MABIRA, THE ENDANGERED FOREST
(Posted 12th June 2012)
Writing about forests for me 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 of these pieces published in The Eye in Uganda and Rwanda, and while I named Nyungwe as The Enchanted Forest that one truly has a special place in my heart 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 in the name of progress and development, assaulted by illegal loggers seemingly enjoying some serious protection and eating ever deeper into the core of Mabira, as recent overflights amply revealed, the forest nevertheless still has much promise and holds the key for at least part of Ugandas future, as a green lung and water tower for the sprawling and polluting Kampala metropolitan area, spewing out carbon dioxidewhich the 28.000 hectares forest then helps to absorb.
Mabiras continued 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 and even fire wood, 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 or thesis on this topic, Mabira is, or at least should also be 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 our capital city of Kampala and what attractions the forest holds for tourists and local visitors alike.
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 by staff 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 of foreign visitors or residents, the number seems abysmally low. It is understood that NFA was and continues to be lacking in promotional and marketing efforts or capacity, unlike their wildlife counterpart UWA, where PR, marketing and in particular the use of social media has made strong waves, even getting one over the Uganda Tourist Board it seems. Several trained guides based at the Eco Tourism Centre 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, available in hard copy if not out of stock, at the Eco Tourism Centre show, the four trails for hiking are the Red-tailed Monkey Trail, which can be easily done between say 45 minutes and 1.5 hours, while the Buttress Tree Trail, about 5 km long, may take as much as 3 hours to complete, depending how fit the hikers are and how long they prefer to stop to see birds or plants. The Grey Cheeked Mangabey Trail is the longest of the four, 6 kilometres long and it can take as many as 4 hours to complete, at times longer as the guides try to track the famously elusive primates. Those are seen only in about one in three attempts according to Peter Nsubuga, one of the guides I found on site during my visit. The more recently discovered Black Mangabey is even rarer to find and it would indeed take several hikes, even off the regular 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 and experiencing to be inside a tropical rain forest with all the sights, sounds and scents it has in store for visitors.
The cycling trails, mountain bikers are welcome to bring their own bikes of course, though basic models are available for hire at the centre at a modest cost of 25.000 UShs or about 10 US Dollars 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 complete. The difficult and longer and much more demanding sections of the Red Trail are the most challenging for riders, and this trail has a shorter version of 22 km and a full version of 30 km it in average takes cyclists between 4 -5, and even more hours to complete.
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 the centre though can be shortened by driving to near the falls and setting out with the bikes from there, as long as a driver takes care of the vehicle and teams up with the riders at their end point.
Before I moved on to the RainForest Lodge for a bit of luxury and fine hospitality, 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 a Nature Uganda inventory 51 mammal species, whereas the regular guide books only talk of 30. If truly so, this would be a marked improvement over the past and all the more a reason to actually visit Mabira forest and hike it or cycle it. The Eco Tourism Centre also has three bandas for hire, clean and functional, with bedsheets, blankets and towels, but not self contained and not connected to electricity. A kerosene lamp is available for each of them and a basin and scoop are provided for washing outside in an enclosed little shower place and a long drop is set back a few metres. The prices reflect the standards, 8.000 Uganda Shillings for Ugandans and 15.000 Uganda Shillings for foreigners but comparably affordable vis a vis similar locations in for instance the national parks. Meals can be obtained at a very reasonable cost, upon prior arrangements with the visitor centre and comprises local produce, filling, wholesome but hardly a gourmet meal of course.
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. Parked cars make that task even harder so utmost caution is required on this accident black spot.
I moved for a few nights to the RainForest Lodge, to enjoy the forest, the hospitality and facilities this award winning 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, a further sign that the commercial side of the NFA has yet to realize that there is actually tourism happening in Uganda and NFA could make quite a bit of money from concession fees, royalties and entrance fees paid by visitors, if only theyd embrace tourism seriously and under a well thought out development plan. Access to the lodge from the main highway is via a good murram track, soon entering the forest proper after leaving the roadside shacks and shops behind and escaping from the vendors trying to proffer roast meats, roast corn cobs and cold drinks through a hardly open window. The mood immediately changes when inside the forest, from the feeling of escape into a sense of anticipation which develops as eyes scan the trees for monkeys, for bright flowers, orchids perhaps, the birds and butterflies, but best not to be taking the eyes off the road for too long as there are some steep hills and sharp blind corners ahead.
