FORT PORTAL ARTICLE
By Bill Reynell
About 320km almost due west of Kampala lies the town of Fort Portal, capital of both Kabarole District and the Kingdom of Toro and, if the district government officials have their way, Uganda’s tourist capital too. This attractive market town has long been a favourite of tourists and residents alike, who are drawn to it for its cooler temperatures, alluring countryside and ample opportunities for exploring some of the country’s best loved destinations. The journey from Kampala takes about four hours along a good road, passing through Mityana, Mubende and Kyenjojo, where the small-scale agriculture begins to give way to the huge tea estates so typical of the area.
The Mpanga River that flows through it neatly divides the town itself. Located to the south of the river is the bustling commercial centre, with its usual array of banks, supermarkets, phone shops and so on. North of the river lie the “senior quarters”, the leafier and more tranquil side of town that is home to government offices and roomier residences. Also found in this area is the Tooro Botanical Gardens, specialising in indigenous trees and medicinal plants and some of the nicer places to stay in the town. Originally part of the government-owned Uganda Hotels chain, the Mountains of the Moon Hotel was privatized and renovated some ten years ago or so and is the smartest place to stay within Fort Portal town, with extensive manicured grounds, swimming pool and all the usual amenities. Just up the road, the mid-range Fort Motel lies adjacent to the Toro Golf Club, a picturesque and hilly 9-hole/18-tee course, built on the historical site of one of Lugards forts, that has produced many of Uganda’s best golfers.
Pleasant though it is, few visitors to the area come to explore Fort Portal town itself but rather the many and varied sights that surround it. Some 30kms to the southeast lies Kibale National Park, which ranks up there with the premier chimpanzee tracking destinations in the world. While chimp tracking may lack the cachet of the more famous gorilla trekking, it is in many ways a more satisfying experience. With as many as 1500 chimpanzees in the park and several well-habituated troops, the chances of coming away without seeing them are remote. Usually, they are heard before they’re seen, their hoots and calls an eerie backing soundtrack to the sights of the jungle. They don’t hang about either, so keeping up with them requires moving through the forest at some pace. However, the terrain is not nearly as challenging as Bwindi and, provided the red ants are avoided, far less tough physically.
Once sighted, watching our nearest relatives in the wild is a fascinating experience, particularly on the all-day habituation walks, which follow the chimps from when they wake up in the morning to when they bed down for the night. It takes in the full array of foraging, feeding, nursing, playing, grooming, mating and possibly even hunting. Most of the 766sqkm of Kibale National Park is covered in forest and is home to 12 other species of primate besides the chimpanzee. Visitors have an excellent chance of seeing at least some of the diurnal species while in the forest or the neighbouring Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, including vervet, red-tailed, L’Hoest’s and blue monkeys. Red colobus and black-and-white colobus, grey-cheeked mangabey and olive baboon also inhabit this diverse area.
Both Kibale National Park and the adjacent Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary are particular favourites among birding enthusiasts. The park is home to over 350 species, including the elusive green-breasted pitta and four others that are found in no other park in Uganda. The community-managed walks in Bigodi are likely to offer birders the chance to add some ticks to their checklists, in the company of knowledgeable, local guides.
There are a number of places to stay within easy reach of the main Kibale NP centre at Kanyanchu, including Kibale Primate Lodge and Chimp’s Nest but most of the tour operators prefer to take their clients to the two really special lodges that, though slightly further away, are still within easy reach of the park.
The first of these, Kyaninga Lodge, lies about 6km northeast of Fort Portal. The spectacular, thatched, log-cabin edifice was built entirely by hand and took six years to complete and is without doubt one of the most impressive, new structures in Uganda. Rounding the bend of the tree-lined driveway and catching a first glimpse is a definite ‘wow’ moment and one cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of both the finished lodge itself and the achievement that was its construction.
Cresting the rocky ridge of an extinct volcanic crater, the lodge and its eight cabins overlook the beautiful Lake Kyaninga, one of the deepest and cleanest of the crater lakes that dot the area. Beyond, the rolling green countryside stretches away towards the Ruwenzori Mountains in the distance. In the main lodge building are the spacious dining room and cosy bar, with comfortable sofas arranged around a double-sided fireplace. Outside, the wooden decks lead down to the turquoise waters of the pool. Reached by means of raised wooden walkways, the eight spacious cabins feature huge double beds, private verandahs and claw foot tubs in the bathrooms.
