I have been to Kalangala countless times. One would expect that I should be tired of going there by now but I love the experience even more every time. Whether it is with a friend, a group of friends or just alone to have some time to myself there is always fun stuff to do and the view is worth a million dollars.
Kalangala is located on the northern shore of Bugala Island, the largest of the Ssese Islands on Lake Victoria, Uganda. It can be accessed through Nakiwogo in Entebbe using a ship which takes about 4 hours. Entebbe is 45 minutes away from Kampala on a day with good traffic flow. Alternatively one can get to Kalangala on a ferry from Bukakata in Masaka. The drive from Kampala to Bukakata is roughly 3 hours and the ferry ride to Kalangala is about 45 minutes.
I took this particular trip with a friend called Herm. We had planned to take the ship whose departure time was 2pm sharp. The weather was perfectly bright and sunny. I had a few out of town errands to run that morning which I expected to conclude way before our 12pm set off from Kampala. To my dismay there were major delays beyond my control and I only managed to get to our meeting point in town at 1.30pm. Nevertheless we were determined to make it to Kalangala that day whatever the cost. We could have easily rescheduled to the following day except that it would have shortened our stay therefore we refused to consider that as an option.
I had been on the phone with Herm updating her on the progress I was making towards reaching the meeting point. We realized it was obvious that we would not make it to Entebbe in time to catch the ship if we drove there as originally planned. Herm had to secure a ‘boda boda’ around the Old Taxi Park that would take us all the way to Nakiwogo. A boda boda is a motor bike that is used as a means of public transport in towns and villages in Uganda. They can be used to reach places that are not easily accessible by other means or when one is in a dire rush similar to ours. Herm did all the booking and bargaining with the rider before I got there so that they were all set for takeoff. It was a crazy day for me considering I had just come about 40km on a boda boda to town and was about to go another 40. Note that this mode of transport is normally used for short distances of not more than 10km and it is considered quite risky. As soon as I arrived I hopped onto the waiting bike. We did not have a single second to lose as we had an unreasonable amount of time left to get to the landing site.
The ride to Nakiwogo is one I will never forget. It was a mix of thrill, fear, excitement, disbelief and many other feelings all at the same time. Being a Friday the traffic was quite slow moving but that was not a problem for us because we had picked the right mode of transport and the right guy. He was determined to prove that he could get us to our destination in record time. Trust me he did all he could. He ran 2 red traffic lights, squeezed through tiny crevices to get past cars, flew over pavements, and I believe he rode at the bike’s maximum speed. When we thought that we would not make it in time he assured us over and over that we would. The wind blew so hard against our faces that tears uncontrollably flew off and we could barely breathe. Thankfully none of us wore a wig because I am pretty sure it would have flown off before we even got out of town.
As we rode down the final stretch towards Nakiwogo with the ship in sight and its horn sounding the last call, the rider literally started flying. Bystanders cheered us on as we held on for dear life and tried as hard as we could not to let our guts pop out. Unfortunately we got to the boarding point just as the ship sailed off. We were so close that we could have just leaped on had we been crazy people. It was at the point that we finally accepted that we would not make it to Kalangala by the ship that day. The boda boda man was disappointed and ranted on about how he almost did it and wished he had ridden just a little faster.
We were not about to give up. It was time to hatch up a Plan B fast. We inquired around and luckily found out that there was a fisherman’s boat, locally called a ‘kinaala’ that would be heading to Kalangala at 3pm. We did not know what a kinaala really was but that was awesome news. We did not have to wait for so long and would eventually get to our destination only an hour later, or so we thought.
Each time we saw any sort of vessel sailing towards the docking point we excitedly wondered if it might be ours. This went on until about 3.30 pm when we started to lose hope. A few minutes later an old boat docked and people and things were offloaded from it. We did not pay it much attention until one of the fishermen that we had earlier spoken to ran towards us and told us that that was our kinaala and it was time to get on board. Herm and I looked at each other as if the same thoughts and questions ran through our minds. The boat was tall, ancient, had bird droppings all over the sides, there was a mix of dirty oil and water swimming on the floor, there were no life jackets, no seats, nothing to hold onto for support and no roof.
