Lake Victoria is vast; it is nearly the size of the Republic of Ireland or a little bigger than West Virginia. It is slightly smaller than Lake Superior but larger than both Michigan and Huron, so it is the second largest fresh water lake on earth. Located between the two arms of the Great Rift Valley it is bordered by Uganda (north and west), Kenya (east) and Tanzania (south) and is fed by multiple rivers and streams, the largest of which is the Kagera river which flows into the western shore. Otherwise it is rainfall which replenishes the lake.

lake victoria

Close to the origin of the human species, humans have lived around the lake from early times, but the first European to see it was John Hanning Speke, in 1858, and he named it Lake Victoria in honour of Queen Victoria, the then queen of Great Britain. It had other names in local languages and the Arabs certainly knew about it as early as the 12thC as it is shown on a map of the era; remarkably it is shown as the source of the Nile! Had Speke known this he might have died a happier man, but he met his untimely death in a shooting accident in 1864, the day before he was due to debate with Richard Burton, his great detractor, whether Speke had proved the source of the Nile on his 1860-64 expedition. On this journey Speke and Grant had travelled from the eastern side of Lake Victoria northwards, finding the outflow at Ripon Falls (today at Jinja). They then travelled inland and rejoined the Nile further north without actually tracing it all the way via Lake Albert (a feat accomplished by Samuel Baker) leaving Burton room to dispute their findings.

The first European [adopted American] to circumnavigate and map the lake was Henry Morton Stanley (more about him in another blog) on his 1874-7 expedition on which he also confirmed that no river flowed north from Lake Tanganyika, which was Burton’s theory of the source.

Those early explorers found the lake challenging as the weather could be unpredictable and there were numerous islands to negotiate in their small, vulnerable vessels. We were more fortunate to venture on the lake in a motorised launch with protection from sun and rain as well as refreshments on board. A rainy morning gave way to a grey afternoon as we set off south from the Speke Resort across the (thankfully) calm waters of Lake Victoria heading for Ngamba Island, 23km south of Entebbe and a few degrees south of the equator. We must have crossed the equator twice, but it was hard to record the exact spot!


Ngamba Island is the home of numerous orphan chimpanzees, confiscated from various places in the region and brought here to live a more natural life. Just like Tacugama Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, this is a home for chimps taken as pets or whose parents have been killed by poachers. They cannot be re-introduced into true wild living as they are too habituated to humans, but here on the island they have the run of the major part of the land but their foraging is supplemented three times a day. It is at these times that the visitors can observe these amazing creatures from platforms close to the wire fence.

The fence is high, electrified and robust, which it needs to be as chimpanzees are inventive and observant. Some years ago a chimpanzee observed local fishermen who came close to the sanctuary in their motorised canoes. Seeing the fishermen go ashore he waded to the canoe, pulled the cord on the motor and set off across the lake! Sanctuary staff gave chase and brought him back. The fence has been extended into the sea to deter further escapes.

The chimps know the routine well and wait, less than patiently, for their food. They hoot and squabble, jump up and down and gesture to the humans to get on with hurling the fruit.

The more canny sit by the fence and ‘fish’; using different length sticks they manoeuvre any pieces of fruit which falls short of the fence to within arms reach.


Some, like this chimp, like to hoard what they can rather than eating straight away. Others seem to eat as fast as they can.

Once the food delivery is over, the chimps soon move off out of view and munch their lunch, sit together and hang out.

On the remaining 5% of the land where humans hang out, there is accommodation for the workers and volunteers, some permanent tents used by a tour company and an area where schools pitch tents as well as displays about the sanctuary. These include some examples of the cruel traps used on the mainland by those who wish the chimps harm; snares of varying sophistication.

There are cages too, where the chimps can spend the night, if they so choose, in rope hammocks slung from the roofs mimicking the kinds of nests they build in trees. In the cages we met ‘the three naughty boys’ who are being held here because they have been fighting too much with other males. A mother and baby were also in a cage as they had suffered bullying out in the forest.

The chimpanzees are by no means the only wildlife on the island. Several trees near the accommodation blocks had an unbelievable density of weaver birds, nesting and competing for attention.

Along the shore were a variety of other birds.

Returning across the lake, the sky cleared and mirages appeared on the horizon. We passed numerous islands, some with small fishing settlements and a few with resorts accessible only by boat.

This inland sea gave us a completely different perspective on Uganda and filled me with wonder at the daring and bravery of those early explorers who were determined to map this land and water and uncover the secrets of its hydrography. The lake now faces many dangers from the development of the surrounding countries, run-off from agriculture, dumping of waste, invasive alien species and over-fishing, but it is also a wonderful expanse of water for recreation, irrigation and waterside wildlife. It will need careful management and stewardship in the coming decades.