Last week, the ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities embarked on a five-day tourism excursion to western Uganda under the campaign dubbed Explore West.
The campaign spearheaded by the state minister Martin Mugarra saw an entourage of more than 400 participants including media, celebrities, influencers and travel enthusiasts set off from Kampala to go and explore the hidden gems of the proverbial land of milk and honey.
Celebrities on the trip included comedians Patrick ‘Salvado’ Idringi, Madrat and Chico, kickboxer Moses Golola, Sheila Gashumba and dancer Mamweta plus Miss Tourism beauty queens.
The huge team set off at around 11am from Uganda museum, making the first stopover at the Equator monument in Kayabwe for photo moments at the line which separates the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
The next stop was at Lukaya roadside market known for its tasty roasted chicken and meats, as well as other organic snacks. Feeling energized and refreshed, the team got back onto the journey uninterrupted up to Lake Mburo national park in Kiruhura district.
LAKE MBURO NATIONAL PARK
Lake Mburo is the smallest national park in Uganda and the closest to Kampala. The park has a long history of a harmonious co-existence with the community and it is common to see zebras grazing with farm animals even before entering the park.
The park has 68 mammal species including zebras, kobs, impalas, buffaloes, bushbucks warthogs which are also seen grazing freely with cattle, a harmonious co-existence that cannot be seen in other parks.
There is a very limited number of leopards and hyenas in the park, and no lions which has made the population of herbivorous animals to multiply rapidly.
The park also has a variety of bird species such as shoebills, crested cranes, pelicans, herons, African fin foot and storks, which can’t be missed.
With a limited number of animal species and being the smallest national park in the country, one may wonder why they may need to visit Lake Mburo national park. Well, this small park offers more than just a game drive through its 260 square kilometres.
It is the only savannah woodland national park where you can do a walking safari and have a close interaction with the animals. Tourists can also engage in cycling and horse riding through the park, breaking from the monotony of game drives as the only way to spot animals. All these activities are possible because of the limited number of carnivores.
ANKOLE CATTLE FARMS
A drive through Lake Mburo national park brings you to Kamihingo Agro Tourism Farm. The farm, which is privately owned, is being developed into a cultural tourism site for the long-horned Ankole cows which tourists who visit the park can also explore and dive into the Ankole culture and the history of this rare breed of cattle.
Tourists get to herd the cattle, milk and drink the fresh milk directly from the cow’s udder using ekyanzi, learn how butter, ghee and yoghurt are processed, as well as beef roasting at a pit fireplace.
There is also a grass-thatched hut beside the kraal where ladies clad in traditional Ankole attire sat with gourds of milk and yoghurt, for guests to taste.
Minister Mugarra said that such cultural experiences are being added onto tourist packages as a way of diversifying the tourist attractions the country has to offer.
After a restful night in Mbarara city, the following morning saw us visiting the Mugaba palace at Kamukuzi, where we were welcomed by Ankole cultural dancers dancing ekitaguriro. We joined in before touring sections of the palace which is still being renovated by the ministry of Tourism.
The houses within the palace which have been renovated include Kahaya Mugaba’s house which was the main residence of the Omugabe, the drum house, the milk house and the main building which used to host the Omugabe’s offices.
These buildings were initially constructed in the 1930s but have now been renovated while maintaining their traditional architectural design. One of the most iconic events to ever happen at the palace was when it hosted three kings in 1948, when the kings of Tooro, Buganda and Ankole all slept in this same palace.
In order to conserve the heritage and maintain the traditional aspect of the palace, some rooms in the palace houses have still been rebuilt with mud and wattle. The furniture to be put in the palace will also be remodeled to resemble the original traditional furniture and the fence has been decorated with designs of the banana plant and Ankole longhorns.
The palace, once completed later this year, is going to be the nerve center of cultural diversity in the western region and the royal regalia including the sacred Bagyendanwa drums (Ankole royal drums) which are currently in the Uganda museum will be relocated here.
We continued to Kasese through the districts of Sheema, Bushenyi and Rubirizi through the lush tea estates on the gentle hills.
With at least 618 bird species such as the African skimmers, African fish eagles, African jacana, saddle-billed stork, martial eagles, shoebills, herons, kingfishers, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, garls, larks and flamingoes which migrate to the park from Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha in Kenya, Queen Elizabeth national park is the biggest bird haven in Africa and perfect destination for birding safaris.
All these bird species can be seen during a two-hour boat cruise along the Kazinga channel, which connects Lake Edward and Lake George. It was an evening boat ride aboard ‘the Pelican’ from which we were able to explore the oasis of wildlife among which were large herds of elephants, buffaloes and hippos, crocodiles and the birds.
