It’s hard to believe that Lake Bunyonyi isn’t one of the seven wonders of the world, staggeringly beautiful as it is. Most importantly though, I am ashamed to admit that it wasn’t really on my list, I knew I would go there some day but I wasn’t like dying to see it. True I had seen the stunning photos, heard the wanderlust triggering stories and read a few tastefully written blogs about it but I simply thought it was one of those places that are just over-hyped for nothing. The other reason would be the fact that Lake Bunyonyi is over eight hours outside of Kampala, Uganda’s capital – tucked away in Kabale district south-west of Uganda, near the Rwandan border and none of my friends owns a chopper or know anyone who does, yet.
After a few embarrassing questions such as, What do you mean you’ve never been to Lake Bunyonyi? Where have you been? What is life? Why are you even alive? Not to mention Kylie, one of my friends, kept pestering us to visit Kabale since last year, the squad wondered if she had a man that side of the country. I figured it was time we found out if we should visit ‘our in-laws’, prepare for a traditional wedding or something. So I asked my partners in travel if they were available and up for a trip to the ‘place with many little birds’, Lake Bunyonyi. Four of them – Telma, Sue, Trish and obviously Kylie confirmed they were available provided the trip was almost free.
My friends and I are notorious for our shoestring budgets, always seeking great experiences at the lowest price possible. If you easily get embarrassed trying to haggle your way to a new adventure, I’m sorry you cannot sit with us… We really don’t put much
effort money in accommodation because we make sure we go big on activities and tire ourselves to the point that we won’t care where we rest our sunburned tired bodies and do a repeat the following day.
Therefore, my mission was to find the least expensive yet basic lodging on Lake Bunyonyi. Byoona Amagara promised the most affordable prices in the region, so I got in touch with them and they confirmed these claims. Byoona Amagara means all life in Rukiga, the native dialect of the people of Kabale. It’s located on Itambira Island, one of the 29 islands on Lake Bunyonyi. The lake is seriously island studded.
The thing about budget travel is that you literally have to plan for every shilling, even that is yet to come. Although, this is never a good idea. In fact, never ever budget for money that you do not have at hand, you will be very disappointed. Based on this logic, I requested to have a look at Byoona Amagara’s menu which we discussed in the Whatsapp group I had to create to go over the logistics following our Lake Bunyonyi take over. We found the menu to be on the pricey side of our wallets, Telma suggested we fast during our trip. The rest thought that would be our new low at this budget thing. We decided to go over who would bring what for snacks so we wouldn’t starve to death. It was Trish’s birth-weekend, so she hoped to bring cake and wine but the cake wasn’t delivered on time. Kylie pledged to bring a dozen packets of biscuits and I brought Urban Gweke to the table. Urban Gweke is a maize snack – the hard corn we used to take to boarding school to see us through morning and evening preps, although this time it’s grown, sexy, sinful and very addictive. Like my man crush.
Kylie, “Simple eating like this, we can’t afford!”
“How long before chapatis go bad?” I asked
D-day arrived, we used Post Bus to transport our excited bodies to Kabale, home of Lake Bunyonyi. Post Bus is run by Uganda Post Limited and its bus services are one of the oldest, most affordable and most reliable in town. A Post Bus is more likely to roll out of the bus terminal at 6:59 am than 7:01 am. We chose the column that sits three passengers so that we could have more room to place our books, headphones, scarfs, soft drinks and snacks between us. What we loved most about Post Bus was the fact that most of its seats were empty, which meant more room for us. At some point, the girls even sprawled out across the entire row to get some shut eye which was most welcome since the frequent stops at every post office made the journey quite long and tiring. It sure made us feel like we were in own private shuttle which is never the case with the other buses whose passengers tend to travel with their livestock.
About nine hours later and with immense hunger, we finally arrived in Kabale ready to take it by storm but first, we had to call the folks at Amagara Byoona to organize a cab to take us to the dock and then take a speedboat to Amagara Byoona on Itambira Island on Lake Bunyonyi. Our cab driver arrived at the bus stop before we had even stepped off the bus.
