Lake Bunyonyi is found in the south-western part of Uganda near the border with Rwanda in Kabale District. Lake Bunyonyi is one of the most naturally beautiful lakes in Africa and attracts tourists, honeymooners and Ugandans who wish to get away from the busy town life and enjoy the cool weather and beautiful islands of all shapes. The lake offers great panoramic views from all sides and is a great place to go for meditation and relaxation. The Lake is collection of water that filled a valley created by a volcanic explosion hundreds of thousands of years ago. The name Bunyonyi means “a place with little bird” in reference to the fact that the lake and its islands are home to an amazing collection of bird species. It is one of the deepest lakes in Africa. Lake Bunyonyi area has a generally cool climate throughout the year with enough rain that support the lush green hills surrounding the lake. It is the perfect place for relaxation after visiting Uganda’s great national parks like Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Lake Bunyonyi is made up twenty nine islands among which include Bushara, Njuyeera, Bwama and the infamous Punishment Island (Akampene). Among the Bakiga in the area, any girl who got pregnant before marriage was taken and abandoned in Akampene Island to die of hunger or drowning (girls were not taught how to swim). Getting pregnant was an abomination then because no one would pay bird price for a girl who had gotten pregnant before marriage. The intention of leaving the girl to die in the island was to send a strong message to the rest that getting pregnant before marriage was unacceptable. Nothing would be done to the man who made the girl pregnant. The girl couldn’t identify the man who impregnated her for fear of being left to die. Some of the girls were rescued by the men who had made them pregnant, those who had a secret crush on them or poor bachelors who couldn’t afford bride price. This primitive practice was abandoned by the late 1940’s after the British colonial government outlawed it. A few of the survivors who were rescued and survived the ordeal still live today.
Bwama Island also hides a dark past. When the English missionary Leopard sharp came to Uganda in 1921, he noticed that Bwama Island was uninhabited. He turned the island into a center for treating leprosy patients by providing housing and medical facilities. Sharp stayed in nearby Njuyeera Island with his family. Bwama Island became a leprosy colony attracting many sufferers who had faced isolation in their communities. Bushara Island on the other hands has had an easier past although the original beautiful trees in the area were wiped away by locals to clear ground for agriculture. The Lake Bunyonyi Development Company has helped plant a large eucalyptus forest while also running several tourism related activities in the island. The Company has built accommodation facilities and turned the island into a dream holiday destination.
Recording economic activities, everything seems to begin and end at the major trading center in Bufuka Village. The major economic activities in the Lake are subsistence fishing and farming. Large scale fishing has been limited because of the deep waters which do not allow the major species like Tilapia and Nile Perch to thrive. These species need shallow waters for breeding. The most successful species are the Cray fish (introduced from the US) and mud fish. Various attempts have been made to introduce the other major species right from the colonial but with little success. At one time 80 percent of the introduced species died as a result of a chemical mixing caused by flooding.
Things to do in Lake Bunyonyi
Apart from marveling at the beautiful scenery on arrival, there are a lot of interesting activities to do in Lake Bunyonyi.
Relaxing and Chilling out with loved ones: The beautiful scenery and cool weather is perfect for relaxing after tiring activities like tracking the gorillas, climbing mountains or doing game drives in Uganda’s national parks. If you have a good book and wish to read it in a cool and serene environment, then one of the quiet island resorts would be perfect. Food is plenty and consists of local vegetables and fruits as well as international dishes. The crowning moment is watching the Lake Bunyonyi sunset. The setting of the sun provides an opportunity to take beautiful photos of the sun’s rays reflecting on the lake waters.
Swimming: Lake Bunyonyi is a clean lake with clear waters that are free from pollution due to the absence of fishing sites on the lake shores. The lake waters are free from crocodiles, hippos and parasites that cause Bilharzia. Bilharza is a common disease in some of the water bodies in East and Southern Africa. The only disadvantage with swimming on the lake is the depth. Lake Bunyonyi is believed to be the second deepest lake in Africa. Those who are not good swimmers should take caution and instead use the hotel swimming pools.
Canoeing: Canoes are the only way of getting around the lake and its islands. The locals make the canoes by digging into large trees to create a depression using axes to create a depression. The canoes are moved using rowing sticks or motor engines. Canoes can be rented from individuals at the shores for a fee of 60,000 shillings. The ones with engines can go for 120,000 shillings. Using these locally made canoes offers a completely different experience and adds to the magic of the Lake. The best time for canoeing is early in the morning when the lake is covered with mist. This is a beautiful sight to behold for anyone with a love for nature and adventure. Night canoeing can also be arranged to experience the cool night breeze and sounds from night crickets, frogs and birds.
