Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria

© One of the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria
Scattered along its shores, Africa's coastline is blessed with many beautiful beaches and secluded islands. But you need to travel inland to Uganda to discover the best.The sun has not yet risen over the dusty streets of Kabale as I stumble sleepily outside to catch the early morning bus to Masaka. Minibus taxis and bicycles are already ferrying passengers in the purple pre-dawn light.After safely storing my backpack, I climb aboard the bus which takes off like a bat out of hell. Long-horned Ankole cows grazing next to the road stare at us as we thunder past. It's good to be on an African bus again and I relax, content to watch the Ugandan countryside fly past in a blur of green fields and scenic hills.I quickly strike up a friendship with Robert Mutaganda, a dairy farm worker travelling home to see his family. 'It's a pleasure to meet you,' he smiles cheerfully. 'I have been overseas before on a study grant and it's always nice to talk to people from other countries. I welcome you to my land.'

This is Uganda, a land of warm smiles and open hearts. After a week spent in the south western region exploring the countryside and tracking gorillas in Bwindi National Park, I'm now headed for the remote Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.

We motor into Mbarara and stop at the bus depot to pick up more passengers. A bunch of boys immediately besiege the bus, eager to sell us tasty chicken kebabs and sweet yellow bananas. After a short break, we continue into the warm day towards Masaka.

Thick dark clouds have built up and a thunderstorm is brewing. Suddenly it starts to pour. Brown pools of water flow across the road, turning small side streets into muddy rivers. Soaked bicycle riders struggle in the driving rain with heavy loads of sugar cane. Then, as suddenly as it started, the storm subsides and a weak rainbow appears over the plains.A few kilometres before Masaka, I hop off the bus and straight onto a boda boda for the junction town of Nyendo. Here my adventure really begins. Before I can catch the ferry to the Ssese Islands, I have to reach the lakeshore village of Bukakata. Which means a long bumpy ride in one of Africa's infamous matatus.The African minibus encounter is an experience everyone should have at least once on their travels. The driver never leaves until the taxi is full, so for 45 minutes I wait for enough people to show up. The minibus is licensed to carry 14 passengers but African taxi drivers have their own interpretation of a full load. More people arrive, mothers and babies, shy schoolchildren and old men with shining eyes. Everyone packs in and by the time we leave, 27 of us have squeezed in like sardines.We bounce along the bumpy road on cracked and worn tyres, dodging potholes and skidding noisily around dusty corners. I'm the only mzungu aboard and am wedged in the back row between two smiling schoolgirls. Even though I'm stuck here and can hardly move, a familiar elation suddenly washes over me. Feelings of connection, adventure, freedom and joy. Sensations that so often arise when travelling through this great continent of ours. There's no need to hurry. Just go with the flow of Africa.At Bukakata, we drive aboard the ferry for the short trip across to Buggala Island. Then it's a joyous ride along rutted roads to Kalangala, the main town and administrative centre of the Ssese islands. With the sun about to set after a memorable day in Africa, I arrive at the calm paradise of Hornbill Camp.The Ssese group consists of 84 islands lying off the north-western coast of Lake Victoria. Life on these idyllic shores is slow and relaxed. The only way to reach them is by ferry or fishing boat, so the Ssese's are never overrun with visitors. Unlike many towns on the mainland, these tranquil islands escaped the destruction of Uganda's civil wars and therefore remain largely unspoilt.The next morning I'm up before dawn. The waters of Lake Victoria are calm and the sky above is astounding. Purple heavens slowly lighten and puffy banks of cloud, left over from last nights thunderstorm, slowly turn a pale shade of pink. A pair of hornbills flap gracefully across the lake, calling out loudly before they settle in a tree. A solitary white heron hunts in the shallow water for food. Silhouetted against the silver lake, it spies a victim and in a flash a small fish is wriggling in its beak.There's something special about watching an African village awaken so I set off to visit the small fishing community of Lutoboka. Sleepy children rise and walk outside their huts where smoke rises from breakfast fires. Soft music plays from a distant radio and tiny stores open up. The inhabitants of the Ssese Islands, known as the Basese, form their own tribal group and have their own culture, language and tradition. Some of them are farmers who grow coffee, sweet potato, bananas and cassava. But most of the Ssese islanders work the waters of Lake Victoria as fishermen.'They go out in their boats before sunset to fish and only arrive back in the morning,' says village elder Ray Ogwang. 'Often the men will catch many fish but sometimes if the lake is angry and the water becomes too high, they cannot go out at all.'

