road is one of the principal supply routes for South Sudan, you will pass a fair number of trucks. Once you have turned off towards Adjumani, the road is very pleasant. In the town of Adjumani, one takes the road nicely signboarded to the Laropi Ferry. Again, the turn-off from the Laropi Ferry road is also nicely indicated.
The landscape almost all the way from Kampala was flat to gently undulating but from Adjumani onwards in the vicinity of the Lodge, my interest was immediately piqued: there are outcrops of rocks and, in the distance, Mt Otzi rises, standing sentinel over the Nile’s exit from Uganda. The Nile narrows between these outcrops and it is in this narrow section that the ferry crosses the river. Behind and beyond this relatively narrow isthmus, the Nile is very wide. Here, the flowing part of the Nile curves through a vast floodplain of floating islands and lagoons. The lagoons are still and humming with life.
We arrived at the Lodge at the end of the afternoon, hot and a little weary. Like us, there was a faint tiredness that hung over the Lodge. A little unkempt. Just inside the entrance to the Lodge, we found Horst, the Austrian owner, transparent tubes snaking around the entrance, feeding oxygen to his nose. Horst is a gaunt and lonely old man and has been living a simple life at the Lodge for the past 16 years. Museveni officially opened the Lodge in 1999 and therefore the Lodge enjoys his protection. Nonetheless, Joseph Kony visited him a couple of times, taking a Coke each time, over that period. When he’s feeling well enough, Horst is quite willing to chat about his meetings with the shifty-eyed Kony and about his own life in northern Uganda. The entrance of the Lodge is also decorated with traditional hippo hunting equipment – involving barbed spears and balsa wood floats. These are another favourite topic of conversation for Horst.
While the Lodge might advertise having tents and cottages, in effect all that is available are two cottages. These we occupied so we are not quite sure what would have happened had anyone else turned up to stay while we were there. The other three spaces for tents are either empty or the tents are tatty and threadbare. Each cottage has two beds with box mosquito nets. The rooms are clean and functional. Each has a basic and functional bathroom. The Lodge pumps water from the nearby lagoon into a tank from which the water is then gravity fed to each bathroom. The climate reflects the Lodge’s position at the lowest spot in Uganda and we were grateful that the water was not heated: the showers were refreshingly cool. Indeed, we were also grateful that the pool was filled with water and happily leapt into the water in the middle of the day, despite its slight murkiness and despite the amphibian friends – a large toad and several frogs – with which we shared the cool water.
Dinner, day one. Steak and chips, tilapia and chips, cold Club, thinly sliced cabbage and fennel seed salad.
Of the many things there are to do in the area, we only had time to bird watch and to attempt to catch fish. The Lodge itself is situated about 150m from the actual water, behind the inevitable wall of papyrus and other reeds. Access to the lagoon is through a narrow – and much overgrown – channel cut by the Lodge. A female crocodile was also grateful for this channel and she had chosen to bury her eggs about 30m from the water. We found the nest opened, eggs strewn about and the hatchlings in the shallows.
By all accounts the fishing should be good but it may be worthwhile contacting Horst before you go to find out about the optimal times and conditions. And so, whether it was our poor skills or the poor conditions during our visit, we caught neither Nile perch nor tiger fish. Nonetheless, attempting to do so was everything that fishing should be: gently puttering away in a wooden ssese canoe, James at the tiller and Tako bailing whenever necessary.
We slid through the flowing sections of the river, trolling for perch, watching the small clumps of water hyacinth floating by and glimpsing the pygmy kingfishers flitting among the reeds. We saw the laden ferry crossing the river, buses, lorries and vehicles appearing to glide across the water. In the broad lagoons, fishermen threw their nets to catch tilapia; African jacanas, squacco herons, purple herons and little egrets abound.
Lunch, day two. Steak and chips, only one serving of tilapia remaining. Cabbage and fennel seed salad. Indeed, this was a pattern repeated until, first, the tilapia ran out, then the potatoes and then the steak … Remarkably but pleasingly, the supply of cold Club – and other beers – was inexhaustible.
Each day, the heat grew and culminated in an evening thunderstorm, rolling in from the north in a spectacular display of lightning, a rush of wind and a downpour – to end as quickly as it had started. Despite the limited fare, dinner was a cooler event as a result of these early evening storms.
We may have failed to catch a fish but we were much more successful at spotting birds and over the few days of our visit, we accumulated an admirable list of bird species. We did try to find shoebills, which are apparently plentiful among the floating islands. For whatever reason, we missed them.
There were a number of things that we could have done but we ran out of time. These included crossing the river, driving and then walking to the summit of Mt Otzi. Had we done this, the views over the Nile would have been fabulous. We did not make it to Baker’s Fort, also across the river. Apparently, there are also hot springs near by but, again, we were more than busy enough and content to explore the river by boat.
As a measure of the place, our final evening at Arra was spent in the large lagoons to the north of the Lodge, downstream of the ferry. Here, we sat in dugout canoes, while the boatmen poled us about with skills that would make any Venetian gondolier envious, all in a gentle but no way frustrating search for the elusive shoebills. The lagoon was punctuated with sculpted rocks on which one could stop and sit awhile. The day settled in utter serenity; hundreds of cattle egrets commuted back to their communal roost; the fishermen collected on the shore to examine the day’s haul.
It is possible that having a monopoly in the area has led to complacency. It is more probable that with the decline in Horst’s health and ability to move about the Lodge, things in the furthest corners of the Lodge have been allowed to gently slide into bare minimalism and functionality. But that takes us back to where we started: we will happily go back. Partly it was having the freedom of the place to ourselves. Mostly it was because of the fabulous surroundings in which we found ourselves. The people in the area were generous and friendly – and Immaculate, preparing all the food and serving the cold beers, was no exception. But when we go back, we will travel with our own supplies – particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and bacon. We might even take our tents – there is ample space for tents – and negotiate some arrangement about use of showers. We would even consider going back to the cottages. But we will happily go back because we only got a taste of some of the things that one can do there.