Mabira the endangered forest
By Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome
Writing about forests is like writing about life – rich, varied, exciting, full of challenges and promises but also fraught with dangers. In recent years I have written much about the forests in our wider region, many published in The Eye Rwanda, and while I named Nyungwe as ‘The Enchanted Forest’ I have to call our own Mabira ‘The Endangered Forest’. Embattled by those who want to turn a quarter of it into a sugar cane plantation, assaulted by illegal loggers seemingly enjoying protection and eating deep into the core of Mabira, as recent overflights amply demonstrated, the forest nevertheless still has much promise and holds the key for at least part of Uganda’s future, as a green lung and water tower for sprawling and polluting Kampala, spewing out carbon dioxide which the 28.000 hectar forest then helps to absorb.
Mabira’s integrity is a way of life for those who through the ages combed through it in search of medicinal plants, edible berries, fruits and roots, which if sustainably harvested can provide a continuous livelihood for the communities living at the edges of it and it holds yet more promise as a resource for research, as many answers for questions raised by modern medicine for cures may be contained in it.
But over and above those issues, which could fill a book of course or make for some added dissertations Mabira is also an important source for nature and wildlife based tourism, and that is the focus of this particular article, to show just what amazing biodiversity can be found 60 odd kilometres outside Kampala.
Surprisingly few people actually visit the forest, or stop at the Eco Tourism Centre established by the National Forest Authority (www.nfa.org.ug). The figures given vary between 2.000 and 3.000 visitors per annum, many of them school groups for that matter, a commendable co-curricular activity to bring the need to preserve our forests closer to the next generation but when talking foreign visitors or residents, the number seems abysmally low. I It is understood that NFA was lacking in promotional and marketing efforts, unlike their wildlife counterpart UWA, where PR, marketing and in particular the use of social media has made waves. Several trained guides are ready to take local and foreign visitors on to one of the four main hiking trails, or else on one of four cycling trails, the latter requiring some experience with mountain bikes of course.
As the maps at the Eco Tourism Centre show, the four trails for hiking are the Red-tailed Monkey Trail, which can be done between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours, while the Buttress Tree Trail, about 5 km long, may take as much as 3 hours to complete. The Grey Cheeked Mangabey Trail is the longest of the four, 6 kilometres long and can take as many as 4 hours to complete, at times longer as the guides try to track the famously elusive primates, seen in about one in three attempts according to Peter Nsubuga, one of the guides I found on site during my visit. The more recent discovery of the Black Mangabey is even rarer to find and would indeed take several hikes, even off the trails, accompanied by one of the guides with knowledge where these rare primates are actually located on a given day.
A short ‘Picnic Loop’, almost not worthy to be called a hike, as it is rather a stroll, of less than a kilometre can be completed in 20 – 30 minutes and at least gives an insight, a peek really, of what to expect when venturing deeper into Mabira forest.
The cycling trails, mountain bikers are welcome to bring their own bikes though basic models are available for hire at the centre at a modest cost of 25.000 UShs for the day, are notably more demanding in terms of time and come from ‘easy’, The Blue Trail of 5 kilometres length taking about an hour or so even for novices, over the ‘medium’ rated Yellow Trail of 12 kilometres, taking depending on skills and fitness between 2 – 3 hours, to the longer and more demanding sections of the Red Trail, which has a shorter version of 22 km and a full version of 30 km – seeing cyclists take between 4 -5, and even more hours.
The ultimate challenge is the ride to the Griffin Falls, of late in the news over alleged contamination and pollution from a nearby sugar factory, which is called the White Trail and takes up to 8 hours to and from.
Before I moved to the RainForest Lodge I obtained a few of the impressive facts from the guides, including an eye-opener when I compared the mammal inventory by Nature Uganda with the ‘official’ guide books.
312 shrubs and tree species, 287 types of butterflies, 316 species of birds, many of them endemic, 23 species of reptiles, 97 species of moths and according to Nature Uganda 51 mammals, whereas the ‘regular’ guides only talk of 30. If truly so, a marked improvement over the past and all the more a reason to actually visit Mabira forest and hike it or cycle it.
And then it was a very careful crossing over the Kampala – Jinja highway, and be careful as you do because the number of food vendors at this spot at times make it hard to spot the cars, trucks and busses, which zapped by at high speed.
I moved for a few nights to the RainForest Lodge, to enjoy the forest, the hospitality and facilities the lodge offers. Set just about 2.5 kilometres off the main highway, this lodge is the only one within the NFA framework of national forests. Access is via a good murram track, soon entering the forest proper. The mood immediately changes into anticipation as eyes scan the trees for monkeys, for bright flowers, orchids perhaps, the birds and butterflies, but not taking the eyes off the road for too long as there are some steep hills and sharp blind corners ahead.
Bookings can be done with ease by email though payment still requires to be processed at the lodge office in Kampala, and all meals are included in the price. Ugandans and residents get a special rate for a stay in any of the 20 wooden cabins. Meals are taken in the main restaurant but above it, almost as perched between the trees, is a bar and ‘lookout’ from an elevated vantage point, which permits for bird watching or simply looking into the evergreen foliage while sipping ones favourite cocktail, wine or spirit.
Depending on occupancies, there is either a buffet with a variety of dishes to choose from, starting with a soup all the way to the desert or else meals are served by the waiters, with a choice of dishes also available from the daily menu. Accommodation is spread out, the cottages well set apart from the next, and that allows for total privacy and the quiet, if not silent enjoyment of the forest. This is a ‘silent’ lodge, walk ways to the cottages often steep but well lit to come for dinner and then return to the solitude of one’s own cabin securely.
The eerie calls of the forest hyrax echo through the night from deep in the forest, surely causing goose pimples to those who hear these screams for the first time, when the guests at the Mabira RainForest Lodge retire to their rooms after their dinner. The best ‘magic’ in the forest is experienced at full moon of course while at new moon the darkness is almost overpowering before getting used to the various night sounds which emerge from the thickets, crickets, insects, moths flying circles around the balcony light unless it is switched off, or the whoosh of bat wings, the calls of the night owls or the rustling of leaves in the breeze, to permit a close up experience of sounds and scents of the forest, engulfing those seeking this special solitude.
A resident guide is available to take guests for walks around the lodge and beyond, explaining about birds, the red tailed monkeys, the shrubs and trees and has answers for just about any questions the visitors may throw at him. And for those not wishing to hike, there is a swimming pool and a sauna available for resident guests to use, and many in fact do to take advantage of a steaming hot visit to the sauna as outside the evening chill creep up on the swimmers at the nearby pool. Mabira, so near and yet it feels so totally removed from the hustle and bustle of the city that it is always worth a visit, for a weekend or a mid week break which will be remembered for long, at the RainForest Lodge inside Mabira Forest or using the basic bandas at the Eco Tourism Centre. Just as long as you go and do visit.