Every night, a fleet of small boats set out on the lake to empty their nets of Nile perch and tilapia. Then after daybreak, the fishermen sell their catch to the larger boats who proceed to the port of Kasenyi where they in turn sell their load to the big fish factories.

The fish are then processed and packaged before being flown to Europe where they are sold in the shops the next day. With tons of Nile perch being taken from the lake daily, the levels of fish in Lake Victoria have dropped drastically over the past two years.

Further in the village, I meet Martin Mugombesya who lives in a small thatched hut with his wife and 12 children. 'We are very poor people here and the fish we catch we use for food,' he says, touching one of his children tenderly. 'I do not have a boat so I have to walk with my net along the shore.' Martin also works as a farmer and grows cassava, yams, sugar cane, jackfruit, maize and sweet potatoes in the fertile ground. 'I have to cultivate my fields and keep them healthy because I have no money and there are all my children to feed.'Martin's twelve children have all gathered beneath a large jackfruit tree to serenade me with a song. Each of the shining faces has their turn to sing a solo, before the grand chorus of their sweet African voices. Then it's wide smiles and applause all round.Up the hill in sleepy Kalangala, most of the locals have taken refuge from the stifling heat. Circled by a few drowsy children, an elderly man sits in the shade doing his washing in a bucket. Across the road, Charles Kateregga of the Kalangala Shoe Centre is hard at work repairing endless pairs of footwear. 'I used to be a photographer,' he says, looking up from gluing a sole onto a pair of smart black shoes. 'I took pictures of people in the village and from the money I made, I started my shoe centre. Now life in the Ssese islands is good.'After a few days lazing around Lutoboka, it's time to head on to one of the smaller islands in the Ssese group. I've hitched a ride on a fishing boat that will drop me off at Banda Island en route to offloading their catch at Kasenyi. I board the wooden craft, already packed with bags of flour, big bunches of bananas, a few other pasengers and a huge haul of Nile perch.We cruise around Chawima Bay, stopping at small villages and many boats to buy their catch. It's a serious business and each fish is carefully weighed and noted. Then the captain takes out his calculator and adds up the figures before unfolding his bank roll. A thick wad of notes changes hands and the catch is transferred to our boat where it's kept cool in the shade of big banana leaves.The midday sun beats down hard and for five hot hours I sit on the open boat as the men zig zag across the bay, buying up almost a ton of Nile perch. I'm starting to feel dehydrated so it's a relief to finally reach shore, down a bottle of water and relax in the shade.Banda Island is one of the remote, largely unexplored gems of Lake Victoria. At one end of the island is a small fishing village and on the other side is Dom's Place, a friendly setup owned by Kenyan-born Dominic Sykes.In my travels, I've visited many beautiful islands but I've never been to a place quite like Banda. It's a paradise of wild extremes with an untamed beauty that's hard to describe. The interior of the 3km island is lush and well forested while along the shore, the bird life is nothing short of astounding. Pure white egrets are everywhere and hundreds of reed cormorants have gathered in the trees. A pair of Egyptian geese and their six ducklings paddle peacefully past the beach where spur-winged plovers hurry over the sand. Sacred ibis and kingfishers are often seen in the area, which is also home to the highly endangered shoebill stork and an endemic variety of the paradise flycatcher.Several pairs of fish eagles have settled along the Banda coastline. 'We always see them in the evening when they fly in to the next bay to feed,' says Dominic. 