In the wake of Idi Amin

The legacy of the reign of terror keeps Uganda off the tourist map. But for those who make the journey, the islands that pepper Lake Victoria provide a dizzying array of all that Africa has to offer ... including its dangers, as Anna Borzello found

Although Kalangala, the administrative centre of the Ssese islands, is less than 60 miles from Kampala, it took us eight dangerous hours to get there. Four times, the 20 passengers had to clamber out of the back of the pick-up to lighten the load, leaving only the sacks of grain, branches of matoke (unsweet bananas, a staple of south Uganda) and a frail old woman clutching on to the edge of a coffin for support.

Just before reaching the ferry stage, the vehicle stopped next to a rundown house where, on the grass beside it, a group of women were crying. Then the coffin was lifted over the passengers' heads and off the pick-up, whereupon the women began ritually wailing and clasping their hair.

"The man they are crying for fell out of this pick-up yesterday," explained the schoolboy crushed against my knees.

Ssese, an archipelago of 84 islands in the Ugandan waters of Lake Victoria, has only 16,000 inhabitants, and is one of the less-visited circuits for independent travellers although Lonely Planet included it in the third edition of its guide to East Africa in 1994.

Uganda, which still suffers from its association with the long-gone dictator Idi Amin, attracts few travellers. Ssese, by virtue of its inaccessibility, gets even fewer. In Kalangala police station - a settlement of tin huts, loose chickens and courteous officers - the visitors' book in which all tourists must register, flicks back to 1992 in a few pages.

Kalangala, on Bugala island, is a tiny settlement, its buildings spread spaciously along the dirt-red road which overlooks the lake and offshore islands. There is not much action, except for the TV set. At night, benches are set up outside a shop and a vocal audience gathers to watch That's Life Mwattu, a popular Ugandan soap.

Most visitors stay about five days, rowing on the lake, walking through vervet- filled forests, or cycling along the quiet lanes. Paths pass through poor mud-and-thatch villages, and the islanders greet visitors politely. Tourists are still rare enough to have had little impact on the lifestyle of the islanders and only a tiny handful have tried to capitalise on tourists as a source of income.

One of these is Mr P T Andronico - the heart of Ssese's tiny tourist industry, and now, since his oddities were mentioned by Lonely Planet, an attraction in himself. This eccentric 70-year-old islander, with his luminous green Wellington boots and gasping, eager speech, has a manic urge to label everything in his tourist lodge as if he is trying to teach its inhabitants to read.

Outside the lodge, clouded by a noisy tree drooping with the weight of hundreds of yellow weaver birds, is a sign for a car park - a misnomer given that there are few cars on the island, none of which belong to Mr Andronico.

Instead, the tiny shack houses rickety bicycles which are hired out with a map indicating the major landmarks in Mr Andronico's life: the school where he taught; the improbable parish church - perfectly Victorian except for its corrugated-iron roof - where he funded the latrines; the village where he was born.

In front of Mr Andronico's lodge is a dustbin, helpfully labelled "bin". Inside the labels proliferate and even the plant pot is labelled "plant". My bedroom, with its animal skin, religious artefacts and house rules ("No wrong sex"), felt as if a mad old lady had recently died in it.

Mr Andronico's full creativity, however, is let loose on the dining room walls, where his personal history and political prejudices flourish freely. Ex-presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote are there, the phrase "killer murderer" inked beneath them. The current president of nine years, Yoweri Museveni, fares better. His annotation: "Peace Bringer".

There is no doubt, judging by the curling picture of the Kabaka, the Buganda king reinstated by Museveni two years ago, that Mr Andronico is a fervent Muganda - the central Ugandan tribe which has historically dominated the economic and intellectual life of the country.

Underneath these pictures, the evening meal (plates of groundnut sauce, fish stew and sweet bananas) is eaten with Mr Andronico, his son and interested townspeople. In our case this included a local journalist who came every evening to share "hot tips". He seemed eager for company, not surprising given that there are few young people in Ssese. Most children go to the mainland for school, and by the time they are educated there is little point in coming back.

Ssese is usually fairly empty. The police came to tell us when another traveller arrived, and the only other tourists we met were a Danish couple en route to Tanzania to demonstrate Tanzanian dances to the "local people". The hostel is rarely full.

Few Ugandans travel to Ssese. This is not simply because there is little domestic tourism in Uganda, a country with a per capita income of pounds 150 per month and only a tiny middle class who prefer to "travel out" for their holidays, but because Ugandans, most of whom can't swim, are terrified of the lake.

Their terror is justified. On the return journey, four hours by fishing boat rather than the more roundabout road-and-ferry route, many of the regular commuters, aware that an overloaded boat had sunk that weekend, packed orange life jackets in their briefcases. Passengers were carried one by one through muddy, thigh-deep water, dense with hyacinths, to a sun-bleached fishing boat heaped with dead and dying fish.

The journey, rocking under a clear and burning sky, was broken only when a boat drew alongside and threw more fish inside. Large sacks of mukele, the small dried fish which forms the livelihood for many of the islanders and whose dead-hippo-like smell pervades Bugala island, were also heaved on board.

I steadied my eyes on the horizon, while the young policeman next to me - who was returning to Kampala after a nine-month stint in what he regarded as the lifeless pit of Ssese (no discos and only five murders since the New Year) - was discreetly sick over the side.

Victoria principles

Getting there: Competition is increasing on flights between Britain and Uganda. Alliance Air (book direct on 0171-312 5040) flies nonstop on Mondays and Fridays between Heathrow and Entebbe; Alliance is an offshoot of South African Airways (and uses an old SAA 747). The lowest fare is pounds 440 return including tax, but this must be booked by 3pm today; after that, the fare rises by pounds 20. British Airways (0345 222111) flies twice a week from Gatwick via Nairobi. Its lowest official fare is around pounds 700, but discounted tickets costing pounds 400 are available through agents such as Somak Travel (0181-903 8526) for travel by the end of March. British visitors no longer need a tourist visa for Uganda.

Accommodation: The government-run Uganda Hotel Corporation operates a network of comfortable lodges. Prices are around pounds 25 single/pounds 40 double per night, including tea and toast.

Further Information: Philip Briggs's Guide to Uganda (Bradt Publications, pounds 11.95); East Africa: a Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 11.95).

The Ugandan High Commission is at 58 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX (0171-839 5783).

Suggested Topics
FIFA President Sepp Blatter reacts during a news conference in Zurich June 1, 2011
Life and Style
food + drink
peopleKatie Hopkins criticises River Island's 'seize the day' bags for trying to normalise epilepsy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Day In a Page

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?