Our cab driver was called Reward, a very amicable soft spoken fella of medium height, short hair, dark skin and bright eyes. Of course the girls and I teased him about his name. Telma asked him if he is truly a reward and he just smiled. We later discovered that he was indeed a reward. We piled ourselves and our baggage into his silver Toyota Premio and set off for the dock. Fifteen minutes into the journey, chatting loudly over one another excitedly, we were rudely interrupted by the sounds Sue’s stomach made reminding us that we had only shared a pack biscuits and apple juice since daybreak. Reward apologized like it was his fault and said that had we told him that we were hungry, he would have taken us to a restaurant where fries and liver cost three thousand shillings. Without missing a beat, Telma requested him to turn around and take us back to Kabale Town to get the food. Reward obediently turned around and brought us back into Kabale town.
Telma was of course the first one out of the cab and made for the restaurant, Frank’s Joint, before the car was properly parked. By the time Trish got out (she was the last one to step out of the car) Telma said she had placed our order, fries and liver times ten.
“Ten?” Sue asked.
“Yes. Plus dinner,” Telma confirmed.
“Swweeet!” We echoed in unison.
On our way to Frank’s Joint, Sue and I had spotted a shop selling mandazi also known as the Swahili Bun. As our order was getting ready, Sue and I went to buy mandazi to see us through breakfast the following days while Telma and Kylie went scouting for enturire, a locally fermented drink made from sorghum (for when the wine Trish brought ran out.) To be honest though, the enturire didn’t make it to the island.
Our fries and liver were packed in buveras – polythene bags because Frank’s Joint did not have silver boxes and plastic forks. Trish had bought a few bottles of water, so we washed our hands and piled ourselves back into Reward’s car with ten hot buveras. Reward assured us that it would be OK to eat in his car, Kylie passed around our meal and we ate in silence for the first few minutes as he Reward began to drive.
The kavera was too hot to place on my lap or hold in my palm. It was too hot to eat. I didn’t know how the girls were doing it.
“Nga the food is too hot! How are you able to eat?” I wondered.
“You’re just not hungry enough, wait for it to cool…” Telma suggested.
“My food has only three pieces of liver!” Trish cried.
Quite frankly, the food was quite bland. One could tell that the oil they had used had been used so many times that the fries were almost brown. They didn’t have salt and the few pieces of liver must have been in a pool of water with a bit of onions. The food cost only three thousand shillings, so we weren’t surprised much.
After we had had something to eat, we were able to pay more attention to where Reward was driving us. We were going up a winding dusty road with eucalyptus trees standing tall on either side. It was so dusty that Reward had to roll up the windows. The AC wasn’t working great but we didn’t care. We were out of town!
The drive to the dock took about half an hour. Earlier on, we had received stern directions not to let the men we found at the dock touch our bags. So when they arrived at the dock and they tried to swarm our car, we literally had to squat at them like they were bugs.
We carried our bags to the canoe, paid Reward and got his number intending to use him again returning from our trip. We got into our canoe and our canoe guy started the engine. It immediately started to drizzle but my friends and I serve a living God! It did not rain at all the entire period of our trip, it was all sunshine and smiles and we were immensely grateful. The canoe ride was a little over half an hour. It’s amazing how we were so comfortable considering we were in what is believed to be the second deepest lake in Africa.
We arrived at Byoona Amagara around 5 pm ready to check in, shower and explore the island. We were guided to our dorm by Julius, one of the staff. As he showed us around, he would say things such as, “If you wanna want to keep your things safe, put them in the locker,” “If you wanna want to take a hot shower, request for a bucket of water at the office.” So the girls picked up that, “I wanna want…”
Our dormitory had three bunk beds to sleep six people. We found that it was already occupied by someone and we immediately felt sorry for our new roommate. My friends can be really
loud excited. The dorm also had six lockers, all open and empty. Our roommate’s backpack was near her bed. So we stuffed our things into five of them, basically moved in nice and well and made for the showers.
Julius had warned us that the water is very cold and that if we needed hot water, a bucket would cost us a whole one thousand five hundred shillings! We hadn’t budgeted for hot water, so we decided to brave the cold showers. Needless to say, it was all shrieks from all the outdoor stone floor bathroom stalls.
“Guys, I can’t feel my face!” Screamed Sue.
That was one of the shortest showers I’ve ever had. We returned to the dorm shivering, teeth chattering to find that our dear roomie had locked up her locker with a padlock.
“Uhm should we be offended? Is our Urban Gweke safe? Can we get padlocks too?” Kylie asked.
“Have you people listened to yourselves? I would lock up my stuff too!” Telma assured us.
We let that incident fly by and instead went to look around.
