As I touched down in the country Winston Churchill once called “The Pearl of Africa” I wondered why neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania gets the lions share of travel press coverage while Uganda only seems to gets a tiny morsel. When I told my friends I was off to the landlocked East African country I was met with puzzled looks as to what on earth I’d be doing there, whereas telling them I was off to Kenya a few years ago was met with excitement and envy at the wildlife I’d encounter.
I personally think it’s a little unfair because Uganda is home to the classic highlights that most people associate with the continent – an abundance of wildlife, stunning scenery, skies that go on forever and friendly locals eager to get to know you. It also offers a trip that can be as tranquil or as energetic as you want as well as some truly fantastic opportunities for Uganda gorilla safaris.
My experience began after I crossed the Rwandan border and took a jeep then a boat to Lake Bunyonyi located in the far south-west of the country. It’s not a household name like some other African lakes, which is surprising given its wonderful location, serene atmosphere and beautiful vistas. My home on the lake was Byoona Amagara on Itambira Island. Run as a sustainable non-profit endeavour by an American backpacker who passed by 10 years ago and decided to set up the lodge and geodomes.
It’s a charming area which retains a warm, friendly vibe and if it were South East Asia, it would most likely be swamped with travellers looking for a cheap holiday in idyllic surrounds. With a steady but modest stream of travellers it’s no bad thing that it’s not better known yet, and although construction was underway on a new hotel (called Gorillas in the Mist) it seems there’s a long way to go until there’s a danger of the lake being overrun with high rise hotels and mass tourism.
You don’t come to Lake Bunyonyi for extreme sports or all-night parties, but there is enough to keep you occupied. I heard one or two people mention that “there wasn’t much to do” but that’s kind of missing the point. For about 12,000 USH (£3 / $5) my most active day involved taking a canoe trip to a nearby island and having a guided walk along the Bunyonyi ridge to a fantastic viewpoint that takes in many of the lakes 29 islands. My sprightly local guide, Tyson, told us of the stories about various islands – like Punishment Island, where unmarried pregnant girls were sent to die, and Sharp’s Island, home to a renowned leper colony.
Byoona Amagara is also a perfect base from which to head off to Bwindi National Park and its famous mountain gorillas, which can be done in a day trip. Starting with an atmospheric boat ride across the lake in the dark, your jeep ride to the park should then allow you to see the ethereal morning mist synonymous with the region. After your hour with the gorillas, you’ll be back in the afternoon giving you time for a quick nap before sampling some delicious seafood – try the sauteed tilapia, which was fantastic.
It’s often said that the simplest things in life are the best, and after a few days here you might be inclined to agree. Everyone should see an African sunset at least once in their life, and this would be a perfect spot to sample it. Although if you want to step it up a gear, then head for the adrenaline capital of East Africa, Jinja. As well as being the location for the source of the Nile river, bungee jumping, mountain biking, jet boats, horse riding, kayaking, quad biking and world class whitewater rafting all await the adventurous traveller in Jinja and neighbouring Bujagali Falls. I especially enjoyed the sunset kayak trip where the splendor of the lake and river can be appreciated at a slower pace, and you’ll even get a glimpse of some of the local bird life that Uganda is also known for.
You may well come to Uganda for its primates, but make sure you allow some time for hair-raising trips in Jinja and some recuperation time in Lake Bunyonyi. Maybe then you’ll start to agree with Winston Churchill too.
How to get there
If you’re travelling from the UK British Airways has flights every second day to London Heathrow with prices starting from £458. A visa will be required and are issued at Missions/Embassies and also at all Entry/Exit Points. Visa Fees – Single Entry for 3 months US$50; Multiple Entry for 6 months US$100; Inland Transit US$50. For deals on hotels in Uganda check Hotels.com
All words and images by regular contributor Lee Hubbard