LAKE MUTANDA FINALLY COMES OF AGE
(Posted 22nd August 2013)
(A view of Lake Mutanda, its islands and the distant Virunga volcanoes from the Chameleon Hill Lodge)
Lake Mutanda, and the nearby Lake Mulehe, have for long captured the imagination of locals and visitors alike, but have never quite made it to the top of the tourism rankings in Uganda, when one was considering where to go, for a long weekend or for a few days of a family trip exploring the country side. It was always Jinja, or Murchisons or Queen Elizabeth or Lake Mburo, Mbale perhaps with the Sipi Falls but few would take the trouble to travel all the way into the border triangle of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.
‘Those roads, no thank you’ was a common reaction I received from friends who do regularly traverse Uganda in search of new places to discover when I mentioned to them where I was heading. But truth told the roads from Kampala via Masaka, Mbarara, Kabale and then on to Kisoro are in a much better state today than they have been in many years. While there is still work going on at sections between Mbarara and Kabale, the Kabale to Kisoro road is fully operational, perfect tarmac and scenic like few others in Uganda. That road in fact was truly a reason in the past to shun Kisoro, especially when after a few rainy seasons the surface resembled a washing board, but no longer.
(From this in the old days to the new look road of today)
Thankfully that is presently changing mainly due to the brand new 75 kilometre tarmac road but in part also because of hospitality investors finally promoting their lodges, resorts and related activities to a greater extend now that they are more easily accessible. Electricity poles and installations have already reached as far as Nkuringo, and the Lake Mutanda area too is foreseen to be put on mains supply in due course. The road from Kisoro to Lake Mutanda and beyond to Nkuringo and Nteko is due for upgrading under a government policy to open up areas of key tourism potential but that of course will also benefit the local farmers who at last can get their produce to the markets. Additionally is added interest in this part of Uganda triggered by the sharply grown focus on the area among foreign visitors, those coming by overland trucks, back packers who often spend a week or more and who actively post their pictures on Twitter and Facebook and write about it in their blogs. That of course applies to mainstream tourists just as well, who often fly into Kisoro – Aerolink now operates daily flights from Entebbe via Kihihi – or reach in the comfort of their 4×4’s. Many of those have written rave reviews on TripAdvisor about the lodges they stayed in, the hikes they did and the parks they visited, finally spurring interest among the local expatriate community too who, as mentioned before, are always looking for other places than the ‘regular’ adventure and adrenaline activities of Jinja. When coming to the Kisoro / Lake Mutanda / Nkuringo area they can be assured of a place where they can get active if they want to and laze about if that is what they prefer. Whether they hike, boat or have brought their mountain bikes with them to explore the area, they will not be disappointed, nor will they be from their sunbeds at Chameleon Hill Lodge with that breathtaking 180 degrees vista.
The locals, friendly as all Ugandans are, have a lot of lore and tales to tell about the lakes while the wagenis are of course mainly interested in the scenic value of the locations to take pictures galore of one of Uganda’s better kept secrets and the lakes and the hills and volcanoes around Kisoro town..
Among the foreign travelers coming to Uganda has the Kisoro area steadily gained a reputation as a must see location, and many indeed combine their visit to the Mountain Gorillas of Mgahinga or Bwindi national parks or the tracking of the Golden Monkeys at Mgahinga with an added stay at one of the lakes.
Lake Mutanda is located just 17 kilometres outside Kisoro, the elevation of just under 1.800 metres making for warm days and cool nights, never too cold and never too hot, allowing for a range of activities, on the lake and around it. The lake can be reached easily by public transport, aka taxis or the equally common boda bodas, though the road is rough from the moment one turns off the tarmac in Kisoro town and heads out into the country side. Visitors coming with their own cars are therefore well advised to have a second spare tyre in the boot or bring repair kits for their mountain bikes, should they intend to ride those over the rocky roads leading up to the lakes.
The rewards for visitors are those magnificent vistas from higher elevations, marked by the islands of Lake Mutanda against the backdrop of the Virunga volcanoes Sabinyo, Muhavura and Mgahinga.
I was on this trip coming from Nkuringo after first hiking across Bwindi and exploring the forests and hills to and from Nteko and Lake Mutanda was the next key stop on my tour of South Western Uganda and another eye opener it was to become.
I will write separately about the new Chameleon Hill Lodge I found perched on a ridge high above the lake, coming suddenly into sight like a castle in the air, but for now let it suffice to say it is arguably Uganda’s most colourful, quirkiest and funkiest lodge I have seen yet and at a location where the proverbial million dollar view has surely turned into the billion dollar view.
