The world’s longest river, River Nile; Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria; and Africa’s second deepest lake, Lake Bunyonyi, are all found in Uganda.
Discover the Lakes, Rivers and Waterfalls of Uganda
Almost one-fifth of Uganda’s total area is open water or swampland comprising a great number of lakes and rivers notably 4 of the African Great Lakes; Albert, Edward, Kyoga and Victoria and the River Nile, the longest river in the world. In the mountainous west and southwest, several crater lakes that have been formed over thousands of years are a beauty to behold.
On offer are a host of water-based treats including the famed Murchison Falls and Kazinga Channel boat cruises and adventure activities like white-water rafting and bungee jumping at the Nile. Uganda’s lakes and rivers present limitless opportunities to explore the varied biodiversity in and around their basins for birding and game viewing alike.
Geological studies have shown that Lake Victoria has dried up completely a few times in the past, the last time being approximately 17,300 years ago.
Africa’s largest lake and one of her most spectacular landmarks is located in East Central Africa along the Equator, bordering Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Measuring an outstanding 68,000sq. Kms, Lake Victoria is also the largest tropical lake in the world and the second largest freshwater lake in the world, after Lake Superior in North America.
Lake Victoria is estimated to be about 400,000 years old and was created by the same geological shifts that created the great African rift valleys. Victoria’s shallow basin with an average depth of 40m is in the center of the great plateau that stretches between the Western and Eastern Rift Valleys. Interestingly, geological studies have shown that the lake has dried up completely a few times in the past, the last time being approximately 17,300 years ago.
Rainfall is the primary source of water for Lake Victoria, complimented by thousands of small streams. River Kagera, which starts in Burundi and flows through Rwanda and Tanzania, also empties into Victoria. The Lake Victoria region is one of the most densely populated in Africa, by a host of bantu-speaking tribes in all three countries, and the Nilotic Luo in Kenya. The Ugandan cities of Kampala, Entebbe and Jinja lie along or near the northern coast in an area that is largely inhabited by the Baganda and Basoga tribes.
Arab Traders first recorded the lake on a map around 1160 AD as they worked the inland routes in search of slaves, gold and ivory – naming it Ukerewe. Several hundred years later in 1858, an English explorer John Hanning Speke was the first European to set eyes on the lake during a Central African expedition in search for the source of the Nile. Speke named the lake in honour of the reigning English monarch, Queen Victoria, and declared it the source of the Nile, sparking a great debate in the scientific community that rages on today. Not long after his discovery, the area that is now modern day Uganda became a subject of intense interest for several explorers that were keen to either refute or confirm Speke’s discovery.
In 1875, a Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley circumnavigated Lake Victoria, confirming Speke’s discovery when he reached the lake’s outlet on the northern shores, at Ripon Falls. Stanley made friends with the local reigning monarch, King Mutesa of the Baganda, persuading him to open Buganda to England. He eventually sent word back to England, calling for missionaries who came a few years later with soldiers and traders, to forever change the story of Uganda and that of the inhabitants of the shores of Lake Victoria.
Before her discovery by Europeans and long after that, Lake Victoria was known by several indigenous names. In Uganda the Baganda whose kingdom surrounded the lake, called it Nalubaale. The Lubaale were the over two-dozen demi-gods that were revered in the Buganda Kingdom as interceders with the supreme creator Katonda, on behalf of humans.
The Lubaale were at the centre of everyday life in Buganda influencing the outcome of everything from war, to fertility and it was believed that the lake was their home. Mukasa, the most popular of them, was the guardian of the Lake with his chief temple located on Bubembe Island in Lake Victoria.
Lake Victoria’s ecology was once characterised by immense biodiversity including over 500 species of fish that have been evolving alongside the lake over the last few thousand years; Tilapia is by far the most popular and economically important today. Several mammals that are closely associated with the lake itself, live in the Lake Victoria basin including the hippopotamus, different species otters, marsh mongoose and waterbucks. A large population of Nile Crocodiles and bird species also inhabit the lake and her wetlands.
