Hiking across South West Uganda – the journey continues


(Posted 23rd October 2013)

The South West of Uganda has of late made waves among tourism operators as new lodges, camps and even home stays have started to line up along the various tourist routes and hiking trails, which visitors can explore by foot, mountain bike, boda boda, taxi, public busses and even using dugout canoes to get across the extensive waters of Lake Bunyonyi. Of course there is always the option of using one’s own car to get to these places and then stroll about a bit before motoring on.

Specialized tour operators, fully licensed of course with qualified guides and relevant insurance covers, today welcome dozens of hiking enthusiasts during the high season months, but interest according to Asgario, the Nkuringo Walking Safaris chief guide, now spans the entire year, even the rainy season.

Another one who confirms the growing interest is Miha Logar, who authored the e-Book about the Gorilla Highlands, a must read guide to South Western Uganda which leaves literally no question unanswered, so detailed and exhaustive are the topics in it.

Getting to Kabale by road is, for most of the route, no longer an issue though some sections are still undergoing work, and from Kampala, taking a short fuel and pit stop at one of the stations in Mbarara into account, the journey should not take much over 5 hours by private car. Busses, including the reliable Post Bus service which leaves Kampala every morning at 8 a.m. sharp, ply the route throughout the day and at an affordable cost, and the number of ‘muzungus’ in these busses, carrying backpacks and heading to the highlands, has been steadily growing over the past years.

Kabale has no airstrip, yet – the Uganda CAA and government have been talking about establishing one for years – so anyone who wants the quick and easy solution of getting there will have to use one of the Kampala Aero Club’s helicopters, at a cost of course and surely not the way how Joe Average is travelling (www.flyuganda.com).

So it was in the end an almost foregone conclusion that travel by bus it had to be, considering that after reaching Kabale days of hikes lay ahead, ending in Kisoro. This would make the use of a private car sort of difficult as, once going per pedes apostulorum (Latin for ‘footing it’), it would not just make an appearance by genie at the other end of the trail no matter how one would wish for it or look for that magic lamp to rub.

Kabale has in recent years grown in leaps and bounds and the good old White Horse Inn still rules the hospitality landscape from its position perched high above the municipality. That said of course, there are a large number of smaller hotels which have sprung up in recent years and available accommodation within and outside the municipality for any budget can be found with ease, especially when carrying the latest edition of The Eye Uganda (www.theeye.co.ug) where all details down to the latest phone numbers can be sourced. The golf course near the White Horse Inn is inviting but carrying that gear in addition to the ‘regular’ hiking outfit and backpack content would be have been stretching it more than just a bit for the purpose of this particular trip.

Kabale is a springboard for tourists visiting the South West of Uganda, and whether they stay put and explore from there, go on to Kisoro and beyond or drive on to Buhoma, perhaps even through the forest itself, passing the tropical forest research station in Ruhija, just getting there is an experience in itself.

When the bus starts the long climb up the hills soon turned mountains, their slopes carefully terraced to enhance crop production and prevent soil erosion and landslides, the reason why this part of country is often called the ‘Switzerland of Uganda’ becomes evident, and while the mighty rock peaks of the alps are missing from the scenery, the volcanoes are not, when they eventually come into sight.

Homesteads are scattered all over the hills outside the regular small roadside settlements, where little shops and kiosks line the streets. The people living there have nowadays often moved to beyond mere subsistence farming by growing produce they can sell, either at the road side or to middlemen and traders who then take it to Uganda’s main urban centres, Kabale itself, Mbarara and of course the capital city of Kampala, where now over 1.5 million regular inhabitants depend on a steady supply of matooke, Irish and sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, peas and a range of other vegetables and fruits. In some places along the road eggs are sold, artfully packed in banana leaf wrappings and while many small farmers opt to display their wares on the road near their homesteads, there are regular colorful markets popping up as the bus speeds by. It is at such roadside markets that travellers heading ‘home’ load their cars, often already full to the brim with people and their bags, adding the farming goodies of the highlands, until every last nook and cranny inside that vehicle is the filled with food stuffs able to last them for a week or more.

From Kabale it is a short distance to the border with Rwanda at Katuna, should visitors wish to venture into the land of a thousand hills, though the more scenic route undoubtedly would be via the brand new tarmac road to Kisoro and from there along the volcanoes to Cyanika and across the border to Musanze, an equal tourism hub in Rwanda as are Kisoro and Kabale on our side. Also within a short distance from Kisoro is the border with the Congo DR at Bunagana, where to my surprise those packpackers unable to get a gorilla tracking permit in Uganda, often go across the border to see the mountain gorillas from there, brave perhaps or foolish even, considering the ongoing turmoil in that country but a sure bet to get to meet those prized mountain gorillas, and often at a ‘negotiated’ rate rather than those published.

It is this brand new road which is seen by many as the greatest gift government has made to this part of the country, as in the past an often badly washed out murram road made the journey to Kisoro not just an adventure but outright dangerous, especially during the rainy season. Area residents were often unable to ship their produce to the markets due to impassable roads, but today, the new road has served them a dual purpose, to sell their harvests to the markets and have a growing stream of wagenis come to visit and spend their money on location, while enjoying the often spectacular sights, the wildlife of Mgahinga and Bwindi, Lakes Mulehe and Mutanda and of course, the warm hospitality of the local people.

