UPDATE, JULY 2021: For the finalised GH Mega Trek program click here.
People people, it’s your Owen again!
I want to make sure that you are with us for the Christmas Mega Trek, so I will take you through the Ugandan part of it. Tomorrow at the Online Picnic, Olivier (the main organiser) and Rukundo (our Lake Burera expert) will cover the rest of the route!
Arrive at Lake Bunyonyi: Sunday, 12 December 2021
If you are new to this community, you perhaps don’t know Edirisa, our legendary window… It all began in 2001 with a student club that has grown into a social enterprise devoted to responsible tourism. “See Africa, breathe Africa” is its slogan, suggesting mutual cultural exchange and pride. At Lake Bunyonyi, Miha Logar founded Edirisa’s first location. He used money that his parents had given him to buy an apartment in Europe, and instead built a small village in Africa. Today, Edirisa is a simple lakeside accommodation facility ranging from camping to a family house — but all these options come with shared toilets that are outside, so if you feel like more convenience you might want to sleep at one of the numerous lodges nearby.
No matter where you decide to stay, expect a grand dinner prepared by our chef, Brenda. After the meal, we can take you to your hotels by dugout canoes or motorboats.
Walk & Paddle to Tom’s Island: Monday, 13 December 2021
Brenda’s ample breakfast will get your mind and body ready for action. It will be a very special waking-up alarm… I will do the general briefing, and you will pack, get on your marks, get set and go! We will depart at about 10am, in our traditional Bunyonyi canoes.
These hollowed huge trees have been the mode of transport for centuries here. When I was growing up on the peninsula opposite Edirisa, Kyabahinga, my family had a canoe that I would use regularly — I learned how to control it when I was 5 years old. I went through the same process as everybody else: in the beginning the family canoe moved wildly, in a zigzag, but I managed the technique quickly. The main trick is to control the canoe from the far edge and to understand the two sides of the paddle. You must use the curved side if you want the canoe to move accurately without wasting your rowing energy.
But, hey, we will not be expecting you to become master paddlers to make it to Kyabahinga! We have canoe experts, our local captains, who navigate with ease. Your only job will be to contribute some muscle power.
My home peninsula will be the highlight of the day. I will be leading you up its steep slopes and we shall be sharing about people and cultures, plants and adventures.
For example, the flame tree serves many purposes in my culture. We use it to make stools and paddles and as a kid I would also make wooden bicycles out of it. Its very attractive red flowers decorate sitting rooms when there is a party. Also, the bark of a flame tree treats syphilis; you peel the stem away and mash it in the mortar, add some water and drink the juice.
Cultural exchange is always a great experience. You will learn about the local culture and compare it to what you do back home. We, the Bakiga, are a tough, rough and hardworking group of people but we are very happy and welcoming. Through dances, folk tales, food tasting and talking, you will identify different behaviours but at the end of it, integration and interaction will prevail.
For instance, chatting with our people at the village pub will make you learn more about their thinking and ways of living. No, they do not follow the government’s law which dictates no drinking during working time — not at all! They instead spend their productive time leisurely, meeting friends at the bar that is the area’s centre point. Share with them a cup of obushera, their “energy drink”, and take it easy for a moment.
At the end of the climb we will have an educational session with Barara, the herbalist. He has successfully filled the shoes of our traditional healer, Jeremiah, when he abruptly passed away four years ago. The family chose Barara as the successor. To become a traditional healer is a mystic blessing from the ancestors. You must be chosen. Barara learned from his uncle when it transpired that he would inherit the healing power. But still he was not allowed to practice anything before the death of Jeremiah!
The herbalist family’s perch displays some of the best views of Lake Bunyonyi, and more is to come…. As I point at some of the 29 islands, legends will be shared. Please do not forget to ask me about the story of the Punishment Island! Not to get into that tale prematurely — do you know what ladies would do in case of unwanted pregnancy? I will show you the unique plant omuhoko which they used to drink to help them avoid the awful punishment.
A girl’s predicament probably began with a “shy flower” given to her by an excited boy. It served as a sign of interest and an informal engagement ring, until liking photos on Facebook killed the game.
Next on the program will be Annah. A strong single mother to ten children, she uses her crafts as the only source of income. She has been able to pay school fees, build a house and even buy some more land. She will prepare a delicious local lunch for us and after feasting on it, your craft session will commence… I will encourage you to make your own bracelet as your course completion certificate.
We shall then slope down to the lake, having hiked across Kyabahinga, and meet our canoes, conveniently paddled to a handy spot by the captains. Our next destination: Tom’s Island!
Tom is in his 70s now but is still fit enough. His second name is Karemire which means a stubborn person; his father chose to send Tom to school as a punishment. Karemire’s older brother — the parents’ favourite — stayed home and grazed cattle but a professional career opened for the educated bighead! He worked with Uganda Prisons and after his retirement ended up as Edirisa‘s nightwatchman. This is how I met Tom and, by the way, ask him about his gorilla tracking experience, the anniversary present he chose for himself after serving 10 years at Edirisa.
Tom’s Homestay has no rooms to take you in. Instead we shall experience tented accommodation in a small village on his beautiful remote island… However, Tom does cook, and he cooks well! Expect to taste Bunyonyi’s specialty, the crayfish, and other delicacies.