The Ssese Islands are a lush archipelago of about 84 Islands scattered along the beautiful northwestern shores of Lake Victoria. Listed as one of the ’10 Best Islands’ by Lonely Planet, the islands are a perfect, clam and relaxing destination for travellers that are looking to slow things down. The beautiful scenery of the Ssese Islands comprises large swathes of pristine white sand beaches dotted with palm trees, and extensive evergreen natural rainforests interspersed with grassland.
The islands that are located 55km away from Entebbe on water have Kalangala Town as the administrative and main urban centre, and fishing and palm oil plantations as the main economic activity. The Kalangala Ferry provides the main means of transport between the islands and Masaka and Entebbe Towns. The islands belong to two main groups; the Bugala group and the Koome group, which are separated by the Koome Channel. Bugala Island where most hotels and resorts are located is the most popular island with tourists.
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the islands were a spiritual center in the region particularly for the neighbouring Baganda and Basoga in Uganda. In the early 1900’s, a sleeping sickness epidemic forced many of the Bassese to flee to the mainland until the 1980’s when they slowly started their return home. Today, the Bantu speaking Bassese inhabit only 43 of the islands that range in size from a tiny 2.5 acres to over 40kms in length. The islands are a good place for visitors to meet and interact with real Ugandans in the small fishing villages along the lakeshores.
Because the islands have been largely untouched for so long, they boast virgin forests that are abound with exotic flora and fauna. Ssese is home to the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary; a home to 49 orphaned and rescued chimpanzees located just 14miles off the shore of Entebbe. Other primates like the vervet monkey and the black and white colobus can be found in the forests, and hippos and waterbucks are also common. Not surprisingly, the islands are a haven for many forest, wetland and water birds including hornbills, Turacos, barbets, flycatchers, and robin-chats.
Although infrastructure on most of the islands is still rudimentary, it is slowly improving and visitors to Ssese Islands can enjoy fishing, boat cruises and assorted water sports and long nature walks to watch birds and stay at an assortment of rustic and luxurious hotels and resorts on the islands.
The Magnificent Murchison Falls are a jewel in the captivating landscapes featured on the Nile. They are one of the world’s most popular and spectacular waterfalls, not for height or water volume but on account of their beauty and power. The British explorer, Sir Samuel Baker who first visited the falls in the 1860’s reported in his book: “Upon rounding the corner, a magnificent sight burst suddenly upon us…. The fall of water was snow white, which had a superb effect as it contrasted with the dark cliffs that walled the river, while the graceful palms of the tropics and wild plantains perfected the beauty of the view. This was the greatest waterfall of the Nile.” The falls are located at Paraa, the main tourist hub of Murchison Falls National Park.
The most Spectacular thing on the Nile
At the top of the falls, six million cubic meters of water from the Victoria Nile crash through a 7meter gap in the rocks each second, before plunging 43meters into a deep gorge, the Devil’s Cauldron. The unbelievable force of the water as it is squeezed through this narrow opening produces a deafening sound and releases endless sprays of water that are visible even from a distance – the trademark rainbow above the falls is the icing on the cake.
Unbelievably, Murchison used to be even more powerful before 1962 when massive floods created a second channel and the smaller Uhuru Falls. A Uganda Wildlife Authority viewing point built at the top of Murchison Falls is as good a vantage point as any to truly appreciate this force of nature and the pulsating life of the water.
The riverbanks leading up to the falls are an oasis for a host of animals including hippos, Nile crocodiles, Elephants, Cape Buffaloes, Waterbucks and several bird species and can be viewed on the famous Murchison Falls Launch Cruise.
The British explorer Sir Samuel Baker and his wife Florence were the first Europeans to discover the falls in 1864. Baker named them for the Sir Roderick Murchison, the geologist and then president of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society. For a brief period in the 1970’s, Ugandan President renamed them Kabalega Falls in protest of the colonial legacy that lingered on, in the names of several of Uganda’s landmarks.
