Photograph above By Marko Barrett – Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve: Ugandan Cob
LAKE ALBERT – WILDERNESS WITHIN REACH
By Wolfgang H. Tome
The name Lake Albert inevitably inspires visions of the Africa of the original explorer days, when lakes, rivers and mountains were often named after European royalty. This was the time when the mere mention of such names brought about, simultaneously, the desire to explore and venture into the great unknown, tempered by the fear of travelling to places, which in those days were still blanks on many maps.
First seen by any European explorer it was Samuel Baker who in 1864 promptly named the lake after Prince Albert, the consort of then British Queen Victoria. The colonial powers, Belgium on the Congo side and Britain on the Ugandan side, were swift to see the potential the lake offered Vis a Vis transport. In particular the British colonies and protectorates in Africa, from Egypt down through the Sudan, into Uganda and beyond to Southern Africa, were keen to see all of their holdings linked, along the Nile and across the lakes with steamers and other boats.
This lake, post-independence jointly ‘owned’ by Uganda and DR Congo, was at one time even known as Lake Mobutu Sese Seko, being for some years named after the dictatorial strongman who ruled the then Zaire with an iron fist. The name of the lake was gone much sooner than the owner of the name himself, like the passing clouds of history.
Some 160 kilometers long and up to 30 kilometers wide, Lake Albert is the first of many lakes along the Albertine Graben, the western part of the Great African Rift Valley. It is here that the Victoria Nile, after passing through Murchison Falls National Park and flowing into the lake at the very northern end, then turns into the Albert Nile. Again, it is a short-lived name though, as upon reaching the border with South Sudan at Nimule, the name of the river once more changes, this time to Bahr-el-Jebel, the Arabic words for the White Nile. At the southern end of the lake is the Semliki River, which empties into Lake Albert, which also – along some of its length – forms the official border between the two countries.
Rich in fish, this was of old the main source of wealth for the area, feeding the people living along its shores and, when road transport became more widely available, the catches were also sent to the urban centres to feed the ever-hungry towns and cities.
In fact, when driving today from Kampala to Hoima, the old wealth of the countryside is still there for travellers to see and appreciate – agriculture, dairy farming and ranching, in addition to which commercial woodlots have been grown over the past decades to provide for building timber and firewood. The main food crops farmed are matooke, millet, cassava and yams but there are also cash crops grown like cotton, coffee and tobacco.
Beyond those visible ‘assets’ though, hidden deep underground, are the new riches found after oil exploration companies struck the black gold; crude oil, in such quantities that at least 3 billion barrels can eventually be pumped to the surface, and which will surely change the economic outlook of Uganda, especially along the Lake Albert shores, forever.
It comes as no surprise therefore that from Hoima, which is also the seat of the Bunyoro Kingdom, a brand new highway, called “The Oil Road” by the locals who live along its route, has been built to open up the access to the lake and the drilling sites. Well after well is being sunk, ready to begin pumping when the required infrastructure like a refinery and a pipeline network, have been put into place.
Talking about the Bunyoro Kingdom, it is worth noting here that it is one of several restored by the government in 1993. Once one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa, its history dates back to the 13th century and it survived – albeit today in a much smaller way than in the olden days – the colonialists, the regime of Milton Obote who abolished the kingdoms in 1967 plus the ravages of the Amin era and is today once again a treasured cultural institution, with HRH Solomon Iguru the First, the 27th ‘Omukama’, or King in the local Bunyoro language.
For their spirited and sustained resistance against the British rule, part of the kingdom’s land was given to other, more compliant kingdoms, namely Buganda and Toro. While thankfully no internal, territorial disputes have remained active today, the people of Bunyoro never forgot such acts by the-then colonial rulers.
With much of the new oil wealth being found on the Kingdom’s land, negotiations are on-going to secure a percentage of the proceeds from the oil in order to allow the Kingdom’s own government, installed by the King, to embark on development projects and help the Kingdom’s subjects to create wealth and find prosperity.
Kingdom tourism is yet to be fully developed but plans are afoot to create regional tourism clusters and structured visits to the main sites and monuments, palaces and cultural hotspots of the Kingdom. This will, in years to come, no doubt become a magnets for tourists who, before or after visiting the national parks and game reserves in the wider area, will want to stop at and learn about the ancient cultures, rituals and customs of the area.
This will perhaps help visitors understand better that Africa never was a “dark continent” but one with culture, highly developed languages and skills, Kingdoms and Chiefdoms, way before the first Europeans began to ‘explore’ the interior, with the intention to grab Africa’s riches and subjugate the continent’s people.
