Saturday, March 17, 2012

Chilling out at Kyaninga

Where better to celebrate one's birthday treat than at Kyaninga Lodge, just outside Fort Portal? (NB, 'Ky' is pronounced 'ch'.)

Just as well, for the five hour journey west from Kampala counts as one the most boring in Uganda. Dusty trading centre after dusty trading centre stretched before and behind us. We were expecting this depressing ribbon development interspersed with papyrus swamp, as we had done the journey before on several occasions. What we were not expecting, however, were the miles and miles of recently hacked down and, indeed, smouldering forest: acres of it. A First World War landscape met our eyes, tree stump after tree stump. The newspapers have been full of stories of 'encroachers' and now we were seeing the evidence with our own eyes. All that tropical forest was being turned into charcoal, emptied into sacks and sold along the side of the road. This was not uncontrolled development by big companies, though Uganda has its fair share of that. No, these were 'little' people, poor landless families desperately scratching a living by burning down other people's trees, and their children's inheritance.

That was a bit of a depressing start to our weekend, we have to admit, but then a few miles before Fort Portal we started seeing the tea plantations and remembered why we liked this place. Of course, these rows of bright green bushes had themselves replaced thick forests of trees in their time, but now they just looked sunny and peaceful. A few Scots had got here a century or so before us - McLeod Russell, Tea Planters, to be exact - and their plantations are still going strong. Then we saw the mountains peeping through the mist and we knew we were nearing our destination.

Tea plantations near Fort Portal

Northern end of the Rwenzori Mountains
Fort Portal is probably one of the most attractive towns in Uganda. This is a more significant comment than might at first appear.  Uganda does not 'do' picturesque towns and villages.  Its mountains are magnificent, its lakes sparkle in the sunshine and its savannah stretches for mile after shimmering mile, but its urban centres are dusty, down-at-heel and chaotic. Not so Fort Portal, a douce colonial town nestling at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains.

Kabarole Main Mosque, opposite the market

All that remains of the Fort (behind the club house)
See post below for picture of moat
The centre of the town stretches between the old fort, now the Toro golf club (see our earlier post Fort Portal, Semliki and Toro Golf Club) and the new Royal Palace, built for the Queen Mother and Tooro's youthful king. (Don't worry about the variations in spelling!) Like other colonial towns (Entebbe and Jinja come to mind), the outskirts contain dilapidated colonial bungalows in spacious, but now bare and dusty, gardens and a few rows of workers' quarters carefully tucked away half out of sight.

Palace at the top of the hill, shimmering in the heat haze
Sir Gerry
 Fort Portal has its fair share of NGOs, for the Kabarole, Kibale and Kamwenge areas are quite poor and until ten years or so ago the mountains had seen a good bit of rebel activity. The relatively high proportion of westerners currently living in Fort Portal, however, means that there are a few pleasant places to hang out in and some particularly comfortable - indeed, luxurious - lodges, for well-heeled tourists. In Ugandan terms and when on our weekends, we count as the latter, so after a quick peek at the town, we turned round and headed for Kyaninga Lodge.

A first view of Kyaninga Lodge

One's first sight of the lodge is dramatic: a row of eight thatched log cabins on stilts, perched on the ridge of a crater lake and joined together by wooden walkways joined by lots of steps. You have to be fit to stay in Kyaninga - or else persuade the managers to put you in either cottage four or cottage five, on either side of the restaurant and swimming pool area! All the accommodation has been built of wood - not tropical forest, you will be glad to hear, but eucalyptus and Mount Elgon olive wood. Eucalyptus is the sitka spruce of Uganda. Brought from Australia, its serried rows remind one of Forestry Commission plantations in the Lake District and Scotland. Eucalyptus drains all the water out of the land so the nutrients leach away.  Quite a good idea to use it for building!

Don't be fooled - the pool is on the ridge and the lake is far below!
You may be able to make out the long line of the Rwenzori Mts in the distance
Just one of the many volcanic plugs around Kyaninga
The Lodge is one of Uganda's 'eco' lodges, so it uses solar-powered electricity (no hair driers!). The food is wonderful - the best we've had in Uganda (except, perhaps at Mahingo Lodge, which is equally luxurious). Fruit and vegetables are grown in the garden or bought from local farms.  During the building of the Lodge about 130 local workers received specialist training in stone and wood crafts, developing the skills to support themselves and to work for the Lodge's spin-off businesses, like furniture making. So, a good bit of 'trickle down' into the community.

View from our log cabin
Our marble and olive wood bathroom

Almost a four-poster bed!

The backdrop of the Mountains of the Moon (Ptolemy's name for the Rwenzoris) is magnificent - when you can see them through the haze. The crater lake itself, more than 200 meters deep, is stunning - and you can swim in it, for, unlike most lakes in Uganda, it does not have bilharzia.

View from our balcony

Restaurant and sitting area, with swimming pool

We, however, had our dips in the swimming pool and then lay lazily in the sun as immobile as the various chameleons with whom we shared the decking.