Although Kabalega Falls was never legally recognised and despite the fact that the falls reverted to their European name after Amin’s fall, it is still a very common reference in Uganda. Amin named the falls for the Omukama Chwa II Kabalega who ruled the mighty Bunyoro Kingdom in the late 19th Century. Kabalega is considered the greatest King in the history of Uganda.
Wall of Fame
Famous visitors to Murchison include Winston Churchill who in 1907 walked the 86kms from Masindi, American President Theodore Roosevelt IN 1909 on an East African Safari, and American novelist Ernest Hemingway who survived a plane crash close to the falls, and Queen Elizabeth in 1959. The incredible Murchison was a backdrop in the 1951 Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart film The African Queen.
Located in Kapchorwa District in Eastern Uganda on the edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, the magical Sipi Falls cascade from the foothills of Mount Elgon, dropping 100 meters over a massive cliff, into a plunge pool below. The falls are made up of a series of 3 stunning falls that increase in depth as the waterfall descends. On its drop, Sipi Falls provides a natural curtain for hidden caves that provide a scenic backdrop for amazing memories. At the base of the falls, the experience of taking a natural shower or diving for a swim in the large plunge pool is not easily matched.
The Sipi River is itself named for the ‘Sep’ plant that is indigenous to the banks of the river. Sep resembles a type of wild banana with a translucent green frond and bolt of crimson rib. The plant has medicinal value and is locally used for the treatment of fevers and measles.
The area surrounding the falls is awash with possibilities for nature lovers including bird watching, hiking over the 3 levels of the falls, nature walks and treks. At the falls, 14 routes with different difficulties that range from 15m to 35m are available for rock climbing. The surrounding areas are famous for growing Bugisu Arabica Coffee and guided coffee tours about coffee farming, processing and roasting are available, with a portion of the returns from this going towards community projects.
The 29 islands scattered across Lake Bunyonyi are probably the most magical thing about this place. In the early mornings they can be completely hidden from sight behind a veil of dense mist, only to emerge in the afternoon bathed in sunlight. Most lodges in the area are perched on hilltops with incredible views of the lake.
The islands of various shapes and sizes are mostly uninhabited and have fascinating stories:
Akampene / The Punishment Island: the smallest and most infamous of the islands that was once where unmarried pregnant girls were marooned to starve and die as punishment.
Kyahugye Island: the nearest island to the mainland, it is covered various tree species and is the only island with wild animals including zebra, waterbuck, impala, Uganda Kobs and monkeys.
Bwama and Njuyeera / Sharp’s Islands: In 1931 an English missionary, Dr Leonard Sharp established a leprosy treatment facility on Bwama island to separate the infected from the mainland, while he lived on the next island, Njuyeera. Today the facility houses a secondary boarding school.
Bucuranuka / The Upside Down Island: according to local legend, an old woman that the island’s inhabitants would not help cursed this island, immediately turning it upside down and killing everyone on it.
All the islands can be reached by canoe and several have trails for nature walks and hikes to explore the birds, wildlife and flora.
Literally translated, Bunyonyi means the ‘place of many little birds’. Over 200 bird species have been recorded to nest or migrate to the swamps and islands of Bunyonyi, including some international migratory birds that make Bunyonyi their home during the winter. Many weaverbird colonies dot the lakes shores and larger species like the grey-crowned crane -the Uganda Crested Crane- is a common sight too.
Birders can explore by dugout canoe ride on the lake and visit to Nyombi swamp where many species can be very easily observed skimming the surface of the water, or on nature walks on the steep slopes of the surrounding hills where the trees are filled with all manner of birds – white tailed blue monard, African Harrier Hawk, Heron, egret, the cardinal woodpecker, slender-billed baglafetch and levillant cuckoo. If there is on thing that visitors to Bunyonyi are guaranteed no matter what activity they are on, it is seeing birds.
For travellers looking for a nice long stretch, hiking trails crisscross the steep terraces of the Kigezi highlands that surround Lake Bunyonyi that give a panoramic view of the lake and the islands that are shrouded in mist in the early morning and bathed in a lush green in the afternoons. Local guides help to identify the different bird species that fly with abandon around the lake, as well lead community tours to get to know the locals. Hiking can also be done on trails on the islands that are inhabited by even more birds, monkeys and some wildlife.
