GUARDIAN I swung in a hammock and looked across to the neighbouring islands – but my view was partly obscured by a man who sprawled in his chair like a waxwork in the tropics. He drawled: “I’ve been given the nod, the job’s in the bag … High Commissioner. Not bad eh?”
No, Uganda hasn’t returned to the bad old days of imperialism; the current president, Mr Museveni – or M7 as he’s referred to around here – is far too busy politicking to let that happen. The aspiring colonialist sitting in front of me was claiming to have won a role in The Last King Of Scotland, a movie based on the award-winning book about Idi Amin, being shot on location in these parts right now. Kampala’s am-dram association has never known excitement like it.
There was little talk of anything else on Bulago Island. Tim, a President Nixon look-alike and former war reporter, reckoned that Justice Porter (a retired High Court judge) should be given the part, but then again Andrew – ex of Barclays Bank – might also be just the ticket. Our speculation was bolstered with constant rounds of G&Ts and Nile Special beers. Drinking is big in the tropics.
Bulago Island stretches over 500 acres, a sizeable spread for a private island that’s situated 30 minutes from Entebbe by speedboat. It’s a dot compared with the enormous expanse of Lake Victoria. The landlocked freshwater sea covers an area the size of Switzerland – but I can’t get used to it having no tide. It’s some puddle … and it’s some island.
Bulago is a resort/hotel that isn’t. Sure, there are rooms to let, dining and bar areas and occasional tourists, but the bulk of the clientele you’re likely to meet are ex-pats from Kampala, the good and the great in Ugandan politics and heads of local industry. Many of them have homes here as Tim – who owns the island – has been flogging off one-acre building plots to those wanting to stake out their own little bit of equatorial paradise.
The place is caught in a peculiar, intriguing timewarp and in clouds of lake fly, midge-like bugs that don’t bite but get everywhere. It is lazy and gossipy – the equivalent of taking a holiday in a Graham Greene novel.
Bulago is situated at the far end of a chain of 80 or so islands known as the Ssese; they’re easily the most sibilant isles I’ve ever visited and a little-known alternative to the outcrops in the Indian Ocean a thousand miles away. As well as having a glut of esses, the place is wasteful with its zeds too, casting a sleepy spell over first-time visitors. This casual observation is perhaps nearer to the truth than you’d imagine. Sleeping sickness devastated the islands in the early 20th century forcing the government to evacuate the entire population from the area – but all is peaceful now. Some linguists believe Ssese is a corruption of tsetse, the fly that carries the disease.
Getting from one end of the chain to the other without a regular ferry necessitates a three-hour trip on the mainland through villages, endless tracts of scrub and over the equator. The road is marked at the spot and a young guy showed me the anticlockwise swirl of water in the northern hemisphere, the clockwise motion in the south and the water dropping straight down bang on the equator’s edge.
There were upwards of 100 passengers and a dozen vehicles waiting for the boat that runs from Bukakata to Buggala Island; I was the only mazungo (white man). The sun and heat was relentless and folks looked for even the smallest patches of shadow to pass time in. A simple stand vended cold sodas and snacks. A boy dressed in rags hawked a blue plastic bucket full of fried grasshoppers – easily the most popular nibble on offer. And, since you ask, yes of course I bought some, not so much a packet of Walkers as a bag of Jumpers. They’re ready salted, crunchy with a top note of Bombay duck; not unpleasant but I can’t envisage them knocking cheese and onion off the top spot in pubs in the UK.
The journey to Kalangala, Buggala Island’s main town is a bumpy hour’s ride along a red dirt road through dense jungle and reed beds purring with insect and bird noise. Some of the unidentified squawks were quite startling and I found it hard to believe that they weren’t the electronic ring-tones from a mobile phone – a fifth of the population owns one.
Ssese Islands Beach Hotel rang a different type of bell with me. I loved it. The place is a gently shambolic and simple affair tucked away in an idyllic quarter at the halfway point on the island. No one would head here for luxury, as this is a wholly alien concept, come along for the torpor and the charm instead. The Ssese’s is not a place for sissies.
