Fort Portal

Fort Portal: Uganda’s tourism capital

Fort Portal is 294 km (5-hour drive) west of Kampala and Entebbe airport. It is in Kabarole district which is part of Toro kingdom. Karuzika, the royal palace of king (Omukama) Oyo, sits on the hill above the city at 1,523 meters above sea level.

The name Kabarole is a Rutoro dialect which means “let them see.” The view of the Rwenzori mountains is spectacular from the top of the palace, which was built in 1964. Batoro are some of the friendliest, humble and hard working people in Uganda. They have utilised the rich black volcanic fertile soils well.

Economic activities in Fort Portal

The area east of the city is dominated by green tea estates including Mwenge and Kijura. Entrepreneurs have found fortune in operating coffee farms such as the Clerk farm in the nearby Kyenjojo district as well as fruit and dairy processing factories. There are fresh food markets in and out of the city such as Mpanga, where you can grab fruits and snacks.

The town attracts many people for trade with a good road network connecting other regional big and small towns like Kasese, Katunguru, and Bundibugyo. The government has laid out innovative initiatives  and upgraded Fort Portal to a tourism city status. The city has got a variety of hotels, restaurants for both luxury, budget and backpackers. There are several cultural sites such as Amabere Ga Nyina Mwiru cave and stalactites, which appears in much of the Bachwezi empire folklore.

Historical buildings that were built in the 20th century have been preserved including Rwengoma palace. Fort Portal is a pivotal point for safaris to Kibale forest, Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori mountains, and Semliki national parks, and Toro Semliki wildlife reserve. You can take trips to these parks and back to town, a great option for self-drive safari. Being in the midst of protected areas, the leaders are proposing to establish a zoo for wildlife education purposes and a cultural museum.

Volcanic effect

Fort Portal city is flanked by the Albertine graben to the north, Lake Edward to the southwest and the Rwenzori mountain range 54km north east. The city is within the volcanic field known as Ndali-Kasenda characterized by several volcanic crater filled lakes including Lake Kigere, a spiritual site associated with the Bachwezi demigods.

There are over 50 crater lakes around Fort Portal where lodges have been built on the rim of some craters such as lake Kyaninga lodge, Crater Safari Lodge, and Papaya lake lodge, which is surrounded by three craters including Kifuruka, Nyinambuga, and Lyantonde. The lakes were formed as a result of violent volcanic eruptions about 541 million to 4 billion years ago during Precambrian, the earliest era of geological history recorded.

This was estimated by the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History by the hydrocarbon dating method used at Kasensankaranga crater. Furthermore, a scholarly article in the Journal of Geological Society (“Petrology of the Volcanic Fields East and South of Rwenzori, Uganda, 1932.”  indicates that the volcanic field marks the boundary of the dry and alkali lake beds to the south in the plains of Queen Elizabeth national park. Unlike this park, the soils around Fort Portal support farming because they are of low-alkali carbonate volcanism. When you travel to or from Murchison falls, the Butiaba escarpment on the way marks the end of the Albertine rift valley.

Colonial history 

Uganda is one of the countries that have preserved colonial history by keeping names of British people alive in many parts of the country. The name Fort Portal alone is proof and the city has thrived on this legacy. The area was a territory of the Toro kingdom, which was rising as the Bunyoro Kitara empire began to weaken in the 19th century. By the year 1890, the British had sent Capt. Frederick Lugard to the Buganda kingdom in the central region.

Kabaka Mwanga had agreed to his terms to sign a treaty that would allow creation of a protectorate. However, Toro and Bunyoro were still resistant. Lugard proposed to unify all kingdoms for a protectorate to extend beyond the borders of Buganda. Lugard and his officers including Gerald Portal convinced Kyebambe II the king of Toro who became friends and allowed them to form an army camp with Sudanese Nubian soldiers; they defeated Kabalega of Bunyoro.

Eventually, all kingdoms were brought under indirect rule in 1894 and Kampala became the capital city of the new nation. To mark the victory, Lugard built a fort named Fort Gerry which was later renamed to honor his fellow Gerald Portal hence the name Fort Portal. Other colonial administrators remained in the area including members of the Church Missionary Society who founded banks, schools, hospitals and a golf club, which have all stood the test of time. Fort Portal therefore became a strategic town for the subsequent explorers who intermarried with locals. There are many descents of both Sudanese and Europeans in the area.

Lugard road 

A great example of colonial streets in post independent Uganda, Lugard road offers a number of shops that were built in the 1920s. The shops are of Indian architecture given that Britain had brought many of them during the construction of the East African Railway (1,060 km) that reached Kampala in 1931. The same architectural buildings are also found in Jinja city at the source of the Nile, where many Asians established their business. Aga Khan is one of the prominent Asian origin foundations in Uganda with a mosque in Fort Portal city, schools and hospitals in Kampala capital city.

