Fort Portal and the Crater Lakes – independent Uganda travel

The journey to Fort Portal, located in Uganda’s western region and formerly the capital of the Toro Kingdom , was my first experience of “big bus” travel in Uganda.

So far on my three week Uganda itinerary, I’d stuck mainly to matatus, the primary form of transport here. These are 16 seater minibuses, although usually packed out with over 20 adult passengers plus a few kids, chickens and goats thrown into the mix.

The Link bus company is one of the few organised coach companies operating in Uganda, with their own bus terminals, scheduled departures, fixed prices and fixed stops. Supposedly this makes them faster but Ugandan roads are not easy roads to travel. It took over 6 hours to reach Fort Portal from the capital city of Kampala.

What to do in Fort Portal

The town is well placed for lots of national parks, chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park, wildlife reserves and for hiking the Rwenzori Mountains.

I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t do any of these. I got a little paralysed with indecision – nothing was really grabbing my attention!

I had half decided on doing the Bigodi swamp walk, on a nature reserve operated by the local community. However, being unable to find any reasonably priced accommodation nearby (Bigodi is a 45 minute trip from Fort Portal) and the recommended time (to see the most birdlife and monkeys) being a 7.30am start, I knew I wouldn’t get a matatu (shared minibus) at that time and I wasn’t keen on a 45 minute boda boda (motorbike taxi) trip first thing in the morning. Of course, I regret this now!

In the end I spent a pleasant half-day exploring Fort Portal, then headed for the crater lakes for some hiking.

So, what is there to do in Fort Portal? A quick guide to Fort Portal attractions

The town is apparently the only town in Uganda with an English name, having been built in the 1960s and named after the British Consul General of Zanzibar, Sir Gerald Portal who came to Uganda in 1890s to formalize British protectorateship over Uganda.

It’s a typical Ugandan town with a dusty main street, crammed with small supermarket shops, mobile phone shops and some small cafes. Away from the main street, the roads are pleasantly clean and nice to ramble, with some good views of the Rwenzori Mountains to the north. I found just one souvenir or craft shop, Maria’s Cards, which was reasonably priced.

I bought a couple of small souvenirs here plus some nice cards. I always try to send postcards on my trips but the only place I’ve seen selling postcards so far was The Source cafe in Jinja and I missed my chance to buy them them there.

Still, these cards will do just as well and the post office is just around the corner. Whether they’ll get to their destination is another question!

There’s a nice fruit market close to Mpanga bridge, with a tourist cafe opposite called The Gardens. I love buying fruit in Uganda. Everything seems to come in USh1,000 bags (that’s around 30 cents). Do you want a bunch of bananas? 4 tomatoes? 3 apples? 4 small mangoes? – all one thousand each. So I’ve just started asking the sellers “how many for a thousand?”

I walked out to the Toroo Botanical Gardens, around 20 minutes from town. This community project is a tranquil, diverse site featuring pretty gardens, a plant nursery, banana and coffee plantation and beehives. I’d read online that a guide is included in the entry free but sadly this caused a lot of head shaking and confused looks. So I paid my USh20,000 entry fee and just rambled around on my own. There was plenty of birdlife to admire too, had I know what i was looking at. A guide to explain everything would have been great!

As usual, around 4pm the street corners came alive with dinner stalls. Fried chicken and chips is always popular, pre-made and piled in buckets, the street vendors set up a flaming hot pan of oil over a fire, ready to heat up your dinner. I love the chapati guys, with their neatly rolled balls of dough ready to cook on the hotplate at the buyers request. Rolex is also always on offer, with an omelette of your choice wrapped up in a freshly made chapati (rolled eggs = “Rolex”!).

Exploring Fort Portal Crater Lakes

Fort Portal is surrounded by crater lakes, providing evidence of Uganda’s volcanic history. There’s four located close to the north of town, then clusters dotted around much further to the south. Although there’s accommodation at most of the lakes, these are very overpriced “safari lodge” style cottages and I only found a couple of affordable options for a single traveller.

The easiest one to get to ended up being Lake Nyamirina, a 20 minute boda ride from town. Matatus and shared cars ply the route too but very infrequently and there were none leaving when I arrived at the junction by Mpanga bridge. I deliberately told the boda driver to let me off at the turn to Lake Nyamirina Cottages though – I knew it was a steep dirt track, supposedly impassable in the wet season and I was far happier walking it than bumping up it on the back of a motorbike!

I’d messaged the property about camping (in a rented tent) which was what I’d done in Kapchorwa near Sipi Falls. Their listing on had this option. As is getting fairly usual now on my Uganda backpacking trip, whoever I was messaging was not at the property and they’d never heard of me!

Ben, a helpful young guy in charge, was adamant camping was not a good idea but offered to get a banda made up for me. Banda’s are simple accommodation in Uganda, usually a row of rooms, each opening directly onto a shared terrace.

It was pretty clear I was the only guest, so I asked how much discount he’d give me on one of the ensuite cottages – not enough was the answer! My banda ended up being pretty nice though and I loved having the whole site to myself.

Hiking the Fort Portal Crater Lakes

I was pleased Ben didn’t give me any hard sell on guide services or tours, in fact he didn’t even mention it as an option. I took myself off the next day for a great five hour hike around the dirt tracks, passing by three other lakes and enjoying the views.

The area isn’t as agricultural as around Kapchorwa and Sipi where I hiked earlier on in my trip but there were plenty of small banana plantations and the usual goats tethered to the roadsides. I passed a couple of small herds of cows being driven along by small boys with sticks.

Only a few kids showed an interest in me. One asked me for sweets, then for shoes and then for bottles! I’m not sure what previous travellers have been handing out around here! I never give kids anything when I’m travelling and was quite disappointed to see another tourist at Queen Elizabeth National Park giving kids small packs of Haribo sweets, then asking for a photo of them.

I wasn’t too surprised to find a family of black and white colosus monkeys playing in a tree on one of the tracks but I was excited to spot, just before arriving back at my little banda, a large blue-headed tree agama.

Enjoying my Uganda solo travel blogs? Check out my tour of Queen Elizabeth National Park where hippos roamed my bush camp and I saw a family of lions.


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