Searching for the Shoebill Stork on Africa’s greatest lake

The Shoebill Stork is probably one of the oddest looking creatures I’ve seen, like something left over from when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It looks ancient, a pre-historic animal that doesn’t somehow seem right for our world. Plus, the Shoebill Stork is probably not a stork at all. Despite sharing a few similarities with the average stork, recent DNA studies place it in the same family as pelicans, although it may well be related to both storks and pelicans.

Guide sign, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Guide sign, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Regardless of its true nature, it is a huge and magnificent creature, well worth the effort of making a day trip from Kampala to the Mabamba Wetlands on the edge of Lake Victoria. The Mabamba Wetlands is designated as an Important Bird Area, but is affected by human encroachment which is damaging the Shoebill’s habitat. The Shoebill is considered to be vulnerable, if not yet endangered, thanks to habitat loss. Most people come here to spot a Shoebill, but the area has a rich diversity of birdlife on offer. Plus, the lovely waterscapes on the edge of the lake make a trip here a very pleasant adventure.

The Shoebill gets its name from its giant beak, shaped like a shoe – it looks like a Dutch clog – which makes it one of the most easily identifiable birds on the planet. They also reach a height of over four feet (140cm), which should make them simple to spot, but they are solitary creatures and have a tendency to loiter in high grass and papyrus. My Bradt guidebook mentioned a Shoebill expert who lived close to Lake Victoria, a short drive from Kampala. It was impossible to contact her by phone, so I hired a car and went in search of her, hopeful that she’d be free to take me into the wetlands to spot Shoebills.

Port, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Port, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Kasana, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Kasana, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Boat on Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Boat on Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Turning off the main paved road from Kampala, we bumped down a dirt track for a few miles before coming across a house with a large handmade sign outside it. Here we found Kasana, a knowledgeable local guide to the Mabamba Wetlands. After we’d agreed a price we set off for the ‘port’, where we picked up a boat and a boatman and headed into the wetlands in the hope of finding a Shoebill.

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Flower, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Flower, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Paddling out into the wetlands, we passed through narrow channels overshadowed by foliage. Numerous small, brightly coloured birds flitted about in the reeds and around the boat. An intense sun bore down on us, and I was thankful I wasn’t doing the paddling. After about an hour Kasana spotted a Shoebill. It was quite a long way away, but we paddled as close as we could get and through binoculars watched this magnificent creature. They rarely fly, but I’d hoped to see one catch its favourite prey, a lungfish. Our Shoebill seemed to be content to walk around and flap its wings.

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

After about twenty minutes, the Shoebill decided to sit down behind some long grass, our cue to leave. We paddled back to port seeing more birds in the reeds. At Kasana’s house, I signed the guest book and discovered that the last person to visit came a couple of weeks before my arrival. Despite the attraction of the Shoebill, there aren’t that many tourists visiting this area – one estimate suggests less than a thousand people each year. I suppose I should be grateful, but local communities could certainly do with an economic boost from tourism – something which might help preserve the Shoebill’s habitat.

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

After all that hard work, the driver took me to a nice lakeside hotel in Entebbe where I celebrated spotting a Shoebill with a fitting drink: a cold bottle of Nile Special.

Nile Special beer, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Nile Special beer, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees, Shoebills and the Great Blue Turaco, it must be Uganda

Uganda is a challenging country to visit. It is beset by poverty, inequality, conflict and numerous health issues. It is also a country with which I feel a strong affinity. Maybe it’s because just outside Kampala they named a town, Port Bell, after me. Maybe its because one of it’s most famous beers, Bell Lager, is also named after me. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because Uganda wins the award for producing the most attention grabbing radio advert I’ve ever heard.

Share your passion for Bell Lager, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Share your passion for Bell Lager, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

It was up against some serious competition, after all, I once sat in a bar in Belize listening to calypsos promoting the use of condoms by advising the men of Belize that women were conniving and devious harlots, hell-bent upon trapping innocent men into relationships. Give them a chance and they’d deliberately get pregnant…or so the jaunty calypsos would have us believe.

In the end, Uganda’s radio advert won by a country mile. I was sat in the back of a taxi in Kampala, the radio was loud enough to be heard in a neighbouring country, and the driver took delight in drawing my attention to the advert. In a country blighted by HIV, unwanted pregnancy and a miserable record on women’s empowerment, the advert was intended to put an end to the phenomenon known as “Sugar Daddies”.

Young woman in the market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Young woman in the market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Fish vendor, Owino Market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Fish vendor, Owino Market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

“Sugar Daddies”, older men who use money and power to extract sex from young women and girls, are a major societal problem. The advert was blunt. Essentially, two girls are at university. One has a Sugar Daddy who gives her a mobile phone and clothes, the other has no Sugar Daddy and is poor. The girl with the Sugar Daddy arranges for her friend to meet another Sugar Daddy so she can have nice things as well. The man is waiting in a car on a darkened street. She opens the door, the interior light comes on to reveal…her father.

The moral of the story is obvious, but still quite shocking. I had come to Uganda for work, and, after a couple of days in Kampala, I was driving north on a pot-holed road to the benighted region of Gulu. In this vast and lawless area, which has the misfortune to border Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army has waged a brutal and terrifying war against the people of this region for two decades.

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Kony’s story is well known. A man with messianic tendencies, who believes he is the instrument of God on earth. He has adopted a particularly perverse Christian fundamentalism to achieve his goals, including mass rape and murder, torture, decapitation, kidnapping male children to be child soldiers, and female children to be sex slaves. His militia have run rampant across this region, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands.

The human cost of Kony’s delusion is incalculable. Kony insists that he is fighting for the Ten Commandments to be fully imposed in Uganda, but he forces children to murder and mutilate their own parents; orders whole villages to be burned to the ground and the inhabitants killed. Very Old Testament. This has been going on for over two decades. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask why the International community has done so little to help?

Young woman, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Young woman, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Children in Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Children in Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

It was a period of truce and faint hope when I arrived. I spent a week in the region meeting people living in the Internal Displacement Camps, getting their stories and venturing into the countryside to see progress towards rebuilding villages and communities. After returning to Kampala, I decided to go and visit some different areas on my own time. I particularly wanted to see some of Uganda’s fabled wildlife.

Baboon, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Baboon, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzee, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzee, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Despite huge environmental degradation, intense pressure from population growth and agriculture, Uganda has some amazing wildlife to offer. I headed east to the Kibale National Forest, a wonderful region where it is possible to see lots of primates, birds and other wildlife, but which is most famous for chimpanzee tracking. Returning to Kampala, I went to Lake Victoria to try to catch a glimpse of the illusive Shoebill Stork (a pre-historic looking giant of a bird).

Boat on Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Boat on Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Despite all the challenges – and they are many and severe – faced by Ugandans, this was to be an amazing introduction to a beautiful and fascinating country. People are really friendly, and it is a country that deserves to see more international visitors – although if you’re gay it is unlikely to top your list of holiday destinations.