Sunday, June 22, 2008

Discover the Beauty of Nature!

CAUGHT between the volcanic hills of western Uganda, lake Bunyonyi lies calm and beautiful with her 29 tiny islands. Tony Mushoborozi was left amazed by her beauty

After a long climb through Kigezi�s steep hills, Lake Bunyonyi finally appears in a distance. With beautiful green hills all around it, the narrow lake looks like cotton around juicy pears.

The well patterned terraces on the hillsides are breathtaking. Those nearer to you are recognisable as actual gardens of sorghum, potatoes, and vegetables, but as the hills roll out toward the sparkling white lake, the terraces thin away to look like grids of a well-woven basket, as they seemingly bend their necks into the lake.

Tourists gasp and smack their forehead in amazement at the sight. Simply beautiful!

An old Makerere University bus sighs relief having reached the peak and happily rolls down hill toward Kabale town. At the lake shore the Friday open market is going on. From the shore, one can see scores of canoes leaving wavy wakes as they approach the market.

On them are solo farmers rowing gently from across the lake carrying potatoes, mangoes, avocadoes, maize, cabbages and other perishables that people buy in markets.

The sight of a lady rowing a canoe alone, a hoe by her side and a bulging heap of potato seedlings in front of her is simply amazing. The couple that approaches rowing together in a small canoe is simply 'romantic'.

But the prize goes to the big canoe in the near distance. It is a peculiar sight for in it four men are seated facing backwards. They appear to be pulling something heavy straight from the water using thick ropes.

It is hard to imagine what they are pulling until they finally approach. The men are pulling a live cow each as they swim along side the canoe.

Other canoes, many of which are large and fitted with engines, are carrying market goers and tourists, either approaching the shore or departing.

Away from the market area, there is a section of the shore where the canoes in dock are waiting for tourists. Standing by them are tour guides. They don�t work for any tour company and they don�t put on the usual uniforms that you would expect of tour guides.

They are dressed casually each in what they deemed fit to walk out of the house wearing. They stand by their dug-out canoes talking about how the good tourism season is just about to start.

They are waiting for tourists to rent canoes or be hired to paddle people to any of the 29 islands in the tiny lake.
A tiny office stands at the shore. In it, waiting life jackets are hanging on nails for any tourist who might need them.

The tour guides of course don�t need any them. They have been around Lake Bunyonyi long enough to know that chances of a boat capsizing is almost below zero.

For a lake surrounded by high hills to bar any strong wind, there are hardly any waves higher than just a few inches, so the boat barely rocks. Its depth of 900 meters does not allow habitation of big dangerous mammals like crocodiles and hippos.

This also explains why there are no fish stalls in the lakeshore market since Bunyonyi barely has any fish, apart from a few lung fish and mud fish.

The only mammals on the lake to worry about are otters, tiny and harmless. This makes Bunyonyi one of the best canoeing places in Uganda, but not only that.

It is one of the very few lakes in Africa that are bilharzia-free, making it completely safe for swimming. After Mugabe�s, a tour guide, short briefing about the safety of the lake, I am almost ready to sit in his canoe without a life jacket.

But being a tourist that I am, and just 10 minutes-old at the lake, I pick a life jacket all the same, and off we go. As we pull away from the market, Mugabe hands me a paddle.

�I don�t want you to be bored. When you feel like it, just paddle with me,� he says in Rukiga. As we paddle together, he relaxes once in a while to exchange greetings with a friend rowing toward the market.

The first Island we visit is Ha�karwa. Amidst the forest on the tiny Island is a bird watching resort called Natures Prime. Bunyonyi translates as �place of many birds� and indeed it has over 200 bird species.

Just behind the Island is one of the most famous pictures in Uganda. It is found on Uganda�s 5,000 shilling-note, and it is entitled �Lake Bunyonyi and the Terraces.�

After looking around the Island for a while, we sail off to Bushara Island, the biggest on the lake. It is owned by a group of Christian missionaries. Just meters away from it is Akampene Island, the smallest on the lake.

It is as small as a normal sized home compound, but its history is the biggest of all the 29 islands.

�In olden days, the Bakiga people were very particular on morality,� Mugabe tells the story. �Any girl who got pregnant before marriage was canoed to this tiny, low-lying swampy island and left there to die. If there happened to be a man who could not afford the high bride price of the time, he would rush to the Island, pick the poor girl and marry her for absolutely nothing.

�Many perished here until Christianity began taking root in the late 19th century,� Mugabe says as we stop near the island. We later set off shortly after toward Bwama and Njuyeera Island.

�Here, a white man named Sharp used to treat lepers in the 1930s. The Island is sometimes called Sharp,� Mugae tells me.
It is already two hours since we set off from our base and for sh20,000 to be enough, we have to head back.

On our way back, we take the other side rounding each and every Island we passed on our way.

In these far ends from the market, not many canoes can be seen. Instead, we meet three boys, all below the age of 10 rowing a tiny canoe.

On the southern side of Bushara a much forested island, just by the water, a huge eucalyptus tree is being dug out to make a canoe. It takes four months to make such a canoe, the process entailing a lot of sun and water processing apart from �digging it out�. A finished canoe costs between sh400,000 and sh1m depending on size.

From here toward the market, we pass a tiny Island owned by the governor of Bank of Uganda, Tumusiime Mutebire, who hails from the western hills surrounding the lake.

After sailing round the tiny Island, the market peeps at us and with it the numerous camping sites and hotels. On the road to the camping sites, men stand there selling artifacts made out of palm trees and different kinds of reeds from the few swamps around the lake.

High above the Hotels and camping sites on the hilltop, a group of happy tour guides treat themselves on a muramba (local brew) drinking spree after a long day at the lake.

It is at the home of one tour guide called Emmanuel, a site directly overlooking the lake with a good number of the islands in sight from here. Once in a while, two or three get up and dance to the harp player's music as the rest of them clap in rhythm.

Did you know?
Lake Bunyonyi (�Place of many little birds�) lies in south western Uganda between Kisoro and Kabale close to the border with Rwanda. Located at 1,96 m above sea level, it is about 25km long and 7km long.

The depth of the lake is rumoured to vary between 44m and 900m, which if true would make the lake the second deepest in Africa. It is one of the few lakes in the region that is free of bilharzia and safe for swimming. The lake appears on the 5,000 Ugandan shilling.

Towns on it shores include Kyevu and Muko, while its 29 islands include Punishment Island and Bushara Island. It is a popular location for watersports and is known for the surrounding terraced hillsides.

It is popular with both foreign and domestic tourists and there are a wide variety of tourist accommodations.

Published on: Saturday, 21st June, 2008