The Ssese Islands have long been on my wishlist, so when I have to wait a couple of days in Kampala for a visa application, I take the matatu (minibus) to Entebbe, a bodaboda (motorbike) ride to Nakiwogo landing, and wait for the Kalangala ferry to leave. I am happy it is in operation: for a long time, the Dutch-built ferry was out of service, and the direct link to Ssese Islands from Entebbe lost. There are also smaller boats, but on big Victoria Lake, these are a risky operation, and every year, people die because their boat is overloaded, breaks down, and/or disappears into the waters. I buy myself a snack to eat, and sit on the grassy beach, just like the locals, until the ticket counter opens. When it does, issuing tickets seems to take a long time. When the lady receives money, she crumples up the money before putting it away, and I thus get a wrinkled 10,000 shilling note in return after giving her a 20,000 shilling note. The ferry leaves at exactly 2pm, and the ride is pleasant, even though it gets surprisingly chilly. Soon enough, we cross the equator, and the first Ssese islands come into view, and after a little under three-and-a-half hours, we sail into Lutoboka Bay on the northeast coast of Buggala Island. There are plenty of lodges right on the lakeside, with beaches, and out of convenience, I decide to stay in the one next to the pier. I walk up to Kalangala, the main town on the island, and already get some great views over the bay and other islands. Monkeys are playing in the trees. It is a great feeling to be here: so relaxed, clear air, friendly people: I immediately feel at ease. On my way down, it is already getting dark, and a guy on a motorbike stops and starts talking to me. In many cases, I would have thanked him and continued walking, but he brings his offer of guiding me around with such flair, and a genuine enthusiasm and belief in what he is doing, that when he drives away, I seriously consider accepting his offer, jump on the back of his motorbike, and explore the island - instead of renting a bike and doing it on my own.
At daybreak, I am out of my cabin, and the sky is still overcast. I walk the narrow stretch of beach, and find myself in what must be a birder's paradise. They are not really scared, and only fly away when I can almost touch their wings. There are small grassy islands just off the shore, the perfect hunting and hiding ground for the birds. I sit on the beach for a while, watching the sky get lighter, and the world around me come to life. Then, I continue waking down the deserted beach, where every once in a while, the sweet smell of wild magnolias surrounds me. The solitude and peace of Lutoboka Bay is just what I came for: the contrast with the noisy, smelly and crowded Kampala could not be bigger. At the end of the beach, there are a few half immersed trees, and now, men in dugout canoes come by. I walk back to the resort to have breakfast, and while I eat, a light rain shower knocks softly on the roof. Timing is perfect: when I am done eating, the rain stops, and I walk over to the fishing village. The motorbike guy is gone, so I walk around the wooden shacks, talk to some people, until he comes back and we set off on our tour of the island. To my surprise, Mr. Thomson drives straight down the pier, where he stops, turns around, and tells me with a smile: I always start the tour of the island at the lake. Our eyes are set on the lake. But now, we will start the tour of Buggala Island. Within minutes, we park the bike at the roadside, and make a walk through the rainforest. My guide turns out to be knowledgeable, telling me about strangler figs, about the cycle of life of trees and plants, about the efforts of the locals to protect the forest and keep it pristine. He also tells me about the history of the Ssese Islands, and that a tsetse plague forced the population to evacuate, to come back after more than ten years.
From the forest, we drive up the road, where the guide stops, walks up, and then instructs me to walk to an electricity pole. We will meet there. Again, he surprises me, and when I reach the spot, I am standing on an open space, with full views of Lutoboka Bay, and other Ssese islands. From here, we drive towards the south, through large palm plantations, and end up in Mwene, a fishing village. Again, Abraham asks me to get off, and walk alone, and so I do. I chat with a few locals, take pictures of kids, and arrive at a beach where the boats of the fishermen are docked. We drive up again, continue further south, and the more my guide tells me about the palm plantations, and I see the enormous areas where the original vegetation has been replaced by palm trees, the more I feel that he is against these developments. I am surprised to learn that the local population hardly profits from the high-impact palm tree industry that eats away their island. There are sweeping views over the coastline of Buggala Island, and other islands so close that you could even swim to them. Abraham now takes me to a pineapple plantation; when one of the workers opens a pineapple for us, its juice spouts out, and it turns out to be one of the sweetest pineapples I have ever tasted. Our time is up, and we drive back to town, where Abraham drops me off at a junction out of town. During the day, seeing how he works, and feeling the enthusiasm he radiates, I feel admiration and respect for this honest, friendly man, who has managed to exceed my expectations and who has made my day one that will remain a fond memory. After a walk down to the beach, another hike up and down on a shortcut to the beach I was on in the morning, I am invited to have dinner at his place. It is a fitting end to a day on one of the Ssese Islands that I will not easily forget.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Buggala Ssese Island (Uganda). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Buggala Ssese Island.
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