Lake Bunyonyi’s main centre is Bufuka Village that is inhabited by the Bakiga who are native to the area, and Batwa who were moved here from the forests in Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echuya after they were designated as reserves. The Batwa are the oldest peoples of Uganda with a rich heritage and enthralling music and dance. The Bakiga have cultivated the steep slopes of the Kigezi hills for centuries and their culture, legends and traditions are a part of the beautiful Bunyonyi. Community visits and cultural tours to the heart of Bakiga and Batwa settlements are recommended.
The Kazinga Channel
The 32km long Kazinga Channel on the northwestern margin of the Lake Edward joins it with Lake George. It is an oasis for the fascinating wildlife of Queen Elizabeth Park and boat ride from the Mweya Peninsula, along the Kazinga Channel to Lake Edward is the park’s most enduring attraction. Lake Edward’s shores are inhabited and visited by several animals including elephants, crocodiles, lions, buffaloes and hippos and it is also home to various perennial and wandering birds. There are no large human settlements on the lake save for Mweya and Katwe on the Ugandan side.
Lake Edward is an Albertine Rift lake located a few kilometres south of the Equator and only 20kms south of the Rwenzori Mountains, in Kasese District in Western Uganda between Uganda and the DRC. It is surrounded on all sides by Queen Elizabeth National Park on the Ugandan side and the Virunga National Park in Congo. The tiniest of Africa’s Great Lakes, Lake Edward has a surface area of 2,325sq. Km and is about 77kms long and 40kms wide, with an average depth of 17m.
Lake Edward was named in 1888 by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker for Prince Albert, Prince of Wales and son of then reigning Queen Victoria, later to become King Edward VII. It sometimes goes by Lake Nyanza and was briefly called Lake Idi Amin in the 1970’s before it reverted to Lake Albert after the fall of the Amin regime.
The Source of the Nile
The Source of the Nile
Since her “discovery” in 1858, Lake Victoria has for a long time been believed to be the source of the Nile because it is drained by the River Nile in Jinja in Eastern Uganda. However in 1837, German explorer Dr. Burkhart Waldecker claimed that the source could be traced further back to the headwaters of the River Kagera, the largest river that feeds Lake Victoria, to a small budding spring in the hills of Burundi, south west of Uganda.
In 2006, explorers from the UK and New Zealand posited that the true source is in Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. Notwithstanding, a plaque above the Ripon Falls that overlooks where the Victoria (White) Nile begins to flow out of Lake Victoria towards its end in the Egyptian Delta reads: ‘This spot marks the place from where the Nile starts its long journey to the Mediterranean Sea through central and northern Uganda, Sudan and Egypt.’
No doubt the discussion about the real source of the Nile will go on for a while, but the Nile does indeed leave Lake Victoria as Victoria (White) Nile at Ripon Falls (Owen Falls) in Jinja. The Speke Monument, one of Uganda’s tallest monuments stands in the exact place where Speke first beheld the ‘Mighty Nile’.
The authentic monument is located on a picturesque hill on the west bank of the Victoria Nile with panoramic views of Lake Victoria and the great River Nile. Another Speke’s Monument, a tall red granite obelisk with steps at its base is located in Kensington Gardens in London with an inscription that reads: IN MEMORY OF SPEKE / VICTORIA NYANZA / AND THE NILE / 186
There is nothing average about the River Nile. For one, with an estimated length of almost 6,700km, it is the longest river in the world. To add to its grandeur, this River that snakes its way across half of Africa has its source at Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and largest tropical lake in the world. River Nile takes its name from the Greek word Nelios meaning river.
Visitors to Uganda will encounter the magnificent Nile in two key places; the launch cruise on the River Nile in Murchison Falls Park is the ultimate game viewing experience for an array of animals and birds, and in Jinja town adrenaline junkies can enjoy several adventure activities that happen on or around the Nile.
A long and Complicated Journey
The Nile flows from the equatorial forests and mountains of East and Central Africa through 11 countries; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.
