There are about fifty crater lakes around Kasenda in Western Uganda guarded by steep volcanic slopes, but you would not know it, because hardly anyone does. They are due west of Kibale National Park, and just East of the Rwenzori Mountains, and right off people’s maps. Even Ugandans who have heard of them have trouble pronouncing their tribal names, so the whole region generally slips off the radar of travelers.
Walking through the small towns, you greet people passing by with, “oli otya”, and they smile and giggle and make you feel welcome and glad you came. The people who live in the region grow bananas peanuts and coffee, but mostly bananas, and seem to have found a way to make just about anything out of the fruit.
Roofs and windows use woven banana tree trunks, meals are made of matoke (mashed green bananas) and dessert is cookies (smashed yellow bananas). Bottles have bananas stuffed in them as lids, and of course down by the river, local experts are distilling banana gin. Life moves at the speed of a bicycle, food is hanging from every branch, and when the skies are clear, you can see the Rwenzori mountains on the horizon.
When the rains come the African flame trees bloom bright red, and the Solanum Micrantha blossoms white and purple. The sound of giant crowned and casket horn bills flapping their wings overhead can be heard at dawn and dusk, troops of red-tailed monkey swing through the canopy, and the Great Blue Turaco peers down from its perch in the foliage. The land is gentle and fertile.
Around the little town of Kabata lie about twelve lakes and Mahoma waterfall, which makes it a wonderful place for a walk. The lakes are all surrounded by intensely steep crater rims that generally keep everyone out, and create little sanctuaries for monkeys and birds. However, they are of varying depths, with the shallow ones a murky milk chocolate brown and prone to carry bilharzia, while the deeper ones are glittering sapphire swimming holes for local children.
Different people have different favorite lakes. A popular choice is the Nyinambuga lake as people recognize it from the back of the Ugandan twenty-shilling note, however, I thought it was harder to choose between the beauty of Rukwanzi, and the quiet swimming docks of Lyantonde. Whatever you decide, make sure to take a seat at the bottom of Mahoma falls after hiking around in the heat of the day, and let it massage your back and feet.
Currently, there are a couple luxury lodges in the area with more affordable options being developed, and you can feel the tourism coming. It would be surprising if this region does not become a major attraction in Uganda in the coming years given its quiet natural beauty. So travel to the crater lakes of Kasenda while there are still more red-tailed monkeys there than travelers, learn ten uses of the banana you never dreamt of, and experience the solitude of these sapphire crater lakes for yourself.
Author’s Note: I stayed at Lake Kifuruka Eco Camp, where local youth are learning to guide tourists down to Mohoma waterfall, through a beautiful circuit of lakes and villages. The accommodation is basic, but a recommended local experience, especially if you try the groundnut soup with mushrooms. Ataryebwa Noah was my guide, and I recommend him to anyone looking to walk the circuit around Kabata. I also visited Ayapapa Home, which looked like an idyllic little spot on Lake Lyantonde and is definitely worth checking-out.