The new Griffin Falls Campsite in Mabira Forest is a community-based ecotourism center 10kms outside of Lugazi, off the Jinja Road. I have been curious about it for months, and finally visited it today. Overall, I would say it has a lot of potential, but still has some work to do.
Getting There: First of all, don’t even try to find it yourself. There is one sign on Jinja road as you enter Lugazi that tells you where to turn off to the left, then that road leads you into a maze of unsigned tracks through the sugar cane plantations. After asking a couple of boda boda drivers which direction to go out of the trading center, they suggested that I hire one of them to guide me out there. However, thinking that of course there would be signage since the place must want visitors, I bravely headed out on my own. Minutes later, after seeing what was ahead, I sheepishly returned to the boda stand and hired one of them to show me the way. Save yourself some time and do this from the beginning. Until they put signs at all of the junctions, you will never find it on your own. Another option is to just take a matatu from Kampala to Lugazi, and then hire a boda to take you out to the site for 3,000 – 4,000 shillings.
What to do: As with the other sections of Mabira Forest, this is a great place for general forest walks and birding. There are 312 species of trees and shrubs, 315 species of birds, 30 species of mammals (including red-tailed monkeys and grey-cheeked mangabeys) and over 200 species of butterflies. Walks range from about an hour to many hours if you connect up with the rest of the Mabira trail system. I took the walk to Griffin Falls, which was about 2 hours round trip. Unfortunately, my guide didn’t know any of the birds or trees. If you are interested in learning much about the forest, I would contact the guide named Hussein directly, at 0751-949368. I met him after my hike and he seemed to have a wealth of information about birds, the forest, and the ecotourism project.
The Falls: The hike to the falls is beautiful, takes about an hour each way, and is just hilly enough to feel like you have gotten a bit of exercise by the end (particularly if you are carrying a 35-pound kid on your back, as I was). There are a number of trees across the trail, so there is some bushwacking to do. Long pants will serve you well. The final approach to the waterfalls is striking as you leave the forest and cross a section of bare granite rocks. The falls themselves come through a narrow, rocky canyon, cascade over 4 falls, and bottom out into a pool surrounded by towering trees. The first thing that really hits you, though, is a very strong, unpleasant odor. It turns out that the Lugazi sugar works dumps its wastewater into the river a few kilometers above these falls, affecting both the color and the odor of the river.
Accommodation: If you want to spend the night, you can pitch your own tent in a cleared section of the forest, hire a tent from the project, or stay in the one banda they have built. The banda is very basic, with a double bed and a toilet. The campsite is quite nice, and I expect it is a great place to see birds early in the morning. Meals can be arranged through the headquarters. You can get the current camping or banda rates by calling Hussein (0751-949368).
Other fees: The entrance fee for the forest is the same as the main Mabira site: 2,000 shillings for Ugandans, 5,000 for foreign residents, and 7,000 for non-residents. The hike was 5,000 per person.
I am a big believer in community tourism projects, as they provide great motivation for people to protect the natural areas around their villages. This site is new (it opened last August), and can use all the visitors it can get in order to have the financial resources to develop to its full potential. When I visit a site like this, I try to adjust my perspective regarding “value for money.” I saw my visit to Griffin Falls as a donation to an important community project rather than a “perfect” tourism experience. With time and more visitors, the guides will become better trained, the site will be easier to find, and the trails will be better maintained. So visit it soon, make arrangements in advance with Hussein, and be a little forgiving until they have more experience under their belts.
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala