Richard Tooro is not supposed to be alive today. In 2011, Tooro and a couple of friends went on a boat cruise along River Nile. Everything seemed okay until the boat’s engine stalled.
What was supposed to be a fun ride turned fatal. The crew hit rapids and all on board fell into the water. In the waters were crocodiles and hippos.
By a stroke of luck, Tooro managed to swim to a nearby rock, where he stayed for eight hours. He was one of the four survivors, of the six people who were on boat.
The region of western Uganda would probably have been poorer if Tooro had not survived. He founded the first tour company in the Rwenzori region. He is one of the most knowledgeable tourism players in the sub-region, who is widely mentioned in several travel books.
Tooro is so passionate about tourism, his is a household name in the Rwenzori sub-region. He is the proprietor of Kabarole Tours and Safaris, which is one of the most reputable travel companies in the sub-region. The 58-year-old is also behind Gardens of Eden campsite, which is situated in the middle of Fort Portal along Mpanga River.
But above all, Tooro is widely credited for turning around the face of tourism in Tooro sub-region by coming up with new innovative products such as nature walks, community walks and cycling trails, among others, which have seen the number of tourists to the region soar up. Formerly a grade II primary teacher, Tooro gave up teaching during the turbulent times of the Milton Obote presidency between 1980 and 1985.
As a result of the poor pay, he turned to farming. That, too, was not as rosy as he thought. In 1990, he decided to go into construction. It is while working at this construction firm in Fort Portal that Tooro met a German doctor who wanted a house. He helped him secure one, although it needed renovation. The doctor hired him to undertake the work.
“We became close friends, and started going together to the national parks on weekends. I lived here but had never visited a national park,” Tooro recalls.
Soon, the doctor started receiving guests who wanted to visit the parks. And whenever he was busy, he delegated Tooro to take them around.
“The numbers grew and the doctor advised me to start charging them,” Tooro said. That is when he formed Kabarole Tours and Safaris in 1992.
Tooro said that at that time, the Lonely Planet guidebook, which was the only guidebook then, had a brief paragraph on Fort Portal.
“It said that in Fort Portal, there was nothing to do, save for a one day tour to see pygmies in Semliki,” Tooro noted.
“When I opened office, everybody wanted to go to Semliki. But then I realized there were many other things to do. I started creating things and I am happy to say that most of the activities you see here were created by me and Kabarole tours.”
And slowly, the paragraphs on Fort Portal in the travel books became bigger. That is why Kabarole tours is widely mentioned in travel books.
“All the writers started looking for me to give them information,” Tooro said.
Kabarole Tours has become a driving force in nature conservation and community development projects around Fort Portal and the Rwenzori at large. The company has established an eco-tourism institution in Sebitoli village, Kihingami Vocational Institute for Tourism, which trains young people in tour guiding, nature interpretation and conservation, and environmental awareness. Many youths have received training opportunities at this institute.
The company is also involved in the conservation of Kihingami wetland, which had been completely destroyed by tea growers. The wetland, which has regenerated, is now a bird sanctuary. Two hours from the institute, through the wetland, gives you chance to see a wide range of birds, including the white-spotted flufftail and the great blue turaco, and four species of primates, among which is the red colobus, endangered species by IUCN standards.
Tooro says his passion for tourism dates back when he was a child because their “family has been adventurous in one way or another.”
“I think it’s in our blood that we are adventurous. We have been trying different things,” he said.
“Since my early childhood, I always felt that I wanted to show other people new things.
That’s why I joined the teaching profession. As I started taking tourists to villages, I realised [how much] the local people could gain from the travellers’ knowledge. I realised that locals needed to be taught [why] conservation was so important as they actually had no idea that they were destroying [their environment]. Slowly, Kabarole Tours has brought a lot of positive change in people’s lives and we continue to do the best we can.”
His grandfather was a trader, who dealt in salt. He would carry salt from Lake Katwe to Kampala, and in return, he would carry other items from Kampala to sell. One day, he met missionaries, and began following them. Eventually, they ended up in Virika church where he was converted into a Catholic.
He got land near the church. Because of his interaction with missionaries, he realized how important education was. He, therefore, educated Tooro’s father who made 100 in March. Tooro’s father was a medical assistant and he studied in Mbarara.
“They would walk for seven days through Kibale. My grandfather would accompany him, spending days in the forest to Mbarara.”
It is this adventurous blood in him that keeps him going. Last year, Tooro grew his businesses by opening up a guesthouse, Jacaranda hilltop guesthouse. Situated on the hilltop, 6km off the Kampala-Fort Portal highway, inside Mpanga tea estate, which is 20km before Fort Portal town, the guesthouse overlooks the tea estate on one side and is fenced off by the thick rainforest of Kibale national park on the other side.
It occupies a house, which is reported to have been constructed in the 70s and officially commissioned by former President Idi Amin. The house remained unoccupied until 1995 after the revival of tea growing. This prompted the tea estate, which is currently owned by a group of farmers following the 1995 privatization policy, to offer the house to a private developer.
“Tourism is interesting. Once it gets into your blood, it’s very captivating. You go to a place and have a feeling that this place is something that shouldn’t be ignored.
So, when I was introduced to this place, the location itself, I knew I couldn’t go wrong if I established myself in this place,” says Tooro.
Given Fort Portal’s historical background as a colonial town, Tooro has his fortunes tagged on the fact that there were many Britons who worked in the tea estates during the colonial days. Their families would want to come back tracing their roots.
“Previously, we all looked at tourism in terms of safaris: animals, game drives, gorillas. But over time, my interaction with tourists, though I have realized that the trend is changing. You take people and they see everything, whether you see ten lions or one, it is still a lion,” Tooro says.
“But you can package your tour in such a way that you do a safari and then visit a village. Their interaction with the community, you find the tourists remembering more the people than the lions. The trend is changing. Yes, they want to do a safari but the culture and the people is more interesting.”