Serenity meets dark history on Uganda's Lake Bunyonyi

MBARARA, Uganda - It's dawn and the world is so filled with birdsong it is almost impossible to hear the gentle splash of oars as fishermen in canoes drift across the otherwise placid water.

Such is the alarm clock for visitors to Lake Bunyonyi, a twisting 25-km (15.5-mile) long freshwater lake, which, dotted with islands, lies in the far southwest of Uganda, about 460 km from Kampala.

For a country bedeviled by dirt roads that are more pothole than drivable surface, getting to the lake from the capital by car is a surprisingly pleasant, if lengthy, experience.

The eight-hour drive along the Mbarara road is mostly on smooth tarmac.

The journey is best broken up by stops for street food, in particular Uganda's specialty of an egg omelet with sliced tomato and cabbage rolled up in a freshly fried chapatti.

Food stalls across the country sell the dish for around Sh1,500 ($0.60) and call the delicious oil-laden meal a "Rolex", though few agree why.


Sightseers arriving at the lake's eastern shores via nearby Kabale will be given a choice by those manning the docks to either pay around Sh20,000 for a single motorboat ride or to rent a dugout canoe for around Sh8,600.

If you choose the canoe option, expect sore backsides and, while the heat at Lake Bunyonyi is not as cruel as it is in Uganda's lowlands, you will be in the sun without shade for around an hour.

It is one of the most tranquil experiences that southwest Uganda has to offer. The calm waters of the lake reflect the verdant hills around it. Velveteen otters play in water, while black-and-white pied kingfishers are among the many birds dancing among the emerald-coloured trees.

The private geodome open-faced huts at Byoona Amagara offer basic yet comfortable accommodation, while Bunyonyi Overland Resort provides more luxury at a higher cost.

Much of the shoreline around the lake and swathes of the larger of the 29 islands have been converted to sustenance farming.

While this has no doubt robbed the lake of the deep green beauty of Uganda's natural vegetation, the snaking course of the water's edge and the rolling hills that overlook it are still undeniably stunning.


Like much of the now mostly peaceful Uganda, the beauty of Lake Bunyonyi masks a dark and painful past.

Akampene Island in the centre of the lake is just about large enough for the lonely tree that grows there.

The mound of mud and grass is better known by its nickname of Punishment Island, so called because it was long used as a place where unwed pregnant women were left to die, usually after suffering a forced abortion.

The heinous punishment was practiced until 1986, when Yoweri Museveni became president and outlawed the custom, according to a local guide who gave his name as Tyson. However, most local accounts suggest the practice had been stopped earlier in the 20th century.

Doomed girls, most of whom could not swim, had only one real hope of survival. Men too poor to afford a dowry for a wife could row to the island and claim one of the women. "Punishment Island is my favourite of all the islands because it is how my grandfather and grandmother met," Tyson said with pride. "I am a product of it."