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Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta


In the North Eastern region of Uganda lies a large, remote, seldom visited lake. Lake Opeta. The lake was designated a national conservation area in 2006 due to it being the habitat for numerous bird species – including the globally endangered shoebill (balaeniceps rex).

Lilly pads stretch across the calm waters endlessly into the horizon. Rare birds soar past. The setting is extremely tranquil. A large crash of a tree branch hitting the water breaks the peace – the fishermen have opened business for the day.

The lake is not only home to the rare wildlife, but also a local tribe of Teso people. Peter Epeu has come into view equipped with nets and long ‘beating’ sticks. They fish the waters of the lake and live in basic grass huts on swampy floating islands. Living the same simple lives of their forefather’s they have everything they need to survive. The fish are in high demand with the neighboring communities who often come to the lake shore to buy fish and trade items which cannot be grown on the islands such as flour and maize.

I am a photographer and had been employed as a consultant / researcher to make preparations for introducing ecotourism at Lake Opeta. The idea is that the revenue generated from the visitors can be put back into conservation and benefit the lake, surrounding areas and their inhabitants.

The benefits are easy to see, but what would be the impact? The fishermen rely on nothing from the outside world, they don’t use power, they don’t have mobile phones and they don’t have modern fishing equipment. They have lived, fished and traded this way comfortably for many years.

Getting to the Lake involves driving down dusty tracks, past previous insurgent’s camps (from the period of unrest and fighting with the Karamojong Tribes) – a 4 x4 is a necessity. The water in dry season is actually then another 10 minute walk across the huge flood plains.

We met with Simon Oese and some of his fellow fishermen on the shore, jumped into one of their small handmade boats and headed out – reassured by them that there are no crocodiles or hippos on this side of the lake!

The lake is only a few feet deep and the boat is powered by one man at the back with a stick, pushing into the mud below. Slow progress is made on the huge expanse of water.

As soon as we left the shore, navigating the narrow waterways, birdlife became abundant, flying overhead and resting from the blistering heat, nearby in the coolness of the water.

Simon took us to his home first. The floating island named Aliborit is a tiny grassy piece of land with few solid areas nearer the centre for walking. The island is inhabited by 12 people sharing 5 grass huts. There is a small plantation of crops including banana trees and potatoes (the potatoes don’t fare so well in the swampy ground, they are planted to start their initial stages of growth and then later transported to the main land to continue to mature). Fresh fish dry in the hot midday sun on bamboo racks. People from surrounding villages used to survive on the islands aswell, escaping the killing sprees of the Karamajong Tribes in 2003. Violence and constant raiding became part of normal life in the region and peace has only been restored in recent years. During my journey over the last few days through the Teso region to reach the Lake, I had heard several stories from local’s of friends and family they had seen slaughtered, bullets flying through villages and bodies piling up.

Seeing fishermen from a neighboring island plying their trade is quite a sight. They furiously beat the water with long sticks to attempt to get the fish to swim right into the nets which have been carefully setup close by. The method is tried and tested and has been passed on from one generation to the next.

There is another prolific fisherman on the lake competing for the fish. Strange looking, standing around 4ft with a huge wedge shaped face giving the appearance of something from prehistoric times. It is the shoebill. One of the main aims of the day was to find the endangered shoebill and get high quality photographs of it for promotion of the ecotourism.

The shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), with one genus and species, has been placed within its own family and has traditionally been allied with the storks and/or herons. It was first classified in 1850 by Gould, who spotted the creature along the banks of the upper White Nile and called it “the most extraordinary bird I have seen for many years”.

This species was only discovered in the 19th century when some skins were brought to Europe. It was not until years later that live specimens reached the scientific community. However, the bird was known to both ancient Egyptians and Arabs. There are Egyptian images depicting the Shoebill, while the Arabs referred to the bird as abu markub, which means one with a shoe, a reference to the bird’s distinctive bill.

We headed to the first sight which we were told was ‘nearby’ – however, 3kms with one guy using a stick pushing the boat takes some time!

We searched, but no shoebill was to be found within the vicinity of the first few islands, so we headed to the opposite side, skirting along the shore from a distance. No such luck.

We had yet another tip off from a fisherman who said he had sighted a collection of shoebills early in the day near Okutot Island. This was the last chance.

The journey across was painfully slow for another 2 hours and the heavy monsoon rains had started. As we arrived, soaking wet, the rain started to clear and low and behold, the head of a shoebill was seen amongst the tall grasses. We had found it! Everyone excitedly made their comments as none of our party in the boat had seen this bird before.

A very odd looking character, the shoebill stands at above waist height and has a large un-proportionate beak. It stands silently for long periods of time and then dives forwards opening its large mouth to clamp down on the fish it has spotted. I personally think the bird looks like something from a prehistoric period, not really fitting in with the rest of the wildlife. I was fortunate enough to capture some great shots lens and the day was a complete success. It had been worth lugging my heavy telephoto lens around all day.

I felt a sense of relief, seeing as the main reason Lake Opeta has been designated a conservation site was due to this bird. It is also the main reason the majority of visitors would visit. It was of huge importance that I see, and even more important that I capture professional shots of the bird for the promotion of ecotourism….

It was a privilege, to see up, close the culture of these friendly fishermen. Very few foreigners have visited these areas and it is great to see that they have not modernized at all. They enjoy a completely sustainable existence. The introduction of ecotourism will certainly see an influx of money, primarily giving the fishermen a little bit of extra cash to take tourists on their boats. Even with the proposal of improving the infrastructure, such as adding toilets at the landing site, a small lodge and offering options to home stay with the fishermen on their islands, my opinion is that these men will be continuing their thriving fishing business for many years to come.

Giving visitors the chance to see local culture’s and maybe even learn from them is important, however the impact needs to be minimal and controlled. Protection of this unique area and its inhabitants must be the priority.

Lake Opeta is an untouched corner of Africa I would highly recommend to any traveler wanting to get away from the beaten track.

More by Sam D’Cruz at his own website, http://www.samdcruzphotography.com/.

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