River Nile has two major tributaries, the White (Victoria) and Blue Nile. The White Nile, named for the fertile whitish clay that is suspended in its waters starts its journey in Jinja at the Ripon Falls, while the Blue Nile flows from the Ethiopian Highlands and Lake Tana into Sudan. The White and Blue Nile become one great river in Khartoum that flows through Egypt to empty in a large delta that flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
In Uganda, River Nile has 2 branches. It starts as the White (Victoria) Nile, and flows 500km northward from the northern shores of Lake Victoria to drain in Lake Kyoga in Central Uganda before joining and leaving Lake Albert in the West as Albert Nile. Before joining Lake Albert, the Nile is forced through a 7-meter gap in the rift valley escarpment – the famous Murchison Falls. Once the Albert Nile crosses into South Sudan it is called the Bahr Al Jabal or Mountain Nile and for most of the rest of its journey, it flows almost entirely through desert in Sudan and Egypt.
An Ancient History
Long before any association was made between the Nile and Uganda, this mystical river had a celebrated place in the world, particularly in Egypt. It is probably true that Ancient Egypt may never have become one of the greatest civilizations in history if it had not been for the Nile, the true source of her wealth and power. Not only did Ancient Egyptians rely on the Nile for all their water, the fertile soils of the Nile basin made for flourishing agriculture and her waters, a conduit to trade in the region. The large blocks of stone that were used to construct Egypt’s wonders were often transported on the Nile and even the Ancient Egyptian calendar was based on the three cycles of the Nile. In the 18th Century, the Rosetta stone that was used to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics was discovered in the Nile Delta.
Discovery & the Source of the Nile
Africa is a land of wonder that has offered her explorers many problems and none has been in existence longer than the quest for the source of the Nile. Despite having been one of the earliest known of all rivers, mystery always shrouded its source. Greek geographer Ptolemy who lived and worked in Egypt around 140AD claimed that the river’s source was water from a range of snow-capped mountains in the south. It is believed that the mountains that he spoke of were the famous Ruwenzori’s or as he named the, ‘The Mountains of the Moon’.
In the Victorian age, discovering the source of the Nile was an obsession of many adventurers because the British Empire sought to control the source of water of their Egyptian Protectorate. Several expeditions failed miserably on account of the treacherous terrain and malaria-infested swamps in Southern Sudan. It wasn’t until over 1700 after Ptolemy’s time that the first documented sighting of the source of the River Nile was made by John Hanning Speke, an English explorer in Her Majesty’s service. Speke and his companion Richard Burton resolved to make their approach from south of the Nile when their journey brought them to the southern shores of Lake Nalubaale (Victoria).
The fertile banks of the River Nile have long attracted a vast number of animals, large and small mammals, but mostly reptiles and over 300 species of birds – the Nile Crocodile is by far the most fascinating of them all. One of the largest crocodiles in the world, Nile Crocodiles can grow to an amazing 7meters, weigh as much as 700kgs and sometimes live up to 80 years. Vicious predators, these crocodiles can be observed catching their prey and feeding on gazelles and wildebeest. Murchison Falls has the highest concentration of crocodiles in Africa that can be seen from the comfort of a boat cruise as they lie lazily on the sandbanks near the falls.
The Nile Monitor, a large species of lizard can also be found slithering in many parts of the Nile River basin, and Nile Perch, a popular delicacy in Uganda are also in great abundance up and down the Nile.
For thousands of years, the Nile has played a vital role in transport, ferrying passengers, exports and cargo. In colonial Uganda after the construction of the East African railway, Northern Uganda was linked to the railway to Mombasa by the ‘Nile System’, a collection of steamers that sailed the navigable waters of the Albert Nile. Today boats on the Nile in Uganda carry tourists on sightseeing trips at the Murchison falls and other areas where an assortment of birds and other wildlife can be viewed in their natural habitat.
Over 5 major dams are constructed in the Nile delta including the Owen Falls Dam, now called the Nalubaale Dam that was constructed in 1954. Together with a second dam, Kiira constructed in 1999, Nalubaale Dam generates most of the hydroelectric power consumed in Uganda.