Island hopping: Canoeing for 2 or more hours allows you to hop from one island to another while learning about their history. Visiting the “punishment island” where girls who lost got pregnant before marriage where left to die is a must. You can visit Bwama and learn about its history of hosting lepers. The lepers are no longer taken to the island as a permanent cure for leprosy was discovered. The leper hospital has been turned into a school for children.
Community and Cultural Visits: One of the most popular activities is taking a walk to observe how the local people go about with their daily lives near the shores of the lake. It is great to mingle with the locals and try out tasks like digging the garden with local hoes or visiting one of the local schools to interact with the school children. The Bachiga love taking marwa and obushera – two potent drinks made from bananas and millet/sorghum. If you feel intimidated trying the local stuff, you can go for the factory made and bottled Uganda Waragi.
Another alternative is to go and visit the Batwa people. The Batwa in this part of Uganda where removed away from the Echuya Forest and allocated land near the lake. Like their relatives in other areas like Bwindi, Mgahinga and Virunga National Park, the Batwa have failed to adjust to life outside the forest. They struggle to make ends meet considering that they are former hunters and gatherers. They earn a living is by entertaining tourists and demonstrating their cultural heritage through dance, songs and storytelling.
Nature Walks: If one is not interested in the community walks, they can hike through established trails accompanied by a guide to explore and marvel at the terraced hills which give majestic views of the lake and towering landscapes. Visitors can also visit the ancient bamboo forest of Echuya or the other small ones surrounding the lake and spot small primates and zebra.
Mountain Biking: One of the best ways of discovering the lake is by hiring a mountain bike and ride to the spot the beautiful landscape while passing by human settlements. Many of the hotels do not have bike rental services but your tour company can make the necessary arrangements and have a bike at your disposal.
Visit the local market. The local market of Rutindo attracts residents of the island every Monday and Friday. On these two days, the market is filled with people. It is a perfect place to observe how locals go about with their daily life while also mingling with them and buying fresh fruits.
Birdwatching: Lake Bunyonyi is a birders paradise and one of the best places to go birding in Uganda. The name Bunyonyi suggests a place with birds. Over 205 species of birds can be spotted in the lake. The small islands in the lake act as sanctuaries and breeding grounds for many water birds. The species include both resident and those that migrate from Europe during the harsh winters. One of the best birding spots is the swamp of Nyombi. The best way to see the birds is by acquiring a boat, a binoculars and moving to the water with a birding guide.
Eating Crayfish: Uganda’s infamous military dictator Idi Amin had his positive sides too. One of it was endorsing the introduction of the Louisiana Crayfish to Lake Bunyonyi. Cray fish have been so successful that they have become the dominant specie in the lake and surrounding water bodies. All the lodges and restaurants serve crayfish. If one is not interested in the Cray fish, they can order for the tasty local Tilapia fish.
How to travel to Lake Bunyonyi
Lone travelers to Lake Bunyonyi need to first get to Kabale town. It takes 8 hours of driving by car to reach Kabale town from Kampala. It takes between 20 to 30 minutes at most to reach the lake from Kable town. To reach the Lake from Kabale town, one needs to hire a bodaboda (motorcycle) or taxi. Those coming from a safari in either Queen Elizabeth or Kibale National Park will need to travel for about 5 hours on road before reaching the lake. Lake Bunyonyi is closer to Kigali in Rwanda than Kampala (Uganda’s capital). It takes 3 hours of driving by car to reach the lake.
Where to stay in Lake Bunyonyi – Hotels and lodges for accommodation
There are many accommodation options in Lake Bunyonyi, a great testament to its popularity with tourists. Some of the hotels are built in the islands while others on the lake shores or in the towns before the lake. There are moderate and luxury accommodation facilities as well as campsites. The budget hotels are Bunyonyi Overland Resort, Bushara Island Camp, Byoona Amagara and Crater Bay cottages. The Mid-range options are Arcadia Lodge, Bunyonyi Safari Lodge and Bird’s Nest. Let’s look at the services offered in these hotels and others:-
Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort: This resort is locally owned and built with material got from surrounding villages. The resort provides single and family cottages as well as safari and mobile camping tents. The rented tents are mobile and come with or without bedding. The safari tents are built on raised platforms with great views of the lake and surrounding islands. The safari tents are self-contained with chairs, a table, twin beds and electricity. The resort arranges activities like swimming and badminton. If one is interested in going for village walks or learning about the economic activities of the locals, a guide can be identified to escort them.
Byoona Amagara: This hotel is built on Itambira Island and is one of the known hotels around Lake Bunyonyi. It is a non-profit because all proceeds are used to develop the local communities living around the island in areas of farming and education. Being in an island creates a feeling of being far away from the outside world. One part of the island is occupied by the resort while the other half has been demarcated into plots that are given to the local people for farming. The hotel has private balconies with stunning views of the beautiful terraced hills surrounding the lake. One can also spot the other islands from this hotel. The hotel has friendly staff and chefs who prepare local and foreign dishes that are relatively inexpensive. Residents have an option of choosing the luxury rooms, budget rooms or dormitories depending on their budget. There are even separate family cottages in case one is traveling with family.