Soon it was dinner time, we ordered tea and went back to the dorm to retrieve our dinner. Surprisingly, it was still warm. We came back to the common area and chose the most distant spot. When the waiter delivered our tea, we had our warm buveras of dinner on our laps under the table. He asked if we needed anything to eat and we assured him we were good. It was a good thing we had chosen a convenient spot where we could eat without the prying judgmental eyes of other travelers.
As a guest at Byoona Amagara, you have free flowing black tea from 7 am to 5 pm. You can have all the tea you want in the tiniest cups ever. Perhaps the only thing that would stop you would be the trips you have to make to get the tea. Seriously, three gulps and the tea is done. Gulps because it’s Kabale, it gets cold pretty fast.
After dinner, we retired to the library/film room to charge our phones and Telma’s power banks. She had carried three power banks. Byoona Amagara uses solar power and the dorms don’t have sockets, while checking in Telma had wondered how she was expected to survive when her phone needed to be plugged into power constantly like it’s on life support!
Besides Kylie whom I work with, as a group we don’t see each other as much as we would love to. This was a great opportunity to catch up, talk and laugh at things happening in our lives that did not make it to the Whatsapp chats. Another group had joined us in the film room to watch a film or two, the girls and I tried to talk in whispers but every now and then one of us would burst out laughing and of course we would get unamused looks which would set us into a fit of giggles.. I don’t think they managed to finish their film though. Sorry guys.
At around 11 pm, the Kabale cold began to seep into our bodies, we decided to escape it and to go our beds to discuss plans for the following day. I wore a poncho on top of my jacket, a pair of warm socks and climbed onto my top bunk bed. Our roommate wasn’t in her bed yet, Telma was the only one who had met her and she told us that the roommate had asked her when we would be checking out. The lady had barely met us and she wanted us gone already.
Shortly, one by one we fell asleep. Telma and Trish stayed awake. Those two never sleep while I on the other hand slept like a log. I doubt I even turned that night until daybreak when either Trish or Telma opened the door. They never sleep.
We sat out for awhile, soaking in the morning sun before we braved the cold shower once again. This time Sue and I even decided to warm up our bodies by doing squats and jumping jacks. The water was less cold, well at least for the two of us. Back in the dormitory, we took our time prettying up because the first order of business was to lounge at the deck by the lake, take a few pretty Instagram photos and pretend that our lives were perfect just for a few hours before the sun became harsher. This was a fun activity on its own, a tedious one at that.
By the time we were done, we were more than ready for breakfast. We carried our
free chai mukalu to the ‘charging room’ along with our mandazi and Urban Gweke. While we munched our breakfast and charged our phones, we decided we would go island hopping after and hike to the highest place in the region to view all the 29 islands.
We had planned for the boat trip and we were aware that as a group, it would cost us one hundred thousand shillings, eighty thousand for the boat and twenty thousand for the guide because before we came, I had asked about the list of activities and how much they would cost. So while we were stepping into our boat buzzing with excitement, Friday, another staff member at Byoona Amagara wanted to make sure we knew how much it cost. He ‘clarified’ that the guide would cost us twenty thousand shillings per person. We hated him instantly!
“Are you saying that we have to pay the guide one hundred thousand shillings? Why? Is he going to carry each of us on his back?” Telma inquired.
“This is ridiculous!” Kylie remarked, already stepping out of the boat.
“But we are going on this trip as a group, it doesn’t make sense to charge us per person. We are Ugandans you know, living and toiling in Uganda! I doubt we even need your guide. Just point us in the direction we’re supposed to go.”
He pointed to a magnificent building perched on the highest hill in the region with a warning, “But if you get lost…”
Smith, our boat guide who later became our guide started the engine. There was no way we were going to be robbed of this opportunity to truly explore Lake Bunyonyi! Once we were out of earshot, we asked Smith if he would be kind enough to show us around. He said he would be happy to.
The boat trip was so relaxing, there is something about being on water. There were so many times when the girls and I just sat in silence and took it all in. The engine was so loud anyways and every time Smith had to point out something of importance, he would shut off the engine.
“This lake doesn’t have hippos, does it?” Kylie asked in panic.
“No it doesn’t. I wanted to show you that island, it belongs to the Governor of Bank of Uganda.”
We made envy sounds in unison.
“And that one belongs to his brother…”
The most intriguing island was the smallest of them all, Akampene Island, which means Punishment. This is where women were banished for getting pregnant before marriage to die of starvation. We told Smith not to get too close to it lest we got sucked in and get punished for sins we have since committed.
