Little-Known Hiking Overnights in Southwestern Uganda

I am Levi Ayebare, 28, and I have been working with Gorilla Highlands Experts on the Ugandan side of the region as a tecnico. This means that I am providing technical support to hiking groups on the Gorilla Highlands Trails. I take care of setting up camps, allowing tired trekkers to hit the mattresses as soon as they reach our homestays and little-known camping sites.

My article today is about these unusual overnight stays, the rather interesting hosts and the many experiences I’ve had on the ground. You are getting an insider’s perspective on three lakes and one national park!

Mama Bena’s Homestay, Lake Bunyonyi

We will begin at the “place of many little birds”, or so says the lake’s name in Rukiga, Bunyonyi. Often described as the second deepest in Africa, it keeps our experts wondering: is it, or isn’t it? No scientific literature would support the claim of it reaching a depth of 900 m/ 3,000 ft — all we can be sure about is 44 m/ 144 ft.

I am myself a Lake Bunyonyi man. I was born in a family of four, two brothers and a sister. Our parents died when I was nine, but I was lucky to get sponsorship from Slovenia to finish my primary, and to put on my first shoes ever! A lady from Canada then helped me to continue at the secondary level.

In Senior Two, at the age of 16, I began to paddle for Miha’s company, and I was the least experienced of all the canoe boys. The team gave me a very big canoe to use because they are more stable, but you also need a lot of muscle to propel them. My very first trip was to Mama Bena’s home.

She is one of our two legendary hosts on Lake Bunyonyi. Other contributors have already written about Tom and his homestay on Habukomi Island, so let’s just enjoy the video below and move on …

I am inviting you to jump into my dugout as we paddle to the western side of Bunyonyi, to visit Mama Bena. There are normally no passengers with me and I depart earlier than everyone else. I load everybody’s luggage, our tents, mattresses and other gear and hit the lake. It takes me three to four hours to paddle to the short peninsula opposite the Kyevu trading centre, high above the lake surface. It’s a long ride there, and clients normally feel bored — but when they reach Veronica’s homestead, their faces light up.

Veronica Tindyebwa is our hostess’s real name. She has a daughter called Bena who used to work at Edirisa Nursery School in my village of Bufuka. Miha’s team gave Bena a ride once, when she wanted to visit her family. They were taken aback by the astonishing house Bena’s grandfather built, and Veronica’s hospitality. Since then she’s has been “Mama Bena” (Bena’s mother) to hundreds of guests.

Mama Bena doesn’t know any English but her big smile and her big hugs talk, so visitors understand that they are very welcome. As she throws many warm Rukiga words at her guests, everyone feels at home. She prepares very local food and it’s delicious! For example, in the morning clients normally enjoy a katogo mixture of beans, plantains and Irish potatoes. Her camping place overlooks the beautiful lake, it is well-levelled and therefore comfortable.

Lay Leader’s Place, Lake Kayumbu

Lake Kayumbu is one of the three twin lakes combinations in the Gorilla Highlands region. Its sister is Lake Chahafi and it is better known and developed for tourism. But Kayumbu is prettier, with one sole island on a tiny lake that makes for a wonderful vista.

The first time I saw Lake Kayumbu, I was a porter. A group of us carried everything on our heads through Echuya Forest to the lands of the Bufumbira. These people speak a dialect of the Rwandan language, and I don’t understand much.

It was very late in the day and we turned on our torches as we descended from the hills. The youngsters grazing family cows got frightened! I think it wasn’t only about the lights on us, it was also about big tents on our shoulders — they probably thought we came to attack them!

At Kayumbu we sleep on the land belonging to the Church of Uganda. Its current local representative, the “lay leader”, is Gerald Nizeyimana. His English is limited, so there has been a language problem for me. Thankfully his wife, Jackeline, is a primary school teacher and can assist me. But Gerald is always helpful when I need local boys to carry the gear from the road.