Did you know that during Idi Amin’s regime, he renamed these two lakes to Lake Amin and Lake Mobutu? The colonial names were restored when Amin left power.
LION TRACKING IN QUEEN ELIZABETH
Queen Elizabeth has 95 species of mammals and hosts four out of the big five mammals, namely lions, elephants, leopards and buffaloes. The lions found in the Ishasha part of the park are tree-climbing lions, unique to this park.
We tracked the lions in their natural habitat in the Kasenyi plains, and managed to spot three lions resting under a tree with their latest kill: a buffalo.
According to our guide Judith Nyamihanda, the lions stay around guarding and feeding on their kill for at least two days after which they abandon it for scavengers.
The lions seemed unbothered by the many eyes watching at a close range, the cars moving around them or the cameras clicking away; they calmly remained seated yawning and panting exposing their gigantic teeth until one got up and walked around as though marking its territory before retreating into a thicket.
According to the animal census conducted in the park in 2017, the park had 148 lions, although the park has lost several to poisoning in the last few years. The census is done every ten years.
“I had never seen a lion before; so, it has been exciting to finally get to see it and at such a close range,” kickboxer Golola said.
LAKE KATWE SALT DEPOSITS
Lake Katwe is a salty crater in Kasese district, near Queen Elizabeth national park. The lake, surrounded by 25,000 salt ponds, provides a holistic tour experience as visitors have to go through narrow pathways separating the ponds and demarcated by visibly weak pieces of wood.
The ground is soggy and the pungent smell of rock salt tickles the nostrils. The site is, nevertheless, picturesque thanks to the clear blue skies which beautifully reflects in the salt ponds thus making it ideal for photography.
According to Nicholas Kagongo, the lake’s tour guide, salt mining here dates back to the mid-1400s. The salt is extracted using traditional methods with more than 5,000 people employed around the lake during the peak seasons. It is one of the oldest salt deposits in Africa and one of the primary industries still existing in the world, giving tourists an opportunity of exploring one of the oldest traditional industries in the world.
“We are trying to add value to the trona mineral deposits found here and create a pool of mud from them so that tourists from all over the world can come and bathe from that mud. It has got some health benefits but can also be a fun activity,” Kagongo said.
Did you know that with the over 25,000 salt ponds around the lake, at least a person from each tribe in Uganda owns one except the Karimojong?
However, it is not easy for one to own a salt pond here these days as ownership is now mainly through inheritance and there is no more space for new ponds.
“I have seven ponds which I acquired from my father and I also have to pass them to my children. But someone can still buy from another person who is willing to sell theirs, though it is not common that someone sells,” Kagongo said.
Besides exploring the salt ponds, you can also partake in bird watching on Lake Munyanyange, a nearby crater lake. It derives its name from the indigenous egret birds which are a common sighting on the lake.
The lake attracts more than 45 species of birds, some being intra African migrants and others arctic migrants. But the lake is best known for its large number of flamingoes as it is one of just two bird sanctuaries that are home to the rare flamingo birds in Africa.
These birds are migratory; they come to the lake in October and leave in April; therefore, you have to align your travel plans within that time if you want to catch a glimpse of them.
AMABEERE GA NYINAMWIRU
Days four and five found us in the tourism city itself, Fort Portal. The long convoy brought traffic and businesses in the city to a standstill as we made sure that our arrival and presence in Oyo’s land was felt, before we scrambled for rooms in hotels and lodges.
Fort Portal has its fair share of sightings starting with the ‘Amabeere ga Nyinamwiru’, a cultural site with remarkable history located just a few kilometers from the city.
The Batooro believe that these stalactites were breasts which were cut off from Princess Nyinamwiru, the daughter of the ancient Bachwezi king Ndahura.
The afternoon drizzles had made the narrow path in the forest to the Amabeere slippery and muddy, making it difficult to pass through but, regardless, we persevered.
However, it was not the Amabeere ga Nyinamwiru themselves which seemed to capture everyone’s attention here but, rather, the waterfall from an underground river that suddenly bursts forth from over the cave, forming a clear pool of water before it flows away.
While here, Golola and Salvado had the best time of their lives as they danced, did press- ups and swam at the waterfall.
“This is such an amazing experience. This water is fresh, pure but most importantly located here in Uganda,” a soaking wet, overjoyed Salvado said.
The Amabeere ga Nyinamwiru grounds is also the starting point of the Kyeganywa hill hike which if you feel energetic enough, shouldn’t miss taking part in as you explore western Uganda. At the top of this hill, one gets a fascinating panoramic view of Lake Saaka and the many surrounding crater lakes such as Kyegere and Nyabikora.
We continued on to Sempaya hot springs in Semuliki national park, Bundibugyo district with the sightings of the rift valley escarpment in Kichwamba where a stream of water flows through the deep valleys.