Arcadia Cottages: Arcadia is built on the side of one of the hills offering great views of the beautiful lake and its numerous islands. All the twelve rooms have great views of the lake and have rooms that are self-contained with electricity and hot water.
The Africa Explorer Eco village: Is another great option with perfect views of the lake, the islands and the Virunga Mountain rangers. The lodge is made up of modern looking huts that are self-contained with hot showers, WiFi and solar power. There are domes and camping opportunities depending on one’s desire. The food served at the restaurant is relatively cheap and includes both local and international cuisines.
Lost Paradise Beach: Paradise beach is run by a Ugandan family and as the name suggests, offers bandas (modern African huts) which are built near a picturesque beach near the lakeside. The lodge is built to give an atmosphere of true relaxation and has a fruit garden. Canoeing is organized free of charge for residents. The lodge is clean with well manicured gardens, a camping place and a hall for organizing parties. Residents can go and swim along the beach or the hotels swimming pool. The hotel collects bananas, sugar cane and passion fruits from its garden that it serves clients along with Asian, European and local dishes. Bugisu Arabica coffee and African tea is served in the room or dining area.
Lake Bunyonyi Eco Resort: This Eco resort is located in a forested area giving a feeling of being near nature while offering stunning views of the lake and islands. There are 10 cottages that are built separately offering mid-range and luxury facilities. Among the facilities include hot showers, a bar, restaurant and a swimming pool. The resort is perfect for family retreats. Other activities organized by the resort are canoeing, nature walks and camping. The resort organizes cultural performances and traditional dances for clients.
Bugombe Island Gateway: This resort is newly opened which great room facilities while also organizing great activities like island hopping, canoeing and birdwatching in the Bugombe birding sanctuary.
Upendo Guest Home: Upendo Guest Home offers modern looking facilities with comfortable self-contained rooms and a kitchen that can be accessed by clients. The hotel rooms are suitable for both budget and mid-range travelers. The lodge has a children home (Upendo Children’s Home) that takes care of homeless children and offers volunteering opportunities.
Bunyonyi view resort: This is one of the cheaper accommodation options available in the lake area. The lodge offers dome accommodations with private balconies that overlook the beautiful lake and islands. Apart from the domes, there are also family cottages and self-contained single rooms for those who want more privacy. The hotel staffs are supper friendly and prepare tasty local and foreign dishes.
Bushara Island Camp: This camp is built on private land on the Island of Bushara. To reach the camp, you need to be taken by a canoe or speed boat. The camp is perfect for honeymooners and those who love relaxation in a quiet place with beautiful scenery. The camp offers tree houses, safari tents and cottages. There are family, double and single rooms in the cottages. Other services include delicious meals, campfires and conference facilities. The camp organizes activities like birdwatching, canoeing, swimming, volleyball, rope swinging, nature and cultural walks.
Amasiko Homestay: This accommodation facility is built on a peninsula overlooking Lake Bunyonyi. They offer full board accommodation on cottages that are Eco-friendly. There are small tents that can accommodate between one to four people. All rooms are lighted with solar panels as there is no connection to electricity. Visitors with special dietary needs like vegetarians have special meals prepared for them. The hotel supports community based projects and helps clients organize activities like canoeing (using their own canoes), visiting the nearby communities or their own school for children – Amasiko Green School.
Crater Bay Cottages and Camp: This hotel is built in Bufuka village on the shores of the lake. There are 12 private cottages which have single, double and even triple rooms. The hotel prepares delicious crayfish and other delicacies at their restaurant. Other facilities in the hotel include a library, a craft shop, WiFi and laundry services at a small fee.
Bird’s Nest. Birds Nest contains single and double luxurious rooms. This is one of the higher end accommodation facilities and is reflected in the services offered. The rooms are laid out perfectly with a beautiful swimming pool outside.
Edirisa: Edirisa lodges are internationally owned and aim at providing a true African experience without the luxuries offered by the higher end hotels. It is surprisingly a favorite of many clients who want to spend a night in a wilderness conditions. In Lake Bunyonyi, they have set up a campsite in a forest near a primary school with bandas (grass covered huts) furnished with beds, chairs, writing tables and mosquito nets. The place uses solar electricity and water for showering is heated using fire. Edirisa deliberately makes everything simple in the rooms but not for the activities. There is more fun here than many of the other resorts. The night camps are full of activity and wild partying. Canoeing is free and there is unique submerged pool for swimming.