Mother Nature’s vengeance comes to mind when reading the latest meteorological forecasts for the region. Starting from next month, El Nino-induced rains are expected to hit eastern Africa, bringing relief to drought-stricken areas, while undoubtedly causing havoc in other places where deforestation in crucial water-catchment areas will bring flash floods to downstream communities once the rains hit in earnest. Subsequently, flood warnings have been put into place where flash floods and large-scale flooding can be expected, to permit the respective administrations time to prepare for such eventualities. Drought conditions had various negative effects across the region, most notably with water levels behind hydro-electric dams reducing and causing the shutdown of two electricity plants, while others now have reduced output. Agriculture is also affected by the lack of sufficient rains in recent planting seasons, and hunger is now giving way to famine in some of the more remote parts of eastern Africa. Tourism also is said to now feel the fallout of the lack of rains as the large herds of wildlife in the parks are struggling to find enough water sources, with water holes getting shallow and rivers beginning to dry up and often having to compete with livestock being driven by herders into the reserves and parks in search of the sparse water.

The Kampala Sheraton Hotel has just announced that they will host its annual German Oktoberfest celebrations from October 6-10 in the hotel, featuring German beers and German traditional fairground food, besides German speciality dishes. The hotel had started the tradition way back in the early 1990s, and with Brussels Airlines now codesharing its Entebbe flights with Lufthansa, there are added reasons this year to celebrate a piece of traditional German culture. Other hotels have, over the years, tried to imitate a typical “umptata” atmosphere in Kampala but failed, leaving the field for the Sheraton and making it a place of pilgrimage for the annual event by the German, Austrian, and Swiss communities living in Kampala, and also others enjoying the music, beer, and food. As we say in German, Herzlich Willkommen.

The East African Aviation Academy, often referred to by its more common name of Soroti Flying School, is finally set to get the funding needed for a complete overhaul and revamp. Having been designated as a regional center of excellence by the East African Community, the Uganda government at lasts seems to have made budgetary provisions to permit the Civil Aviation Authority and the Ministry of Works and Transport, under which auspices the school falls, embark on a major overhaul and refurbishment of the various buildings, but most important to import new trainer aircraft, equip the classrooms for the training of aircraft technicians, and introduce computer-based, flight-training devices, all of which the school lacked in the recent past. Demand for trained personnel across the region has been rising with the expansion of air services and the greater popularity of air travel especially on the domestic and regional aviation scene.

Earlier in the week, Air Uganda took delivery of its recently-purchased CRJ 200, reportedly coming from Brit Air in France. The aircraft is due to enter service on September 7 with a renewed morning flight to Nairobi, as advertised by the airline in the local media. Comments attributed to the CEO Mr. Hugh Fraser, however, seem an attempt to re-write history, when he was quoted by local scribes that the CRJ introduction was part of the long-term strategy to replace its aged MD87s, as it was in fact, the CRJ which was foreseen as the start-up aircraft two years ago but then ditched, following misguided advice to the principal shareholders. Having come full circle with a substantial multi million US dollar loss racked up and at the expense of two departed CEOs and two commercial directors, maybe it was a lesson learned the hard way. Happy landings to the new craft, crews, and passengers.

The local office of Emirates has confirmed that the airline is considering bringing the A380 back on the Dubai to New York route some time in 2010, when passenger demand is expected to have resumed a visible upward trend. Travelers from Uganda to the US were reportedly unhappy when the airline dropped the A380, which appears to hold a special attraction for passengers. The airline office also confirmed that further A380 deliveries would take place on schedule, permitting more destinations to be added for A380 services. The sky giant service was relocated to the Toronto and Bangkok routes, when demand for flights to New York did not sustain the required load factors for the world’s largest passenger plane.

With 90 percent of the population in Uganda still not having access to regular electricity, the introduction by Uganda Telecom of a new phone, chargeable through an in-built solar panel, will be welcome news for the rural population. Mobile phone services now cover over 90 percent of the country, but the absence of electrical power to re-charge one’s phone in remote areas often caused potential phone subscribers not to buy a phone. This problem has now been solved, however, as the new phone has hit the market earlier in the week. What remains to be done now by the mobile phone companies is to convert its transmission mast power system from generators to solar panels, which not only reduces the operating cost for each mast but also saves the environment from the emissions of the generators. Mast sharing is also a further option to reduce the running cost, which ultimately benefits the growing number of Ugandan subscribers, now estimated at over 10 million.

