LAKE ALBERT – WILDERNESS BROUGHT WITHIN REACH
(Posted 06th October 2014)
(Lake Albert as seen from inner space)
The name Lake Albert inevitably inspires visions of the Africa of the explorer days, when lakes, rivers and mountains were named after royalty, days when the mere mention of such names brought about, almost at once, the desire to equally explore and venture in to the great unknown and 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 in 1864, who promptly named the lake after Prince Albert, the consort of 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 and in particular the British colonies and protectorates in Africa, from Egypt over the Sudan, 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, since post-independence jointly ‘owned’ by Uganda and Congo DR, was at a certain time even known as Lake Mobutu Sese Seko, for some years named after the strongman who ruled Zaire with an iron fist, the name of the lake gone much sooner than the owner of the name himself, like the passing clouds of history.
Some 160 kilometres long and up to 30 kilometres wide is Albert 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 Murchisons’ Falls National Park and flowing into the lake at the very northern end, 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 word for the White Nile. At the southern end of the lake it is the Semliki River which empties into Lake Albert, which also along some stretches forms the border between the two countries.
Rich in fish this was of old the main wealth of the area, feeding the people living along its shores and when road transport became more widely available, the catches were 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 country side is still there for the travelers to see and appreciate – agriculture, dairy farming and ranching, in addition of 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, 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, changing the economic outlook of Uganda, and 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, call 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, where 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.
(The Bunyoro Kingdom Coat of Arms and official Flag)
Talking about the Bunyoro Kingdom, one of several restored 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 shape than in the olden days, the colonialists, the regime of Milton Obote who abolished the kingdoms in 1967 and is today a treasured cultural institution, with HRH Solomon Iguru the First, the 27th ‘Omukama’ or king in the local Bunyoro language.
For the spirited and sustained resistance against the British rule was part of the kingdom’s land given to other, more compliant kingdoms, Buganda and Toro, and while thankfully no territorial disputes have remained active today, were such acts by the colonial rulers never forgotten by the people of Bunyoro.
With much of the oil wealth found on the kingdom’s land, are negotiations going on to get 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 visiting the main sites and monuments, palaces and cultural hotspots of the kingdom will in years to come no doubt become magnets for tourists who, after or before 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 and perhaps understand better, that Africa never was a dark continent but one with 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 Murchisons Falls National Park and as the road network is getting better in Western Uganda, will more and more safari vehicles traverse the kingdom when leaving that park at Masindi and then proceeding on via Hoima to Fort Portal, the Rwenzori Mountains, Kibale National Park, the Toro Semliki Game Reserve and Queen Elizabeth National Park, where on entry one crosses the equator from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere.
But in between, just an hour’s drive from Hoima courtesy of the new highway, can one 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.
(The UWA ranger and management camp at the edge of the reserve)
When one looks at familiar travel patterns of Ugandans and Uganda’s expatriate community, presently only a handful of destinations stands 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 even have heard of Mt. Elgon and Sipi Falls, of Lake Mburo and perhaps even Kidepo or following a series of feature articles a year ago about hiking and canoeing in Uganda’s South West 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 features 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 end of Uganda, allowed some insights into what has been happening there since the lodge was opened in 2007 at which time the reserve was literally bare of game and, apart from the spectacular setting of the lodge on top of the cliffs over Lake Albert there was little reason to travel there.
(Bruce Martin, owner, host and guide par excellence during my visit)
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 important, restocking it with game.
Many I spoke 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 for all purposes gone as a game rich area and among those considered for possible degazetting, to make land available for grazing cattle and goats or find suitable crops to grow to spur agricultural production beyond subsistence farming.
When Bruce however entered the scene, degazetting was quickly off the table 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 of game with added numbers brought in from other parks to allow for a faster reproduction rate of the species previously found there.
