The Ssese Islands are a most spectacular archipelago of 84 islands in the Ugandan waters of Lake Victoria. These jewels are tucked away in the North West corner of the lake, accessible by public water transport from both Entebbe and Masaka. Of the 84 islands in the group, 65 are inhabited; the remaining 19 are small and/or isolated from the populated ones. Until recently, these islands were primarily covered with the most magnificent rainforest; for years they were teeming with exotic birds, monkeys and the illusive monitor lizard. A few years ago, much of the forests were converted to palm tree plantations and the beautiful canopied roads across the islands are no longer there. Still, there are many patches of this wild forest dotting the islands.
The largest island, Bugala, is the seat of the local government; the islands make up Kalangala District, and the biggest town, also called, Kalangala is to be found on Bugala Island. In total there are approximately 30,000 people living on the islands, the main occupation being fishing in Lake Victoria.
At night one can see hundreds of lights out in the water. These are the kerosene lanterns affixed to the small wooden canoes of the fishermen. Ironically, it is not easy to buy or eat fish in the Ssese Islands as most of the catch is exported off the islands to the mainland, supplying Entebbe, Kampala, Masaka and in some cases these fish travel as far afield as the Southern Sudan.
Visiting Bugala Island is pretty straight forward. There is a daily 3-1/2 hour ferry service from Entebbe; departing at 2 pm. The return trip departs at 8 am from Bugala. The Ferry is a very solid European boat, the MV Kalangala, complete with both first and second classes, a small kiosk for consumables and some simple meals served from the kitchen on board. The M V Kalangala also can accommodate a dozen vehicles; in some cases there are a few left at the shore for the next day’s trip. Going to the ferry at least a couple of hours before departure is essential to ensure vehicular transport. Transport costs are: 10,000 shillings for 2nd class, 14,000 shillings for 1st class and 50,000 shillings for a small vehicle, which includes transport for the driver.
From the Masaka side, there is a regular barge-type ferry service that runs 4 times a day both ways. This trip is considerably shorter and takes about 30 minutes to cross to the Island. These ferries are larger and accommodate up to 25 or 30 vehicles, depending on their size. There are no facilities on these ferries, but local food and drink can be bought at both landing sites where the ferries depart from. There is no charge for this ferry ride as it is considered an extension of the road itself.
Kalangala town is situated on a hill, about a mile from the Entebbe/Bugala Island landing site (Latoboka). The Island of Bugala is long and thin, and a gravel road runs from the Ferry landing site on one end of the Island to the Ferry Landing site on the other end. It is about 25 kilometers in length and takes about an hour to cross the island. There are numerous small landing sites scattered along the shoreline of the Island, and even a few settlements along the road. Many of the smaller landing sites are where wooden canoes take people to and from the other islands.
Kalangala town is the seat of the local government and as such is the one place on the Islands where there is a bank with an ATM, petrol stations, medical clinic and numerous shops to buy Ugandan consumables. There are many choices in terms of accommodation, everything from simple guesthouse rooms going for 10,000 shillings to resorts at 200,000 shillings a night. Overnight camping is also available near the ferry landing site in Lotoboka. Restaurants are also as diverse….meals in local restaurants for as little as 2,500 shillings to the resort restaurants on the Latoboka beach for 30,000 shillings. Most restaurants offer local Tilapia, deep fried or in the Ugandan traditional way as a stew.
Twice a week, from a small fishing village (Mwena) near the town of Kalangala, there is a wooden canoe that departs for one of the bigger islands, Bukasa. Here on Bukasa Island, there is a small landing strip, where planes from the mainland bring notorieties and the occasional visitor. This is the second biggest community in the Ssese Islands, complete with schools, banks and local shops. There are a couple of guesthouses on the Island for overnighting.
Ssese also hosts many different bird species, and there is an island designated as a bird sanctuary. As well, one of the Islands is a set up as a Chimpanzee conservation area…which we have listed as a separate destination (Ngamba Chimpanzee Island).
Another interesting island is Banda. Here there is a rustic resort whose compound is the complete island. Small wooden huts are available for overnight accommodation; a bar and restaurant is also there for guests. It is a quiet retreat and very popular for small parties and group meetings. Banda can be accessed either from Entebbe or Kalangala; prior arrangements can be made with the guesthouse for a wooden boat to pick you up at either landing site.
The Ssese Islands are peaceful and represent a past lifestyle of Ugandans that does no longer exist anywhere else. It is not dramatic as one of the Waterfalls, or the Gorilla trekking, but is unique and definitely worth a visit for 2 or 3 days.