As this column reported some weeks ago, the regular ferry service between the Entebbe pier and Kalangala, Ssese Islands was suspended when the vessel was removed from service for the regular insurance inspection. It seems, however, this will take longer than initially planned, for reasons kept well out of the public domain, and the use of smaller boats has now led to a doubling of fares for travelers to the islands. This applies, however, only to passengers, as these boats cannot uplift cars, which now have to travel via Masaka and take a short ferry ride from a nearby landing site across to the main island. Added information received was that the vessel, after completing the inspection carried out at the port of Mwanza, Tanzania, is now undergoing minor repairs and should resume service within a month.

Information was received that the European Union and USAID will be the main partners in the funding of the over US$90 million program, which is aimed to bring about closer cooperation between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo DR in wildlife management of border-transcending ecosystems along their common borders. Some of these national parks are Mgahinga, Bwindi, Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori, and Semliki in Uganda, along with Parc de Volcanoes in Rwanda and Parc de Virunga in the Congo DR. The movement of game across the national borders will reportedly be monitored through collaring selected animals, which allows for the tracking of their movements on either side of the border. The secretariat of the project is due to be set up in Kigali, where former executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority Dr. Arthur Mugisha is said to be playing a leading role. Arthur left UWA some years ago and then served as regional director, located in Nairobi, of Flora and Fauna International, a UK-based conservation NGO with wide interests in eastern Africa.

Media reports earlier in the week brought sad news to conservationists that a large number of people evicted from a forest only days earlier, had apparently been allowed to return to the remnants of their homesteads, which were, of course, destroyed when law enforcement officers moved in to escort them out of the forest. The Daily Monitor reported that following some intervention, apparently a message from the State House arrived to permit the temporary return of the forest squatters until the “cabinet finalizes solutions … including removing people from forest reserve”. The conflicting messages sent by the NFA and other bodies of government may well lead to further problems to enforce the NFA mandate and protect forests and will, without doubt, generate more heated debate over these issues.

Following the extraordinary media attention generated by Rwanda’s annual Kwita Izina gorilla naming festival, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has cranked up its efforts to match the neighbor’s global exposure in the tourist market. In a media briefing at the Rain Forest Lodge, Mabira, an event this correspondent had to miss due to conflicting assignments and the late notice, UWA provided details about a new web site being launched, www.friendagorilla.org, which would, in weeks to come, provide live pictures, for a small fee it has been pointed out, to commence a virtual visit to the prized animals in Bwindi National Park. In an attempt to popularize wildlife-based tourism and conservation, UWA also let loose a group of dressed-up gorillas, i.e., people in costumes, on the streets and roundabouts of Kampala causing traffic jams and congestion in the process as several letters to the editor and editorial comments then reflected upon. The main launch of the celebrations of the Year of the Gorilla is now due later in the month after being moved initially from July, to August, and now September.

Following the recent short strike, the Kenyan flag carrier has gone on the prowl against its main competitors who may have thought of exploiting the situation by swiftly adding yet more destinations on its regional network. As reported before, flights to Gaborone, Botswana have now commenced and Ndola will come online by mid-September. From November onwards, Kisangani in the eastern Congo will be joining the growing list of African destinations offered by KQ. The airline operates an all-jet fleet of Embraer 170, Boeing 737-300, 737-700, and 737-800, while its long-haul fleet includes the B767 and B777. KQ offers four daily work flights between Nairobi and Entebbe with short transit connections into its east African, continental, and intercontinental network.

Information received from Nairobi has confirmed that for several weeks, Kenya Airways will suspend its daily flights from Nairobi to Kisumu, effective immediately, as repairs on the single runway of the airport are ongoing. Details received from sources close to the airline spoke of technical issues, which prompted the decision. In the past, KQ has suspended its Kisumu flights when the state of the runway led to concerns, eventually prompting the Kenya Airports Authority to embark on a full-scale runway rehabilitation and extension exercise. Other airlines like Fly540 and Jetlink will reportedly continue its flights, however, but with ATR and CRJ aircraft, which do not need the runway length required by an Embraer 170, the type used by Kenya Airways. Repairs and runway extension are expected to be complete by the latest in early December of this year at which time KQ will resume flights to Kenya’s lakeside city of Kisumu – made famous across the globe by the paternal roots of US President Barack Obama.

As reported in this column last week, the Dutch airline’s latest fleet addition – a B777-300ER – made its commercial maiden flight last Friday from Amsterdam to Nairobi. On arrival, another surprise was sprung on Kenyans when the name of the aircraft become known as Amboseli National Park, the first such naming of a foreign aircraft after a Kenyan national park. Amboseli is located at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro on the Kenyan side of the border and is one of the most-visited parks in the country due to its famous scenery. Masai warriors greeted the plane on the tarmac as it came to the parking position. The free advertising of one of east Africa’s main tourist attractions, the Amboseli National Park, will be a shot in the arm for Kenya’s tourism industry as the aircraft will carry the park’s name and fame around the world to show it to hundreds of thousands of passengers over the coming years.

