By Gilbert Mwijuke
Ah, Ssese Islands!
Unlike many of my peers who have no other aspiration than to draw their salary, raise a family and ensure that they keep out of any kind of trouble, I have always had a curious desire to explore my country – and eastern Africa in general. For this part of the world rewards travellers with fascinating cultural encounters with the numerous tribes that call this region home.
My most recent trip was to the Ssese Islands, an archipelago that introduced me to the fascinating world of islanders, fishing culture, and a people of outstanding friendliness with a reputation of being the custodians of Buganda’s traditions and culture.
Tucked away in the middle of the enormous Lake Victoria, 51 kilometres from the mainland in Entebbe, this archipelago’s name – in allusion to its early reputation of a heavy infestation of tsetse flies – simply means the islands of tsetse flies.
Until recently, Ssese Islands was completely off the travel radar; the archipelago was only famous for fishing and high rates of HIV/Aids prevalence. Also, for a long time, the tag “poorest district in Uganda” belonged to Kalangala district, which is made up of the Ssese Islands.
But things have changed now and these islands – 84 in total – are bound to elevate your Instagram with colourful shots of exotic beaches, the enchantingly laid-back islanders, and the friendly village vibe of Kalangala town, one of the few Ugandan towns with zero kilometres of paved roads.
In Kalangala town, the only signs of urbanisation are the two banks, Stanbic and Finance Trust, as well as the newly-constructed Kalangala Infrastructure Services building.
There is not a single high-rise building in the town, and only a handful of vehicles, mostly with government number plates, navigate the two or three dirt roads – or let’s say streets – that make up Kalangala town.
Kalangala is the major town of Bugala Island – one of the 64 inhabited islands here – and home to the district headquarters. Of the 65,000 people living in Kalangala district, 25,000 of them live on Bugala Island and it’s the most – if not the only – developed island in the Ssese archipelago. The remaining 40,000 people have the remaining 63 islands all to themselves.
What to do and see in Ssese Islands
Quad bike riding, canoeing, sport fishing and nature walks rate among the activities most tourists enjoy on the Ssese Islands, but quaint beach life remains the major draw.
I was at the Island Club on Bugala Island when I met a 30-something-year-old, dark skinned and lanky man who immediately established rapport with me.
Dressed casually in a muscle-hugging white t-shirt, a pair of shorts and brown sandals, Lawrence introduced himself as one of the part-time tour guides here.
Even though he has a full-time job with the Uganda Police, during his free time he enjoys helping tourists to unlock the secrets of the Ssese Islands, where he has been living since 2012.
“I can take you around this island (Bugala) if you want, for only Ugsh50,000,” he said.
A few minutes later we hopped on a motorbike and went on a sight-seeing tour of Bugala Island, in the fiery glare of the sun. Our first stop was atop a hill whose name, according to Lawrence, is Billionaire’s View, located about two kilometres south of Kalangala town.
“Why Billionaire’s View?” I enquired. Lawrence didn’t know why, so I deduced that maybe it’s named so because of the great views I enjoyed while standing atop this hill, views of numerous islands – about a dozen or so of them – and the blue waters of Lake Victoria down the valley. But I didn’t have to be a billionaire to enjoy the view.
We left the Billionaire’s View and headed to Kihumuro, a 30-40-metre long cave with a wide entrance and tiny exit. Kihumuro means resting place, according to the Buganda culture aficionados we found here, a majority of them smoking pipes as they prayed to “Jajja Muwanga”, the traditional god of the people of Buganda in central Uganda.
This cave, tucked away in Kalaya village, is steeped in myth, tradition and history, and there are about nine caves of this nature on Bugala Island alone.
According to locals here, the man who first claimed ownership of this island was known as Ssenyondwe Lugamukiro Ssebugala, hence the name Bugala Island.
On his arrival at the island about 35 generations ago (the exact year of his arrival is unknown but locals say the current heir to the Ssebugala ‘empire’ is from the 35th generation), Ssebugala first rested in this cave, and he is the man who named it Kihumuro. His spirit, and the ones of his offsprings, visit this cave quite often, according to locals.
The floor is covered with grass and only the barefooted are allowed inside. We removed our shoes and proceeded to check out the contents of the cave: old spears, calabashes, some tattered pieces of backcloth, baskets of coffee seeds…
Inside, the smell was close to that of a tobacco store, and I thought: is this a shrine?