A man shouted out their final ‘boarding call’ and we made a run for the boat having taken the decision to go in just a split second. There were 3 fishermen and about 10 other people besides us on board. Herm and I said a quick prayer and sent our closest family and friends messages telling them where we were and how much we loved them as the boat set off. We tried for a while to figure out whether it was more comfortable to stand on the filthy slanting floor without being able to see anything outside the kinaala or to sit on the wooden bars across the top of the boat with no support for our backs but with the view of the lake. We eventually kept alternating between both positions since none of them was particularly pleasant.
At the beginning of the journey we talked and laughed about how this was the craziest thing we had done in our lives, enjoyed the cool fresh breeze and the golden sun rays upon our skins. We figured that this would be a bearable fun journey that would eventually be a story to tell. About an hour into the lake the weather suddenly started to change. Heavy dark clouds formed, the wind got fierce and before we knew it the heavens had opened. That was when the real adventure began. It felt as though we were part of a scene in the movie ‘Shipwrecked’.
The rain was so heavy and direct, we did not have anything to shelter ourselves with, and the waves were so strong that they would sweep the boat off the surface of the water into the air as we swayed around the boat, the winds and thunder roared harshly. The lightning colored up the dark sky every few seconds. We were in the middle of nowhere and all we could see was lake and more lake in every direction. There was no cell reception or any other form of communication with the world outside the kinaala in case we needed help. Water started to fill the boat. We all had to scoop it out with whatever container we could find to avoid sinking. All sorts of horrific thoughts ran through my mind during that time. It did not help that the fishermen kept joking they had lost their sense of direction and that we were probably headed towards some place in Tanzania. We were all drenched and frozen. Our luggage was soaked. The storm did not subside until about 2 hours later and by that time night had fallen. There is nothing on this earth as dark as a night on the lake with not so much as a matchstick to give a little spark. Opening or closing our eyes made no difference. I wondered how the fishermen found their bearing. By this time everybody was dead silent. I could not wait to take a warm bath and fall on any sort of bed, which I was not sure would ever happen at this point. It was a bitter cold night. I was so hungry that the insides of my stomach seemed to be gnashing at each other. The fishermen had been telling us for the previous 3 hours that we were about to arrive whenever anyone asked (which was mostly Herm and I). We just hoped we got there safely regardless of when.
We eventually got to Kalangala around 10pm; hungry, tired and beaten down but glad. We managed to get boda bodas to Panorama Cottages where we had booked a room. We had a quick bite, took warm baths and slept like babies. What a day it had been!
I woke up the following day feeling as though I had been reborn. Herm and I laughed a lot about the previous day’s experience as we went about our day. We spent the late morning and afternoon walking on the sandy white beaches and swimming. For lunch we had giant fresh fish that we had picked out ourselves from a fisherman at the market. In the evening hours we enjoyed a walk through the forest, saw quite a number of bird species and pretty butterflies while breathing in the fresh unpolluted air. There was a fire at the beach at night. We met a couple of people with whom we roasted meat, told stories and laughed the night away.
Whether you are going solo, with friends or as a couple Kalangala is a perfect place filled with lots of activities to choose from. They include sport fishing, bird watching, quad biking, camping, nature walks, cultural walks, boat rides, bon fires and chilling at the beach.
There are a number of excellent places to stay at whether you are travelling on a budget or have happy pockets. Panorama Cottages, Mirembe Resort Beach Hotel, Brovad Sands Lodge, Pearl Gardens Beach Resort are some of the great options to explore. One of the pluses for me about Kalangala is that many of the hotels are along the beach or close by so once you get off the ship you can just walk there. If you are the adventurous kind camping is available as well, though it is not advisable during the rainy season.