After a three-and-half-hour ride on the MV Kalangala ferry from Nakiwogo landing site to Kalangala district, the sight of white sand beaches at Lutoboka welcomes us.
From a distance, the beach looks like a white cloth spread at the lake shores. The excitement of the passengers on board the ferry is visible, especially for those visiting the Ssesse islands for the first time – me inclusive.
The school holidays are ongoing; so, there are students, groups of workmates, couples, businessmen and those who permanently stay on any of the 84 islands that make up Kalangala district.
“Ssese [is derived] from the people who were early inhabitants of the islands called the Basese. They are descendants of a famous man called Ssese who came to the island many years ago,” Gerald Mugisha, my guide, tells me.
There is also another legend that the name was derived from a famous Ssese tree believed to have supernatural powers and was worshipped by the said Basese.
In 1989, the islands were given district status as Kalangala. Thirty-four of the islands have no human settlements. While island tourism is yet to pick up among Ugandans, one ought not to pay huge sums of money to go to Zanzibar, for example, when one can get a similar experience here.
Ssese is filled with interesting tales of the past from warrior princes of the Basese, Baganda and Banyoro to the invincible gods of the past. For example, did you know it is a cultural taboo to bring sheep to Ssese? Legend has it, your animal would be struck by lightning.
WHAT TO SEE
From the legendary Ddamula forest where the Kabaka of Buganda gets his ddamula (royal cane), a symbol of power he gives to his appointed prime minister, boat rides to the smaller, tourist-magnet islands such as Banda, Ssese will surprise you pleasantly.
Also, the few remaining Basese with their language and culture can be an interesting encounter. It is said that many of these people were shifted to the mainland by explorer John Speke when tsetste flies became a menace and sleeping sickness was wiping them out.
The beach walk can also be relieving, and one cannot visit this place without trying out the John Speke fort, a building constructed more than 100 years ago atop a hill after a long trek through a thick forest.
This walk allows one to have a view of the different flora and fauna from monkeys to birds and beautiful vegetation. The island has at least 12 bird species that attract tourists from all over the world.
Also, managed by Kalangala Infrastructure Services, the hundreds of solar panels at Bukuzindu station are a fascination. They generate nearly 1.6MW of electricity distributed to the community through a prepaid system.
Away from the largest island, Bugala, the Nanziri falls on Bukasa island are believed to have magical powers and offer quite a calming scenery after the trek to see them.
But away from the mesmerising sites, birds, ridges and caves, there is a vast range of fun activities one can do, most of which are offered by the hotels. Brovad beach hotel, for example, offers quad biking, nature walks, boat rides, canoeing, local fishing and bicycle riding, among others.
At several places, one can also do beach volleyball or football. For those not keen on using the relatively pricey ferry from Nakiwogo, a free-for-all ferry leaves Bukakata in Masaka district for the islands, taking less than 45 minutes on Lake Victoria.
However, you spend hours driving to Bukakata from Kampala, and again from Luuka pier to Bugala’s central business district where most of the hotels are concentrated. Still the sights from Luuka to Lutoboka are unforgettable.
Is your wallet light or loaded? Do you wonder whether your comfort preferences can be satisfied?
Worry not as you prepare to go to Ssese. The islands – especially the biggest one, Bugala – boast of various hotels spread along the lakeshores with different packages depending on one’s financial status.
Brovad Sands lodge, where I spent two nights, is on the swanky side of things, but the prices are pleasantly surprising, depending on what you settle for.
They have spacious cottages, a cool, forested environment and good meals, especially the fresh fish that everyone who goes to the island craves; you can’t fail to have a good time here.
A cottage for two, full board, costs Shs 350,000, while a single costs Shs 200,000. I would also recommend Victoria Resort hotel, where I spent a night.
Located just next to a thick natural forest and having a vast beach with cottages overlooking Lake Victoria, it is a breathtaking experience, especially at night. Here, a double costs Shs 400,000, while a single is Shs 250,000.
There are, however, even cheaper rates on the islands. Most of the hotels provide camping facilities within their secure premises for the more adventurous ones, with a campfire each night.
For those who love Ssese, they frequent it for its absolute quiet and clean environment.