The Ssese Islands, or Kalangala (the local name), were once extremely popular with tourists, especially backpackers, looking to escape from the noise and pollution of the big cities, and discover no less than an unspoilt island paradise in the middle of Lake Victoria. That was until the ferry broke down in the mid-1990s and for some unknown reason was never replaced.
Since then, tourist numbers have fallen dramatically as the only way to get to the islands is a perilous three and a half hour boat ride from Entebbe, which leaves just once a day. Although the boat was bigger than we were expecting (at least it had a roof!) my guide book did not let us be fooled – apparently around 100 people die each year from accidents during storms and bad weather. The only danger on our crossing was the sun however, which still managed to burn our pale skin, despite the layers of suncream we were applying!
We were all very relieved as finally the sight of the largest island (Bugala), our destination, came into view. Approximately 50km long, Bugala is almost completely forest, with just a few settlements dotted around its edges, near the port areas. A few tourist resorts make the most of the white sandy beaches lining the water’s edge, but as January is the low season, these were mostly deserted.
A group of 10, we were able to haggle on the price of one of the waterfront tourist resorts, which offered us shared tents kitted out with beds, sheets and towels too. Watching the sun set over the lake from our seats around the campfire, it seemed almost too good to be true, until talk turned to bilharzia, the nasty parasitic disease found in almost all the shallow waters of Lake Victoria.
Carried by water snails, bilharzia enters through the skin and finds its way to the vital organs, where it reproduces continuously for the next 6-8 weeks, when the symptoms start appearing. It can be treated fairly painlessly, as long as you have access to health resources, but as I was with a bunch of medical students, I took heed of their advice and decided not to risk it by going swimming, no matter how tempting the water was!
We spent most of the next day on a bush walk instead, with a guide called Thomson, whom we had bumped into the day before on the road (the only road on the whole island, in fact!) Thomson was very enthusiastic and immediately led us straight off the path and into the undergrowth, where we ducked and weaved our way through huge plants, trees, logs and vines, even crossing a stream using a fallen tree (“have courage” was Thomson’s advice!)
We eventually emerged at the edge of the village, which used to be predominantly a fishing village, until the lake became overfished by commercial vessels and the introduction of the Nile Perch wiped out almost all of the smaller fish species. Now the village relies mainly on tourism revenue, which is not nearly enough to support the local economy. To do our part, we stopped off to order lunch from a recently opened ‘waterfront restaurant’ – a hut with two plastic tables and chairs at least 50m from the beach – where we were told it would take the owner, Annette, at least two hours to prepare food for us.
Thomson also introduced us to one of the elders of the village, a tiny man in his 60s, who still works as a carpenter, making fishing boats, repairing houses and generally anything that the village needs. He was extremely happy to see us and wanted to know which countries we all came from (USA, Aus, Sweden and UK) before giving us each a hug as we said goodbye (a very rare gesture in Uganda where shows of affection are not common!)
We were led back into the bush, but this time there was a path (thank goodness!) which we followed for at least another hour before climbing a steep grassy hill for spectacular views over the whole island (the camera really didn’t do it justice!)
By the time we got back down to the village, past a group of monkeys and a nasty swarm of biting safari ants, we were ready for lunch. Luckily, Annette had made more than enough food, including beans, rice, fish, beef, sweet potatoes and yams – all for 4,000 Ugandan shillings each (about £1)!
After saying goodbye to Thomson, we staggered back to the beach and happily spent the next few hours relaxing before some energetic card games that evening (spoons with 12 people – lots of fun but even more lethal!)
Sadly we had to say goodbye to Bugala at 8am the next morning, the only time to catch the boat back to the mainland before Monday, and as we left I couldn’t help wondering whether Ssese will ever get back to its former status as one of Uganda’s tourist gems…