From a distance the hill looked like child’s play but the closer we got, it got more daunting it became. Telma and Trish had second thoughts about the hike but I managed to convince them that it wasn’t as steep as it looked, like it was my eighth time.
Five hundred metres into the hike, we were in just our sports bras, breathing heavily. By now the house had disappeared and Sue was worried. Trish definitely wanted to stay back for sure but the love she has for photographs prevailed.
“Maybe we should have paid the one hundred thousand so the man could carry us?” Said Telma
Kylie says we climbed a mountain leading to the valley of death. But it was a pretty walk through someone’s tree garden. It was evident it hadn’t rained in days for the leaves were turning a dull yellow.
The girls cursed and cursed. Telma and Trish announced that hiking wasn’t for them, it did not matter what view awaited them at the summit, apparently no view is worth all that pain. Sue decided to reconsider her life choices and none of them involved hiking. (I’m accepting new hiking friends.) Kylie was most surprised at her level of fitness, she reached the summit without dramatic incident.
Trish and Telma told us that they could not go any further and asked us to find them on our way down. To say we worked up quite an appetite would be an understatement. We started talking about an early dinner. Kylie and I started talking about a very very large pizza with all kinds of meats. We had earned it.
It took quite a while but we eventually made it to Gorillas in The Mist Lodge, our view point. It’s an unfinished building that when it’s complete will make a killing from just its view.
“Okay, maybe it’s slightly worth the pain but not quite,” Sue remarked grudgingly.
We were still taking celebratory photos when we heard Trish and Telma finally come to meet us. We wondered how they had managed to track us. Apparently, they followed our footsteps, literally.
We oohed and aahed at the view but who were we kidding coming for a hike without a decent meal in our stomachs? Sue asked our guide Smith if there was a shortcut to take us back to our boat. Luckily there was one and he led the way. It was obviously an easier hike downhill but still Trish and Telma lagged behind, taking photos this time.
The enturire that Smith bought us wasn’t as epic as the one we got in Kabale town but it sure gave us the boost we needed for the last leg. We were too tired and hungry to talk.
We rode back to Byoona Amagara in silence, each in thought about food. We planned to spend like high-rollers on dinner to compensate for all those times we were cheap. We even decided to wear pretty dresses just to “show ’em.”
The trip back to Byoona Amagara was a short one and as soon as we stepped off the boat, we went straight to the restaurant to place our orders because service was generally slightly slow. We studied the menu and studied it some more. See when they sent it to me weeks before our trip, all we looked at were the numbers. This time we realized that the menu did not have any kind of meat – beef, chicken, rabbit, duck. Nothing. But we studied it some more and flipped it a few times just to be sure. At least it had fish. Kylie and I contemplated having pizza but a vegetarian pizza wasn’t the one we had been daydreaming about. So Telma and I settled for fries and fish, Kylie ordered a sandwich while Sue and Trish ordered something I could neither pronounce nor spell. We then went to freshen up with visions of a whole fish playing on my mind.
We got back to the restaurant to a few disappointments. Kylie’s sandwich was a wrap, my whole fish was a piece of fillet, Sue’s and Trish’s exotic food didn’t look like it tasted exotic.
“Telma, can I give you some rice?” Trish asked.
“No. Not that one.” Telma replied.
Trish and Sue barely finished their food, Kylie struggled with hers while I tried not to cause an accident in my mouth. The fillet was harder than our two day old mandazi.
We were quite unhappy about the food and the girls suggested we head back home the following day. We had done the most vital activity that had brought us to Lake Bunyonyi, island hopping. Going back home a day early meant we would start the week with a bit of money in our wallets too. Our minds made up, we went back to the film room to charge our phones one last time and we found our roommate watching a film.
We tried the conversation in whispers thing again. This time we were laughing even harder. The weekend events started taking a toll on us, we were tired and we needed to sleep early in order to leave the island at 6 am to catch the 7 am bus out of Kabale and back to Kampala. And I don’t remember if she left us in the film room or if we did but one thing is for sure, our roommate must have been the happiest guest at Byoona Amagara as soon as we left.
Lake Bunyonyi is beautiful, really beautiful. It’s a shame we weren’t thrilled by the service at Byoona Amagara but it’s a good thing my friends and I travel with our own sunshine. If we ever go back to visit Lake Bunyonyi, which we might, we will definitely stay somewhere else.