(Maps courtesy of www.gorillahighlands.com)

But back to Kabale where my journey by foot, and again by boda boda where necessary to cover distances on the faster track, was to start. Arguably one of the key features of or near Kabale is Lake Bunyonyi, a local word meaning ‘the place of many little birds’, and I want to concentrate a bit more about what has been happening there in the recent past, as it has emerged to be a major tourism hub in its own right. Bunyonyi is not just a lake but mired in lore and history and for those actually taking a canoe to explore the shores and islands, be aware of some dark secrets, some of which will be told here. The maps below, thankfully provided courtesy of www.gorillahighlands.com and Miha Logar, the brain behind the publication of the e-Book on what he calls the Gorilla Highlands, show the area and give, most important, hints of distances and the available trails, some starting right in Kabale and others nearer to Lake Bunyonyi.

As the maps show, an array of small accommodation facilities has sprung up around Lake Bunyonyi, and even on some of the islands in the lake, but notably have homestay options become available where visitors travelling on a small budget can find a bed for a night in the home of a family, get a decent night’s sleep and enjoy a home cooked meal for dinner and some porridge of millet or maize flour for breakfast. All meals are prepared from local ingredients harvested on the day and often accompanied by a fish caught fresh just hours before it went in to the frying pan.

Such features have emerged almost unnoticed by many in Kampala, travel agents included, and the feedback on my articles about hiking through Bwindi and up to Nteko and Nkuringo in the last www.theeye.co.ug edition, was evidence enough how that information provided helped many potential travellers to plan trips to that part of Uganda and read The Eye beyond just the pages of Kampala, Entebbe and Jinja.

(Starting point for the many hikes now available from Kabale to Bunyonyi, Kisoro and beyond)

When reaching the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, in my case not hiked but boda boda’ed, and as long as one is on time for the canoes to leave on a day trip out on the lake, an exciting couple of hours lie ahead or if so arranged, an overnight on one of the islands can be included in a trip itinerary of course. In fact, to fully explore the lake, up to three day / two night trips are available ‘off the shelf’ and special itineraries can be tailored at short notice for those wanting to watch birds or simply relax on one of the islands, either camping at night or using a home stay option or else staying on one of the little resorts on the shores or on an island.

My admittedly rushed visit for the day took in most of what regular ‘hikers’ get to see, and perhaps a bit more after it was known that I am writing an article for The Eye, and my stops included such illustrious and mysterious names like Punishment Island – wherein olden days girls were literally dumped when found pregnant outside marriage – Upside Down Island – a place where witchcraft is one everyone’s lips, or perhaps not for those who are seriously superstitious – before venturing on to Dr. Sharp’s Island – named after the founder of the leper colony – and finally Bwama Island, where in days long passed that very leper colony was located.

Gliding almost silently across the surface of Lake Bunyonyi has its own magic, the silence only interrupted by the splash of the paddles or the calls of birds of prey, ever watchful gliding through the skies above but swift to swoop down and catch a careless fish lingering just under the water surface and unaware of the imminent danger of becoming lunch for a bird. For those in a hurry, like I was, motorized boats cut down substantially on travelling across the lake and allowing to see many of the islands in a day, which for those who have to paddle is not quite that easily possible, assuming there are no Olympic champions with a rowing title among the passengers on the canoe.

My trip took me the following day to the Echuya Forest, where a short Batwa trail can be explored, before moving on to Lake Kayumbu. It is also here that one can follow the trail very likely taken by a small British expeditionary force sent to the South West in 1914 to finally deal with a ‘rebel’ – yes even back then Uganda had those – by the name of Katuregye, but that is an entirely different story and perhaps it will be told here in one of the future The Eye editions, to give an insight how even 100 years ago people struggled to shed the yoke of colonialism and determine their own future, not much different from the pre-independence struggle East Africa experienced in the last 50’s and into the early 60’s until granted independence at last.

From Lake Kayumbu it is a short distance to Lake Chahafi, where only two weeks ago a small lodge was opened, offering camping facilities and a little restaurant and bar, taking care of stilling that peckish feeling built up over the miles and miles of cross country hikes. From Chahafi it is but a short distance to Kisoro itself, and it can be covered by foot or by boda boda, even special hire if arranged at the Lake Chahafi Resort.

And here closes the circle, well literally it does, as it was in Kisoro that my previous trip ended at the airfield from where Aerolink now flies daily to Entebbe. That last trip took me from Buhoma across Bwindi to Nteko and on to Nkuringo and then via Lake Mutanda’s Chameleon Hill Lodge and along Lake Mulehe to Kisoro.

Hiking is possible in both directions and Nkuringo Walking Safaris and www.gorillahighlands.com are happy to arrange hikes tailored to ones’ available time and budget. Options for accommodation range from the very modest homestays over the various simple but clean to more upmarket B&B’s. Some of the fancier lodges are now found on Lake Mutanda and Lake Bunyoni and then there are the hotels in Kisoro and of course those in Kabale.

Going by bus to Kabale allows to hike the trails, like the one described or via Muko, to Kisoro or Nkuringo straight, giving the option to fly from Kisoro to Entebbe or, when hiking across Bwindi from Nkuringo or Nteko to Buhoma, with the Aero Club’s regular coach services from the Kayonza Tea Estate field back to Kajjansi.

Nothing can make up for a personal experience, of the people encountered along the way, their friendly disposition towards those exploring the country on foot or the children cheering on the muzungu riding as passenger on a boda boda across some back breaking tracks and roads, at least that is what the maps call those corrugated rutted lanes.

Uganda is renowned for her friendly people but it is really in the rural areas where this comes across best, when those tilling the fields stop their work, however briefly, to greet when a greeting is called in their direction from the roadside or track before returning to their hard work which feeds their families as the wagenis hike on.

All maps and pictures are from www.gorillahighlands.com with special permission by Miha Logar after the temporary ‘loss’ of my own pictures taken en route. Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, close up and personal and ready to receive visitors from near and far.