Tourists already frequent the Murchison Falls National Park and as the road network is getting better in Western Uganda, so will more and more safari vehicles traverse the Kingdom when leaving that park at Masindi or Buliisa then proceed on via Hoima to Fort Portal, the Ruwenzori Mountains, Kibale National Park, the Toro Semliki Game Reserve and Queen Elizabeth National Park, where on entry one crosses the equator that divides the northern hemisphere from the southern.
In between, just an hour’s drive from Hoima courtesy of the new highway, one can find access to the shores of Lake Albert and the two adjoining wildlife areas of Kaiso-Tonya and Kabwoya. Foreign tourists have already taken to these lesser-known reserves and the locals too will sooner or later discover new spots for spending a weekend or a couple of days away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
When one looks at the familiar travel patterns of local Ugandans and Uganda’s expatriate community, presently only a handful of destinations stand out, such as the upper Nile valley from Jinja downriver for adventure and leisure activities, the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the only place in the country were rhinos can be found in the wild, gorilla tracking in Bwindi and of course Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks. They will maybe have even heard of Mt. Elgon and Sipi Falls, of Lake Mburo and perhaps Kidepo, or following a series of feature articles a year ago about hiking and canoeing in Uganda’s South West, tourist activities from Kabale to Kisoro and on to Nkuringo with Lake Mutanda in-between. But who can honestly say they would know, off-hand, where the Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve is located, how to get there and where to stay?
Uganda, beyond the 10 national parks, also offers a number of game, wildlife and community reserves, many of which have their own charm, some with endemic birdlife and others, like Kabwoya, with that very unique setting. A recent visit to the Lake Albert Safari Lodge, which is set literally at the land’s end of Uganda, allowed some insights into what has been happening there since the lodge was opened in 2007. This was a time when the reserve was literally devoid of game and, apart from the spectacular setting of the lodge on top of the cliffs overlooking Lake Albert; there was little reason to travel there.
Introduce Bruce Martin, a key figure in building the MTN mast network across Uganda, who discovered the location many years earlier and decided to have a go at building and managing a lodge, in conjunction with also taking on the responsibility of looking after the reserve and, most importantly, restocking it with game.
Many folk I have spoken with over the past days, including staff of the former Game Department and of Uganda National Parks (before the two were merged to form the Uganda Wildlife Authority), confirmed that Kabwoya was to all intents and purposes gone as a game-rich area and among those considered for possible de-gazetting, to make land available for grazing cattle and goats or possibly for suitable crops to be grown to spur agricultural production beyond subsistence farming.
However, when Bruce entered the scene, degazetting was quickly taken off the table as an option and in a deal with the local community – a crucial element to ensure long-term sustainability – and the Uganda Wildlife Authority, it was agreed that he could build a lodge and begin the restocking with game, with added numbers brought in from other parks to allow for a faster reproduction rate of the species previously found there.
Today, the reserve is teeming with thousands of Uganda Kobs, often seen in very large congregations and making for one of those experiences of a life time, when the approaching game drive vehicle comes slowly to a halt, the Kob all suspiciously eying it and its occupants leaning out over the roof hatch, with camera or binoculars to hand. The tension can be felt in the Kob, their ears quivering, before suddenly one turns to dash away, leading hundreds of others behind it, and as their hoofs begin to drum the soil, birds fly out of the high grass and from the thickets and soon are joined by duikers, bush- and waterbuck, and other commonly found species in the reserve.
Buffalo numbers too have gone up and seeing thirty, forty and even more at a go is no longer a rare occurrence.
Warthog families roam freely and there is evidence of leopard activity again, as after all they can find prey with ease now and no longer needs to feed on the goats kept at the fishing villages, which are right down at the shore of the lake.
Official records show that Kabwoya today is home to about 460 species of birds and many can be seen easily even with the untrained eye, ranging from colourful sunbirds and bee-eaters to the large ground hornbills and many different birds of prey.
The Lake Albert Safari Lodge comprises 12 cottages but more are planned for to cater for growing demand. These are all set in a line along the top of the cliff, offering spectacular views across the lake into the Blue Mountains of the Congo, unless haze obscures the unhindered sight across the water, which is sometimes the case in the dry season.
It is the quiet setting of the cottages along the cliff tops which lets one hear the surf crashing into the beach 70 metres below, as the silence of the night begins to settle in, only disrupted by the sound of crickets, perhaps some frogs, a few night birds and the wind rustling the leaves of the trees. In the morning, before dawn, it is the sound of the birds which is most noticeable, as one after the other they begin to make themselves heard, a sure sign that the night is about to give way to day and it is time to get ready for the day ahead, as nature already does outside. Both sunset and sunrise are magic times of day in the African wilderness, when the first and the last rays of the sun give that mellow glow to the surroundings, before at dusk night settles in to reveal a stunning, star-studded sky above. Dawn sees the sun rising as if pulled up on a string – once over the horizon it rises fast and the light spiel is just what photographers are looking for to capture their favourite scenes, in one of the many different light settings that occur across the day.
