After a good barbecue dinner at Red Chilli on Sunday night, Serena, Dani and I woke before dawn to get to the Kampala bus station for the second leg of our journey, a 7-hour trip west to Uganda’s mountain region. Since we’re doing a lot of fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants travel, we decided to once again follow our friend Nick’s suggestion and stay in an eco-lodge outside the city of Kabale, on an island in Lake Bunyonyi along the Rwandan border.
The Red Chilli staff had told us the bus to Kabale left at 8 a.m., so when we arrived at the hot, crowded, noisy bus station an hour in advance, we felt rather irritated to learn it actually departed at 9. We had no other place to sit but inside the stifling bus, and we had to claim our seats anyway, but those first two hours crammed together on the vinyl bus bench — in front of a TV screen blaring African music videos and graphic, violent, badly overdubbed Chinese martial-arts films — reeeeeally took its toll on our mood. After what seemed like way longer than two hours, the bus driver finally climbed in and the engine coughed and shuddered to life, rolling us out of there and hitting us with a merciful blast of cool moving air.
We felt nervous about this particular bus trip, since all the travel forums and blogs we’d checked the night before had warned us it would be horribly difficult. “Hellish” is a word we’d read more than once as traveler after traveler online described death-defying driving, godforsaken rutted roads and disgusting bus conditions. This journey would “challenge even the most seasoned travelers,” the Lonely Planet forums had told us, and so we felt more than a little trepidation as the bus got moving. But the trip really wasn’t bad at all … the three of us had experienced far worse in other countries. (See “Overland Through Laos” on this site for one example.) The roads didn’t seem particularly awful, nor did the driving, and the bus was a typical developing-country public bus, no better or worse than any others on which we’d ridden. We decided that either the conditions had radically improved since those forum entries were posted, or that the people who’d written them were total wimps. Most likely the latter.
We drove past green fields, crops, villages and roadside market stalls, marveling at how all developing countries, no matter the continent, share so many of the same qualities … corrugated-tin or thatched roofs, open metal-grill windows, local ads painted in faded colors on the sides of squat buildings or on cement walls, burning piles of trash. Rolling past acres and acres of banana trees punctuated by the occasional fruit stand or row of shacks, I felt like I could have been anywhere in Southeast Asia. That perception only came in waves, because in other ways there are huge differences. The buildings here have brick foundations instead of the concrete you see in Asia, owing to the red clay/dirt that’s so prevalent here and good for brickmaking. Different animals, too: the cattle used on Ugandan farms are steers with long curving horns, not the bulky caribou of rural Asia. Goats are everywhere here, and I saw one absolutely mammoth bird soar by that reminded me of a pterodactyl (I’ve got to Google it and find out what that was). The people here make the biggest visual difference; they are big and strong and sturdy, the opposite of the wiry, compact Asian body type. I loved watching Ugandan women walking down the road balancing heavy tubs, boxes or baskets on their heads, or with babies strapped to their backs, clad in vivid, regal dresses that reach their ankles.
Though the journey wasn’t the jostling nightmare we’d been warned about, we still rejoiced when the bus pulled into Kabale seven hours later. Exhausted, hungry and covered in a layer of red grit that infiltrated hair, teeth and clothes, the three of us staggered off the bus only to be accosted by at least a dozen taxi drivers trying to get our business. I’ve dealt with this before, but it still is unsettling to be grabbed at, pulled, jostled, and have several men shouting in your face and yanking at your bags in a tug-of-war over your tourist money. We chose one of the more polite cab drivers, a guy named Jackson with whom I chatted while Dani and Serena popped into a grocery store. He’s a really nice man who gave us some helpful info, and we’ll be calling on him again for rides. Always Ask A Local.
Jackson dropped us off at a boat dock on Lake Bunyonyi (“place of many little birds”) where an employee of the Byoona Amagara eco-lodge waited with a motorboat to drive us through the picturesque glass-smooth giant lake ringed by rolling, terraced green hills. Byoona Amagara is on one of the lake’s many little islands, which are home to other buildings, homes, schools, even an ancient exile island where unmarried pregnant women were dumped to die … hard to believe such a sinister place could ever exist in this gorgeous lake (it’s a museum now). Byoona Amagara is truly eco-friendly with limited solar-powered electricity and where everything (and I do mean everything) is composted. A hostel dorm, 4-person cabin, luxury cottage and two thatched “eco-domes” are the accommodations here; we have the cabin since our first choice, the eco-domes, were booked. The menu has truly delicious food, there is cold beer and good coffee and tea and Internet access, a cinema room and library, and a tiny gift shop in the cafe area selling woven basket items, African textile placemats and t-shirts. It’s from here that I’m writing this now, watching the sun go down over pink-ringed clouds behind the distant mountains. We spent the day walking up and down the surrounding hills, swimming in the lake and lying in the sunshine on a little private floating dock, listening to the musical calls and hoots and shrieks of the birds that live here, none of which I’ve ever seen or heard before.
(One of the staff just came over and wanted to know all about this iPad … I just gave her a little tour of it and she’s amazed and wanted to know how much it costs. Apple comes to Lake Bunyonyi.)
The big deal around here is mountain gorilla trekking, and we naively thought we could just come on in and find a gorilla trek to join at the last minute. Nope, you have to book way in advance, so it looks like we’ll be missing the mountain gorillas. Disappointing for sure, but it’s hard to feel too bad when we’ve already seen so much and the trip has just begun and there is so much more ahead of us. Tomorrow is Dani’s birthday and we’re moving across the border to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to celebrate where it’s more cosmopolitan. After that we’ll make our way somehow to Port Victoria, Kenya, but those exact plans are yet to emerge. Right now all that’s certain is this deepening grey-blue sky that sinks into purple behind the silhouette of trees atop neighboring hills, and the rhythm of cicadas, and chirping of crickets, and trilling of birds, and the kitchen helpers chattering and laughing and singing along with the radio, and the flickering of lanterns that they’re lighting now that night falls.
Visible in tonight’s partly cloudy sky: Saturn, the constellations Antlia, a little bit of Centaurus and Lupus, and a 3/4 moon.