Our 550 kilometre- journey from Kampala to Kisoro District in south western Uganda took us 10 hours via the Kampala-Kabale-Kisoro highway, using private means.
We left Kampala at 8am and made a stopover at the equator, one of the must-go to destinations for tourists in Uganda, where they enjoy photo moments and buy handicrafts in Kayabwe Town, Mpigi District.
At daybreak, we were treated to katogo- a local delicacy that consists of steamed matooke or cassava with ground nut paste, beans, meat, offals, peas or vegetables and spices in Lukaya Town, Kalungu District.
On our way, I noticed since my last journey along this route that Lwera wetland has since been turned into rice fields by a Chinese firm, Zhong Industries Limited, on both sides of the Kampala-Masaka highway. Men and women can be seen working in the rice fields from dawn to dust.
Many miles away, as we approach Kabale District, we were welcomed by the beautiful scenery of rolling terrace hill slopes and valleys – a common feature in the Kigezi region. Terrace fields with various crops and houses built on these Kigezi highlands give this region a unique landscape. The British colonialists nicknamed it the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ because of its topography and chilly weather.
Our lunch was served at 3pm at the famous Visitours Hotel located on the Kabale-Kisoro main street in Kabale Town. Like a hungry lion, I pounced on fresh beans, sweet potatoes and pumpkin.
We arrived in Kisoro Town at around 5:30pm and we booked in at Serena Magadir Restaurant and Lodge, a place we would call home for the next two days. The hotel serves delicious local buffet and is very popular among both local and international travellers.
In south western part of Uganda, lies Kisoro District – one of the most naturally endowed areas with numerous fascinating tourist attractions, including the iconic mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei).
Kisoro is a mountainous district that borders with Kanungu District to the north, Kabale District to the east, Rwanda to the south and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west.
It is home to some of the most beautiful scenic and spectacular landscapes made up of volcanic mountains, down-sloping terraces, crater lakes, wildlife, a variety of flora and fauna, caves and indigenous cultures, among others.
The main tourism attractions in Kisoro are protected areas of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP), which harbour more than 400 of the endangered mountain gorillas - approximately half of the world’s population that can be trekked in the natural habitat.
Located on the edge of the Rift Valley, Bwindi and Mgahinga parks share the Virunga Conservation Area that stretches into Rwanda and DR Congo.
Apart from the popular attraction of trekking gorillas, one can go for bird or butterfly watching, mountain climbing, scenic viewing, waterfall walks, hiking and nature walks, canoeing on a crater lake, forest walks, cave expeditions, visit cultural sites, watch traditional cultural performances, village walks, village homestay experiences, visit an iron ore (blacksmith) at work and take a walk on borders of Rwanda and DR Congo.
A gorilla trekking permit for foreigners goes for $600; while East African citizens pay Ush250,000 ($67)
On our first day in Kisoro, after taking breakfast, we took a boat ride on the ever green Lake Mutanda together with the Kisoro District tourism officer, Richard Munezero, who worked as our tour guide.
Mulehe, Chahafi, Kayumbu and the magnificent Lake Mutanda are the four crater lakes found in Kisoro, about seven kilometers north of Kisoro Town.
Lake Mutanda, one of the largest water bodies in western Uganda, is 60.5 meters deep and 26 square kilometres wide. It has 22 islands and offers one of the most memorable scenic experiences in the area. While here, you can hire a motorised boat ride around the lake and surrounding islands from Winners Beach Mutanda at a cost of Shs80,000 ($21.5).
The cool breeze and the breathtaking scenic views during the boat ride, create memories that can last a lifetime. Occasionally, otters- small animals with brown fur, short legs, and a long tail that swim and eat fish, pop out of the calm waters. At this lake, you will see a variety of birds at shore. There are lots of islands to visit, birders will have a great experience and those who are great swimmers will enjoy swimming in the lake.
“This centre offers local and foreign visitors an opportunity to enjoy swimming, canoeing and bird watching experiences on Lake Mutanda,” says Hanyurwa Sheda, the founder of Mutanda Eco Community Centre, based at the Winners Beach Mutanda.
Sheda says: “It is a one-stop-centre for biodiversity researchers and local schools, especially students who study geography. It is the nearest beach from town which is accessible by road.”
The mummies of Kisoro
Lake Mutanda has two islands (Ichangushe and Kishamba) with burial caves and embalmed human bones. A motor boat ride from the Winners Beach Mutanda to the islands takes 40 minutes to get to these two islands.
There are conflicting versions as to who was laid to rest in these burial caves. One school of thought believes that they were members of a royal clan that ruled a vast area, covering Bufumbira in Uganda, parts of Rwanda and eastern Congo. Another school of thought claims they were rainmakers.
The cave on Ichangushe (meaning easy-to-reach) Island was for royal men. Available records show that the last person was brought here in 1947. The dead were brought here on traditional stretchers that are still visible among the bones. Some bones still have skins on them.