'Later we'll walk over there for sunset and then you will really get to witness the wealth of the bird life around here.' I've never seen anything like this place and spend the next four hours hiking around the rocky shores, exploring small coves and shooting roll after roll of film. This is a photographer and nature lovers dream.After a particularly stunning sunset, we sit on the beach with a bonfire burning and a magnificent moonless sky above. The starry heavens twinkle and a chorus of bird calls floats from the trees. Not far offshore, flickers of light shine from the fishing boats as they drift on the placid waters of Lake Victoria.For the past ten years, Dominic has lived a modern day Robinson Crusoe-type existence on Banda Island. He only opened his place to the public two years ago and for just $10 a day, he offers accommodation, guided walks and three delicious meals. A maximum of 16 visitors can be accommodated here in stone cottages or comfortable double tents equipped with beds.We live and eat like kings, with lunch and dinner times being sumptuous affairs of Nile perch blended to perfection with herbs and spices. Or steamed in coconut milk and white wine. The fish feasts are served with salads, sweet potatoes, rice, beans, vegetables and fruit, all grown just up the hill in Banda's fertile fields. 'I've had travellers come to stay for a few days and they end up living here for over a year,' smiles Dominic. 'Occasionally I take a short trip over to the mainland but mostly I just stay here. With the tranquil existence and of natural attractions, there's no real reason for me to leave this fairytale island.'I wake each morning at 6am sharp and open the flap of my tent. A thin line of pink breaks the blackness as the horizon starts to glow with the first faint stirrings of dawn. The lake is like a mirror, with just a few ripples caused by the Egyptian geese as they swim slowly past.After breakfast, it's time for a little exercise so I set off for a hike past the vegetable fields, to the hill overlooking the bay. It's like walking in an enchanted forest with dappled shades of sunlight streaming through the thick green undergrowth and overhanging ferns. It's a steep hike to the top but well worth the effort. The view across the lake is breathtaking.There are several small islands that can be visited as day trips from Banda. One fascinating excursion is to Ngamba Island, a sanctuary for orphaned and abused chimpanzees. Situated just 23km from Entebbe, the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary was established in 1999, with the assistance of the Born Free Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. The 100 Ha of tropical rainforest provides a perfect habitat for the orphaned chimps who arrived here as a result of wars in neighbouring countries and the expansion of the illegal bushmeat trade.The story behind each chimpanzee is heart-breaking. Many were confiscated from Entebbe airport just before they could be sent overseas. Others were rescued from the Congo, Rwanda and other parts of Uganda where they were being kept as pets. Some were even brought to Ngamba Island from as far afield as the Moscow Circus.The chimpanzees have developed into a fully functioning community. Although they find food in the forest, the island does not have enough to sustain them all, so they are given additional fruit to supplement their diet. Feeding time is a frenzied affair and it's fascinating to watch the chimps with their facial expressions and mannerisms so like ours. After all the fruit is gone, they slowly troop back to their home in the dense forest.Ngamba Island has already reached its capacity with regard to the number of chimpanzees it can accommodate. Plans are now underway to develop a new sanctuary on a neighbouring island to cope with the continued influx of orphaned chimps.Back on Banda, my time in paradise passes in a pleasurable haze of warm sun, beautiful birds and fantastic food. Golden sunrises shift into mellow mornings spent playing backgammon, relaxing in the hammock and lying on the beach. Then a spot of bird watching and a long lazy swim before yet another delectable seafood lunch.It's my last morning and soon a fishing boat will arrive to transfer me to the mainland. But the sky quickly darkens and a storm is on the way from the north. The air is eerily still and bird calls echo across the bay. With grey clouds above the calm silver lake, it's difficult to distinguish water from sky.Suddenly a strong westerly breeze blows in and whips up the water of the lake. Then the wind shifts around and we're battered from the other side. Flashes of lightning streak across the sky and loud claps of thunder boom out. The rain pours down and in this weather, there's no chance of any boat travelling today.But the storm soon passes and a few hours later, it's calm enough to leave. As we head across the choppy lake, I look back at the disappearing shores of Banda Island and a comment written by an Australian traveller in Dominic's visitors book comes to mind. I never would have guessed I'd find my beach paradise in inland Africa.

Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Jowell.

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