Three Bunyonyi Love Stories (Gorilla Highlands 2016-2017)

This is the thirteenth instalment of a weekly series that marks 20 years of Edirisa and 10 years of the Gorilla Highlands Initiative. Click here for Part I.

By 2016 the Gorilla Highlands idea had matured enough to call for a professional team in Kigali, and I was part of that group. I wasn’t just an employee. As a Rwandan who grew up in Uganda, I easily connected with the compelling vision of the two countries working together. While it was an exciting time of full-blown expansion into Rwanda, it was the memories from Uganda’s magnificent Lake Bunyonyi that stick with me most.

Until that year I had no idea that I was an adventurist. But it quickly became obvious where my passions lay because I was always looking towards assignments on Bunyonyi! I was officially a communications director, but along with a small team I would also do videography, photography, writing, editing, graphic design, event management and even tour guiding — and Bunyonyi was the perfect setting.

Allow me to share three of the many tales that remain memorable for me to this day …

Bootcamp Pioneers

I first experienced Lake Bunyonyi during the Gorilla Highlands Bootcamp of 2016, an activity that I can proudly claim was developed especially to induct our group of newbies. We needed to get acclimated to the land of the Bakiga, and to the lake I grew up craving to see, thanks to my primary teacher who always referred to it as the second deepest lake in Africa.

The days on the lakeshore, at Edirisa on Lake Bunyonyi, were made even more remarkable because of our unusual companions. By coincidence, 30 drivers of Kigali motos — the passenger motorcycles of Rwanda — were present as well, the partners of the now sadly defunct Safe Motos company. They weren’t there with their bikes, but still it was a sight to watch! The open-air Edirisa breakfast with over 40 people on a terrace overlooking the lake was satisfying in its own right, but it was the boat rides and hikes with the Safe Motos gang that made the biggest impression. There is strength in numbers, I tell you!

I was smitten by the location. I remember being awakened early each morning to sweet melodies from birds coupled with lake views. The simple structures at Edirisa would become my place of productivity. I specifically fell in love with the tree house, a thatched wooden platform very close to the water. I cannot recount the number of words I would later type on my laptop on this perch; huge chunks of my first book, Beyond Walls, would materialise here. I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the God of inspiration loved hanging out in that tree house!

As far as our own program was concerned, it was all about presentations and discussions taking us deep into the Gorilla Highlands idea, and allowing us to define its future. That was when I learned about the regional booking system for accommodation and activities in Rwanda and Uganda … A mouthful! Without any computer background, I found this a daunting and uninteresting task to be honest. But with Miha’s help I got into it successfully, and it ended up defining many of my work weeks.

Finally, when I did my Bootcamp tour of Echuya Forest and met the forgotten people of the Batwa, the warmth with which they received us left me with a very powerful lesson I will try to teach my children; “There’s no one you’ll not learn to fall in love with once you hear their story.”

Love Economy

Valentine’s Day of 2017 was an opportunity for us to give adventurous lovers an experience in the wild they’ll forever remember, and hopefully earn some domestic tourism money. The plan was to interest Kigali and Kampala couples to spend a night on a remote island with a host of activities lined up. Even though I wasn’t to come along with my sweetheart (because I had none wink wink), and would be dedicated to serving lovers, I would have the time of my life.

We received guests at Edirisa by around 5pm, had a short tour of the place then headed out to Habukomi Island about 40 minutes away, rowing in dugout canoes. That journey was one of my favourite things as it always drew out a competitive spirit in everyone paddling. Akin to an Olympics rowing competition, it got us to the remote island in half the time it took an average fisherman to reach there. It was exhilarating to say the least!

On the other side we found a joyful old man waiting to receive us. Tom, as our guests soon found out, would be their chief host and chef throughout their island night. As soon as our canoes docked, Tom led us to our tents that were spaced considerate of romance, and not far from his house. We were given a quick tour of the surroundings as soon as we laid our cargoes in the tents we’d sleep in. Given the remoteness of the island, you had to be impressed by the level of efficiency of the island’s toilets and bathroom — rustic beauty.

We then got a firewood-heated shower, before a dinner that featured the lake’s famous delicacy, crayfish. Immediately after supper, we headed to the summit of Tom’s island where guests sat around a fire listening to traditional folklore as well as signature traditional instruments and songs played by the late Eric. Couples danced away to both local and contemporary music under the canopy of twinkling stars and a moonlit night sky reflected on the water surrounding the island. A magnificent vista I treasure to this day.

One by one, in the wee hours of night, couples retired and found their ways down to their domed love nests to sleep or celebrate the romantic holiday. It left solitary people like me envious and heckling. No sooner had some laid down their heads to rest than the sounds of crowing cocks began, and a happy sun arose from the horizon. By 7:45am, breakfast was already calling and everyone was by now rising to wrap up what was an awesome Love in the Wild experience.

Best Silverchef

Gorilla Highlands Silverchef of 2017 was the first cooking competition I had ever attended, with pro chefs from top hotels of both Uganda and Rwanda. Chefs would tussle it out with each other before distinguished judges, who’d crown the overall winner with a coveted silver hat at the end. It was the third year of GH Silverchef, taking place at the beautiful BirdNest@Bunyonyi Resort headed by the legendary Pablo (RIP).

As one of the photographers of the event, I was not only thrilled by the whole occasion, but also by the all-access pass I had to the resort. I was freely moving from the state-of-the-art kitchen to the cozy restaurant and fancy sleeping areas including the VIP suites. There’s a feeling of arrival — personal accomplishment — you get when you can access points not open to everyone. Watching culinary professionals battle in the kitchen backstage was exhilarating. I felt like I was in a food academy learning about cooking, dressing and food presentation skills all at the same time.

Covering the event came with side benefits like tasting the amazing food and visiting the adrenaline thumping Supreme Adventure Park on Nature’s Prime Island. Chef Rama — an eventual Silverchef winner and today’s Gorilla Highlands director — wrote about these activities amusingly in our old blog.

If I was asked to choose where to hold these competitions again, Lake Bunyonyi would remain my preferred option by far! But I must add that having been part of the organising team, I derived special satisfaction from seeing people have fun on account of our planning efforts. That was beautiful and priceless.

… I could write a whole book on dozens of Lake Bunyonyi adventures and on my many experiences with the great people I have met in the Gorilla Highlands region, who I now call friends. But I won’t push for more here — I’ll save the rest for whoever cares to buy me a cup of coffee (wink wink).

Click here for Part XIV of the series or check all Edirisa/Gorilla Highlands history stories out.