Other Lakes of note
Lake Mutanda is a small, little known freshwater lake nestled in the foothills of the Virunga Ranges, about 20kms north of Kisoro Town. The lake’s clear waters are dotted by several islands that are ringed by sprawling green hills, against the backdrop of the three peaks of the Virunga’s; all together a rather spectacular view. All the islands are uninhabited except the biggest one, Mutanda that is inhabited by the Abagesera people.
The lake can be explored on canoe rides that are rewarding for birder. Island tours are available including one to ‘Python Island’, which has a large population of the enormous reptiles that can easily be sighted on hot days. Alternatively, visitors can take an exhiliarating mountain bike ride along the steep banks of the lake to the tops of hills for a view like no other. Because the lake is free of bilharzia and large predators like crocodiles, visitors are permitted to swim and sport fish in its cool clear waters. The interactive Buniga Forest Walk around the lake brings hikers in contact with the Batwa, the original inhabitants of the forest
Western Uganda is one of the best places in East Africa to see Explosion Craters and Explosion Crater Lakes. Violent volcanic explosions created the now extinct craters that sit on the uplifted floor of the Albertine Rift Valley about 8,000-10,000 years ago, and today their calderas are either filled with water or covered in vegetation, and some are even cultivated. Because no tributaries feed the lakes, they are free of sediment and have been flooded by unbelievably clear water. Looking at the breathtaking landscape of Uganda’s crater lake region, it is hard to imagine that it was born of fire and brimstone. The pristine lakes are ringed by steep rolling hills, grassland and vanilla plantations, and in the horizon the Rwenzori Mountains to the west and Kibale Forest to the east
A total of 86 crater lakes and vegetated calderas make up this crater lake region. It is conveniently located near 2 excellent national parks; Kibale Forest National Park that offers the best chimpanzee trekking and habituation experiences, and Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s most popular national park.
The Uganda Crater Lake Trail takes in Kibale Forest Park, Queen Elizabeth Park and the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains and is some of the best hiking to be had in Uganda, on account of the spectacular landscape and views. Much of the land in this area is cultivated with mostly vanilla plantations, but it is still inhabited by lots of primates and is actually a terrific place for birding. Some lakes are bilharzia-free and, but hippos have been sighted in occasionally so visitors need to check before they take a plunge. Reed canoeing on these placid lakes is another popular activity.
Katwe Craters / Queen Elizabeth National Park – Located north of the Mweya peninsula, these craters are the highest point in the park. The Explosion Crater Drive takes visitors on a 2hr drive over just 27kms and offers panoramic views of the western rift valley and its escarpments, the snow-capped mountains of the moon and Lakes George and Edward with the 40km Kazinga Channel between them. Not much wildlife can be spotted on this drive, but elephants and buffalo can frequently be seen. On the Salt Lake Tour, visitors can see Lake Katwe, an ancient but still functional salt mining site and the world famous Lake Kitagata with its bubbling hot springs.
Bunyaruguru Craters / Near Queen Elizabeth National Park – Located on the Kichwamba escarpment of the Western Rift near Queen Elizabeth Park are about 20 crater lakes and several vegetation-filled craters, with great views of the plains and forests of Queen Elizabeth Park. The beautiful and clear water Lake Nkugute is visible from the Mbarara – Kasese highway.
Ndali – Kasenda Craters / Near Fort Portal & Kibale Forest – This area has one of the densest concentrations of crater lakes in the world with over 30 crater lakes located on the short 10km stretch between Kibale and Fort Portal. Many of the lakes here can be explored on foot or mountain bike on several hiking trails. A popular one is the Top of the World Hike, a 3hr guided walk that takes in three neighbouring crater lakes, tea plantations and the local villages where guides explain the peoples way of life, their legends surrounding the crater lakes and their traditional roles in the vanilla and tea plantations.
Fort Portal Craters / Near Fort Portal Town – The smallest crater field where the serene Lake Kyaninga is located has a breathtaking views of the Rwenzori Mountains.