Story and Photos by Fredrick Mugira – Uganda, – The smell of fresh water and vegetation filled the air. It was a smell reminiscent of a cool feminine perfume in an air conditioned room. The sun had veiled itself under the clouds in a hazy sky.
To our right side, leaves strewed the path beneath short trees where four monkeys sat evenly watching us.
About twenty meters ahead of us, lay a motorised boat. It had been arranged evidently for eight people. It did not take long before we boarded it clad in orange life jackets. But not all of us did. Five didn’t. The boat could not accommodate more than eight persons.
We were a group of workmates visiting the famous Lake Mburo National park in South-western Uganda. Just for leisure. Most of us were already tired after zig-zag-ging on the bumpy roads in the park for more than two hours during the game drive.
In front of the boat sat Moses Matsiko our coxswain and guide. He was positioned ready to steer the boat. He looked strong and spoke with a local accent.
Moses wore a smile of satisfaction as he switched on the boat’s engine that produced loud and shrill noise. That was the time we started our drive around ten calm square kilometres of water named Lake Mburo.
In the nearby papyrus reeds and trees sat purple, gray and black birds. They sung unperturbed by our presence. Some sat on the entrance to their nests.
The shadows of the trees, papyrus reeds, birds and their nests lengthened on top of the water. They looked like well designed pieces of art painted with light black colour. Like a flag hanging on its post being blown by slow winds, the shadows made comparable movements as the boat forced calm waters to make continuous waves.
Lake Mburo is the largest of the five lakes in Lake Mburo National Park. The 260 square kilometre park is covered in extensive acacia woodland. I was told it is the best place in Uganda to see the gigantic eland antelopes and several acacia associated birds.
‘The five lakes within the park are homes to hippos, crocodiles and a variety of water birds,’ our guide Moses narrated to us as we sat calmly in the boat he steered at a snail’s pace.
In the boat, we chitchatted and made fun but beneath our jauntiness lay nervousness. Yes. The strange loud sound that came from the boat’s engine conveyed an impression of an exhausted device.
‘What would happened if this engine stopped suddenly?’ It was a lady seated behind who asked. ‘It can’t,’ replied Moses as he continued to narrate to us that, ‘the swamps you see over there are a home to secretive papyrus specialists such as sitatunga antelope and red, black and yellow papyrus gonglike Monkeys and baboons.’
We had already seen most of these wild animals and snakes during the game drive. And so the coxswain did not attract my attention as he spoke. But the rampant encroachment on Uganda’s swamps by human beings did.
Particular concern has been raised in Uganda over rapid depletion of ecosystem around lakes and rivers which have lost significant portions of the wetlands around them that act as natural purifiers and breeding grounds for fish.
‘Where would such animals, birds and reptiles live if swamps like these ones were destroyed?’ i asked myself quietly further questioning the future of water tourism in Uganda.
Uganda is gifted by nature. It has over 25 big lakes including the famous Lake Victoria -the largest of all African Lakes and also the second widest freshwater body in the world. These lakes and several rivers including River Nile -the longest river in the world contribute a lot in attracting tourists to Uganda.
‘Perhaps, the need to conserve Uganda’s water bodies for their role in water tourism has been underrated in Uganda,’ I though. Tourism brings in the country over $ 800 million annually more than the total earnings of coffee alone which is only $ 300 million.
I was nosy about the earnings from the boat we were in. So I asked Moses about it. There was no reply. He heard me because i spoke loud. His attention was on a nearby crocodile. I asked again. He told me that for every East African for example, to board the Finfoot, the motorized boat were riding in, you must pay 2 dollars. For those from the rest of the countries, it is 10 dollars. Finfoot has its sister boat- Shoebill. Like Finfoot, Shoebill is also named after the endemic Shoebill bird found this park. It is a 14 seater.
‘In the low season, each of the two boats carry tourists around the lake twice a day. In a busy season from June to September, they move around the lakes over 5 times a day each,’ Moses told me as the rest of the people we had on the boat paid less attention.Their concentration was on the crocodile pausing like a snake ready to strike by the lake side.
Noiselessly, the crocodile turned and looked at us. The girl that sat on my left said swallowed some saliva as she watched it. ‘She is scared,’ I thought. There was a plea in her eyes but she was scared to translate this into words.
It is obvious. Without Lake Mburo, Lake Mburo National Park would not have been there. The park derives its name from the lake.
In turn, the lake derives its name from Mburo, the brother of Kigarama, I was told. Mburo and Kigarama lived at the exact place where the lake is .One night Kigarama had a dream that a lake was going to be formed at the exact place where they were staying. He told his brother Mburo to leave the place. Mburo refused. Kigarama went to the neighboring hill. The following day his dream came true. The place became a lake and Mburo drowned in it. Subsequently, the lake was named Mburo. The neighboring hill where Kigarama settled was also named Kigarama hill.
By this time, we had spent more than an hour on the lake. The boat was heading to the starting point.
We glimmered at the hippos hiding their massive bodies in the water as they stared back at us sullenly.
‘Come again,’ Moses told us with a ring of finality in his statement as he switched off the engine of the boat as it attempted to skid at the exact point we started from.