The rooms at the lodge are simply furnished, with twin or double beds and in some cases with a third bed in the room, mosquito netting protecting all of them for an undisturbed night’s sleep. The rooms are lit using solar inverter batteries and hot water comes from solar water heaters, all using renewable energy sources wherever possible.
The main building, like the cottages under thatch, houses the main bar, the restaurant, a very comfortable lounge with free Wi-Fi – bring your own USB modem to provide connectivity in the cottages or else use SIM card-based smart phones or tablets to stay connected – and opens into a small garden where a pool is found, sunbeds and all, again just a few steps away from the 70 metres high cliffs.
The lodge also has a small meeting room in an adjoining building, including an outlook lounge on the upper floor, which invites you in for just the simple pleasure of reading a book or just gazing peacefully into the distance, at peace with the world.
When asked during one meal how I liked the food, I had to give them the thumbs-up sign, as speaking with a full mouth would hardly have been in order. Dining, though, is very informal and guests can sit around a large communal table or else opt for some of the smaller, more personal ones if they prefer to just keep to themselves. Breakfast is served to order, Marmite, honey, jam and marmalade readily available on the buffet where tea, coffee and even hot chocolate can be brewed. The fresh fruits is also found there and the large mugs made me smile, a better choice in my book than those small fancy-schmancy cups otherwise put on the normal hotel dining table, which are empty after the second gulp of that all-important, hot morning beverage of one’s choice. Lunch is also very informal, taken either on a dining room table or else carried out to the pool and eaten while lounging in one of the sofas, surfing the net or uploading pictures from cameras to show distant friends what they missed when they declined to come along for the trip.
Dinner, however, is a sit-down affair, and three courses are served every evening, soup, main course and a dessert, with the dress code still being very informal, as it should be. The service was swift, even on the one night when the lodge was fully booked and a well-stocked bar plus the availability of a decent selection of wines made every dinner an occasion of sorts. Tales of the day are traded over dinner, perhaps the latest news watched on the flat screen TV before going to the table to eat or simply life’s anecdotes exchanged as guests tuck into their tasty meals. No-one tries to copy Michelin star rated food but guests can look forward to well-cooked and presented, home-made meals which still the hunger one develops during a day out in the bush.
Talking of bush, the range of activities on offer at the Lake Albert Safari Lodge include horse riding, with a trained guide of course, walks across the reserve in the company of a guide and an armed ranger, visits by foot or car to the fishing villages at the lake shore, day and night game drives and, last but not least, bush dinners which are arranged on request. Starting with a sundowner, guests can enjoy the sunset over the lake before sitting down to eat, with candles and storm lamps providing illumination, while a camp fire crackles not far away, ready for everyone to gather around it for post-dinner drinks before making their way back to the lodge again.
I know, the next question will be how to get there and how long it takes, now that I have hopefully whet the appetite of readers to follow my footsteps and plan for a visit themselves.
A brand new super highway, as far as Uganda has such super highways, is in the final stages of completion, leading from the town of Hoima to the village of Kaiso, and as already advised some of the locals have aptly entitled it “the oil road”, but more about that later in a follow-up feature, which will also look in greater detail at Lake Albert itself, the adjoining Kaiso Tonya Wildlife Reserve and the unfolding activities of the oil concessionaires getting ready to begin pumping the black gold from deep underground. The new stretch of road means the trip from Hoima itself to the lodge takes just over 1 hour while the overall journey time from the capital Kampala was 4 ½ hours; give or take a little if traffic leading to the outskirts of the city is heavy or not.
The added option to get to Kabwoya and the Lake Albert Safari Lodge is by light aircraft charter, into a murram airstrip of some 1,000 metres length, located not too far from the lodge, requiring, depending on aircraft type, just over an hour’s flight from Kajjansi or Entebbe.
Located in between Murchison Falls National Park and the parks around Fort Portal, Kibaale, Ruwenzori and Semliki, Kabwoya, the Lake Albert Safari Lodge today makes for a perfect stop-over point, some 3 ½ hours’ drive from Murchison, about the same to Fort Portal and around 5 ½ hours to the slightly more distant Queen Elizabeth National Park. Yet, going by my own experience and given the solitude found at the reserve with the other guests out much of the time on game drives, many might feel regret at having spent only one night ‘in transit’ – my advice would be spend two nights there at least and better still three, to fully experience what safaris in the old days must have been like. There may be no lion, elephant, giraffe or zebra in the reserve but what is there is worth watching all the same, away from the crowds and away from those well beaten paths the Ugandan expatriate community seem to follow, making a visit truly special and unique.