Hike through Echuya Forest to Lake Kayumbu: Tuesday, 14 December 2021
From Tom’s, the canoes will take us to the other side, to the land of the Bakongwe clan of the Bakiga. They used to be feared because of their collaboration with Batwa “Pygmies” whom they used as commandos to attack other communities. Their reputation goes back to the years of Katuregye …
KATUREGYE (C. 1870–1915)
Katuregye Rucumitana Akasimba Ka Musigi was a Bakongwe leader. He was the son of Rwamushwa and Chandungusti, Nyabingi mediums. He was born c. 1870 and was raised in his father’s home with Batwa children who taught him the arts of hunting. From 1895 he led many campaigns of conquest against neighbouring clans and by 1900 controlled a large territory. The nearest clans were forced to migrate while those further away gave tribute, including women for marriage; he ended up with 40 wives.
The arrival of the Europeans curtailed his ambitions and he lost his southern possessions to German Rwanda. He was restricted to his native Bufundi by the English as a subcounty chief, much to the relief of his neighbours. He further had to suffer the indignities of having an agent from central Uganda telling him how to rule.
In 1913/4 the English arrested his mother Chandungusti. They never gave any reason for her arrest; she was around 65 years old; it was probably part of their general round up and internment of Nyabingi leaders. She died on her return home in 1914.
Katuregye’s revenge was to sink all the canoes that he did not need on Lake Bunyonyi, set up camp on Bwama Island, a Nyabingi centre, and then, with Batwa allies, attack military convoys and quisling clans. Such was their impact that an English expedition conducted a campaign of destruction and confiscation that swept down the shores of Lake Bunyonyi burning Batwa and Bakongwe villages and taking away their cattle. They transported a huge canoe from Lake Chahafi over a 2,000m/6,600ft pass to Bunyonyi, using 100 porters. They managed to get together 13 canoes to row to Bwama — only to find Katuregye’s base deserted.
Katuregye escaped to Rwanda but on return he made the fatal mistake of raiding fellow clansmen for their cattle. They betrayed his headquarters in Echuya Forest and a mixed military force, armed with a maxim machine gun, attacked. He was wounded in the thigh and despite the best efforts of medicine men he eventually succumbed to his wounds.
box text by Ian Cantwell
Today we are retracing the route the British took with those giant canoes! We are doing the same arduous up-and-down over the mountain that separates the land of the Bakiga from the land of the Bufumbira, the tribe closely related to the people of Rwanda. We won’t, however, make it to Lake Chahafi but to its twin, Lake Kayumbu (not to mention that your load will not be as substantial).
Echuya Forest used to be the home of the Batwa, the most indigenous group of people. They were forest people who hunted animals like bushpigs and buffaloes and they were also gatherers of wild fruits. Over time they began living outside of the forest more and more and were finally, in the 20th century, forbidden to occupy it.
We had a good friend in a Batwa leader called Kanusu in recent years. He’s the one who welcomed and introduced us to his people living on the edge of the forest, and the man who would lead us through Echuya. Fate had it that during one of our expeditions he met a Batwa lady from Rwanda. They fell in love and he took her home as his second wife. Unfortunately, Kanusu found his young wife cheating on him (culturally men are permitted to have two women but women aren’t allowed to have more men), which resulted in fighting and he was eventually accused of murdering her! We were afraid that his imprisonment would derail our collaboration, but his assistant Yohana successfully took over… Attention: thought he belongs to the Batwa, he is not short! In fact, he is taller than me. Through generations of mixing with other ethnic groups and being on a different diet, most Batwa have outgrown their pygmy origins.
The most adventurous — and fun — part of the journey with Yohana is crossing the swamp at the heart of Echuya Forest. Do you remember that I asked you about your foot size at Edirisa? This is where the gumboots we have carried for you will become essential.
When we exit the forest, the hike will provide stunning views of the volcanoes, beautiful sceneries and islands in the sky. We will be taking the unbeaten track few hikers have ever walked….
Down on the shores of Lake Kayumbu, a church family will be awaiting us. Gerald, a priest, has married Jackline, a teacher, and this is the only occasion on the way where the wife speaks better English than the husband. Don’t miss the opportunity to chat with her at the campfire! But Gerald is also an amusing conversation partner… I previously wrote about the interesting debate we had with him about contraceptives (that he thought didn’t exist).
These calm and cool hosts allow us to pitch our tents on a cliff overlooking the lake and sunsets tend to be out-of-this-world. Imagine a small lake with only one island with a sun going to sleep in the background. It’s magical. A little less magical is one island fact — it is owned by a former politician by the names of Nsaba Butoro. When he was the national minister for ethics (ha!) he was behind the law targeting gay people, the terrible piece of legislation that was eventually cancelled by the courts.
… The lake, by the way, is as safe for swimming as all others in our region! You better try its waters out after the looooong day of hiking.
Trek to the Rwandan Border: Wednesday, 15 December 2021
Early in the morning we will say goodbye to the church couple and head towards Cyanika over a thousand volcanic stones… To us who rarely have access to them, those rocks are fascinating: big, dark and shockingly light. The Bafumbira make pretty walls and fences with them, it is the style I admire. The volcanic soil is also amazing: it is very fertile and provides great yields of potatoes, maize and beans throughout the year.
Where one officially crosses into Rwanda, at the Cyanika border post, I will pass you into the hands of my colleague Rukundo, a man very passionate and enthusiastic in sharing and interpreting information. Still, I do hope to continue hiking with you as a participant, as I am also dreaming of reaching Congo on foot!
photo by Anika Utke, Blasio Byekwaso, Henriette Faye-Schjøll, Jiro Ose, Marcus Westberg, Miha Logar, Philippe Vandorpe, Samantha Butler, Ziva Skrlovnik