From the lofty heights of Nkuringo, the road gradually made its way towards lower elevations as it hugged its way tightly to the mountain sides before reaching Kisoro down in the valley. Through small farms terraced into the steep hills, little villages and plenty of homesteads, this being one of Uganda’s most intensely farmed and populated areas, the road snaked from one steep corner to the next and drivers surely need to take care and not go too fast, though the road conditions will not really allow for that.
Especially in the morning hours, the valleys below are often ‘boiling’ with fog and mist, making for impressions which will last a lifetime when one comes from higher up only to witness such spectacles of nature in the early hour after sunrise.
Hikers with guides – absolutely recommended – or without guides – not so recommended – find it easy going downhill, probably steeled already by the experiences of previous days when they had to scale the escarpments and steep paths while hiking and the few boda bodas and pickup trucks, besides an occasional 4×4, pose no real problems when strutting along what on maps appears to be a major road but in reality remains an often deeply rutted challenge to drivers and cars.
A fork in the road, some kilometres from Nkuringo towards Kisoro, without any sign posts for that matter, gives one the choice to go on directly – using the left – or else hike via Lake Mutanda – using the ‘right’ branch – the latter direction leading through patches of forest, shambas and wetlands on the bottom of the often steep valleys, with not a single car passing until the lake came into sight. Birds aplenty can be seen while walking, something often lost when sitting in a car, and the fresh air carries an occasional whiff of wood smoke, a pointer to a nearby homestead where the main meal of the day is being prepared. When Lake Mutanda finally comes into sight, hikers will get their reward on sunny days, as behind the lake the distant volcanoes are visible, making for an awe inspiring sight. The lake itself is dotted with islands which are worth exploring and canoes are available at a reasonable cost, and recommended as long as they carry life vests for their passengers. Again, bird sightings are the main feature of course, especially along the main shores of the lake where reed grass provides a perfect nesting and foraging environment for our feathered friends.
Motor boat options are now available to traverse the lake but nothing beats the almost silent way how the canoes are floating across the waters, the only sound being the boatman’s paddle being used, or the calls of birds of prey above, seeking to take advantage of birds being startled by the canoe approaching and flying up from their hiding places in the reed grass to see what is going on.
(Map courtesy of www.gorillahighlands.com – an initiative for the economic and cultural transformation of southwestern Uganda through branding and promotion, multimedia products and cultural tourism)
Wherever one chooses to stay, at one of the resorts right on the lake, the eco tourism centre or as far as Kisoro itself, where plenty of options are now available, offering 1 to 3 star hotels and even non star rated accommodation which serves those travelling at the tightest shoe string budget, access to these trails and tours is now available to all visitors. These excursions and hikes, lasting from a few hours to a full day, are covering both Lake Mutanda and Lake Mulehe. Seasoned hikers however also have the options to discover the trails of the Virunga volcanoes on the Ugandan side, starting with Mgahinga where Nkuringo Walking Safaris offers tailor made trips or else make their way up to Muko and Lake Bunyonyi along yet more scenic winding roads as long as they have a few days to spare for such multi day trails. www.gorillahighlands.com organizes such hikes as well as boat trips on Lake Bunyonyi, which opens up the amazing, and at times baffling history of that area.
The Eye, in its printed version or via www.theeye.co.ug has a range of accommodation options listed for visitors to the area, but information is now also available when simply googling Kisoro or Lake Mutanda and yet more details are found via www.visituganda.com the official site of the Uganda Tourism Board or via www.ugandawildlife.org where links to Mgahinga National Park also give added information about the wider Kisoro area.
Those going to this part of the country should also know that not all phone networks have constant coverage and anyone bringing a USB modem to get connected through tablet or laptops, unless in Kisoro itself, can have a rude awakening. Some networks in fact jump to expensive roaming services of their sister networks in Rwanda or even Congo and getting wireless connectivity – as long as a signal actually can be captured which depends on location – is normally the better bet through smart phones compared to the use of USB modems. Those often at best get that notorious green light, indicating a slow Edge or GPRS connection but rarely get into the high speed range, if they can hook up at all.
And one final tip, do not leave Kisoro without buying some locally produced organic honey. A bee keepers’ cooperative is now marketing different types of honey, from the forests as well as the more open areas around Kisoro and in their shop even bee wax candles can be bought. Kisoro honey is arguably Uganda’s finest and any purchase will bring money directly to the rural folks allowing them to improve their lives.
After two recent trips to this part of Uganda I certainly once more fully appreciate that Uganda is indeed The Pearl of Africa.