I just returned from my first trip to Africa. I was mostly in Rwanda, but over the first weekend I was there we drove a few hours north to Lake Bunyonyi just beyond the border in Uganda.
Despite the proximity to the Equator, the hills of the region are at such altitude that it’s not all that hot. (Being equatorial, though, the sun does tend to set rather promptly after 12 hours, which took some getting used to.) But it makes the parts of northern Rwanda that we drove through rather verdant. A densely populated country that’s getting denser all the time, little land is left uncultivated, and every spec of hillside is covered with a patchwork of terraced plots.
Once over the border to the north, the terrain of Uganda opens up in a way reminiscent of Napa Valley geography, although here, like in Rwanda, nearly all the available land on the hillsides is tilled as well. Yet while life here, like in Rwanda, seems rural and rustic, it’s another place, a different place, with a different language, people, and history. So much of what is seen in Rwanda dates back to 1994, when the genocide destroyed the country, its infrastructure, and its people. What you see there now is either what remains ruined from that time, or what has been explicitly repaired subsequently with foreign funding. Thus while in Rwanda the houses are often dilapidated but the roads are in excellent shape, in Uganda, which has had more internal stability and less foreign attention, the situation is generally reversed.
About a half hour after crossing the border we reached the town of Kabale, where we turned left onto the main drag through town. There were plenty of cars on the road, as well as mopeds (motos), bikes, pedestrians, cows… Turning onto the road towards the lake we also passed lots of little kids minding small herds of goats (older kids minded the cows). One thing that’s striking in both Uganda and Rwanda (and reminded me of Cambodia) is the tendency of little kids to smile and wave with unbridled enthusiasm at the cars that drive by. Although occasionally older kids do it, the kids of preschool age wave with a particular form of innocent friendliness, completely devoid of any cynical inkling that might inhibit them. (Unfortunately it makes driving treacherous having kids walking and playing so close to the roads. The “sledding” some did on empty plastic jugs down dirt mounds would have looked a lot more fun if they weren’t ending up in the streets.)
All around the area people were working hard, tilling land or herding animals, but in the midst of it all is the lake. It’s a clear lake, free on bilharzia, meaning people can swim and boat on its peaceful waters, and several hotels catering to foreign travelers have sprung up to serve them. We tried Nature’s Prime. Originally developed by some Swedes in 1996, it sits on its own small island and hosts several private cabins and elevated tents, as well as a central lodge. Each cabin is far enough from any others to feel completely private and is oriented so as to take in its own gorgeous view of the lake and surrounding hillsides.
Hillsides that aren’t all that far away. Though you may be in the middle of a lake and feel you are in the middle of nowhere, you’re in the middle of a community. A boisterous community of farmers farming, children laughing, roosters crowing, cows mooing…. And cell phones ringing, because even though we were in the middle of Africa, it’s still the 21st Century there too. (Even my phone surprised me with the vibration of an incoming text.)
Worried it would be hard to get a room, we had called ahead to reserve, but we needn’t have worried: we had the whole island to ourselves. A large cabin, with electricity and running water, a yummy three-course dinner and a large breakfast cost us $36 a person. (The visa to get into Uganda also cost me $50.)
It was very pleasant being on the island, and a little disorienting. The whole time on the island I kept flashing back to Disney World. Our stilt-mounted cabin reminded me of the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. The log-timbered lodge with campfire kitchen out back felt like it belonged in Frontierland’s Thunder Mountain Railroad. The throngs of squawking birds (the lake’s name means “place of many little birds”) in the morning seemed right out of the Jungle Cruise, and the drums calling people to church on Sunday felt like the soundtrack to the Tiki House. But whereas Disney World presents a fictionalized, plastic vision of far-off places, here it was all startlingly real and authentic.