Oldest buildings in Uganda

Fort Portal has some of the oldest buildings in Uganda including libraries, schools and hospitals, which are open for visiting during the day with a guide and permission from the caretakers.

Kabarole hospital and Kyebambe girl’s school

Built in 1903, Kabarole hospital is one of the oldest missionary medical institutions in Uganda. Before reaching Fort Portal, Catholic missionaries had already gained ground in Buganda kingdom with 25 Uganda martyrs and many converts that had been killed between 1885 – 1891 on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga for refusing to denounce their new faith. Once the work of preaching was done, they started building permanent structures. Mengo hospital was established next to Lubiri (Mengo Palace), which is Uganda’s oldest colonial hospital. In Fort Portal, their mission was to extend similar structures including Kyebambe girl’s school built in 1910 and St. Leo’s college and Nyakasura in the 1920s.

The Library and the bookshop

The British council opened the Fort Portal Library in 1963, a year after Uganda’s independence. They had earlier built a public bookshop in 1958 and both of them contain a collection of books and manuscripts that are open to the public.

Toro golf club

Colonial administrators who remained in Fort Portal built the Toro golf club in 1914, which has 9 holes. The club is within the city along Fort Portal Kampala road and offers accommodation. A trench system that surrounds it is a mark of intense fighting that took place.

Toro Royal Palace 

The Toro kingdom royal palace known as Karuzika was built in 1964 on Fort Portal’s highest hill during the reign of Omukama Kamurasi Rukidi III (1926-1965). By then, the hill was said to be infested with evil spirits and the king decided to build there and cast them away. He said Kabarole which means “let them see” Rukidi was a son of Daudi Kasagama Kyebambe, king of Toro between 1891 – 1928, who was the first to establish a two-storey palace on the same hill.

Kyebambe cultivated a good relationship with the British royal family and Princess Margret graced the opening of the palace in 1965. A year later, traditional kingdoms were abolished by president Obote, which led to a political crisis in 1966. Soldiers ransacked the palace looking for royal treasures during the reign of Olimi III who renovated it in 1993 and died in 1995. The current king of Toro is Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru who took the throne at the age of 5 years.

Sacred natural sites around Fort Portal

With Fortal becoming a tourism destination, several natural sites were uncovered including Amabare Ga Nyina Mwiru caves and stalactites, lake Kigere, and Ibaale rock. These sites are known to have been left behind by the Bachwezi who were the earliest inhabitants of western Uganda. The folklore about Bachwezi is that they were demigods who subdued the Batembuzi empire.

The former brought the Ankole-Watusi longhorn cows which made the survival of the Batembuzi cultivators difficult. The Bachwezi empire also disappeared later on with the coming of the Bantu people, which has remained an unexplainable mystery. Some theories state that they merged into other tribes including the Babito who founded the Bunyoro-Kitara empire in the 14th century of which Toro kingdom stemmed from. As such, Toro bears footmarks and sites of the Bachwezi of which most are spiritual places of worship as people believe that Bachwezi didn’t die. These sites are easy to reach from Fort Portal city.

Amabere Ga Nyina Mwiru cave and stalactites

The Amabere caves are conveniently located 8 km west of the city along the Fort Portal – Bundibugyo road. Geographically speaking, the  cave’s mouth is surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. These features are formed due to constant dripping of calcium carbonate water on the floor of the cave. These features have the structure of human, canine, and cow udder breasts. People connect it to the mythology surrounding Nyinamwiru, a princess and the daughter of Bukulu, king of the Chwezi empire.

Her breasts were amputated when the king’s watchmen predicted that his daughter would give birth to a son who would overthrow him. According to the legend, she managed to flee and took refuge in some caves, where she became pregnant and gave birth to Ndahura, who went on to defeat his grandpa and rule the empire until its downfall in the 16th century. The miraculous breasts that fed the son and his mother’s milk allowed them to survive in the cave caused people to wonder and give the stalactites the nickname “the breasts of Nyinamwiru.” You may think it is raining as water drips through the rocks. During the natural walk around the caves, there are waterfalls to see.

Lake Kigere

Kigere crater-filled lake is 5 km from the city and has the shape of a giant human footprint. The locals believe the lake was formed when a Chwezi man attempted to jump from the summit of Kyeganywa hill 1,588 meters. Hiking to the top of the hill takes 5 minutes and offers spectacular views of other crater lakes at the foothill including Saaka in Kalyango and Nyabikora.

Ibaale rocks

Located 4 km from the city along the Kamwenge road, Ibaale rocks also bear the footmarks of Bachwezi. The rocks are revered by the locals as a place of a spiritual home and often go there to worship the gods.

Historical and cultural sites in and around Fort Portal are open to the public for tourism. Those intending to visit them are recommended to get a local guide who will provide all the necessary information.


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