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Monday, 22 March 2010

Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife

Written by Sam D'Cruz
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Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife, travel Lake Opeta, travel Uganda, Northeastern region of Uganda, Lake Opeta, numerous bird species, endangered shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, Okutot Island, Teso people, Karamojong Tribes, Sam D'Cruz

In the Northeastern region of Uganda lies a large, remote, seldom visited lake: Lake Opeta. The lake was designated a national conservation area in 2006 due to its numerous bird species— including the globally endangered shoebill (balaeniceps rex).

 

Lilly pads stretch endlessly across the calm waters to 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.

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The lake is not only home to rare wildlife, but also to 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 was employed as a consultant and researcher to make preparations for introducing ecotourism to 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.

 

Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife, travel Lake Opeta, travel Uganda, Northeastern region of Uganda, Lake Opeta, numerous bird species, endangered shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, Okutot Island, Teso people, Karamojong Tribes, Sam D'CruzThe 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 generations


Fishermen

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. In dry season the water is another 10 minute walk across the huge flood plains.

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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 in the coolness of the water.

 

Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife, travel Lake Opeta, travel Uganda, Northeastern region of Uganda, Lake Opeta, numerous bird species, endangered shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, Okutot Island, Teso people, Karamojong Tribes, Sam D'CruzSimon took us to his home first. The floating island named Aliborit is a tiny grassy piece of land with a few solid areas near the center for walking. The island is inhabited by twelve people sharing five 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, so they are started here and then later transported to the mainland to continue to mature. Fresh fish dry on bamboo racks in the hot mid-day sun.

 

People from surrounding villages used to survive on the islands as well, 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.

 

Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife, travel Lake Opeta, travel Uganda, Northeastern region of Uganda, Lake Opeta, numerous bird species, endangered shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, Okutot Island, Teso people, Karamojong Tribes, Sam D'CruzSeeing 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.

 

 

Shoebill

Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife, travel Lake Opeta, travel Uganda, Northeastern region of Uganda, Lake Opeta, numerous bird species, endangered shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, Okutot Island, Teso people, Karamojong Tribes, Sam D'CruzThere 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 to promote ecotourism.

 

The shoebill, with one genus and species, has been placed within its own family and has traditionally been grouped with the storks and/or herons. It was first spotted in 1850 by Gould, who saw 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 wasn’t classified until the 19th century when skins were brought to Europe. However, the bird was familiar to both ancient Egyptians and Arabs, who refer to the bird as abu markub, which means one with a shoe. There are Egyptian images depicting the Shoebill as well.

 

We headed to the first sight which we were told was 'nearby', but 3kms with one guy using a stick to push a 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 our 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 had seen this bird before.

 

Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife, travel Lake Opeta, travel Uganda, Northeastern region of Uganda, Lake Opeta, numerous bird species, endangered shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, Okutot Island, Teso people, Karamojong Tribes, Sam D'CruzA 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, unlike the rest of the wildlife. I was fortunate enough to capture some great shots and the day was a complete success; it was definately worth lugging my heavy telephoto lens around all day.

 

I felt a sense of relief, as the shoebill was the main reason Lake Opeta has been designated a conservation site and it was of huge importance that I capture professional shots of the bird in order to attract visitors..

 

 

* * *

Untouched Uganda: Lake Opeta's People & Wildlife, travel Lake Opeta, travel Uganda, Northeastern region of Uganda, Lake Opeta, numerous bird species, endangered shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, Okutot Island, Teso people, Karamojong Tribes, Sam D'CruzVery few foreigners have visited these areas, so it was a privilege to see the authentic culture of these friendly fishermen which has not been 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 stay with the fishermen in their island homes, 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 learning 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.

©Sam D'Cruz
Photographer / Writer
www.samdcruzphotography.com

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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