“This is what you can call the traditional church of the Baganda,” said one of the ‘worshipers’, a pipe-smoking middle-aged man who had already scared the hell out of me, so much that I couldn’t even muster the courage to ask him to tell me his name.
Yet there were more frightening stuff in store for me: a few minutes later, the man began to breathe rapidly, his eyes wide open as if they were about to pop out of their shells.
My heart told me to sprint out of the cave, but the roof was just about 1.5 metres above the floor so I could only get out the same way I came in: crawling. But Lawrence had stayed put, so I decided to do the same.
But when the man began to speak like a demon-possessed 90-year-old, I felt like disappearing into thin air. Now, this was too much for adventure.
The ‘possessed’ man now introduced himself as Jajja Kiwanuka, greeted his “children” who were present in the cave, and then told me, the foreigner, the visitor, that I had his blessings, that I was going to earn a fortune from whatever kind of work I am currently doing!
I breathed a sigh of relief as I crawled out of the cave a few minutes later. And I was glad I left unscathed. As we left, Lawrence told me that many prominent Baganda come here for spiritual cleansing.
Following in the footsteps of John Speke
We rode through a long stretch of palm trees, which cover about 10,000 hectares, planted by Oil Palm Uganda Limited, a subsidiary of Bidco.
This is another tourist attraction in its own right, according to Lawrence, and tourists just love to soak in the cool breeze of the plantation.
Moments later we parked at the start of a trail that snakes through the tropical Lutoboka Forest, and walked for about 30 minutes before we reached the dilapidated house that was constructed by John Speke, the famous European explorer whose expedition to this tsese fly-infested forest was inspired by a burning desire to solve the biggest geographical enigma of the 19th Century: the source of River Nile, the world’s longest river.
John Speke’s house is one of the few relatively untouched treasures awaiting you on the Ssese Islands.
Speke constructed the house in 1863 using mud and stones with the help of locals, but it’s said that he abandoned it as soon as he discovered the source of the Nile in Jinja.
Nowadays within the ruins of his unfinished house, there is a big tree, estimated to be about 100 years old.
As we retraced John Speke’s footsteps, Lawrence told me that Lutoboka Forest is home to a couple of animal and bird species, and common sightings include safari cats, Uganda kob, leopards, monkeys, wild rabbits, snakes, a lone python, shoebills, flycatchers, white cranes, and many others.
I only saw a lone flycatcher.
Nightlife in Ssese Islands
When I returned to my cottage later in the evening, a Dutch tourist I had met earlier in the morning gave me a call inviting me to Island Club (this is not a nightclub but rather, a beach bar-cum-campsite) for a drink.
“Come in about an hour,” she said. It was a welcome idea, seeing that nightlife in the Ssese Islands is almost nonexistent. We sat in the gardens overlooking the lake and, between sips of Club Beer, swapped stories of our adventures.
Irish seems to be about 30 years old and she’s visiting Africa for the first time. During our short, yet staccato conversation, I learn that she’s already in love with Kampala, and plans to visit Africa at least once a year for the next 50 years. What a grand plan, I think.
Unfortunately, our conversation is cut short by the barmaids just shortly after 11 pm. Enough is enough. They want to go to bed, a sign that visitors who fancy staying out late in the night are not-so-welcome to the Ssese Islands.
Hotels in Ssese Islands
There are several places to stay while on Ssese Islands, both high-end and low end. Some of the most popular resorts – all of which are available on Booking.com – include the Panorama Cottages, Kalangala Pearl Beach Resort, Mirembe Resort, Victoria Forest Resort, Pelican Beach Hotel, Philo Leisure Gardens, Pearl Gardens Beach and many others – most of them set on Bugala Island’s five kilometre-long white sand beach.
More resorts are currently springing up on the Ssese, and the most awaited is one that is being developed on an island that has been christened Virgin Island.
“One cannot miss a crocodile while on that island,” Lawrence told me, meaning those with an aversion to these reptiles will not be welcome when the resort swings its doors open for business.
Ssese Islands ferry
There is a ferry that leaves Nakiwogo landing site in Entebbe every day at 2 pm and arrives in Ssese at 5:30 pm.
The MV Kalangala leaves the Ssese every morning at 8 am. One way tickets cost Ugsh10,000 and Ugsh14,000 for the economy and ‘first class’, respectively.
There are other ferries that link Ssese Islands from Bukakata in Masaka, but it’s a long and exasperating journey if you choose to take that route. Little wonder travelling on the Masaka ferries is free.