As the refinery in Mombasa is hit by power outages and other production problems, the supply of petrol and diesel across Kenya has began to dwindle again causing panic buying amongst motorists. Reports in the Kenyan media did not help much as the tip off only caused yet more road users to fill up their tanks. Safari companies are said to be in good shape though as many of the leading tour operators have reserves available to continue their safaris until more fuel products have landed in Mombasa again. The question has also arisen about supplies to the African hinterland countries, which depend largely on a continuous supply chain from the harbor in Mombasa through the refinery and the pipeline to the main filling depots of Eldoret and Kisumu.

A recent US State Department advisory warning US citizens from traveling to Pemba Island was immediately called totally misleading by Zanzibari authorities. In press reports commenting on the development, ulterior motives were not ruled out by sources within the Zanzibar administration. The US has voiced its concern over the upcoming elections in 2010, warning of civil unrest during the ongoing voter registration on the island. Sources involved in the tourism sector in Zanzibar – Pemba is one of the islands belonging to Zanzibar – have also complained bitterly against the (anti) travel advisory, which they called unreal and far from reality and conceding that the advisory is likely to harm their businesses if not withdrawn or drastically reworded. Admittedly though, prior rowdy behaviour of political groups in past elections has been witnessed, a challenge to the present government and the security organizations to maintain law and order on the islands while engaging in orderly preparations for the elections next year without rigging or misconduct as often alleged by the political opposition.

On September 10, the Rwandan national airline will open its own office in Nairobi to improve agency and customer relations in this important regional market. The airline finally also confirmed its purchase of two CRJ200 aircraft from Lufthansa German Airlines, a fact reported in this column already some weeks ago after receiving confirmation at the time from both German, as well as Rwandan sources. Rwandair has recently added a third daily flight between Kigali and Nairobi and reports a good take up of the added service by the business community; however, no timeline for the delivery of the two planes was however given so far.

Gorilla tracking in Rwanda has been included in the top green travel experiences in the world by the latest Rough Guide’s publication, 500 New Ways to See the world, as explained by authors Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith. The guide book is now available at UK Pounds 18.99 form Rough Guides. Google it for more details and purchase options.

The Rwandan capital Kigali is the venue for the first of five meetings taking place across the African continent to allow preparations for a common approach to the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark in December this year. Africa is thought by experts to be the continent to suffer the most from global warming, induced by the developed countries, which polluted the planet with impunity and little regard to the environment during the industrial revolution and the post World War II years, before green movements initially in North America and Europe forced a rethink across society and governments. Africa is likely to demand heavy compensation at the Copenhagen forum for the damages already inflicted on them by climate change while calling upon the developed nations, including ponderers and foot draggers like Russia, India, and China, to take immediate measures to reduce their emissions in the coming years. The Copenhagen meeting is officially starting on December 7, but a number of NGOs and anti-climate-change pressure groups are expected to descend on the venue earlier than that to prepare for their own activities alongside the main meetings. The summit is due to end a week before Christmas, and it is hoped that the outcome and agreements reached there will be worth putting under the global Christmas tree as a present for future generations.

The Rwanda Development Board’s Office for Tourism and Wildlife Management is presently holding a series of sensitization exercises across Rwanda to alert hotel and lodge owners to the need of improving standards ahead of the upcoming classification of all hospitality businesses later in the year. Rwanda is progressively moving towards harmonizing its laws and regulations to those of the former core countries of the East African Community and will adopt the regionally-agreed standards for hotels. This exercise will bring hotel ratings also in line with other East African Community member states, eventually leading to a common standards template for the entire region for the benefit of tourists and business travelers. The activities of RDB/ORTPN also puts into proper perspective a recent outburst from a private sector stakeholder who had accused ORTPN of doing little to improve standards in the country, a lone opinion it now appears and far from reality.

All 4 crew and at least 2 other passengers on board of an Antonov 12 cargo aircraft perished when the ill-fated plane came down last week about 20 kilometers outside the city while on its final approach to Congo Brazzaville’s main airport. The aircraft reportedly came from the port city of Point Noire. There was no information available about potential casualties on the ground, where the aircraft came down. Aged, and often ill-maintained former Soviet Union type aircraft, like Iljushins and Antonovs, are largely responsible for the terrible aviation safety record in Africa, where many countries still allow such aircraft to fly in their airspace. The Congo Brazzaville has banned passenger flights with AN12 aircraft although cargo flights continue to be allowed with such type of aircraft and regularly carry a few extra people. Calls by international bodies and aviators to ban aged Soviet era aircraft totally from the African skies have fallen on deaf ears so far, although some forward-looking modern CAAs have in recent years banned the registration of such “flying caskets” in its countries, though have not yet affected a total ban.