The formal gardens were created by a London-based landscape designer and feature a croquet lawn and probably the only functioning, grass tennis court in the country. There is a floating wooden jetty down by the lakeshore and Lake Kyaninga is one of the very few lakes in Uganda that is bilharzia-free and hence safe to swim in. Walks around the lake take a couple of hours and guests can choose to go around the top of the rim or down by the shore. Of the two, the lakeshore walk is the more interesting, descending into a “land-that-time-forgot” forest teeming with birds, monkeys, bat caves and no doubt various other creepy-crawlies best not thought too hard about.
From Kyaninga Lodge, it is possible to set out on foot towards the Rift Valley escarpment, a walk of about three hours that is richly rewarded by the fantastic views at the end of it. Arrange with the lodge to have a picnic ready and waiting for you when you get there and enjoy a delicious meal while gazing over the valley floor, as it stretches away towards the Congo forests in the distance. More energetic guests can elect to climb the escarpment itself, a steep (and for the unfit, gruelling) ascent of about 500m, from which unparalleled views of Uganda’s highest and lowest points can be observed simultaneously.
The valley bottom is reached by means of a newly-commissioned road, which twists and winds itself down the escarpment and around the northern end of the Ruwenzori’s, before doubling back on itself and heading south towards Bundibugyo and the Congo border on the Lamia River. Semliki National Park is a lowland tropical forested park, contiguous with the vast forest across the border in Congo. The main attractions are the Sempaya Hot Springs, bubbling out of the ground at temperatures hot enough to boil eggs and home to a number of birds not found elsewhere in Uganda. These are essentially Central African birds at the eastern limit of their range, Congolese birds that consider the Rift Valley escarpment rather than the Semliki River their natural boundary.
Adjoining the Semliki National Park is the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve. Its predominantly grassland terrain teemed with wildlife half a century ago, before numbers were decimated during the political turmoil of the 1970s and early 80s. Although numbers have recovered significantly over the last two decades, there is still a long way to go before the reserve can be considered to rival the more famous Queen Elizabeth or Murchison Falls national parks. Instead, Toro-Semliki ranks high for bird enthusiasts with over 450-recorded species and its northern swamps approaching Lake Albert are considered one of the better bets for spotting shoebill storks.
About 30kms from Fort Portal town overlooking Lake Nyinambuga is Ndali Lodge, one of the oldest and most charming lodges in the area. Major Trevor Price bought the thousand-acre estate that surrounds the lodge in the 1950s, who after leaving the army had decided to try his fortune at tea planting. Like many foreigners, he was deprived of his land and expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s and he did not live to see his property restored under the current government. Instead, it was his son Captain Mark Price who later reclaimed the estate and persuaded friends and family to put up the funds to build the lodge in 1996. Sadly, he died shortly after completing the construction and since then the running of the lodge has fallen to Mark’s son, Aubrey.
Ndali Lodge is situated in the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Field, formed some 10,000 years ago during a period of intense volcanic activity that resulted in numerous explosion craters. Over time, the craters filled with water and today the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Field boasts one of the densest concentrations of crater lakes anywhere in the world. The views from the lodge, unsurprisingly, are pretty special. To the west it faces crater lakes, rolling hills and the Ruwenzori Mountains. To the south, Lake George and the plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park can be seen in the distance on clear days. To the east, Lake Nyinambuga was deemed important enough to feature on the UGX20,000/= banknote.
The lodge itself consists of a main, central building that house dining and recreational facilities and eight thatched cottages, decorated with floral patterns and antique zoological and botanical prints. The overall effect is much more country house than safari lodge, a feeling reinforced by the communal dinners hosted by Aubrey and his wife Clare in the candlelit dining room, which leave guests with the impression of having visited friends rather than having stayed in a hotel. The food is tasty and plentiful, the service attentive and friendly and there are few better places to while away an afternoon, reading a book by the pool.
Most of Ndali’s guests are there to track the chimpanzees at the aforementioned Kibale National Park but the surrounding area offers plenty of activities to the casual visitor. There are probably ten different crater lakes to explore within walking or cycling distance of the lodge, as well as the Mahoma Falls, a rocky cascade with a plunge pool one can take a bracing dip in. Guided tours of the vanilla factory on the estate can also be arranged, where fair-trade Ndali Vanilla is produced for sale in leading shops in the UK and around the world.
A couple of crater lakes north of Ndali are Lake Lyantonde, where Sebastian and Magda, a young couple from Poland, have built the delightful Papaya Lake Lodge. Its rooms and main areas are full of quirky and creative touches and the hilltop pool and lakeside bar are definite highlights.
Running southwards from Fort Portal, the road to Kasese and Queen Elizabeth National Park skirts the eastern edge of the Rwenzori Mountains. However impressive they look from the poolside at Kyaninga or Ndali, it takes getting up close to understand their true size. Stretching about 120 km from north to south, the Rwenzoris are Africa’s tallest mountain range, with six massive peaks all over 4,600m. Only Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya, both free standing extinct volcanoes, are taller.