(Uganda kobs are ever present when venturing out on game drives or guided walks)
Today, the reserve is teeming with thousands of kobs, often seen in very large congregations and making for those experiences of a life time when the game drive vehicle approaches, comes slowly to a halt, the kobs all eying it and its occupants leaning out over the roof hatch. The tension can be felt in the kobs, their ears quivering, before suddenly on turns to dash away, leading hundreds of others as their hoofs begin to drum the soil, have birds fly out of the high grass and from the thickets and soon get joined by duikers, bush- and waterbuck, other commonly found species in the reserve.
Buffalo numbers too have gone up and seeing thirty, fourty and even more at a go is no longer a rare occurances.
Warthog families roam freely and there is evidence of leopards again, as after all they can find prey with ease and no longer need 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 even with the untrained eye, from colourful sunbirds and bee eaters over the ground hornbills to many birds of prey.
The Lake Albert Safari Lodge comprises 12 cottages but more are planned to cater for growing demand, which 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 sight across the water.
(Sunrise over the reserve as seen through the doors of the main building and a feeding sunbird caught unaware)
It is the quiet setting of the cottages along the cliff 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 be over, and it is time to get ready for the day 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 or else see the sun rising as if pulled up on a string – once over the horizon she rises fast and the light spiel is just what photographers are looking for to capture their favourite scenes in different light settings across the day. The rooms 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 sleep. The rooms are lit using inverter batteries and hot water comes from solar water heaters using renewable energy sources wherever possible.
(Main building and cottages, all with thatched roofs made of grass from the area)
The main building, like the cottages under thatch, houses the main bar, the restaurant, a very comfortable lounge with free Wifi – bring your own USB modem to provide connectivity in the cottages or else use SIM card based smart phones or tablets to stay connected from there – and opens into a small garden where a pool is found, sunbeds and all, again just metres 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 equally invites for just reading a book or gazing into the distance.
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, though dining is very informal and guests can sit around a large communal table or else opt for some of the smaller ones if they prefer to just keep to themselves. Breakfast is served by order, Marmite, honey, jam and marmalade readily available on the buffet where tea, coffee and even hot chocolate can be brewed, the fruits are found and where large mugs made me smile, a better choice than those small fancy schmanzy cups otherwise put on the table which are empty after the second gulp of that important hot morning beverage of one’s choice. Lunch is very informal, taken either on a dining room table or else carried out to the pool or eaten from a plate while lounging in one of the sofas surfing the net or uploading pictures 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 day, soup, main course and a dessert, with the dress code being very informal as it should be. The service was swift, even at the one night when the lodge was fully booked, and a well-stocked bar and 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 flatscreen TV before going to the table discussed or simply life anecdotes exchanged as the guests tuck into the tasty meals. No one tries to copy Michelin star rated food but guests can look forward to well-cooked and presented home cooked meals, which still the hunger one develops during a day out in the bush.
(Horse riding, a unique way to watch game in the reserve)
Talking 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 to have the guest 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 section of the new ‘oil road’ and the airstrip near the lodge in Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve)
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, also the seat of the Bunyoro Kingdom, to the village of Kaiso, and some of the locals have aptly titled it the oil road, but more about that in a more extensive 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 makes the trip from Hoima itself to the lodge take just over 1 hours while the overall journey time from the capital Kampala was 4 ½ hours, give a little if traffic leading to the outskirts of the city is heavy.
The added option to get to Kabwoya and the Lake Albert Safari Lodge is by air 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 Murchisons Falls National Park and the parks around Fort Portal, Kibaale, Rwenzori and Semliki does Kabwoya and the Lake Albert Safari Lodge today make for a perfect stop over point, some 3 ½ hours’ drive from Murchisons, about the same to Fort Portal and around 5 ½ hours to the slightly more distant Queen Elizabeth. Yet, going by my own experience, and given the solitude found at the reserve with only the other guests out on game drives, many might feel regret to have spent only one night ‘in transit’ – my advice would be two nights at least and better three, to fully experience what safaris in the old days must have been like. There may be no lions, elephant, giraffes 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.
(An emphatic thumbs up for the Lake Albert Safari Lodge)