Bookings for the RainForest Lodge can be done with ease by email via GeoLodgesAfrica though payment still requires to be processed at the lodge office in Kampala to secure the confirmation and when done all meals are included in the price, which are breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Ugandans and expatriate residents get a special rate for a stay in any of the 20 wooden cabins.
All meals are taken in the main restaurant but above it, almost as perched between the trees, is a lounge 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, the chef offers 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 tabled hote menu, with freshly baked buns and bread, served hot as it is supposed to be served.
Accommodation is well spread out, the 20 cottages set far apart one from the next, and that allows for total privacy and the quiet, if not silent enjoyment of the forest. This is through and through a silent lodge with no TV or music systems blaring away and guests are equally expected to keep their voices low and use earphones when listing to their iPod music. The walk ways to the cottages are often steep but well lit and to come for dinner and then return to the solitude of ones own cabin securely, staff are readily at hand to accompany guests after dark to and from their rooms to the dining room, if given a time by the visitors in advance.
The eerie calls of the forest hyrax often 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. Whatever this is it makes a sound like in a haunted movie I remember an American visitor say to me during a previous visit before adding, if well remembered in a rather smaller voice there are no ghosts here, surely ?
The best magic in the forest is experienced at full moon of course, and admittedly best with someone very special to share such a unique experience with, sitting hand in hand on the private balcony each cottage has extending literally into the foliage. At new moon the darkness is almost overpowering before getting used to the shadows dancing under the starlight, hearing 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, the hurrying feet of some small animal rushing through the leaves on the ground, to permit a close up experience of sounds and scents of the forest, engulfing those seeking this special solitude and an extraordinary experience.
A resident guide is available during the day 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 visit to the steaming hot sauna, even as outside the evening chill creeps up on the swimmers at the nearby pool, the sun only having a warming effect when directly overhead. Massages too are offered and there are plans to establish a fully fledged Spa at the RainForest Lodge in Mabira to add further services for guests, tempted perhaps to come for a health week with special menus reflecting the use of organic ingredients, spending the a few days on a strict diet of health food accompanied by regular work outs and exercises, Yoga and meditation perhaps at the centre of it all.
The lodge is so near to Kampala 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 else, for those on a tight budget they can use the basic bandas at the Eco Tourism Centre., do a self catering trip or have some simple meals cooked for them, just as long as you come to Mabira and do visit. The road from Kampala is in reasonable shape, with a few potholes to watch out for of course, or it would not be Uganda, The Pearl of Africa.
In closing two more things are definitely worth mentioning. Last year the lodge staged a music weekend with Evon the Singer and others of Ugandas top performers and it is planned to have later in the year a Jazz in the Jungle weekend for aficionados of good music and good company. With only 20 cottages that will fill the lodge up fast of course, plus the three bandas and camping ground at the Eco Tourism Centre across the main highway, some 3 odd kilometres overall from the lodge, but that event is one to watch out for and not to miss it.
The other thing is one for star gazers. GeoLodgesAfricas Chief Executive and Managing Director Zahid Alam, when at the lodge, always brings his set of telescopes with him and shares his extraordinary knowledge of stars and star formations with guests, who are welcome to take a look into the skies above with stars often so near as to reach out for them. Unsullied from any light pollution which makes star gazing near cities much more difficult, here at the RainForest Lodge the lights are all dimmed at night to start with, or put out in fact when the guests gather around him and he begins to share his profound knowledge of the stars of the equatorial belt. That though is truly either a matter of luck to find him there or else, perhaps he could be persuaded to make it a regular event and not just provide his warm hospitality but also some lectures for new and advanced star gazers.
Enough reasons to visit Mabira Forest for sure now, from the solitude of a 28.000 hectares large tropical rain forest full of great biodiversity to the options for hiking and cycling to the chance opportunity to learn about the stars above, which sparkle down at those looking at them, with hope and aspirations and dreams in their hearts, ready to touch them, so near they often appear. Or else, simply for a romantic getaway, reason enough on its own that is.
Mabira is a star, or should be one and maybe, just maybe I can inspire a few of my readers to join hands in the Save Mabira movement which is dedicated to conserving this magnificent yet highly endangered forest for future generations.