The Rwenzoris appeared (positioned remarkably accurately) on a 2nd century map by the Greek geographer Ptolemy, who named them the Mountains of the Moon and posited that the source of the Nile lay somewhere on their slopes. Thus interlinked, the search for the Mountains of the Moon took on an importance – in the eyes of the European explorers who began arriving in the region centuries later – second only to the source of the Nile itself. Henry Morton Stanley made many claims for this, from places as far afield as Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania but the first modern Europeans to spot the elusive snow-topped mountains were part of the expedition in 1889. Less than twenty years later, in 1906, an expedition led by Luigi di Savoia, scaled sixteen summits in the range, including all six major peaks, documenting much in the process.
Today, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park covers much of the higher reaches on the eastern side of this mountain range and attracts small numbers of hikers and climbers from around the world, keen to explore its fascinating and challenging heights. The trails into the mountains begin at Kilembe or Nyakalengija, both found in the vicinity of Kasese town and the climb up to and down from Margherita Peak on Mt. Stanley, the highest peak in the range at 5,109m, will take the best part of ten days. It is a gruelling challenge as the climb is steep and the terrain unforgiving, with muddy bogs and fields of boulders that make for heavy going but the rewards are clearly worth it.
As the altitude increases, climbers will move through distinct vegetation zones, each with its own particular flora and fauna. Up to an altitude of about 2500m, montane forest rich in bird life and primates prevails, giving way to bamboo for the next 1000m or so. At higher altitudes, the moorland and afro-alpine zones are famous for their high altitude lakes and, more importantly, the surreal flora, with lobelias, groundsel and heathers reaching giant proportions.
Experienced climbers may push on to scale the snowy peaks but many hikers are content to stop on the trails that wind between them. Seeing snow in equatorial Africa must count as a particularly special experience but it is one that our current generation may be the last to enjoy. In 1906, Luigi di Savoia’s expedition noted glaciers on all six of the Rwenzori massifs. Today, only about 20% of these remain, thinly distributed over just three peaks. Scientists blame climate change and warn that the Rwenzoris may be completely bare of ice in the next 20 years or so.
Rather than dwelling on that sobering thought, let’s move on to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Home to over 600 species of bird and almost 100 species of mammal including four of the “Big Five”, Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s most visited park and one of the most bio diverse reserves in the world. Visitors intent on spending several days in the park looking for game are probably better off opting for one of the closer lodges, but for a day trip both Kyaninga and Ndali are well within range.
An early start gets one there in time for a sunrise game drive, the best time of day for animal spotting. Uganda Kob, buffalo and elephant are virtual certainties, and lion sightings are likely. By mid-morning it’s time to take to the water for the famous Kazinga Channel motor launch ride, a certain way to see hippo, crocodile and a multitude of water birds, with elephant, buffalo and other ungulates very likely too. Follow up the boat ride with lunch at one of the lodges, before heading back to Kyaninga or Ndali in time for afternoon tea.
The ease with which these varied day trips can be achieved is what makes this area such a rewarding one to explore. With savannah and forest within easy reach, beautiful countryside dotted with lakes and rivers on its doorstep and world class accommodation to enjoy it from, all set against a backdrop of the snowy peaks of Africa’s tallest mountain range, it’s no wonder that Fort Portal and its environs are becoming such a popular destination for visitors. It’s no surprise either then, to be told that district officials are pushing for it to be officially named Uganda’s tourism city. In many ways, it already is.
FURTHER READING ON FORT PORTAL :
Bradt’s Uganda (7th Edition) by Phillip Briggs and Andrew Roberts
Uganda’s Great Rift Valley by Andrew Roberts
EastAfrica Maps #7, Fort Portal & Kibale Forest (www.east-africa-maps.com)
UWA – www.ugandawildlife.org
Rwenzori Trekking – www.rwenzoritrekking.com
Kyaninga Lodge – www.kyaningalodge.com
Ndali Lodge – www.ndalilodge.com
Ndali Vanilla – www.ndali.net
Papaya Lodge – www.papayalakelodge.com
Mountains of the Moon Hotel – http://mountainsofthemoonhotel.com/
Fort Motel – www.fortmotel.co.ug
Toro Golf Club – http://ugandagolfunion.org/clubs/toro-club (if you fancy playing a round with one of the crop of talented young golfers from Toro that represent Uganda around the region, please book through Kyaninga Lodge. All proceeds go back into to equipment purchases and support for young golfers from the area).