“We have discovered that the number of bones have significantly reduced. Goats graze on top of this hill daily and take shelter here during the rain. We are planning to build a fence around the bones to stop people and goats from trespassing. These caves have been protected by nature and the local communities. Ministry of Tourism has embarked on research and documentation of these caves for purposes of conserving and gazetting them as national monuments,” Munezero says.
Ichangushe has another cave, which is home to a snake measuring 10 metres long. The snake is believed to be a spirit of Chief Kirunga from whom the name of the Virunga Mountains is derived. Some local people worship the snake and believe it gives blessings.
Another cave on Kishamba (meaning bushes) Island was for royal women and children. “Women who were experts in mingling millet bread were buried with mingling sticks as a sign of remembrance oftheir skills. The community believes there are more bones deep in the cave,” says Munezero.
Notable among the islands is the punishment Island, also known as Akarwa Kabahinza- where girls who got pregnant before marriage in traditional society were sent and left to starve to death. “The girls were tied on trees to die. Young men would sneak to the island, free the girls, start staying with them and never had to pay bride price. The island is now being developed into a tourist camp site by a private investor,” Munezero said.
Kisoro has numerous volcanic caves and the prominent ones include Garama Cave in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Ruhenju in Gigozi parish, Soko in Soko parish and Mwambike near Mutorere Secondary School. The caves were used as safe havens by the Batwa community during tribal wars.
After having a sumptuous meal at Serena Magadir Restaurant, we visited the Mwambike Cave via Chuho water pumping station that supplies water to Kisoro Town. At this station, one can see water following out of underground volcanic rocks to an unknown destination, while children go about catching fish with traditional fishing baskets.
Mwambike (dressing) Cave which is about six kilometres from Kisoro Town, is located in Nyakabande Sub-county. The cave is dark and one needs a torch to tour it.
According the caretaker of the cave, James Kwizera, the cave was a hideout for Chief Ruganzu, who came from Congo via Lake Mutanda to find refuge and hide away from his enemies. He used these caves to escape to Rwanda and whenever his pursuers looked at the long and narrow cave, they gave up.”
Munezero says: “Ruganzu is believed to have had supernatural powers. He used these caves to appear and disappear from his enemies. These human and animal footprints on top of the rocks are believed to be those of Ruganzu and his dogs. The Batwa also hid here after stealing crops from neighbouring communities.”
Kigezi region derives its name from this monument site, located on a small hill and swamp next to a small lake locally known as Umugezi, about seven kilometres on the Kabale-Kisoro road. It is surrounded by other terrace hills, communities and agricultural fields.
Ishmaels B.K. Kabananukye writes in his book Clans and Totems of the Banyakigezi that this place has a special historical significance for Kigezi. First, it was the place where the Belgians and the British colonialists held negotiations on colonisation and partition of Kigezi and her neighbouring regions. Secondly, it was at this hill where the first district headquarters of the greater Kigezi were built.
Echuya Forest Reserve
On our way to and from Kisoro, we passed through the Echuya Forest Reserve, a montane forest dominated by bamboo (Arundaria Alpina). Here, we made a stopover to buy Irish potatoes, passion fruit and fresh roasted maize amid the serene and occasional sounds of birds in the forest as we headed back to Kampala.
The forest reserve and Muchuya swamp in particular are home to more than 100 species of birds, 12 of which are Albertine Rift endemics, including the globally threatened Graver’s Rush Warbler (Bradypterus graveri). The forest also harbours 20 species of mammals, 43 of moths, 53 of butterflies; endemic to the Albertine Rift Ecosystem and high altitude forest dependants with marked conservation importance.
The Batwa (forest people and hunters) lived in the Mgahinga, Bwindi and Echuya forests for centuries, until they were forced out in the 1990s to save the forests as protected national parks.
Churchill View Point
We drove up to the famous Churchill View Point located on Kanaaba Hill in Echuya Forest Reserve, seven kilometers from Kisoro Town. It was at the summit of Kanaaba Hill where British prime minister, Churchill Winston, proclaimed Uganda as truly “the Pearl of Africa” in his African travel memoir- My African Journey - 112 years ago.
“For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa,” Churchill stated.
At this summit, on a clear day, in a 360-degrees turn, one can view the Great Rift Valley, Bwindi Forest, where Lakes Mutanda and Mulehe are joined, the beautiful rolling hills in the region, including the eight Virunga ranges stretching into Rwanda and DR Congo, Echuya Forest Reserve, the twin Lakes of Kayumbu and Chahafi in Uganda, as well as the Lakes Gihondo and Bulera in Rwanda.
“Kisoro is the core tourist destination in Uganda. We are surrounded by two national parks Bwindi and Mgahinga, four lakes, natural forests outside the parks and many historical and cultural sites,” Munezero said.
He added: “Because of these tourism activities, the hospitality industry has made significant strides in investment in the areas of recreation and accommodation facilities has been fasttracked. So far 24 high-end lodges ranging from Shs 900,000 to Shs2.9m per night have been registered, 35 mid-range hotels and numerous restaurants.”
According to the chief executive officer, Uganda Tourism Board, Kisoro District is a major tourist destination that awaits more investment in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, accommodation facilities and product development.