Rumour is endemic in Kalangala, too, but rather than blather on about film roles I was told about an event that was much more exciting. Bobby Wine was in town. Bwana Wine is a big shot musician in Kampala; that he’d made it out here was news indeed.
It cost 15,000 shillings (about a fiver) for six of us to enter the concert in the half-completed shell of a village hall – only the walls were up. About 200 people, mothers with babes, local blades and girls with complicated hair-dos stood in front of a stage lit with three bare 100 watt light bulbs. One guy played an organ at the back, another drums and a third brandished an electric guitar like an AK47.
Various acts joined the musicians. Four hipsters in bright red shirts delivered a master-class in crotch grabbing. It was enough to bring tears to the eyes of any rap superstar. Still no sign of Mr Wine though. Next up was a pretty girl in an evening dress and killer heels, her sartorial elegance looking quite surreal in the humble surroundings. A man in white sequins was hurried off stage before a diva bulging in bias-cut satin mesmerised the audience with superlative bum wriggling – a gob-stopping performance. After a bawdy, lewd and sexy comedy act that had the assembled throng honking with laughter, we gave up waiting for Bobby and went home. What a night.
A big storm on Lake Victoria is an act of nature that needs to be seen by everyone at least once in a lifetime. Torrential rain and clouds that change day into night are skewered by cataclysmic lightening and enveloped by murderous rolls of thunder. It was a storm unlike any other, an ideal Hollywood deluge straight out of the special effects department and enough to put a temporary kibosh on the morning’s birding plans. It vanished as quickly as it started.
Dense jungle stab-stitched with vines operates as a welcome air conditioning system that is several degrees cooler than the sweltering temperature outside. It’s also a bird-lover’s paradise and is sure to put even the most ardent twitcher into permanent spasm.
Black hornbills laughed raucously at vervet monkeys, flycatchers and bee-eaters dazzled the air with outrageously pretty colours. Yellow weaverbirds looked as if they’d escaped en masse from a pet shop in Camden Town; pied kingfishers are as common as crows and their bright blue relatives a marvel. Spectacular aerial displays blew me away and I was genuinely taken by the ornithology. It’s worth travelling to Uganda for the bird life alone; over a thousand species populate the area. To top it all, a ruined stone building half devoured by jungle is all that’s left of a house that Speke built on his legendary expedition. It’s a truly evocative spot.
The People’s Place ranks as one of my favourite bars of all time. It’s a shack in the middle of Kalangala with a few tables inside and a couple of upturned crates outdoors. Six large beers and two sodas set me back three quid. It was here that I met Kasiim, an expert on the area and a man with unrivalled tales. I spent a dreamy night listening with others to the folklore, superstition and magic of the islands; tales of children found in trees, monkey-madness and spirits who live in the forest had us spellbound.
Next day, I took the road towards Rwanda and headed through countryside that improbably resembled the Shropshire hills, then the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Highlands and finally Shimla. I’d climbed 3,200m into the mountains leaving the Lake Victoria basin six hours drive away. The air is noticeably cooler and thinner and the lake I was visiting very much smaller.
Lake Bunyonyi (loosely translated as place of small birds) is staggeringly lovely, deep and serpentine with hilly shores shrouded in early evening mist and its icy flat waters broken only by boatmen silently paddling home.
Bushara Island Camp is an idle 20-minute boat ride from Rutinda. The place is totally eco and staffed exclusively by people from the area. Large safari tents house comfortable beds and simple outdoor bamboo screened showers have buckets with watering can nozzles that are filled with hot water for a few pennies. An open dining area has an enormous fire more suited to a Scottish castle.
It’s hard to beat, stylish, understated, kid-friendly and bursting with community projects and more of that ornithology – a real pleasure to visit. I had a crayfish dinner (the local speciality) with just two other guests. Beryl and Colin had come up for a few days from Kampala.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard the news, Nick, but we’ve got a film shooting here …”
I confessed I already had.
“I’ve got a part, second businessman in Kampala hospital.” Colin was very taken with the idea. At least he’s not the High Commissioner.