If you make the long journey to Bunyonyi Lake, with its appealing steeply terraced hillsides in the west of Uganda, you’re rewarded with temperate climes, fresh air and the relaxing rhythms of the agricultural communities based around the lakeside.
It’s not a difficult trip for those travelling independently in Uganda but it is a very long one. A bus from Kampala to Kabale, the nearest town to the lake, can take up to 10 hours.
I hopped off my Queen Elizabeth National Park tour (see my last blog post) in Mbarara, halfway back to Kampala and picked up a 5 hour matatu to Kabale, although I endured a 9 hour bus journey back to the capital a few days later.
Matatu minibuses are known locally as taxis which can get quite confusing for travellers. A special hire taxi is our version of a taxi, although most people get around on motorbike taxis known as boda bodas, which can traverse the pot-hole riddled roads and nose-to-tail traffic far quicker than cars. That’s if you’re willing to risk a ride without a helmet or any protective gear of course.
Kampala to Kabale for Lake Bunyonyi – independent travel
Once in Kabale, l picked up a boda to the lakeside, where I had arranged a boat across to Itambira Island to stay at Seeds for Hope, a guesthouse and community project set up by a British NGO.
After a stop to borrow money from a friend, then a stop to buy petrol, then a stop to pay for a young boy to add air to the back tyre using a foot pump, we were ready to tackle the hair-raising dirt track climbing steeply over the hillside before descending to the lake. I was very relieved to get a lift back after my stay with some Dutch travellers in their hired 4WD!
The saddest sight was passing multiple small stone quarries where rows of women and children sat cross legged in the dirt using small sledgehammers to pound rocks (dug out of the hillside by men with pickaxes) into gravel piles. With no shade from the sun and covered with dust and fumes from passing vehicles, it was a sobering sight and a reminder of the lack of choices here.
Boat trip to Itambira island
At the Seeds for Hope landing stage (and secure parking for those arriving by private vehicle), I picked up the boat (included in the cost of the stay) for the ten minute trip to Itambira island.
We passed Bwama island, the largest island of the 29 islands, once a leper colony and now hosting the community primary and secondary schools, as well as the hospital. Excitingly I also saw my first Ugandan zebra, on Kyahugye Island. Sadly not exactly “wild” as they were moved here from Mburo National Park by Mr Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, governor of the Bank of Uganda since 2001, the islands’ owner.
Apparently there were originally six zebras but they didn’t like the island and four drowned trying to escape. The remaining two are unfortunately both male.
Activities for independent travellers on Bunyonyi Lake
Activities around the lake are focused on boat trips, hiking, trying your luck in a dugout canoe and swimming. It’s one of the few places in Uganda safe for swimming, being too deep and too cold for hippos and crocodiles, and no risk of the unpleasant Bilharzia disease that plagues Uganda’s waterways and lakes.
I’m still quite put off by the high prices for tourist activities here in Uganda, particularly prohibitive for solo travellers. For example, a motorized boat trip to tour the lake would have set me back US$40 (charged per boat) and of course there’s no scheduled tour companies where you can just book a seat!
I elected instead to pay for a guided walk with Jimmy, one of the Seeds for Hope team, (USh 35,000 or around US$10) on the mainland. The adventure began with the thrill of paddling our dugout canoe across the lake, trying desperately to maintain a straight line and not to do the muzungo (white person) corkscrew! The canoes are hewn from eucalyptus trees, take over a month to carve and cost around 1.5 million Uganda Shillings. They’ll last up to ten years though.
Independent hiking in Lake Bunyonyi
After an hour, near vertical, climb up from the lake passing village women and barefoot children expertly balancing sacks of potatoes or charcoal on their heads, we had fantastic views of the lake. We’d passed small allotments of sweet potato, Irish potatoes and beans as well as banana and matoke groves. Jimmy tried to teach me how to distinguish between the two but I wasn’t too successful. Matoke is the staple Uganda starch, resembling green bananas that are cooked lightly before eating, often as part of a stew.
Jimmy also explained how charcoal is made. Eucalyptus branches are collected and left to dry out, before being heaped into mounds and covered with soil and leaves before being set alight. After a couple of weeks of careful smouldering, they are ready to be bagged up and carried up the hill to be sold at market or along the main road.
We hiked along the ridge for a while passing different communities, one with a bar and pool table, one with the ubiquitous “pork joint”, another with the local primary school, before diving back into a matoke grove to start the descent back to the lake. Here, instead of crossing back with Jimmy I elected to walk the 5 miles along the lakeside to the boat landing and paying for the guesthouse motorised boat to return (surprisingly expensive at USh 30,000). All in all though, it was a cheap (ish) and relaxing day out.
I met a lot of children along the path, hanging out (it’s school holidays at the moment) and all greeted me with hello and how are you? For most this was all they knew, although many also knew “give me money”, usually muttered very quietly after I’d passed. Occasionally one of them would walk alongside me for a few yards, silently but giggling if I looked at them, before saying goodbye and going back the way they came.
The final activity of the day was, of course, a swim in the lovely cool lake water, floating past the reed beds, watching pied kingfishers diving for fish and dragonflies skimming over the surface.
Email Seeds of Hope to make a reservation and let them know what time you want to catch the boat. Find their contact information and more about the work they do helping local communities here.
I was quoted US$15 per night bed and breakfast in the budget accommodation (private room with shared bathroom) but was upgraded for free on arrival to a lovely en-suite thatched roundhouse.
Breakfast is delicious, with a fruit platter, Spanish omelette and toast, fresh fruit juice and flavoursome cafetiere coffee.
Dinner starts from USh 17,000 with choices such as vegetable fried rice, tilapia fish and chips or savoury pancakes. A Nile beer costs USh 5,000.
The bus to Kampala depends on your bargaining skills, but starts at around USh 40,000. A boda to the lake should be around USh 7,000.
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