When our hiking groups are bigger, we use a pickup truck instead of porters to bring our tents to Lake Kayumbu. I remember how excited I was when these rides began! When I was younger, I would see cars travelling the roads of Bunyonyi, but I stood no chance of entering any of them. When I began my technical job, I was in a position to use a vehicle regularly, and that was special! Still, it gets tiresome spending long hours on rough roads, so now it’s just part of what I need to do.

Gerald’s place is on a cliff and when I pitch the tents facing his house, they look so nice! The ground is unfortunately not perfectly flat, hence clients don’t always sleep comfortably.

Gahiza Island Retreat, Lake Mutanda

Lake Mutanda is another small lake in the southwest of Uganda — and by “small” I mean that you can’t see it on the country map. It’s about a half of Bunyonyi’s size. Both lakes have a punishment island that was historically used to dump pregnant but unmarried girls, and in the case of Mutanda, this is Gahiza Island.

David Bakeine, the writer of Rhino Stampede, bought it from three brothers. They were so scared of the island and the wrath of gods that they didn’t even set foot on it! When David successfully cleared Gahiza, the villages on the mainland concluded that his magic was stronger than Nyabingi. Nowadays David has free range rabbits on the island and he normally gives us permission to hunt them and eat them at the campfire.

At Gahiza Island I once faced a professional challenge that made me almost hate my job! That day Lake Mutanda was very calm, crossing it was easy, but after pitching tents and setting up the mattresses, a storm came in! It arrived furiously from the direction of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and it blew my camp away! The mattresses and tents stopped on the banks of the lake, only the weeds stopped them from going into the water. Everything was wet, even blankets and bedsheets that were still inside the island’s restaurant building! We had to redirect our hikers to a hotel in the nearby town of Kisoro, while I stayed on Gahiza Island for the night. My only company was the nightwatchman, and there was no food; it went to Kisoro with the clients, to be served at their replacement accommodation. Terribly hungry, I took a bottle of Nile Special, Uganda’s most popular beer, for my “supper”. I knew it would make me sleep and forget everything! Thankfully the morning came with a lot of sunshine, I could dry all the gear and we could camp again at the next place on our itinerary … Nshongi.

Nshongi Camp, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

When you are walking north from Lake Mutanda, a beautiful forest view opens up — trees without end! From afar, it looks so thick that no one could pass through, making its “impenetrable” name totally fitting. When you reach Nshongi Camp, however, right on the national park boundary, you realise that it is not that hard to walk through.

Nshongi Camp was established by Silver Twesiime, a teacher by profession, in his birth village Rushaga. He started going to school after Uganda’s years of turmoil, to a town a long walk away, so he didn’t enter Primary One until he was 13 years old! Despite beginning late, he ended up with a teaching career. Silver saw successful accommodation businesses on the other side of Bwindi and decided to make his own lodge. He placed it in a steep little valley next to a park gate used by gorilla trackers. 

Our guests are always very enthusiastic here, knowing they will see mountain gorillas next morning. They don’t spend much time at the fireplace, but they do want to hear gorilla stories.

My story is a different one. One day it was raining seriously and our bus failed to reach the village above Nshongi Camp. I had to look for a shortcut, and then for helpers to get the gear to Silver’s place. I found some eager Batwa “Pygmies”. It was getting dark, and when the trekkers arrived with our guides, they were too tired to help me. I asked the group leader to get me some torches to borrow, and the Batwa worked with me. As I was putting on the finishing touches, Silver decided to give everyone an accommodation upgrade and put us up in his cottages. Everyone was happy, but me — in my heart, I wondered why I suffered for nothing!

In Conclusion

Even though it is at times challenging, I like my job. It has helped me learn how to find solutions and get out of problems. I’ve figured out how to communicate and approach the right people.

Recently I have trained to become a hiking guide, but I still often act as a tecnico — it is not easy to find a responsible person to replace me, and making sure clients have somewhere to sleep is paramount.

photo by Marcus Westberg, Miha Logar and Josh Hamby

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