Fort Portal is located in the southwest region of Uganda, strategically located between the Rwenzori Moutains, Kibale and Queen Elizabeth National Park, and a whole bunch of crater lakes. That part of Uganda is known for growing and producing a large amount of tea. Rolling hills are covered in tea plants owned by large plantations that cover every step, from the raising of cloned saplings all the way to the drying and packaging of the final product. It is possibly the prettiest part of the country that is so easily accessible.
The original plan was to make Fort Portal a base and visit Kibale and Queen Elizabeth parks, but the entrance fees to the parks prevented that from happening. One of the most disappointing aspects of Uganda is the high costs of national parks. Ranging from $35 to $90 per head per day, they cater far more to the wealthy tourists who make a special trip out to Africa to do the safari trip.
Skipping the parks just lead to exploration of the town and the surrounding environs. During a long walk out of town I met up with a local man in the next village over. We got to talking since his house was further down the road we were traveling. A friendly man, we talked about my time in Uganda and a whole host of other things. When it finally got to where I was heading, I replied truthfully that there wasn’t much of a plan, just walk until it got boring then turn around. He thought that was wonderfully quixotic if a bit stupid and made an offer to make the walk worthwhile. He told me that he wanted to take me on a tour of the local tea plantation near his house. Kiko Estate. Not having anything better and figuring it could be somewhat interesting I agreed and we made our way out there.
The plantation is large enough that the people who work the fields have their own quarters on the property. Many of them are immigrants from Rwanda, but the plantation does employ locals as well. One of the locals was my guide’s cousin who showed us around. His pride and joy was the green house where he worked. His job was to harvest seeds to find strong and healthy new plants. The seeds are harvested then tried for thirty days. Taking one right off a tea plant, the seeds are a bit smaller than grapes with a fleshy outer covering and a hard pit in the middle. After drying, water is added to the seeds and put in soil for a week. After the week when sprouts pop up, the seeds are moved to the greenhouse where they’ll spend a full year germinating. During this year they’ll be checked for signs of diseases and other potential problems with poor plants being destroyed. When the year is complete the seedlings are ready to be planted in the fields. Working throughout the year due to the climate and location right on the equator, the greenhouse often houses upwards of fifty thousand plants at any one time.
After our trip to the plantation, my guide offered to take me to the Kibale forest. We set out because what else was there to do? Also I hoped that maybe he would be able to convince the people to let me in for a bit for free. Eventually we made it to the gate where they did not let me in for free. The two of us sat down for a few minutes talking to the park rangers before heading back. When we finally made it to my guide’s house he invited me in for tea. I tried to refuse since there still was another hour of walking ahead of me, but he convinced me to stay and then called his friend who was a mototaxi driver to come and pick me up to bring me to town. I was a bit curious on how far we actually walked that day. The Lonely Planet guide says that Kibale forest is thirty five kilometers away from Fort Portal. We took a lot of back routes and small roads so maybe we didn’t cover the whole thirty five, but from start to finish it was a full day of hiking.