It's always climbing back up again that's the problem

Don't jump! It's further down than you think...
Fort Portal is a bit cooler than eastern Uganda. However, it was quite warm enough for us... and the lizards!
Feeling a little colourless in comparison

Swimming and sunning was just about the sum total of all the activity Stuart engaged in that weekend, apart from lifting his fork and glass. I, however, true to my Calvinist roots, decided to use my time profitably and went on a couple of walks. There are two walks direct from Kyaninga, one a ridge walk around the crater lake and the other a forest walk at the water's edge. I did the former, with company and a guide.

The company!
We saw a few birds: golden weaver birds, a brown snake eagle and some helmeted guinea fowl.

But I think this one's a grey heron, pale in the bright light
The long-crested eagles which perch high on the trees apparently lead (not drive...) the local men to drink, or so they say. 'Where is the alcohol?' they ask the eagle and track where it goes. The fact that they have so much success may simply indicate the amount of home-brew hidden in the local bushes. Children, however, call out, 'Long-crested eagle who will I marry?' and watch the direction in which it flies.

Not a pub in sight...
We didn't see the black and white colobus who live down by the shore, but we did see pretty little vervet monkeys and could hear the primates calling out to each other in the evening across the forest.

A rather far away vervet monkey
The rim of the lake is cultivated, crops growing well on the volcanic soil. The square patches contained sweet potatoes, 'Irish' potatoes, maize and a lot of cassava. Sadly a whole side of the ridge had been burnt through field clearance fires which spread, a common-enough occurrence in Uganda.

It's almost always women who do the farming.
Presumably the men spend their time deep in conversation with long-crested eagles.
Our guide with bird book and invisible bird
Women also do all the heavy carrying
My other walk was through Tooro Botanical Gardens in Fort Portal itself. Founded in 2001 with German support, it grows indigenous trees to replace those so thoughtlessly felled in both the past and the present (as we had seen on our way). It also grows medicinal herbs, which are dried and sold. Plantations of eucalyptus trees burn very easily. The hope is that by regenerating traditional forest eventually the primates and other animals and birds will return.  Eucalyptus is almost impossible to kill, so the gardeners graft on indigenous species which eventually take over and kill their exotic foreign hosts.

The Gardens supports traditional craftsmen who make banana fibre mats. They also act as an educational resource for schools and colleges as well as providing outreach support to local villages. Staff provide advice, for example, on ways of discouraging wild animals from destroying people's crops, for example by planting chilli plants round the perimeters of gardens, or by building elephant trenches (see our post on Kibale). Sadly, part of the Gardens had themselves been burnt - again accidentally when fire spread from nearby field clearance fires.

Elephant grass over our heads

Bottle brush tree (I think)
It was just a gentle walk through the Gardens, however, and I've forgotten the names of all the plants. Remembering was just too much effort.

Anonymous tree with anonymous fruit
Our weekend in Kyaninga was a little oasis in the middle of work. We ate, drank and chilled out.  We'll be back!

You may also be interested in the following posts about the Fort Portal area.

Fort Portal, Semliki and golf courses of Uganda Part 4, Toro Golf Course

Living together in Kibale Forest


  1. Glad to see you liked Fort Portal as we have become very fond of it. When we went there first in 2007 it was perhaps better known as Fort Pothole - a dusty/muddy town with potholes that would swallow a Mini. But a new mayor with some vision has greatly improved the town in the last few years.
    In 2007 Kyaninga Lodge was but a dream in the head of the owner Steve whom we met then. There was only a prototype lodge (which I think is now Steve's home)and as the years went by we shook our heads and thought this will never be finished but last year we walked out there from FP and had lovely surprise- and a very nice lunch.
    On a sadder note we are disappointed to see that 'slash and burn' continues on the road up from Kampala. Every year we have seen the fires burning on new patches of land, and crops growing on last year's burn. The population explosion is probably behind it and you can understand why they do it, but in the end it will be self defeating.
    Your 5 hour journey from Kampala may have been a bit of a drag but I guess (hope) the road works are now complete. Last time we travelled that road I counted around 140 speed bumps between Kampala and Mityana alone. But we always get a tingle of anticipation on the road up because we know we are going to see all our friends again and also the girls at Kyebambe and the other students at Buheesi and Glorious Preparatory School.
    We will be there in two weeks time!
    Sandy and Liz Riddell

  2. And we'll be making another 'flying' visit to FP tomorrow, en route from Kamwenge to Kyanjojo (someone has to do it!). Had a great visit to Lake Goeorge today (it was work, honest!)

  3. Hi Ritchies,I was at kyaninga a year ago with clients enroute to Kibale Forest and Rwenzori Mountains. It is indeed a beautifully crafted lodge.
    Sadly our forests are being decimated it is a global issue that calls for every one to be responsible tourism providers;that is including the kyaninga and other lodge owners. If the lodge had a revenue sharing system with the surrounding communities including contribution to health and nutrition afforestation, education outreach, perhaps the situation would not be that dire.Several land owners are quick to sell their land in hope for a better life in the city. They assume buying a 'boda boda(bike taxi) will guarantee that bright future only to fall victim to accidents and if they are lucky they survive or are maimed for life.

  4. Thanks for the message,Tony. I agree about the forests. Kyaninga has been doing some work with the local community on tree planting. I believe their earlier efforts were not particularly successful and they are now working much more closely with the district officials. You are quite right about land being sold off to fund bodas - disastrous for the environment but also often for the boda drivers - if they crash the bike, that's both their inheritance and livelihood gone.