One of the latest developments in the Lake Victoria island travel has been the introduction of the Water Bus, a watercraft based on a catamaran. A catamaran is built with two parallel hulls that have the same size to offer maximum stability for the vessel when in water.
The technology was pioneered by the Polynesians who used catamarans to sail around the islands in the Pacific and it has now found its way to Lake Victoria thanks to a company called Globology founded by Malcolm Ormiston, a Scottish investor.
Globology operates its watercrafts under the brand name Water Bus. This represents the first major investment in water travel in Lake Victoria in more than two decades. The Water Bus provides safe, fast and affordable travel to all the isolated islands in Lake Victoria that are located on the Kenyan side of the lake.
Solving Perilous Old Lake Travels
For years, travelers and islanders have had to rely on canoes, motorized canoes and motorboats that are generally called “choppers” by the locals. It has always been a perilous journey where people trust God or fate and not the vessel to deliver them safely to their destination. These rarely have safety equipment. In my visit to the lake’s beaches or docking points in locations such as Luanda Kotieno and Mbita, I have rarely seen canoes and motorized canoes or even choppers that offered travelers lifejackets.
That has resulted in a terrible safety record for these vessels. In a year, more than 2500 people drown on the waters of Lake Victoria. The vessels are also open so they do not provide any form of protection from the weather or the cold in the middle of the lake. In my morning travel on the Water Bus back to Mbita, I noticed that it was extremely cold deep in the lake and it wasn’t even raining.
In the past, islanders would begin their travel at about 2am to make it to Mbita or across the islands. They would arrive at Mbita about 5 hours or 6 hours later. Travel to some destinations in the lake took even longer. Some journeys took a whole day or two. With sail boats, before introduction of the motorized boats known as “injni” by the locals, travelling from the farthest islands on the lake to the mainland could take two days with all the attendant dangers that the journey carries. People here say “they left all to God” to keep them safe as they went about their travels. On some trips, islanders would sleep on the boat for close two days as they waited for the waves in order to set sail.
I noticed that many islanders still use motorized canoes to travel to islands and destinations that are not yet being served by the Water Bus. Not only do these canoes pack up a lot of people and goods without any safety harnesses, they are also terrible polluters of the lake. They utilize the 2-stroke outboard engines that are high polluters, emitting a lot of fume into the lake and the atmosphere.
Enter the Water Bus
The Water Bus has now taken over a lot of the travel burden across the lake that many of these islanders have had to face. I wanted to test the efficiency, convenience and safety of this new travel vessel so I took a matatu from Kisumu to Uyoma in a place called Luanda Kotieno where you can board a ferry, a Water Bus, a motor boat or a motorized canoe to Mbita in Homa Bay or Misori beach in Bondo.
The journey to Mbita costs only Ksh.150 ($1.50) on the Water Bus. If you are going to Mbita and would want to enjoy a longer ride, you can board the Water Bus as it takes passengers to Misori Beach in Bondo and return with it to Luanda Kotieno where it picks passengers headed to Mbita, without paying any extra fees.
So if you are heading to Mbita, you can take a round trip to Misori Beach and then a trip to Mbita for only Ksh.150. It is one of the cheapest rides ever and the beautiful scenery and overall experience is one to die for.
Inside the Water Bus
I found the inside of the water bus quite clean and spacious. The seats are metallic but fairly soft and comfortable. The seats are also extra large so if there aren’t many people on board, you can sleep on the seat. I saw a few pregnant women sleeping on the Water Bus seats. There are large windows that give you an excellent view of the lake allow in a fresh breeze from the lake. If you would like to take in more of the Lake Victoria breeze, you can stand on the deck at the back of the Water Bus.
The deck also has two comfortable wooden benches that can accommodate up to 10 people. You can also choose to stand on the rails at the deck of the Water Bus. These can accommodate up to 15 people who wish to stand during the ride. The Water Bus is so spacious I never saw anyone standing for lack of seats. Most of those standing, like me, did so voluntarily in order to take in the ethereal views of the lake which gets more and more enchanting as you move away from the mainland.
The Water Bus has about 6 crew members on board plus the captain. Most of them do the ticketing and verification of tickets although they are also there to assist you with any queries.
Here is a look at the picture of the Water Bus:-
Island Hopping on Lake Victoria With the Water Bus
The Water Bus journey from Luanda Kotieno in Uyoma, Siaya County to Mbita in Homa Bay takes roughly 30 minutes. On alighting, you can take a bodaboda to the main Mbita beach where you can board the second Water Bus to the Mfangano Islands.
The islands are too numerous to count but the Water Bus will stop at 6 main islands to offload and pick passengers. These islands are Wakula, Nyakwere, Yokia, Takawiri, Ringiti and Mulungu.
Water Bus Chased from Sena Islands in Lake Victoria
I was told that the Water Bus used to have a stop at the Sena Island in Lake Victoria but it was chased by some of the residents or elders because it was taking away business from the old Mbita ferry.
Apparently, some of the residents felt a sense of obligation and loyalty to the Mbita Ferry which had “opened up” the island and served the islanders for years and they felt that the Water Bus was “unfairly” edging out the ferry and driving it out of the business. If that was brand loyalty, then the residents took it a notch higher! But they are missing out big. All the other islands in Lake Victoria have embraced the Water Bus which offers a faster, more efficient and safer mode of transport across the waters of Lake Victoria!
Another version I heard was that the management of the Mbita ferry had “incited” a few residents of Sena-its primary market-to chase away its new fierce competitor which was quickly taking away its customers. However, the ferry is still a crucial and much needed mode of transportation. While the Water Bus can carry the motorcycles, heavy bags, cattle and other heavy goods, it cannot carry cars and trucks across the islands of Lake a Victoria, a task for which the ferry is well suited.
Watch Out on Water Bus Schedule
Before you board a water bus, make sure you check out its schedule otherwise you might find yourself holed up in a remote Lake Victoria island without proper accommodation. From my experience, the deeper you go into Lake Victoria, the poorer the accommodation options become.
Good accommodation can be found in islands such as Takawiri and Yokia. Ringiti and Mulungu islands, which are the farthest island destinations served by the water bus have very poor accommodation options. I was holed up for the night in Ringiti island because the Water Bus last stop is at Mulungu which apparently has even worse accommodation choices. But even in Ringiti, it wasn’t any better. The best accommodation was a humble facility made of iron sheets without a shower and which has a pit latrine. If you are planning to spend a night in the islands, I would recommend Yokia and Nyakwere islands where I saw some fairly good accommodation facilities from afar. Alternatively, you can spend the night in Mbita or Rusinga and then plan your island hopping early in the morning.
Made in Kisumu
The Water Bus catamarans are designed and built in Kisumu by a team of expert engineers, boat designers and technicians before they are launched onto Lake Victoria. The pictures below show the Water Bus being manufactured on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kisumu:-