Waking up to symphonic melodies from birds on an island surrounded by calm waters. The quiet from disruptions like hooting cars or moving vehicles or human activity. Along with the comfortable sleep that had preceded all that. That first morning was enough for me to conclude Lake Bunyonyi is where you need to be if serenity and peace is what you seek.
Work, noise and distraction is the new routine for many. You get so busy that you begin to believe, that’s all life is about. But I will tell you – there’s no better therapy than when you detach yourself from all that, on an island many miles away from the city. Where it’s just you and nature.
A Saturday morning found me and a few friends in Kabale, a hilly district south west of Uganda. We had spent the night on Itambira island in the middle of Lake Bunyonyi. A beautiful lake with 29 islands, a combination of which serves some of the most panoramic views of Uganda’s nature.
We had crossed the second deepest lake in Africa to the island at 4am in the middle of the night. The air was very cold. We had arrived at the lake later than we anticipated because Kabale town’s night life kept us busy. Perfect starter. That 15 minute cruise on a canoe amid the roaming sound of the engine reminds me of the quote “Great things never came from comfort zones”. If braving the cold and crossing the 40-meter-deep lake was our only gateway to an exciting weekend, nothing else seemed to matter. I have never been one that holds back when on adventure. And that’s what travel ought to be – daring yourself.
Kabale is known for its cold weather, but we woke up to a beautiful warm morning. The sun was out and I remember us emerging from our cottages one by one to bask in the sun as we chatted. The calm waters of the lake in our fore. Occasionally, you see someone or a family rafting a canoe across.
Breakfast was served to us at the restaurant, a wooden structure with an upper floor whose vantage point gives you a wider view of the lake. I can’t count how many photos we took there. It’s beautiful. We were served African tea, boiled eggs, bread and bananas accompanied with a fruit dessert. There are board games in case you feel like taking a break from nature.
We then made our way down to the swimming porch next to the lake, through a stone floored path hidden in a garden of flowers and green cover. The swimming porch is a wooden platform with a wooden house where you can change clothes. There’s also wooden loungers for sun bathing and an elevated diving platform.
For almost an hour, we sat, strolled and those of us who couldn’t swim at least cautiously dipped ourselves in the water. The rest of the time, we were enviously watching as Clinton, our colleague was swimming. But sitting on the porch half naked with your legs in the waters is relieving enough.
In a distance away, foreign tourists were enjoying a swim too. Many tourists visit the lake. Cyrus, our host had told us many of them escape to the lake seeking a quiet holiday. Others prefer Bunyonyi for its cultural tourism which involves visiting the communities. And for some, it’s a perfect stopover on their way to track the mountain gorillas in Bwindi.
Later in the afternoon, a heavy drizzle interrupted our walk in the neighborhood and we were forced to run back and seek shelter in our cottages. Uganda’s weather has always been quite unique. It’s amazing how in one moment, the weather gravitates from scorching sun to rain. At dusk, we gathered in a hall to watch an English premiership match. Liverpool was playing Aston Villa in the English Premier League.
I had phoned a friend of mine who is stationed in Rubanda district telling him I was spending the weekend at Itambira and he came over with friends. He’s a Liverpool fan. We did some catch up over the game, talking work and the future.
While we had supper, we curiously kept asking our host about Bunyonyi and what makes it tick. He told us that indeed most of the visitors are seeking a quiet weekend or holiday. It is for this reason, he later revealed that Itambira Eco Hub plans to in fact reduce human interaction with their visitors. The purpose being that if a visitor is seeking quiet, he should get more of that. Others are interested in nature walks and that once in a while, there are pockets of tourists who come for birding. These particular ones spend quite a while since the activity requires patience.
At some point, we joked about the beautiful nest caves the facility has. They are unique shelters thatched with grass but without a door. The entrance is open at all times including when you sleep at night. The wooden floor which is elevated from the ground keeps it secure from rodents and other hostile animals.
“Being an island makes this place a lot more secure. There are no wild animals. You will perhaps only find cats that roam around at night. So, the nests are very secure,” said Cyrus.
Each of the beds has a mosquito net to protect guests from mosquito bites.
While you cruise on the lake, you get to learn that each of the 29 islands on the lake has a story or unique features. If you have a guide, even better.
From Bwama island where a current primary school was formerly an isolation facility for lepers, to Bushara island which is home to some of the rare tree species, to another island which has become a habitat for animals like zebras and antelopes.
We also cruised past a very tiny island but with a powerful story to it. It is just adjacent to Bwama. Named ‘Punishment Island’, back in the day, this small land body was a death trap for girls within the community around the lake who got pregnant out of wedlock. Our guide told us that victims were dragged onto the island and abandoned there to die, as a punishment. Those who were lucky (very few), were rescued by good Samaritans.
On your visit, you’ll as well realize that interaction with community is quite inevitable. You get to appreciate how the people living near the lake have quickly adapted to the life on the waters. The Bakiga are warm people, enthusiastic about work, and resilient. They also love to commune and enjoy their variety of local brew known as enturire, obushera and omuramba.
I remember insisting mid-way to our ropes course that we get some bushera. Our guide had assured us the shop across the lake had bushera and in a few minutes, they delivered to us a jug. A trip to Kigezi without taking a sip of bushera is incomplete.
We crowned our weekend with a very energy-intensive activity – an outdoor challenge consisting of a high course of different tasks to conquer. You have to maneuver the obstacles largely made up of wood, ropes, car tyres and buckets which run up in the trees, at a height of about 20 meters. Usually, the courses get more challenging as you progress towards the end.
I would advise you carry some gloves because it’s the hands that do most of the work and much of it is gripping wires and ropes. The exercise also requires good hydration lest you faint due to the lots of energy you use.
This entire activity would later be climaxed with something that had been on my bucket list for a long time – zip lining. And what better way to do it than over a lake that strikes a feeling of awe within me? I remember holding tightly onto the knot (on which you move across the wire), with mixed imaginations of how the experience would turn out. Even though, understandably, this is not something appealing to people with phobia for water, it can be very exciting if the sight of water isn’t a nightmare for you.
And with about USD 79 each (Shs 300,000), the five of us had afforded a memorable weekend at a quiet island 488 kilometers South West of Kampala.