Until recently, Lake Bunyonyi seemed like a well kept secret among the people of Kabale in south western Uganda. I remember, the first time I visited this place we had to stop near a group of young men to ask for directions to this wonder of nature. These days there are more than enough road signs giving you a hint of the several hospitality facilities that surround this lake, the second deepest in Africa.
If you are coming from the capital in Kampala, you will have to endure a long ride of about six to seven hours before getting to Kabale town. You are even luckier if you are coming from another capital like Kigali where you will only need not more than an hour and a half on the road before you get to Lake Bunyonyi. Bunyonyi means a place of many little birds but its imposing beauty can easily make you forget that you are in a prime birding spot.
Its beauty is so imposing that it even appears on the 5000 Uganda shilling bank note. This is because the lake is dotted with 29 islands that make you think, the creator was in the mood to be extravagant with the beauty. The terrain around the lake is similar to what most of Rwanda looks like. Very steep hills, terraces and the cold can really bite when it chooses to.
There are more than enough hospitality facilities around the lake for one to choose from. Including one owned by Uganda’s famous comedian, Anne Kansiime. There is no guarantee though that staying there means she will be by your bedside trying to kill you with laughter. On my most recent visit I stayed at the cool Hawk’s Eye Lodge and Campsite.
Things to do while here
There are basically two main things to do around Lake Bunyonyi, to relax and to indulge in energy filled adventures. The relaxation bit is the easier thing to do. The views of the lake are so soothing especially if you are trying to escape the stress of the city and its gruelling capitalistic demands. At Bunyonyi you can just spend hours looking at the calm waters of this very deep lake.
You can also take boat rides as you listen to tales about the islands including the famous punishment island, Akampene where unmarried pregnant girls would be abandoned to die of hunger. Interestingly, it is said that men who didn’t want to go through the struggle of paying bride price often came to the island and picked up the girls. That was so many years ago and the practice is no longer in place.
While many would love the boat rides on engine powered boats, some prefer to enjoy a calmer moment in a dugout canoe. Some of the hotels can only be accessed by boat while others will do boat rides from one island to another or from one hotel to another. The locals will be seen going about their usual lives without a bother. Moving goods and people especially when there is a market day or young children in their canoes just going from school to home and back. The lake to them is a big highway.
Hiking is another fun activity one can engage in while here. During my stay at Hawk’s Eye Lodge, the proprietor of the place, Parity Twinomujuni, took us on this long hike to find locals that still engage in blacksmith activities. The hike started off slightly after we woke up and it turned out to be a whole seven kilometres of mainly uphill stretches. Parity kept telling us how we were almost there and yet we were not. His fitness for a man of his age made us feel bad for being young and unfit. He fed us with lots of fun stories about the people, the area and his interesting life and this kept us going and going.
Fresh and unique foods
One thing that is rarely mentioned enough is the fact that while you stay at places by the lake, you will enjoy some really fresh and healthy foods. The locals do a really good job at ensuring that visitors have enough to eat that is fresh from their gardens. At Hawk’s Lodge the fruits were always fresh and in plenty. Lake Bunyonyi also has a secret that comes to life when you stay close by – Crayfish. These Louisiana Red Swamp Crayfish are loved by visitors as a culinary delight. Just like Lake Kivu has Sambaza, Lake Bunyonyi has these tasty Crayfish. Try them when you visit.
The fact that there are so many tourist facilities close to each other means you can stay at one and take a boat ride to have lunch at another before returning to sleep. It is important to find out whether the place you have chosen to stay at has warm water because the cold in this place may quickly make taking a bath an option. Although it is a tented camp, Hawk’s lodge had the water issue sorted.
Did I mention that the sunsets and sunrises can be really magical from this place? Oh yes they are and you should carry a long a camera or a good phone now that they are the commonest cameras we use. To further deal with the cold, one of the best moments we had at Hawk’s Lodge in Bunyonyi was the fireside chats in the evening where we laughed so hard at stories from Parity and his other staff members who were really friendly to us.
Zip lining over the lake
I rarely do crazy stuff when on such trips but I was having so much fun this time that I put my fears aside and decided to join my friends as we went zip lining. In the past I have refused to try out crazy adrenaline activities like white water rafting or bungee jumping in the eastern lake resort town of Jinja. Zip lining was also in this group but on this day I was like, why not? After signing my name on some document that basically says if things go wrong then sorry!
The signing of that document has a way it makes you think about whether you really want to do it. But by this time your pride is in too deep. You do not want to give in to any fears. So after wearing the gear needed for this, I climbed up a tree and moved until the last part where a guide who does this so many times that he can see a coward from miles away tried to tell me the usual stuff.
He went on and on about how the rope could hold my weight with ease and that I had nothing to worry about. I agreed with him but my legs did. They were shaking so much; if I had stay in that spot long enough I would have peed on myself. I thought about whether I really had anything to prove given how scared I was feeling. But my fears lost the fight. The Bakiga are known to be brave people and I was not about to let them conclude that anyone who is not one of them is a just a big baby. My pride and that of my people was on the line, literally.
I then let go of the guide and down the rope I went. The fear quickly disappears and you start to enjoy the view, the breeze and you feel like you were born to do these things. I even stretched my hand to touch the water. If you are ever around Lake Bunyonyi, please do the zip lining. The fear is nothing compared to the great photos and that brief moment of invincibility.
The lake is a blessing to the locals
I have been to more than four tourist facilities in this area and it is amazing how the lake is really a blessing to the people there. Many are employed by the facilities while others have something to sell to the tourists that come here. As far regional tourism is concerned, it is one place that a visitor to Rwanda can easily slip into his or her itinerary. It is a great place to visit as a group for the fun activities you can do together and also a good romantic or honey moon spot for the lovers looking for a serene and picturesque place.
Photos by Chris Okello